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New technologies: exploring the opportunities and the challenges

How do new technologies reveal the past? What can mobile devices show about us and society as a whole? Can we trust AI systems? Why do we need to teach computers to speak? Is digital reading reducing our attention span?

As technology continues to transform every aspect of our lives, the 24th annual Cambridge Science Festival (12-25 March) explores the opportunities and the challenges.  

As well as helping us to understand ourselves, the present and even the future, new technologies are also unveiling the past. On 23 March, Dr Hector A. Orengo and Dr Toby C. Wilkinson, archaeologists from Cambridge’s Computational and Digital Archaeology Laboratory, reveal how as they discuss archaeological satellite remote sensing and new research published last week, during their event Touching the past from afar.

In the present, mobile devices are with us 24/7. Intuitively, we understand these mobile companions know about our interests and friends, but embedded sensors also offer an incredibly rich window into the lives of individuals and society as a whole. Professor Cecilia Mascolo, Computer Laboratory, discusses the  technology that is revolutionising healthcare to how cities function during Small but mighty data: what mobile devices can tell about us on 12 March.

As AI systems are widely deployed in real-world settings, including those in mobile devices, it is critical for us to understand the mechanisms by which they take decisions. On 15 March, during the Research Horizons Public Talk, Trust and transparency in AI systems, Dr Adrian Weller, University of Cambridge Department of Engineering, discusses how processes are being developed to ensure AI systems are transparent, reliable and trustworthy.

What if we could hold a proper conversation with our devices? Unlike most of us, computers are very good at quickly absorbing huge amounts of information. Unfortunately, they are less good at sharing their knowledge with us. Humans learn best through conversation. However, conversations are not something that comes naturally to computers. So, how do we teach computers to talk? Dr Milica Gašić, a Lecturer at the Cambridge University Engineering department, explains during her talk, Wiki, please explain! on 21 March.

Dr Gašic builds machines that can understand human speech and respond intelligently. Speaking ahead of the event, she explained how researchers in machine learning approach this challenge: “Today, we are generating data at the biggest pace ever. Machines are really good at storing large amounts of information, but it is difficult for them to communicate this information to us in a human-friendly form. That is where dialogue systems come in: human-machine interfaces that allow communication via speech.  But how do we build these dialogue systems?

“In the Dialogue Group at Cambridge, we develop systems that can learn how to conduct dialogue by themselves, starting from just the most rudimentary concept of what a ‘dialogue’ is.  One kind of machine learning that we use is reinforcement learning. Here the machine learns from trial and error and gets better over time. Just as AlphaGo learned to play better than the Go champion, a machine can learn to conduct dialogue.”

We are increasingly accessing information online and reading digital texts via our devices. However, have we allowed these various devices to become technologies of distraction? Tyler Shore looks at how the rise of electronic reading is affecting our attention spans and adding distractions during his talk, Reading onscreen and understanding everyday digital distraction (24 March). He shares and discusses some of the most recent findings across a range of research fields – from cognitive science, education, ergonomics, and more – to encourage audiences to think about their own daily digital reading habits. He also talks about a project stemming from his current research on reading and attention spans and the development of a mobile app to help us measure and understand the lived experience of digital distraction.

Dr Phillip Stanley-Marbell, Department of Engineering, reveals further new research during his talk, When everyday materials are augmented with sensing and computation on 12 March. Materials and manufacturing processes can be made to adapt to the way in which objects are used by imbuing materials with sensing and computation elements. These elements interact with the physical world by making the algorithms that they implement aware of the physics of the objects in which they are embedded. Dr Stanley-Marbell highlights new research that exploits these observations.

Other related events during the Cambridge Science Festival include:

  • Smart building, smart construction, 17 March. Researchers from the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction and the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology explain how fibre optics, augmented reality, virtual reality and other technologies allow engineers and structures to communicate for better, more efficient design, construction and management.
  • The atomic gramophone, 24 March. Modern technology relies on electronic devices so small that they are beyond the resolution of any light microscope. Researchers from the Department of Materials Sciences and Metallurgy discuss the development of tools, such as the atomic force microscope, that allow us to access these extremely small scales.
  • Man-made or natural? which is better? 25 March. The world is now awash with superior materials, intelligent machines and bionic parts, but how much better are they than the real thing, or do we still have a long way to go? Dr Ewen Kellar presents a series of live experiments and noisy demonstrations.
  • Going beyond our senses through augmented and virtual reality, 25 March. Nizar Romdan the CEO of Virtual Arts explores these new technologies and how they work.

Download the full programme here.

To pre-book events, visit the Cambridge Science Festival website, or call: 01223 766 766.

Visit the Festival’s twitter site @camscience #csf2018, or Facebook page cambridgesciencefestival


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, TTP Group, Illumina, Science AAAS, Anglia Ruskin University, Microsoft Research, Cambridge Science Centre, FameLab, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, St Mary’s School, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, Cambridge Junction, Walters Kundert Charitable Trust, British Science Week 2018, and BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.