Tuesday, October 09, 2007

I would like to bring to your attention some news stories that I wrote whilst at BBC Focus magazine. Check 'em out:
Also, I've completed the Science, Culture and Communication course at Bath University. I'm now embarking on a transitory period. It shan't be easy, but a new anchor will be found!

Friday, July 27, 2007

I have written another interesting (obviously!) blog entry for New Scientist. It's all about robots (again...), but this time they're emotional.

Have a read about Feline feelings.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Robot ethics

Cronos - the anthropomimetic robot created by Rob Knight at the robot studio

Robots, power drills, ethics and phantom limbs - these are a few of my favourite things.
This odd amalgamation of seemingly disparate concepts and objects are held together by something even more peculiar: Consciousness - machine consciousness to be specific.
Machine consciousness is a relatively new field in robotics which is dedicated to the construction of machines that are conscious like us.

Even though most of us are self-proclaimed experts on our selves, consciousness is still one of those big unanswered questions that we know very little about. So it might seem a bit strange to try and build something when we do not even know how it works. However, this is exactly what Professor Owen Holland from the University of Essex has been working on for the past 3 years. Having been called 'gung-ho' for his approach to understanding consciousness, Holland's research consists of building a real-life robot that uses power drill motors and bungee cords to drive the 'muscles' and plastic for the bone structure.

Other attempts at understanding consciousness have involved designing software models based on popular theories of consciousness or by copying what we know about the various neuron connections in the brain. But so far no-one has tried to build an embodied system quite like Holland's.
The majority of current research in neuroscience, philosophy and now robotics emphasize the importance of embodiment. Experiments in neurology suggest that the brain uses an internal model of the body in order to simulate various scenarios before we actually encounter them. Major books on the topic of consciousness, like Ramachandran and Blakeslee's 'Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind', or Metzinger's 'Being No-one' are convinced that "the phenomenal self is a virtual agent". This implies something slightly unnerving and quite mind boggling, that what we experience as reality is actually a mere simulation.
Evidence of this theory can be found in neurological curiosities like phantom limbs where people who have had an arm or leg amputated are still experiencing sensations in the missing limb. It is as if the body's model has not been updated. Other examples include the fact that schizophrenics are able to tickle themselves, the hypothesis is that this is due to their inability to predict, or simulate.

The problem with machine consciousness is that in Holland's own words, “We are ignorant about what we are doing, we wouldn't even know if it was suffering terribly.” But he also says, “I'm not worried yet, in 15-20 years time, maybe.” Murray Shanahan, Professor of Cognitive Robotics Imperial College in London, does not believe that “a scientific understanding of consciousness will ever be achieved without such [computational] models” but finds himself confronted with the future prospect of creating an artificial entity that is capable of suffering. The concept of a robot suffering might seem alien, and not something that most people would concern themselves with considering the amount of human suffering that goes unnoticed in the world today. Nevertheless, governments worldwide have initiated robot ethics programmes, such as 'The Roboethics Roadmap' funded by the EU and the UK's ESPRC funded 'Walking With Robots' initiative that tries to encourage debate about the ethics of the future. To some, this might seem like a waste of time and money, but this could possibly be one of the few times when the ethics are ahead of the science. Other recent technological advances like GM, stem cell research and nanotechnology have had difficulties becoming publicly accepted exactly because the ethics had not been properly considered.

Asia has long been at the forefront of robotics research. Governments in Japan and South Korea have suggested elaborate guidelines to ensure the safety of both humans and robots. These guidelines indicate a need to have accepted standards before letting robots loose in our homes. Dr. Blay Whitby, whose research include the social and ethical implications of artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex, is cautious. “I'm not against the technology - it could make people's lives a lot better - I just want some ethical input .“

The military has also shown interest in the possibilities of conscious machines. It is therefore even more pressing that the ethical debate involves not only researchers in the field but the broader public as well. We must ask what the implications of machine consciousness are for humanity, as well as machinery, as we continue exploring the perplexing universe of the mind.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Got some more great news. I managed to bag a placement with BBC Focus. I've tried for months but they were all booked up, but persistence pays off, because they ended up giving me a slot in September. Look forward to some fantastic writing...

Monday, May 21, 2007

My last installment from the New Scientist office, unfortunately. But as good ol' Arnie used to say "I'll be back".

Build your own research balloon

I made this guy's day, which felt pretty good!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I've written my first piece of real news. This was a tricky one, but I did it and I'm proud!
There was quite a bit of editing from the original piece, but I learned some important lessons.
Have a read and let me know what you think of it.

'New nano-glue likes it hot'
Here's another blog post that I wrote whilst staying at the glorious New Scientist office.

It's a story about sick, sick robots.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Finding it hard to get to grips with programming? Well read this fantastic blog about Coding made simple

Friday, May 11, 2007

Blogging away with New Scientist gave way to an interesting report on Smarter streets in Tokyo.

I'm quite interested in the concept of 'mediascapes' and I think I will be writing more about it at a later date. I think it may change the way we view the world quite literally.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

My first ever piece of writing with New Scientist. Have no fear - it shan't be the last! And it's even on my pet subject: Robots

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

From the 7-18th May yours truly will be have the delightful pleasure to be working with the masterminds of science communication - New Scientist. Of course I will keep you all posted.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

This article was originally published in the Bath University student paper 'Impact'

Sex in the future

Human sexuality is a biological drive as well as a cultural phenomenon, the future will see advances in both. It is likely that there will be more same-sex relations as boundaries of gender blur. We are experiencing the first waves of the androgynous look in couture fashion as well as the urban metrosexual male, and as long as there is no total religious takeover of our culture, it is likely that more people will have gay sex without necessarily identifying as gay.

