Tag Archives: barber

A conversation about a virtual world and global extinction

Photograph of an octopusI went for a haircut a week or so ago and my barber asked me about the books I had been reading recently.  He always has a book on the shelf next to him and sometimes I find him reading when I arrive and the shop is quiet.  So it is not unusual for us to talk about our current books.  I told him about ‘Reality+: virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy’ by David Chalmers which led into a conversation about the possibility that we are in a simulation.  My posts on this topic [see ‘Are we in a simulation’ on September 28th 2022 and ‘Virtual digitalism’ on December 7th, 2022] have provoked a number of negative reactions.  People either think I have written nonsense or would rather not consider the prospect of us being part of a giant simulation.  Fortunately, my barber was happy to accept the possibility that we were part of a simulation which led to a discussion about whether our creator was the equivalent of a teenager playing on a computer in their bedroom or a scientist interested in the evolution of society; and, in either case, why they would have decided to give us hair on our heads that grows steadily throughout our life – perhaps as a personal indication of the passage of time or, simply to provide a living for barbers.  The development of human society and the use of probability to reason that a more advanced society might have created a virtual world in which we are living also led us to talk about the probability that a more advanced society finding us on Earth would annihilate us without pausing to learn about us in the same way that we are destroying all other forms of intelligent life on the planet.  For example, populations of vertebrates living in freshwater ecosystems have declined by 83% on average since 1970 [see World Wide Fund for Nature Living Planet Report 2022].  Maybe it would be preferable for someone to switch off the simulation rather than to suffer the type of invasion mounted by the Martians in the War of the Worlds by HG Wells.

Regular readers with good memories might recall a post entitled ‘Conversations about engineering over dinner and a haircut’ on February 16th, 2022 which featured the same barber who I visit more frequently than these two posts might imply.

The image shows Ollie the Octopus at the Ocean Lab, (Ceridwen CC BY-SA 2.0) for more on the intelligence of an octopus see ‘Intelligent aliens?‘ on January 16th, 2019.

Conversations about engineering over dinner and a haircut

For decorative purposes: colour contour map of a face mask produced using fringe projectionRecently, over dinner, someone I had just met asked me what type of engineering I do. I always find this a difficult question to answer because I am sure that they are just being polite and do not want to hear any technical details but I find it hard to give an interesting answer without diving into details. Earlier the same day I had given a lecture on thermodynamics to about 300 undergraduate students so I told my inquisitor about this experience and explained that thermodynamics was the science of energy and its transformation into different forms. Then, I muttered something about being interested in making and using measurements to ensure that computational models of aircraft and nuclear power stations are reliable and the conversation quickly moved on. A week or so earlier, I was having my hair cut when the barber asked me a similar question about what I did and I told him that I was a professor of engineering which led to a conversation about robots. We speculated about whether we would ever lose our jobs to robots and decided that we were both fairly secure against that threat. There is a high degree of creativity in both of our roles – while I always ask for the same haircut, my hair is in a different state every time I visit the barbers’ and I leave looking slightly different every time. I don’t think that I would like the uniformity that a row of robots in the barbers’ shop might produce. And, then there is the conversation during the haircut. A robot would need to pass the Turing test, i.e., to exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from a human, which no computer has yet achieved or is likely to do so in our lifetime, at least not a cost that would allow them to replace barbers. The same holds for professors – the shift to delivering lectures online during the pandemic might have made some professors worry that their jobs were at risk as recorded lectures replaced live performances; however, student feedback tells us that students have a strong preference for on-campus teaching and the high turnout for my thermodynamics lectures supports that conclusion.


For a new website I was asked to describe my research interests in about 25 words and used the following: ‘the acquisition of information-rich measurement data and its use to develop digital representations of complex systems in the aerospace, biological and energy sectors’.  Fine for a website but not dinner conversation! 

There have been some attempts to build a robot that cut your hair, for example see this video

Image shows a colour contour map describing the shape of a facemask produced using fringe projection which could be used as part of the vision system for a robotic barber.  For more information on fringe projection see: Ortiz, M. H., & Patterson, E. A. (2005). Location and shape measurement using a portable fringe projection system. Experimental mechanics, 45(3), 197-204 or watch this video from the INDUCE project that was active from 1998 to 2001.