The Sound of Science

Fridays 9am – Sheffield Live! – 93.2FM

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 41 – First broadcast 13th March 2009



Science in the News

Playstation disease

According to the Journal of Dermatology,there’s a new disease doing the rounds called Playstation palmar hidradenitis.But don’t worry if you play on your Playstation too much, there is an easy cure.

Bring me the head of Albert Einstein

The new Einstein robot head that copies your facial expressions. It doesn’t feel emotion and so you can just kick it out of your way when you tire of it. Read my piece in the Guardian about it: While my android gently weeps.

From our futures defence correspondent

Rear Admiral Chris Parry talks us through electromagnetic radiation weapons. The can take out the who electricity supply for a whole city in seconds and anyone connected to it.

Feature Interview: Moral Machines with Colin Allen

moral-machines Would you trust a machine to make life and death decisions about you. It doesn’t have to be a robot. I might be a piece of software that decides when to turn off your life support. A new book worth a read this year is  Moral Machines: Teaching robots rights and wrongs by Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen. Noel talks to one of the authors, Colin Allen a Professor of Cognitive Science and the History and Philosophy of Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, to find out what all the fuss is about. The book discusses many of the issues about why and how machines in the near future will make ethical decisions about our lives. They are not talking about some far fetched super intelligent machine that is conscious. They are talking about machines based on todays technology. The book is written in a very straighforward, interesting and non-technical style. Although there are parts where I don’t agree with them, it is in everyones interest to read this. It will make you better informed about a possible future that you may want to have opinions about – it is in your own interest.

March 13, 2009 Posted by | Science on Radio, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Show 39 – First broadcast 6th Feb 2009


W. Grey Walter and his amazing tortoise robots


This week’s programme is devoted entirely to the fascinating story of W. Grey Walter (1910-1977) a great British Scientist: psychologist-neurophysiologist-roboticist-social commentator-TV celebrity.

Our focus on Grey Walter is on his amazing futuristic robots. He was far ahead of his time. Apart from a couple of simple predecessors, Grey Walter designed and built the first fully autonomous tortoise robots that could seek light, avoid obstacles and return to their hutchs to automatically recharge. They were the first robots to interact with each other and the first learning robots. They were even said to flirt with each other

I have long known about his work and this is my journey of discovery to learn about what was behind the man and to find one of the robots in the flesh.

The journey was helped by a number of interviewees who probably know more about Grey Walter than anyone else. Alphabetically:

Professor Rod Brooks from MIT founder of iRobots and widely held to be the father of modern Behaviour Based Robots.

Professor Richard Gregory FRS, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology, University of Bristol. A personal friend of the late Grey Walter.

Dr. Rodri Hayward an historian from Queen Mary, University of London, who researches the history of medicine and has written a paper on Grey Walter called The Tortoise and the Love-Machine.

Professor Owen Holland from the University of Essex who actually discovered one of the robots and replicated it. Owen has written about the legacy of Grey Walter.

Professor Alan Winfield director of the Bristol Robotics Lab at the University of West England

Science Museum: Special thanks to Rob Skitmore and John Mumford from the London Science Museum for getting one of the original tortoises out of its case and explaining it to us.

Check out more pictures of the robots at the Bristol Robotics Lab in Bristol

There is a lovely old New Reel piece of Grey Walter, his wife and his robots Elmer and Elsie

There is a short biography here

Music on the show

Intro: Sound of Silence, Beastie Boys followed by Polar Bear Standing and Ready by Polar Bear from their album Dim Lit

Intro to the feature was tic composed and produced by Niall Griffith

Outro: Locomotion by the John Coltrane Quartet

February 6, 2009 Posted by | Science on Radio | Leave a comment

Show 35 – First broadcast 9th Jan 2009


A weekly science, engineering and technology magazine produced and presented by Professor Noel Sharkey.

Science in the News

Traffic control by satellite on UK roads (and then Australia). This is reported on the BBC website.

Powering up the insect cyborgs. Reported in the New Scientist.

The new lightweight high precision mortar weapon for unmanned aircraft.

Herds of robots help with order control in Walgreens and Staples wharehouses in the US. Reported in Scientific American.

Feature: Muslim Science


Noel talks to Professor Jim Al-Khalili about his new BBC 4 TV programme Muslim Science. Noel highly recommends watching this programme.

Feature:You stink!

Noel explores some new and old results about the idea of what our smell signals to other people – from sexual attraction to fear. Some interesting music and a clip of Russel Brand telling Britany Spears about how nice she smells and what this means.

The Science Fiction Serial: Second Variety part 1


A destroyed Type-1 (of first variety) screamer

This (longish) short story by Philip K. Dick was adated for the move Screamers starring Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis and Jennifer Rubin (1995). The movie takes it title from the deadly attack robots shown in the picture – these were called “Claws” in the original story.

The story takes place in a harsh futuristic environment in which American Block governments are in a state of war with Russian forces. During the first year of conflict, the American block people escaped to the moon, leaving a few survivors in Canada and South America.  Russian parachutists landed and managed to wipe out many of the survivors, until they too were forced to evacuate to the moon – along with the last of American production; leaving behind a relatively small number of troops. It is only after this crisis, that the so-called “Claws” become a force to be reckoned with – as they start to exterminate lone Russian soldiers and even make their way into the Russian bunkers. For a while, it looks as if the tide is turning in favour of American forces – but there is a new danger for both sides.

Music on the show

Intro: Sound of Silence, Beastie Boys followed by Polar Bear

News: Mathew Herbert

Intro to the serial was tic by Niall Griffith

Outro: Locomotion by John Coletrane Quartet

January 9, 2009 Posted by | Science on Radio | Leave a comment