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Cambridge Science Festival: technology – what next?

Are quantum computers the ultimate tool for discovery? Can we make algorithms trustworthy? Is technology making us miserable? What next for Alexa?

Quantum computing, artificial intelligence, Alexa, digital construction, big data and health, the effects of technology on our wellbeing, and ethics and trust all come under the spotlight at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival (11-14 March). Speakers include Professor Lord Martin Rees, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and Dr Craig Saunders, Head of Applied Science at Amazon Alexa Knowledge. Bookings open on Monday 11 February.

Given the dominance of technology over our lives, it is no surprise that Alan Turing, widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, was recently voted as the greatest person of the 20th Century by the general public on the BBC Icons programme.  

Over 80 years on, there is an area of computer science tipped to revolutionise the world – quantum computing, which is receiving massive amounts of funding to make it a reality. In March, two events at the Cambridge Science Festival take a closer look at what it is and whether we should be getting as excited about it as we are.

On 18th March, Dr Ulrich Schneider from the Cavendish Laboratory looks at the claims that quantum computers, which fully harness the ‘weirdness’ of quantum mechanics, are supposed to soon outperform all classical computers and change the world in Quantum computers: the ultimate tools for discovery. Dr Schneider looks at the foundations of these claims and discusses the current status and realistic prospects of quantum computers. He presents a general overview of the field, the near to mid-term prospects and an outlook into the wider field where quantum simulators have, for the past 15 years, already produced results that could not be achieved by the best classical computers. Dr Schneider believes that we are right to be excited about quantum computers in the long run, but the current hype is also simply a hype. “Nobody in the field believes that general quantum computers will surpass classical machines in at least the next 10 years,” he commented.

On the same day, Mithuna Yoganathan, a PhD student of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in the Quantum Information Group, Cambridge asks What will my quantum computer do for me? She explains exactly what a quantum computer is, the efforts to build the first generation of quantum computers, and how quantum computing could revolutionise certain areas, for instance drug simulation.  Ms Yoganathan said, “Currently, the best way to test drugs is physically in a lab. But that can get very costly when you're trying to discover new drugs. It would be great to simulate what would happen on a computer first to identify the most promising candidates. The issue is that these simulations take a long time and a lot of computing power. Quantum computers, on the other hand, find computing some aspects of these simulations quite easy.

“I should point out that quantum computers don't make all computations easier – just some very specific types. A quantum computer is probably not going to make gaming faster, so I'm sceptical that regular consumers will need one.”

Artificial intelligence is another area of technology that is making increasingly faster progress. Three events at the Festival explore this area in depth. On 11th March, Professor John Wyatt, University College London and the Faraday Institute, investigates the implications for human self-understanding of recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotic technology in What does it mean to be human? Some reflections on advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. He discusses biomedical ethics and the wider implications of technological advances.

On the following day, 12th March, Professor José Hernández-Orallo from the Technical University of Valencia argues that whilst artificial intelligence is taking off we still know very little about intelligence and cognition in Natural or artificial intelligence? Measures, maps and taxonomies. He believes that we urgently need measures to compare natural and artificial intelligence, maps of future trajectories to work out those we want to pursue and those that maybe unsafe or unethical, and behavioural classifications to understand a new diversity of interactions.

On 24th March, Dr Shamith Samarajiwa, from The Cambridge Big Data Strategic Research Initiative discusses how the rapid advances in 21st century biomedicine are generating vast amounts of data that can help us better understand and discover treatments for complex diseases like cancer in Artificial intelligence-assisted discovery in the battle against cancer and other diseases.  He focuses on how the necessity to interpret these biomedical big data has led to the development of data science and artificial intelligence technologies.

Dr Samarajiwa discusses the current big data revolution in genomics, fuelled by modern DNA sequencing technologies, as well as the huge increase in data from wearables and large health data initiatives. He explains upon how data scientists make sense of this vast amount of data using machine learning and AI algorithms and how this can revolutionise personalised medicine. Dr Samarajiwa refers to examples of successes (and failures) of AI methods in cancer research and other areas of medicine. He also addresses the challenges in clinical implementation, inherent biases and reliability of these methods together with ethical aspects and concerns.

