Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Killer robots with A.I. are worrying scientists

CLICK ABOVE to listen to discussion with Keelin Shanley on the dangers of killer robots with A.I. on Today with Sean O’Rourke (broadcast 5th August 2015)

Killer Robot

Scientists are worried about how mankind will control robots with advanced built in artificial intelligence (Credit: Warner Bros)

Huge advances in  in robotics and artificial intelligence mean that intelligent ‘killer robots’ could be ‘living’ among us in just a few years, and scientists and experts in the field are worried.


Artificial intelligence is the name given to how scientists try and replicate human intelligence in a computer. At its most basic it is software based on mathematics.

The scientific ‘father’ of A.I., as it is called, is Alan Turing, the brilliant English mathematician and code-breaker whose life was portrayed in The Imitation Game last year which many listeners will have seen.

We can, in fact, lay claim to Turing for Ireland, as he was half Irish. His mother, Ethel Sara Stoney, was Irish, attended Alexandra College in Milltown Dublin, and was part of a famous Anglo-Irish scientific family.

Ethel’s relations included George Stoney, the scientist who invented the term electron, and after whom a street in Dublin’s Dundrum is named; as well as Edith Stoney, regarded as the first woman medical physicist.

Turing’s idea was that a machine, using a mathematical alphabet which consisted of just two numbers, 0 and 1 could solve any problem.

This machine was the Turing Universal machine, and Turing came up with the idea, as far back as 1936, when he was just 24-years old.

Many identify the birth of A.I. as occurring at a now famous scientific conference at Dartmouth College Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence in the U.S.A. in 1956.

After that, in the 1960s and 70s, A.I. researchers developed programmers that could solve basic problems of algebra, prove mathematical theorems and speak English.

The public was astonished, and this was the background to the creation of the Hal 9000 computer on the Discovery spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The US government poured money into A.I. research and it was predicted that an intelligent machine, to rival or surpass a human, would be built inside 20 years.

Like, is often the case in science, however, the predictions were overly optimistic, and didn’t anticipate the scale of the technical problems that had to be overcome.

Yet, in the past decade, A.I. researchers have started to create more intelligent software which learns from the environment like a toddler, and think for itself.

Earlier A.I. systems could only respond to direct commands, and were unable to learn from, or adapt to, the environment around them.

The advances in A.I. mean that machines with A.I. can now start to do things really useful, like helping humans to be better pilots, doctors and teachers.

But, creating machines that can help us in these many ways also means that we have created another intelligence, which may, or may not be under our control.

Like the Frankenstein story, written by Mary Shelley in 1818, we may ultimately create a life form which we cannot control, and which destroys us.


For a long time, A.I. was not very intelligent at all, and came no-where close to replicating the miracle of bio-engineering that is the human brain.

However, recent advances in developing ‘self-learning systems’ which interact with the environment, and learn from it, like humans, have become a lot better.

So, much so that a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was set up in 2013, with the support of about 1,000 A.I. scientists and researchers.

The main aim was to ban the development of what they called ‘autonomous weapons’ before they became a reality. That is weapons that can ‘think’ for themselves.

The United States already uses ‘drones’ in its conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, and in March an ISIS-operated drone was shot down by the US near Fallujah, Iraq.

Drones are robotic planes that require an operator to select and kill targets, but with advances in A.I. drones could select targets and kill without an operator.

Obama likes Drones because they don’t risk pilots’ lives and they cost less. A drone costs about $12 million, while a new fighter costs about $120 million.

Self-learning systems, as they are called, are now being developed, which interact with the environment, and learn from it, in much the way humans do.

The rapid recent developments in A.I. worried A.I. researchers and 1,000 or so of them set up The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in 2013.

Earlier this year, an open letter signed by leading lights of science and industry, said mankind is heading for a dark future without controls on A.I.

This was signed by Stephen Hawking, top A.I. researcher and pioneer Professor Stephen Russell and Elon Musk of the space company, SpaceX.

Hawking said: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Musk said that allowing A.I. to develop freely without controls would be akin to “summoning the demon.”

Science, one of the world’s most highly regarded science magazines, entered the debate with a special edition on the subject of A.I. which also highlighted many concerns.

The issue right now is that A.I. is no longer in the realm of science fiction and that scientists are worried it will become reality without proper human controls.


There are two schools of thought among A.I. researchers on whether robots will ever develop an intelligence that is truly ‘self-aware’ like humans.

One view holds that A.I. will always be artificial and will never truly replicate life and become self-aware like we are.

