The CERN Sparks! Podcast

Series 2 - Future Technology for Health

The second season of the CERN Sparks! podcast: 6 episodes focused on discussing some of the present of health tech and science and taking a deep look at the many exciting, often risky and generally thrilling possibilities of future technologies for health. With Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna; the founding father of genomics, George Church; the WHO’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan; and many other guests.

Podcast episodes

S2 #6 The Public Good: Maximising Outcomes

“Major advances, even in a crisis, are made in the years and decades before the crisis (...) these are not miracles that happen by chance.”  - Jeremy Farrar

We have all felt the impact of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 - but we have not felt it equally. In this episode, the last of this series, host Bruno Giussani dives into the ecosystems around scientific innovation, looking at the way different forms of collaboration, legal frameworks, and the respective roles of public institutions, private companies and philanthropy in enabling (or not) technological advances. Joining Bruno are the director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, reflecting on the role of philanthropic organisations as well as the necessity of long-term investment in science, discovery and education; Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the WHO, talking about the role the WHO plays on the international stage and the struggles for equity in treatment - and the WHO’s first mRNA technology transfer hub in Africa; Els Torreele, biomedical scientist and researcher in equitable public health policy, diving deep into the effects of patent-driven and commercially-funded medical research; and Ben Perry, medicinal chemist involved in drug discovery, commenting on the complexities of molecule control.

S2 #5 A Global Perspective: The Power of Collaboration

“There’s no such thing as too many scientists” - Ben Perry

Join host Bruno Giussani as he delves into the rationale and practice of large scale scientific collaborations. In this episode Ben Perry, medicinal chemist with DNDI (Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative) talks about the nature and successes of open science. Rolf Apweiler, co-director of the European Bioinformatics Institute that collects, analyses and distributes data to the worldwide scientific community, explains the challenges researchers face in accessing the data they need and the way EBI seeks to streamline the process. The Wellcome Trust’s director Jeremy Farrar discusses the interconnectedness of the world and how frameworks for international collaboration are essential for the future especially in areas where the scientific and the political overlap. And Charlotte Warakaulle, director for International Relations at CERN, describes the “CERN model” and elaborates on its scientific and technological contributions to health.

S2 #4 Healthtech & Ethics: Getting it Right

“We are so taken in by technology that we forget that technology is a tool that should be used with an outcome in mind.” - Soumya Swaminathan

In this episode, host Bruno Giussani and his guests wade through the quagmire of healthtech ethics and fairness, exploring topics such as how the notions of right and wrong are changed by technology, data ownership and privacy, mind-manipulation technologies and the marvels of machine-learning systems which often are black boxes that not even the specialists understand. In conversation with Bruno are Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the WHO; George Church, the founding father of genomics; Pushmeet Kohli from DeepMind; technoethicist and entrepreneur Juan Enriquez; neuroscientist Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology; and Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna.

S2 #3 Genomics: Cracking and Editing the Code

“We finally have a way of making an organism resistant to all viruses.” - George Church

Gene editing, complete virus resistance, longer healthspans, reversing ageing - these are no longer concepts consigned to the pages of science fiction, but real research that host Bruno Giussani explores in this episode. Jennifer Doudna, who shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her foundational work on the gene-editing technology CRISPR, talks about the first 10 years of CRISPR and the possibilities created by its combination with artificial intelligence. George Church, considered the founding father of genomics, shares some of his latest research that could lead to making us resistant to all pathogenic viruses and expand our healthspan. Abasi Ene-Obong, CEO of startup 54Gene in Nigeria, describes his work to make sure African genetic data become better represented in the field.

S2 #2 The Biological Revolution: Tools & Tells

“I think the way we do medicine these days is broken.” - Michael Snyder

In this second episode, join host Bruno Giussani as he examines the specific tools powering the biological revolution. He is joined by Michael Snyder, geneticist and founder of the Snyder Lab at Stanford University, to talk about wearable technologies; by Pushmeet Kohli, AI for Science Lead at Deepmind (a subsidiary of Alphabet) to understand AlphaFold, the machine learning system capable of predicting the structure of nearly all proteins known to science, and its impacts; and Ben Perry, medicinal chemist at the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) to talk about AlphaFold’s benefits for drug development.

