Biology is Technology: Engineering Biology and the Rise of Biological Computing (24 May 2016)

After 4 billion years of life on Earth, biology has finally entered the digital age and digital biomanufacturing is a reality.

Now that we have begun to decode the building blocks of living organisms by reading their DNA, we can convert biology into data that can be manipulated and then ‘written’. We can recombine DNA in novel ways to recreate natural materials and build complex biological systems with novel properties and capable of impressive computation.

No longer will computers be simply a tool for decoding DNA: soon, your computer itself could be made of DNA.

In this talk, I will discuss how designing computers using living organisms could revolutionise the way we store and process data.; Microsoft has recently purchased large quantities of long lengths of synthetic DNA to store digital data by encoding vast amounts of information on synthetic genes.

Scientists are increasingly learning that biological systems are even more specialised at processing complex information than the greatest supercomputers. The new field of biological computing allows us to swap microprocessors for microbiology, using our knowledge of computers to redesign and re-engineer the incredible, invisible architecture of DNA into new machines. Human-machine interactions could be greater than we ever imagined.

The answer to redesigning organisms for computing lies in Synthetic Biology, a revolutionary field which seeks to apply the principles of engineering to biology. Synthetic Biology takes what we know about biology and uses it to build new things, drawing on the design principles of engineering and the circuit logic of electronics. The line between silicon and cells is becoming blurred.

Together we’ll explore the cutting-edge of biological computing, including some insight from current research, as we attempt to look into the future of human-computer interfaces.

Can this new engineered biology deliver on the promises it has made? Are modern computers up to the task? How can we reap the rewards of digitising biology, and who should be responsible for the risks?

Max Jamilly, Engineering Biologist

Max is a business-oriented Cambridge graduate studying for a PhD at the University of Oxford pursuing a career in the Synthetic Biology start-up sector His background in life sciences and business is complimented by broad experience in cutting-edge research in the UK and USA. Max is currently in the first year of a prestigious four-year Synthetic Biology Doctoral Training Programme jointly funded by the UK Research Councils.

Max holds a BA in Biological Natural Sciences and an MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise (MBE), both from the University of Cambridge. The MBE is a one-year multidisciplinary biotechnology and business degree. After graduating, he worked as an R&D intern at Gen9 Bio, a Boston-based next-generation DNA synthesis start-up co-founded by George Church, a legend in the field.

In 2014, Max was chosen as the Carpe Diem Trust Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

Network Data Integration in Medicine: Data mining can find cancer cures (19 April 2016)

A flood of molecular and clinical data is now available describing how biomolecules interact in a cell to perform biological functions, in large, complex systems. Our challenge is how to mine the enormous data bases describing molecular systems to answer fundamental questions, gain new insight into diseases and improve therapeutics.

Computational approaches for analysing genetic sequence data have revolutionized biological understanding, and the expectation is that analyses of networked “omics” data will have similar ground-breaking impacts. Nevertheless, analysing these data is nontrivial, since many questions we ask about them represent computationally intractable problems, necessitating the development of heuristic methods for finding approximate solutions.

We have developed methods for extracting new biomedical knowledge from the wiring patterns of large networked biomedical data bases, linking network wiring patterns with function and translating the information hidden in the wiring patterns into everyday language.

We introduce a versatile data fusion (integration) framework that can effectively integrate somatic mutation data, molecular interactions and drug chemical data to address three key challenges in cancer research: stratification of patients into groups having different clinical outcomes, prediction of driver genes whose mutations trigger the onset and development of cancers, and re-purposing of drugs for treating particular cancer patient groups.

The talk will cover developments and experience in this emerging and critically important field.

Natasa Przulj, UCL

Dr. Natasa Przulj is a Professor at the Computer Science Department at UCL. Prior to being appointed professor at UCL, Dr Przulj was an Associate Professor at Imperial, where she was also a member of the Institute of Systems and Synthetic Biology, the Centre for Bioinformatics, and the Centre for Integrative Systems Biology (CISBIC). She was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at University of California Irvine from 2005 to 2010. She obtained a PhD in Computer Science from University of Toronto, Canada, in 2005.

