On this week’s programme: Chemical weapons testing that may double as a roadside drugs breathalyzer and could machines really understand our language.
Detecting chemical weapons in seconds
Dr. Stephen Bell from Queen’s University, Belfast is heading up a project on developing new sensors to detect chemical agents and illegal drugs.
For chemical weapons sensing, the devices will use special gel pads to ‘swipe’ an individual or crime scene to gather a sample which is then analysed by a scanning instrument that can detect the presence of chemicals within seconds. This will allow better, faster decisions to be made in response to terrorist threats.
The scanning instrument will use Raman spectroscopy which involves shining a laser beam onto the suspected sample and measuring the energy of light that scatters from it to determine what chemical compound is present. It is so sophisticated it can measure particles of a miniscule scale making detection faster and more accurate.
Stephen also hopes that the new sensors will also be the basis for developing ‘breathalyzer’ instruments that could be of particular use for roadside drugs testing in much the same way as the police take breathalyzer samples to detect alcohol.
At present, police officers are only able to use a Field Impairment Test to determine if a person is driving under the influence of drugs. The accuracy of this method has been questioned because of concerns that it is easy to cheat.
To ensure the technology is relevant, senior staff members from FSNI (Forensic Science Northern Ireland) will give significant input into the operational aspects of the technology and give feedback as to how it might be used in practice by the wider user community.
Could a machine ever understand you
In this month’s Cafe Scientifique package, Eric Taylor presents Professor Robert Gaizauskas talking about processing human language by computer. Rob talks about the developments and the difficulties and talks about the Turing Test and why it has been so difficult to pass.
DOWNLOAD A PODCAST OF SHOW 73 HERE
In this weeks programme I ask, can you become super bright just by taking a pill
Cosmetic Neurology: a stupid way to get smart?
My featured guest this week is Dr Anjan Chatterjee MD (Institute of Neurological Science at the University of Pennsylvania) a world authority of cognitive enhancing drugs. These were designed for therapy in a wide range of problems from Attention Deficit Disorder to Alzheimer’s. They help with reduced memory and concentration among other cognitive deficits. But now they are becoming widely used in the USA by students and business people to give them a competitive edge.
Anjan coined the term Cosmetic Neurology for the non-therapeutic use of such drugs. I talk to him about their function and the ethics of their use by the population at large. What are the risks for the individual and society?
DOWNLOAD FIXED: SORRY! There were some problems with the audio for progs 71 and 72 which are now fixed.
This weeks feature is about robot cars. Professor Sebastian Thrun’s team won the DARPA Grand – a race of about 140 miles across the Mojave desert – with an autonomous Volkswagen Toureg car – no driver and no remote control. When we will have automated cars on our roads?
Robot cars sooner than you think
The Royal Academy of Engineering recently released a report on Autonomous Systems (which I contributed to) that discusses the impact of self driving cars and lorries for the future of our road system. What are the obstacles that are keeping us back? What are the legal restrictions?
This week I talk to one of the world’s leading exponent of robot car development, Professor Sebastian Thrun director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). In 2005 Sebastian’s team famously won the DARPA Grand Challenge – a race of autonomous cars across 140 miles of the Mojave desert. Here is a video clip of his car, Stanley, winning the race. Sebastian is very modest about the win but it was a very significant achievement.
Sebastian tells me about how this could save many lives on the world’s highways and how the disable, the blind and even children will be able to take to the roads on their own in a robot car. In 2007, the DARPA Grand Challenge moved to an Urban environment and Sebastian’s team came second – beaten by their strongest rivals at Carnegie Mellon University were Sebastian used to work. It is always close between the two of them and as Sebastian has pointed out, the greatest victory goes to the achievement of robotics in general.
Next Week: Can drugs make you smarter?
I talk to Dr Anjan Chatterjee MD, a neuralogist at the University of Pennsylvania, who is one of the world’s leading experts in cognitive enhancement drugs about how they are being used to boost work at school and in business. They were originally designed for therapies for disorders from Attention Deficit Disorder to Altzheimer’s disease but are now being used widely (and illegally) for “cosmetic neurology” in the the US.
This week I am up to my eyes in giving public talks and so here is one of my all time favourite interviews
The morality of other animals in the wild
This weeks programme is entirely devoted to this intriguing topic that is becoming part of a quiet new scientific revolution on animals and animal behaviour. For centuries animals have been thought of and treated as mere machines by science. Decartes in the 17th century proposed his ideas that animals, unlike humans, were like mere mechanical automata without souls (read as mind/consciousness). This lead to increased vivisection on live animals (not Descartes’ intention). The father of mechanistic biology, Jaques Loeb, in the early part of the 20th century was fairer – he saw all animals, including us, as machines.
One of the problems is that we do not understand what mind is – it is like the holy grail of science. It is not a good idea to invoke mind and emotion unnecessarily in scientific explanation – it can clouds the issues and hold up scientific progress. Nonetheless I think that we have gone too far in ruling them out altogether. On the one hand I don’t believe an old lady when she tells me that her cat understands everything that she says to it. But on the other hand, animals may have their own types of thinking that fits in with their world.
In this show Marc Bekoff and I chat about many of these issue from Anthropomorphism to evolution and cooperation as well as the moral natures of animals with a focus on his book Wild Justice with Jessica Pierce
This is an accessible book litered with interesting anecdotes behind the science: stories about animals that put themselves out for others or punish others for their wrong doings. You can buy Wild Justice from Amazon
Next Week: robot cars sooner than you think
I talk to one of the world’s leading exponent of robot car development, Professor Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL). Sebastian tells me about how this could save many lives on the world’s highways and how the disable, the blind and even children will be able to take to the roads on their own in a robot car.
In this weeks programme our two featured interviews are about new research centres based on issues that could improve our lives: designing disease resistant buildings and creating robust cyber security.
New Cyber-security centre set to transform crime prevention
We are living in a world that communications are making continuously smaller. There is great freedom speech and access for everyone. But without careful attention to cyber-security it could all collapse or become unusable. Cyber crime and attacks as well as fraud are on the increase and the criminals are getting racing against the protections. The new £25 million Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), based at Queen’s University Belfast, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Technology Strategy Board, Queen’s University Belfast and a range of partner organisations, has been set up to tackle the problems.
I talked to Professor John McCanny, a principle investigator on the project, to find out what the centre will do for us and how it will help to prevent crime.
Curbing disease by changing the infrastructure of buildingsThe spread of swine flu and other infectious diseases could be dramatically reduced by revolutionising the way that the places we live in are designed and built.
That’s the view of experts investigating how the micro-organisms that cause disease behave in buildings and associated infrastructure.
Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), researchers at the new ‘Healthy Infrastructure Research Centre’ (HIRC), at University College London, are studying the behaviour of pathogens in places like hospitals and schools and drainage and sewage systems.
HIRC aims to:
- spot characteristics in building/infrastructure design that encourage diseases to spread
- pinpoint changes that can be made to infrastructure (in design, materials, maintenance etc) to restrict pathogens’ ability to survive and move around there.
I talked to Dr. Ka-man Lai about how the centre aims to help change the infrastructure of buildings so that they are healthier for the inhabitants.