Tag Archives: Martin Rees

2014 Maddox Prize winners and more ( a letter writing compaign)* from Sense about Science*

The UK’s ‘Sense about Science’ organization announced the two winners of its 2014 John Maddox (aka, the ‘standing up for science’) Prize in late October 2014 (from the Oct. 28, 2014 announcement),

I am delighted to share that last night [Oct. 27, 2014] Dr Emily Willingham and Dr David Robert Grimes were announced as the winners of the 2014 John Maddox Prize, at our annual reception held with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

After lengthy deliberation, this year’s judges (Tracey Brown, Philip Campbell, Colin Blakemore and Martin Rees) awarded the prize to these two people who embody the spirit of the prize, showing courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so.

The call for 2014 nominations was mentioned in an Aug. 18, 2014 post. Here’s more about each of the winners (from the 2014 John Maddox Prize webpage on the Sense about Science website),

The judges awarded the prize to freelance journalist Dr Emily Willingham and early career scientist Dr David Robert Grimes for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so. …

David Grimes writes bravely on challenging and controversial issues, including nuclear power and climate change. He has persevered despite hostility and threats, such as on his writing about the evidence in the debate on abortion in Ireland. He does so while sustaining his career as a scientist at the University of Oxford.

Emily Willingham, a US writer, has brought discussion about evidence, from school shootings to home birth, to large audiences through her writing. She has continued to reach across conflict and disputes about evidence to the people trying to make sense of them. She is facing a lawsuit for an article about the purported link between vaccines and autism.

A Nov. 1, 2014 post by Nick Cohen for the Guardian newspaper discusses one of the 2014 winners in the context of a post about standing up to science ignorance and Ebola in the US, scroll down abut 15% of the way),

The joint winners confronted beliefs that are as prevalent in Britain as America: that vaccination causes autism, that homeopathic medicines work, that manmade climate change does not exist and that adding fluoride to the water supply is a threat to health. (I didn’t know it until the prize jury told me but Sinn Féin is leading a vigorous anti-fluoride campaign in Dublin – well, I suppose it’s progress for the IRA to go from blowing off peoples’ heads to merely rotting their teeth.)

David Robert Grimes, one of the winners, said that, contrary to the myth of the scientific bully, most of his colleagues wanted to keep out of public debate, presumably because they did not wish to receive the threats of violence fanatics and quacks have directed at him. If we are to improve public policy in areas as diverse as the fight against Ebola to the treatment of drug addicts, they need to be a braver, and more willing to tell the public, which so often funds their research, what they have learned.

Grimes makes a useful distinction. Most people just want more information and scientists should be prepared to make their case clearly and concisely. Then there are the rest – Ukip, the Tea Party, governors of Maine, Sinn Féin, David Cameron, climate change deniers – who will block out any evidence that contradicts their beliefs. They confirm the truth of Paul Simon’s line: “All lies and jest, still the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

Lydia Lepage (a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Voice of Young Science, which is run by Sense About Science) over on the Conversation writes about both winners in an Oct. 28, 2014 post (Note: Links have been removed),

Willingham is a freelance science journalist whose evidence-based article: “Blame Wakefield for missed autism-gut connection” drew intense criticism and a lawsuit from Andrew Wakefield, the discredited scientist known for his now-retracted 1998 Lancet paper on the alleged link between vaccines and autism. She criticised the “red herring and the subsequent noxious cloud that his fraud left over any research examining autism and the gut”.

Willingham’s self-declared passion is “presenting accurate, evidence-based information”. She says:

Standing up for science and public health in the face of not only unyielding but also sometimes threatening opposition can be tiring and demoralising.

Grimes is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford in the UK, working on modelling oxygen distribution in tumours. He has been awarded the Maddox Prize for reaching out to the public through his writing on a range of challenging and controversial issues, including nuclear power and climate change.

Grimes continues to present the evidence, despite receiving threats, particularly surrounding discussion on abortion in Ireland. Following his article on six myths about cancer, in which he addressed the “dubious and outlandish” information that can be found on the internet, he received physical and digital hate-mail.

Sense about Science next announced an ‘Ask for Evidence’ website, from a Nov. 2, 2014 announcement,

We are excited to announce that Ask for Evidence online is now live! And people are already using it to ask for the evidence behind claims they’ve come across. Check out www.askforevidence.org

It’s our new interactive website that makes asking for evidence and getting help understanding that evidence as easy as possible. You can use it to ask politicians, companies, NGOs and anyone else for evidence behind their claims, while you’re on the train, walking down the street or sitting in front of the TV. And if you need help understanding the evidence you’ve been sent, that’s there too. With the help of partners and friends we’ve built a help centre that has captured what we’ve learnt over the past 12 years answering thousands of requests for help in understanding evidence.

