One of the highlights of this year’s ATOM Science Festival in Abingdon was a lecture by Dr Hannah Fry (here’s her website) based on her latest book Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine which will be published in paperback next Thursday. Hannah will be known to many for her TV documentaries and her long-running Radio 4 series The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry (see more about that here).
I loved her talk – she is a very natural communicator, and also extremely funny – it was full of jokes, which she told with panache. She also has courage and energy – standing up for nearly an hour and a half with questions at eight months pregnant!
The book Hello World is all about the interface between humans and computers – algorithms and AI, good and bad, when should we hand over processes to computers, when do we need to keep control, and how can we get the best of both worlds. With algorithms that old maxim GIGO – garbage in garbage out – still applies. She shared examples of poorly written algorithms from the funny – photo-captioning programmes that come up with hilarious suggestions, to the downright biased – controlling a soap dispenser that can’t recognise dark skin under it to dispense soap. She looked at whether it was better to have a bail hearing presided over by a judge, or a programme! She also compared computer diagnosis of cancer cells to the success rate of trained pigeons, and the balance we need to achieve between sensitivity of a test to the specificity to avoid false positives. The former is better done by computer, the latter by the pathologist. Then there is Satnav and the case of the Japanese tourists who tried to drive across water…
Her talk was enhanced by some great graphics, pictures and clips. She was eloquent, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure, and lovely to talk to at the book signing table – we were able to get pre-publication paperbacks. It was an excellent evening. She’ll only be doing one more public lecture, in London next week, but her Radio 4 series returns soon, I’ll be listening.
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