The other believes that A.I. systems will, at some point in the future, become ‘self aware’ in precisely the same way that humans are aware they exist.

It’s hard to decide who might be correct, as right now, we understand little about what makes us humans, conscious and self aware.

It is one of the great mysteries of science, and this means it will be very hard for us to determine whether a machine is truly conscious or not.

We don’t know what we are looking for essentially.

However, we can say that, as humans, by whatever magic of biology, we are aware of ourselves existing, and can take decisions based on our own moral code.

The point is, should we risk allowing A.I. machines, with weapons and killing capacity to become ‘self aware’ and autonomous? It seems a big risk to take.


A.I. can be used to make our environment and our devices more intelligent, leading to a higher standard of living, arguably, for us all in the future.

All our devices will be connected to the ‘Net, the Internet of Things, and these things, equipped with A.I. will be better able to serve the needs of their human masters.

A robot that prepares your dinner, using fresh ingredients and has it ready for you when you come home tired from work? It’s already happening.

A driver less car that takes you safely home from the pub on a Friday night when you have been out enjoying a few drinks with friends.

A robotic surgeon, who doesn’t make mistakes, and has all the skills learned from hundreds of years of surgery to call on, may save your life on the operating table. `

Superior speech recognition systems, which mean you can talk to devices as you move around your home, and do things for you, as required.

A domestic robot that can do chores around the house, or act as a companion or carer to people, with built in empathy, or personality?

Machines with A.I. could rapidly go through the massive amount of data that is out there in the world now, and make sense of it, in a way that humans struggle to do.

The sky’s the limit with A.I., but like always with science, and like, there can be a dark side.

Super intelligence

Super intelligence, as articulated by Oxford University philosopher, Nick Bostrom, at the Future of Humanity Institute, is a huge concern for some A.I. thinkers.

At some point in the not-too distant future, machines will surpass humans in general intelligence. At that point machines will replace humans as the dominant ‘life form’ on Earth. Life here will have entered its post-biological phase. We’ll be extinct.

Sufficiently, intelligent machines could improve themselves, to reach an even higher level of intelligence, without the need for humans.

The fate of humans, whether they continued to exist or not, would, be dependent on the whim of the machine super intelligence.

Our relationship to the super intelligence would be like the relationship gorillas, for example, have with humans today. We’d be endangered, or doomed.

Thinkers like Bostrom, and futurist Ray Kurzweil, talk about a moment called a ‘technological singularity’ when A.I. becomes truly super intelligent.

This is the moment when a computer or a robot with A.I. becomes capable of designing better, more intelligent versions of itself.

Rapid repetitions of this would result in an intelligence explosion, and very quickly, a super intelligence would emerge, way beyond human intelligence.

It would be like putting evolution into super-fast forward, and our own slow biological evolution would be unable to compete with this.

This super intelligence might be able to solve problems, and answer questions which have proved beyond the capabilities of human beings to solve.

Scientists argue as to when this moment might arrive, Kurzweil, predicts it will be with us by 2045, some have argued it will be with us as early as 2030.


No-one is agreed on how best to deal with unregulated ‘autonomic weapons’ or with the prospect of hostile super intelligent machines.

The aforementioned Elon Musk, the SpaceX entrepreneur, has put $10 million of his money into projects aimed at keeping A.I. ‘under control’ and ‘beneficial’.

We would try and build in elements that would prevent A.I. machines from turning on humans, like with the protective Terminator in the Hollywood film.

We might do well to take on board ‘The Three Laws of Robotics’ devised by brilliant science fiction author Isaac Asimov (author of I, Robot) back in 1942.

These are:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.


Or perhaps our future is to become cyborgs, to adopt and incorporate this immense A.I. intelligence as part of our own existence.

We could decide to ditch our biology, and to become a race of super intelligent, immortal machines.

Our ‘primitive’ fragile, biological beginnings may, in time become forgotten.

Was Sir Tim Hunt treated fairly? Are humans ‘walking dead’? Should we fear facial recognition technology? Why men are better at maths

Tim Hunt

Sir Tim Hunt was forced to resign from several prestigious positions following allegedly ‘sexist’ remarks (Credit:

The allegedly ‘sexist’ remarks made by Sr Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winner, led to his resignation from several posts within days and his career is in shreds.

But were the remarks genuinely sexist? Was he treated fairly by the press?

Species of plants and animals are disappearing faster than any time since the dinosaurs. Legendary scientist and advocate Paul Ehrlich believes we have three generations left to do something about it, or we’ll end up like other ‘walking dead’, doomed species.

