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UCL Computer Science hosts the founder of virtual reality

Jacinta MMulders13 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.

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What will happen when artificial intelligence and the internet meet the professions?

GuestBlogger2 November 2015

pencil-iconWritten by Cathryn Evans (UCL Laws)

susskind-event-photoOn Thursday 22 October, UCL Honorary Professor, Richard Susskind OBE and his son Daniel Susskind, a lecturer in economics at Oxford, launched their new book, ‘The Future of the Professions’ which examines how technology is transforming the work of human experts.

The Susskinds believe that there are two possible futures for the professions: a reassuringly familiar one, with professionals utilising technology such as Skype or design software to work more efficiently, or a pessimistic future, where computers actively displace the work of people. They conclude that these two futures will run in parallel for some time, but that the second will dominate eventually and traditional professions will be dismantled.

“Why have the professions?” asked Daniel. In a print-based, industrial society, each profession curates and guards its own body of specialist knowledge, but this is no longer possible in a technology-based, Internet society where the traditional ‘gatekeeper’ role is dying out.

Citing examples from Harvard, where more people signed up in one year for its online courses than had actually attended the university in its nearly 300-year history, and Ebay, where 60 million disputes are resolved every year without the use of lawyers, Daniel explored whether, eventually, there will be any jobs left for the professions, referencing the recent Economist review of the Future of the Professions, which asked whether “Professor Dr Robot QC” would replace professionals before long.

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Science and the First World War

SiobhanPipa9 July 2014

German scientist Fritz Haber

German scientist Fritz Haber

The relationship between science, technology and warfare is a topic I find incredibly intriguing – partially kick-started from taking a module in Science, Warfare and Peace back when I was an undergraduate in UCL Science & Technology Studies.

So, with high hopes I headed down to The Guardian offices to watch the final instalment of UCL’s Lunch Hour Lectures on Tour – given by Professor Jon Agar (UCL Science & Technology Studies), titled Science and the First World War.

Opening with the haunting image of ‘We are making a new world’ by Paul Nash, Professor Agar points out that there is frequently no force so associated with the making of a new world as science.

If there’s one thing I took away from my undergraduate degree, it’s that science, like nearly every other topic in the world, is not an isolated endeavour – there are always outside influences at play.

And there is probably no bigger outside influence than the First World War. Often considered the first ‘total war’, science was driven and transformed by the events of a hundred years ago.

Along with shaping the path science took during this period, the First World War also raised a number of profound and troubling questions about the very nature of science.

Is science a force for construction? Or is it a force of destruction? Does science transcend international boundaries or should science be recruited to further a country’s cause? How should scientists be used during warfare and is there a way to organise science in the most efficient way?

Using some of the most prominent scientists of the First World War, Professor Agar proceeded to examine these themes at a much more personal and intimate level.

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Thinking about robots thinking

Sarah E MWiseman15 June 2012

Robot image from Mark StrozierHow do we know we are even thinking?”, the debate was getting existential. In the panel, we had heard from the two roboticists Alan Winfield and Murray Shanahan and a legal expert Lilian Edwards. I could tell that the talk “Can Robots think? Or at least pretend to?” was going to be interesting.

Initially the debate began with Murray Shanahan defining the possible ways in which we might try to get robots thinking. At first it might seem that the only way to do it would be to mimic the human brain, either by modelling it approximately, or perhaps going so far as to create an entire artificial human brain. Due to technical limitations of today’s technology, this one is quite a way off, but creating an artificial mouse brain in the near future is a real possibility.

Though we don’t have to go down the route of mimicking the way humans think, we might want to approach the problem from a completely different viewpoint, and “re-invent” thinking, in much the same way that the Wright brothers’ plane doesn’t exactly copy how birds fly. Can you imagine flying on your holidays in a plane that flapped its wings?

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