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    Archive for the 'Engineering' Category

    UCL Computer Science hosts the founder of virtual reality

    By Jacinta M Mulders, on 13 November 2017

    32806882423_39e06fd52e_oLast week, UCL Computer Science hosted Jaron Lanier of Microsoft Research, who coined the term “virtual reality” and founded one of the first companies to create and sell virtual reality equipment.

    To an at-capacity lecture theatre, Lanier, who was in London to promote his latest book: Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey through Virtual Reality, described how he started as a computer scientist and what it was like in the earliest days of VR. The lecture left off from the content of his book, which he described as “part memoir, part introduction to VR”.

    While Lanier was keen to emphasise his ambitions towards a utopic vision when he started thinking about VR, he also emphasised the capacity that exists within the medium for terror, and how VR could be used in awful ways. For this reason, he structured his talk as a “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis”: putting forward his initial dream-like impetus for thinking about VR, the problematic potential it has for it to go awry, and concluding with a synthesis of his arguments containing some suggestions for how we should move forward.

    The initial impetus for VR, Lanier explained, was his dream of a new and more intense form of communication between people. Inspired by surreal art, Hieronymus Bosch and the capacity for limitless new worlds, Lanier strove to replicate the world that exists inside dreams and imaginings – the infinity that cannot currently be shared with other people. As a teenager he latched with fervour onto the first ever virtual reality system called Sketchpad created by early computer scientist Ivan Sutherland. He ended up in Silicon Valley where he founded his own firm, which produced the first commercial head-mounted display, among other VR apparatus.

    Lanier is quick to emphasise that his feelings about VR have always been coupled with a feeling for its destructive potential. Though he sees technological progress as a moral necessity, as we go further forward, the risks of us imperilling ourselves also increase.

    He explained, “there’s something very seductive about the way we gain new powers when we invent new technologies. The lust to power is the thing that will destroy us. In order for us to survive technological progress we need to have a countervailing force, something else that is even more seductive, that doesn’t destroy us”.

    Lanier was an early critic of the way that our algorithm-led web culture is having a hand in the way we respond to politics, and to ourselves. Although these arguments have been gaining traction recently, with significant profiles and statements from tech leads, Lanier’s 2011 book You Are Not A Gadget anticipated these fears. In his talk he was particularly critical of the way that social media users have no insight into the algorithms that are being used, no say in how strategy is managed, or who can pay to influence what we see and how we engage.

    When asked by one audience member what politicians should do with respect to social media, Lanier responded simply: “don’t do it”. Lanier was emphatic as to how toxic these interfaces are for all of us, and how they manipulate us without our knowing.

    The lecture was hosted by Professor Mel Slater (UCL Computer Science), who said that the moment he first tried on a head-mounted display produced by Lanier’s VR company in 1990 “changed his life”.

    Image: “Virtual reality” by Jonas Tana (via Flickr)

    Education Select Committee Brexit hearing session at UCL

    By Melissa Bradshaw, on 9 February 2017

    On 25 January, the Education Select Committee held the second Oral Evidence Session of its inquiry on the effect of Brexit on higher education (HE) at UCL.

    The committee heard evidence from UCL President & Provost Professor Michael Arthur, NUS Vice-President (Higher Education) Sorana Vieru and representatives of University and College Union, Erasmus Student Network UK, Universities UK, the British Council and London Economics.

    There was a strong consensus on the potentially damaging effects of Brexit on HE, and an urgent call for the government to do more to address them.

    Professor Michael Arthur

    Professor Michael Arthur

    The hearing took place just over a week after Theresa May’s historic speech on the UK’s strategy for exiting the European Union, and evidence was heard in two panels.

    The Chair of the Education Committee, Neil Carmichael MP, began each session by asking the panellists for their reaction to the Prime Minister’s speech.

    Every one of the panellists welcomed the tone of the speech and its emphasis on a “global Britain”, but called for immediate action and more specific detail – particularly in regard to the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK.

    Referring to the Prime Minister’s expressed wish to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, Professor Arthur said: “I’d like to challenge the Prime Minister to go one step further and take the initiative to make the guarantee and challenge the rest of the EU to follow”, arguing that this would give Britain the moral high-ground and provide the negotiations a foundation of good will.

    The committee heard evidence of the significant contribution of the higher education sector to the British economy, including the contributions EU staff and students make to the wider economy when they are residing here.

    Dr Gavan Conlon (London Economics) also argued that, with education the UK’s fifth largest services export, the HE sector can generate revenue that could contribute to the government’s Industrial Strategy.

    The panellists spoke of the positive contributions that EU staff and students make in terms of diversity and ‘soft power’, contributing to Britain’s prestigious academic profile and giving their British peers invaluable experience in international engagement, leadership and collective problem solving. “For a global Britain we need global graduates”, said Rosie Birchard (Erasmus Student Network UK).

    The committee also heard evidence that currently UK HE “punches well above its weight” globally – thanks, in part, to our membership of the EU. Jo Beall (British Council) pointed to statistics showing that the UK leads the world in research quality (by field-weighted citation impact) and 1 in 10 world leaders were educated here.

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    Arctic risks and rewards

    By Guest Blogger, on 25 June 2016

    The panel at 'Development in the Arctic: Risks and Rewards'

    The panel at ‘Development in the Arctic: Risks and Rewards’

    pencil-iconWritten by Dr Ilan Kelman, Reader for Risk, Resilience and Global Health (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction)

    The Arctic: The last earthly frontier of adventure, excitement, remoteness, and resources! Or is it? Given that people have lived in the high latitudes for millennia, how remote, isolated, and open-for-business-for-southerners is the Arctic?

    The UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction’s Arctic Research programme convened a panel ‘Development in the Arctic: Risks and Rewards’ at UCL on 8 June to discuss these questions.

    To an engaged audience of about sixty, three distinguished panellists explored how climate change and technological advances might or might not be opening up the Arctic for exploitation by the world. They examined what we know and do not know about development risks and rewards in the far north.

    What realities of Arctic environmental conditions are rarely described? What Arctic social and political circumstances are frequently circumvented? What about the people who live in the region who have rights and interests? The risks and rewards regarding the so-called ‘Arctic Gold Rush’ for resources and development was examined and critiqued.

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    Lunch Hour Lecture: The illusion of infinity – is there a limit to optical fibre bandwidth?

    By Thomas Hughes, on 17 February 2016

    Heliograph in use via Wikimedia Commons.

    Heliograph in use via Wikimedia Commons.

    Professor Polina Bayvel (UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering) opened her Lunch Hour Lecture with the worrying fact that our internet capacity is finite and we are fast approaching that limit. What can we do to find new capacity so that our optical fibre can manage the growth of the coming decades?

    Professor Bayvel explained that optical communications have been a part of human communications for millennia. Fire and smoke signals, heliographs and Aldis lamps (which both use flashes of light to signal) are all forms of communication called “free space communications”. These were important for our predecessors’ long distance communications, but with the major flaw that they didn’t work on cloudy or otherwise poor visibility days.

    Modern communications are almost entirely built around optical fibre networks. These work by bouncing beams of light along glass cables. The light is received and decoded into whatever information was requested. They allow huge amounts of data to travel long distances, and with the help of repeaters which receive the signal and rebroadcast it, can travel around the whole world.

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