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Disruptive technologies?

What can the world expect in five, 10 or 25 years? SWI put this question to members of the science and diplomatic communities at Swiss Anticipation Day, hosted by the University of Zurich.

In all about 250 experts converged on the University of Zurich campus to sample coffee and croissants alongside panel discussions and talks organised by the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator, or GESDA.

The group publishes an annual Science Breakthrough RadarExternal link, which summarises the most important science trends for the coming years.

What follows is a breakdown of what scientific and diplomatic specialists consider to be the most important technologies of the future – technologies that could drastically transform society and therefore require a response today.

Quantum computers will help solve humanity’s biggest problems

Quantum computing is currently considered the holy grail of science. “Quantum computers, which might be available in ten years’ time, are a completely new thing,” says Marieke Hood, the executive director of GESDA’s Impact Translator. “We expect to use them to solve problems for which we currently have no solutions.”

As examples, she cites the possibility of discovering new materials much faster, capturing CO2 from the atmosphere, and eliminating antibiotics from the environment to prevent antibiotic resistance.

Because quantum computers are such a disruptive technology, they need to be addressed now – even if it is not yet clear how exactly they could be used in the future, Hood says.

It is impossible to imagine the power of a quantum computer, warns Alexandre Fasel, Switzerland’s special representative for science diplomacy.

He sees making this technology equally accessible to all parts of the world as the biggest challenge.

“The second challenge is to understand what we are going to use such a powerful tool for,” Fasel says from Geneva. “To answer these two questions, the GESDA Foundation has proposed the creation of an Open Quantum Institute in Geneva, which will bring together all the users of quantum technology to work out who will have access to the quantum computer.”

The goal is to inaugurate the institute in 2024. “We also want this institute to help ensure that the technology is used to address humanity’s challenges: public health, climate change and security,” says Hood, who will head the Open Quantum Institute.

“Optimised” humans, starting with the gut

Pascale Vonmont, who participated in the discussion panel, sees particular promise in technologies relating to people’s health. “And in this context, of course, digital and quantum technology is also at the forefront – i.e., the link between medicine and computers.”

Vonmont heads the Gebert Rüf Foundation, which promotes innovation for the benefit of the Swiss economy and society.

During the panel discussion, she named the Microbiota Vault, which is supported by her foundation, as an example of a health project that is already preparing for the future. This vault serves as a kind of Noah’s Ark of human gut bacteria.

As people globally eat increasingly similar diets, this world of micro-organisms is becoming less diverse – a world on which the medical community is pinning great hopes. The project collects and protects microbiota from all over the world.

“This is an example where people asked the questions: Where does the science stand today? Where will we be tomorrow? What can we do now to ensure we reap the rewards tomorrow?” Vonmont says.

Artificial intelligence is difficult to predict

The most difficult technology to predict is artificial intelligence, says Daria Robinson, who leads GESDA’s Global Curriculum for Science and Diplomacy. She says developments in this field have been almost overwhelming.

On the plus side, she says, GESDA has collaborators in every sector, including AI development. “We always have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in this area,” she says. “That’s very important.”

Science can strengthen diplomacy

Several participants see science communication as a shortcoming that needs to be addressed. Scientists need to speak a language that is more accessible to the population, says Niniane Paeffgen, formerly the director of the non-profit foundation Swiss Digital Initiative, a non-profit foundation, and now an advisor to GESDA.

She says researchers will in future have to ask themselves: “What does this mean for me as an individual, what does it mean for society? And how can we get out of this ivory tower and try to integrate science into the population?”

The relationship between science, society and politics must be encouraged, says Maryline Maillard, a member of the board of the federal technology institute ETH Zurich and coordinator of the Stick to Science campaign for an inclusive European research area.

It is also ultimately a question of using science for diplomacy, she says. Science often offers positive subjects and “it can help to connect people from completely different cultures,” she adds.

Source: SWI

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