British Science Festival Day 2 :D

Today was a little bit more relaxed– I only went to three talks, but it was family day at the university so there was face painting, a carousel, circus people jumping around, giant inflatable lungs etc etc. I got a subtle rocket painted onto my face, whereas Galina, another student from the bursary scheme, got her whole face done as a parrot which made her a feature of a lot of people’s pictures in the lectures, many of whom seemed to think it was her actual make-up…(?)

The first event was about how computing was communicated in schools– it was more of a reflection on the past methods than I thought, which was actually really interesting, as I’d never heard of any of the programs or computers they were talking about (as well as some of them being hilarious– you should take a look at a great YouTube clip from tomorrow’s world about ‘Nellie, the school computer’). Also constantly amazing to me is the fact that people used to have to handwrite their code, then get it sent to be made into punch cards, then posted to be run by a computer, then sent back each time there was a bug (which with my code is literally all the time).

After that lecture there was a demonstration of some of the modern things used to teach computing in schools, like little Lego-bots that you could build and then program to move around in a pattern by arranging inputs- which were represented by a square for each movement/sound- into a sequence and raspberry pis (raspberries pi? raspberry pies? I have no idea how to pluralise that). Anyway, the computers that are known individually by the name Raspberry Pi, are so tiny and cute and you can see the components and circuit board and I want one! So that lecture was a success.

I spent the next couple of hours touring the little family-day exhibits (and riding the carousel). There were loads of actual researchers presenting them who were really engaged and excited to talk about their work, from the brains of fruit flies to diseased livers. The university was much more packed with lots of families, and the festival lectures were too.
My next event was on art and anatomy by Professor Alice Roberts (who you might recognise from various TV shows and radio things) and was so good, though I think some of the more weird pictures might have given nightmares to a little boy sitting two seats down from me. The talk went chronologically through the different stages and schools of anatomy and the art that depicted the knowledge at the time, some of which was truly weird and often showing corpses ‘not just walking around, but walking around in a landscape’ as the professor said, with bits of their skin and muscles flapping away.

As you might expect for a subject that was about cutting up dead people for most of its time before CT scanners and such, the images were macabre and also contained weird little messages, like suggestions that the dead person (probably a criminal) was receiving redemption through being cut up for such noble purposes, or in one case, for skinning itself. Some of the images were actually quite disturbing for adult consumption too– one guy called Braune drew lots of 2D cross-sections of bodies that he had frozen and then sawn in half, and another guy called Ruysch, made weird sculptures of crying foetus skeletons mopping their eyes with bits of human tissue, that were apparently very popular at the time. Google it yourself if you don’t believe me, or need a dose of awfulness.
Professor Roberts was an amazing speaker though, who clearly knew actually everything about anatomy, but I sadly missed a chance to get her to sign one of her books that I now really want!

That was the morning. I then spent the rest of the day in various states of ethical dilemma, which started innocently enough, when I met a robot named Bob.
Bob was a tall, humanish sized robot who could navigate around a crowd without bumping into people and peer at your with innocent looking eyes. One of the guys working on him told us a lot about some brilliant applications for surgical robots that could hold a surgeon’s hand steady in eye surgery and other robots that could act as museum tour guides. On the other hand, he also mentioned how similar robots could be super useful in military applications. Alright then.

Directly after this I attended a lecture in which the internet of things was discussed– basically fridges that can tell you when you are eating too much or order milk when you forgot it, and all sorts of other devices collecting data on your life left right and centre. To be honest, it just sounds invasive to me, but I don’t suppose anyone is going to make me get this stuff, so everyone can carry on.

In this talk, the speakers described research that had gone into making robots that can jam on the drums, teach chess with ’empathy’ to children, attend weddings and look out for elderly people (different robots not just one multi-talented one.)
So much research has gone into giving them eyes and facial expressions and emotion-like features and human style voices, and I must admit I find this really strange and kind of uninspired, because the results still aren’t remotely ‘alive’, let alone human.

But that’s surely OK– we already have humans who are really good at being humans, and who can teach chess to kids and look after the elderly and play the drums. It must be a very interesting intellectual exercise to try and recreate these things, but I’m not sure that much is actually gained from it. The robots are just being made to lie about even remotely understanding what is going on, and that will always be obvious when it eventually mistakes a door for a human or such. (Actual example.)

Even the end goal, making robots that act like humans doing a specific job, only then takes that job away from a perfectly capable, but now more expensive, already existing human.
And if your argument is that there aren’t enough people to do all these things, then surely that is problem with society, not one that can be patched over by sending in a badly animated robot with a bunch of stock phrases?

Again, the potential military applications were raised and brushed over in this lecture– the questions from the audience were mostly about the moral aspect of such robots, but both the researcher with Bob and the ones after the lecture just compared it to the knowledge of nuclear fission and left it at that. Knowledge isn’t inherently good and evil, they said, which I broadly agree with, but I’m not really sure where the actual good of these humanoid robots is, whereas some of this technology is already used in military applications. Hmm.
Not to mention making a robot human is surely kind of unimaginative?

I’ve only really started thinking about this today and it seems to me like a tricky issue that I’m not yet considering in much depth, though it has led to some interesting (and to be honest frustrating) conversations today.

On a simpler note, I spotted a guy practising making a cloud chamber by himself on a lonely deckchair, and through the bonds of Physics and him also having gone to Imperial, he offered me some contacts for science communication work experience! I think I might have just networked. 😛

Oh, and as I kind of slandered the food in the last blog I wrote, I feel I should say that the BSA are now giving us expenses for tea instead, as they didn’t realise they only offered sandwiches. Lovely of them, considering this was all free for us anyway! (Well, I’m sure Imperial had to pay– thanks again Imperial!)

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