S2 #1 The Future of Health: Technology’s Role

From the use of the data captured by wearable devices to the relationship between doctors and patients in an AI world, in our first episode host Bruno Giussani explores visions of future health. Jane Metcalfe, founder of Neo.Life (and, three decades ago, co-founder of Wired magazine) elaborates on the coming neo-biological revolution and the human immunome; Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organisation and head of its science division, reflects on which innovations will have the biggest impacts on global health and; Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and author of “Deep Medicine”, explains how artificial intelligence can make healthcare human again.

#6 Fast and slow AI — with Francesca Rossi and Daniel Kahneman

Francesca Rossi is an influential global leader in AI research. Daniel Kahneman is one of the greatest living cognitive psychologists. In the final podcast in the series, our guests take Daniel’s revolutionary “fast and slow” systems of thought as inspiration for rewriting AI, and debate the nature of thought itself. “I really find it difficult to imagine why there should be anything at which humans are essential in the domain of intelligence,” says Kahneman. Is there anything that humans can do that AI cannot in principle do?

#5 Ethical AI — with Nyalleng Moorosi and S. Matthew Liao

“We always had privacy violation, we had people being blamed falsely for crimes they didn’t do, we had mis-diagnostics, we also had false news, but what AI has done is amplify all this, and make it bigger,” says Google’s Nyalleng Moorosi. In Episode 5, she and philosopher S. Matthew Liao debate the delicate balance between personal moral agency, human rights and corporate responsibility in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. We need to understand more about these principles, not just to list them, says Liao, because then there’s a worry that we’re just doing ethics washing — they sound good but they don’t have any bite.

#4 Experimental AI — with Maurizio Pierini and Michael Doser

Particle physics is at a moment of truth. The discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson promises to reveal a rich new structure for the vacuum and rewrite the history of the early universe, but a long list of fundamental questions remains, and physicists are faced with an awesome data flow from the Large Hadron Collider. In Episode 4, CERN’s Maurizio Pierini and Michael Doser explore using “unsupervised learning” to reveal nature’s mysteries. I’m really super excited about the next LHC run, says Pierini, because this is when we’re going to try these things for real.

#3 Creative AI — with Anima Anandkumar and John Ellis

We can dream, we can hallucinate, we can create — so how do we build those capabilities into AI? Deep-learning expert Anima Anandkumar and distinguished theoretical physicist John Ellis discuss the potential for artificial intelligence to one day collaborate with us in attacking the biggest unanswered questions in physics — questions which have outwitted humans for years. In a conversation ranging from the quantum nature of subatomic reality to the distributed intelligence of the octopus, our guests explore how AI might one day tackle questions which are conceptually boundless and infinite. “This would be truly stealing the theoretical physicists’ lunch,” says Ellis.

#2 Quantum AI — with Maria Spiropulu & Vivienne Ming

Episode 2 collides two rockstars of the world of artificial intelligence to reimagine the field for the next generation. Is consciousness quantum or just me talking to myself? Could quantum computing unlock a step change in artificial intelligence? Our guests also get down to earth on the need for AI to tackle real-world data-poor problems from hiring bias to diagnosing manic episodes in bipolar sufferers. There is a recurring flaw in applied artificial intelligence, argues Ming. Machine learning is not a Deus ex machina for your company’s problems: expertise is queen, and innovation by gender and ethnic minorities is problematically undervalued.

#1 Brainy AI — with Stuart Russell and Tomaso Poggio

Do we need to understand the brain to make progress in artificial intelligence? In the first podcast in the series, Stuart Russell and Tomaso Poggio contrast “deep learning” with our own organic neural networks. In an age of great demonstrations by the likes of Deep Mind and OpenAI, our guests make the case for focusing on controlled experimentation, and question the wisdom of using AI in science before it is fully understood. The mystery of intelligence, says Poggio, is the greatest problem in science today — if we solve it, we solve all other problems too.

# Trailer - The CERN Sparks! Podcast

Artificial intelligence is transforming our world. Hear the sparks fly as Mark Rayner and Abha Eli Phoboo collide pairs of the leading coders, neuroscientists, policymakers, philosophers, psychologists and physicists who are shaping the future.

Then join us for the first edition of the Sparks! Serendipity Forum at CERN in September.