A storm in a bell jar

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(from the archive)

lightning
Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay 

Ada Lovelace was close friends with John Crosse, and knew his father Andrew: the ‘real Frankenstein’. Andrew Crosse apparently created insect life from electricity, stone and water…

Andrew Crosse was a ‘gentleman scientist’ doing science for his own amusement including work improving giant versions of the first batteries called ‘voltaic piles’. He was given the nickname ‘the thunder and lightning man’ because of the way he used the batteries to do giant discharges of electricity with bangs as loud as canons.

He hit the headlines when he appeared to create life from electricity, Frankenstein-like. This was an unexpected result of his experiments using electricity to make crystals. He was passing a current through water containing dissolved limestone over a period of weeks. In one experiment, about a month in, a perfect insect appeared apparently from no-where, and soon after starting to move. More and more insects then appeared over time. He mentioned it to friends, which led to a story in a local paper. It was then picked up nationally. Some of the stories said he had created the insects, and this led to outrage and death threats over his apparent blasphemy of trying to take the position of God.

(Does this start to sound like a modern social networking storm, trolls and all?) In fact he appears to have believed, and others agreed, that the mineral samples he was using must have been contaminated with tiny insect eggs, that just naturally hatched. Scientific results are only accepted if they can be replicated. Others, who took care to avoid contamination couldn’t get the same result. The secret of creating life had not been found.

While Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, did know Crosse, sadly perhaps, for the story’s sake, he can’t have been the inspiration for Frankenstein as has been suggested, given she wrote it decades earlier!


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EPSRC supported this article through research grants (EP/K040251/2 and EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin as well as grant EP/W033615/1). 

Pass the screwdriver, Igor

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s monster and artificial life

by Paul Curzon and Peter W McOwan, Queen Mary University of London

(Updated from the archive)

Frankenstein's Monster
Image by sethJreid from Pixabay

Shortly after Ada Lovelace was born, so long before she made predictions about future “creative machines”, Mary Shelley, a friend of her father (Lord Byron), was writing a novel. In her book, Frankenstein, inanimate flesh is brought to life. Perhaps Shelley foresaw what is actually to come, what computer scientists might one day create: artificial life.

Life it may not be, but engineers are now doing pretty well in creating humanoid machines that can do their own thing. Could a machine ever be considered alive? The 21st century is undoubtedly going to be the age of the robot. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about the consequences in case they gain a sense of self.

Frankenstein was obsessed with creating life. In Mary Shelley’s story, he succeeded, though his creation was treated as a “Monster” struggling to cope with the gift of life it was given. Many science fiction books and films have toyed with these themes: the film Blade Runner, for example, explored similar ideas about how intelligent life is created; androids that believe they are human, and the consequences for the creatures concerned.

Is creating intelligent life fiction? Not totally. Several groups of computer scientists are exploring what it means to create non-biological life, and how it might be done. Some are looking at robot life, working at the level of insect life-forms, for example. Others are looking at creating intelligent life within cyberspace.

For 70 years or more scientists have tried to create artificial intelligences. They have had a great deal of success in specific areas such as computer vision and chess playing programs. They are not really intelligent in the way humans are, though they are edging closer. However none of these programs really cuts it as creating “life”. Life is something more than intelligence.

A small band of computer scientists have been trying a different approach that they believe will ultimately lead to the creation of new life forms: life forms that could one day even claim to be conscious (and who would we be to disagree with them if they think they are?) These scientists believe life can’t be engineered in a piecemeal way, but that the whole being has to be created as a coherent whole. Their approach is to build the basic building blocks and let life emerge from them.

A sodarace in action

The outline of the idea could be seen in the game Sodarace, where you could build your own creatures that move around a virtual world, and even let them evolve. One approach to building creatures, such as a spider, would be to try and work out mathematical equations about how each leg moves and program those equations. The alternative artificial life way as used in Sodarace is to instead program up the laws of physics such as gravity and friction and how masses, springs and muscles behave according to those laws. Then you just put these basic bits together in a way that corresponds to a spider. With this approach you don’t have to work out in advance every eventuality (what if it comes to a wall? Or a cliff? Or bumpy ground?) and write code to deal with it. Instead natural behaviour emerges.

