Q: If you could transport yourself to the future, what would you be teaching or researching in 100 years?
See more Q&As with UBC profs here: ubc.ca/next100years
Q&A courtesy of UBC Communications and Marketing /Margaret Doyle. Photography: Martin Dee
Dr. David Morrissey, TRIUMF at UBC
A: Dark matter. Astronomical measurements show that the Universe contains much more matter than is observed directly. This excess matter gives off very little visible light and is therefore called “dark matter” (DM). Almost nothing is known about what makes up DM but the leading proposal is that it consists of one or more, as yet undiscovered, elementary particles. (All known matter is made up of a set of elementary particles that interact with others through the fundamental forces, but none of these particles has the right properties to be DM.)
The search for the particle that makes up DM is currently underway with theoretical proposals for DM candidates, laboratory experiments designed to detect DM directly, and astrophysical observations looking for signals of DM in the cosmos. While no definitive discovery of DM has yet been made, these efforts have significantly narrowed the range of possibilities of what DM could be.
Looking forward a century, I am very optimistic that the particle making up DM will have been discovered. This discovery will certainly be momentous, but it is also just the first step in a complex research program to measure the properties of the DM particle in great detail. These properties include its mass and what types of forces it feels.
An exciting possibility is that DM particles are attracted to each other by a new type of fundamental force that is not felt by ordinary matter. If this is true, the discovery of DM would be the first step in a series of discoveries of new particles and forces. Finding the DM particle and determining its properties will also provide a powerful new tool to investigate astrophysical structures such as stars and galaxies.
Kees Lokman, School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
A: While the outcomes of the Paris Climate Conference are hopeful, climate change will have major impacts on global water and food security, energy transitions, environmental transformations and the way we build our cities in the future. Today, spatial practices are just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of the possibilities of design to address these global challenges. In 100 years, with growing understandings of ecology, urban metabolism and cross-scale linkages, we are teaching how to design socio-ecological systems that fully incorporate biophysical processes as well as by-products of urbanization (waste, emissions, nutrient runoff, etcetera) in order to create productive and regenerative urban landscapes across multiple scales. Rather than obtaining a degree from a single design discipline, students will enroll in trans-disciplinary programs that interweave every aspect essential to the functioning of the built environment: from architecture to geo-engineering, from public policy to natural resource management.
Dr. Janette Bulkan, Faculty of Forestry
A: A century is a short period in the evolution of the basics of human culture. We will still be grappling with inequalities within and between societies, with human greed and the rapacious approach to our natural environment and planetary resources. We may have stabilized our human population growth but we will be struggling to meet rising aspirations while striving to sustain renewable resources and being less wasteful of non-renewable resources. So I would continue to teach the new generations how to analyze social phenomena, be cognizant and practiced in the development and use of social rules from local to global levels and shape policy and procedural responses. I would prepare students with an overarching ethic of care and skill sets for engagement at the many distinct levels they will likely work in – from very local to interplanetary contexts.
My collaborative research projects, carried out with representative constituencies and university students, will be seeking democratically acceptable ways to harness as-yet-undreamt-of technologies for maximum net social benefit and without runaway assaults on our fragile atmosphere, oceans and land resources.
Dr. Jehannine Austin, Department of Medical Genetics, Faculty of Medicine
A: My work would be totally different. Genomics, integrated with biomedical ethics, will be taught at age appropriate levels throughout the school system, so genomic literacy within the general population will be way higher than it is today. Everyone will be getting her or his own genome sequenced in utero, before birth. This genomic information will be used to allow for the correction or intervention of any genetic variations that would otherwise immediately present life-threatening conditions. This intervention will happen only under tight control because society has learned from history and will have agreed that diversity in all its forms is incredibly valuable for the enrichment it brings to all aspects of life.
In the future that I like to imagine, psychiatric conditions are no longer stigmatized but are accepted and managed in the same way as other common, complex illnesses. In this new context, I would be studying the specific ways in which genetic variations that predispose people to psychiatric illness also increase their resilience, adaptability, and creativity. I would be developing strategies to help people living with psychiatric problems unlock the potential of the genetic variations that they carry, to help them achieve their full potential for happiness and fulfillment.
Dr. Heidi Tworek, Faculty of Arts
A: Historians are often wary of predicting the future. But I would be using the history of news to teach students how to understand the news that they read, see, or hear, regardless of the devices they are using. Our ways of producing and consuming news changed dramatically in the past, but our interest in news survives. Mark Twain supposedly once stated that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In one hundred years’ time, I would be researching what rhymed in the history of news and why. Have new technologies changed news in similar ways to the Internet? Has citizen journalism changed power hierarchies in society? How have we balanced the costs of producing news with ideals about news as a public good?
Beyond the specific content, I would still be teaching students the skills of history. I’d want them to learn how the past affects our present. But I would also want to teach them how to become empathetic human beings. The past is often so different from our present. But we can learn how to put ourselves into the mindset of people in the past and try to understand why they thought like they did. We can learn the skill of empathy from the past, but then apply it to the unfamiliar in the present. The future will need empathetic UBC graduates just as much as we do today.
Elizabeth Croft, Professor and Associate Dean, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science
A: In 100 years, I imagine that biorobotics will be a well-established area of study, with topics ranging from psychology, reproduction, self-reconfiguration and healing.
For the capstone project, undergraduate students will design, grow and program their robots using code that runs on a biologically based computer programmed by wireless “thought packets.” The project lab will be very quiet when the deadline approaches, as students focus on establishing a strong link to download their code.
Senior students with a management bent will be able to take courses in organizational management of human-robot teams, and perhaps read texts on Getting the Most Out of Your Cyborg Workforce or When Robots Go Wrong: Re-motivating and Reprogramming.
Arguments will break out in the research lab about whose robot (or algorithm) is “at fault” when one robot shares a particularly bad idea with others and then as a pack, they all pick on one of the smaller robots.
Luckily for me, the topic of human-robot interaction will still be a hot one – same problems, different tools – as in, People and robots, how do we get along? Questions of what should the robot do, how do we share, operate safely, communicate, take turns, teach robots, and generally get along together will continue to be problems we solve. Certainly the efforts we make to establish the rules of engagement now will be foundational to our future relationships.