On Sunday, 3 September the University of Amsterdam (UvA) kicked off the start of its 385th anniversary year with a science talk show presented by physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf in Pathé Tuschinski. Titled ‘What’s Next?’, the show included several prominent UvA researchers who discussed major future developments awaiting humankind over the next few decades.
During the first of three sessions, scientists Renée van Amerongen and Max Welling and philosopher Daan Rovers spoke about the possibilities and challenges of CRISP-Cas and machine learning. Will it be possible to rewrite DNA? And will computers become completely autonomous? These and other technological developments, the guests agreed, won’t only have major implications for our current way of living, but will also pose fundamental questions about who and what we are. This is why it is important for society to start discussing the ethical aspects of such developments as soon as possible.
Following the first session, the stage went to Amber and Arielle, two designers affiliated with the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, who briefly spoke about sustainable clothing and about the way smart redesign can lengthen the life cycle of clothing and raw materials.
Sustainability remained the main topic of the second session, which included biologist Michel Haring, philosopher of science Coyan Tromp and anthropologist Rivke Jaffe. How, the guests asked, can we achieve a sustainable future and ensure adequate food and housing for a growing world population?
Tromp, coordinator of the Bachelor’s programme in Future Planet Studies at the UvA, argued that the promise of new technologies sometimes overshadows the risks that inadvertently come along. According to Jaffe, professor of Cities, Politics and Culture, the focus on sustainability should also include an awareness of the negative effects of increasing urbanisation, such as social inequality and the militarisation of cities and urban areas. In addition, added Haring, we will need to radically transform our current method of food production and change our outlook on issues like genetically modified food.
The session was followed with a brief interlude in which UvA alumni Sytze van Stempvoort and Robert-Willem Dol spoke about their companies PeelPioneers and BeeBlue. They are currently building a factory that will recycle about 10 million kilograms of orange peel and use it in products like soap. At the end of the event, the audience received a bar of soap produced especially for the UvA.
UvA alumni Yuri van Nieuwkerk and Huub Rutjes subsequently gave a short presentation titled ‘The World in Vibration’ with a combination of image, sound and text.
During the third and final session, Dijkgraaf, astronomer Lucas Ellerbroek and legal expert Edgar du Perron dwelt on the future of space exploration and on whether life will be discovered elsewhere in the universe. According to Ellerbroek, the ongoing discovery of new exoplanets indicate that the chances of organic life existing on another planet are quite good. Ellerbroek also predicted that future space exploration missions will be focused on obtaining valuable resources, for example through asteroid mining. Such a development would in turn raise several complex legal issues which would need to be dealt with on an international level, added du Perron, professor of Private Law at the UvA.
The event was concluded by UvA alumnus and stand-up comedian Tim Fransen who highlighted the humour side of morality and ethics.