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.

Engineering enzymes to reduce plastic waste

Posted on: December 11th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Plastic waste is a global pollution crisis. Finding effective solutions to tackle PET plastic pollution is crucial for preserving our environment and creating a more sustainable future.

PET plastic, short for polyethylene terephthalate, is a commonly used material in bottles, containers and packaging. Unfortunately, PET plastic waste has become a significant environmental problem. When not properly recycled, PET can persist in the environment for many years, contributing to pollution in our oceans and ecosystems.

Current recycling methods for PET plastic face several challenges. The processes can be energy-intensive and costly. And the quality of recycled PET may not always be on par with virgin plastic, limiting its usability.

In 2016 scientists found an enzyme, a special type of protein, called IsPETase that can break down PET into its original building blocks. This discovery generated a lot of interest in using biological methods to recycle plastics.

But enzymes such as IsPETase are not immediately suitable to be used on a large scale, as they are not robust or efficient enough for industrial use. Whilst enzymes can be engineered to meet these industrial demands, the process is very challenging when working with plastic degrading enzymes.

In this recording of an online talk, Dr Elizabeth Bell describes the development of a high-throughput platform for engineering plastic degrading enzymes using a process called directed evolution. Directed evolution is a mimic of natural evolution but done on a laboratory scale. It focuses on tailoring the specific properties of an enzyme to meet our requirements.

Elizabeth and her team used this platform to create a new variant of IsPETase that can withstand high temperatures and is more effective at breaking down PET. The engineered enzyme can also selectively degrade the PET component of a multi-material plastic that is commonly used for food packaging.

This study demonstrates that laboratory evolution can be used as a powerful tool to engineer enzymes to effectively break down plastics. With further research and development, these engineered enzymes could play a crucial role in reducing plastic waste and promoting a more sustainable future.

Four Ways of Thinking: Statistical, Interactive, Chaotic and Complex

Posted on: November 30th, 2023 by mlpEditor

What is the best way to think about the world? How often do we consider how our own thinking might impact the way we approach our daily decisions? Could it help or hinder our relationships, our careers or even our health?

Acclaimed mathematician David Sumpter has spent decades studying what we could all learn from the mindsets of scientists. His book Four Ways of Thinking (published August 2023) is the result.

Thinking about thinking is something we rarely do, yet it is something science questions all the time. Rather than being about facts, scientific and mathematic disciplines are, in large part, about finding better ways of reasoning. Our primary mission is to shape our own minds in a way that gets us closer to the truth.

In this recording of a Manchester Lit & Phil talk, David illustrates four ways of thinking (Statistical, Interactive, Chaotic and Complex) through the lives of four mathematical scientists — Ronald Fisher, Alfred Lotka, Margaret Hamilton and Andrej Kolmogorov. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a mathematician to enjoy David’s presentation!

He combines personal experience with practical advice, showing how these tried and tested methods can help us with every conundrum. From how to bicker less with our partners, to pitching to a tough crowd.

Developing the ‘meadow’ as an urban cultural form

Posted on: November 16th, 2023 by mlpEditor

50 years ago, meadows were mainly viewed as a lost agri-environmental landscape whose passing was not much mourned. Since then, public and professional interest in the meadow’s many incarnations has grown. They are now valued for their aesthetic inspiration, their role in supporting biodiversity, their ability to restore the ecosystem, and as an ‘ecological paragon’.

James Hitchmough’s talk explores his research and practice into how to make meadows and meadow-like vegetation in urban (and sometimes rural) landscapes – in the UK and around the world – and how people view and experience them.

The foundational issues that James’ work has addressed over a career spanning 50 years include: how are meadows seen by the public in the context of urban places (as opposed to a field in the countryside)? And what are the key levers that you could shift as a designer to increase notions of value and therefore acceptance?

James’ research has also considered if it is possible to use design to maximise the chances of meadows delivering the visual and other benefits they can provide within politically contested urban landscapes.  He had observed the awakenings of the ‘nature in the city movement’ from the mid 1970’s and it was clear that getting public buy-in to urban meadows was far from automatic.

