FALLING WALLS CONFERENCE 2019
Walking across the multicultural, artistic and free city of Berlin it is hard to imagine that only 30 years ago there stood a wall that divided the city, the nation and the world into enemies.
On this 9th November (2019), Germany and the world, celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with this event came global peace, new frontiers and a united way of thinking. Even though this dark expanse of no-man’s land does sometimes seem like a backdrop to our current politics, the meaningfulness of what proceeded is a reason for global celebration.
The Falling Walls conference, taking place every year on the anniversary of the reunification of Germany, is a fierce representation of a global meeting of minds. This year’s programme spanned across Artificial Intelligence, the future of food, mental health and climate change, including speakers and academics from leading institutions from across the world. The conference, organised by the Falling Walls Foundation, aims to build bridges across ideas, nations and research, and empower people to break down contemporary, less and more visible walls around them. As Falling Walls Chairman Jürgen Mlynek put it, “Whether it’s physical walls or mental walls, together we can tackle these problems.”
The day started with the latest breakthroughs in global health and delved into how we might be able to grow cultured meat in the future. Other talks also included advances on neuroprosthetics and alternative global mental health therapies such as ‘friendship benches’.
Prof Sami Haddadin, Director of the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence at the Technical University of Munich, delved into how Machine Learning is facilitating the transfer and development of robotic knowledge. With Franca the robot onstage, Sami explained how his team is striving to give robots a sense of touch through collective intelligence and intelligent networks. In this way, robots are connected via the Internet across different locations increasing the rate of learning and the ability to problem solves. His talk was followed by Segenet Kelemu of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. Segenet spoke about how our idea of food security is rapidly changing under the threat of climate change and how increasingly more communities around the world are finding alternative sources of protein in insects and other living systems.
A highlight of the day was Shoshana Zuboff’s talk about surveillance capitalism. Shoshana, Prof Emerita of Harvard Business School, explained how in the era of information and free speech the Internet is the last ungoverned space. Only recently through whistle-blowers and leaked documents have we become aware that this space has been taken over by a new form of power, surveillance capitalism. These point to an intrinsic character of surveillance capitalism which is that it is engineered for secrecy and to keep its populations in ignorance.
Shortly before the turning point of this era −which could be identified with the WikiLeaks massive file dump in 2017−, a social media giant claimed that through monitoring the posts, pictures and interactions of its users, its algorithm was able to work out the exact day and date when young people feel stressed, silly, useless, overwhelmed or a failure. They claimed this was valuable knowledge because with this depth of information they could give companies the ability to pin point the exact moment in the week when, for example, a confidence-boosting message will have highest chance of success.
The events that proceeded these claims included political elections and shocking statements about how companies such as Cambridge Analytica had used this information to tear apart democracy.
Shoshanna explained that if we recognise surveillance capitalism as information warfare, then we have failed to recognise that this type of capitalism and its immoral use of data is a normalisation of information warfare for profit. Surveillance capitalism has unilaterally planned human experience as raw material for personal data sold for a profit to feed computational factories that trade exclusively on human behavioural futures and predictive.
Shoshana highlighted the importance of closely monitoring the new intelligent tools of surveillance capitalism, as “they are celebrated for their efficacy but also because they can prosecute these mechanisms while continually bypassing the awareness of their targets, us.” Shoshana’s talk raised very important questions about how surveillance capitalism has introduced an entirely new form of social inequality into our society. Quoting young climate activist Greta Thunberg, Shoshana remarked that “our house is on fire” and “if the planet is our house society is our home. Under the regime of surveillance capitalism, our home is also in the fire.“
Shoshana finished up this section of the Falling Walls conference with a hopeful statement that remarks the importance of the conference:
“We are in Berlin today and we come here full of hope for what Berlin has taught us and continues to teach us – that anything made by humans can be unmade by humans. Surveillance capitalists are powerful but not invulnerable – they fear the law, and they fear citizens of democratic societies who insist on a different road forward!”
We can’t wait until next year!
further information regarding the event can be found at the
Falling Walls Website