Covid-19: the importance of history in a global pandemic

Posted on: June 25th, 2024 by mlpEditor

What is the role of a historian in a health crisis? As Covid-19 became a full-blown pandemic in the spring of 2020, historians across the world produced rapid and imaginative responses, bringing historical perspectives to bear on how people and societies in the past responded to cholera, Spanish Flu, and more recently ebola. They paid much less attention to capturing and preserving the unfolding of Covid-19.

This talk draws on Stephanie Snow’s experience of leading a national oral history project on the UK’s National Health Service that metamorphosed into the creation of a national collection of Covid-19 testimonies in partnership with the British Library between 2020-2023.

History shows that individual and collective memory can fade rapidly after health crises. Recording testimonies in the moment plays a vital role in supporting individuals and communities to find meaning from their lived experiences in the face of complexity and uncertainty. It creates a permanent historical record of a crisis that captures societal responses that were not prominent in public narratives at the time. It also counters retrospective attempts to establish new public narratives of crisis for socio-political purposes.

Critiques of capturing experiences during crisis focus on the potential harm to participants. Snow’s talk will use evaluation data to show how such risks can be minimised if the work is undertaken in a supportive, responsive framework. To conclude, Snow will argue that historians need to be as concerned with preserving the present as they are about exploring the past.

Cognitive Robotics: From Babies to Robots and AI

Posted on: June 12th, 2024 by mlpEditor

Cognitive Robotics combines insights and methods from Artificial Intelligence (AI), cognitive and biological sciences, and robotics. It’s a highly interdisciplinary approach that sees AI computer scientists and roboticists collaborating closely with psychologists and neuroscientists.

Angelo Cangelosi, Professor of Machine Learning and Robotics, will use the case study of language learning to demonstrate this highly interdisciplinary field, presenting developmental psychology studies on children’s language acquisition and robots’ experiments on language learning.

Growing theoretical and experimental psychology research on action and language processing, and on number learning and gestures in children and adults, clearly demonstrates the role of embodiment in cognition and language processing. In psychology and neuroscience, this evidence constitutes the basis of ‘embodied cognition’, also known as ‘grounded cognition’.

In robotics and AI, these studies have important implications for the design of linguistic capabilities – in particular, language understanding in robots and machines for human-robot collaboration. This focus on language acquisition and development uses Developmental Robotics methods, as part of the wider Cognitive Robotics approach.

During the talk, Angelo will present examples of developmental robotics models and experimental results with the baby robot iCub and with the Pepper robot. One study focuses on the embodiment biases in early word acquisition and grammar learning. The same developmental robotics method is used for experiments on pointing gestures and finger counting to allow robots to learn abstract concepts such as numbers.

Angelo will then present a novel developmental robotics model, and human-robot interaction experiments, on Theory of Mind and its relationship to trust. This section of the presentation will consider both our Theory of Mind of robots’ capabilities, and robots’ own ‘Artificial Theory of Mind’ of our intentions. This will demonstrate that trust and collaboration is enhanced when we can understand the intention of the other agents and when robots can explain to us their decision-making strategies.

The implications for the use of such cognitive robotics approaches for embodied cognition in AI and cognitive sciences, and for robot companion applications, will also be discussed. Angelo’s talk will also consider philosophy of science issues on embodiment and on machine’s understanding of language, the ethical issues of trustworthy AI and robots, and the limits of current big-data large language models.

We hope you’ll join us, Angelo, iCub and Pepper for a really absorbing talk and practical presentation that will really get you thinking.

The Square Kilometre Array: a radio telescope for the 21st century

Posted on: June 11th, 2024 by mlpEditor

Hear about the truly astounding next-generation radio telescopes, built by a global consortium anchored in North West England, from one of the project’s leaders.

What are radio telescopes exactly? And why is the history and development of them particularly significant to our region?

Radio telescopes are used by astronomers to study radio waves emitted by distant objects in the universe. They can be used in the daytime as well as at night and are less sensitive to atmospheric conditions.