Facial recognition software is improving all the time, and governments and private companies are very interested in the data it provides. What’s now possible and how worried should be?

In education there is a well-known theory called the self-fulfilling prophecy. This is where a student meets the expectations of teachers and parents.

Does this explain the apparently strange reality where men are better at maths than women, while girls do better than boys in maths in primary school?

Click below to hear a discussion of these topics on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan

This was first broadcast on 25th June 2015 on East Coast FM

3D printing: potential to save and take life

Design Fund2013Acquisitions_PressRelease

The world’s first gun produced by a 3D printing machine (Credit:

By Eimear O’Neill

– Guest Writer

Three-dimensional printing has arrived and, like all new technologies it has potential for great good and bad. It could lead to the creation of new chemical compounds, drugs, medicines and medical devices to help the sick, but it could also be used to produce new, high tech weapons. Thus, this revolutionary new technology could both take lives and save them.

On the 5th of May of this year, an online organisation by the name of Defense Distributed published files that describe how to make the world’s first fully 3D printable gun. They called it the Liberator. Defense Distributed is a non-profit organisation that aims to “defend the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution … through facilitating global access to … knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms”. Their long-term impact aims to change the way people think about gun control and consumption. Proponents of tighter gun laws in America have expressed concern and, in an area such as 3D printing that is rapidly developing in recent years, many have questioned “why guns?”.

It is quite possible that the high-profile nature and the guaranteed publicity generation of creating a 3D printable gun advised Defense Distributed’s choice of object to develop. However, the potential applications of 3D printing are wide-ranging and diverse. The process is currently employed for many industrial and domestic uses and potential new uses include the creation of open-source scientific equipment, chemical compounds, biotechnology and medical applications and even use in the building and construction industry.

Saving lives

3D printing has recently been shown to have the potential to save lives. A baby’s life was saved when a device created by a 3D printer was used to help him to breathe. Six-week-old Kaiba Gionfriddo suffered from a rare condition called tracheobronchomalacia, a respiratory condition which causes the airway to collapse and can lead to death in severe cases. Collaboration between doctors and Prof. Scott Hollister, a biomedical engineer at the University of Michigan, led to the production of a splint which was implanted into Kaiba’s chest to hold his airway open and allow him to breathe. This tiny splint was produced using a 3D printer and replacing ink with a biodegradable material. Prof. Hollister described the ability to “build something a surgeon can use to save someone’s life” as the highlight of his career. Dr. Gleen Green of the department of paediatric otolaryngology at Michigan described the case as a “work of major accomplishment” and stated that Kaiba’s life would not have been saved without the device.

Dr. Green believes that the process used to build the airway splint can be adapted to build and reconstruct many different tissue structures. This belief is shared by Dr. Anthony Atala, an expert in the field of regenerative medicine, or the practice of restoring damaged tissue by using the body’s own healthy cells. In 2006, Dr. Atala was at the head of a team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine that developed the first lab-grown organ, a bladder grown from the patient’s own cells. He is now working on what he sees as the donor system of the future – 3D printing of organs, replacing ink with human cells. This involves scanning of the patient’s own body and then using the information found to design a personalised, patient-specific, printable organ. This is extremely important at a time when the urgent need for healthy donor organs greatly outweighs the supply. It also counteracts the problem of rejection of transplanted organs as the printable organs are grown using the patient’s own cells.

Prof. Lee Cronin has big ideas about the potential to use 3D printing at a more molecular level, in the area of drug development and distribution. Cronin’s aims are ambitious: “what Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs”. His team at Glasgow University are investigating how to produce simple drugs such as ibuprofen with a 3D printer they call a “chemputer”, where ink is replaced by chemical reactants. This could conceivably allow medicine to be distributed globally and also allow medicine to be produced exactly where it is needed. Cronin believes it could remove the problem of ineffective counterfeit drugs that are becoming more widespread in the developing world. Pharmaceutical companies have expressed interest and Cronin hopes that grant-making organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports many public health initiatives, will be interested in the possibility of introducing such technology in developing countries.