Algorithms form the basis of artificial intelligence. However, they can often be manipulated and used irresponsibly. On 14th March, Dr Jennifer Cobbe examines how, in recent years, the internet has become a key battleground for electoral politics in The public sphere in the age of the algorithm. She talks about how surveillance capitalism, the platform power of dominant web services, machine learning techniques applied to personal data, and the irresponsible use of (algorithmic) recommender systems – the technical systems used for personalisation and targeted advertising online – have created a hotbed for disinformation, microtargeted manipulation and political bots. These issues combined limit the ability of authorities, journalists, academics, and everybody else to properly scrutinise what is actually going on. Dr Cobbe’s focuses on her existing research projects in this area – in particular, on surveillance capitalism generally, and on looking at how the law might respond to the use of recommender systems on various internet services.

“Most of the debate about internet regulation has focused on content itself, but this misses the fact that recommender systems are a very significant contributing factor to many of the more systemic harms that we see developing on the internet, including fragmentation, disinformation, and political microtargeting,” Dr Cobbe stated. “They lead to the formation of filter bubbles and contribute to echo chambers, they help undermine what’s left of shared social and political reality, they carry targeted advertising, and they allow disinformation to be disseminated to larger audiences than it would otherwise reach. There is, at present, no regulation of their use, and regulatory interventions could potentially greatly limit the harms to which they contribute.”

The topic of algorithm and trust is further explored on 21st March during Making algorithms trustworthy. Algorithms are being increasingly deployed to make judgements about sensitive areas of our lives, but how do we check how their conclusions were arrived at, and if they are valid and fair? Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter looks at efforts to make algorithms transparent and trustworthy.

Advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence – if pursued and applied wisely – could empower us to boost the developing and developed world and overcome the threats humanity faces on Earth, from climate change to nuclear war. At the same time, further advances in space science will allow humans to explore the solar system and beyond with robots and AI. On 22nd March, Professor Lord Martin Rees warns that humanity's prospects – on Earth and in space – depend on our taking a different approach to planning for tomorrow during his event, On the future: prospects for humanity.  

The following day, 23rd March, Dr Craig Saunders, Head of Applied Science, Amazon Alexa Knowledge, demonstrates the exciting challenges in developing the ground-breaking virtual assistant during Making Alexa smarter: AI at scale (23 March). Voice assistants such as Alexa are now used by millions of people every day.  The technical challenges in bringing such devices and services together to reach this point were significant – but we are only scratching the surface of the potential and opportunity. Dr Saunders describes the innovation behind Alexa, including some of the research and engineering challenges for machine learning and natural language processing that have been overcome on the journey. He provides insight into innovating a product that is a household name as well as details on how Amazon is engaging and working with the wider academic community with projects such as the FEVER (fact extraction and verification) challenge.  

Further related events during the Festival:

  • Is technology making us miserable? (11 March) Virtually every interaction we have is mediated through technology. Despite being ‘always-on’, are we any better off? Are we better connected? Or is technology making us miserable? If it is, what would the evidence be? And would we heed it?
  • Holographic projection displays: beyond Star Wars (12 March). Professor Tim Wilkinson introduces the real world of holographic projection displays and demonstrates that many types of image generation are now possible, from full parallax three-dimensional displays to augmented reality.  
  • Smart building, smart construction (16 March). Researchers from the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction and Laing O’Rourke Centre present hands-on demonstrations with Microsoft HoloLens, and acoustic and fibre optic sensors to show how technology is used to make infrastructure smart.
  • Engineering biology everywhere: expanding access to the most important technology of our age (20 March). Dr Jenny Molloy explores how open-source technologies and community efforts are enabling biological research by more people in more places than ever before.
  • Centre for digital built Britain: the future of construction (23 March). Robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and new technologies are transforming the way we build schools, homes and hospitals of the future. The Centre for Digital Built Britain demonstrates how construction is going digital. 

Download the full Cambridge Science Festival programme here.  Bookings open on Monday 11 February at 11am.

Keep up to date with the festival on social media via Facebook and Twitter #csf2019.


Cambridge Science Festival brings science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine to an audience of all ages through demonstrations, talks, performances and debates. Run by the University of Cambridge, the Festival draws together independent organisations in addition to many University Departments, Centres and Museums.

This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Illumina, TTP Group, Science AAAS, Anglia Ruskin University, Astex Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust.

Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.