FLASH TALKS – Probing the Future

Long Now Boston Conversation Series
May 6, 02019, at the Cambridge Innovation Center.

Featuring eight talks by Long Now Boston Members.

On May 6, Long Now Boston held a 2018 FLASH TALK event.  Eight presentations had been selected in advance from the pool of entrants, and each presenter was given 5 minutes, and 3 slides, to explore their ideas.  The result was a wide-ranging and surprisingly robust discussion of topics in chemistry, climate, aging, cityscape design, science education and the future of democracy and capitalism.  

The Winner – Ultra-conductive Copper!

After the presentations and Q&A were completed, the audience voted for the overall Best Presentation. That award went to Malcolm Burwell for his inspiring and clever discussion of the properties and opportunity for ultra-conductive copper, a product composed of nanoscale layers of copper and graphene.  While still expensive, ultra-conductive copper delivers significant efficiency improvements for electrical equipment operating at room temperature.  Not quite Star Trek’s “transparent aluminum” perhaps, but a technical breakthrough nevertheless.


Two presenters focused on issues in aging. Seth Rhoades noted that increasing life span requires changes in how we think about the later stages of life. Demographic charts used to show a steadily declining slope as deaths accumulate when people age.  Improving health care and advanced medical technology is changing that slope.  Most of us are living longer, yet ultimate human lifespans remain the same – this tends to square off the graph of demographic trends.  Yet increasing lifetimes does not necessarily mean increasing vitality – nor does it improve the problems of a declining labor pool, overall consumption of resources, or inequality of opportunity.  These are significant issues for our future society.

Brian Agurcia, in contrast, highlighted the opportunities for an increasingly aging population to achieve remarkable vitality by applying best practices in nutrition, exercise, positive psychology and human connections.  Brian intends to push the envelope, and achieve the goal of making 100 the new 50 – fully cognitive, fully fit, living the good life. This begins one person at a time, but in time can become the human cultural norm


From the very first time global warming was discussed as an environmental concern in the 1950’s, the greenhouse gas effect has dominated the main stage.  According to Christopher Haines, this has obscured the critically important role played by other, more precipitous changes affecting the earth’s thermal trends – deforestation and urbanization.  Both significantly alter albedo – the ratio of absorbed versus reflected energy from the sun – and the rate of change in the past century has been many times greater than changes in greenhouse gases.  The good news is that these trends are also easier to reverse, with improvements in urban planning and architecture and reforms to land use practices. These offer significant opportunities to reverse climate trends.


Mark Hediger may have given the most imaginative presentation of the night, using the analogy of Dr. Evil and Mr. Incredible to outline the key role of phosphorus in such biochemical processes as energy metabolism and cellular signaling. 

He reports that significant advances in our understanding of these processes, as well as future developments in research, diagnosis and treatment will result from the use of “phaux-phosphorus”, a non-ionic phosphate isostere.  These synthetic chemicals can trace phosphorus pathways and behaviors while remaining biologically neutral – a very useful tool!

Education and Innovation

According to Jennifer Clifford, Community labs are increasingly viewed as a key resource for science literacy and innovation through hands-on molecular biology learning and experimentation.  With high tech equipment and experienced scientific coaching, anyone with curiosity and imagination can “do” cutting edge science.  Bio labs provide a real-world framework for understanding the ramifications of biotech, and the vocabulary for discussing the impacts, the risks and the ethics of science.

Democracy and Capitalism

In the sweep of human progress across the millennia, capitalism and democracy have delivered significant benefits, but they have only been around a few hundred years.  According to Henry Lieberman and Christopher Fry, these two institutions are destined to fail, as they are premised on a competitive model of human behavior.

 Competition is the underpinning of winner-take-all economics and politics, and it is normal under conditions of scarcity.  But technology is on the verge of eliminating scarcity, and we should define a better societal model – one based on cooperation.  In the economic sphere, the result is makerism, where everyone is enabled to make what they need or want.  In the political frame, this leads to reasonocracy, where populations demand that decisions are made in the public interest based on science and data.  As laid out in their book, “Why Can’t We All Get Along,” this is what humans really want.


Guadalupe Babio, the final speaker of the evening, led the audience on a ride through the sophisticated modeling of cities towards the ideal of a 3D cityscape where life, work and play are seamlessly integrated.  If 2/3 of the population is living in cities in 2050, how do we make them more livable? Mobility is the key to new paradigms, and the complex models are helping design dream cities of the future, where density is increased but people are more connected than ever.  Cities of the future can be greener, cleaner, friendlier, less congested and, ultimately, much more livable.


