Monthly Archives: December 2017

Prof Robin Mckenzie

Increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence in robots will cause massive issues

As technology has expanded sex robots have become increasingly lifelike, bringing about a need for a revolution in how we think about sex, morals and the legal status of these sex robots, according to Kent Law School’s Professor Robin Mackenzie. …

Robin said: “Humans having sex with other humans who are unable to consent to sex, like children and adults lacking decision-making capacity, is seen as unlawful and unethical. So is human/animal sex. Such groups are recognised as sentient beings who cannot consent to sex with interests in need of protection. “Sentient, self-aware sex robots created to engage in emotional/sexual intimacy with humans disrupt this tidy model. “They are not humans, though they will look like us, feel like us to touch and act as our intimate and sexual partners. While they will be manufactured, potentially from biological components, their sentience, self-awareness and capacity for relationships with humans mean that they cannot simply be categorised as things or animals. “Ethicists, lawmakers and manufacturers treat robots as things, but future sex robots are more than things.

“Robotic animated sex-dolls, able to simulate human appearance, assume sexual positions and mimic human conversation and emotions are on sale now. These are things, neither sentient nor self-aware, incapable of relationships or intimacy, as described in the Foundation for Responsible Robotics report just released.” … The report stated: “On the one hand, if a sex robot is designed to resist sexual advances such that their use constitutes a simulated act of rape, then building them puts the user in relationship with the act of raping a woman. It exhorts and endorses rape. On the other hand, building a robot that is passive or elicits sex is ethically problematic for what it communicates to the broader public about women’s sexuality.”

Thanks Science

Your Beliefs and Science Denial

A study by researchers from the Universities of Amsterdam, the VU University in Amsterdam and pour own Robbie Sutton has found that that “religiosity, political orientation, morality, and science understanding” are the main predictors of whether or not someone accepts a scientific consensus.

There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical. There is, however, a difference between skeptical claims without substantial evidence to back them up, and being a skeptic on vaccines or human-driven climate change. Both are backed up by a gigantic mountain of facts, so why are certain groups of people still keen to rally against them? This new study gives a clue, linking pre-existing beliefs in spirituality, religion, and political ideas with such forms of science denial. Importantly, however, different ideologies are correlated with the acceptance of different types of consensus. If you’re a climate change skeptic, for example, you’re more likely than not to be a political conservative. If you wonder if vaccines are safe or not, you probably have concerns about moral purity. If you’re a skeptic about GM crops, it’s most likely because you don’t have much trust in science, or you lack a scientific literacy. As expected, those that are staunch religious conservatives “consistently display a low faith in science and an unwillingness to support science” across the board.

This research highlights that scientific knowledge is not always directly correlated with acceptance of it. Thanks to plenty of other “ideological antecedents” – those pre-existing belief systems – it’s a little more complicated than that. This suggests that, for example, if you want to convince your anti-vaxxer friend that vaccines are nothing to be afraid of, it may take a little more than factual information to succeed.

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Theorists and a Mental Disorder?

A study recent by a of scientists from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the NCSR in The Netherlands and Professor Karen Douglas here The University of Kent in the UK have discovered a link between conspiracy belief and “illusory pattern perception,” the tendency of the mind to see order where none exists. The group used a series of randomly simulated coin tosses and asked respondents to rate whether those tosses were actually random or in a sequence. The respondents who saw patterns in the coin tosses were also the ones who scored highest on belief in existing conspiracy theories and belief in the supernatural.

Because science isn’t done with just one experiment, they then followed up with a second run to investigate whether being prompted to look for patterns skews the results, as well as a third using abstract art instead of coin flips for the subjects to find patterns in. In addition, they “primed the pump” with one group by having them read a little conspiracy literature beforehand, which also increased credulity.

Here’s the thesis on what’s going on. The human brain is a pattern-making machine. We learn from experience and store memories together to influence our future behaviour. That gift for connection and correlation has enabled our ballistic advance as a society. But for most of human history our brains existed in a comparatively information-poor environment. It’s only in the last century or so that the rise of mass media has come to dominate our lives. Four generations simply aren’t enough time for the complex biology of our brains to adapt to that.

Subconsciously, we are desperately trying to find connections in the chaos, and many minds aren’t capable of realizing which of those connections are valuable and which aren’t. And it’s also hard for people to comprehend “true” randomness, because random sequences can create patterns and connections purely by accident. We don’t like to admit that existence is a vast and careless web of chance. Building a narrative allows us to comfortably process random events in a way that we feel control over.

The increased availability of conspiracy literature and videos has also made them more potent. As evidenced by the study, being exposed to materials that lend credence to “alternative facts” raised susceptibility in the subjects. Now that conspiracy theories are on everybody’s Facebook wall as opposed to lamp posts and crank phone calls to Art Bell, exposure is a given. What used to be fringe beliefs are now widespread, and the more they spread the more power they have.

