The Sound of Science

Fridays 9am – Sheffield Live! – 93.2FM

Show 69 first broadcast on 25th September 2009


This week I interview two of the members of the newly establish International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) to find out about some of the issues of the new military technology.


Talon SWORD- US military robot

Robot Arms Control – limiting military technology

Now if you’re a regular listener to the programme you will know that I have been banging on about the new robot weapons coming into play in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are thousands of these on the ground and in the air.

You can download programme 58 to hear Obhama advisor, P.W. Singer give a lot of facts about them.  The majority of these are for surveillance and bomb disposal but the worry is that an increasing number are being armed. At present there is always a person in the loop to make decisions about killing people …. but the US plans show a drive to reduce the role of the person and eventually do away with them altogether and let the robots decide who to kill.

This seems quite astonishing and many people just don’t believe it but it is all there in black and white if you care to look for it. Here is a link to the US unmanned aerial systems roadmap 2009-2047 and here is link to a Daily Telegraph article of mine on the topic. You can get a lot of information very quickly and quotes from generals etc with a google search for military robots or unmanned systems or autonomous robot weapons. It is worth havin a look.

These are not super smart machines like terminator but dumb killing machines and the US are not the only country at it – they are  proliferating – there are over 50 other countries with military robot programmes.

A group of us have now gotten together to set up the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRA) and I interview two of the members: Juergen Altmann  a physicist from Dortmand the Technical University in Dortmund in Germany – author of Military Nanotechnology and  Rob Sparrow from the Philosophy department in Monash University in Australia

juergen rob noel ed

Jeurgen-Noel-Rob at Sheffield Station


September 25, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Show 68 first broadcast on 18th September 2009


First up in this week’s programme we go back to an item from Show 65 (August, 29) to find out what happened to the petition to get an apology from the UK for the treatment of mathematician and founder of computer science, Alan Turing. The petitioner, John Graham Cumming tells me about how he got a surprise phone call from the prime minister Gordon Brown and what was said.

In our featured interview this week I talk  to world renowned AI and robotics expert, Professor Rolf Pfeifer about  a revolutionary approach to AI that devolves some of some of the computing to the body.  He argues that it is not processor speed that we need for human-like intelligence but a human body.

Feature Interview: How the body shapes the way we think

Professor Rolf Pfeifer is a visionary in AI and Robotics whose range is extremely broad.  He has been head of the famous Zurich University AI labs since 1987.

rolf and arms

Rolf is the author of the exceptional book “How the body shapes the way we think: a new view of intelligence,” MIT Press, 2007 (with Josh Bongard) which is written in popular science style (no specific prior knowledge required). Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic translations of “How the body …” are to appear shortly. I recommend this as part of your reading list if you want to know the most recent direction of AI and robotics.

Now Rolf  is someone who seems to have been almost everywhere you can think of. He spent 3 post-doctoral years in the early 1980s at Carnegi Mellon University in the US and then with the Yale AI group (where I shared an office with him for a year). Then after his appointment at Zurich he was visiting professor and research fellow at Free University of Brussels (Belgium), the Beijing Open Laboratory for Cognitive Science (China), the MIT Artificial Intelligence laboratory in Cambridge, Mass. (US), the Neurosciences Institute (NSI) in San Diego (US), and the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris (France), he was elected “21st Century COE Professor, Information Science and Technology” at the University of Tokyo, Japan, for 2003/2004, from where he held the first global, fully interactive, videoconferencing-based lecture series “The AI Lectures from Tokyo” (including Tokyo, Beijing, Jeddah, Warsaw, Munich, and Zurich). In 2009 he was elected as a “Fellow of the School of Engineering at The University of Tokyo”. He is also a visiting professor at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy. Most impressive.

rolfs book

September 18, 2009 Posted by | Science on Radio, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Show 67 first broadcast on 11th September 2009


This weeks programme is devoted to pain: the pain that factory farmed animals suffer to be exact. One philosopher wants to take away one component of that suffering has a controversial idea. I talk to him and then take comments from two senior academics – an ethicist and a animal ethologist.

Factory farming without animal suffering? Not quite.

Factory farmed pigs
Factory farmed pigs

Our featured interview this week is with philosopherAdam Shriver’s new paper on the idea of alleviating animal suffering by genetically modifying factory farmed animals so that they feel the sensation of pain but do not find in unpleasant. Adam explains the neurophysiology and plausibility of this idea on the programme. The question then is whether or not this is the right thing to do.

Adam’s heart is clearly in the right place. He has been a commited vegetarian since he was 5 years old and his mother read “Animal Liberation” by P.W. Singer. His arguement is that while he dislikes factory farming of animals it seems that it is inevitable into the forseeable future. So we should do what we can to reducet he suffering. But as he well knows his views are not without critics.


Adam Shriver is a graduate student at Washington University Philosophy Department in St Luis, Missouri. He was the  winner of the  William James Award from the Society of Philosophy and Psychology in 2006 for his paper”Minding Mammals” and so his career is off to a great start. We talk about his recent paper in the journal Neuroethics (he was also interviewed in the week’s New Scientist). It is wise to read the actual paper rather than relying on an interview to decide on the ideas.


