Lots of questions but no easy answers at the Berkeley Ideas Fest

by Jeanne Carstensen

By  / KQED Arts

October 29, 2014

Among the topics discussed at the Uncharted: A Festival of Ideas on Friday and Saturday in Berkeley was Moravec’s Paradox — the notion that hard problems are easy and easy problems are hard. The concept was first framed by scientists working in artificial intelligence when they realized getting robots to pick up a sippy cup or recognize Uncle George’s face was harder than making them play chess.

Uncharted speaker Andrés Roemer, who is the General Consul of Mexico in San Francisco, the author of 16 books and the organizer of his own festival — La Ciudad de las Ideas, in Puebla, Mexico — captured the spirit of the Berkeley gathering with his notion that “the really dangerous idea is something that goes against the status quo.” The status quo was always in question during two days of conversation with leading scientists, artists, authors, researchers and activists. Change is occurring at such an exponential rate in the era we live in that even the architects of the scientific and technological advances driving the change cannot themselves fully understand the potential impacts or ethical implications.

Jennifer Doudna and Randy Schekman are both top scientists in molecular and cell biology at U.C. Berkeley.

Laura Carstensen at Uncharted 2014. Photo Pete Rosos

Jennifer Doudna discusses her gene editing technique. Photo by Pete Rosos

Doudna’s CRISPR technique makes it possible to easily edit the genome of any species. Profoundly powerful, it’s also disconcerting, and Doudna has founded the Innovative Genomics Initiative to look at the vast implications. “Technology is always out in front of the understanding of ethical issues,” she said.

Randy Schekman won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2013 for his work understanding transportation inside the cell on a molecular level. After calling for “curiosity-based science” rather than “top-down science” driven by corporate and government interests, he said “We may reach a point where we control our own evolution.” Neither Schekman, or anyone else, knew what to say to that potential status quo.