The artificial life community believe, not just life-like movement, but life-like intelligence can emerge in a similar way. Rather than programming the behaviour of muscles you program the behaviour of neurones and then build brains out of them. That it turns out has been the key to the machine learning programs that are storming the world of Artificial Intelligence, turning it into an everyday tool. However, if aiming for artificial life, you would keep going and combine it with the basic biochemistry of an immune system, do a similar thing with a reproductive system, and so on.

Want to know more? A wonderful early book is Steve Grand’s: “Creation”, on how he created what at the time was claimed to be “the nearest thing to artificial life yet”… It started life as the game “Creatures”.

Then have a go at creating artificial life yourself (but be nice to it).


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EPSRC supported this article through research grants (EP/K040251/2 and EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin as well as grant EP/W033615/1). 

Making core rope memory

A coloured bead version of core rope memory with J encoded on its 8 beads (01001010)

by Jo Brodie, Queen Mary University of London

We have explained how core rope memory was used as the computer memory storing the Apollo guidance computer program that got us to the moon. A team from the University of Washington came up with a fun craft activity to make your own core memory. It may not fly you to the moon, but is a neat way to store information in a bracelet. Find their activity pages here [EXTERNAL].

What it involves is threading 8 beads onto a string, with a gap between them to form a storage space for bytes of data. Each byte is 8 binary bits (Eight pieces of information, each a 1 or a 0). Each bead represents the position of one bit in your core rope memory. You then take other threads and weave them through the beads. Each thread will store another byte of actual data. Pass the thread through a bead when you want that bead to read 1, or over, when you want that bead to read 0.

Each thread weaving past or through 8 beads can then encode the information for one letter. By adding lots of threads you can store a word or even a sentence on each core rope memory string (perhaps your name, or some secret message).

Using a binary encoding for each letter (so capital letter A would be the 8 bits 01000001 if you’re following this conversion from binary to letters table) you put that letter’s thread through or over each of the 8 beads to ‘spell’ out the letter in binary.

My name is Jo so a core rope memory encoding my name would have only three threads (one to hold the 8 beads and two to spell my name). The second thread would go over, through, over, over, through, over, through, over to spell the capital letter J (01001010). The second thread would go over, through, through, over, through, through, through, through to spell lowercase o (01101111).

Let’s hope you have a slightly longer name so can have more fun time creating your own personalised core rope memory!


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This article was funded by UKRI, through Professor Ursula Martin’s grant EP/K040251/2 and grant EP/W033615/1.

Core rope memory

by Jo Brodie and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

A view of the Earth from the Moon
Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Weaving, in the form of the Jacquard loom, with its swappable punch cards controlling the loom’s patterns inspired Charles Babbage. He intended to use the same kind of punch card to store programs in his Analytical Engine, which had it been built would have been the first computer. However, weaving had a much more direct use in computing history. Weaving helped get us to the Moon.

In the 1960s, NASA’s Apollo moon mission needed really dependable computers. It was vital that the programs wouldn’t be corrupted in space. The problem was solved using core rope memory.

Core rope memory was made of small ‘eyelets’ or beads of a metal called ferrite that can be magnetised and copper wire which was woven through some of the eyelets but not others. The ring-shaped magnets were known as magnetic cores. An electrical current passing through the wires made the whole thing work.

Representing binary

Both data and programs in computers are stored as binary: 1s and 0s. Those 1s and 0s can be represented by physical things in the world in lots of different ways. NASA used weaving. A wire that passed through an eyelet would be read as a binary 1 when the current was on but if it passed around the eyelet then it would be read as 0. This meant that a computer program, made up of sequences of 1s and 0s, could be permanently stored by the pattern that was woven. This gave read-only memory. Related techniques were used to create memory that the computer could change too, as the guidance computer needed both.

The memory was woven for NASA by women who were skilled textile workers. They worked in pairs using a special hollow needle to thread the copper wire through one magnetic core and then the other person would thread it back through a different one.

The program was first developed on a computer (the sort that took up a whole room back then) and then translated into instructions for a machine which told the weavers the correct positions for the wire threads. It was very difficult to undo a mistake so a great deal of care was taken to get things right the first time, especially as it could take up to two months to complete one block of memory. Some of the rope weavers were overseen by Margaret Hamilton, one of the women who developed the software used on board the spacecraft, and who went on to lead the Apollo software team.

