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Two-week Cambridge Science Festival 2016 launches March 7

21 February 2016

The Cambridge Science Festival examines some remarkable engineering achievements and looks forward to exciting developments on the horizon.

On an individual and societal level, we are almost completely reliant on machines. However, we have yet to fully crack designing machines that are intelligent and learn in the same way we do. Is that all about to change? According to Zoubin Ghahramani, Professor of Information Engineering at the University of Cambridge, it is.

During his talk, Intelligence and learning in brains and machines, Professor Ghahramani highlights some current areas of research at the frontiers of machine learning, including a project to develop an Automatic Statistician, and speculates on some of the future applications of computers that learn.

Speaking about his current work, Professor Ghahramani said: “One of the machine learning projects I am working on is the Automatic Statistician: an artificial intelligence for data science. The world is awash with data that is tremendously valuable, but there are very few expert data scientists able to analyse and understand this data.

The Automatic Statistician is a computer system to which you can upload data, it analyses the data trying to discover statistically reliable patterns, and then writes a report in English describing the patterns it has found. This system could be useful for finance, medicine, scientific and social data analysis, in fact any area reliant on data analysis.”

Another rapidly developing area is the field of biomimetic materialsmaterials developed using inspiration from nature.  Dr Michelle Oyen, bioengineer from the University of Cambridge, discusses some of the creative ways we could build our future cities, focussing on nature and natural structures – for example the honeycomb structure of the beehive, the strength of spider silks and shark skin water repellency – for inspiration to solve some of our 21st Century challenges.

Dr Oyen said: “The single biggest problem with modern materials, and building with modern materials as a direct extension, is their energy footprint.  If we consider all the contributors to carbon dioxide emissions and the global carbon footprint, steel and concrete are both ubiquitous and amongst the greatest negative contributors.  In addition to the energy input at the time of fabrication, many engineering materials are not recyclable, or not recyclable in a very cost-effective manner.

So an appropriately named ‘life-cycle analysis’ of a natural or nature-inspired material is going to demonstrate advantages across both initial manufacturing and end of service time-points compared with engineering materials such as steel and concrete.”

In another similar event, Manufacturing your future: How engineers make life better, Dr Tim Minshall and the new generation of engineers from the Institute for Manufacturing explain how engineers improve our lives in a myriad of ways, from making someone a new arm to constructing a building nearly 1km tall.

Speaking about his event, Dr Minshall said, “We are healthier, wealthier and more connected than at any time in history. The pace of technological change is breath-taking, and there doesn’t seem to be much sign that things are slowing down.  But how do we ensure that we are able to benefit from the opportunities and avoid the potential disasters presented by this extraordinary period in our planet’s evolution?  We need people who can understand not just the science and technology, but also the ‘softer’ issues such as entrepreneurship, ethics and economics. This talk is a chance to hear from our next generation of engineers.” 

Moving back in time to focus on amazing engineering achievements in the past, Dr Hugh Hunt, Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration from the University of Cambridge, reflects on Colditz Castle and the Dambusters raid – two iconic events of World War II. During his talk, Dambusters, Colditz and climate change: the Blitz spirit, Dr Hunt looks at the engineering challenges faced by Barnes Wallis in his design of the bouncing bomb and by the prisoners of war who never flew the glider they built in the roof of Colditz.

Dr Hunt’s current work centres on ways to cool the earth if we fail to meet our carbon dioxide emissions targets. He believes a possible answer is to refreeze the North Pole once it melts. “One idea is to pump TiO2 (Titanium Dioxide, the active ingredient in suntan lotion) particles into the stratosphere – just like a terrestrial sunscreen.  To get the stuff up there – 20km above the ground – we can use a big helium balloon (the size of Wembley Stadium), a 20km long hose and a hefty pump to spray a fine mist of TiO2 into the upper atmosphere to reflect some sunlight just like volcanic eruptions do.”

During his talk, Dr Hunt relates some of the WWII engineering achievements to the present day and ponders on what a modern-day Barnes Wallis might dream up to solve some of our most pressing challenges, such as climate change.

Other events related to engineering during the Cambridge Science Festival include:
- The James Dyson Foundation Engineering Challenge invites people to take part in engineering challenges.
- In How to train your robot Philip Garsed and Rachel Garsed try to program their (suspiciously life-like...) robot to carry out a simple task.
- Graduate engineering students take on the challenge of sharing their research in just six minutes forty seconds during the Pecha Kucha challenge.
- The Robogals return to the Science Festival to teach people how to program Lego Mindstorms robots during a workshop. They also join the CHaOS team during another series of robotics workshops.

Full information about the event is available here.

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