Finally,. there’s the latest announcement about an effort to influence the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new policy on reporting the results of clinical trials, from the Nov. 11, 2014 announcement,

Following our pressure, the World Health Organization is drafting a policy on reporting the results of clinical trials.

We have to grab this fantastic opportunity with both hands and make sure that the most influential health body in the world comes out with a statement that strongly supports clinical trials transparency.

But you only have until Saturday 15th November 2014 to add your voice.

The draft WHO policy does not call for the disclosure of the results of past trials, only future ones. The vast majority of medicines we use every day were approved by regulators a decade or more ago and so were tested in clinical trials over the past decades.

So email the WHO to tell them their policy should:

  1. Call for the results of all past clinical trials to be reported, as well as all future clinical trials.
  2. Require results to be reported within 12 months, rather than permitting delays of 18-30 months. The USA’s FDA Amendment Act, the newly adopted EU Clinical Trials Regulation and pharmaceutical companies including GSK and LEO Pharma all agree that 12 months is enough time to report results.
  3. Encourage researchers to put results on publicly accessible registers, in useful, standardised formats.

Email [email protected] today.

Be sure to include your name and contact details as the WHO will not consider anonymous comments.

You can also use the full AllTrials response to write your email if you wish.

Read the full AllTrials response.

I am encouraged to see a move towards more transparency in reporting the results of clinical trials whether or not this bid to include past clinical trials is successful, although that would certainly be excellent news.

* (a letter writing campaign) was added to the head and ‘sense about science’ was changed to ‘Sense about Science’ on Nov. 14, 2014 1015 hundred hours PDT.

Should we love our robots or are robots going be smarter than we are? TED’s 2014 All Stars Session 5: The Future is Ours (maybe)

Rodney Brooks seems to be a man who loves robots, from his TED biography,

Rodney Brooks builds robots based on biological principles of movement and reasoning. The goal: a robot who can figure things out.

MIT professor Rodney Brooks studies and engineers robot intelligence, looking for the holy grail of robotics: the AGI, or artificial general intelligence. For decades, we’ve been building robots to do highly specific tasks — welding, riveting, delivering interoffice mail — but what we all want, really, is a robot that can figure things out on its own, the way we humans do.

Brooks makes a plea for easy-to-use (programme) robots and mentions his Baxter robot as an example that should be improved; Brooks issues a challenge to make robots better. (Baxter was used as the base for EDI introduced earlier in TED’s 2014 Session 8 this morning (March 20, 2014).

By contrast, Sir Martin Rees, astrophysicist has some concerns about robots and artificial intelligence as per my Nov. 26, 2012 posting about his (and others’) proposal to create the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk. From his TED biography,

Martin Rees, one of the world’s most eminent astronomers, is a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and the UK’s Astronomer Royal. He is one of our key thinkers on the future of humanity in the cosmos.

Sir Martin Rees has issued a clarion call for humanity. His 2004 book, ominously titled Our Final Hour, catalogues the threats facing the human race in a 21st century dominated by unprecedented and accelerating scientific change. He calls on scientists and nonscientists alike to take steps that will ensure our survival as a species.

Rees states that the worst threats to planetary survival come from humans not, as it did in the past, nature. While science offers great possibilities, it has an equally dark side. Rees suggests robots going rogue, activists hijacking synthetic biology to winnow out the population, and more. He suggests that there is a 50% chance that we could suffer a devastating setback. Rees then mentions the proposed Cambridge Centre for Existential Risk and the importance of studying the possibility of human extinction and ways to mitigate risk.

Steven Johnson, writer, was introduced next (from his TED biography),

Steven Berlin Johnson examines the intersection of science, technology and personal experience.

A dynamic writer and speaker, Johnson crafts captivating theories that draw on a dizzying array of disciplines, without ever leaving his audience behind. Author Kurt Anderson described Johnson’s book Emergence as “thoughtful and lucid and charming and staggeringly smart.” The same could be said for Johnson himself. His big-brained, multi-disciplinary theories make him one of his generation’s more intriguing thinkers. His books take the reader on a journey — following the twists and turns his own mind makes as he connects seemingly disparate ideas: ants and cities, interface design and Victorian novels.

