Still a lot of work to do ingraining STEM


Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are not easy to learn, as they require a good understanding of technical concepts and of course an interest in the topics being explained.

But let’s take something as simple and ubiquitous as water; the liquid at room temperature that sustains life, the liquid that all of us are familiar with through drinking many times a day, the liquid that rains down much of the time here in the UK, and the liquid that covers about two-thirds of the planet that we live on.

You’d think, therefore, that everyone in the developed world would have a vague enough interest in the substance to know that it comprises of molecules that each contain two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  Many of us are taught this at school at some point in our lives, and given how common the substance is, it crops up in not just chemistry, but also biology, physics (the anomalous expansion of water), geography (the water cycle) and even English Literature (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).

However, being involved in a cafe at our business centre in Malvern, which we named Cafe H2O to celebrate the hydrological heritage of the town and hills, it has become apparent that there are some major misunderstandings of the simple chemistry of water out there.

We became aware when both an alternative Facebook page and an alternative Trip Advisor page appeared, linked to the cafe, that were both named Cafe H20 (yes, twenty, not 2-O). Do people really think we would call our outlet Cafe H-twenty, and if so, why? Do they think there is the possibility of a molecule, water or otherwise, that consists of twenty connected hydrogen atoms?

We were tempted to delete the erroneous social media pages, but before we could get around to it, people kept posting and referring to them.  So it wasn’t a case of just one or two misinformed people finding them, people must actually have been searching using the wrong name. In fact, though it pains us to have the wrongly titled pages in existence, if we deleted them they would almost certainly reappear. So we have decided to use the opportunity to provide a little STEM education, redirecting people to the correct pages with an explanation as to why they’ve found the wrong page. And now at the time of writing, Trip Advisor have realised we had effectively duplicate pages and have combined them. So we wait to see if another H20 is spawned by a patron using the wrong search term.

Fortunately the Royal Society of Chemistry will be on-hand in a few days time at both the Malvern Festival of Innovation’s Next Generation Innovators schools day and the weekend’s Family Day.  We’ll take the opportunity to highlight that water is H2O not H2o, and explain why. And with that grounding, we’ll then be able to talk about all the innovation around water technology; desalination, purification, de-ionising, wave power, nuclear fusion, and more.

Perhaps Samuel Coleridge should have written “Di-hydrogen-oxide everywhere, nor any drop to drink” and then there would be no excuse whether your studied sciences or not.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder




Petrolheads and pistonheads, make way for electrode-heads


Pop the bonnet on a Nissan Leaf, a Renault Zoe or a Tesla Model S, and you wont find any carburettors, plugs, sumps or turbochargers. No, these are fully electric cars without a piston in sight.

You can still talk torque and effuse efficiency, but you can’t discuss displacement or exclaim over chrome exhaust manifolds. But the electric vehicle industry is certainly breeding equally enthusiastic proponents who will wax lyrical about range, cost of ownership, and electric charging networks.

Oddly enough, the UK used to have fleets of electric vehicles roaming the streets early each morning almost half a century ago. These were milk floats, whispering around neighbourhoods on defined rounds before breakfast, returning to be plugged in each day ahead of the next trip. Their Achilles’ heal was the lead acid car battery that was needed in sizeable arrays that added weight, cost and range anxiety.

Today, the new breed of electric vehicle have replaced lead for lithium; a considerable weight saving, an improved energy density, and a better form factor. But still electric vehicles take time to charge, have a limited range, and come at a price.

Yet the advantages are also plain to see. The mechanics are much simpler with motors on each axle or wheel hub, thus dispensing with gearboxes, engines, differentials and exhaust systems. No more engine oil changes, no more oil filter changes, and significantly reduced brake disk wear as much of the stopping can be done regeneratively using the motor as a dynamo with its integral resistance to rotation.

