Tag Archives: science

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.

Source:

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)

 

Where is AI on the hype curve?

I suspect that artificial intelligence is somewhere near the top of the ‘Hype Curve’ [see ‘Hype cycle’ on September 23rd, 2015].  At the beginning of the year, I read Max Tegmark’s book, ‘Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence’ in which he discusses the prospects for artificial general intelligence and its likely impact on life for humans.  Artificial intelligence means non-biological intelligence and artificial general intelligence is the ability to accomplish any cognitive task at least as well as humans.  Predictions vary about when we might develop artificial general intelligence but developments in machine learning and robotics have energised people in both science and the arts.  Machine learning consists of algorithms that use training data to build a mathematical model and make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed for the task.  Three of the books that I read while on vacation last month featured or discussed artificial intelligence which stimulated my opening remark about its position on the hype curve.  Jeanette Winterson in her novel, ‘Frankissstein‘ foresees a world in which humanoid robots can be bought by mail order; while Ian McEwan in his novel, ‘Machines Like Me‘, goes back to the early 1980s and describes a world in which robots with a level of consciousness close to or equal to humans are just being introduced to the market the place.  However, John Kay and Mervyn King in their recently published book, ‘Radical Uncertainty – decision-making beyond numbers‘, suggest that artificial intelligence will only ever enhance rather replace human intelligence because it will not be able to handle non-stationary ill-defined problems, i.e. problems for which there no objectively correct solution and that change with time.  I think I am with Kay & King and that we will shortly slide down into the trough of the hype curve before we start to see the true potential of artificial general intelligence implemented in robots.

The picture shows our holiday bookshelf.

Balancing conscious and unconscious life

Recently, I visited a local artist to choose a painting for a birthday present.  He showed me a pair of small oil paintings in which I had expressed an interest via photographs he had sent me by email.  I agreed to buy both of them and then we drifted into his studio where he showed me the pieces he was working on.  There were many unfinished paintings and he described how difficult it was to finish some of them.  He measured the time taken on some of them in months and, for a few, in years.  I was struck by the similarity with scientists who indulge in slow-motion multi-tasking and switch between research projects in different fields, often leaving something unfinished to focus on something else and then returning to pursue the original research topic [‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leading to productive research‘ on September 19th, 2018].  I suspect both artists and scientists who indulge this approach are looking to achieve ‘a perfect balance of their conscious and unconscious life’ out of which Barbara Hepworth believed ideas are born and realized [see ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016].

The studio in the photograph is Barbara Hepworth’s in St Ives, Cornwall.

Physical actions to inhibit COVID-19 infection

Figure 4 from Ai & Melikov, 2017

Politicians in many countries are fond of claiming that they are following scientific advice when telling us what we can or cannot do in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19.  However, neither they nor the journalists who report their statements tell us what scientists have actually established.  So, I have been reading some of the literature.

A paper by Leung et al [1] published this month in Nature Medicine reports that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronavirus and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals.  Their conclusions were based on a study of 246 individuals ranging in age from 11 to more than 65 years old of which 59% were female.  Sande et al [2] in 2008, found that any type of general mask is likely to decrease viral exposure and infection risk on a population level; with surgical masks being more effective than home-made masks and children being less well protected.  The relative ineffectiveness of fabrics used in home-made masks, including sweatshirts, T-shirts, towels and scarfs, was demonstrated in 2010 by Rengasamy et al [3], who found that these fabrics had 40-97% instantaneous penetration for monodisperse aerosol particles in the 20 to 1000 nm range.  While in the same year, Cowling et al [4] conducted a systematic review of the subject and concluded there was some evidence to support the wearing of masks or respirators during illness to protect others, and public health emphasis on mask wearing during illness may help reduce influenza virus transmission.  There were fewer data to support the use of masks or respirators to prevent becoming infected.  So, the rational conclusion appears to be that we should wear face masks to protect society as a whole and remember they do not necessarily protect us as individuals.

The emphasis on social distancing is causing widespread economic distress and also appears to be causing a decrease in mental health.  It perhaps should be called physical distancing because that is what we asked to do – to keep 2 m apart or 1.5 m in some places.  In 2017, a team of engineers from the University of Hong Kong and Aalborg University in Denmark [5], concluded that a threshold distance of 1.5 m distinguished between two basic transmission processes of droplets, i.e. a short-range mode and a long-range airborne route.  They reviewed the literature, conducted experiments and performed computational simulations before concluding the risk of infection arising from person-to-person interactions was significantly reduced when people were more than 1.5 m apart because droplets greater than 60 microns in diameter are not transmitted further than 1.5 m; however, smaller droplets are carried further.  In the same year, Ai & Melikov [6] reviewed the airborne spread of expiratory droplets in indoors environments; they found inconsistent results due to different boundary conditions used in computer models and the available instrumentation being too slow to provide accurate time-dependent measurements.  However, it would appear, based on several investigations, that the risk of cross-infection is decreased sharply at distances of 0.8 to 1.5 m (see graphic).  Indoors, the flow interactions in the human microenvironment dominate airborne transmission over short distances (<0.5 m) while the general ventilation flow is more important over longer distances.  Hence, at short distances, the posture and orientation of individuals is important; while at longer distances, if the rate of change of air in the room is high enough then the risk of cross-infection is low.

These findings would seem to suggest that there is some scope to balance restarting social and economic activity with protecting people from the coronavirus by relaxing ‘social’ distancing from 2 m to 1.5 m unless you are  wearing a mask.  After all, we would simply following the example of Taiwan where there are almost no new cases.

References

[1] Leung NH, Chu DK, Shiu EY, Chan KH, McDevitt JJ, Hau BJ, Yen HL, Li Y, Ip DK, Peiris JM, Seto WH. Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks. Nature Medicine. 2020 Apr 3:1-5.

[2] van der Sande M, Teunis P, Sabel R. Professional and home-made face masks reduce exposure to respiratory infections among the general population. PLoS One. 2008;3(7).

[3] Rengasamy S, Eimer B, Shaffer RE. Simple respiratory protection—evaluation of the filtration performance of cloth masks and common fabric materials against 20–1000 nm size particles. Annals of occupational hygiene. 2010 Oct 1;54(7):789-98.

[4] Cowling BJ, Zhou YD, Ip DK, Leung GM, Aiello AE. Face masks to prevent transmission of influenza virus: a systematic review. Epidemiology & Infection. 2010 Apr;138(4):449-56.

[5] Liu L, Li Y, Nielsen PV, Wei J, Jensen RL. Short‐range airborne transmission of expiratory droplets between two people. Indoor Air. 2017 Mar;27(2):452-62.

[6] Ai ZT, Melikov AK. Airborne spread of expiratory droplet nuclei between the occupants of indoor environments: A review. Indoor air. 2018 Jul;28(4):500-24.