The world’s first portable computer?

Several of these pre-programmed core rope memory units were combined and installed in the guidance computers of the Apollo mission spacecraft that had to fly astronauts safely to the Moon and back. NASA needed on-board guidance systems to control the spacecraft independently of Mission Control back on Earth. They needed something that didn’t take up too much room or weigh too much, that could survive the shaking and juddering of take-off and background radiation: core rope memory fitted the bill perfectly.

It packed a lot of information (well, not by modern standards! The guidance computer contained only around 70 kilobytes of memory) into a small space and was very robust as it could only break if a wire came loose or one of the ferrite eyelets was damaged (which didn’t happen). To make sure though, the guidance computer’s electronics were sealed from the atmosphere for extra protection. They survived and worked well, guiding the Landing Modules safely onto the Moon.

One small step for man perhaps, but the Moon landings were certainly a giant leap for computing.


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This article was funded by UKRI, through Professor Ursula Martin’s grant EP/K040251/2 and grant EP/W033615/1.

Ada Lovelace in her own words

by Ursula Martin, University of Oxford

(From the archive)

A jumble of letters

Charles Babbage invented wonderful computing machines. But he was not very good at explaining things. That’s where Ada Lovelace came in. She is famous for writing a paper in 1843 explaining how Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked – including a big table of formulas which is often described as “the first computer program”.

Charles Babbage invented his mechanical computers to save everyone from the hard work of doing big mathematical calculations by hand. He only managed to build a few tiny working models of his first machine, his difference engine. It was finally built to Babbage’s designs in the 1990s and you can see it in the London Science Museum. It has 8,000 mechanical parts, and is the size of small car, but when the operator turns the big handle on the side it works perfectly, and prints out correct answers.

Babbage invented, but never built, a more ambitious machine, his Analytical Engine. In modern language, this was a general purpose computer, so it could have calculated anything a modern computer can – just a lot more slowly. It was entirely mechanical, but it had all the elements we recognize today – like memory, CPU, and loops.

Lovelace’s paper explains all the geeky details of how numbers are moved from memory to the CPU and back, and the way the machine would be programmed using punched cards.

But she doesn’t stop there – in quaint Victorian language she tells us about the challenges familiar to every programmer today! She understands how complicated programming is:

“There are frequently several distinct sets of effects going on simultaneously; all in a manner independent of each other, and yet to a greater or less degree exercising a mutual influence.”

the difficulty of getting things right:

“To adjust each to every other, and indeed even to perceive and trace them out with perfect correctness and success, entails difficulties whose nature partakes to a certain extent of those involved in every question where conditions are very numerous and inter-complicated.”

and the challenge of making things go faster:

“One essential object is to choose that arrangement which shall tend to reduce to a minimum the time necessary for completing the calculation.”

She explains how computing is about patterns:

“it weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

and inventing new ideas

“We might even invent laws … in an arbitrary manner, and set the engine to work upon them, and thus deduce numerical results which we might not otherwise have thought of obtaining”.

and being creative. If we knew the laws for composing music:

“the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

Alan Turing famously asked if a machine can think – Ada Lovelace got there first:

“The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.”

Wow, pretty amazing, for someone born 200 years ago.


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EPSRC supported this article through research grants (EP/K040251/2 and EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin as well as grant EP/W033615/1). 

Die another Day? Or How Madonna crashed the Internet

A lone mike under bright stage lights

From the cs4fn archive …

When pop star Madonna took to the stage at Brixton Academy in 2001 for a rare appearance she made Internet history and caused more that a little Internet misery. Her concert performance was webcast; that is it was broadcast real time over the Internet. A record-breaking audience of 9 million tuned in, and that’s where the trouble started…

The Internet’s early career

The Internet started its career as a way of sending text messages between military bases. What was important was that the message got through, even if parts of the network were damaged say, during times of war. The vision was to build a communications system that could not fail; even if individual computers did, the Internet would never crash. The text messages were split up into tiny packets of information and each of these was sent with an address and their position in the message over the wire. Going via a series of computer links it reached its destination a bit like someone sending a car home bit by bit through the post and then rebuilding it. Because it’s split up the different bits can go by different routes.

