This week, the third Huxley Summit took place in London. Now a regular fixture on the calendar, the Summit brings together business leaders, politicians and scientists to tackle the greatest challenges facing society today. This year, the focus was on the constant shifting and shaking of public perceptions surrounding new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and gene editing.

A series of riveting debates, roundtables, and in-conversations took place with some of the biggest names in business, science and the media. Tackling questions such as: “how can we ensure products are fit for purpose as societal, environmental and cultural expectations change?” and “how does society overcome challenges of a trust breakdown in technology from the public?”, here are the top 7 things we learned from this year’s Huxley Summit: 

  1. Giving up straws is not going to crack the plastic problem

Besides Brexit, the plastic debate has been the hot topic of 2018. The day started with a hard-hitting discussion from biologist and presenter Liz Bonnin, whose recent BBC documentary Drowning in Plastic made the crushing reality of the problem impossible to ignore. She applauded the laudable efforts of the UK public in trying to tackle it, from ditching disposable coffee cups to scouring the coasts in local beach cleans. However, because the dumping of plastics into our rivers and oceans is so unrelenting and damaging, she believes that these efforts simply won’t be enough.

Liz says that she feels strongly, as an individual and consumer, that clear solutions are available, but industries and governments just aren’t doing enough. She blamed too much talk of incremental change and not enough action. Placing emphasis on the need for global responsibility and system change, Liz made a rallying cry to political and business leaders to drop token promises, stop prioritising economics over the environment and to start immediately implementing resolutions, such as an outright ban of single-use plastics, public deposit return schemes, and funding research into new, sustainable materials.

  1. Solving the problem is more important than winning the argument

PR and advertising guru, Rory Sutherland, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the public’s psyche. His opening statement began with a light-hearted anecdote about the psychology of ordering wine in restaurants (after all, it’s almost impossible not to indulge with the wine glasses already on the table). Can we use behavioural ‘nudges’ like these to make a difference on sustainability?

He believes that to change behaviours and create solutions to the plastic problem, you need to make sure innovations have universal appeal by changing the context. Seatbelt use was incredibly low 50 years ago, but through a combination of legislation, incentives, clever media campaigns and peer pressure, we’ve seen a huge jump in their use over the past 25 years and people are generally now frowned upon if they don’t put on their seatbelt. Rory argued that the same must happen with plastics.

  1. AI is going to have more of an impact than the internet

Professor Jim Al-Khalili is well-known to many of us from his books, radio and TV programmes about physics. But more recently, he has become fascinated by the applications of AI, having explored it in depth for a recent BBC documentary, The Joy of AI. In it, he covered the wonderful nuances and impressive applications of this relatively new technology. In the past few years, it’s a topic that’s exploded in mainstream media and the public’s consciousness, promising to soon dominate most areas of our lives.

While many of us expect it will have a profound impact on us all in the coming years, Jim goes one step further. He believes that it will be the defining technology of the 21st century, surpassing even the impact that the internet has had on society. Will his prediction prove correct? Only time will tell…

  1. AI programmers should take a Hippocratic oath

Given the stark predictions surrounding AI, MP and Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson proposed that AI programmers should be made to take an oath like the Hippocratic Oath that doctors traditionally take – and suggested calling it The Lovelace Oath.

Jo believes that an explicit ethical framework is the best way for developers to navigate the possibilities of a technology like AI, which has so many wide-reaching applications. AI has the potential to impact our care pathways, financial systems, education, military…the list goes on. We need to take control of this exciting, but potentially powerful new technology.

  1. Rogue scientists can damage science in the public’s eyes

Gene editing has proved a topical subject this week. Hitting the headlines was the Chinese researcher who claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies. If true, it would be ground-breaking, but it has also caused a global outcry. Human gene editing is banned in most countries because of the morally questionable nature of experimenting on human subjects, which could lead to any number of health and social problems further down the line.

Lord David Willetts, Chair of the British Science Association, used this example to show why “racing ahead”, i.e. wanting to be the first to achieve scientific feats, can be detrimental. Failure to comply with international norms and springing such life-altering practices onto the world without proper debate and cooperation can lead to intense backlash, disgust and a breakdown of trust between researchers and others. Ultimately, David claimed, this could lose the argument for science – therefore losing any potential benefits of new technologies.

  1. Gene editing could soon cure cancer

If we look away from the recent controversy surrounding gene editing and turn towards the advantages it can offer, we see a big beacon of hope that could impact everyone’s lives. Ultan McDermott, who is Chief Scientist of Oncology at AstraZeneca, talked about his belief that in a few years, gene editing may be able to cure cancer. This would be such a huge health benefit across all kinds of societies.

  1. Diversity is key

Throughout the day, there were an array of fascinating discussions and viewpoints. The conversations were nuanced, with many great innovative ideas and important questions raised. This was in credit largely due to the diverse range of speakers and delegates in attendance. It’s rare at an event which largely targets senior business leaders, policy-makers and scientists to have such a diverse group of people present, but it was a proud moment to see that the Huxley Summit managed to achieve this. Women were even commenting on the fact they had to queue for the toilet, which is a rarity at these kind of events because there are usually so few women at them.

By unlocking the potential of a more diverse group of people, we increase our ability to tackle some of the world’s most intractable challenges and shape our future for the better. Ultimately, society’s biggest challenges and opportunities aren’t the concern of science alone. They belong to and affect us all. It was great that the Huxley Summit championed this message through the incredible range of people who were involved and hopefully it’s a pattern that will continue to build across the sector.