When Big Pharma starts playing video games

"Labster" is an e-learning video game with potential.

Labster, a virtual laboratory, which contains millions of pounds worth of advanced equipment, also allows its users to perform experiments – video game style – ranging from sequencing DNA from ancient caveman bones to identifying murderers through blood samples. 

The idea is to use popular video game-esque technology to reignite students’ interest in biotechnology, a subject that many are dropping out of early in their university degrees. Indeed, according to Labster’s co-founder and CEO, Harvard graduate and biotech engineering expert Mads Bonde, technology like Labster, which uses real-world scenarios or ‘cases’ such as crime scenes and hospital bedsides, could have a big impact on science students’ drop-out rate.

"Many students drop out of their degrees at the beginning, where they have a lot of basic learning that is often far removed from the potential exciting future they are heading to," he said. "What we can do with Labster, though, is tie the basic knowledge and basic learning – the principles they really need to understand – into why it is extremely interesting and why it has important applications."

Bonde even goes so far as to say he believes that e-learning video games like Labster – because they are more motivating, inspiring and fun for students than traditional teaching - could revolutionise the future of science education, replacing current techniques, which are not only ineffective, but also waste valuable resources.

The new technology can also be used in the Big Pharma corporate world as a training tool for employees who need to learn how to use new machines or perform unfamiliar procedures. And, in the future, the Labster team hopes to create a "lab builder", which will allow students and teachers to design their own labs and cases, depending on what they want to learn.

Rather than breeding a generation of unhealthy, disease-prone layabouts, perhaps new gaming technology could do just the opposite. In fact, by inspiring the next generation of potential biotech experts to actually take the leap into careers ranging from crime scene investigation to clinical medicine, one could even go so far as to suggest that video gamers could soon be saving lives.

Labster aims to reignite students’ interest in biotechnology Photograph: Getty Images

Elly Earls is a freelancer for NRi Digital

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.