Tag Archives: virtual reality

Digital twins and seeking consensus

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our work on a proof-of-concept for a digital twin of a fission nuclear reactor and its extension to fusion energy [‘Digitally-enabled regulatory environment for fusion power plants‘ on March 20th, 2019].  In parallel with this work and together with a colleague in the Dalton Nuclear Institute, I am supervising a PhD student who is studying the potential role of virtual reality and social network analysis in delivering nuclear infrastructure projects.  In a new PhD project, we are aiming to extend this research to consider the potential provided by an integrated nuclear digital environment [1] in planning the disposal of nuclear waste.  We plan to look at how provision of clear, evidence-based information and in the broader adoption of digital twins to enhance public confidence through better engagement and understanding.  This is timely because the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) have launched their new consent-based process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). The adoption of a digital environment to facilitate a consent-based process represents a new and unprecedented approach to the GDF or any other nuclear project in the UK. So this will be an challenging and exciting research project requiring an innovative and multi-disciplinary approach involving both engineering and social sciences.

The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research.  For more information following this link.


[1] Patterson EA, Taylor RJ & Bankhead M, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103, 2016.

Image: Artist’s impression of geological disposal facility from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/geological-disposal-understanding-our-work


Digital hive mind

durham-cloistersFor many people Durham Cathedral will be familiar as a location in the Harry Potter movies.  However, for me it triggers memories of walking around the cloisters discussing Erwin Schrodinger’s arithmetical paradox: there seems to be a great number of conscious egos creating their own worlds but only one world.  Each of us appears to construct our own domain of private consciousness and Schrodinger identifies the region where they all overlap as the ‘real world around us’.  However, he raises questions such as, is my world really the same as yours?  Schrodinger proposes two solutions to the paradox: either there are a multitude of worlds with no communication between them or a unification of minds or consciousness.

Schrodinger found ‘it utterly impossible to form an idea about’ how his ‘own conscious mind should have originated by the integration of the consciousness of the cells (or some of them)’ that formed his body.  Recently this has been addressed by Susan Greenfield, who has proposed that short-lived coalitions of millions of neurons are responsible for consciousness.  These ‘neuronal assemblies’, which last for fractions of a second, link local events in individual cells with large scale events across the brain and many of ‘these assemblies flickering on and off somehow come together to provide a collective continuous experience of consciousness’.  In other words, our consciousness arises as an emergent behaviour of the myriad of interacting networks in our brain.  It seems no less fanciful that our individual minds networked together to generate a further level of emergent behaviour equivalent to the unified mind that Schrodinger conceived though, like Schrodinger, I find it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen.

Perhaps, at some level we are creating a unified mind via the digital hive mind being formed by the digital devices to which we delegate some of the more mundane aspects of modern life [see my post entitled ‘Thinking out of the skull‘ on 18th March, 2015].  However, Greenfield worries about a very sinister potential impact of our digital devices, which is associated with the stimulation they provide to millions of the younger generation.  She thinks it could lead to small-scale neuronal assemblies becoming ‘the default setting in the consciousness of the digital native, to an extent it has never been in previous generations’.  In other words we might be losing the ability to create the emergent behaviour required for consciousness and shifting it to our digital devices.

Perhaps we are closer than we think to the vision in Maria Lassnig’s painting of the lady with her half of her brain outside her skull? [see my post entitled ‘Science fiction becomes virtual reality‘ on October 6th, 2016.


Erwin Schrodinger, ‘Mind and Matter – the Tarner Lectures’ in What is Life?, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, Allen Lane, 2016.

Clive Cookson, Know your own mind, FT Weekend, 15/16 October 2016, reviewing Greenfield’s book.

Nilanjana Roy ‘What it means to be human’ FT Weekend, 17/18 September 2016.

Science fiction becomes virtual reality

vecI have a new print in my office. It’s called ‘Small Science Fiction Self-Portrait’ and is by Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) [see: http://www.painters-table.com/link/contemporary-art-daily/maria-lassnig]. I am disappointed to admit that I had never heard of her until I went to a special exhibition at the Tate Liverpool a few weeks ago, which featured her work and that of Francis Bacon. I was expecting the works by Bacon to be the main attraction but instead I thought Lassnig ‘stole the show’. Nearly all of her paintings in the exhibition were self-portraits in which she attempts to represent on canvas her ‘body sensation’ or ‘body awareness’. This seems to echo the synaesthesia pursued by Georgia O’Keeffe when she represented her feelings from various senses in her paintings [see my post entitled ‘Engineering Synaesthesia‘ on September 21st, 2016].  Two of Lassnig’s paintings resonanted with me: one, which was on the front of the programme, called Lady with Brain was painted in 1991 and shows the head of a lady with a proportion of her brain outside of her skull – not in a damaged way but as if it had grown there. This reminded me of the ideas on our increasing use of out-of-skull memory and processing power in our mobile devices that I wrote about under the heading ‘Thinking out of Skull’ [see my post of that title on March 18th, 2015]. The second is the print in my office, painted in 1995, that shows the artist wearing a virtual reality headset that looks almost identical to those we use in our Virtual Engineering Centre. I was amazed by Lassnig’s vision.

Engineering synaesthesia

A street in Sante Fe

A street in Sante Fe

One of the most memorable places we visited when we lived in the United States was Sante Fe, New Mexico.  We rented a house on a hillside that was walking distance from downtown.  The landscape is stark, vast and vivid all at the same time.  Georgia O’Keeffe captured it beautifully in her paintings.  In our house in Liverpool, we have a number of prints from her paintings that we bought during a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Sante Fe about ten years ago. So it was a nostalgic experience to visit the O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern in London a few weeks ago and reacquaint ourselves with familiar originals as well as enjoy paintings we had not seen before. ‘Red and Yellow Cliffs‘ (1940) was one of my favourites in the exhibition which was reminiscent of many of the landscapes in New Mexico.  I also enjoyed the room entitled ‘Abstraction and the Senses’ that contained a series of paintings in which O’Keeffe took inspiration from sensory stimulation and expressed in her paintings the feelings induced by ‘signals’ from senses other than sight, such as hearing music.  This is known as synaesthesia: ‘the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body’, according the Oxford Online Dictionary.  Some people suffer from synaesthesia and hearing particular sounds might trigger a sensation of taste, or letters might be associated with colours, for instance ‘A’ with red. It can be very useful, for instance I ‘see’ numbers laid out in patterns and so can perform mental arithmetic pictorially.

Engineers make use of similar phenomena to visualize patterns of variables that are invisible.  For instance, moiré interferometry uses the interference between regular arrays of lines to magnify tiny differences in the arrays and generate visible fringe patterns – this is useful in comparing the dimensions of two objects to which the arrays are attached.  In photoelasticity, polarised light is used to generate colour fringe patterns that are contours of stress in transparent components or models of components [see my post entitled ‘Art and Experimental Mechanics‘ on July 12th, 2012].  Unfortunately this elegant, but analogue, technique has been almost completely usurped by digital analysis using computers. Many of these computers have a touch screen that convert your thoughts, conveyed by the tap or swipe of your fingers, into text or commands for devices attached physically or wirelessly to the computer. And, virtual reality goggles, head sets and haptic devices allow the computer to reverse the process by transmitting signals to our senses, which often confuse us as they become intermingled in a new form of synaesthesia.  Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1986 at the age of 98 and so missed out on this aspect of the digital revolution but it might have generated a whole series of beautiful paintings.