GESDA reveals plans for Geneva quantum hub and science diplomacy curriculum

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, left, GESDA chairman, and Patrick Aebischer, right, GESDA vice chairman, speak about the 2nd Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipation Summit 2022 (GESDA), during a press conference at the Campus Biotech in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, October 12, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) Foundation held its second annual summit from 12 to 14 October at Campus Biotech, where futuristic-like issues from neurotechnology to organoids to solar radiation modification were discussed over two days and a half. But the conference was not all debates and buffets. The foundation had several solution ideas up its sleeves to present, marking the beginning of GESDA’s uphill battle to solve some of the most complex global challenges that the future holds.

The foundation announced plans to open an open quantum institute in Geneva within the next three to five years in partnership with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and said it was working on a curriculum on science diplomacy to train the leaders of tomorrow.

Geneva’s own open quantum institute. The joint centre’s aim is to make quantum computing technology accessible to everyone. Quantum computers are like super-calculators that harness the laws of quantum mechanics to process information at incredible speed, having the potential to solve complex issues that normal computers would take too long to solve.

“Quantum is one of the technologies that have the largest potential for transformative impact on society,” Fabiola Gianotti, director general of CERN, told reporters on the first day of the summit.

A handful of countries and tech firms are competing to develop the technology – only some 11 prototypes exist today –, spending billions of dollars into research, while the rest of the world falls behind.

“We know that probably some very large states will have access to it, [and] some of the big corporations are working on it. So how can we make sure that the utilisation of this powerful tool will benefit mankind, to some extent?” said Patrick Aebischer, vice chairman of GESDA’s board of directors and former president of the EPFL.

With China and the United States leading the race in quantum computing, the institute will have to grapple with their opposing views around intellectual property rights, Aebischer noted, adding that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is in Geneva, will be “very central” to this aspect.

Gianotti stressed that while CERN, GESDA or the future institute could not “solve directly geopolitical conflicts”, it could “show a different way for humanity to work together”. She added that the main goal of the initiative was to speed-up the development of the technology by involving more researchers than there are now and to use it to solve challenges related to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Like the field of quantum computing, the details of the initiative are still very much up in the air. But the foundation assures that they have already started raising some funds and have formed partnerships with several academic centres and key private players, such as Microsoft and IBM, leading the charge.

Grooming tomorrow’s science diplomats. GESDA said it was also working on a curriculum on anticipatory science diplomacy to gear up the future generation of ambassadors and policy-makers that will have to negotiate the rules around emerging technologies. Twenty institutions, including the University of Geneva, ETH Zurich, CERN, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the UN Institute for Training and Research, came together in May for a three day forum to begin designing the framework.

“Many global challenges of scientific and technological dimensions, transcend national boundaries, and require all sectors working together,” Martin Chungong, secretary general of the Inter-parliamentary Union and co-chair of the initiative, said at an event. “But scientists and diplomats lack a shared language, common mindset and place to exchange. The curriculum wants to bridge this gap.”

Multilateralism is said by many experts to be in crisis as countries struggle to agree at negotiations. Nicolas Levrat, director of the Global Studies Institute at the University of Geneva, noted at the event that the last major treaties were hammered out in the 1990s, signalling that “multilateral diplomacy is not working very well”.

“One of the reasons why multilateral diplomacy is stuck is that it has become so complex, so interlinked between the different issues, that diplomats are actually doing the job correctly. They're just doing the negotiation and realising that there is no way they can go home and say, ‘okay, we can agree on that and these will be the effects’. Nobody can measure that,” Levrat said.

He added that the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) had attempted to bring the scientists into the diplomatic conversation but that it had been “a failure”.

“We think that the answer or the path to try to find the answer is to train a new generation of people who are bilingual, who are both aware of the language of natural sciences and the language of social sciences,” he said.

Other solutions around neurotechnology and decarbonisation that are still a work in progress were presented during the conference. GESDA’s chairman and former head of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, also said that an Impact Forum and Fund had been created to gather financial support from public and private actors for their initiatives.