Dr. Przulj is a Fellow of the British Computer Society. In 2014, she was awarded the British Computer Society Roger Needham Award for a distinguished research contribution in computer science by a UK based researcher within ten years of their PhD. In 2013, she was elected into the Young Academy of Europe. She received a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Independent Researcher Grant for 2012-2017 for her project titled “Biological Network Topology Complements Genome as a Source of Biological Information.” She held a prestigious NSF CAREER Award for the project titled “Tools for Analyzing, Modeling, and Comparing Protein-Protein Interaction Networks” in 2007-2011 at University of California Irvine. Her research has also been supported by other large governmental and industrial grants, including those from GlaxoSmithKline, IBM and Google.

Dr. Przulj is widely recognized for initiating extraction of biological knowledge purely from topology of real-world networks. That is, she views large and complex biological networks as a new source of biological information that needs to be mined, and looks for links between network topology in protein-protein interaction networks and biological function and involvement of proteins in disease. Her recent work includes integration and dynamics of heterogeneous network data, applied to many areas of systems biology and medicine, as well as to economics.

Computers and the power of understanding (15 March 2016)

How computers can help us extend our individual human powers of understanding.

Using computers as sophisticated tools provides us with immense resources, but does not enhance our individual capabilities. However, communicating directly with our computers as partners – symbiosis – can extend everyone’s ability to learn, understand, master complex topics, and even be more intelligent.

Could advances in neural prosthetics potentially herald Prosthetic Brains?

Dan Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Freedom Evolves (Viking Penguin, 2003) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Simon & Schuster, 1995), is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren. He was born in Boston in 1942, the son of a historian by the same name, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard in 1963. He then went to Oxford to work with Gilbert Ryle, under whose supervision he completed the D.Phil. in philosophy in 1965. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts, where he has taught ever since, aside from periods visiting at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, the London School of Economics and the American University of Beirut.

His long academic career has been devoted to interdisciplinary work on the boundaries between the sciences and the humanities, applying philosophical tools to the conceptual problems that arise when one tries to construct scientific theories and models of human minds and their activities. Working closely with leading thinkers in artificial intelligence and computer science, evolutionary biology, ethology and cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, he has developed a theoretical framework that has yielded a steady stream of insights, generating hundreds of experiments in several disciplines and a host of other innovations.

Prof. Dennett gives lectures all over the world, and videos of many of them are available on line. In the 2014 academic year he gave over 40 lectures in addition to his courses at Tufts. His lecture topics include free will, consciousness, cultural evolution, models in computational neuroscience, animal minds, humor, and religion. He is currently working on a book about how human minds are the product of a cascade of semi-independent evolutionary (and quasi-evolutionary) design processes.

He was the Co-founder (in 1985) and Co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.

Privacy and Security Law (16 February 2016)

There’s a lot more heat than light in the debate on security, privacy and how we form laws that actually work. Last month Adrian Kennard gave a barnstorming critique of the issues facing ISPs and so on the 16th of February, Duncan Campbell is going to put the current debate into some sort of historical context. Our ideas on privacy and the rights of the government to search based on Georgian ideas of liberty may not make sense in the mid 21st century or we might be giving up a little freedom for an illusion of security?

In essence, is there a way we can have a rational balance between competing concerns?

Duncan Campbell

Duncan’s CV and Wikiepedia page reads like a history of privacy and snooping. Most recently he’s been working on responses to new laws on data interception and regulation of investigatory powers. Duncan was the first journalist to reveal the existence of GCHQ in 1976, was C in the infamous ABC official secrets case, and exposed the existence of the ECHELON global eavesdropping network. He’s prepared reports for audiences as diverse as the European Parliament and The Register, somehow also managing to find time to be a founder of Stonewall and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Duncan has some good ideas on getting the right balance, a consummate grasp of the deeper issues at stake and is ready to discuss them under the Chatham House rule to ensure we can all speak freely.

Big Nanny is watching you (19 January 2016)

Do you want to die in a terrorist attack?

Do you want your children to watch internet videos of kittens dying in horrible ways?

Should drug dealers have access to secure communications?


Do you want the police, social services, binmen, and anyone with a bit of curiousity to be able to read your email, see what sites you’ve visited and snoop on your childrens’ WhatsApp?

In essence do you fear terrorists more than you fear David Cameron?

If terrorists can communicate freely, they will be hard to catch and allowing their propaganda will radicalize others. Security breaches of large firms are now so regular that the media hardly bothers to cover them, so would backdoors for MI5, GCHQ and Islington Council make it any worse?

