Blog Technology 31 October 2018
Understanding the ethical aspects of emerging AI is major public challenge.

Understanding the ethical aspects of emerging AI is major public challenge.

Yuichiro Chino/Getty images

The ethical dilemmas inherent in artificial intelligence (AI) will be the focus of a seminar held at the State Library Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia on 13 November.

Professors Toby Walsh and Sharon Oviatt will sit down to discuss and answer questions about the future of this technology in a forum to be moderated by Kylie Ahern, co-founder of Cosmos magazine.

The event is billed as “The ethical dilemmas of AI – Are we sleepwalking into an AI future” and is open to the public. Register for the event here.

Sharon Oviatt is a professor at Monash University, known for her work in human-computer interaction. Toby Walsh is a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, with a focus on limiting AI “to ensure the public good”.

Registration opens at 5:30pm, with a panel discussion at 6:15pm and networking drinks to follow.

Ahern says the event is open to “anyone with an interest in AI”.

“This talk will help people think bigger about AI and gain a better understanding of what it is and how it might impact us,” she adds.

The panellists are expected to discuss Australia’s investment in the field, the development of commercialised technology and use of this technology to support human needs, activities and values.

Ahern says she plans to ask the panellists about the most impactful and innovative research projects in the field today, as well as questions related to the timeframe for wide-spread AI in our daily lives.

“Outside of academia we don’t have a great understanding of AI, the history of AI research or where it’s headed,” she says.

“What should we be scared of and excited about? What are the safety measures we need to implement? How will it change us and how our behaviours?”

The event Is part of the Monash University Dean’s Seminar Series.

Blog Space 30 October 2018
NASA's InSight mission is now a podcast.

NASA's InSight mission is now a podcast.

AlexLMX/Getty images

A new podcast from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California gives listeners a behind the scenes look at the most recent mission to Mars.

The eight-episode series is titled “On a Mission” and will be airing throughout November, outlining the Mars InSight Lander mission, which launched in May 2018 and is expected to land on the planet in late November.

Host Leslie Mullen is a science journalist who interviews members of the InSight team during each brilliantly produced 20-to-30-minute episode.

The first two episodes outline the history of the mission and the difficulties the lander will face as it attempts to touch down at its designated landing site, Elysium Planitia.

Once it has done so, it will need to rest and remain undisturbed by dust or wind in order to operate. Its primary mission will be to collect data from beneath the surface, including the first measurements of seismic activity on Mars.

One of the key concerns for the InSight team is about dust the craft may face while landing. The engineers at NASA JPL added an additional protective coating to the heat shield to protect it as it enters the atmosphere at more than 12,000 kilometres per hour.

Using a mathematical approach known as Monte Carlo simulations, the team gambles with randomised landing parameters, such as mass, rocket efficiency, flight path angle, and location. In the five years leading up to launch, as many as one million scenarios were simulated.

Planet-wide dust storms are of one such condition for which the team has been planning. These forced the Opportunity Rover into remain in a sleep state since May of this year. The podcast reveals that each morning, the team at NASA JPL start the day by playing a song from their “Wake Up” playlist, which includes delights as diverse as Wham!, the Beatles and Iron Maiden.

The podcasts can be accessed here.

Find out more about Mars InSight here.

Blog Technology 26 October 2018
The Australian Synchrotron.

The Australian Synchrotron.


The director of the Australian Synchrotron, Andrew Peele, is one of 25 new Fellows of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering announced today.

Peele joined the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) facility in 2013 and has been a driving force both in securing funding for its development and in promoting its value, particularly in the areas of health research.

ANSTO’s chief executive officer, Adi Paterson, says he is delighted but not surprised by the election.

“This Fellowship is a testament to Professor Peele’s dedication and hard work in improving people’s lives through the use of powerful synchrotron X-rays and infrared radiation as well as his work in supporting science as President of the Australian Institute of Physics,” he says.

The 25 new Fellows include 10 women, exceeding the Academy’s short-term target of electing one-third of its new Fellows from female candidates. There is one overseas Fellow and one Honorary Fellow.

Academy president, Hugh Bradlow, says their election strengthens the Academy’s aim of ensuring that Australia remains a world-leading technology economy.

“We’re motivated by what’s best for our nation’s future,” he says. “And we do that by bringing together the brightest minds in technology, engineering and science to offer impartial, evidence-based, and practical advice.”

The new Fellows will be welcomed in an official ceremony at the annual meeting of the Academy on November 23 in Melbourne.

Blog Physics 23 October 2018

British astrophysicist and Oxford University visiting professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell is set to talk about her extraordinary career in a live webcast on Thursday, October 25, at 7pm US eastern time (10am Friday, October 26, on east coast Australia).

Burnell is best known for her leading role in 1967 in the discovery of pulsars – a breakthrough widely considered one of the most important scientific advances of the twentieth century.