Having recently attended the unveiling of the Tesla Model X in Birmingham, and travelled there as a passenger in a Model S, I have to say the real excitement with electric cars is the paradigm shift in how new arrivals in the automotive industry are turning the concept of motoring on its head. The idea that your car is an extension of your world of mobile apps, basically another Thing of the Internet, is intriguing. We’re starting to see integrated navigation with your calendar of meeting appointments, the ability to have a defrosted and warmed car autonomously prepped at your front door as you step out to leave, and the a system that receives updates, tweaks, improvements on your driveway without the need for costly product recalls.

Eventually it may only be fanatics that own cars; the rest of us will simply treat them as rentable pods that arrive on demand, drop us at out destination, and disappear off to recharge and transport someone else.  Of course, cars don’t need to be electric to do this, but the change of mindset around range, charging and cost models is driving innovation in how we will own and use vehicles. Tesla may be the vanguard at the moment, but expect Apple, Google and Microsoft to be in this space soon too; electric cars will just be hardware accessories built around software applications rather like an office printer or mouse.

In the future, the electric vehicle power plant may well be a lithium battery, a hydrogen fuel cell, or a biofuel jet generator. Pop the bonnet and you might catch sight of a gold plated cathode or a silver coated anode. Polished and pimped, this will herald the age of the electrode heads…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder


Jumping from silicon to carbon


The artificial technology-based world that we have created around us contains a lot of silicon. Our computers, smart phones, cars, planes, medical devices, power stations, and infrastructure networks all rely on silicon chips to process o’s and 1’s, and transistor-adorned central processing units are at the nucleus of every electronic device we deploy.

But this may be about to change. Our natural world is based on an element one level above in the periodic table; carbon. Life is built not on silicon wafers, but around carbon chains. DNA molecules define the form and function of organisms large and small, and this is a very different approach to the electronic technology we invented and developed over the last few decades.

Our silicon-based computational tools have been allowing us to analyse and decode carbon-based life for years, but only now are we starting to understand what might be needed, as a minimum, to create an autonomous organic device we term life. A recent news report outlined progress with creating a synthetic bug using what seems to be a minimum number of genes; 473 to be precise.

This is a leap beyond genetic modification because it is about creating a life form from the ground up rather than simply adjusting something that already exists. We still don’t understand the full function and scope of each of the genes, but it wont be long before we do.  And then it will be possible to create libraries of building-block genes rather like we create libraries of computer code modules, so that before long we’ll have a programming language, compiler system and developer kits to create and prescribe forms of life itself.

This will almost certainly have much in common with how the silicon-based computer industry developed. There will be organic devices that perform new functions rather like the calculator and digital watch did in the early days of silicon. These will grow in complexity and value as we develop our knowledge around the systems. And our present day silicon devices will start to look as outdated as thermionic valve technology did when silicon wafers started to emerge. But don’t expect equivalent devices; an organic timepiece is not an appropriate use of this new carbon-based technology, whereas a swarm of bee-like reconnaissance drones may well be.

A major difference, however, is around self-replication. Silicon chips do not reproduce, but life has a habit of being able to do so. On the right substrate, simple organisms like bacteria can quickly generate a colony, and more complicated life creates seeds, spores, and eggs. It is a key requisite of life that it should be able to create younger selves.  So expect our drones, our algae-based batteries, and our leafy photosynthetic solar cell roof tiles to grow, replicate and die; and more interestingly to adapt in Darwinian fashion. No longer will we have centralised factories or vast landfills. Instead, our devices will grow in-situ and we’ll throw them on the compost heap when they have completed their life cycle. And we’ll use their children and their children’s children to provide an on-going service.

This really is going to be a dramatic change to the way we live. It will throw us enormous challenges and probably provide serendipitous solutions. We will need to be careful that we don’t create a species of a device that acts as a predictor on something else we value, as they will almost certainly need to feed on something. Then again, one company may adopt this approach as a way to see off competition! But, equally something like our reconnaissance drones could also provide a pollination service as they go about their surveillance work. Honey may even be a by-product!  These carbon-based devices may also photosynthesise and help capture carbon, reducing global warming as a by product of their use. We may even legislate it as a prerequisite for any new such device on the market.