He will be hosting a new PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) series, ‘How We Got to Now’ (mentioned in Hector Tobar’s Aug. 7, 2013 article about the PBS series in the Los Angeles Times) and this talk sounds like it might be a preview of sorts. Johnson plays a recording made 20 years before Alexander Graham Bell ‘first’ recorded sound. The story he shares is about an inventor who didn’t think to include a playback feature for his recordings. He simply didn’t think about it as he was interested in doing something else (I can’t quite remember what that was now) and, consequently, his invention and work got lost for decades. Despite that, it forms part of the sound recording story. Thankfully, modern sound recording engineers have developed a technique which allows us to hear those ‘lost’ sounds today.

The UK’s Futurefest and an interview with Sue Thomas

Futurefest with “some of the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers” is taking place in London next weekend on Sept. 28 – 29, 2013 and  I am very pleased to be featuring an interview with one of  Futurefest’s speakers, Sue Thomas who amongst many other accomplishments was also the founder of the  Creative Writing and New Media programme at De Montfort University, UK, where I got my master’s degree.

Here’s Sue,

suethomas

Sue Thomas was formerly Professor of New Media at De Montfort University. Now she writes and consults on digital well-being. Her new book ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ explains how contact with the natural world can help soothe our connected lives.http://www.suethomas.net @suethomas

  • I understand you are participating in Futurefest’s SciFi Writers’ Parliament; could you explain what that is and what the nature of your participation will be?

The premise of the session is to invite Science Fiction writers to play with the idea that they have been given the power to realise the kinds of new societies and cultures they imagine in their books. Each of us will present a brief proposal for the audience to vote on. The panel will be chaired by Robin Ince, a well-known comedian, broadcaster, and science enthusiast. The presenters are Cory Doctorow, Pat Cadigan, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, Roz Kaveney and myself.

  • Do you have expectations for who will be attending ‘Parliament’ and will they be participating as well as watching?

I’m expecting the audience for FutureFest http://www.futurefest.org/ to be people interested in future forecasting across the four themes of the event: Well-becoming, In the imaginarium,  We are all gardeners now, and The value of everything. There are plenty of opportunities for them to participate, not just in discussing and voting in panels like ours, but also in The Daily Future, a Twitter game, and Playify, which will run around and across the weekend. 

  • How are you preparing for ‘Parliament’?

 I will propose A Global Environmental Protection Act for Cyberspace The full text of the proposal is  on my blog here http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/futurefest/ It’s based on the thinking and research around my new book Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/technobiophilia/ which coincidentally comes out in the UK two days before FutureFest. In the runup to the event I’ll also be gathering peoples’ views and refining my thoughts.

sue thomas_technobiophilia

  • Is there any other event you’re looking forward to in particular and why would that be?

The whole of FutureFest looks great and I’m excited about being there all weekend to enjoy it. The following week I’m doing a much smaller but equally interesting event at my local Cafe Scientifique, which is celebrating its first birthday with a talk from me about Technobiophilia. I’ve only recently moved to Bournemouth so this will be a great chance to meet the kinds of interesting local people who come to Cafe Scientifique in all parts of the world. http://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/cafe-scientifique/

 

I’ll also be launching the book in North America with an online lecture in the Metaliteracy MOOC at SUNY Empire State University. The details are yet to be released but it’s booked for 18 November. http://metaliteracy.cdlprojects.com/index.html

  • Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m also doing another event at FutureFest which might be of interest, especially to people interested in the future of death. It’s called xHumed and this is what it’s about: If we can archive and store our personal data, media, DNA and brain patterns, the question of whether we can bring back the dead is almost redundant. The right question is should we? It is the year 2050AD and great thought leaders from history have been “xHumed”. What could possibly go wrong? Through an interactive performance Five10Twelve will provoke and encourage the audience to consider the implications via soundbites and insights from eminent experts – both living and dead. I’m expecting some lively debate!

Thank you,  Sue for bringing Futurefest to life and congratulations on your new book!

You can find out more about Futurefest and its speakers here at the Futurefest website. I found Futurefest’s ticket webpage (which is associated with the National Theatre) a little more  informative about the event as a whole,

Some of the planet’s most radical thinkers, makers and performers are gathering in East London this September to create an immersive experience of what the world will feel like over the next few decades.

From the bright and uplifting to the dark and dystopian, FutureFest will present a weekend of compelling talks, cutting-edge shows, and interactive performances that will inspire and challenge you to change the future.

Enter the wormhole in Shoreditch Town Hall on the weekend of 28 and 29 September 2013 and experience the next phase of being human.

FutureFest is split into four sessions, Saturday Morning, Saturday Afternoon, Sunday Morning and Sunday Afternoon. You can choose to come to one, two, three or all sessions. They all have a different flavour, but each one will immerse you deep in the future.

Please note that FutureFest is a living, breathing festival so sessions are subject to change. We’ll keep you up to date on our FutureFest website.

