Steampunk fun

Cool. I love steampunk stuff. Especially as quite a lot of the random junk equipment in my lab looks vaguely like it could belong in this genre. So here’s an exhibition you can go and see in Oxford:

Tech Know: Fast forward to the past

“The growing number of artists and amateurs who have built steampunk devices has led the Oxford Museum of the History of Science to mount an exhibition of them. The show runs until February 2010.

Browse the exhibits and spend time with steampunks and it becomes obvious how to spot members of that distinguished breed – they are the ones with the swagger and buckets of style”

Here are some more Pretty pictures

There’s also a blog:
Steampunk Art @ Oxford, The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University

Circuit diagrams of real neural systems


How to Map Neural Circuits With an Electron Microscope


“This giant, and potentially revolutionary, task requires custom software, electron microscopes and an incredibly sharp knife. If everything goes right, the team may be the first to create a circuit diagram that explains how mammals see.”

Photo Credit: Marc Lab / Moran Eye Institute

This is just too cool for words.

I’m reading permutation city by Greg Egan at the moment – which paints a picture of a world where the human nervous system has been sufficiently ‘mapped’ to such an extent that simulations of the brain can be run resulting in artificial (or actual – you decide) intelligence. Strong AI for the win! *ahem*

How far away is this technology? If we can map neural pathways by taking slices, scanning them with an SEM/TEM, and and automatically reconstructing the 3D original using clever software.. then all you need to do is bring it to life digitally using a wetware-friendly circuit simulator – I’m not sure such a thing exists… If not, lets develop one and call it MeatSPICE 🙂

Seriously, I have a colleague who does work on electrical models of the nervous system. You can essentially model neurons and axons as electrochemical transmission lines with inductance, capacitance and resistance. It’s a good way for physicists, biologists and biochemists to collaborate.

I also have a slight penchant for this kind of thing seeing as I love using the SEM as an imaging tool. In addition, I recall spending a couple of weeks once doing some work experience at the histopathology department of my local hospital; watching how you actually make those waxy slices and observing them under an optical microscope. (Although we were looking for cancer cells in that particular case and musing over how you could automate such a task).

I’d love to put a load of these ideas together into something tangible to research (as an aside to my already busy schedule!), but it’s a wide, diverse assembly of proto-thoughts (of which I have far too many), requiring quite a large collaboration from different fields.

On a slightly different note, WIRED has now been released as a magazine version in the UK. Which means all my pocket money is belong to them 😦

Future technology

Some food for thought over Christmas and the new year:
A few things I’d love to see developed in the future (organised in rough order of near-far future):

1.) Quantum Computers. Obviously. I believe we’re already well on the way to this goal 😀 And everything that comes with that development… quantum simulation, bio apps, problem solving, and hopefully answering some deep TCS questions along the way.

2.) A good, lightweight, hi-res Head-Up Display (HUD) for access to the internet (and more) on the move. The best I’ve managed so far is a EeePC and a mobile broadband dongle. Good for coffeeshops and train journeys, but not exactly the ‘information on the move’ technology as portrayed in some sci-fi (e.g. the ‘glasses’ in Charles Stross’s Accelerando)

3.) Smart materials, which control the environment surrounding the human body in a way similar to the Stillsuit from Dune, recycling waste, regulating temperature, harvesting waste heat energy to (possibly?) power small mobile computing devices and the suit itself. The clothing could perhaps give you health status updates too.

4.) Commonplace space flights for the general public, a la Virgin Galactic. I’d love to go into space at least once in my lifetime. We’re going to have to move into space when we make the transition to a Type I civilisation anyway, so we might as well get used to the idea now.

5.) Some form of personal flight device – like this SKYCAR. Although personally I favour more natural wings. Whilst human-powered ornithopters are probably impossible, some form of machine-powered personal ornithopter would be rather cool. (Anyone who knows me will know I have a minor obsession with wings).

6.) Computing systems with (presumably parallel) processing power similar to that of the human brain, just to have some neat hardware for artificial intelligence research. I’m personally (currently) a proponent of the STRONG AI viewpoint (apologies to Roger Penrose), and I’d love to see systems with our level of intelligence developed on alternate (non-meat based) platforms.

7.) Brain-Computer interfacing (BCI) – direct upload and download of signals to the brain from an on-body or desktop computer. This also relates to point 2.) in that you could have the HUD as a direct feed to the visual cortex. In combination with point 6.), I like the idea of downloading the instantaneous ‘state’ of the brain (including the neural ‘wiring’ schematic) and and seeing if it can be ‘written’ to a brain with the same physical hardware configuration, and then observing the behaviour of the ‘artificial’ brain.

I may add to the list if I think of anything else 🙂

Quarantine by Greg Egan


I’ve just been reading Quarantine, a Science Fiction book by Greg Egan (1992). It was brilliant, I loved it! I’ll definitely be buying his other books.

— Warning – spoiler ahead! —

The first few chapters of the book introduce the idea that in the future earth has been quarantined by an extra-terrestrial species, but offers no explanation as to why. The quarantine manifests as a large bubble surrounding the solar system, somewhat akin to the event horizon of a black hole. The story follows Nick the protagonist’s exploits as a highly-trained, specialised security agent, with various neural modifications, working in a shadowy hi-tech corporation whose scientific employees are performing research and experiments. Though employed only as a security guard, he discovers the true nature of the research, specifically that humans are beginning to understand, manipulate and prevent the collapse of the quantum-mechanical wavefunction (which has been determined – in the near future setting of the novel – to occur in the human brain itself). The ability to prevent the collapse results in a delicious cornucopia of logical contradictions, many worlds scenarios and quantum metaphysical exploration during which Nick (and indeed the reader) try to retain some semblence of rational thought.

The story culminates in the corporation developing a neural mod which renders individuals unable to collapse the wavefunction and thus exist in the many-worlds plane – removing their observer qualities and *possibly* their free will. This means that they can select a ridiculously low probability eigenstate from their superposition – such as one in which they choose the correct factors of an extremely large number, or are able to throw a 1 on a fair die hundreds of times, repeatedly. In turn the reason behind the quarantine is revealed. (But I won’t give everything away). Tasty book – read it! It’s measurement-problem-tastic.

I like the idea of shadowy corporations doing QM research and messing about with the nature of reality. For some reason that appeals to me 🙂


So just as I’ve (possibly) got my head around the idea that there is Neuromancer film in the pipeline, which to be honest I’m trying to keep an open mind about (I love Gibson’s work but translation into screenplay hasn’t exactly been proven a success)…

I also find out that they are remaking Dune;

Another of my favourite scifi books…. Now I actually quite liked the 1984 version of the film. I don’t think they’ll be able to improve on that. Scifi filmmaking seems to be rather formulaic these days, I doubt they’ll include any of the internal monologue etc., which to me seems key to the storyline. Just look at the 2000 mini-series, it really didn’t work that well in my opinion.

I think I’ll always find books more fulfilling than films. Maybe I have an overactive imagination 🙂

I’ve recently finished reading The Difference Engine, which was quite interesting. It seems that alternate history scifi is the real fashion at the moment… which is not a bad thing – it can be quite educational in addition to the entertainment value.