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    UCL Events blog

    By Nick Dawe, on 6 May 2011

    Reviews of UCL public lectures, debates, exhibitions, shows, and more…

    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 and social mobility – the missing link, or red herring?

    By Guest Blogger, on 9 November 2017

    pencil-iconWritten by IOE Events

    On 31 October, we held the first in our ‘What if…’ events series, which challenges thought leaders to bring some fresh and radical thinking to key debates in education. We kicked off with the issue of education’s role in relation to social mobility, asking the panel ‘What if… we really wanted to further social mobility through education?’.

    First up was Kate Pickett of Spirit Level fame. She rejected the very premise of the question, highlighting the greater impact of wider, pervasive inequalities.

    Nevertheless, she saw some scope for education policy to help lessen those inequalities – banning private education, randomising school admissions and ending student fees were a few of her recommendations.

    Next was James Croft, chair of the Centre for Education Economics. He was more sanguine about what could be achieved through education and ‘working with the grain’ of the existing system.

    He wanted to see a much more open system, clearer pathways, and better information and guidance. He also wanted to see a less restrictive curriculum and accountability system, and a ‘Pupil Premium++’.

    Diane Reay, Professor of Education at Cambridge, rejected the social mobility agenda, regarding it as diminishing education and merely propping up the status quo.

    She argued for an emphasis on people being able to live a life of dignity and culture whatever their position. As a first step, she suggested, this would require a revaluing of technical knowledges.

    Finally, David Willetts made the case for wider access to higher education – and adult education – as the most important component in enabling people to get on (and for an end to university league tables that reward prior attainment).

    He posited the risk, as he saw it, in the Left’s position – that one ends up saying people should just stay where they are.

    And we had some insightful comments and questions from our audience. The topics included the challenge that wage inequalities pose to society valuing everyone’s contribution, the often London-centric nature of the social mobility debates, grammar schools and how to break the dominance of private schools. The latter prompted reflections on the role of the ‘good state’ and the ‘good parent’ in taking a lead to build a very different society.

    It was, as they say, a fascinating and wide-ranging debate, citing R. H. Tawney and Friedrich Hayek (and, inevitably, Finland – the country, that is). If anything united the speakers it was the case for broadening out what constitutes educational success beyond the academic.

    Gratifyingly, the elephant in the room of downward mobility, always absent from the political rhetoric, also got a mention. Listen for yourself below and look out for our future ‘What if…’ debates.

    Tea with Professor Patrick Vallance: the UCL Prize Lecture in Clinical Science 2017

    By Guest Blogger, on 6 November 2017

    pencil-iconWritten by UCL MB PhD student Daniyal Jafree

    On the 31st October, the UCL MB PhD Students, at the early stages of their careers as academic clinicians, were fortunate to have tea with Professor Patrick Vallance, who delivered the UCL Prize Lecture in Clinical Science later that evening. This lecture series, running annually for over twenty years, is an eminent event for communicating contemporary translational science.

    Professor Vallance reflected upon his first foray into medical science, recalling his decision to undertake an intercalated BSc during undergraduate medicine, despite being advised that doctors did not need such science degrees. He chose to enter the scientific environment, and now leads research and development for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and is a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences.

    Picture1

    Professor Vallance completed his medical degree at St. George’s Medical School in London, close to where he would remain for his clinical training. By 1995, he was recruited to UCL as a Professor of Clinical Pharmacology, and shortly after became Head of the Division of Medicine.

    He made fundamental discoveries regarding the function of nitric oxide in the human cardiovascular system, and elucidated key principles pertinent to the physiology and pharmacology of blood vessels.

    Throughout this period, he maintained a fierce dedication to delivering the best possible care for patients. It was this clinical drive that led him, initially, to turn down a career opportunity in GlaxoSmithKline. After thoughtful reflection during his daily bicycle ride home, however, he changed his mind. In 2012, he became head of Research and Development at GSK, and has since spearheaded the development of therapies for cancer, asthma, autoimmune disease and HIV. Read the rest of this entry »

    Should Animals have Human Rights?

    By Jacinta M Mulders, on 30 October 2017

    VS_Portrait_2015_04_Mischa_Haller_Credo - 10The question of whether animals should be given non-human personhood was the topic of a lecture this week, given by Professor Volker Sommer at UCL’s Darwin Lecture Theatre on Tuesday as part of its ‘Lunch-hour Lecture’ series.

    Volker Sommer is a Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at UCL. His research into the social and sexual behaviour of primates has informed much of his output on evolutionary ethics. The questions driving his presentation included: ‘Is a chimpanzee a thing or a person?’ ‘Is an orangutan an item of property or a being with legal rights?’ ‘Should animals be used in harmful biomedical experiments?’ ‘Should we keep apes in captivity?’ ‘How can legal cases be fought on behalf of animals?’

    As part of the presentation, Professor Sommer showed clips of primates engaged in behaviours that we traditionally consider ‘human’ – including one where a bonobo is shown playing Pac-Man and another where a gorilla is seen carrying a three year old human child who fell into its zoo enclosure to safety.

    Professor Sommer explained that there are various arguments for and against granting non-humans legal personhood, including privileges currently reserved to members of the human species such as a right to life, freedom and bodily integrity. The overarching question that informed the discussion was: ‘who should belong to the “community of equals”?’
    Many people find such ideas strange: humans have an inherent tendency to be ‘speciecists’. We discriminate against other living beings because they do not belong to our own species. The speciecist attitude is similar to other types of discrimination, such as religionism, racism, sexism, or heterosexism. It has been prominently criticised by philosophers Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri.

    Non-human personhood and the demands to expand ‘human’ rights to include animals are debated in several contexts, including law, philosophy, and science. As part of the lecture Professor Sommer detailed his involvement in a test case in Austria, where campaigners put forward the argument that Hiasl, an adult chimpanzee who was brought to Europe from a forest in Sierra Leone as an infant, should be granted human status. It was part of a pitch to prevent Hiasl from being transferred to a vivisection laboratory near Vienna. More recently, an orangutan in Argentina called Sandra was granted ‘non-human person rights’ – judges ordered that she should be freed from captivity after spending her entire life there.

    Professor Sommer’s illustration of the debate formed part of a wider context – what he calls the dawn of a ‘new era of inclusivity’. He was adamant to point out that calls to grant rights to non-human great apes should be seen as a ‘door-opener’ to wider demands: there is no logical reason to replace the animal-human boundary with a new one – that of great apes versus other animals.

    As an avid evolutionary theorist, Professor Sommer was keen to emphasise the importance of breaking down these barriers in the ways that we consider ‘animals’. He reminded us that we are all animals, after all.