Can we look forward to the list of blocked web sites being set by The Daily Mail, the most passive aggressive faith groups and when Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister; by The Guardian and the student union at Goldsmiths College?

Is there some happy future where we can have security and privacy?

Adrian Kennard

Our after dinner speaker is Adrian Kennard, one of the best informed, and strident voices in the debate over the new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. He’s recently been giving evidence to Parliament on the feasibility (or otherwise) of the new rules that would require ISPs to store your history and ensure encryption has backdoors for your own protection. Adrian will explain the position of the Internet Industry on this highly topical issue.

Adrian is the CEO of Andrews and Arnold Ltd, a leading British ISP, he has worked in communications for over 30 years including design and development on telephone exchange equipment, mobile phones and internet routers and firewalls. Most recently he has being giving evidence to the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Select Committee and also talking with the Home Office position on what the new RIPA actually means.

Future near, Future far: Surveillance and AI (24 November 2015)

The future will be different. A trivial truism, that conceals our inability to successfully predict much about the times to come.

Our speaker, Dr Stuart Armstrong will look at two futures:

  • Firstly, the very likely and near term rise of universal surveillance, and the great changes (and the great similarities) it could cause.
  • Secondly the very uncertain impact of artificial intelligence, and the far greater transformations it would trail in it’s wake, either starkly terrible or wondrous.

Do you, like many, see ‘AI’ as the rise of a demon that will take us towards a dystopian future? Or perhaps helping people do their jobs better, thereby making our lives easier and our locations safer, making technology more personal and purposeful than ever before?

Dr Stuart Armstrong

Stuart Armstrong started his career in mathematics and medical research, before the Future of Humanity Institute drew him in with its exciting ideas – and ended up making him care.

He has contributed to various projects to address understudied, low-probability, high-impact risks, making contributions to anthropic probability, AI safety, model assessment, expert and prediction accuracy, total surveillance, population ethics, and the far future of humanity.

Since the world hasn’t yet ended, he considers his work a success. He has been working on several methods of analysing the likelihood of certain outcomes and in making decisions under the resulting uncertainty, as well as specific measures for reducing AI risk.

His booklet “Smarter than Us: the rise of machine intelligence” lays out some the challenges in this area, and why it’s an important focus areas.

Can Computers Be Creative? (26 October 2015)

What is creativity? Historically, human creativity has been a neglected topic in psychology in general and intelligence testing in particular. Despite this, creativity is considered by most to be an essential component of human intelligence and of thinking.

Consequently, in attempting to answer the question of whether computers can be creative we must first ask if they can think and then it is only natural to ask whether computers can think creatively.

Many feel, in fact, that whereas computers can excel in well-structured areas of problem solving – e.g. logic, algebra, etc. – they have little hope of ever producing truly creative work. For a work to be creative it must be novel and useful – this represents an enormous challenge.

Prof Miller will discuss creativity in general, the nature of thinking and whether computers can think, focussing on whether algorithms can tap into human creativity? After all, is not the mind an information processor akin to a digital computer? Perhaps, like the human mind, computers too can be creative!

Prof. Arthur I Miller

Arthur I Miller is fascinated by the nature of creative thinking – in art on the one hand and science on the other. What are the similarities, what are the differences?

He has published many critically acclaimed books, including Insights of Genius; Einstein, Picasso; Empire of the Stars and 137, and writes for the Guardian and The New York Times.

An experienced broadcaster and lecturer, he has curated exhibitions on art/science and writes engagingly about complex social and intellectual dramas, weaving the personal with the scientific to produce thoroughly-researched works that read like novels.

He is professor emeritus of history and philosophy of science at University College London. His latest book Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art tells the story of how art, science and technology are fusing in the twenty-first century.

He has interviewed leading figures in the world of science-influenced art and spent time and lectured at CERN, the MIT Media Lab, Le Laboratoire, the School of Visual Arts and Ars Electronica; in 2013 he was a juror for the Prix Ars Electronica for Hybrid Art.

Artificial intelligence: an existential threat to humanity? (29 September 2015)

Artificial intelligence – is it an existential threat to humanity? Is it all hype? Or is it the shape of things to come?

Artificial Intelligence is currently a hot topic. In the past year or so it has been the subject of a number of films, and has received substantial industrial investment.