Speaker BIOs:

Seth Rhoades is the founder of Robur Health, a biotechnology company focused on augmenting human health span. He is a trained scientist in pharmacology and clinical informatics, and passionate about the applications of new advances in technology to meet the unprecedented global health challenges of the 21st century. His long view is that matters of global health, amidst an aging population, will pose a destabilizing force in healthcare and economic systems, and mitigating these long risks requires innovations now. On a more personal and less serious note, he enjoys running, reading, and playing jazz.

Malcolm Burwell is the founder and CEO of the UltraConductive Copper Company, which was series-A funded in 2018.  Formerly he was a Director of Technology Development at the International Copper Association and, before that, the founder of three technology companies:  Absolute Sensors, RaceTrace and TTPCom.  He is a UK/US dual-national and often accused by his American friends of “thinking too much like a Brit.”  He asks that you not ask him about Brexit, saying “there just isn’t time to explain it.”

Christopher Haines is an NCARB certified Architect, specializing in regenerative design for building renovations and urban spaces, integrating both Passive House and Living Building Challenge perspectives.  He weaves this professional focus with academic curiosity.  He has spent the last several years investigating the intersection of biodiversity and the built environment to better understand natures’ designs.  He has investigated requirements for a socially and technically regenerative society, taught urban sustainability, environmental management and architectural technology at universities and have pursued studies in higher education sustainability curriculum, urbanism, brain science, the social and ecological impacts of a growth economy and techno-philia & sustainability. 

Mark Hediger was raised on a family farm in Southern Illinois. After completing his education at UC-Berkeley in synthetic and bio-organic chemistries, he arrived in Cambridge as a medicinal chemist. He moved from a small to a medium biotechnology setting by merger and Eli Lilly ultimately acquired the latter organization. Hediger’s expertise ranges from synthetic chemistry (including radioisotopes), molecular spectroscopies, molecular biology, target-based design, assay design/high throughput screening, ADMET, and pre-clinical and CMC program development.  Forging actionable drug-discovery solutions at the interfaces of modern biology, chemistry, physics and technology is the primary mission of MEH Associates, Inc.

Jennifer Clifford is a microbiologist and plant pathologist by training and occupation. Jennifer’s interest in science research, communication, and outreach led her to join BosLab in Somerville, MA, where she now acts as Director of Science and Outreach. BosLab is a community-built laboratory that supports DIY Biology projects, offers educational workshops, and hosts various social events. Jennifer develops and organizes various biology-based events and activities to support BosLab’s mission to provide science education and outreach to those of the Greater Boston community. 

Henry Lieberman has been a manufacturer of fine intellectual property for the last 40 years. He is Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), and has been Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Media Lab, running the Software Agents Group.

Christopher Fry moved to Boston in 1973 to attend Berklee College of Music (the MIT of Jazz). He’s worked at BBN, IBM, MIT’s Experimental Music Studio, Sloan (business) school & Media Lab and a host of start-ups. His latest language and development environment is to help makers describe processes for robots to make anything. 

Bryan Agurcia has an undergraduate degree in exercise physiology, a Masters in gerontology and 30 years experience in human performance. An accident at 15 years old started his journey learning what is possible when you challenge your body. He systematically designs a client’s aging process by advising clients on a passage to thriving and flourishing with each passing year. He calls himself an Intelligent Aging Strategist / Coach. 

Guadalupe Babio is a Research Fellow at the City Science group. Graduated in 2018 by the School of Architecture of Madrid, having been visiting student in Tongji University and Technion University. She is focused on very different lines of research and work; her antidisciplinary approach fits the Media Lab philosophy: City Science, data visualization, urban mobility, building design & construction, energy simulation and building efficiency & sustainability, etc.  Her research is looking to simulate the urban performance on generic cities where different distribution of the urban grid and multi-level mobility patterns take place. 

See the original event listing

Long Now Boston is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is independent from but philosophically aligned with the Long Now Foundation.  Long Now Boston provides a forum for discussing, investigating and engaging in issues that have long-term implications for our global cultures.  Long Now Boston hosts a monthly Community Conversation series in Cambridge, MA.   Please sign up on our website for notices.

Cambridge Innovation Center is an in-kind sponsor of this Long Now Boston conversation. We are very grateful for their support.

Our next event, on June 3, 02019, Innovations to Eradicate Global Poverty, features two dynamic speakers, Eleanor Murphy, Director for East Coast Development with Acumen, and Katherine Collins, Head of Sustainable Investing at Putnam, Founder of Honeybee Capital Foundation and author of The Nature of Investing.  The event will be held at CIC on Monday June 3, 02019.  Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

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