Arguably some of the most sophisticated ‘robots’ around today (and certainly the most expensive) are the US military Global Hawk Unmanned Ariel Vehicles.

It seems that Northrop Grumman who make them have teamed up with NASA to turn their robot air warrior into an environmental monitoring system.

From their press release:

The NASA Global Hawk’s initial Earth science mission will be Global Hawk Pacific 2009, or GLOPAC. This campaign will consist of six long-duration missions over the Pacific and Arctic regions in the late spring and early summer of 2009. Twelve NASA and NOAA scientific instruments integrated into one of the NASA Global Hawk aircraft will collect atmospheric data while flying through the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.

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The BBC news website has a story about how:

Doctors are demanding that NHS staff be given a right to discuss spiritual issues with patients as well as being allowed to offer to pray for them.

Personally if someone charged with my care and qualified to work in health care offered me prayer as a form of treatment I would be rather worried about their competence. On the other hand if they didn’t offer and prayed for me out of my sight anyway then I would have no reason to question it, and it would (hopefully) do me no harm.

You might think, well if they are just offering it then whats the harm, and that seems fairly reasonable but it still puts you at the mercy of their beliefs. Can you imagine if an atheist nurse came and said, ‘I don’t think its worth praying because no one is listening and, by the way, when you die I’m afraid thats it!’. Now an offer of an afterlife may seem more attractive but if you are on your death bed and someone comes up and says – ‘I believe you need to pray because otherwise you won’t get to heaven’ – well I’d be a little annoyed by this.

I certainly don’t think we should stop people practicing medicine because they happen to have a religion but I’m really not sure if they should be allowed to actively promote it to patients as a part of their work. Sure, patients ought to be able to talk about matters of faith, particularly at times of illness when they feel most vulnerable, but the NHS ought to facilitate that by arranging for them to talk to someone qualified – a priest, imam, rabbi or whatever, not by letting staff interject with their own particular (or possibly perculiar) beliefs.

More personally perplexing to me is why people think that god will make you better if you beg, and why that is a good thing. Bad god! if you are all knowing and really love me then why do I have to ask.

Maybe its really true that ‘God made man in his own image’ – egotistical vindictiveness and desire for adoration included – which is why we have to get down on our knees and massage the omnipresent ego before it will make us better, if at all.

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“… while all around me prayed, I put on a life jacket and made my way to the exit in an orderly fashion”

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Ok, thinking about it a bit more, if we do let practitioners offer prayer as a supplement to treatment then we really ought to make sure it is actually effective. Evidence based health care is what the NHS should deliver so lets test the efficacy of prayer before we apply it.

Carrying out proper clinical trials into prayer might be quite hard though. You need control groups, and placebo prayers. You need to find out if knowing that you are being prayed for makes a difference (another placebo effect) and if just pretending to pray is less effective that really praying, or if praying for the patient to get worse has any effect. And of course the big question – does it make any difference if the people doing the praying actually believe in it?

I did hear tell of a study looking at the effect of prayer in a hospital in America, they looked at a group who visit people and prey over them (I’m not sure if they would ask beforehand). It appeared that it actually increased mortality rates but a psychological explanation was put forward and that was that if you are lying in hospital and a group of strangers come along and start praying over you then you tend to regard your prognosis as more serious (the nocebo effect as it is sometimes called).

The solution, if this is true, is simple. Groups should randomly visit patients and tell them “We were going to offer to pray for you but … to be honest, you don’t really need it, I think you’ll be fine without us”.

One final observation. I kept mis-typing prayer as preyer and realized: Pray and Prey are very similar.

Sploink!, there goes my Irony Meter.

Sense about science is running a campaign to help science writer Simon Singh overthrow a libel ruling against him for questioning the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain ailments. They have a statement on the issue which people are encouraged to sign via their website (I have already) and as of Friday 26th they had 10,000 people have added their names to it. They have sent the statement to the government and will re-send it for every 1,000 additional names.

Their statement reads as follows:

The law has no place in scientific disputes
We the undersigned believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence.

The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic for various children’s ailments through an open discussion of the peer reviewed medical literature or through debate in the mainstream media.

Singh holds that chiropractic treatments for asthma, ear infections and other infant conditions are not evidence-based. Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these views.

English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the “libel capital” of the world.

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence.

Interestingly the British Chiropractic Association has told their members to take lots of material off their websites or risk prosecution – presumably because they are making exaggerated claims. Sounds like a well aimed shot in the foot to me.

So I was pondering the crisis over MP’s expenses and started thinking about how difficult it must sometimes be when you are supposed to be serving your constituents but are also expected to attend important debates in the house of commons. This is fine if your constituency is in London but if it is in Cornwall then you need to get on a train and waste lots of time traveling, and then you get into owning a second home in London, or renting somewhere at great expense.

Now you will never remove the need for MP’s to visit the commons in person, which is why I’m in favor of the commons running its own guest houses for MP’s, but it may be possible to reduce the demand on MP’s to visit London by employing some clever technology.

What I’m talking about here is basically video conferencing but for something like the government it might need to be slightly enhanced – but I’m making a shed load of assumptions from here on.

The basic idea is to try and apply high quality video conferencing technology to the house of commons in a way that allows MP’s to attend debates without leaving their constituencies. What I imagine is most important here is that firstly the MP’s experience is immersive enough so they are not too distracted by the technology, for example by having to watch a small screen with poor quality bitty video. Secondly the MP needs to be seen to attend so their image has to be presented in the debating chamber in a way that does not diminish their presence as compared to when they are their in person, but is also not distracting for other people there. You need to be able to stand up and address the house effectively when you need to.

These two things add up to a requirement for some very high definition video feeds so it is likely that the best way to do this is with dedicated communication links to handle the date and keep it secure. You also need the right environment for the visiting virtual MP to sit in, basically a studio with video projections to give you a view of the chamber, preferably all the way round so you feel immersed in the experience and with enough quality for you to recognize a face from across the chamber.

Now it would be unreasonable for all this kit to be installed in an MP’s chosen office so probably the best place would be in regional council offices. You have a potential problem of how to accommodate lots of MP’s with a limited number of cameras – you want to ensure that when you speak and people look at your image that from your perspective they appear to be looking at you. With these video studios in regional centers you could design them to accommodate all the MP’s in that region so that ought to reduce the number of cameras required in the commons chamber.

So it would take some serious video tech to get this to work, and it would probably benefit from lots of testing but you would also have to convince the MP’s that it is worth using. You might also want to extend it to allow for meetings in private and other committee work. Not there may be a place for robot one day (I just had to get them in somewhere) to allow you to take a walk around the houses of parliament and talk to people using a tele-presence robot.

Summing up. I’m sure things like this will happen eventually but this seems like a good chance to start to consider it, particularly as the technology is maturing. My view in general is that high quality large scale images are critical for giving a sense of actually being somewhere else, and if you can do that with some of the emerging 3D screen technology then that is even better!

I did get on the TV after all but only in the background of a shot – I’m driving a robot around with a joystick.

You can see it here. The relevant bit starts about 34 minutes in.

I ought to add that this video will disappear and be replaced by the latest edition of the show on Sunday the 21st.

Just noticed this interview with Jake West in the guardian. He doesn’t like the idea of robots because they will ‘go off program’ and go on a killing spree. He likes his mac book pro but presumably doesn’t worry about it going ‘off program’, logging into his on-line backing and going on a spending spree.

Why would giving a computer wheels and a camera cause it to behave violently?  In the west we are drip fed this idea of AI and robots being dangerous and that they will want to take over the world but in the east robots are regarded as ideal companions and of little threat to humans.  In reality robots will kill if they have been designed to kill, perhaps for use by some military types, and artificial intelligences might want to take over the world if we make them too much like us.

Megalomania and the desire for world domination is a very human trait so perhaps we should worry a little about creating artificial minds that are too much after our own image.

Slightly disappointing, I wasn’t interviewed in the end but I did have some of my robot progeny filmed with me in the background.  A colleague, Andy, did the interview instead.

What it came down to was that they only needed one person and Andy is more senior (he has his PhD) so he is more appropriate to represent the university on TV.  Better to have ‘Dr P…’ than ‘Student Bill’.

Shame, I was looking forward to that, but it was the right decision.

On the plus side, I now have some smart new trousers!