Kathriona Devereux: Eating crickets and meat-like burgers, and the wonders of AI

Science Week left us with plenty of food for thought, so says Kathriona Devereux in her weekly column
Kathriona Devereux: Eating crickets and meat-like burgers, and the wonders of AI

NEW RECIPE: A lab-grown meat burger made from cultured beef, developed in Maastricht University in the Netherlands in 2013

THE RTÉ science series Future Island concluded its run for Science Week and left us with plenty of food for thought. Here are some of my favourite themes from the week.

The Future of Food

West Cork resident and serial entrepreneur Bill Liao served up a futuristic dinner party for host Liz Bonnin and rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll, to illustrate how food might change in the future to meet our nutritional and environmental needs.

Bill made a delicious dish of stir fried broccoli and crickets cooked with peanut oil, garlic, soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce and dry sherry.

Much of the world’s population gets protein from crickets and other insects, as well as jellyfish, etc, and it’s time the West cottoned on.

Protein is an important food ingredient from biscuits to beverages and science is working out ways of creating protein as a major food ingredient rather than the inefficient and environmentally damaging way of rearing beef and dairy and then converting those animal products into food ingredients

The second course was a lab grown burger. Scientists have been trying to crack lab grown meat for a while but the big breakthrough came in the last few years when scientists worked out how to synthesise heme.

Heme is an iron-containing molecule found in plants and animals that is responsible for meat’s flavour and aroma. McDonald’s announced the roll-out of a new McPlant burger last week so it’s a trend that is not going away.

Bill Liao sees a real distinction between Irish beef and dairy farming (grass-fed, free-roaming animals) versus industrialised feed lots in the U.S, or even worse felled rainforest to make way for cattle.

Because Ireland produces high quality beef and dairy, there will be continued consumer demand for it, commanding a high price. However, for farmers in the U.S or China who are running horrendous, cruel, environmentally disastrous feedlots — their days are numbered because cellular agriculture is going to make beef and dairy cheaper and safer.

Market forces will make it hard for those farmers to compete with food products that are made in a lab.

Maths in Nature

Another topic on Future Island that captured viewers’ attention was the discussion about the Golden Ration by Dr Arlene Gallagher, a Trinity College physicist and Director of the Trinity Walton Club.

Arlene revealed the wonder of a beautiful number called the Golden Ratio or 1.61803... represented by the Greek letter Phi.

It can be found by taking any line and dividing it into two parts. If we divide the longer segment of the line by the short segment, we get Phi, the golden ratio.

There’s also a special relationship between Phi and the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55... etc.).

Fibonacci was a famous Italian mathematician who wrote an important book in 1202 that advocated for the use of the decimal number system using the digits 0 to 9. Before this, Europeans used roman numerals, so Fibonaaci was a significant figure in the advancements of mathematics.

He’s probably more famous for the Fibonacci sequence, which is a recurrent sequence, where to find the next number you add the previous two numbers: 1+1 = 2, 1+2= 3, 2+3 = 5 and so on.

This sequence also contains the Golden Ratio. If you divide the larger number by the previous smaller number, you get Phi.

What’s especially cool is that this Golden Ratio can also be found in patterns in Nature.

If you look at the whirl at the base of a pine cone, the number of spirals in the clockwise and anticlockwise orientations are numbers from the Fibonacci sequence, so when you divide the larger number by the smaller number you’ll get PHI.

The arrangement of seeds in the head of a sunflower or in the curve of a nautilus seashell also contain the Golden Ratio.

The Golden Ratio is sometimes called the Divine Proportion and artists, architects and musicians have been interested in applying the Golden Ratio to their designs or compositions.

It’s not a strict rule but what is beautiful is that the story of Phi illustrates how mathematics can help us articulate what is happening in the world in a universal language.

Artificial Intelligence

Another topic which generated much discussion was how artificial intelligence is going to play a role in every sector of society in the future.

The term ‘Artificial intelligence’ can be defined as when “computer performance is indistinguishable from human performance”.

Dr Suzanne Little from the Insight Centre for Data Analytics explained how AI is already omnipresent. Siri and Alexa use AI as your digital assistants. Diagnostics in healthcare, optimising traffic management, and AI to help make better decisions for nature-based solutions for water conservation, are all areas where AI is being applied.

There is discussion about the possibility of AI being developed to a point where humans lose control of the AI machines. We don’t want to sleepwalk ourselves into a dystopian future and it’s good to imagine all the things going wrong so that we can build in the checks and balances to protect ourselves.

That’s why ethics and bias training for data science students is becoming standard and why the EU are looking to implement Trustworthy AI safeguards about how tech works so that the industry behaves responsibly. The EU has guidelines that AI systems should be accountable, explainable, and unbiased.

Wider societal issues such as the impacts on jobs need to be considered. When the printing press was introduced people worried about the future, when automated looms were introduced people worried about jobs in the future. AI tech is our generation’s issue and lots needs to be considered by society when regulating this technology.

Future Island is available to watch on the RTÉ Player

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