Brave New World with Stephen Hawking – 21st Century Machines

Brave new World with Stephen HawkingScience is as magic until it gets superseded and becomes a commonplace – consider the humble transistor radio overshadowed by television, the computer and the world-wide-web – yet to anyone from even a hundred years ago this pint-sized bit of technology would appear astonishing and unbelievable if not outright witchcraft.

This new science series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking currently airing on Channel 4 speculates where science might be taking us in the not too distant future exploring in its own words ‘the scientific breakthroughs that are transforming our lives in the 21st Century.”  What is the science of today that can astonish our jaded sated 20th Century selves?

And will their promises be delivered or disappointed? For those of us brought up on the BBC’s hope show Tomorrows World we thought we would be moving about by personal jetpack by now, with a cure for death thrown in and even more amazingly a robot that could iron our respective shirts and blouses – on all accounts we have been let down. Though to be fair (!) Tomorrows World almost certainly featured many more modest scientific innovations that are today near-ubiquitous.

Brave New World with Stephen Hawking is being broadcast as previously posted of a Monday evening before The Origins of Us airs on BBC 2. Each of the five episodes addresses a different subject. The opening episode is dedicated to Machines and subsequent episodes will dedicate themselves to Health, Technology, Environment and Biology, in that order. And this post is of that opening Machines episode.

Though Stephen Hawking lends his name to the series-title his involvement is one of overseer rather than presenter delegating that role to a wide range of international scientists who present their own featurettes of those subjects they think matter most.

He opens this opening episode by opining that “our lives have been defined my machines” citing Galileo’s Telescope, Watt’s Steam Engine and Bell’s Telephone before going on to state ‘that we now stand on the edge of a new era. Tonight we want to show you the five machines we think are the most important’.

The five scientists presenting are likely familiar to all of us who watch science on TV – though not a Richard Dawkins among them! –  having presented science shows previously on the BBC and Channel 4 – does ITV do science?

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Kathy Sykes – Look ma no hands

First up was Physicist Kathy Sykes (previously in Channel 4’s Genius of Britain) who describes herself as a Scientist and cautious driver as she presents the driverless car – or rather a car driven by a silicon not carbon life-form.

Much science fact incubates in science fiction and viewers of the 1980’s  fantasy hokum US TV series Knight Rider will be unfazed by a car that drives itself. We also already have aircraft that pilot themselves but aeroplanes at least have a relatively uncongested skyline to navigate, unchauffeured cars have the traffic nightmare of the modern highway to contend with.

I for one do not doubt the ability of technology to overcome the moving obstacle course of modern traffic and am mightily impressed with the science involved. However as someone who drives a car myself much of the pleasure is in the driving – in the same way that could I afford a chauffeur I would never employ one do I want my car itself taking this pleasure away from me. For much the same reason indeed that I drive a car with a manual and not automatic gearbox!  It may not be safer but it is more fun!

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Mark Evans – thought-waves

Next up was Mark Evans a Veterinary Surgeon and Engineer (who more modestly on his website describes himself as ‘Animal Doctor, Grease Monkey and Motor Mouth’!) and past presenter of Channel 4’s Inside Nature’s Giants, here exploring mind-control, and no not some Derren Brown hypnosis experiment but using our own mind to control the world around us. Literally using the power of thought to interface with electronic communication – called BCI – yes Brain Computer Interface!

To this end he was taught to propel a wheel-chair to go left and right, backwards and forwards, by the power of will alone. It did involve him donning what looked like a shower-cap with wires connected to his head. Again this was staggering science. And it was not just the power of thought but the machine doing some of the thinking for you – the machine augmenting us rather than we augmenting it…but perhaps there veering into science dystopia as utopia.

My own more mundane mind considered merely that I could switch my bedroom lights off before going to sleep without having to get out of bed, then the following morning I could open my curtains, again just by thinking it! I was pleased then that Mark Evans himself cited both opening curtains and switching lights on and off as practical examples of its use. Simple steps come before complex steps afterall. And to that end perhaps a future iteration of Apple’s Siri will require not voice recognition but empathy alone with its owner’s mind, and not having also to cope with all our endless local accents – though do we think in our accents? – and I digress.

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Jim Al-Khalili with iCub

The next feature was presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili who introduced himself as a Theoretical Physicist. That’s a hard job-title to trump – I imagine even a High Court Judge, an Astronaut or a Brain Surgeon may feel a dip in their supernatural self-esteem having to introduce themselves to a Theoretical Physicist. He has the longest TV presenting CV of the five tonight including the BBC ‘s Atom and The Secret Life of Chaos.

He introduced us to to iCub – an infant robot – or baby-bot – sorry! – a robot designed to think like a human, but an infant not an adult one. So as to learn and develop towards its own autonomy, establishing its own sense of self. More mind-boggling stuff.

Though the science and theory behind this autonomous robot is high-minded and extraordinary I could not help but envisage that its practical uses may mean a darker future for it – if not as a robo-soldier or bomb-disposal worker then at best servant of all our mundane human needs.

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Joy Reidenberg

Next up was Joy Reidenbeg a Comparative Anatomist, and also presenter of Inside Nature’s Giants, who introduces us to an exoskeleton that can make the paralysed walk and a man lift three times his own weight.  Again this made me think of Science Fiction and again not even some prize-winning literary work or cinema classic but back to US Telly this time a decade earlier than Knight Rider to the 1970’s and sci-fi staples The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. And as with Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers this also arose not from some vain-glory pursuit to make able bodies even more able but from seeking to repair badly injured ones and make as new, if not better than new.

Here we saw two hitherto wheel-chair bound women able to stand up on their two legs with this exoskeleton in place and walk. This was the one scientific breakthrough featured that not only made me think ‘wow’ but brought a tear to my eye too.

Brave new World with Stephen Hawking

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

The final piece of scientific wonder was presented by Maggie Aderin-Pocock whose title was given as Astrophysicist and perhaps a title that does even eclipse Theoretical Physicist in the impressive sounding show-off stakes!

She introduced us to one of the worlds most impressive Telescopes the GTC – the Gran Telescopio Canarias – described as a Time Machine as it is powerful enough to be able to look as far backwards in time as to the beginning of the universe  itself. Its particular purpose was to discover Earth like planets – as it finds such they are catalogued and detailed.

And this viewer cannot but wonder are they populated by beings such as us, watching programmes such as this.

And whether our own planet Earth is the subject of a similarly searching alien telescope out their in the depths of space?!

And that as this is science we should never say ‘Let’s not go there’.