Making the world a better place every three minutes
Dresden, the International Congress Center, a Thursday morning just after 8.00 o’clock. A murmur of voices can be heard. Then an announcement: “We are about to begin – please take your seats.” Men and women dressed in business suits, mostly in subdued colours, file in through the entrances and sit down. A gong sounds. “Please switch off your phones.”
It is 9.00 o’clock precisely. The flight begins. A flight into the future. A whole day devoted entirely to future technologies.
At the invitation of the Free State of Saxony and daily newspaper Tagesspiegel, exactly one hundred scientists are gathered here for a “science match”. Over one-and-a-half thousand visitors have come to listen to bite-sized portions of focused knowledge.
The time machine lifts off with a welcome address by Saxony’s Minister-President, Stanislaw Tillich. The event is fast-paced and the rules are simple. Each scientist is given three minutes to inspire the audience with his or her idea or project. The presentations are grouped into sessions, interspersed with breaks to give people a chance to talk to the speakers.
The audience listens attentively to the words of Michael Bachmann from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, who is reporting on the latest innovative research into cancer treatment: “A new theranostic combination of cellular immunotherapy – tumour imaging”. Then there is a loud “Ahem”, signalling that he has just 30 seconds left. “We have succeeded in making tumours visible in mice and in curing them.” The audience claps, and the next scientist steps up to the lectern.
The first session deals with life sciences, energy and environmental technology. The lectures are correspondingly mixed. They cover genome surgery, seamless tissue transplantation and textile research. Despite the highly complex subject matter, most of the lecturers succeed in presenting their research projects succinctly and in language that most people can understand. Attention grows when a video plays on the enormous screens or, even better, there is an interactive exchange between the speaker and another person. The second session deals with information and communication technologies, and microelectronics. For the first time, there is applause mid-talk for live machine translation using a smartphone.
Signs of information overload eventually begin to emerge.
Minister-President Stanislaw Tillich (CDU) had described the event as a showcase for Saxony and a window from Saxony onto the world. Sebastian Turner, editor of the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel newspaper, added: “Commitment and tolerance are typical Saxon virtues.” He also praised the inventiveness of the region’s people.
The show was highly polished, and featured an impressive breadth of knowledge. Take the Somnomat, for example, a device designed to improve sleep through targeted shaking, so you need only six hours’ sleep rather than eight, or the genome editing tool Gen-Schere plus Gen-Kleber, aimed at repairing virus-infected cells. There are already plans in place for a clinical study.
Some light relief was provided by “Augustus the Smart”. Developed at Dresden University of Applied Sciences and already deployed in caring for the elderly, the robot acts as an on-call night-time care assistant or an interactive partner for card games.
In the case of some projects, real-world applications already seem very close. Christian Wölfel from TU Dresden spoke about advances in agricultural machinery, for example. He focused on fast, lightweight, smart and networked automated harvesters that operate without a driver and no longer weigh many tonnes. Today’s GPS-controlled lawnmowers show what can be achieved. Farming is clearly set to experience major changes.
Other projects sound more futuristic. Like holography, which we are used to seeing in science fiction films. This kind of system requires micromirrors as small as 4 micrometres, preferably with 30 million of them on a single chip. That corresponds to a concentration of around 800 mirrors per hair’s breadth, which also have to align themselves 1,000 times a second. Future technologies? Yes, but researchers are already quite close to making this particular vision reality, creating chips with up to three million mirrors.
At around 5.00 o’clock, flight “Future Technologies” prepares for landing. The scientists and investors exchange business cards at the after-conference social. Summary of the day: Saxony has a remarkable wealth of clever minds – people who engage in research every day through global networks with the aim of making the world a better, smarter or, quite simply, healthier place.