Saturday Morning will feature The Blind Giant author Nick Harkaway, bionic man Bertolt Meyer and techno-cellist Peter Gregson. There will also be secret agents, villages of the future and a crowd-sourced experiment in futurology with some dead futurists.

Saturday Afternoon has forecaster Tamar Kasriel helping to futurescape your life, and gamemaker Alex Fleetwood showing us what life will be like in the Gameful century. We’ve got top political scientists David Runciman and Diane Coyle exploring the future of democracy. There will also be a mass-deception experiment, more secret agents and a look forward to what the weather will be like in 2100.

Sunday Morning sees Sermons of the Future. Taking the pulpit will be Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, social entrepreneur and model Lily Cole, and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. Meanwhile the comedian Robin Ince will be chairing a Science Fiction Parliament with top SF authors, Roberto Unger will be analysing the future of religion and one of the world’s top chefs, Andoni Aduriz, will be exploring how food will make us feel in the future.

Sunday Afternoon will feature a futuristic take on the Sunday lunch, with food futurologist Morgaine Gaye inviting you for lunch in the Gastrodome with insects and 3D meat print-outs on the menu. Smari McCarthy, founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party and Wikileaks worker, will be exploring life in a digitised world, and Charlie Leadbeater, Diane Coyle and Mark Stevenson will be imagining cities and states of the future.

I noticed that a few Futurefest speakers have been featured here:

Eric Drexler, ‘Mr. Nano’, was last mentioned in a May 6, 2013 posting about a talk he was giving in Seattle, Washington to promote his new book, Radical Abundance.

Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, was mentioned in a Nov. 26, 3012 posting about the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk (humans relative to robots).

Bertolt Meyer, a young researcher from Zurich University and a lifelong user of prosthetic technology, in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting about building a bionic man.

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer, who ran afoul of James Moore, then Minister of Canadian Heritage and now Minister of Industry Canada, who accused him of being a ‘radical extremists’  prior to new copyright legislation  for Canadians, was mentioned in a June 25, 2010 posting.

Wish I could be at London’s Futurefest in lieu of that I will wish the organizers and participants all the best.

* On a purely cosmetic note, on Dec. 5, 2013, I changed the paragraph format in the responses.

Existential risk

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Price along with Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, and Jaan Tallinn, Co-Founder of Skype, are the driving forces behind this proposed new centre at Cambridge University. From the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk webpage,

Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. Such dangers have been suggested from progress in AI, from developments in biotechnology and artificial life, from nanotechnology, and from possible extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change. The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake. …

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk — a joint initiative between a philosopher, a scientist, and a software entrepreneur — begins with the conviction that these issues require a great deal more scientific investigation than they presently receive. Our aim is to establish within the University of Cambridge a multidisciplinary research centre dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks of this kind.

Price and Tallinn co-wrote an Aug. 6, 2012 article for the Australia-based, The Conversation website, about their concerns,

We know how to deal with suspicious packages – as carefully as possible! These days, we let robots take the risk. But what if the robots are the risk? Some commentators argue we should be treating AI (artificial intelligence) as a suspicious package, because it might eventually blow up in our faces. Should we be worried?

Asked whether there will ever be computers as smart as people, the US mathematician and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge replied: “Yes, but only briefly”.

He meant that once computers get to this level, there’s nothing to prevent them getting a lot further very rapidly. Vinge christened this sudden explosion of intelligence the “technological singularity”, and thought that it was unlikely to be good news, from a human point of view.

Was Vinge right, and if so what should we do about it? Unlike typical suspicious parcels, after all, what the future of AI holds is up to us, at least to some extent. Are there things we can do now to make sure it’s not a bomb (or a good bomb rather than a bad bomb, perhaps)?

It appears Price, Rees, and Tallinn are not the only concerned parties, from the Nov. 25, 2012 research news piece on the Cambridge University website,

With luminaries in science, policy, law, risk and computing from across the University and beyond signing up to become advisors, the project is, even in its earliest days, gathering momentum. “The basic philosophy is that we should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence – in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history,” says Price. “We should be investing a little of our intellectual resources in shifting some probability from bad outcomes to good ones.”

Price acknowledges that some of these ideas can seem far-fetched, the stuff of science fiction, but insists that that’s part of the point.

According to the Huffington Post article by Lui, they expect to launch the centre next year (2013). In the meantime, for anyone who’s looking for more information about the ‘intelligence explosion’ or  ‘singularity’ as it’s also known, there’s a Wikipedia essay on the topic.  Also, you may want to stay tuned to this channel (blog) as I expect to have some news about an artificial intelligence project based at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) and headed by Chris Eliasmith at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, later this week.