Non-reproductive sex seems to always have been a part of the human sexual repertoire and the entertainment industry knows how to take advantage of this. Whenever a new technology arrives you can be sure that if it can be adapted to sexual uses. Painting, photography, film, and even pottery have been utilised in pornography, while the VCR and the camcorder gave us cheap porn.

Tomorrow's workplace will be your home, giving you less opportunities to flirt with co-workers in person. Internet pornography and cybersex will be the alternatives. New sex toys enabling something called multimedia masturbation as well as research developments in areas of virtual reality and holographic imaging all leave little to the imagination. Perhaps you want to know exactly how your partner feels during orgasm. Well, biotechnology will be there to assist, leaving nowhere for those orgasm fakers to hide.

Psychotropic drugs have of course been used for millennia in the form of aphrodisiacs. But given that the world's population is ageing and many of us will live to be 100, there should be big money to be made in the field of eroto-gerontology - Viagra being the first step in this direction. Synthetic oxytocin, the so-called "bonding chemical", has already been produced, possibly paving the way for the ultimate relationship quick-fix.

However, all this technicising of sex begs many questions. Will it lead to an even more socially inept society? Will it force us to redefine infidelity? Will we still appreciate sex as something sacred, or will it just be fun and games? What do you think?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

This article was originally published in the Bath University student paper 'Impact'

A malarial dream

A group of chemical engineers at Bath University are part of a research and business consortium to have won a £500,000 grant to aid the worldwide effort in combating the spread of malaria. The research team, led by Dr Alexei Lapkin from the University's Department of Chemical Engineering was originally commissioned (in 2005) by the non-profit Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the Dutch Government to evaluate a range of new technologies. The aim was to find ways in which large-scale production of malaria medication could be made cheaper and environmentally friendly.
These investigations led the team to discover innovative ways in which artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) can be produced.

Malaria is currently affecting around 300-500 million people worldwide, killing more than 1 million people - predominately children. Yet, it is an epidemic that goes mostly unnoticed, perhaps because it is occurs at comfortable distance, being most common in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The illness is transmitted from infected to uninfected humans through the bite of an infected female Anopheles mosquito.

Global campaigns to eradicate malaria have been in place since the 1950s, but attempts have been mostly unsuccessful and the number of people dying from the disease is now higher than it was 30 years ago. This has mostly been due to high levels of resistance to drugs.

The realisation that new strategies are needed to combat the increase in malaria cases involved looking beyond traditional Western medicine. Artemisinin (also known as qing hao, sweet Annie and sweet wormwood), a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2000 years, was finally accepted by western scientists in 2004. It was a large internationally run trial which led to the breakthrough of the anti-malarial. The trial showed that artesunate, derived from the Chinese herb, could cut malaria death by over a third.

However, artesunate and other ACTs are currently dangerous and expensive to produce, as well as being harmful to the environment. It is in the extraction process of the raw materials that the Bath team is leading the way for the future. Dr. Lapkin says "Our focus is on driving down the cost of extraction to help make this 'wonder drug' more readily available to the people who need it".

To learn more about the life cycle click on the image above

Monday, January 15, 2007

You never know when you might need ... CONCENTRATION!

Here are the 10 commandments of concentration (originally written for the Bath University student paper 'Impact')

1) Thou shalt not study for hours without a break
Study in chunks of 20-90 minutes, depending on your interest in the topic. During your 5-15 minutes break, jump up and down, play an instrument or solve a puzzle. This is to improve blood flow to the brain, enabling oxygen and blood-sugar to reach it.

2) Thou shalt not study in front of TV
Find a good study location with no distractions. Research in music and concentration are still inconclusive, so that decision is left between you and your Ipod.

3) Thou shall not go without reward
Give yourself an incentive to do the work (besides passing the exam and getting a degree). Write down what motivates you.

4) Thou shalt not daydream
Day dreaming is the antithesis of concentration. Eliminate thought wanderings by using a Buddhist meditation 'trick'; attend to the present by saying "Be here now".

5) Thou shalt not be negative
Telling yourself off, being critical and having no faith in your abilities is motivation sapping. Set aside 30 minutes of "worry" time each day. Cognitive psychologists have found that anxiety impairs concentration.

6) Feed Thyself
Keep your blood-sugar steady with complex carbs and have a balanced diet of protein, vitamins and minerals to keep your brain alert.

7) Thou shalt exercise
Co-ordinate right and left brain functions with exercise, this stimulates the information flow between the brain's two hemisperes.

8) Thou must plan
Having a plan prevents you from having distracting and stressful thoughts about what you might be forgetting. It is also a good way to avoid getting overwhelmed.

9) Know thyself
Find out when you are most productive. Some people are "early birds", whilst others are "night owls". Accommodate your day/night time energy levels.

10) Thou must apply thy knowledge
Asking yourself questions, related to what you're reading, keeps you on your toes. Think about how you would explain the concepts to your family or friends.