Ideas to change the world

At the start of this month, I attended Ideas to Change The World, an event hosted by Intelligence² that saw scientists from the Oxford Martin School talk through their groundbreaking work in fields including climate change, body enhancement and neuroscience.

Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School:

“This time of what I think of as super-connectivity, is a time unlike any other in history. We have never been so close. And this proximity, which is physical and virtual, will lead to a period of super-creativity. We’ll need it because the complexity and scale of the challenges that we face are greater than we’ve ever faced. The challenge is whether we can have good ideas more quickly. Two-thirds of the world’s population now lives less than two hours away from a major city. This has never happened before. And this brings even more opportunity for the carrying of ideas – virtually, and by meeting each other. Ideas spread – but other things spread too: the super-spreading of pandemics, the super-spreading of financial crises.”

Dr Bennett Foddy, deputy director at the Oxford Martin School’s Institute for Science & Ethics:

“Our culture is full of cautionary tales about immortality. I think, when we ask whether or not to enhance the human body, we’re asking the question the wrong way. The truth is that when we decide to enhance our bodies, we do out of everyday medical necessity. It’s not outlandish to think that 100 years from now, we’ll be able to continually replace the heart and lungs with artificial replacements that are at least as good as the real thing.”

“So just through the everyday business of saving human lives, we’ll get to the point where the three major killers [heart disease, cancer and infectious disease] are drastically diminished. Free from these, it’s not hard to imagine us living to 160 or beyond. There will be other problems – you can’t have a brain transplant if you develop dementia and, to be honest, we’re still in the Dark Ages of treating that. But a good deal of the mental decline associated with old age comes about because we lose mobility as we get old. Exercising rejuvenates the brain so our bodies are good enough to keep going. If they’re good enough to keep us active, our brains will last longer as well.”

“We’ll soon reach the point where the prosthetic hand exactly mirrors the appearance and functions of the real one; the artificial hand will become more attractive than the real hand. We will almost certainly reach a point where the artificial hand is more functional than the real one, where we can perform superhuman feats of strength with the artificial one.”

Professor Liam Dolan, co-director of the OMS’ Institute on Plants for the 21st Century:

Oxfam predicts that food prices will double by 2030 due to two factors: the stressed global economy, and climate change. Even at present, 14% of the world’s population are undernourished. Dolan’s research strives to answer the question: “How are we going to produce enough food, at a low enough price, to ensure that every individual has access to this food?”

The solution, as Dolan sees it, is to modify the genes of crops. “The first thing the geneticist does to solve a problem is to find a mutant”, he said. Modifying genes to elongate the root hairs on a rice crop will cause it to increase its phosphate uptake so that the crop’s growth and its yield will increase. Dolan is also researching how to produce hardier potato plants by inserting genes from more resistant plants into them, so that they are more resilient in difficult weather conditions.

Professor Gideon Henderson, co-director of the OMS’ 21st Century Ocean Institute:

Henderson accepts that our Plan A for solving the problem of climate change – decreasing carbon emissions on a global scale – might not be working: “2010 saw our highest global emissions ever: more than 8.5 billion tonnes of carbon released that year”. His presentation outlined a series of potential Plan Bs that we need to be thinking about as an international community. The first, Solar Radiation Management, would involve either blocking out the sun itself, releasing aerosols into the atmosphere on a huge scale, or manufacturing artificial clouds using contrails to reduce the carbon imbalance.

Another proposal is to remove the excess CO² which is already in the atmosphere, and Henderson outlined three options for this approach:

  1. “Accelerate the rate of life – accelerate the photosynthetic reaction. The limiting nutrient [for plants] in large parts of the ocean is iron.” Henderson proposes ships that travel the world’s oceans distributing extra iron into the ecosystem.
  2. A second potential solution is to lime the oceans. “CO² is an acid – if you add an alkaline to that, you neutralise the acid, ending up with bicarbonate. The oceans contain 50 times more carbon as bicarbonate, than the atmosphere contains carbon. A relatively small increase of bicarbonate in the oceans makes an enormous difference to the composition of the atmosphere.”
  3. The third solution is to increase the speed of the natural weathering of rocks. “If we could dramatically accelerate it, we’d end up with limestone and quartz, effectively building materials [which absorb and store carbon emissions] and we’ve solved our climate problem.”

But, Henderson warned: “If we’re going to geo-engineer a solution, it has to be done at the same sort of scale as the global energy industry. Whatever we do, it’s going to be big, ugly, and expensive.”

For more eco-realities, read
Fixing the planet: have we finally got some concrete options?

Ideas to change the world