By Jacob Ohrvik-Stott,  Project Officer at the British Science Association


We’ve all been there. It’s 7.00pm on Monday night, and your basket is full of the food required to sustain you for the week. It’s time to pay, and as you approach the checkouts, a familiar choice presents itself. Do you opt for the safe monotony of the overly long queue for the tills, or risk it all with the self-service machine lottery?

You opt for the latter, and as the loaf of bread in your hand glides effortlessly from basket to bag you gaze at the queue for the tills wearing an expression of smug contentment, the embodiment of the modern tech-savvy man. 

Then it happens. ‘Unexpected item in bagging area’.

Whilst such a scene may seem trivial to all except the customer adopting the foetal position at the foot of the self-service machine, further consideration of the situation yields some complex debates. Do the autonomous machines designed in the name of efficiency and consistency improve or hinder our society? Do we control technology or does it control us? How will the impacts of artificial intelligence and autonomous tech manifest themselves in the future? At the British Science Festival, there are a number of brilliant events attempting to answer such questions.

Kicking off proceedings on Wednesday 9 September at 14.00 will be journalist Liz Green, who hosts our 'Driverless vehicles: not just science fiction' panel discussion. The wide-ranging impacts of autonomous vehicles mean they are an excellent basis for introducing the key themes in interactions between technology and society. From an environmental perspective, proponents of such vehicles claim they will combat climate change by improving fuel efficiency, whilst crash-optimisation algorithms stand to save millions of lives if successful. Critics however can point to the ethical and legal dilemmas posed by storage of personal location data and ambiguity in who is responsible for accidents. The event promises to be lively and informative, and should not be missed!

On 10 September at 13.00 this can be ably complimented with 'Drone Revolution'. Ranging from the whimsical ‘dronie’ (yes, that is short for drone selfie) to the altogether more serious drone warfare, this talk will take you through the myriad of emerging applications of drone technologies, exploring how they stand to shape our cultural and political landscapes.  The event also features a live drone demonstration, and with drones also used for beer delivery at events and surveying disaster zones, anything could happen. We hope the demonstration is more in the spirit of the former then the latter.

And finally, artificial intelligence (A.I) has the honour of being the topic of the third chapter in our Huxley debate series, which aims to emulate the atmosphere and influence of the infamous 1861 Huxley vs. Wilberforce debate on evolution. A.I is a new breed of computing aiming to equip technology with the capacity to learn in an environment, improving its ability to carry out a given function. Whilst the human race stands to benefit indefinitely as A.I finds new fields of application, the question of what would occur should we unintentionally come between an A.I system and its mission remains very much unanswered. The complexity and importance of the issue has led to recent public pleas in both support and opposition of A.I from luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil.

Come to the British Science Festival from 17.00 on Wednesday 9 September as our own expert panel discusses the inexorable link between the futures of A.I and society in the Huxley Debate: living on the planet of the machines

If one man can be defeated by a self-service machine, could society be defeated by the next generation?

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