Feeling robots’ pain

The packbot: one of iRobot's products for the military.A few weeks ago, the British press was abuzz with stories about robot rights. A collection of roboticists and philosophers got together to debate the issue at the Dana Center in London as a result of a quasi-governmental report published towards the end of last year. This sparked a discussion on the influential BBC radio program Today: a show that is thought to have the ears of the political class running the UK. Read More …

Hail to the neuromorphic engineers

This robot is driven by a circuit based on the nervous system of a lobster.Mark Tilden changed my life. In about 1998 I started to become interested in analog computing for intelligence and came across a paper called Living Machines Mark wrote with Brosl Hasslacher a few years earlier. In it they talked about analog electronic creatures that were were very different to any other robots I had seen before. The ‘nervous networks’ that drove them were made of very few transistors, capacitors, and resistors—dozens rather than hundreds—and yet they, together, performed a rich, natural, and robust set of behaviors. The sun-seeking robots were even being used for interesting applications like satellite guidance and mine-clearing. It was a great story and it helped me understand what was important about intelligence in a way I hadn’t before. Read More …

Roses in January

Old roses are still hanging on in London's Hyde Park, despite it being January.Global warming seems to have been following me around lately.

It was pretty warm before I left London in mid-December. Then New York was a bizarre 60°F (16°C) almost every day I was there, the feeling was quite incongruous with all of the winter holiday lights blazing. Leaves were still on many trees and the idea of a white Christmas seemed laughable. Read More …

My philosophy about philosophy

Night_of_the_living_dead_1_1I’ve recently been working on a major article, for which I’ve interviewed something like 30 different people. Obviously you do some investigation before you set up a meeting, so you have a reasonable expectation that it’s going to be interesting. And indeed, most for this story were. All but one: with a philosopher. I actually walked out of the room early using the words, “I mustn’t take up any more of your time.” Read More …

Men with guns and bombs

A stallholder at Night Vision 2006 demonstrating the use of the sights his company was selling.At the night vision conference I attended recently, I found myself in a new culture. I’ve written about technology that could be used for military applications for years, but almost always through academic and industrial institutions: so I’ve never been forced to really face up to what the technology was for. It’s one thing to know intellectually that the system you’re writing about is for night vision for soldiers. It’s another thing to see people testing them out by looking down the barrel of a gun. Read More …

The Templeton Foundation III: Cash for rose-tinted spectacles

Rose-tinted spectacles.Shortly after I wrote the pieces for the Times Higher Educational Supplement and Association of British Science Writers newsletter last year, Prof. Paul Davies (a well-known physicist and former Templeton prizewinner) contacted me and asked if I would be willing to participate in a documentary about the Templeton Foundation being put together by an Australian team. I was, he said, one of the few people willing to take the anti-Templeton side. I took his request at face value and, initially, I agreed. Read More …

The Templeton Foundation II: The Agenda

Let Freedom RingThe Foundation was set up by Sir John Templeton (now in his mid-90s), who made his money in the financial markets. Though supposedly set up “to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science”, it funds many activities that are entirely religious. These include the Epiphany prizefor the, “most inspiring movie and the most inspiring television program of the year… presented by the Christian Film & Television Commission.” There is a similar film prize for Europe, plus three prizes for religious journalism. Though not traditionally creationist, the Templeton Foundation Press publishes many books that suggest that the universe was ‘designed’. Read More …

The Templeton Foundation I: Buying science

Buying scienceOne of the most insidious programs I’ve ever been invited to apply for (needless to say, I declined) is the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion. Run in part by the faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, it’s stated aim is offer, “an opportunity to examine the dynamic and creative interface between science and religion.” Or, in my words, to help blur the edges between science and religion. Since a postcard from them just dropped through my door (again) I thought now might be the right time to discuss this program and the foundation that funds it. Read More …

Driving by wire

Seattle_avis_assist_gps_navigation_motorI’m a pretty good navigator, but it’s still a pain (and sometimes dangerous) to drive around places you don’t know and read maps at the same time. So, when I was in going to the mid-West and California on business in September I decided to try satnav. Though this technology has been around for decades, it had never seemed to me worth paying for. For this trip, however, my schedule was so tight and my exhaustion level was clearly going to be so high that I thought it might be a one way of taking the pressure off. It really was. Read More …