At the same time, a number of prominent thinkers have issued grave warnings of its existential threat to humanity. Is artificial intelligence all hype? Or is it really a transformative technology? And should we be afraid?

In this talk Prof Shanahan will go beyond the media soundbites and discuss some of the real technological and philosophical challenges of AI.

Prof Murray Shanahan

Murray Shanahan is Professor of Cognitive Robotics in the Dept. of Computing at Imperial College London, where he heads the Neurodynamics Group.

He gained his PhD in computer science from Cambridge University (King’s College) in 1988. He took up a lectureship at Imperial College in 1998, where he became full professor in 2006.

His publications span artificial intelligence, robotics, logic, dynamical systems, computational neuroscience, and philosophy of mind. His work up to 2000 was in the tradition of classical, symbolic AI, but since then has concerned brain-inspired cognitive architectures, neurodynamics, and consciousness.

He was scientific advisor to the film ‘Ex Machina’, which was partly inspired by his book “Embodiment and the Inner Life” (OUP, 2010).

His new book “The Technological Singularity” (2015) is published by MIT Press.

The New Industrial Revolution Goes Back to School: 3D printing in Education (2 June 2015)


With the recent disclosure that the Airbus A350 XWB aircraft uses more than 1000 3D printed flight parts, 3D printing technology has truly come of age, is no longer a hobbyist fad and enters the new industrial revolution with gusto.

The promise that 3D printing will change our lives in areas is coming to fruition with applications as a new digital manufacturing technology with uses in every industry; it is possible to design, build and test 3D structures that are un-makeable by any other technique.

However, with a current huge shortfall in recruits into engineering and a deeper decline in recruitment into Design and Technology who is going to become the Engineer 2.0 to create the future using this technology? And how will we encourage the creative spark needed?

Our speaker, Iain Major, argues that it’s time for a new approach to unleashing the creativity needed to realise the potential of this disruptive digital technology; it needs to happen early – in fact very early – in the education system and an early introduction to 3D printing technology can be the flint to help create the spark.

Iain will describe some of the technologies that fall under the umbrella of 3D printing, how they are revolutionising manufacturing and why it is imperative that schools keep up with changes in technology, particularly the creative digital technologies such as 3D printing.

Our speaker: Ian Major

Iain started his professional life as a secondary school teacher in the UK teaching Science – Chemistry is his first degree – to students between the ages of 11 and 18. After 13 years, having reached the position of Assistant Headteacher, Iain changed career; he completed an MSc in Computer Science at Bristol University and became a software writer.

A few years later Iain established ‘Bits From Bytes’ with a friend and colleague; this was the first company to commercialise the ‘RepRap’ 3D printer project and to sell complete kits of parts to build a basic 3D Printer.

‘Bits From Bytes’ was acquired by 3D Systems in 2010 and Iain worked in various roles within the business including UK Education Co-ordinator until late 2014.

Iain is now CEO of We Invent Ltd, who establish and equip creative out-of-school clubs with innovative technology – such as 3D printers and related equipment – through their ‘You Invent’ platform at no overall cost to the school and using a crowdsourcing platform to raise funds for the schools to use to invest in this new technology.

Having recently led a one day seminar on the state of 3D printing in UK education at the London Fablab with partners the Design and Technology Association and the Royal Society of Arts (with support from the Department for Education) Iain is well placed to comment on how schools are shaping up to cope with this new technology and create the engineers of the future we so desperately need.

Government IT: Doomed to Eternal Disaster? (28 April 2015)

Government is too often associated with bad news stories of expensive IT disasters. However the period since 2010 has seen serious and deep reform of how technology is used in government, and for public services. Tariq will take us through the diagnosis of the problems that plagued technology in 2010, explain the strategies to remedy these, and give an honest appraisal of success and lessons learned, as well as propose ideas for further reform. Topics as wide as digital by default, agile development, contract disaggregation, firm spend controls, skills gaps, intellectual property, modernising security, the primacy of information over technology, transparency and incentivising change in a sector without competitive threats, will no doubt fuel a lively debate!

Our speaker: Tariq Rashid

Tariq Rashid is a technology and digital strategist at the Home Office, speaking in a personal capacity, will draw on his direct experience driving some of these reforms from the Cabinet Office, particularly on open source and open standards, widening access to SMEs, improving commercial design, simplifying security, and user-focussed service development. Before government, he worked in both large global enterprises as well as small high-tech startups.