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“Engineering the Future” – the IET’s “Future Festival 50”

November 16, 2016

As part of their first “Engineering the Future” event, the IET arranged a series of talks at Savoy Place as the “Future Festival 50”, so I went along to hear what new developments they thought were important.

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The event was hosted by Professor Danielle George from the University of Manchester. Unfortunately I missed the opening session featuring Jerry Chow of IBM on Quantum Computing, so the first talk I heard was by Noel Sharkey, Professor of AI and Robotics at Sheffield, and perhaps better known as a judge on BBC2’s “Robot Wars”. He recounted how the media picked up on stories about sex robots and weaponry, and described some advances in autonomous vehicles: cars, planes, ships, submarines, military and police drones. But his key emphasis was on the ethics of these systems. Sex robots can damage young people’s experience of intimacy; military robots killing people autonomously breaks the first Asimov robot law; police robots breaking up demonstrations raise other human rights issues. And even autonomous cars have the ethical problems of who to kill or injure in the event of an accident (and as he pointed out, no-one would buy a car where the answer was “the driver”!). His company “Responsible Robotics” campaigned on these issues. Questions from the audience addressed insurance of AVs and the impact on jobs: Prof Sharkey was not optimistic on the latter, saying we maybe needed a Universal Income.

Next was Maneesh Januja, a health futurist. His focus was on the use of VR and AR in health. He talked about the Google Pixel and 360 Photos on Facebook, and demonstrated how 360 cameras are an accessible and affordable way of people creating their own VR. But I didn’t think his health industry examples were that exciting. Education, notably of surgery, obviously; as a way of informing patients what they would be experiencing; and as a way of developing empathy – showing the doctor what it feels like to have my condition. More bizarre was showing stroke patients what was going on in their own heads – not sure how this helps. One nice example was of a young woman with tunnel vision being able to replay what was going on around her. There was also the use of VR as a social community to address depression and social isolation. I felt there ought to be more powerful applications somewhere. Questions examined the impact on one’s vision and the dangers of increased social isolation.

The last talk of the morning was a shift of gear. Eleanor Stride, Professor of Engineering Science at Oxford explained how sophisticated use of bubble technology could deliver cancer killing immunology treatment to the exact heart of the tumour. Micro-bubbles of gas, surrounded by a surfactant that attached to the proteins given off by tumours, and magnetised, so that they could be controlled and directed, can be used to deliver the cancer-killing drug directly to where it is needed, rather than being dispersed around the body and causing side-effects. One of the benefits of this approach was that it evaded the body’s own immune system.

After lunch we were treated to the dynamic and entertaining Ed Gillespie, a futurist with an interest in sustainable development, beginning with a quote: “We are not blindly opposed to progress; we are simply opposed to blind progress”. He rattled through a range of statistics – e.g. there are five times as much fossil fuels discovered than we can afford to burn if we want to hit carbon emission targets – and examples of absurd inconsistencies: if you bought Tesco low-energy light bulbs to reduce power consumption, they would give you airmiles!! He advocated local community solar systems, underground hydroponic agriculture and radical recycling – there is enough energy in waste coffee grounds in London to power 15,000 homes. He ended with a joke illustrating that we may not be successful in managing the threat.

Two planets were walking along, when one started scratching and looking very uncomfortable. “What’s the matter?” asked the other. “I’ve got a bad case of Homo Sapiens” was the reply. “Oh well, don’t worry, it doesn’t last long”.

The last talk I went to was by Mark-Olivier Coppens, Professor and Head of Chemical Engineering at UCL. He was studying how to draw lessons from nature to engineer innovative solutions. His first example was the femur-like structure of the legs of the Eiffel Tower, designed that way because of the balance of forces it provides. His important point that the approach was not simply bio-mimicry, but based on an understanding of why the natural system was the way it was and adopting a similar structure. His example was comparing fuel cells to the structure of the lung – at one level there are fractal, branching systems, but deeper down the flow of oxygen through cell walls; his design for fuel cells is structurally similar.

The presentations, including ones I missed, are available on

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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