Originally written for The Student, March 2014
The beloved smartphone has revolutionised how we can manage our time on the go; emails, social networking and the most comprehensive encyclopedia in existence are all stored inside a little metal box that fits in your pocket. Now, Samsung and other smartphone swots have started transferring those popular features to the humble wristwatch, in an attempt to make smart technology not just portable, but wearable.
Smartwatches work by connecting via Bluetooth to the user’s smartphone. In this way, the watch can make phone calls and carry out voice commands. 2013 was hailed as the ‘year of the smartwatch’, with development rumoured to be taking place at all of the tech giants’ headquarters. Once the hurdles of battery life and sizing were overcome, wearable technology was being referred to as the next Big Thing.
There was just one flaw in the plan; nobody cares. Out of the 65 million people in the UK, only 426,000 have reached into their pocket (maneuvering around their fully functional smartphone) to invest in a smartwatch. According to data from research company KWP ComTech, the smartwatch is only half as popular as its wrist-adorning brother, the fitness band, but neither has gone beyond the ‘early adopter’ stage. In other words, only the real tech enthusiasts are wearing their gadgets rather than holding them.
Samsung have the leading share of the small smartwatch market, with around a third of users, followed by Sony with 21% and Kickstarter-funded Pebble with 18%. A forceful marketing drive by Samsung for their Galaxy Gear smartwatch may be responsible for the company’s lead, but the product still suffered from bad reviews. Dominic Sunnebo, global consumer insight director at KWP told the Guardian, “it got to the stage where Samsung was giving the Galaxy Gear away for free with sales of the Galaxy Note [phablet]”.
So why have smartwatches not been the furious success their developers dreamed of? It may be that we are still in the early stages of the technology; devices are currently expensive and the menu of features is disappointingly small. There is just not enough incentive to part with the cash right now, when a smartwatch can add little to a smartphone experience. The Galaxy Note, for instance, will set you back £289; a steep price for the short-lived thrill of speaking at your wrist and pretending you’re an FBI agent. For the fashion-conscious, none of the smartwatches on the market are going to be this season’s must-have accessory either. The designs are chunky and unattractive, no competition for the classic wristwatches in the same price range.
Tech giants Apple are yet to wade in to the smartwatch market. Perhaps when an iWatch enters the arena, the stakes will be raised and smartwatches will develop into the next gadget we can’t imagine how we survived without. But even the most delicately designed smartwatch is facing an uphill battle. In a smartphone generation where a declining number of people even rely on a watch to tell the time, the smartwatch seems destined to a fate as a niche gadget at best.
Originally written for The Student, March 2014
On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to the CERN facility in Switzerland. He outlined his idea for ‘Mesh’, a system which would allow academics from around the globe to share information and remotely contribute to the running of a particle accelerator.
Fortunately, Berners-Lee had the foresight not to stop at CERN. He knew that this system could transform the way that information was shared in all walks of life. The invention of hyperlinking meant that vast quantities of information could be stored and then accessed as and when it was needed. The World Wide Web was born.
The early, read-only pages of the web gave rise to ‘Web 2.0’, a platform for a new wave of online creativity: blogs, photos and videos can now be created by anyone and shared with an ever-increasing audience. Maps, encyclopedias and online shopping are all just a hyperlink away. The internet has sidled into our homes, marched into our workplaces and transformed them beyond recognition.
A remarkable fact about the web is that nobody ‘owns’ it. Berners-Lee made the history-shaping decision not to use the web as a commercial opportunity and instead persuaded CERN to make it available to the world. Nevertheless, the web is not free of power struggles. Internet service providers have often restricted the use of voice over Internet protocol, the technology that makes voice communications like Skype possible, or charged more for customers to watch videos on a competitor’s website than their own.
Twenty-five years after writing that fateful proposal, Tim Berners-Lee is far from finished. His communication brainchild has changed the way we do business, the way we entertain ourselves, seek out information and stay in touch. But the great torrent of data that these activities generate has left our personal privacy exposed. This issue has been lurking in the shadows for decades, but the Snowden leaks about NSA and GCHQ spying last year have brought the issue to the forefront of internet users’ minds. Berners-Lee is pushing for serious action. In an interview with CNET, he said: “You need to do something to say we are really serious about being trustworthy about personal and corporate data. Both the UK and the US need to make it very clear why they can be trusted in the future if people are going to store their data there.”