The final element in the jigsaw was understanding the ecological dynamics of meadows and meadow-like vegetation, and how this could inform management to enable these vegetation types to persist in urban landscapes. James’ interest in meadow-like-vegetation has, he states, always operated within the context of the world’s temperature vegetation as a whole, rather than just the UK. This has significantly coloured the nature of his work.

Join us for this intriguing look into how our relationship with meadows has transformed over the years.

How can we achieve a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle?

Posted on: October 11th, 2023 by mlpEditor

What new technologies are being developed to minimise the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuels?

Nuclear power is very clean and carbon neutral. But spent nuclear fuel has a storage lifetime of 300,000 years.

Reprocessing used nuclear fuel is currently carried out on large scale using the “Plutonium Uranium Reduction and Extraction” (PUREX) process. During this process, the fuel is reduced to 15% of its original weight and the extracted uranium and plutonium are used as “Mixed Oxide Fuel”. This has been carried out at scale by the UK at Sellafield (now curtailed) and continues in France at La Hague.

The residual high-level waste has a storage lifetime of 9,000 years. Much of the remainder of the long-term radiotoxicity of the residual waste is due to traces (0.1%of the original fuel) of the minor actinides. Separating these minor actinides from the chemically very similar lanthanides and other fission products is the next key step in the future reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

So, what’s the challenge? The actinides can be used as a fuel in the next generation of nuclear reactors and converted into benign products. But the accompanying lanthanides would “poison” the reactor, causing it to shut down.

In this recording of an online talk, Laurence Harwood reports on the important progress that has been made in the advanced reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The used fuel need not be a liability but a source of yet more power.

What are you drinking? A look at chemicals in the urban water cycle

Posted on: October 2nd, 2023 by mlpEditor

When you turn on the tap to get a glass of water, do you think about where that water has come from? Or rather, where it’s been and what treatment processes it has had to go through?

It’s true that chemicals can extend, improve and enrich our health, wellbeing and life experiences. But the rate at which new chemicals are being generated is resulting in widespread contamination of water. Arguably, the impacts of chemicals in our environment represent the third greatest planetary crisis behind climate change and biodiversity loss. And yet they are inextricably linked to both.

Currently, more than 56% of the world’s human population lives in cities. And daily use, release and exposure to chemicals in our environment is an emerging concern.

Leon Barron’s talk will outline how chemicals move in our urban water cycle. From the wastewater we generate, to river pollution, to contamination of our drinking water and their occurrence in both humans and biota. Advances in measurement technology has underpinned much of this, especially the use of mass spectrometry, to fingerprint chemical sources.

Leon will describe the role of wastewater in understanding exposure to chemicals, with respect to continuous release of treated effluents to our rivers, lakes and seas. He will also talk about using the analysis of wastewater generated in cities to understand consumption and exposure patterns to every-day-use chemicals – like pharmaceuticals, personal care products, pesticides, lifestyle chemicals and many others.

He will go on to assess potential solutions to this issue, to ensure that we balance the environmental impacts of chemicals and their immense benefit to society.

If we’re going to survive and thrive in the future, there is no doubt that we will need to look after our water supply.

Four Ways of Thinking: Statistical, Interactive, Chaotic and Complex

Posted on: June 28th, 2023 by mlpEditor

What is the best way to think about the world? How often do we consider how our own thinking might impact the way we approach our daily decisions? Could it help or hinder our relationships, our careers or even our health?

Acclaimed mathematician David Sumpter has spent decades studying what we could all learn from the mindsets of scientists. His book Four Ways of Thinking (published August 2023) is the result.

Thinking about thinking is something we rarely do, yet it is something science questions all the time. Rather than being about facts, scientific and mathematic disciplines are, in large part, about finding better ways of reasoning. Our primary mission is to shape our own minds in a way that gets us closer to the truth.

David will illustrate four ways of thinking (Statistical, Interactive, Chaotic and Complex) through the lives of four mathematical scientists — Ronald Fisher, Alfred Lotka, Margaret Hamilton and Andrej Kolmogorov. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a mathematician to enjoy this talk!

He will combine personal experience with practical advice, showing how these tried and tested methods can help us with every conundrum. From how to bicker less with our partners, to pitching to a tough crowd.

