A very short and humorous first on-stage appearance for the new CEO gave way to three interesting talks, in a session chaired well by Peter Taylor of TTP.
The first was by Austin Smith, on stem cells, the second on uses of Gallium Nitride and the last on computers programmed to monitor emotions shown in the faces of human beings! The “Cambridge ideas that change the world” strapline, was certainly not an unfair one, don’t you think, given these titles at least?
In the first talk, the speaker told us that much work on stem cells was stimulated by the use of the atom bomb. He mentioned that skin stem cells are the only ones that can grow outside the body, and could produce skin that is ‘relatively normal’ and that lasts a lifetime.
Then he came back to ‘societal challenges’ and there were a good number of problems for stem cells, beginning with “religious and political” and “access to ‘materials'”. He argued effectively that the technology could keep more people alive for longer, and it seemed that those would likely be people in the West rather than developing countries, which he mentioned was another “challenge”.
The second was by Colin Humphreys of the Centre for Gallium Nitride. He began with the classic Carnegie talk opening of stating a big problem or three: global warming, energy and drinking water. And then claimed that GaN was the solution. Thus gaining the attention of his audience!
He claimed that solid state lighting, though currently expensive, was four times as efficient as CFLs which are themselves four times as efficient as incandescent light bulbs. It is hard to believe that the UK population gets through 5kWh per household per day on lighting, but there we are. Note to self to check this against figures in David Mackay’s “Sustainable Energy: without the hot air” book. In terms of ROI, one needs to consider the lifetime of these lighting technologies too. The incandescents, he claimed, last 1000 hours. The CFLs ten times as long and the LEDs ten times longer than the CFLs. The LEDs need less maintenance, and therefore are most cost effective where they are difficult to get at. It was good to hear an academic so fluent in the commercial side.
I liked the anecdote of best managing jetlag by walking around the block near the hotel you’ve just arrived in a couple of times. He told the audience that electric lighting doesn’t speak to the body’s clock in the way that natural light does.
On drinking water, after reverse osmosis (the most commonly used technology at present) and solar heating and cooling, he suggested water purification via irradiation using GaN lighting in the deep UV part of the spectrum, where other forms of lighting couldn’t reach. This wasn’t too efficient, and one wondered about cost. He suggested solar cells to power them, and that this was an application for developing countries, but also possibly for the West in places where the water is not quite as it should be.
The last talk was by Peter Robinson on Emotionally intelligent interfaces. This was a fascinating and humorously-delivered talk. When the audience chips in with a range of possible applications on first hearing about a technology, you know it might be an interesting one. There was a roar of laughter at an animation generated by the model, of a person knocking at a door with two different emotions: anger and sadness. The laughter was simply that of agreement with the animations and perhaps recognition of these unfortunate states experienced personally at times! There were various jokes about computer scientists talking to others while looking no further than their own feet.
One person suggested the technology would assist autistic people in understanding what the person they are with is feeling. One couldn’t help but think that it would help not only autistic people, but, say, husbands / wives / family members / friends, generally. But perhaps my application idea is mad: shouldn’t we actually try to understand our wives / loved ones or friends or colleagues better, without technology? I’ll leave you with this classic question of when technology is improving things for us, and when is it making them worse?