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by Andy Miah, PhD

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Future of Our Memories

Last friday, I participated in a symposium by this title. The co-presenters were Professor Wendy Hall and Professor Neil Burgess. It was hosted by the Royal Institution of Great Britain and was part of the EPSRC Futures series. The Chair of the debate and Director of the series was Dr Dan Glaser, who did a first class jobs. Chairs rarely get credit, but Dan was really superb. He has had a lot of experience with public engagement and his management of this session made it very enjoyable.

A number of possible futures were discussed and questions were asked about the use of metaphors and analogies when imagining what constitutes our memories. Movies came up a lot as well, particularly a compendium of Jim Carrey films (Bruce Almighty, Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Memento was also mentioned. I think we could have spent the whole evening just talking about film.

Prof. Neil Burgess also described some work on recollection that uses virtual reality environments as a means of evaluating how much people remember. Yet another example of computer game technology infiltrating the sphere of science. Last November, I learned of similar uses within surgery.

My paper attempted a socio-ethical take on the future of memory, wondering about how we might alter memories and on what basis we justify memory enhancement. Paralells are made with debates related specifically to neuroethics (recent edition of the AJOB has a number of papers about this) and the use of cognitive enhancers. It seems that the future indicates the potential to develop a refined knowledge hierarchy where some forms of knowledge will become more important than others. So, perhaps through sophisticated digital support systems, the importance of remembering factual information will be less. This could have radical implications for how we evaluate capacity and intellect.

Again, the emphasis I wish to make is that becoming posthuman need not imply radical, futuristic technologies such as memory erasure. Rather, the integration of digitisation alone into our daily lives transforms what it means to be human. A good indication of this is the use of community photograph sites, such as flickr, where your images become part of a collective memory of an event or moment.

Blurb on the Symposium
Continuing our innovative look at what the future holds for us, the second in our series of ‘Futures’ debates will ask how will we use our memory in the future and how much we will rely on technology to do it for us. This reliance has already begun – consider how many phone numbers you can remember now that you can store them on your mobile phone – and looks set to continue with projects such as ‘Memories for life’. This is one of the grand challenges in the computing world, and its aim is to develop a system to both store and protect our individual memories while being sophisticated enough to allow us to sort through them. But what effects will this have on individuals and society as our ability to access information, and our dependence on external devices, increases? How can mass-storage devices be designed to interface with people and their brains so that more and more can be retrieved with less and less reliance on biological memory? And could this help people with memory impairments? Join Neil Burgess (University College London), Wendy Hall (University of Southampton) and Andy Miah (University of Paisley) as they look at the potential of future computer systems and ask should we be embracing or resisting this move towards an age when digital and physical activities not only coexist but co-operate. (Link to Royal Institution of Great Britain website).

A link to my presentation

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Genes Talking

Yet more on what might be described as posthuman art, conversations between science and art:


ICA, The Mall, London, SW1
Tickets & Box Office Information: 020 7930 3647 / www.ica.org.uk
The laboratory will be open to the public daily from 12 noon – 7.30pm
FREE with ICA Membership (£1.50, £1.00 Concs; except Sat & Sun £2.50, £1.50 Concs)

From Monday 4th July 2005, the ICA theatre will become the unique site for a groundbreaking, time-based installation, transforming into a live, working scientific laboratory. Volunteer scientists will conduct genuine experiments using DNA sequencing technology - used in the Human Genome Project - in the hope of isolating DNA responsible for specific language impairment (SLI), a disorder characterised by problems with verbal communication. In this world first, the public will be able to see a real lab working on a day-to-day basis, talk to scientists, and take part in the analysis of the results.

The experiment will analyse a ‘candidate gene’ for specific language impairment (SLI). Individuals with SLI have problems producing or understanding spoken language, despite normal intelligence. Characteristically they exhibit delayed onset of speech, perhaps not
learning to talk until 3 or 4 years of age. SLI is distinct from dyslexia, which involves problems with written language, but is just as common in the population.

By allowing public access to a working scientific lab and involvement in a genuine scientific experiment, Genes Talking aims to demystify the scientific process and bring about a better understanding of genetics. The project is the result of a collaboration between science–arts consultant, Dr Julie Webb, curator, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Professor Anthony Monaco from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford,
and Professor Mandy Fisher from the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre (MRC CSC).

Visitors to Genes Talking can contribute to these experiments in the ICA’s Digital Studio. Data generated from the DNA sequencing reaction will be collected digitally, taking the form of a simple graph. Members of the public will be invited to read DNA sequences on the graph from people with SLI, and compare these to the normal sequences, noting any differences. A simple procedure of interpreting coloured peaks from a graph, corresponding to letters of the genetic alphabet, this will also give participants a feel for the everyday life of a scientist, which is at times humdrum, often frustrating, but occasionally exhilarating. Their contribution will be acknowledged in the form of a printed certificate and also on future research publications.

This project is part of an ongoing initiative by the ICA to cross-pollinate the worlds of arts, culture and science; the choice of a ‘language gene’ for study looks to encourage debate on the nature of genetic research and its relationship to culture, society, and philosophy.

The ICA laboratory will be informed by the availability of supplementary background information about the science and technology involved, including a programme of talks, vox-pop interviews with scientists, and a website.


Over the last decade many studies have shown that SLI tends to run in families, suggesting that it involves some genetic component. Two DNA regions have been identified which may be involved in language impairment: one on chromosome 16; and a second on chromosome 19. Each of these regions is large and contains many good candidate genes.

One of the genes from chromosome 16 is similar to a gene that was previously shown to be involved in dyslexia. The Genes Talking scientists believe this gene is the best candidate for SLI in this region. During this experiment, they will sequence fifty controls and fifty patient samples and look differences between their DNA. Some differences, or polymorphisms, may
represent normal variation. However, if they can uncover a loss-of-function mutation, they believe this could be causative in language impairment. Using this strategy they will confirm or rule out this candidate’s involvement in SLI.


Mon 11 July, 7pm
Thanks to the lavish investment of major cultural and scientific institutions, sci-art has moved from a niche pursuit into the mainstream. But is it simply an excuse for bad art? Can the encounter between science and arts change ways of thinking creatively and lead to fruitful new
avenues, or is it an excuse for a failure of vision – and a failure to communicate that vision – on both sides.

Speakers: Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology as applied to medicine, University College London; Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, The Wellcome Trust; Sandra Kemp, Head of Research, Royal College of Art.
Chair: Emma Crichton-Miller, journalist and writer.
£8, £7 Concs, £6 ICA Members

Thur 14 July, 7pm
Is human language a natural progression of animal communications, or has there been a genetic leap in our ability to communicate? The issue of whether there is continuity between animal communication and human language has always been contentious. But what clues can the new science of comparative genomics offer?

Speakers: Professor Anthony Monaco, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics and Head of the Neurogenetics group; Heather van der Lely, Professor and Director of the Centre for Developmental Language Disorders and Cognitive Neuroscience; Professor Stephen Oppenheimer, Research Associate with the Institute of Human Sciences, Oxford University and author of Out of Eden. Chair: Professor Amanda Fisher, MRC Clinical
Sciences Centre.
£8, £7 Concs, £6 ICA Members