Reading and writing were the greatest inventions by humans as, for the first time, they could learn directly from a book, standing on the shoulders of knowledge gathered by others, said Dr Kees Immink during his plenary lecture on the second day of the Global Young Scientists Summit 2020.
He noted that the early books – in the form of clay tablets written in the cuneiform script – were the first instance of data storage. Outlining the evolution of the industry over the years, Dr Immink said one of the biggest breakthroughs in data storage was made in 1956 when IBM developed the IBM 350 disk system, which was the first hard disk drive in the world.
He observed that data storage has evolved through various stages since then and the storage capacity has increased dramatically. And yet, it is struggling to keep up with the storage requirements due to the information explosion. He added that DNA-based systems could potentially provide a solution to data storage problems.
However, there are major technical challenges that need to be overcome. DNA, equivalent to a pint of beer, could store all the information that resides in the Internet today. Writing the data and reading it is still a very slow and expensive process. At the moment, the cost is also very prohibitively high. Dr Immink, however, was optimistic that all these challenges could be overcome with time and sufficient commercial interest in developing the technology.
Molecular Photovoltaics and the Stunning Rise of Perovskite Solar Cells
Michael Grätzel, Millennium Technology Prize (2010)
Meeting world energy consumption needs using traditional fuel sources like oil and gas was not environmentally sustainable, and clean energy sources were required, said Professor Grätzel during his plenary address. He noted that installed photovoltaic (PV) power, a green energy source, needed to increase 200 times to meet the requirement of the Paris climate change agreement.
Professor Grätzel observed that nature has evolved an elegant solution to the problem of clean energy generation through photosynthesis. Inspired by photosynthesis, dye-sensitised solar cells can provide green power required to meet the rapid growth of energy consumption worldwide.
Talking about these types of solar cells, a variation of which are known as Grätzel cells since he helped to pioneer them, the professor noted that when he started working on the project, a lot of people told him that they would not work. Grätzel cells use a sensitiser dye and nano particles of the semiconductor titanium dioxide, a cheap and widely available material. These cells have now become commercially viable and are used to make vertical panels, balustrades and flexible cells for ambient lighting.
Professor Grätzel also noted that perovskite solar cells, while still in their infancy, are a stunning development because they require several hundred times less materials to manufacture than traditional silicon cells. He added that within the next five years largescale commercialisation of the technology would be possible. He concluded his presentation with a call: “Let’s work to conserve our beautiful world”.
Primary Immunodeficiencies (PID) from Genes to (Patho)Physiology and Gene Therapy
Alain Fischer, Chair of Experimental Medicine at Collège de France (Guest Speaker)
Around 8000 diseases have been classified as inherited and though they are relatively rare, they still affect 2-3 per cent of the global population, said Professor Alain Fischer during his plenary address.
Some of these diseases include sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, myopathies, haemophilia and primary immunodeficiencies. Professor Fischer said that gene therapy has proved to be a promising treatment for these diseases. He noted that gene therapy could provide a normal copy of an affect gene in a cell. It could also be used to inhibit or modify the expression of a mutated gene or fix a mutation. Gene therapy could also provide a synthetic gene for the implementation of a new function.
Professor Fischer added that the idea of using gene therapy to treat genetic diseases is not new as the first paper on this subject was published in Science magazine way back in 1972. However, it is only since 2000 that effective treatment regimens using gene therapy have started.
During his talk, Professor Fischer shared some examples of the use of gene therapy in the treatment of severe combined immunodeficiencies (SCID) using stem cells. He noted that genome editing can also provide treatment to several types of severe diseases.
Professor Fischer said that mastering this treatment technique has been a long journey “full of serendipitous findings”. Proof of principle of efficacy and safety of the process has been a lengthy and painful process, he noted.
The information revolution will be similar in impact to the human race as was the agricultural and industrial revolutions, said Professor John Hopcroft during his plenary lecture.
During his lecture, he gave a broad overview and introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Using mathematical equations and concepts, Professor Hopcroft explained how machine learning works and its advantages as well as limitations.
Giving an example of image classification, he noted that computers can classify images with better accuracy than humans and this was a major advance in deep learning technologies. One of the techniques has been used for automatic online translations from one language to another.
Dwelling on the fundamental question about whether AI is real, Professor Hopcroft noted that the current state of AI is pattern recognition in a high dimension space. “AI programs do not extract the essence of an object and understand its function or other important aspects. Another revolution in 40 years may accomplish that,” he noted.
He added that not all intelligent-like tasks need AI. Some just need computing power and access to large data. A good example, he added, was chess programs that could easily beat human players. “Computers are doing more and more things that one thought required intelligence,” he added.
Incredible advances in medicine have extended the human lifespan, but a host of challenges need to be tackled, including the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases; huge disparities in healthcare access; and the rise of antibiotics resistance and the anti-vaccine movement, said the three eminent speakers at the Day Two panel discussion moderated by veteran scientist Professor Alex Matter.
Professor Matter, who has been called the father of targeted cancer therapies, noted that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning could revolutionise all aspects of medicine from research to diagnosis to treatment. “They would ideally support our busy, overworked doctors to better synthesise information and treat patients,” he said.
Such innovations will be crucial as more people live longer, noted Professor Kurt Wüthrich. “We have succeeded in fantastic ways in increasing humanity’s lifespan, but now we have to deal with the results, including not only the ailments of elderly people but how to handle the economics of medicine,” he stressed.
As scientists and doctors forge ahead, they should also reconsider past medicines, said Professor Ada Yonath. “We’ve seen examples of how medications given for other things were used as antibiotics with some success. We may need to look at how medicines, perhaps even some that were taken off the shelves for various reasons, may be repurposed,” she said.
The future of medicine will also need to encompass not just research into drugs but also public policy and greater public education, especially to promote the correct use of antibiotics and to combat the growing anti-vaccine movement, highlighted Professor Alain Fischer. He said: “We need more research on the social aspects of health and medicine. We need to get better at convincing people to be vaccinated, to exercise, to take better care of themselves.”