Our landscape around us will change. Life that has taken millennia to evolve on our planet will co-habit with life we seed in the laboratory. Oaks will stand alongside trees designed to behave as wind harnessing ‘turbines’, fields of pasture will butt up against plantations of device seedlings, and oceans will have shoals of fish that we designed to seek out mineral deposits for the few remaining electronic devices we still need.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder






All aboard the blockchain


We might just be about to witness the next ‘industrial’ revolution; one where societal interactions on all levels become completely decentralised (or peer-to-peer, as the saying goes). What does this really mean? It means cutting out the middleman so that people (and machines) can transact with each other in full trust and with high degrees of privacy. Doing so lowers cost, increases efficiency, and opens up lots of opportunities.

BlockchainThis might sound like an iterative change with little impact, and when I first started to look into this I wasn’t particularly impressed with the hype. But, take a step back to look at the bigger picture and indeed the full potential, and it becomes apparent there might just be something disruptive and paradigm-shifting in it all.

The most cited example (and perhaps easiest situation to relate to) is that involving money. Blockchain is almost synonymous with Bitcoin, the virtual currency that most people have heard of but relatively few have dared buy or spend. Ironically it is Bitcoin’s encrypted virtual autonomous being that seems to deter people from adopting it; can it be trusted? Will it just evaporate from my virtual wallet? Does it really have any value?

Yet it is designed precisely to allay these fears. It is also a way to send and receive money with someone directly anywhere in the world without involving a bank, a clearing house, or any one specific third party. It’s like paying for cash without the need of a government regulated mint or central bank to issue and manage the currency.

Blockchain2But Bitcoin is more than this.  It relies on multiple copies of a decentralised record book (a distributed ledger; the blockchain) to encrypt and record the transactions thus creating an immutable audit trail. It is this aspect that will very likely be incredibly disruptive. This is because the blockchain does not have to be limited to transacting Bitcoins. It can form the backbone for exchanging contracts and credentials; like any database or record book only with added security and in many ways greater transparency. Moreover, the contracts can be smart so that actions can follow automatically based on a set of software rules without human interference. An example is that the Bitcoin could be loaned automatically to a business, the business could pay interest automatically to the lender, and the loan could be repaid automatically when the business meets a set of agreed criteria. And if you are a bank, then you are no longer in the loop. And if you are a government, you may find it rather difficult to regulate. And if you are tax authority, you may well be avoided.

Looking into the details there are a few surprises along the way. The ledger is getting bigger by the second, and so as I write this, the blockchain associated with Bitcoins stands at just over 56Gb. It takes a while to fully transact a Bitcoin (around about 10 minutes; considerably slower than a credit card payment, significantly faster than an international telegraphic transfer). It also requires a fair amount of energy; the bitcoin and associated transactions require cryptography and consensus by many parties, and the system has built in this number-crunching cost to ascribe some value and rarity to the currency.  There are other technical challenges as well around limitations and levels of security of the current blockchain, not to mention the issue of standardisation and the existence of alternative blockchains, other virtual currencies and a growing range of  protocols.

But one thing is almost certain. The blockchain will start to creep into our everyday lives just as personal computers, the Internet and social networks have. Currently there are bits and pieces about you dispersed around the global network and before long some of these will become attached to blockchains. You may not ever understand the inner workings, but you’ll probably wonder how you ever functioned without them.

Join us at the Malvern Festival of Innovation to find out more about cyber security, the Internet of Things and where blockchains fit into all of this. And when we go live with our Formal Dinner tickets, as in previous years you will be able to pay with Bitcoins…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder


Cyborg Security & Embeddables


Perhaps surprisingly, we as humans haven’t gone down the road of embedding much technology in ourselves yet. Where we do, it tends to be for medical reasons, with many of these applications being passive technologies like hip replacements, stents, traction pins, etc.