Berners-Lee argues that a social system, in which these fundamental values have been established, is needed for spying organisations to be held accountable. He stated, “I have the right to use the Web without worrying about being spied upon. I have the right to connect to your Web site no matter what it is, what politics you have, what color and culture you are.”
A strong recommendation for increasing web security is to move everything to HTTPS, the encrypted version of HTTP that is currently used for online transactions. Previously, the mention of HTTPS filled IT departments with a cold dread, because it required incredibly high processing power. But now, system-on-a-chip processers are available that have made encryption much cheaper and easier.
The web has evolved as a non-national entity, an unusual phenomenon that should leave it free of cultural bias. However, Berners-Lee has expressed concern that online, just as much as offline, xenophobia is still a pressing issue. “The Web has gone up without national borders, but when you look at the people that other people support, it tends to be people very much of same culture… I’d like it if developers on the Web could tackle the question of how to make Web sites that actually make us more friendly to people we don’t know so well.”
On the web’s twenty-fifth birthday, we are beginning to see what Web 3.0 could entail: applications that can ‘understand’ web pages and analyse their content. Web 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 will undoubtedly follow, and bring with them a more secure, truly non-national platform for creativity and communication.
Originally written for The Student, February 2014
Cancer research has been left in the hands of gamers, procrastinators and commuters, following the launch of Play to Cure: Genes in Space on Android and iOS. The fast-paced game will recruit people from around the world to make sense of Cancer Research UK data.
The mission is to collect a fictional substance called Element Alpha on a treacherous journey through space. You must navigate a route through the densest areas of Element Alpha, dodging and destroying asteroids as you go. By earning credits, you can upgrade your spacecraft and work your way up the ranks in ‘Bifrost Industries’.
The free game is the result of a collaboration between Cancer Research UK and Guerilla Tea, a games developer based in Dundee. The format was developed at GameJam, an intense weekend of collaboration between games technology specialists and scientists.
By planning a route for their spacecraft, gamers are helping to identify genetic faults and taking steps towards answering some of the toughest questions in cancer research. Dr Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive said, “This is ambitious – it’s no mean feat combining the most advanced genetic data with cutting-edge gaming technology.”
The Genes in Space game is the second Citizen Science project run by Cancer Research UK. Last October, a program called Cell Slider was launched to help analyse a set of breast cancer samples. Over 200,000 people took part in the classification of the samples, reducing the analysis time from 18 months to just three. In both projects, several people analyse each sample, reducing the risk of any mistakes being made.
Genes in Space incorporates the data analysis into a fun, interactive setting. The ‘space maps’ that are shown to gamers are actual scientific data, collected using a technology called gene microarrays. In cancer cells, large sections of chromosomes are often gained or lost, meaning that the cell ends up with more or fewer copies of some genes. These changes are picked up by microarrays. What scientists need to work out is which of these genes actually cause cancer, and which are just ‘passenger’ genes, carried along with their neighbours.
Microarrays allow many tumour samples to be studied at once, so the most frequent changes can be identified: these are the ones likely to be the cancer culprits. The problem is that the amount of data generated by microarrays is staggering. Although computer software has been developed to try and analyse it, the human eye seems to still be the most accurate tool available for detecting patterns. Genes in Space is a way of harnessing the best technology on a massive scale.
Hannah Keartland, citizen science lead for Cancer Research UK, said: “We hope thousands of people worldwide will play Play to Cure: Genes in Space as often as possible, to help our researchers get through this data. We urge people to give five minutes of their time wherever and whenever they can – whether they’re waiting for their bus to arrive or they’re in the hairdressers having a blow-dry. Together, our free moments will help us beat cancer sooner.”
Originally written for Focus magazine’s website, sciencefocus.com
Disaster response teams could be recruiting workers from the insect world in the future. A motion-sensing system developed by researchers at North Carolina State University transforms cockroaches into ‘biobots’, which could scurry into a disaster site and look for survivors.
The cockroaches can be controlled thanks to a wireless microchip backpack weighing just 0.7 grams. This directs electrical impulses to the cockroach’s antennae, tricking the roach into thinking it has hit a physical barrier and causing it to change direction.