Since astronomical radio sources – planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies – are extremely distant, the radio waves coming from them are very weak. Moreover, radio waves have long wavelengths relative to optical waves. For these reasons, radio telescopes need large antennae and highly sensitive receiving equipment. It is also better to locate radio observatories as far as possible from centres of population to avoid interference from man-made electronic devices.

The world-famous Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire – which has a large single dish antenna – meets these criteria and has been used to make significant contributions to radio astronomy over the years. How has the technology developed since the Lovell was completed in 1957?

Rather than being based on a single antenna, the latest generation of radio telescopes use arrays of antennae that are linked together to form the equivalent of a much larger single antenna. Over the last three decades, astronomers and engineers from around the world have been planning, designing and, finally, building two huge, next-generation radio telescopes. One is located in the Karoo in South Africa, the other in the Murchison region of Western Australia. The whole project is run by the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), whose headquarters are located at Jodrell Bank.

Phil Diamond’s talk will provide insights into the scientific motivations behind the SKA, covering subjects as diverse as the evolution of the Universe and the origins of life. He will describe the history of the project, in which Manchester and Jodrell Bank play a key role, and explain some of the differences between SKAO and traditional observatories, both optical and radio. As an example, one of the key differences is the sheer volumes of data that will be generated. What are the strategies and techniques being developed to manage this oncoming deluge of data? Phil will talk to us about that. And we’ll also get the chance to see the latest images of the construction progress, which is now at a very exciting phase.

Don’t miss out on what promises to be a brilliant talk by a multi-award-winning scientist from the University of Manchester. The event is open to anyone interested in science and technology and you don’t need any specialist knowledge to enjoy it.

How should we pay for driving?

Posted on: May 20th, 2024 by mlpEditor

This talk explores a fairly simple but hugely contentious question: how should we pay for driving?

As a society we have become accustomed to paying fuel duty and an annual tax on maintaining a vehicle. To varying degrees, we also pay for parking and, in a very small number of places in the world, for driving in the busiest or most congested central areas or on bridges and motorways. The principles behind what we pay, what we pay it for and how it eventually gets used have not been clearly stated or consistently applied.

The economic principles behind the ‘optimal pricing’ of driving have been understood for many decades but remain largely stuck on the bookshelves. Major protests in the UK and, more recently, in France and Germany have shown that rising fuel prices can be a flash point for wider political unrest. Change, at a local scale as shown in London, Nottingham and Stockholm is possible – but by no means inevitable or easy as referenda in places like Manchester and Edinburgh have shown.

Professor Greg Marsden (Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds) will argue that whatever you think of the current arrangements for paying for transport, there is a need for a new way forward because of the change to electric vehicles. The transition – where part of the population is driving electric and part fossil fuel vehicles – will become increasingly unfair.

If we do not take any decisions to change the way we pay for travel, then we can also anticipate greater congestion as electric vehicles are cheaper to run than their fossil fuel counterparts. We will both drift further away from the economic principles of the allocation of scarce resources (road space) and from a major source of tax revenue which, in part, funds the transport investments of the day.

Some of the main questions facing us are: What principles should guide any transition from paying at the pump to paying at the plug? What is the relationship between what we pay for driving and what gets spent on transport? How should this debate be resolved? Who gets a say in this? And what is the role of elected representatives at local levels?

Using examples from around the world, Greg will discuss options and opportunities and advance the debate. Doing nothing is an option…But not a good one.


Black Holes: the key to understanding the universe

Posted on: March 18th, 2024 by mlpEditor

Black holes are fascinating objects because of the way they force us to address the biggest questions in physics such as the essential nature of space and time.

Black holes are formed when massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle. Their gravity is so strong that light cannot escape from them. The first direct image of a black hole and its vicinity was published in 2019 using observations made by the Event Horizon Telescope in 2017.

Jeff Forshaw will introduce black holes and go on to examine the consequences of trying to track the flow of information into and out of a black hole. Recent insights indicate that space and time are emergent features related to key concepts including “quantum entanglement”, and in a fashion that bears some resemblance to “quantum error correcting codes”, such as are needed to make stable quantum computers.