Artificial hearts and pacemakers are good examples of embedded active technologies, and these are certainly becoming more sophisticated as they can be monitored and controlled externally. And this has just started to raise people’s fears about the security of Medtech; could someone hack the implant and control the device independently?  Can people read my health data and violate my privacy?

A few high profile research cases have embedded other non-medical objects in humans. Like pets with RFID identity tags implanted, so too have humans tried this out.  Professor Kevin Warwick’s team at Reading University investigated this, with Kevin having an RFID chip embedded under his skin that allowed him to open his laboratory door without the need of a separate keycard. He and his team did a lot more since.

Well over a decade ago a pioneering nightclub in Barcelona allowed partygoers to pay for their drinks with an embedded microchip in their arm.  But there haven’t been many cases of this approach being adopted.  You don’t see Londoners using embedded Oyster Cards to travel the Tube.  You don’t see people with Contactless credit cards embedded in their fingertip to pay for their M&S goods. You don’t see skiers with their ski pass embedded in a limb.

Indeed, wearables or WearableTech are the current fashion.  People have Fitbits and GoPros strapped to their body parts; Google Glass was a relatively short lived accessory which may come round again as some kind of contact lens, and the mobile phone and smart watches are the ubiquitous tech about our bodies.

Bodyhacking or biohacking is the term given to hobby cyborgs that are experimenting at the in vivo technology frontier. People have embedded magnets in their fingertips and gained a ‘sixth sense’ in which they can feel the vibrations from a nearby electromagnetic field. The aforementioned Kevin Warwick has had microneedle chip arrays embedded in his arm to provide an interface with his nervous system. And Neil Harbisson embedded an antenna-like sensor through his skull and into his brain to help him overcome his colourblindness and ‘hear’ colours.

And this really is just the beginning because the next (un?!)natural step must surely be to take all our wearable tech and turn it into embeddable tech. The advantages will be many; the body could ‘feed’ the device with energy (heat if nothing else) and obviate the need for a battery. The nervous system could be used to interface with our visual cortex and dispense with the LCD display. The same approach could connect to the cochlear nerve and we’d hear the phone ring or the iTunes track without the need of a loud speaker or headphones; and no one else would be disturbed either.

Get this embedded interface right with our existing nervous system, and there will be many more ways to exploit sensors to help us navigate and communicate. We’ll have embedded GPS, embedded Wifi, embedded 4G, and our bodies will join the Internet of Things; think Internet of Beings.

I wrote an earlier piece about Cerebral Security highlighting that all we know about the issues of cyber security will multiply once we start directly interfacing with our brain.  But if our entire body starts to accommodate embeddables, then we’re going to need to think about Cyborg Security.

People’s appendages could start to house very valuable devices that generate even more valuable data.  Its not just the ability to pay with a finger, or know where someone is because the chip is now within their arm, but it is also about health and status information being generated.  Your internal systems will be streaming data like the telemetry from a rocket ship, and people around you may try to intercept it.  If they knew you were hungry, they could sell you a snack.  Feeling thirsty; can I sell you a drink?  Feeling tired? then you might be a target worth abducting because you wouldn’t have the energy to defend yourself.

Given this you’ll also need to invest in other cyborg accessories; radar and infrared devices that can detect stalkers sneaking up behind you, bionic muscle-boosting devices that pack a heavier punch for improved defence, and exoskeletons that enable you to flee quicker.

As you can see, this will be disruptive technology that will make many of today’s must-have devices obsolete and open up vast new markets where we’ll feel compelled to spend money and keep an even closer eye on our security and privacy.  Perhaps someone will create a third eye embeddable just for that task.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Drones, robots and sensors coming to a field near you


If you live in the countryside you may feel a bit isolated from modern technology. Broadband speeds are often slow, mobile phone coverage poor, and the pace of life that little bit more relaxed. Oh, and getting stuck behind a tractor on the way to work is par for the course.

This is all about to change. Although investment in rural Internet connectivity is generally on the up, oddly enough it is in the fields themselves where the harnessing and crunching of data is probably increasing most quickly. This will also drive data connectivity in the countryside.