By incorporating Microsoft’s Kinect system, usually used in video game technology, the cockroaches can even be controlled on autopilot. As the roach moves along a digitally plotted route, the Kinect system remotely monitors its progress and corrects any drifting from the path.
Kinect is also able to collect data on how the cockroach responds to the electrical impulses. This will allow researchers to fine-tune the technology and steer the cyber-roaches more accurately.
The scientists hope that the cockroaches will eventually be able to map disaster sites such as collapsed buildings. “The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation,” says Dr Alper Bozkurt. “We may even be able to attach small speakers, which would allow rescuers to communicate with anyone who is trapped.”
Originally written for Focus magazine’s website, sciencefocus.com
Are you planning on heading to a muddy, music-filled field this summer? Don’t leave home without our top 5 festival gadgets.
X-mini MAX II Portable Speakers (XMI, £25.99)
These deceptively small speakers can deliver impressive sound quality for up to 12 hours – perfect for when the live music has ended but your night hasn’t. If your friends are smart enough to have a set too, you can chain them together and really pump up the volume. They’ll work with your phone, MP3 player and even with your laptop when you’re recovering at home.
BioLite CampStove (£150)
The concept of this BioLite stove sounds too good to be true. It runs on fuel you can pick up off the ground – twigs, bark or pinecones – providing you with a free, low-smoke fire. It’s powerful enough to boil a kettle in five minutes. But that’s not all – the BioLite also has a USB port and generates free electricity, which you can use to charge your phone, MP3 player or speakers. Who said camping had to be low-tech?
Tentfinder (The Monster Factory, £19.99)
If you’ve been to festivals before, you will be familiar with your tent’s ability to camouflage itself amidst a sea of identical pop-up tents. The Tentfinder offers a solution, as long as you’re within 50 metres of your humble abode. With a flick of a remote, the 23 LEDs on the dome-shaped light will illuminate your tent like a glowing beacon. It could save you hours of aimless wandering.
GoPro Hero 3 camera (£199.99)
Save yourself the inconvenience of a low battery or a cracked smartphone screen and capture your festival experience on the Go Pro Hero 3 instead. The camera has waterproof casing, shoots professional quality videos, and takes photos with its five-megapixel camera. It’s also small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, so it shouldn’t be too bulky for camera-hating crowds.
Solarmonkey (Powertraveller, £35)
Does the idea of being without your smartphone fill you with a cold dread? Don’t worry, you can even tweet from your tent if you invest in a solar powered phone charger. The solarmonkey also comes with a ‘solarnut’ accessory that stores excess energy, allowing you to charge your phone even when the skies cloud over. So keep those Facebook updates flowing.
Originally written for The Student, April 2013
Edinburgh International Science Festival – National Museum of Scotland, 23 March
“Curiosity is in our genes”, argued Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, in the opening talk of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Judging by the electric atmosphere that filled the exhibition halls of the National Museum of Scotland, she’s not wrong.
As Glover explained, it’s more than just an interesting turn of events that humans strive for knowledge. Scientific progress will be essential in tackling global issues like increasing energy demands, food security and ageing populations. It also drives the innovation that leads to the array of gadgets we are now so heavily reliant on.
But the power of science doesn’t stop there. Bridges can be built between scientists from nations that otherwise have no chance of reconciliation. This ‘science diplomacy’ existed between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and more recently US scientists have worked with officials from North Korea, Iran and Cuba.
Motivating scientists to communicate their work is not always straightforward. With heavy pressure to churn out publications in order to secure funding, it will be necessary to reward scientists in some way for public engagement. It’s easy for an exciting scientific discovery to be painted in the wrong light by the media and cast out as dangerous or ethically questionable. Scientists must communicate proactively before lobby groups fill the void.
Science is full of uncertainty. This may seem like a frustrating concept, but Glover insisted it’s what gets her up in the morning. It is important that scientists are open about what facts they do or don’t have, and show empathy for public concerns.
Ending with a question and answer session, it was clear the audience were in full agreement with Glover’s advocation of widening the flow of science communication. But one question kept coming up: how will scientists learn to do that? It may be that the communication of science will be incorporated into undergraduate degrees in the not-too-distant future.
Originally written for The Student, February 2013
What would you do for your best friend? You may pride yourself on being a loyal companion – you wipe away tears, crack jokes and supply crucial cups of tea when essays have been left to the last minute. I’d do anything for them, you might be thinking. But what if you were presented with the following request: will you freeze my body if I die?
Cryonics is the act of freezing a dead body immediately after death, in the hope that the body can be brought back to life when the technology to do so is developed. In the short term, preserving the body, in particular the brain, requires rapid cooling, a supply of preserving chemicals and mechanical CPR to maintain the flow of oxygenated blood. This is where having a loyal friend close by is essential; there is only a narrow window in which cryopreservation has any chance of being successful. Once transported to a cryonics centre, the body is stored indefinitely in liquid nitrogen.
Alcor Life Extension Foundation, one of the largest cryonics companies, based in Arizona, claims to have over 1,000 members, but due to the fact that cryonics is a relatively recent trend, a morbid waiting game has begun. So far, only 250 bodies worldwide have been stored in chambers called cryostats, where they await their resurrection. To put it bluntly, Alcor members watch and wait for each other to die.
One of Alcor’s cryopreserved bodies belongs to Kim Suozzi, a neuroscience student from the US, who died last January. She began a campaign via the website Reddit to raise money for her cryopreservation, when she discovered her brain tumour gave her only five or six more months to live. The success of her campaign shows the support that cryonics has received in recent years: a ‘standard’ preservation at Alcor costs $70,000 and body transport costs are extra. No attempts to bring these bodies back to life have yet been made: its an expensive risk.
Cryonics UK headquarters is an ordinary-looking house in Sheffield and is run entirely by volunteers with no formal medical training. So far, their work has only involved practicing the post-death routines on dummies, because none of the UK members have yet passed away. When it does happen, however, the volunteers will use their ‘time trial’ training to safely and swiftly prepare the body and transport it to America or Russia, the only countries where cryopreservation is permitted.
Assuming the science behind cryopreservation is sound, signing up to the scheme is still a long way from a guaranteed rebirth. A blog dedicated to rationalising human decisions, LessWrong, has calculated the chance of a successful resurrection as 1 in 567. The accuracy of this claim may be doubtful, but the reasoning behind it is logical. Problems range from the cryonics companies going bust to the customer dying of Alzheimer’s, which degrades the brain. Keeping the body at such low temperatures may stop all chemical processes, but ice crystals form that also cause substantial damage to cells.
Perhaps most crucially, the chance of the required technology ever being developed is given an arbitrary but worrying 50 per cent. At the moment, cryonicists are putting their faith in nanotechnology, the ability to construct or repair structures on a tiny scale. This is already being developed with the hope of repairing damage to living bodies, but there is no evidence to suggest this will be transferable to cryopreserved bodies.
The Cryonics UK website is only a little reassuring on the chances of cryonic success: “You have a choice, you can try it, and maybe live and maybe die. Or you can not try it, and definitely die.”
Originally written for The Student, February 2013
Glen’s Vodka: the staple student drink. But would a glass of Glen’s be quite so tempting if a 70cl bottle set you back £15? The Alcohol Minimum Pricing Scotland Act was passed by Scottish Parliament in May last year and will set a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol, forcing ‘bargain’ price alcohol to be eradicated from supermarkets. The act is not yet in force because of legal challenges from the Scotch Whisky Association and a number of EU countries that are large exporters of wine to Scotland but is set to be implemented by this summer.
The Scottish government have backed up the policy with projections of a 3.3 per cent fall in alcohol consumption, along with significant decreases in alcohol-related crime, hospital admissions and death over the next ten years. Young people are a key target of the initiative, which aims to delay the age that adolescents start drinking and reduce the volumes of alcohol that are perceived as ‘normal’ for young people to drink. As reported by BBC News, Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon has predicted the act will have a “significant and historic impact” on Scotland’s alcohol abuse problem, which currently costs the country £3.56bn each year. She told parliament, “Tackling alcohol misuse is one of the most important public health challenges that we face in Scotland.”
The Act raises some interesting questions about how much control the state should have over lifestyle choices like alcohol consumption, or even how effective that control can be. A similar situation arose last year when smokers were faced with a 37p rise for a pack of cigarettes after an increase in tobacco duty in the 2012 Budget. Britain’s largest tobacco company, Imperial Tobacco, warned, “[This] heavy-handed tobacco taxation policy will simply tempt more smokers to buy illicit tobacco products. The UK is already a key target market for criminal gangs of tobacco smugglers and counterfeiters.” Sure enough, Imperial Tobacco published statistics last week stating that as many as one in five cigarettes smoked in the UK is now bought on the black market.
Like Imperial Tobacco, Scotland’s whisky industry is feeling threatened by a minimum pricing approach. The Scotch Whisky Association has taken legal action against the legislation, on the grounds that it is a breach of European Union trade rules and that it is an area of policy that can only be decided in Westminster. Chief executive Gavin Hewitt said, “We agree that Scotland must address the harmful use of alcohol, but policy needs to be targeted on the problem. Some 30 per cent of those who drink consume 80 per cent of the alcohol sold. Despite warnings that minimum pricing of alcohol would be illegal, the Scottish government has pressed ahead with its ill-targeted policy and misguided legislation.”
Trade rules aside, the legislation might not be so “misguided” after all. The Scottish government has based their policy on research conducted at the University of Sheffield which predicts that a 50p increase in price will produce a 5.5% cut in drinking and a total saving from alcohol-related harm of £64m after one year. The real benefits will be seen in the long term though, with 6,500 fewer hospital admissions and a cumulative saving of £942m after ten years predicted. ¬¬
The data reported from Sheffield University is based on econometric models, but there is empirical evidence to back up the Scottish government’s claims too. A review of 112 case studies conducted at the University of Florida found that increasing alcohol pricing decreases the consumption of all types of alcohol. Heavy drinkers are affected the most and show a marked decrease in consumption, although when faced with a larger bill for their preferred beverage, tend to switch to a cheaper, less alcoholic version of the same beverage.
Despite this volume of evidence in favour of alcohol legislation, there are actually only a handful of places in the world where a minimum alcohol price has been enforced. One of these is Saskatchewan, a Canadian prairie province which is home to just over one million people. The 10 per cent increase in alcohol pricing, introduced in 2010, has resulted in an eight per cent fall in alcohol consumption on average, with beer sales being the most dramatically affected. Eric Appleby, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern said, “This is yet more evidence of the clear link between alcohol behaviour and price which is why we’re fighting so hard for a 50p minimum unit price.”
Following the introduction of minimum pricing, the same trend was observed in Saskatchewan as in the studies reviewed in Florida: consumers still purchased alcohol but preferred to buy less potent alcoholic drinks. This strengthens the case that the policy in Scotland will target the heaviest, most hazardous drinkers. As Katherine Brown, Director of Policy at the UK Institute of Alcohol Studies explains, “Minimum pricing is a relatively innovative mechanism which enables governments to target the strongest, cheapest drinks that cause the most problems in society.”
However, trends in alcohol consumption may also be affected by social or economic factors: rates have been seen to fluctuate or drop in countries without any change in alcohol policy.
In Italy between 1970 and 2000, wine consumption decreased significantly, a trend that has been attributed to an increase in urbanisation and changes in family routine rather than alcohol policy or health awareness programmes, which were not introduced until more recently. On the other hand, economic development has led to increased alcohol consumption in countries in Southeast Asia, where until relatively recently the majority of the population did not drink alcohol at all.
In Scotland, the minimum pricing policy aims to reduce the binge drinking culture common in students and young people, but it is possible that the policy neglects other issues surrounding alcohol abuse.
Samantha Dent, a third-year student at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Many of those who abuse alcohol to a serious extent will still find a way to afford it despite the raise, perhaps by cutting back on funds for food and other goods, because they have a problem that needs tackling at the source. They need more efficient support to stop them turning to drink to begin with, and that’s what the government should spend their time on, not punishing other consumers.”
The real power of alcohol legislation in Scotland remains to be seen, but the evidence points towards this being a useful step in the battle against alcohol-related harm. The truth may be as hard to swallow as a swig of Glen’s, but perhaps financial incentives will be the cure for this nation’s love affair with alcohol.