The achievement led in 1974 to the awarding of a Nobel Prize – not to her, but to her graduate advisor, a scandal still noted, and still uncorrected, today.

Her subsequent career, however, has been every bit as stellar as her early days, and this year she has been awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, not only for her work on pulsars but also for a lifetime spent inspiring others.

The prize is worth $US3 million – a haul she plans to donate entirely to programs aimed at fostering young scientists.

She will officially receive the award at a glittering ceremony to be held on November 4 at the NASA Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley, US, hosted by actor Pierce Brosnan.

Before that, however, she will deliver a live talk at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada, webcast for people in other parts of the world. The title of her talk is: “What is that?!” The Discovery of Pulsars: A Grad Student’s Story.

The webcast can be found here when it starts.

Blog Physics 17 October 2018
Brian Cox, heading to a venue near you in 2019.

Brian Cox, heading to a venue near you in 2019.

Nicky J Sims/Getty Images for Phil McIntyre Entertainment

Acclaimed English physicist, television presenter and author Brian Cox is heading across the UK, North America, and Asia Pacific region doing a series of shows throughout the first half of 2019.

Dubbed the Universal World Tour, the event will reach major cities in Australia and New Zealand in June. Tickets go on sale on Monday, October 22, at 9 am.

Cox will take his audience on a journey through the cosmos using futuristic imagery gleaned from radio telescopes and space probes. He will discuss the origin and evolution of the universe and of intelligent life.

The show includes never-before-seen images acquired by the Hubble Space telescope, and a journey through a black hole created in collaboration with Academy-award winning visual effects company Double Negative.

Each event will also feature question and answer sessions to allow attendees to clarify their cosmos-related curiosities. Sessions will be co-hosted by award-winning comedian Robin Ince, Cox’s co-host on the long-running BBC radio program The Infinite Monkey Cage.

Cox is professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, in England. He is renowned for his entertaining and informative programs on the BBC, including the award-winning series Wonders of The Solar System, and for his best-selling books including Human Universe (2014) and Forces of Nature (2016).

He has been lauded for his contributions to the field of physics and science communication and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016. To find out more about his 2019 tour, click here.

Blog Geoscience 16 October 2018
Queensland divers are rallying for the Great Barrier Reef.

Queensland divers are rallying for the Great Barrier Reef.

Westend61/Getty Images

Divers at the University of Queensland in Australia will spend 24 hours under water in an effort to raise money and awareness for coral reefs.

The event, called For the Love of the Reef, is part of the not-for-profit Reef Citizen Science Alliance’s month-long campaign to educate the community and take action to support coral reef sustainability efforts.

A total of 48 divers from the university’s underwater club, UniDive, will take turns diving in pairs at the UQ Sport Aquatic Centre beginning at 9am on Saturday, October 20.

While underwater they will practice the surveying skills which they might use if diving around actual coral reefs. The team, lead by senior research fellow Chris Roelfsema, will coordinate events throughout the day to raise money and awareness about the reef.

According to Roelfsema, “25% of marine creatures originated from, or are depending on, coral reefs, but coral reefs only cover one percent of the ocean floor.

“These regions have the highest biodiversity in the oceans - similar to rainforests on land - and also protect us from weather events.”

He notes the difficulty in raising awareness about coral reefs, saying “a lot of people simply don’t know these facts, and how can you love and protect something if you don’t know enough about it? We are hoping that this event can play its part in changing that”.

The event includes a barbecue and prize raffle, and visitors can participate in activities such as a virtual reef exploration, an underwater rugby demonstration, reef art activities, and a nighttime screening of Lin Sutherland’s film, Beauty and the Reef.

Funds raised will be donated to environmental groups CoralWatch, Reef Check Australia, and Virtual Reef Diver.

The diving marathon is billed as ‘fun for all ages’. Registration details and a full program for the day’s events can be found here.

Blog Technology 12 October 2018
Light Up, a design for an energy efficient adaptation of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, by NH Architecture.

Light Up, a design for an energy efficient adaptation of the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, by NH Architecture. 


Is this the aesthetic face of our energy future?

The sparkling canopy draped along the beach from the roof of the Palais Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, won local firm NH Architecture first prize in the Australian leg of this year’s Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI).

Called Light Up, the design incorporates solar, wind, tensional energy and microbial fuel cell technologies that could generate 2220 megawatt-hours per year, enough to power 500 homes. Old car batteries repurposed as handrails along the paths could store energy for 24/7 access.

Second prize went to Night and Day, by Olson Kundig from Seattle in the US. The pedestrian bridge linking the esplanade to the sea in the beachside suburb of St Kilda combines solar energy with a hydro battery to generate 1000 MWh per year.

The inner-workings of the system are on show as the solar sail and water vessel, suspended above the walkway, pumps and releases water to create electricity.