Farmers are gathering soil data to optimise which crops to plant when and where. Tractors are equipped with telemetry and gps to log detailed information about the processes taking place during the preparation of fields, the sowing of crops, the application of chemicals, and the yield of the harvest.  Satellite images are cross-correlated with soil condition, ground features and crop history. This is crop rotation from the Agrarian revolution taken to its next level.

Next come the sensors, monitoring weather, ground conditions, environment and pollution around the fields all in real time and alerting the farmer to adverse conditions on a hyperlocal scale.

Drones will systematically, and eventually autonomously, patrol acres of land, feeding back crop condition and scheduling the workload. Couple this with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and soon the land will be delivering improved yields and meeting the ever-increasing demands for sustainably produced food and bio-fuel whilst optimising the use of energy and water.

This is all good news for the society, and we’ll hear more about it at the Festival this year.  The farmer will extract more value from his land, the consumer will benefit from affordable and nutritious food, and the countryside commuter will probably no longer get stuck behind a tractor being driven home for dinner.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Cerebral Security & Big Big Data


Not a day goes by without news of a compromised website, a leakage of passwords, a loss of credit-card data, or a concern that someone has taken control of an online account. Cyber security and the associated issue of personal privacy are a scourge of modern times brought on by us humans relying on the connected world to live our lives; whether that’s to manage our finances, do the shopping, communicate with friends, or grow a business. Pretty much everything we do, and even more so for the younger generation, involves digital data that can be leaked, eaves-dropped, harvested, or sold.

I suspect, however, things may be about to get a whole lot worse over the next decade! At the moment our brains are off-limits; they host our private memories, thoughts and intentions without others being able to interfere. The only clues are what we display with our emotions and choose to disseminate with our words and actions. And within each of our brains is a lot of data; this is big big data, typically a memory of about a million gigabytes each!

How different the world will be when we can interface directly with our brain, controlling things telepathically by merely thinking of the action. As with all innovations, there will be plenty of benefits; people with disabilities and illness will gain more control over their lives and daily tasks could be completed hands-free and efficiently from a distance. There is plenty of research going on at the moment to this end; already it is possible to control external objects with brainwaves, its just that that the range of commands is rather limited and requires a fair bit of training and concentration to do repeatedly and accurately.

This will change, and one day it will be possible to download memories as both stills (like photographs) and sequences (like videos). It will be possible to back-up our personal memory bank so that learned facts, figures and insights are not forgotten over time, and then eventually it will be possible to upload data to augment your memory with new catalogues of information.

Soon we’ll be into the realms of cerebral security. People around you may try to access your brain to see what you are really thinking about them, the police and security services will want to monitor your past actions and future intentions, criminals will want to know things with which to blackmail you or second-guess you, and terrorists may try to gain control of you so that you can perform actions on their behalf. Suddenly, the brain will be susceptible to new forms of viruses; hybrids of the biological and the computational.

Somehow we’ll have to rush to develop the equivalent of passwords, firewalls and anti-virus scans for our brain. There will be a need for memory back-up and data recovery (read personality recovery). This will be a whole new and exciting industry bridging the gap between biochemistry, neurology and the IT industry.

The difference between a neurone and a silicon transistor will be greyed, the keyboard and mouse will be no more, and things like smart phones, monitors and televisions will be replaced by direct interfaces to the retinal receptors of our brains.  You will be both a source and a sink for direct data transfer. Google will collect street views from your own eyes, Amazon will ship on one-blink orders, and Facebook will become Brainbook as your timeline is thought-after-thought-after thought…

Deep breath.

On Friday 9th October 2015 we discuss cyber security and big data at the Malvern Festival of Innovation. Will we be considering cerebral security and big big data at the same Festival in October 2025? Probably, and there will be no need for you to attend; we’ll just beam it all straight to you whilst you are sleeping and extract a quick user survey to see what you thought of it all afterwards!

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder