>An interesting article in the Financial Times by Tim Harford drawing comparisons between the complex, tightly coupled systems of the operation of a nuclear power plant and that of the world banking systems (and by illustration domino toppling competitions). He concludes that it is not possible to make such systems safe by trying to control the behaviour of individual elements but that the solution lies in isolating the impact that the failure of one element can have on the rest of the system.
>Just published, this is a collection of essays that together provide a primer of current developments in neuroscience and highlight interesting issues and questions for society and policy. The essays, authored by leading experts in neuroscience, bioethics, and science and technology policy, review the state of development of neuroscience and neurotechnology – such as neuroimaging, neuropsychopharmacology, and neural interfaces – and discuss the translation of this knowledge into useful applications. The authors discuss their own views on how developments might impact on society, examining some of the opportunities and risks, as well as the ethical questions and governance issues.
>A new model for scientific research known as “convergence” offers the potential for revolutionary advances in biomedicine and other areas of science, according to a white paper issued today by 12 leading MIT researchers. The white paper says that the United States should capitalize on the trend of convergence — which involves the merger of life, physical and engineering sciences — to foster the innovation necessary to meet the growing demand for accessible, affordable health care.
Over the weekend I have been reading Mitchell Waldrop’s excellent book Complexity: the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos which tells the story of the establishment of the Santa Fe Institute in the early to mid 1980s. It is the story of how a few brilliant minds recognised that the future of science was in the study of complexity and that it required a multi-disciplinary approach from physics to biology to maths to computer science to economics (and more). One of the big constraints these great minds saw was how funding and academic progress was only available to people who stayed within the confines of existing disciplines. The second constraint was how much science was reductionist – drilling down in greater and greater detail and specialism rather than understanding how different fields could work together. Sound familiar? Judging by the convergence article many of these barriers still exist and people are still fighting to break through them.
>An interesting short article on the BBC website challenges the notion that our personality is innate and touches on much of the recent work about neuroplasticity and how the brain can be shaped. These articles often introduce the idea of neuroplasticity and then go on to talk about how children have the potential to be geniuses but there is less discussion about how much an adult brain can change and how much effort is required to make this happen. Examples where people’s brains have been damaged and adapt are often cited but of course these happen through necessity. The example cited in the BBC article is the usual one of the changes in London cab drivers’ brains as they learn The Knowledge. What we know about this is that they put a lot of time and effort into this learning, and the interesting question for me is how prepared are people at work or in life to put in the amount of effort that is needed to change the brain this way. Dr Anders Ericsson’s work suggests that people need to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in something.
I had an interesting conversation with Paul Brewerton at the Strengths Partnership yesterday about how the ideas of neuroplasticity fit with strengths focused development and one thing that they have noticed is that people with a self-improvement strength are much more prepared to try and fix weaknesses because they are energised by the process of developing something new and hence happy to put in the effort, whereas those who don’t have this strength find the idea of building on their existing strengths much more appealing.
>According to the New Scientist, firms in the US and Japan are already selling robot avatars that allow office workers to be in two places at once. So 2011 could be the year when many of us find ourselves sitting across the desk from an electronic colleague.