Express yourself (but be polite please)

To send all these bits of information a set of protocols (ways of communicating between the computers making up the Internet) were devised. When passing on a packet of information the sending machine first asks the receiving machine if it is both there and ready. If it replies yes then the packet is sent. Then, being a polite protocol, the sender asks the receiver if the packets all arrived safely. This way, with the right address, the packets can find the best way to go from A to B. If on the way some of the links in the chain are damaged and don’t reply, the messages can be sent by a different route. Similarly if some of the packets gets lost in transit between links and need to be resent, or packets are delayed in being sent because they have to go by a round about route, the protocol can work round it. It’s just a matter of time before all the packets arrive at the final destination and can be put back in order. With text the time taken to get there doesn’t really matter that much.

The Internet gets into the groove

The problem with live pop videos, like a Madonna concert, is that it’s no use if the last part of the song arrives first, or you have to wait half an hour for the middle chorus to turn up, or the last word in a sentence vanishes. It needs to all arrive in real time. After all, that is how it’s being sung. So to make web casting work there needs to be something different, a new way of sending the packets. It needs to be fast and it needs to deal with lots more packets as video images carry a gigantic amount of data. The solution is to add something new to the Internet, called an overlay network. This sits on top of the normal wiring but behaves very differently.

The Internet turns rock and roll rebel

So the new real time transmission protocol gets a bit rock and roll, and stops being quite so polite. It takes the packets and throws them quickly onto the Internet. If the receiver catches them, fine. If it doesn’t, then so what? The sender is too busy to check like in the old days. It has to keep up with the music! If the packets are kept small, an odd one lost won’t be missed. This overlay network called the Mbone, lets people tune into the transmissions like a TV station. All these packages are being thrown around and if you want to you can join in and pick them up.

Crazy for you

Like dozens of cars

all racing to get through

a tunnel there were traffic jams.

It was Internet gridlock.

The Madonna webcast was one of the first real tests of this new type of approach. She had millions of eager fans, but it was early days for the technology. Most people watching had slow dial-up modems rather than broadband. Also the number of computers making up the links in the Internet were small and of limited power. As more and more people tuned in to watch, more and more packets needed to be sent and more and more of the links started to clog up. Like dozens of cars all racing to get through a tunnel there were traffic jams. Packets that couldn’t get through tried to find other routes to their destination … which also ended up blocked. If they did finally arrive they couldn’t get through onto the viewers PC as the connection was slow, and if they did, very many were too late to be of any use. It was Internet gridlock.

Who’s that girl?

Viewers suffered as the pictures and sound cut in and out. Pictures froze then jumped. Packets arrived well after their use by date, meaning earlier images had been shown missing bits and looking fuzzy. You couldn’t even recognise Madonna on stage. Some researchers found that packets had, for example, passed over seven different networks to reach a PC in a hotel just four miles away. The packets had taken the scenic route round the world, and arrived too late for the party. It wasn’t only the Madonna fans who suffered. The broadcast made use of the underlying wiring of the Internet and it had filled up with millions of frantic Madonna packets. Anyone else trying to use the Internet at the time discovered that it had virtually ground to a halt and was useless. Madonna’s fans had effectively crashed the Internet!

Webcasts in Vogue

Today’s webcasts have moved on tremendously using the lessons learned from the early days of the Madonna Internet crash. Today video is very much a part of the Internet’s day-to-day duties: the speed of the computer links of the Internet and their processing power has increased massively; more homes have broadband so the packets can get to your PC faster; satellite uplinks now allow the network to identify where the traffic jams are and route the data up and over them; extra links are put into the Internet to switch on at busy times; there are now techniques to unnoticeably compress videos down to small numbers of packets, and intelligent algorithms have been developed to reroute data effectively round blocks. We can also now combine the information flowing to the viewers with information coming back from them so allowing interactive webcasts. With the advent of digital television this service is now in our homes and not just on our PC’s.

Living in a material world

It’s because of thousands of scientists working on new and improved technology and software that we can now watch as the housemate’s antics stream live from the Big Brother house, vote from our armchair for our favourite talent show contestant or ‘press red’ and listen to the director’s commentary as we watch our favourite TV show. Like water and electricity the Internet is now an accepted part of our lives. However, as we come up with even more popular TV shows and concerts, strive to improve the quality of sound and pictures, more people upgrade to broadband and more and more video information floods the Internet … will the Internet Die another Day?

Peter W. McOwan and Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, 2006

Read more about women in computing in the cs4fn special issue “The Woman are Here”.

Sabine Hauert: Swarm Engineer

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Based on a 2016 talk by Sabine Hauert at the Royal Society

Sabine Hauert is a swarm engineer. She is fascinated by the idea of making use of swarms of robots. Watch a flock of birds and you see that they have both complex and beautiful behaviours. It helps them avoid predators very effectively, for example, so much so that many animals behave in a similar way. Predators struggle to fix on any one bird in all the chaotic swirling. Sabine’s team at the University of Bristol are exploring how we can solve our own engineering problems: from providing communication networks in a disaster zone to helping treat cancer, all based on the behaviours of swarms of animals.

A murmuration  - a flock of starlings

Sabine realised that flocks of birds have properties that are really interesting to an engineer. Their ability to scale is one. It is often easy to come up with solutions to problems that work in a small ‘toy’ system, but when you want to use it for real, the size of the problem defeats you. With a flock, birds just keep arriving, and the flock keeps working, getting bigger and bigger. It is common to see thousands of Starlings behaving like this – around Brighton Pier most winter evenings, for example. Flocks can even be of millions of birds all swooping and swirling together, never colliding, always staying as a flock. It is an engineering solution that scales up to massive problems. If you can build a system to work like a flock, you will have a similar ability to scale.

Flocks of birds are also very robust. If one bird falls out of the sky, perhaps because it is caught by a predator, the flock itself doesn’t fail, it continues as if nothing happened. Compare that to most systems humans create. Remove one component from a car engine and it’s likely that you won’t be going anywhere. This kind of robustness from failure is often really important.

Swarms are an example of emergent behaviour. If you look at just one bird you can’t tell how the flock works as a whole. In fact, each is just following very simple rules. Each bird just tracks the positions of a few nearest neighbours using that information to make simple decisions about how to move. That is enough for the whole complex behaviour of the flock to emerge. Despite all that fast and furious movement, the birds never crash into each other. Fascinated, Sabine started to explore how swarms of robots might be used to solve problems for people.

Her first idea was to create swarms of flying robots to work as a communications network, providing wi-fi coverage in places it would otherwise be hard to set up a network. This might be a good solution in a disaster area, for example, where there is no other infrastructure, but communication is vital. You want it to scale over the whole disaster area quickly and easily, and it has to be robust. She set about creating a system to achieve this.

The robots she designed were very simple, fixed wing, propellor-powered model planes. Each had a compass so it knew which direction it was pointing and was able to talk to those nearest using wi-fi signals. It could also tell who its nearest neighbours were. The trick was to work out how to design the behaviour of one bird so that appropriate swarming behaviour emerged. At any time each had to decide how much to turn to avoid crashing into another but to maintain the flock, and coverage. You could try to work out the best rules by hand. Instead, Sabine turned to machine learning.

“Throwing those flying robots

and seeing them flock

was truly magical”

The idea of machine learning is that instead of trying to devise algorithms that solve problems yourself, you write an algorithm for how to learn. The program then learns for itself by trial and error the best solution. Sabine created a simple first program for her robots that gave them fairly random behaviour. The machine learning program then used a process modelled on evolution to gradually improve. After all evolution worked for animals! The way this is done is that variations on the initial behaviour are trialled in simulators and only the most successful are kept. Further random changes are made to those and the new versions trialled again. This is continued over thousands of generations, each generation getting that little bit better at flocking until eventually a behaviour of individual robots results that leads to them swarming together.

Sabine has now moved on to to thinking about a situation where swarms of trillions of individuals are needed: nanomedicine. She wants to create nanobots that are each smaller than the width of a strand of hair and can be injected into cancer patients. Once inside the body they will search out and stick themselves to tumour cells. The tumour cells gobble them up, at which point they deliver drugs directly inside the rogue cell. How do you make them behave in a way that gives the best cancer treatment though? For example, how do you stop them all just sticking to the same outer cancer cells? One way might be to give them a simple swarm behaviour that allows them to go to different depths and only then switch on their stickiness, allowing them to destroy all the cancer cells. This is the sort of thing Sabine’s team are experimenting with.

Swarm engineering has all sorts of other practical applications, and while Sabine is leading the way, some time soon we may need lots more swarm engineers, able to design swarm systems to solve specific problems. Might that be you?

Explore swarm behaviour using the Oxford Turtle system [EXTERNAL] (click the play button top centre) to see how to run a flocking simulation as well as program your own swarms.

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The optical pony express

Suppose you want to send messages as fast as possible. What’s the best way to do it? That is what Polina Bayvel, a Professor at UCL has dedicated her research career to: exploring the limits of how fast information can be sent over networks. It’s not just messages that it’s about nowadays of course, but videos, pictures, money, music, books – anything you can do over the Internet.

Cowboys at dawn crossing the range

Send a text message and it arrives almost instantly. Sending message hasn’t always been that quick, though. The Greeks used runners – in fact the Marathon athletic event originally commemorated a messenger who supposedly ran from a battlefield at Marathon to Athens to deliver the message “We won” before promptly dying. The fastest woman in the world at the time of writing, 2011, Paula Radcliffe, at her quickest could deliver a message a marathon distance away in 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds (without dying!) … ( now in 2020, Brigid Kosgei, a minute or so faster).

Horses improved things (and the Greeks in fact normally used horseback messengers, but hey it was a good story). Unfortunately, even a horse can’t keep up the pace for hundreds of miles. The Pony Express pushed horse technology to its limits. They didn’t create new breeds of genetically modified fast horses, or anything like that. All it took was to create an organised network of normal ones. They set up pony stations every 10 miles or so right across North America from Missouri to Sacramento. Why every 10 miles? That’s the point a galloping horse starts to give up the ghost. The mail came thundering in to each station and thundered out with barely a break as it was swapped to a new fresh pony.

The pony express was swiftly overtaken by the telegraph. Like the switch to horses, this involved a new carrier technology – this time copper wire. Now the messages had to be translated first though, here into electrical signals in Morse code. The telegraph was followed by the telephone. With a phone it seems like you just talk and the other person just hears but of course the translation of the message into a different form is still happening. The invention of the telephone was really just the invention of a way to turn sound into an electrical code that could be sent along copper cables and then translated back again.

The Internet took things digital – in some ways that’s a step back towards Morse code. Now, everything, even sound and images, are turned into a code of ones and zeros instead of dots and dashes. In theory images could of course have been sent using a telegraph tapper in the same way…if you were willing to wait months for the code of the image to be tapped in and then decoded again. Better to just wait for computers that can do it fast to be invented.

In the early Internet, the message carrier was still good old copper wire. Trouble is, when you want to send lots of data, like a whole movie, copper wire and electricity are starting to look like the runners must have done to horse riders: slow out-of-date technology. The optical fibre is the modern equivalent of the horse. They are just long thin tubes of glass. Instead of sending pulses of electricity to carry the coded messages, they now go on the back of a pulse of light.

Up to this point it’s been mainly men taking the credit, but this is where Polina’s work comes in. She is both exploring the limits of what can be done with optical fibres in theory and building ever faster optical networks in practice. How much information can actually be sent down fibres and what is the best way to do it? Can new optical materials make a difference? How can devices be designed to route information to the right place – such ‘routers’ are just like mail sorting depots for pulses of light. How can fibre optics best be connected into networks so that they work as efficiently as possible – allowing you and everyone else in your street to be watching different movies at the same time, for example, without the film going all jerky? These are all the kinds of questions that fascinate Polina and she has built up an internationally respected team to help her answer them.

Multiple streams of binary data flowing in an optical cable.

Why are optical fibres such a good way to send messages? Well the obvious answer is that you can’t get much faster than light! Well actually you can’t get ANY faster than light. The speed of light is the fastest anything, including information, can travel according to Einstein’s laws. That’s not the end of the story though. Remember the worn out Marathon runner. It turns out that signals being sent down cables do something similar. Well, not actually getting out of breath and dying but they do get weaker the further they travel. That means it gets harder to extract the information at the other end and eventually there is a point where the message is just garbled noise. What’s the solution? Well actually it’s exactly the one the Pony Express came up with. You add what are called ‘repeaters’ every so often. They extract the message from the optical fibre and then send it down the next fibre, but now back at full strength again. One of the benefits of fibre optics is that signals can go much further before they need a repeater. That means the message gets to its destination faster because those repeaters take time extracting and resending the message. That, in turn, leaves scope for improvement. The Pony Express made their ‘repeaters’ faster by giving the rider a horn to alert the stationmaster that they were arriving. He would then have time to get the next horse ready so it could leave the moment the mail was handed over. Researchers like Polina are looking for similar ways to speed up optical repeaters.

You can do more than play with repeaters to speed things up though. You can also bump up the amount of information you carry in one go. In particular you can send lots of messages at the same time over an optical fibre as long as they use different wavelengths. You can think of this as though one person is using a torch with a blue bulb to send a Morse code message using flashes of blue light (say), while someone else is doing the same thing with a red torch and red light. If two people at the other end are wearing tinted sunglasses then depending on the tint they will each see only the red pulses or only the blue ones and so only get the message meant for them. Each new frequency of light used gives a new message that can be sent at the same time.

The tricky bit is not so much in doing that but in working out which people can use which torch at any particular time so their aren’t any clashes, bearing in mind that at any instant messages could be coming from anywhere in the network and trying to go anywhere. If two people try to use the same torch on the same link at the same time it all goes to pot. This is complicated further by the fact that at any time particular links could be very busy, or broken, meaning that different messages may also travel by different routes between the same places, just as you might go a different way to normal when driving if there is a jam. All this, and together with other similar issues, means there are lots of hairy problems to worry about if coming up with a the best possible optical network as Polina is aiming to do.

Polina’s has been highly successful working in this area. She has been made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering for her work and is also a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award holder. It is only given to respected scientists of outstanding achievement and potential. She has also won the prestigious Patterson Medal awarded for distinguished research in applied physics. It’s important to remember that modern engineering is a team game, though. As she notes she has benefited hugely by having inspiring and supporting mentors, as well as superb students and colleagues. It is her ability to work well with other people that allowed her build a critical mass in her research and so gain all the accolades. All that achieved and she is a mother of two boys to boot. Bringing up children is, of course, a team game too.

Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, Autumn 2011

Download the special issue of the cs4fn magazine “The women are here”.

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Smart bags

In our stress-filled world with ever increasing levels of anxiety, it would be nice if technology could sometimes reduce stress rather than just add to it. That is the problem that QMUL’s Christine Farion set out to solve for her PhD. She wanted to do something stylish too, so she created a new kind of bag: a smart bag.

Christine realised that one thing that causes anxiety for a lot of people is forgetting everyday things. It is very common for us to forget keys, train tickets, passports and other everyday things we need for the day. Sometimes it’s just irritating. At other times it can ruin the day. Even when we don’t forget things, we waste time unpacking and repacking bags to make sure we really do have the things we need. Of course, the moment we unpack a bag to check, we increase the chance that something won’t be put back!

Electronic bags

Christine wondered if a smart bag could help. Over the space of several years, she built ten different prototypes using basic electronic kits, allowing her to explore lots of options. Her basic design has coloured lights on the outside of the bag, and a small scanner inside. To use the bag, you attach electronic tags to the things you don’t want to forget. They are like the ones shops use to keep track of stock and prevent shoplifting. Some tags are embedded into things like key fobs, while others can be stuck directly on to an object. Then when you pack your bag, you scan the objects with the reader as you put them in, and the lights show you they are definitely there. The different coloured lights allow you to create clear links – natural mappings – between the lights and the objects. For her own bag, Christine linked the blue light to a blue key fob with her keys, and the yellow light to her yellow hayfever tablet box.

In the wild

One of the strongest things about her work was she tested her bags extensively ‘in the wild’. She gave them to people who used them as part of their normal everyday life, asking them to report to her what did and didn’t work about them. This all fed in to the designs for subsequent bags and allowed her to learn what really mattered to make this kind of bag work for the people using it. One of the key things she discovered was that the technology needed to be completely simple to use. If it wasn’t both obvious how to use and quick and simple to do it wouldn’t be used.