Engineering enzymes to reduce plastic waste

Posted on: June 27th, 2023 by mlpEditor

Plastic waste is a global pollution crisis. Finding effective solutions to tackle PET plastic pollution is crucial for preserving our environment and creating a more sustainable future.

PET plastic, short for polyethylene terephthalate, is a commonly used material in bottles, containers and packaging. Unfortunately, PET plastic waste has become a significant environmental problem. When not properly recycled, PET can persist in the environment for many years, contributing to pollution in our oceans and ecosystems.

Current recycling methods for PET plastic face several challenges. The processes can be energy-intensive and costly. And the quality of recycled PET may not always be on par with virgin plastic, limiting its usability.

In 2016 scientists found an enzyme, a special type of protein, called IsPETase that can break down PET into its original building blocks. This discovery generated a lot of interest in using biological methods to recycle plastics.

But enzymes such as IsPETase are not immediately suitable to be used on a large scale, as they are not robust or efficient enough for industrial use. Whilst enzymes can be engineered to meet these industrial demands, the process is very challenging when working with plastic degrading enzymes.

In this online talk, Dr Elizabeth Bell will describe the development of a high-throughput platform for engineering plastic degrading enzymes using a process called directed evolution. Directed evolution is a mimic of natural evolution but done on a laboratory scale. It focuses on tailoring the specific properties of an enzyme to meet our requirements.

Elizabeth and her team used this platform to create a new variant of IsPETase that can withstand high temperatures and is more effective at breaking down PET. The engineered enzyme can also selectively degrade the PET component of a multi-material plastic that is commonly used for food packaging.

This study demonstrates that laboratory evolution can be used as a powerful tool to engineer enzymes to effectively break down plastics. With further research and development, these engineered enzymes could play a crucial role in reducing plastic waste and promoting a more sustainable future.

Creating the tiniest machines: harnessing molecular-level motion

Posted on: June 13th, 2023 by mlpEditor

What possibilities do molecular-level machines hold? Are we at the dawn of a new industrial revolution, where molecular machinery will become an integral part of our lives? The incredible work of scientists like Professor David Leigh and his team would certainly seem to suggest that.

The best way to appreciate the technological potential of controlled molecular-level motion is to recognise that nanomotors and molecular-level machines lie at the heart of every significant biological process. Over billions of years of evolution, nature has not repeatedly chosen this solution for performing complex tasks without good reason.

But in stark contrast to biology, none of mankind’s fantastic myriad of present-day technologies exploit controlled molecular-level motion in any way at all. Every catalyst, every material, every plastic, every pharmaceutical, and every chemical reagent: all function through their static or equilibrium dynamic properties.

When we learn how to build artificial structures that can control and exploit molecular level motion and interface their effects directly with other molecular-level substructures and the outside world, it will potentially impact on every aspect of functional molecule and materials design. And this will surely bring an improved understanding of physics and biology.

The possibilities these new ‘tiny machine’ technologies are creating are truly incredible.

You can find out more about Professor Leigh’s work on The Leigh Group website.

Revolutionising cancer screening

Posted on: May 23rd, 2023 by mlpEditor

Whilst we can often successfully treat those that are diagnosed at an early stage, depending on the type of cancer, even the most effective treatments are often not effective when cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage. For these reasons, great efforts are made to diagnose cancers as early as possible.

There is only so much that can be done to make the public and clinicians aware of the signs and symptoms. To make real progress, we need better tests and to use them in screening programs targeting seemingly healthy people.

Up until now, screening tests have been designed to look for one specific type of cancer at a time. And a significant problem is posed by the unreliability of these tests. For every early detection of cancer, several others receive a false-positive. If we were to have 20 different screening programs (one for each type of cancer), most people would receive a false-positive result once every few years. These false-positive tests cause anxiety, can lead to invasive further testing and are expensive to the NHS.

But there is hope on the horizon. Recent technological advances allow for the detection of tiny fragments of genetic material present in the blood. This, for the first time, offers the possibility of having a single blood test for many different types of cancer. One such test can detect 50 different types of cancer, with varying success, and it only very rarely gives a false positive result. If this test can find cancer early enough, it could revolutionize the way we approach cancer control.

Professor Peter Sasieni explains this ground-breaking development in cancer research.

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