I set his view in context with interviews with ethicist Professor Colin Allen (Indiana University) and animal ethologist Professor Marc Bekoff.


First up is Professor Colin Allen from the department of The history and philosophy of science at Indiana University. He  was previously interviewed on the programme about his book Moral Machines: robot rights and wrongs. Colin cut his ethical teeth in the area of animal ethics and is author of the paper Ethics and Animal Minds. While he likes Adam’s work, he has some sharp criticisms to offer.

Colin is author of Species of Mind (MIT Press, 1997) and coeditor of The Evolution of Mind (Oxford University Press, 1998), Nature’s Purposes (MIT Press, 1998), The Cognitive Animal (MIT Press, 2002), and Philosophy Across the Life Sciences (MIT Press, in press). He is also co-editor of a special issue of the journal Biology and Philosophy (Dec. 2004) on animal cognition, in which he has a paper titled “Is Anyone a Cognitive Ethologist?” and a forthcoming special issue of the journal Synthese on “Representing Philosophy” covering the applications of digital technologies to philosophy.


Next up is Professor Mark Beckoff who does not like the idea at all and is highly critical in a carefully considered manner. Marc was first interviewed on the Sound of Science about his fascinating book on animal morality: Wild Justice. He is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society and a former Guggenheim Fellow. In 2000 he was awarded the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. Marc is also an ambassador for Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program, in which he works with students of all ages, senior citizens, and prisoners, and also is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute. He and Jane co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies in 2000

Breaking News – Turing apology

Two weeks ago we ran a piece with John Graham Cumming about a petition of his to get an aplogy for the great mathematician and founder of computing Alan Turing about his ill treatment as a criminal from being gay after he had served the UK so well in war and peace.  Success, the UK prime minister Gordon Brown has apologised on behalf of the government and the British People.

Next Week: how the body shapes the way we think

We will be talking to world renowned AI and robotics expert, Professor Rolf Pfeifer, Director of the Zurich AI labs, about  a revolutionary approach to AI that devolves some of some of the computing to the body.  He argues that it is not processor speed that we need for human-like intelligence but a human body.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Show 66 first broadcast on 4th September 2009


On this weeks programme we have a celebration of the 50th anniversay of the hovercraft and then a fresh look at the Mark I computer (1948). I talk to one of the original programmers and then the man who has created an emulation of the Mark I  to reconstruct the first AI text generator, “Love Letters”.

Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, its a hovercraft.


This year sees the 50th anniversary of Sir Christopher Cockerell’s amphibious hovercraft. As a 10 year old boy, the hovercraft was symbol of the future for me – what would develop into the hovercar of the future. Sadly that hasn’t happened quite yet.

We celebrate this great British invention and I talk to founder and trustee of the Hovercraft Museum, Warwick Jacobs, about his lifelong love of the machine and the portrait he painted of Sir Christopher. He tells how it was invented and how it works.

Appartently the hovercraft still has a great future and business is booming. I even play you some nice hovercraft sound effects into the bargain.

A pertrait of Sir Christopher Cokerell

A pertrait of Sir Christopher Cokerell

What, more AI? The Mark 1 at Ferranti

Ferranti mark 1

I had a rare opportunity this week to interview one of the original programmers of the Mark 1 computer at Ferranti – arguable the first general purpose electronic digital computer in the world (as Baby or Manchester Mark I). Olaf Chedzoy tells me about how he got a job programming the Mark 1 in 1952 when he did not even know what a computer was. He talks about his experience at Ferranti and his encounter with Alan Turing – “they spoke about his in hushed whispers of reverence.

To make the best of it, I then interviewed German Computer Artist and Theorist (with an AI PhD), David Link about his emulation of the Mark 1. He has managed to get a hold of the original AI “love letters” program that generates – well what do you think – original love letters. This was certainly an extremely challenging problem that required novel methods of data storage at the time. David tells me about some of the problems that the early developers had to face and how the “database” for loveletters had to be stored on modified CRT screen (see picture below).

(CORRECTION: on the programme David Link said the memory of the Mark 1 was 2K – he contacted me afterwards to say that it was actually 1.25K. Let me put this in perspective with my iTouch (ipod touch).  In computing 1K = 1 Kilobyte. There are 1024K in a Megabyte and 1024Megabytes in a Gigobyte. So my itouch has 32 Gigobytes o = 33,554,432K of memory storage.)

M. U. C.  (an original example from David Link’s web site:

Cathode ray tube screen used for storing data (David Link)

Cathode ray tube screen used for storing data (David Link)

Next Week

Factory farming without animal suffering?

On next week’s programme (sept 11) we will be taking a look at animal welfare and the whole idea of creating a painfree environment for factory farmed animals. I talk to Dr Adam Shriver from Washington University in St. Louis about his recent paper in the journal Neuroethcis (also interviewed in the week’s New Scientist). I set his view in context with interviews from ethicist Professor Colin Allen (Indiana University) and animal ethologist Professor Mark Bekoff.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment