Jiva Technology

Why Science Matters

Why does science matter? Grand physics experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva or breakthroughs on genome sequencing sound cool, but does it really impact my day to day life? The answer is emphatically yes and a paper published fifty years ago gives us a great example why. Described by Nature magazine as, ‘arguably the greatest climate-science paper of all time’, Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald published the results of their work building a climate model and effectively settled the debate on whether Co2 caused climate change. Scientists had known since 1861 (yes, 1861) that CO2 was a greenhouse gas, but the Manabe and Wetherald paper yielded realistic results as to how it happens. At the time, climate change was not even on the political agenda, but scientists have built on their work and are probably the best hope we have for avoiding catastrophic and unavoidable climate change. Now tell me that science doesn’t intrude into your daily life.

Its yet another example of why collaboration within the scientific community should go unhindered. These are not UK problems, US problems or any other countries problems, they are global problems. Scientists need to move freely if ideas are to move freely. Which means politicians need to get out of the way or we’ll all end up the poorer for it.

Quiet progress on reducing UK carbon footprint

For those of us with a passing interest in the future of the planet (hopefully everyone) or UK energy policy (unlikely to be everyone), there have been some important milestones achieved in the last month that have received varying degrees of attention. On pollution control the UK has performed abysmally. To be blunt, we’re poisoning ourselves. If this was a football match, we’d be losing 0-5 at home. There’s been a lot of noise in the media about diesel cars and air pollution and with some justification. Government seems to have got the advice to motorists wrong. Badly wrong. In the early noughties rush to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, diesel cars and vans were promoted as environmentally sustainable, without any thought of the side effects of using diesel. The Law of Unintended Consequences seems to stalk government decision making more than most. But in keeping with newspaper tradition of reporting the bad news and ignoring the good, they seem to have over looked the fact that UK electricity is quietly getting cleaner. In a big way. There have been multiple days recently when coal made no contribution at all to our electricity supply. As I write this, I can see that nearly 47% of UK electricity is being generated from zero carbon sources and just under 27% of that is from wind and solar*. That’s a big deal in my book. Gas-fired power stations still comprise the biggest source of supply, but they’re considerably cleaner than coal. So whilst we can’t claim three cheers for UK energy policy, we can at least claim two. Its a shame that more hasn’t been made of this – good news makes people feel better and gives us all a stake in a more environmentally friendly future.

* How do I know this you might ask? Because there’s an app for that and you can find it here. A bit geeky, but fun for anyone with an interest in energy policy. Which is probably no one.

A stunning application of Social Media in education

Project 1917 is a stunning example of social media bringing history to life. Social media has often been characterised as a distraction for most students, but in this case, it brings to life the events surrounding one of the most turbulent episodes in recent European history: the two revolutions that took place in Russia 100 years ago and went on to massively influence the entire twentieth century.

Using diaries and other records from the time, Project 1917 brings events to life through social media. All of the major characters, from Lenin to Trotsky and from Tsar Nicholas to Beria, have been given social media accounts and post their thoughts, albeit it with a 100 year delay. The effect is so compelling that some followers have mistaken the protagonists as real characters and responded to tweets and status updates. Project 1917 is a perfect way to bring important historical events to life and to update them for a modern audience.

AI-proofing your job prospects Part 2

Despite the attention that advances in article intelligence (AI) are receiving in the press at the moment, there has been very little comment on the implications of AI for the curriculum. To be fair, most of the press articles could be summarised as, “artificial intelligence/machine learning/deep learning is coming, be scared, let’s control it”. But deep down, we know that, “let’s control it” isn’t a particularly valid response. History shows us that trying to control the spread of useful technology is time consuming, labour intensive and ultimately futile. With the possible exception of nuclear weapons, which have limited (but deadly) applications, controlling technology advances is a non starter. We need a better plan. We need to avoid work that will be easily automated, but more importantly, we need to think of other ways in which humans can rise to the challenge of intelligent machines.

Despite all the aforementioned press attention, I have yet to see any consideration of how ‘human learning’ might respond to ‘machine learning’. Curriculum changes traditionally happen at a painfully slow pace, but we should be thinking about what we learn and when. To take one example, the incidence of software agents writing and disseminating information on the internet, so-called information bots, has been denounced as a threat to democracy by some writers. There have been calls to ban the bots and create institutions that fact check and arbitrate on the sole source of ‘the truth’. For my own part, I’m not sure that a Ministry of Truth is really the answer, but why are there futile calls to control a technology when a constructive response would attempt to educate the population, to make them more discerning about what constitutes the truth. Governments do have control over the curriculum, so a positive response would promote critical reasoning to the core curriculum rather than ban the bots.

What this case illustrates once again is that the technologies that impact our lives and careers are developing at a much faster pace than the education system. Its not enough to rely on university, much less school to give us all the skills we need to prosper in a modern job market. Fortunately, there are a huge number of resources available to provide an introduction to a topic or fill in the gaps, resources like Tutorhub, iTunes U, Coursera, EdX and Khan Academy. We have to change the way we think about education. Fifty years ago, it made sense to get the education over with at the start of your life, but from now on, education is never done.

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