Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already ubiquitous in our lives. It curates our nightly TV entertainment, connects us to our friends online and navigates us, mostly successfully, to our destinations. However these uses are just the beginning, and it will likely bring societal changes we can’t yet imagine.
In this year’s BBC Reith lectures, AI expert Professor Stuart Russell will be exploring how AI has been represented in popular fiction, envisaging how this technology might shape our futures and how we best prepare for it. So who better to unwrap his ideas than science sleuths Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry, with their customary curiosity and irreverent insights?
In this, the first of four episodes, Rutherford and Fry – together with guests author and podcaster Azeem Azhar and AI scholar Kate Crawford - will be unravelling what we actually mean by AI, exploring how far machine learning already underpins our lives, imagining the functions it might provide in the future and asking what challenges and risks might lie ahead. Can AI transform society as profoundly as electricity once did leading to a golden age for humanity, or have we all watched too many sci-fi movies?
The Venomous Vendetta
Whilst watching a documentary about some poisonous frogs, Curio Janni in Amsterdam, started to wonder what would happen if a frog licked itself or another frog of the same species. She asks Dr Adam Rutherford and Professor Hannah Fry to investigate whether an animal would react badly to a toxin it itself produces? In essence, 'can a venomous snake kill itself by biting itself?'
Of course the answer is complicated, but the sleuths know exactly who to ask.
Steve Backshall, award-winning wildlife explorer, best known for his BBC series 'Deadly 60'. Author of 'Venom – Poisonous Creatures in the Natural World'. Steve has been bitten, stung and spat at by a plethora of venomous creatures during his career. He also studied the first-known venomous newt - the sharp-ribbed newt - a creature that has sharpened ribs that when it's under attack, it will squeeze its body force those ribs out through its skin, coating them in venom, which is then delivered into the mouth of an attacker.
Professor Nick Casewell, studies venomous snakes and their impact on humans. He works on treatments for snakebites at the Liverpool School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Snakebites have a huge impact on communities in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. It's now been reinstated as one of the most serious neglected tropical diseases by the World Health Organisation. Traditional treatments - antivenins - can be expensive, difficult to access and don't always work - Nick is looking into alternative medicines to treat snakebite victims.
Dr. Ronald Jenner is Principle Researcher in the Comparative Venomics group at the Natural History Museum's Life Sciences, Invertebrates Division and co-wrote the book ‘Venom -the secrets of nature's deadliest weapon.’ He explains the evolutionary arms race between venomous predators and their prey and poisonous prey and their predators. He explains how resistance to venom has evolved and how venom has evolved to be more or less powerful over time, answering another Curio - Scott Probert's question on the evolution of venom.
Christie Wilcox wrote 'Venomous – How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry'. She studied the molecular basis of lionfish venom. Christie describes how venom and immunity to venom works at the molecular level.
Presenters - Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry
Produced by Fiona Roberts
The Slippery Situation
'What is the slipperiest thing in the world?' asks 8 year old Evelyn? 'Why do my feet slip on a wet floor but when my feet are even slightly moist it's nearly impossible to put on a pair of socks without falling over and cursing the universe. What is going on here?' asks Evelyn's Dad, Sam. Hannah and Adam investigate the science of friction and lubrication - so called 'tribology' with the help of tribologists and mechanical engineers Professor Ashlie Martini from California University Merced and Professor Roger Lewis from the University of Sheffield. With their help Hannah and Adam find out why leaves on the line are so slippery, what happens to graphite in space and what is the slipperiest food. Professor of Materials, Mark Miodownik from University College London explains what's going on when friction stops two materials sliding past each other and wonders whether the slipperiest substance was actually discovered accidentally in a lab by scientists looking for something completely different. Also in the programme why the ability to reduce friction, even by minuscule amounts could have a huge impact for sustainability and reducing energy use.
Producers: Jen Whyntie and Pamela Rutherford
The Painless Heart
Why does my heart not ache after exercise? asks listener Keith. Rutherford and Fry explore how and why heart muscle cells are special.
Dr Mitch Lomax is a sports scientist at the University of Portsmouth. She helps actual Olympic swimmers get faster. She explains how most of the muscles attached to our skeletons work: Tiny fibres use small-scale cellular energy, which, when all these fibres work in concert, turns into visible muscular movement. Mitch also explains how the dreaded Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, can hit, taking a stair-wincing 48-72 hours to peak after exercise.
But skeletal muscles turn out to be quite different to heart muscles, as consultant cardiologist Dr Rohin Francis explains. Heart cells are more efficient and don't get fatigued like skeletal muscle cells. They are extremely energetic and 'just want to beat'. He also explains that the sensory feedback from the heart muscles is different too. They have a different sort of nerve supply, with fewer sensory nerves, so that there is less chance of pain signals being sent to the brain.
However, heart cells' incredible abilities are counterbalanced by one Achilles-like flaw: They cannot easily heal. Professor Sanjay Sinha is a British Heart Foundation (BHF) Senior Research Fellow and a Professor in Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine at the University of Cambridge. His job is to fix broken hearts and he explains to Adam how new research into stem cells could be used to fix normally irreparable heart cells.
Producer - Jennifer Whyntie and Fiona Roberts
Presenters - Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford
The Weirdness of Water Part 2
“I don’t really understand why water has so many properties on different scales ranging from very large and cosmic to very small quantum and quarky - Could you help by zooming in and out on water to explain what is known about it? Asks Neil Morton in Stirling.
“Why does boiling water sound different to cold water?’ asks Barbara Dyson in Brittany in France
Ollie Gordon, in Christchurch in New Zealand, wants to know ‘why water is essential for all life as we know it?’
And many more questions on the weirdness of water are tackled by super science sleuths Hannah and Adam helped by quantum physicist Professor Patricia Hunt, at the Victoria University in Wellington in New Zealand, science writer and author of ‘H2O – a biography of water’ Philip Ball and physicist and bubble expert in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UCL, Dr Helen Czerski.
Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford
Producer: Fiona Roberts