Human Interactions and the Implications for Ethical and Responsible RAI (Robotics and AI)

Posted on: March 4th, 2024 by mlpEditor

What do we mean by trustworthy robotics? And why is that important?

The increasing deployment of advanced technology in our daily lives, such as embodied robotics like intelligent wearable robots for rehabilitation, continues to raise ever more complex questions about the ethical implications of their use, and what that means in practical terms.

One approach to answering these complex questions is to frame the debate around what we mean by Responsible Robotic and AI (RAI) use. In this talk, Dr Emily Collins will argue that to best understand the consequences of RAI’s short or long-term use, we need to place an understanding of human interactions as central to our understanding of it.

Who are the users? Who are the employers of those users? Who deploys the technology? And what do these mediating relationships have to do with who is ultimately responsible for what happens when we use technology in real-world, applied settings? Dr Collins argues that asking these practical questions get us closer to understanding what we mean by ethical RAI.

And what about trustworthiness? In the field of Human-Robot Interaction there is increasing interest in considering, measuring, and implementing subjective trust, and objective trustworthy factors, as it pertains to responsible RAI. You might subjectively decide to trust a robot, but what specific factors about that particular robot make it trustworthy? Is a robot’s trustworthiness contingent on the user’s relationship with, and opinion of, the individual or organisation deploying the robot?

Dr Collins will discuss examples highlighting the need for trustworthy RAI in a variety of disparate environments, and a new approach to studying robotics will be presented. How can there be one approach when assessing trustworthy, responsible, transparent and ethical RAI when a human’s relationship with the person, employer, or government – who has given them RAI to work with – is not consistent?

Shedding new light on disease

Posted on: March 4th, 2024 by mlpEditor

Can spectroscopy and AI help in the fight against cancer?

It is well known that early and accurate diagnosis of cancer is essential for both getting the correct treatment and obtaining the best outcome. At the first sign of trouble a biopsy is normally taken to examine tissue from suspicious lumps or lesions. A pathologist will then stain the tissue and examine it through a conventional microscope.

Pathology services, however, are increasingly under strain. The number of pathologists is decreasing year-on-year by approximately 15%. In addition, many cancers, such as prostate, are age related. Given that we have an aging population, there is an ever-increasing number of samples to be analysed.

Back in 2016, Cancer Research UK reported that ‘diagnostic services, including pathology, urgently need support and investment to ensure that diagnoses aren’t delayed and patients benefit from the latest treatment, and separately that ‘Immediate action is needed to avert a crisis in pathology capacity and ensure we have a service that is fit for the future.

The government has suggested histopathology is ‘a key area ripe for technological revolution’. Part of that technological revolution is occurring in the form of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As we move from looking under a microscope to taking a digital image, pathologists are able to use AI to analyse these images and pick out key features that are indicative of cancer. These new analysis methods can help the pathologist in making the correct diagnosis.

AI, however, is not the only technology that is being explored. New spectroscopic microscopes are being developed that do not require any stains or dyes to “see” the tissue. The image is created by analysing vibrations in molecules that make up the tissue. AI can then be used to probe these chemical maps and look for features that cannot be seen under a conventional microscope.

These new techniques are very much in the developmental stage, but it is hoped that such methods will soon be available to help pathologists and improve cancer care.

Knowledge, Teaching and Artificial Intelligence

Posted on: February 29th, 2024 by mlpEditor

How can we reliably assess knowledge following the advent of Generative AI?

Recent advances in Generative Artificial Intelligence represented by new tools such as ChatGPT, have caused much excitement and some alarm in education. Mark Johnson’s talk is about what underpins both the excitement and the alarm: the reality that an automaton can select words which are as meaningful to humans as those which might be selected by humans themselves.

Given that education has traditionally associated the assessment of knowledge with the ability to select words in writing, this technological development presents a number of fundamental questions including:

What is knowledge beyond the selection of words?

How is the human selection of words different from that of an AI?

How can deeper, and often tacit, knowledge be taught and assessed?

