Written by Miro Cafolla
Last year, our very own Café Scientifique gave us the invaluable opportunity to discuss, in a scientific way, orthodox and alternative approaches to COVID-19. If you missed the talks, do watch these videos!
This academic year’s Café Scientifique focused on the social and economic impact of advanced scientific research.
The first talk was delivered by Professor Caleb-Solly in the Epiphany term. Professor Caleb-Solly is Professor of Embodied Intelligence at the University of Nottingham, UK.
Professor Caleb-Solly is currently developing intelligent robotics and smart technology solutions that seek to empower people in their everyday lives. In other words, real robots that can help us with a wide variety of tasks, particularly in the field of social care. Professor Caleb-Solly highlighted the main features of these exciting machines, significantly different from the dark future cyborgs depicted by Hollywood movies. Intelligent robotics will address the impact of ageing-related impairments, support wellness and health, enable intensive rehabilitation, and replace diminished or lost functions. The introduction of machines on the large scale may, however, raise a number of ethical issues, from the potential loss of social care jobs to privacy issues with robots potentially accessing full sets of personal data. Professor Caleb-Solly answered a number of questions from the audience on this front and suggested some potential solutions. The goal of robots should be to support us and complement the standard care from relatives, friends and social workers when this may not be available or might not be enough. Thus, robots should not replace human-human interactions, and their use should be carefully evaluated in every specific case. Privacy issues may be minimised with an efficient regulation of data protection and with the robots being unable to transmit any personal data to external database.
The second talk was given by Professor Francesco Stellacci, at the beginning of the Easter term. Professor Stellacci is a world’s leading expert in the field of nanotechnology and leads the heads the Supramolecular NanoMaterials and Interfaces Laboratory, EPFL at Lausanne.
Professor Stellacci is currently developing a new method to efficiently recycle plastics mimicking nature. Professor Stellacci started his talk giving a shocking statistic: by 2050, ten billion of tons of plastics are projected to be produced yearly! Even if in the best case scenario, all the current plastic materials are substituted by bio-sourced and biodegradable polymers, the sustainability problem would still remain. Sourcing of these polymers will inevitably generate issues in deforestation and in competition for land with food production. Their final degradation products will inevitably shift the equilibrium of local ecosystems with unknown consequences.
Professor Stellacci is currently working on a revolutionary project to solve this problem. His work is inspired by nature. Nature constantly produces natural polymers, but perfectly sustainable: proteins. Proteins are constantly recycled when living systems feed: old proteins are digested, converted to basic units, amino acids and then converted to new and perfectly efficient proteins. Professor Stellacci showed some exciting and promising results of his own research showing that it is possible to efficiently recycle protein-based materials, outside living organisms. The next step will be to move to plastic polymers.
Professor Stellacci thus challenged the current economic model which is based on an infinite growth and hence consumption of all the available natural resources. Professor Stellacci suggested that a circular economy where used materials are efficiently recycled into new ones.
Our Café Scientifique talks have attracted, as always, a large audience from different backgrounds, and showed what we do best here at John’s: create a supportive and inclusive community where ideas and opinions are constructively discussed to shape together our future.