Interestingly enough, a 2008 study might shed some additional light on the subject. It also tackled illusory pattern perception, but from the angle of the agency. In it, they found that if people had little or no control over their current situation, they were more likely to see patterns in random images like TV static, as well as more likely to believe in the supernatural. And who out there doesn’t feel like they’re losing control of their lives? We’re subconsciously reaching out for some method of ordering this chaos, even if the connections are bogus.

What’s the solution for this plague of lies? Peddlers of conspiracy theories aren’t going anywhere, especially now that they’re making money out of it. What our world really needs is more focus on critical thinking and media literacy. Rewiring the biology of our brains is a tough order, but training ourselves to ignore specious connections and focus on what can be factually proven is a good start. Check out the Foundation for Critical Thinking website for a good place to start.

Dr Jennifer Tullett

Lifespan Prolonged by Inhibiting Common Enzyme

An enzyme called RNA polymerase III (Pol III) that is present in most cells across all animal species, including ourselves has previously been known to be essential for making proteins and for cell growth. Its involvement in ageing however was under-explored until now.

The study involved Dr Jennifer Tullet of the University’s School of Biosciences. Led by a team from University College London (UCL) and also involving the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Jenny and colleagues found that the survival of yeast cells and the lifespans of flies and worms were extended by an average of 10% following a modest reduction in Pol III activity in adulthood.

The effects of inhibiting Pol III were found to be comparable to the action of the immune-suppressing drug rapamycin, which has previously been shown to extend the lifespans of mice and many other animals. This discovery will help scientists understand the mechanism of action of drugs, such as rapamycin, that show promise for extending the lifespans of mammals.

Jenny said that it was ‘amazing’ that one small genetic adjustment can impact so positively on lifespan and intestinal health. Understanding more about the underlying molecules at work promises new strategies for anti-ageing therapies.

The team now plan to continue their work on Pol III to understand its function in an adult organism and hence shed light on how a reduction in its activity can extend lifespan.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the EU’s Horizon 2020 and UCL.

The paper, entitled Longevity by RNA polymerase III inhibition downstream of TORC1 (Danny Filer, Maximillian Thompson, Vakil Takhaveev, Adam Dobson, Ilektra Kotronaki, James Green, Matthias Heinemann, Jennifer Tullet and Nazif Alic) was published in Nature.

Protest Image

Abortion, Booze and Father’s day

Professor Ellie Lee has been active in the press over the summer – commenting on a number of controversial stories.

In “Why, 50 years after the Abortion Act, it’s time to abolish the law altogether” she said There have been 50 or 60 abortion bills put to the house since 1967, and they’ve all tried to restrict access to abortion. I think this is the first time there has been a genuinely liberalising reform bill.”

She commented in the story “BABY BOOZE How much alcohol units can you drink when pregnant, how much is safe and what is foetal alcohol syndrome?”

And in “Can we just keep the politics out of Father’s Day?” – The mother-child interaction has become a laboratory, where politicians, professionals and experts of all kinds ­experiment about an expanding range of problems, real or imagined


Poetry Event

University Scientists’ Role in Canterbury Arts Festival

Scientists Dr Alessia BuscainoProfessor Darren GriffinDr Neil Kad and Dr Gary Robinson – alongside Professor Charlotte Sleigh of the School of History – explored their scientific passions with poets in the science-poetry slam Experimental Words on 1st  November, 20.00 at Canterbury Cathedral Lodge).

Biology met balladry, physics encountered pentameter, and chemistry confronted cadence as Kent’s leading scientists were paired with Canterbury’s finest spokenword artists – and challenged to create new microperformances.

The result? A diverse display of rhyme, rhythm and reason, which celebrated the creative similarities between science and the performing arts.

Hosted by scientific poet and former Canterbury Laureate Dan Simpson and poetry slam-winning scientist Dr. Sam Illingworth, this was an evening of precise delights and unexpected insights.


Suffragette Image

50th Anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967

October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, a law which has had an enormous impact on the lives of women in Britain and beyond, offering a direct inspiration for reform in a number of other countries.   Working with colleagues from the University of Bristol and  the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Professor Sally Sheldon organised a two-day conference to mark the event.  The conference was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and held at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which generously offered free use of its facilities (

The conference heard from many of those who campaigned for the introduction of the Abortion Act as well as from those who have fought to protect it over the years, including the Act’s sponsor, Lord David Steel.  Other speakers included members of the Lane Committee, which offered a significant and authoritative review of the operation of the Abortion Act in the early 1970s, senior health care professionals, a range of academic speakers, and past and current politicians who have been active in abortion law reform.

Professor Sheldon is currently conducting a major two year, AHRC-funded study of the Abortion Act.  She also spoke at a second event to commemorate the 50th anniversary, Beyond the Backstreet, organised by Abortion Rights (; and gave a well-attended public lecture on her research at Keele University in a series designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Law School, where she previously taught (


Image: ‘George Rawlinson Collection, reproduced with kind permission of the GCU archives’.