Christine also used the bags herself, keeping a detailed diary of incidents related to the bags and their design. This is called ‘autoethnography’. She even used one bag as her own main bag for a year and a half, building it completely into her life, fixing problems as they arose. She took it to work, shopping, to coffee shops … wherever she went.

Suspicious?

When she had shown people her prototype bags, one of the common worries was that the electronics would look suspicious and be a problem when travelling. She set out to find out, taking her bag on journeys around the country, on trains and even to airports, travelling overseas on several occasions. There were no problems at all.

Fashion matters

As a bag is a personal item we carry around with us, it becomes part of our identity. She found that appropriate styling is, therefore, essential in this kind of wearable technology. There is no point making a smart bag that doesn’t fit the look that people want to carry around. This is a problem with a lot of today’s medical technology, for example. Objects that help with medical conditions: like diabetic monitors or drug pumps and even things as simple and useful as hearing aids or glasses, while ‘solving’ a problem, can lead to stigma if they look ugly. Fashion on the other hand does the opposite. It is all about being cool. Christine showed that by combining design of the technology with an understanding of fashion, her bags were seen as cool. Rather than designing just a single functional smart bag, ideally you need a range of bags, if the idea is to work for everyone.

Now, why don’t I have my glasses with me?

– Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, Autumn 2018

Download Issue 25 of the cs4fn magazine “Technology Worn Out (and about) on Wearable Computing here.

Studying Comedy with Computers

by Vanessa Pope, Queen Mary University of London

Smart speakers like Alexa might know a joke or two, but machines aren’t very good at sounding funny yet. Comedians, on the other hand, are experts at sounding both funny and exciting,  even when they’ve told the same joke hundreds of times. Maybe speech technology could learn a thing or two from comedians… that is what my research is about.

Image by Rob Slaven from Pixabay 

To test a joke, stand-up comedians tell it to lots of different audiences and see how they react. If no-one laughs, they might change the words of the joke or the way they tell it. If we can learn how they make their adjustments, maybe technology can borrow their tricks. How much do comedians change as they write a new show? Does a comedian say the same joke the same way at every performance? The first step is to find out.

The first step is to record lots of the same live show of a comedian and find the parts that match from one show to the next. It was much faster to write a program to find the same jokes in different shows than finding them all myself. My code goes through all the words and sounds a comedian said in one live show and looks for matching chunks in their other shows. Words need to be in the same exact order to be a match: “Why did the chicken cross the road” is very different to “Why did the road cross the chicken”! The process of looking through a sequence to find a match is called “subsequence matching,” because you’re looking through one sequence (the whole set of words and sounds in a show) for a smaller sequence (the “sub” in “subsequence”). If a subsequence (little sequence) is found in lots of shows, it means the comedian says that joke the same way at every show. Subsequence matching is a brand new way to study comedy and other types of speech that are repeated, like school lessons or a favourite campfire story.

By comparing how comedians told the same jokes in lots of different shows, I found patterns in the way they told them. Although comedy can sound very improvised, a big chunk of comedians’ speech (around 40%) was exactly the same in different shows. Sounds like “ummm” and “errr” might seem like mistakes but these hesitation sounds were part of some matches, so we know that they weren’t actually mistakes. Maybe “umm”s help comedians sound like they’re making up their jokes on the spot.

Varying how long pauses are could be an important part of making speech sound lively, too. A comedian told a joke more slowly and evenly when they were recorded on their own than when they had an audience. Comedians work very hard to prepare their jokes so they are funny to lots of different people. Computers might, therefore, be able to borrow the way comedians test their jokes and change them. For example, one comedian kept only five of their original jokes in their final show! New jokes were added little by little around the old jokes, rather than being added in big chunks.

If you want to run an experiment at home, try recording yourself telling the same joke to a few different people. How much practice did you need before you could say the joke all at once? What did you change, including little sounds like “umm”? What didn’t you change? How did the person you were telling the joke to, change how you told it?

There’s lots more to learn from comedians and actors, like whether they change their voice and movement to keep different people’s attention. This research is the first to use computers to study how performers repeat and adjust what they say, but hopefully just the beginning. 

Now, have you heard the one about the …

For more information about Vanessa’s work visit https://vanessapope.co.uk/ [EXTERNAL]