Explaining the future
- Researchers should share their knowledge to help Europe stay in the running.
- A key tool could be photonics, a branch of physics that is emerging as a major 21st-century science.
When it comes to research, Europe does not have it easy. It must limit carbon emissions, but without compromising its competitiveness; it must develop personalized medicine, but without accentuating inequality; it must robotise its industries, but without losing jobs. And so on. At the same time, it must find solutions to energy waste, drug-resistant bacteria, cybercrime, fine particles and many other threats. European research has no choice but to move forward on all these fronts simultaneously.
Solutions to these problems do exist, but often they are known only to experts. That’s not good enough. They should be discussed in the public square, in clear terms that people understand, in an interesting and relevant manner.
This is where science journalists come in. Since the first issue of Technologist, we have interviewed researchers from all disciplines, bounced their observations off other experts, and explained how science meets the challenges of the time. The stakes have become so complex that there is a risk of a growing gap between the experts and the rest of the population. Only with widely disseminated scientific information can Europe make the right decisions.
So much for pragmatism. Fortunately, research has many purposes other than avoiding disaster. It must explore new fields, push the limits of knowledge, open stimulating horizons. Since the beginning of this decade, we’ve seen a future in which human activity is optimised by algorithms. A future where artificial intelligences learn on their own by processing massive amounts of data, allowing them to propose more rational solutions than humans can.
In all areas of science, the potential for progress is extraordinary. The intelligence of machines can help meet the environmental, medical and economic challenges. Europe must encourage this progress wholeheartedly, by teaching computer coding from an early age and by training more engineers and lawyers who understand algorithms.
It must do this throughout the continent, breaking down language barriers. Sharing this knowledge on a large scale will facilitate political decisions and allow the Old Continent to stay in the running.
Artificial intelligence relies on the capabilities of processors and data centres, which have grown massively for 50 years. But Moore’s famous Law should not allow us to forget that electronic circuits have their limits: the copper wires that connect transistors and printed circuits have limited bandwidth, produce interference, give off heat and consume significant amounts of energy.
To overcome these limits, science has given us new tools in the form of photonics, a discipline that is still little known to the general public but that is emerging as a major 21st-century science. As researcher Ton Backx explains, this branch of physics related to the study of optical signals promises to play a central role in the detection of cancer, the fight against pollution and the development of autonomous vehicles. Most important, it will allow IT to process even more data, and much faster, than traditional computers – all without loss of signals or heat.
By replacing electrons with photons, which move at the speed of light, photonics offers an elegant and energy efficient solution that shatters the boundaries of traditional computing. It is perhaps thanks to it that Europe will succeed in meeting its ecological, medical and economic challenges.