The US-based LAGI provides a platform for artists, architects and other creatives to work with engineers and scientists to propose innovative and aesthetic ways to create sustainable energy infrastructure that is also public art.

The competition is held in cities around the world every two years. The 2018 Australian competition, which is sponsored by the government of the state of Victoria, attracted hundreds of entries.

Blog Social Sciences 26 September 2018
The notion of gender-based performance in school STEM subjects is illusory, research shows.

The notion of gender-based performance in school STEM subjects is illusory, research shows.

Caiaimage / Robert Daly / Getty Images

For years the male dominance of STEM-related careers has been explained away as women having less aptitude for the relevant subjects.

But a new study challenges this view, finding a high similarity between male and female performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It suggests that the top 10% of any class was, on average, equal parts male and female.

The study, conducted by Rose O’Dea, a PhD student at Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW), and published in the journal Nature Communications, collected data from more than 1.6 million students, from six years of age across 268 schools. It focused on the gender differences in variability regarding academic grades.

“We already knew that girls routinely out-perform boys at school, and we also expected female grades to be less variable than those of males, so that wasn’t surprising,” she says.

“In fact, our study suggests that these two factors haven’t changed in 80 years.

“However, what was most surprising was that both of these gender differences were far larger in non-STEM subjects, like English. In STEM subjects, girls and boys received surprisingly similar grades in both average and variability.”

Rose O’Dea goes on to speculate about why this is.

“Even if men and women have equal abilities, STEM isn’t an equal playing field for women – and so women often go down paths with less male competition,” she suggests.

Her comments are reflected in the study’s findings, which highlighted gender gap and gender variability differences between STEM subjects and later career paths.

Social stereotypes are also believed to be a contributor to the loss of females in STEM fields, a problem caused by under-representation rather than ability, and one that cannot be easily corrected.

Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at UNSW, says work needs to be done to encourage women to choose a STEM path.

“This powerful, evidence-based...

Blog Technology 25 September 2018
Harmony the robot, one of the star turns at the Melbourne exhibition.

Harmony the robot, one of the star turns at the Melbourne exhibition.

Nicole Cleary

Australia’s University of Melbourne School of Design has been transformed by event organisers Science Gallery Melbourne for a new provocative exhibition, called PERFECTION.

The show hosts 22 artworks from Australian and international artists, scientists, designers, surgeons, musicians, architects, psychologists and mathematicians.

Their interpretations cover all things, from the precise mathematics behind natural phenomena to using artificial intelligence to achieve ecological balance.

In a world of Instagram selfies and Twitter followers, many of the works question why we strive for the perfect body image and social media persona.

From envisioning a world without war, to the potential rise of genetic engineering technology and biohacking to design our ideal selves, and dating fully-customisable sex robots, the works immerse visitors in the multiple potential pathways our pursuit of perfection may take us in the future.

Dubbed by the organisers “part experiment/part exhibition”, PERFECTION encourages visitors not to simply observe the artworks but to participate and reflect on what perfection, and imperfection, mean to them. That could be in the form a silent reflection, or a conversation with one of the gallery’s mediators – or with Harmony, the sex robot who officially opened the gallery on Thursday 13 September.

Interactive works, virtual reality games, videos, sound installations produced from DNA sequences, and more take visitors on a utopian versus dystopian rollercoaster of what it means to pursue perfection in an imperfect world.

One of the interactive works, Biometric Mirror, has participants enter a futuristic beauty salon where an AI performs a psychometric facial analysis. An algorithm, based on the Marquardt Beauty Mask developed by the plastic surgeon of the same name, then generates their mathematically ‘perfect’ face. But whose perfection is it?

Science Gallery Melbourne is part of a global university-linked network of galleries leading the STEM-to-STEAM...

Blog Technology 24 September 2018
Artificial intelligence is gradually reconfiguring human life.

Artificial intelligence is gradually reconfiguring human life.

NicoElNino / Getty Images

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are beginning to revolutionise society, spreading their tentacles into areas as diverse as social media feeds and social security. This begs the question – just how much power are we prepared to cede to AI?

The Royal Institution of Australia, publisher of Cosmos, will stage a roundtable discussion at the historic Science Exchange in Adelaide, examining the benefits and pitfalls of artificial intelligence and considering Australia’s role as a world leader in the field.

The discussion will be moderated by the institution’s lead scientist Alan Duffy.

Joining the conversation will be Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist since 2016, who tackled the issue in a recent column for Cosmos.

Rounding out the panel will be Anton van den Hengel, director of the Australian Institute for Machine Learning and Professor of Computer Science at the University of Adelaide, and data policy expert Ellen Broad, author of Made by Human: The AI Condition (Melbourne University Press, 2018).

The discussion will be held on 5 October. Tickets can be purchased here.