Thursday, November 17, 2016

Science, technology, and innovation... and arts

Science and technology are very important for nation-building. 

If there is one lesson I'm taking home from Science Agora 2016 and from the JST 20th Anniversary Forum, it is that. But at the end of the day, it is people who will accept the outputs of science and technology; this means that scientists shouldn't forget to consider the acceptability of their innovations to the current projected stakeholders. Are they receptive to new technology or do they tend to hold on to the past as long they could... until they are forced to let go of obsolete technology?

It is this question that niggled in my head as I entered the last two sessions I attended in Science Agora 2016. Both were about science and technology in the context of culture and arts. And these two sessions were so good. I did not regret sitting here listening to them all the while knowing that I was missing out on the sightseeing in Tokyo because it was such a beautiful day to go around the city by foot.

The first session was by Kyoto Design Lab speakers. One of the most inspiring talks that I heard in this session was on the ME10/SUGAR Global Innovations program. In this program (which originated in Stanford), mechanical engineering students from all over the world collaborated to develop projects assigned to them by the program's corporate partners. It almost sounds like a hackathon because it pools people together for a limited time to put ideas on paper and eventually in real life. What makes this program special is its enabling capacity to expose students to different cultures as they work together with students in universities abroad. Why didn't we have similar programs back in the day?! Kyoto Design Lab was also able to pull my heartstrings when it started describing its efforts to preserve some of Japan's traditional textile culture. For example, kimonos can be made primarily using chirimen ("intelligent" silk woven to have wrinkles). Chirimen has such narrow use; if no other purpose is found for it, the art of making chirimen may die. Sounds like the rice terraces and heirloom rice all over again, right? The designers thought that chirimen has potential in three-dimensional printing to develop novel products. Another interesting project is its look at how urbanism and food culture are linked. For this work, Kyoto Design Lab partnered with ETH Studio Basel to trace the logistics and the cultural associations of food from farm to Kyoto urban table.

And then the delegation from the European Union talked about creativity mainly in music. For instance, there is an effort to develop software applications that can aid the music industry and create art at the same time. These futuristic software applications can potentially help people understand how the brain processes auditory stimuli. These software delineate what is digital and what is physical. I didn't even know that there are "virtual" instruments! On the other hand, the delegates also talked about how the brain is affected by virtual reality and how automation in various daily tasks (such as driving) can enhance safety. I had the feeling that if the discussion moved forward even more, the speakers would be in a position to speculate what the future means of entertainment would be. It also made me feel that Japan, with all its advances in robotics, is now in a capacity to ask a fundamental question: What makes humans human?

The contrast between the two sessions, for me, is stark. Yes, despite having science deeply embedded in their discussions. Whereas the Kyoto Design Lab talks made me feel warm and fuzzy because humanity is smack in the centre of scientific development as a stakeholder (how does modern technology help save a tradition?), the EU discussion session left me feeling chilled because I had the impression that the human is more guinea pig than recipient of technology (how does the brain react to virtual stimuli?). But that's just me, of course. 

Again, at the end of the day, we find products of science and technology either acceptable or not. We, the people, choose what technologies to move forward.