Light my FiRE – The Future in Review
The Future in Review (FiRE) is an annual conference held by Mark Anderson (proprietor of the well-respected Strategic News Service) to get together a group of people to look at modern day problems and to address how technology can lead to solutions.
Attending FiRE is an inspiring experience as one really does come away believing that despite what seem to be overwhelming problems today that, with the right technological solutions, we can tikkun olam which is a Hebrew expression meaning “heal and restore the world”.
This year, the conference basically focussed on 3 problem sets: (1) anthropogenic climate change, (2) health (and, particularly, the ageing population) and (3) the economy. Those themes have not changed much over the last few years that I have attended the conference. However, what is exciting is to witness are improvements in the “technological arsenal” to defeat these enemies, particularly genomics, cleantech and, of course, information and communication (ICT) technologies, specifically cloud and mobility. While ICT may not be the direct solution to every problem, clearly it underpins the development of all other technologies. Almost every speaker kept coming back to the need to collect, store and analyse data as part of their solution.
Over 3 days of intense discussion it is very hard to pick standouts, but clearly a highlight was the opening address by Craig Venter, leader of the team that succeeded in sequencing the human genome. Astonishing progress is being made in genomics, partly due to Moore’s Law, but actually more quickly than Moore’s Law, especially over the last 5 years. As the cost comes down it becomes feasible for individuals to have their genes sequenced quickly and cheaply and this will lead to all sorts of improved drugs, for example, the ability to create a drug that specifically targets your individual cancer. But perhaps even more astonishing is the possibility of creating new organisms by altering DNA (to paraphrase Dr Venter – by reprogramming the software). While it may sound like creepy science fiction stuff, the fact is that Dr Venter painted a picture of a world where it becomes possible to manufacture beef directly from algae and thereby cut out the middleman (the cow in this case) thereby transforming agriculture (perhaps it becomes “algaeculture”) and eliminate a major source of greenhouse emissions, while at the same time feeding the world’s growing population. Needless to say there was some discussion on the ethics of this, but it comes down to this: is it more ethical to attempt these solutions and get them right (including the appropriate safeguards) or to let a billion people starve.
Over my next couple of blogs, I shall follow up more of the FiRE themes, including my own contributions to the discussion.