Taking lives

The creation of the Liberator by Defense Distributed remains controversial. Many have expressed disappointment that it was the production of a dangerous weapon that has drummed up the most publicity, interest and hype about 3D printing so far. However, Eric S. Raymond, a well-respected open source software advocate, has endorsed Defense Distributed and praised its work, saying he approves of “any development that makes it more difficult for governments and criminals to monopolise the use of force” and describing the organisation as “friends of freedom”. He recognises the creation of the Liberator as a possible “major step in the right direction”. Hopefully, the development of products with a more positive purpose, such as the device which saved the life of six-week-old Kaiba, kidneys grown using a patient’s own cells and the quick and simple distribution of printable drugs will add more steps in this direction.

Eimear O’Neill is a PhD candidate at the TCD Institute of Neuroscience and the winner of the ‘2013 Speaking Science Writing Competition for Doctoral Candidates’. 

Tapping Dublin’s Electronic Brain, Harnessing Ireland’s Tidal Potential

LISTEN: Tapping Dublin’s Electronic Brain, Harnessing Ireland’s Tidal Power

Tidal power is in its infancy worldwide, but its potential is now being looked at seriously in many countries including Ireland. Experts estimate that up to 10 per cent of Ireland’s entire electricity needs could be provided by tidal power. We discuss what is happening in the world of tidal power, at home and abroad, and how Ireland can realise its potential in this emerging field.

IMAGE: Irish company Openhydro is aiming to place tidal turbines on the seabed – as pictured above – that will be completely invisible from the surface. (Credit: Openhydro)

Guest: Dr Stephen Nash, tidal energy researcher at the department of civil engineering at NUI Galway.

Dublin’s quest to become the world’s smartest city continues with the launch of DUBlinked. The aim of this project is to harness freely available information into new services and products that make life easier for Dubliners, ensure the city runs more efficiently, and has better services – all while saving the taxpayer money too.  

Guest:  Dr Ronan Farrell, researcher at the Department of electronic engineering at NUI Maynooth, and co-ordinator of DUBlinked.

Broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM on 04/08/2011

To contact the show email:

Cloud Computing; Living on Mars

Living on Mars will involve recycling of human waste and making use of the planet’s resources (Credit: NASA)

LISTEN HERE:  Cloud Computing, Living on Mars

Broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Science Spinning with Seán Duke, on 02/06/2011

To contact the show email:

The Future of Mobile ‘Apps’, Ireland’s Weather Disasters

Science Spinning: ‘The Show with an Irish Spin on Science’, Presented and Produced by Seán Duke

Broadcast on Dublin City FM, 13/01/2011

The Future of Mobile Apps, Ireland’s Weather Disasters

To contact the show email:

A ‘smartphone’ based defibrillator

Published in the Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

Eighteen people die from cardiac arrest every day in Ireland, with two per week under the age of 35, and a whopping 70 per cent of those die outside hospital.

That’s according to figures from the Sudden Cardiac Death Support Group. This means there is a significant number of people that collapse from sudden cardiac arrest at home, on the street, playing football, or any number of places.

These people may have had a chance of survival if a defibrillator device was applied to them quickly to get their heart going again, but that wasn’t available. Therefore, the idea of two Belvedere College students, Owen Killian and Lucas Grange [both pictured here outside their school- Owen is on the right] to use a mobile phone as a defibrillator is a potentially life saving one.

The idea is that when someone collapses, a person – ideally with medical training – would arrive on the scene carrying their smartphone defibrillator. The first thing the smartphone user would do would be to attach a small peripheral device, a little larger than a matchbox in size, to their phone.

This device would have electrodes already attached and ready to go, and it would easily fit into a coat pocket, doctor’s bag, or someone’s briefcase. The operator would then attach pads to the person in trouble, and a special phone ‘app’ would be opened that would analyse the rhythm of the heart.

At the same time, a call could be made to the emergency services to inform them of the situation and ensure that they would arrive for backup if required. The phone then comes back with a reading which tells the operative if the heart rhythm is ‘shockable’ or not. If the answer is yes, the device applies the shock, and talks the user – if a non medical professional – through the use of CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation).

Owen Killian said that there are other AEDs (automated external defibrillator) on the market, but they are not light, with the lightest right now being 400g. The Belvedere lads say that their AED is much lighter than what is available right now, cheaper, simpler, more portable, and not designed just for doctors’ use.

The boys have ambitions to develop their AED into a real world commercial product, and they have got it as far as the ‘proof of concept’ stage just now. At the moment they are working on developing the parameters for the device to analyse heart rhythms that are shockable and not shockable.

The students are modest enough to state, meanwhile, that being lucky enough to be in a school with such great science facilities and teachers has helped greatly. “The reputation the science department has built up over the years of being an innovative, accessible and driven section of the school is greatly deserved,” said Owen.

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