Beginning with philosophy of language and an account of the mechanics of AI, Mark will present an analysis of these questions in relation to practical experiments. He will argue that understanding what is happening ‘under-the-bonnet’ of AI helps us to see the critical differences between human word-selection and artificial word-selection.

This presents some reassurance as to the uniqueness of human action, but some urgent critical challenges for the future of educational practice. Some examples of innovative educational practice with AI will be presented, drawing on work in the UK, China and in European Universities.

*The Percival Lecture* South Africa’s Modernism, Modernism’s South Africa

Posted on: January 23rd, 2024 by mlpEditor

When and where does modernism begin?

Is it in Paris in Spring 1907, when Pablo Picasso, inspired by the African masks he has seen on display in the Palais du Trocadéro, returns to his studio to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?

Or, is it in the semi-desert region of South Africa in the 1870s, when teenage governess, Olive Schreiner, writes her first novel: The Story of an African Farm?

In the first origin story, Europe is the site of modernist innovation. Here, African art is viewed as little more than a repository of “primitive” imagery, in need of reinvention by the European artist in order to become truly “modern”.

In the second origin story, a South African writer produces a highly experimental, already-modernist novel that establishes forms and ideas that would later appear in, even influence, the development of English modernist literature.

One of these origin stories is more widely known that the other because modernism is primarily associated with early-twentieth century European and American artists and writers. Familiar figures from literature include James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. And writers associated with the Bloomsbury Group, such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.

Yet Schreiner wasn’t alone amongst her countryfolk in using innovative literary techniques to engage with conditions of modernity. Others came in her wake. These pioneers included Solomon Plaatje, the first black South African to write a novel in English. Others were H.I.E. Dhlomo, a pioneering poet, playwright, essayist and journalist; poet Roy Campbell, who became embroiled in friendships and feuds with members of the Bloomsbury Group; and novelist William Plomer, one of the most prolific writers for the Hogarth Press, run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

In this talk, Jade Munslow Ong will discuss a range of South African origin stories, taking in both South Africa’s modernism and modernism’s South Africa. She will offer an account of the modernist aesthetics and politics established and promoted by South African writers. And she will explore the debt owed by English modernists to the South African innovators that preceded, coincided with, collaborated on, and influenced their work.


Event schedule

6.00 pm – Doors open, tea and coffee served

6.30 pm – Talk starts

7.30 pm – Drinks reception for members and special guests

8.30 pm – Event ends


We are very grateful to the University of Salford for hosting this year’s Percival Lecture. This is a members-only event and places are limited. Booking opens 1st February 2024.

Beyond the score – Music, Dementia and Wellbeing

Posted on: January 17th, 2024 by mlpEditor

In this event, talented performer and PhD student Xiaoxiao Hou will guide us on an exploration of the application of music psychology to daily life. We will unravel the intricate connections between melody and the human psyche, and examine how a nuanced understanding of music psychology enhances wellbeing, elevates performance, and enriches cognitive processes.

Xiaoxiao Hou will introduce her current doctoral project, Music and Dementia. This research project focuses on the therapeutic potential of music in the care of elderly people and those with Dementia. Xiaoxiao will discuss the methods we can use to understand the transformative potential that music plays in our lives and how this can support our relationships with those whose practical memories are fading.

There is increasing evidence that musical memory may be different to the kind of day to-day memories that can be affected by Dementia. Music can go to places where other things do not. And the shared experience and friendships that enjoying music together may bring can also have a positive benefit.

Xiaoxiao has had personal experience of how music can affect memory, and her talk will offer a personal take on how music applications can enhance our lives. Her grandmother, a talented performer on the guzheng (Chinese zither) developed Dementia but was able to perform relatively late into her illness. This gave Xiaoxiao an insight into how music can influence our capacity to adapt to challenges and a desire to help people with this condition.

She will also explore how music applications need to consider the impact that culture and background have on the practical implementation of this tool. Music should be specifically tailored to the choices of individuals – and people with Dementia are well able to express their preferences.

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