Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of May 23

This is another thin week for science and technology content in late night.  The summer blockbusters are dominating the guest lineups, and even the science and technology people appearing on the shows aren’t necessarily their for that expertise.  To wit, both episodes of Join or Die that aired last week featured scientists, astronomer Derrick Pitts (History’s Greatest Gangster) and astronaut Mike Massimino (History’s Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon).  But arguably science only featured in the episode on unexplained phenomenon, and then not that much.  (Megan Amram, who wrote the humorous science textbook Science…For Her!, was on the unexplained phenomenon episode as well.)

Another guest I missed from last week was Science Bob Pflugfelder, who was on Live with Kelly on Friday.  I’m kind of surprised that Science Bob doesn’t seem to get much talk show exposure outside of Live and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

As you might guess, the recent news about a penis transplant surgery in the United States was tailor made for the late night programs.  It was featured heavily on the May 17th edition of The Nightly Show.  That same edition of the program had another of the show’s regular reports on the horrible state of lead poisoning in the U.S.  This was a more historical perspective on the use of lead in the U.S., and how it contrasted with the global trend of decreased lead use in the 20th century.

As I noted up top, the guest list this week is thin on science and technology guests.  Lizzy Caplan stars as sex researcher Virginia Johnson in the show Masters of Sex.  She is on with Stephen Colbert this Thursday, but she is probably promoting her upcoming movie in which she plays an illusionist.  Colbert also welcomes musician Neil Young that night, but he will not likely be discussing the high definition portable audio device he was instrumental in developing.

Finally, Tuesday on TBS is the finale of America’s Greatest Makers.  It will see which of five remaining teams has sufficiently developed their product to convince the judges to award it $1 million.  These products include a toothbrush game, a sensor for real-time concussion tracking, exercise tracking gloves, a glove that translates American Sign Language, and a fishing float that can be remotely adjusted.  One of the guest judges is Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It (the latter program is on CNN, a sister network to TBS).  He was also featured on this weekend’s edition of the NPR radio puzzle program Ask Me Another.  He will be the only judge for this round who hasn’t been previously exposed to the products.

Two Fall Television Shows Might Poke At Technological Saviors

This past week many of the U.S. television networks unveiled their lineups for the next television season, which starts in the fall.  While there do not appear to be any new programs focused on scientists or technologists as such, two programs are geared around technologists who got rich spending their money to change/save some institutions.

The FOX drama APB follows a billionaire engineer who takes over a district of the Chicago Police Department and converts it to a private police force.  The precinct uses advanced technology to fight crime, though there will be some resistance from officers to the new technologies.  The CBS program Pure Genius takes a similar approach with medicine.  The wealthy tech genius in this program builds a high-tech hospital and fancies himself fighting both disease and bureaucracy.  Think Steve Jobs if he stepped back from Apple at the time of his cancer diagnosis and opted to spend down his fortune investing and changing health care – at least in one hospital.

It’s too early to tell how critical these shows will be of their respective protagonists.  As a network FOX is typically more receptive of flawed heroes and/or pessimistic programs than CBS.  And even if the lead characters of these shows are unsuccessful in their efforts to save the world with technology, it could be through the inertia of bureaucracy, the efforts of so-called Luddites, or some other force independent of the unfettered use of technology to solve societal problems.

The new television season doesn’t start until the fall, and these programs will debut later in the season.  As of this writing Pure Genius is scheduled for Thursday nights starting in November, and APB will premiere on Mondays in the spring of 2017.

America’s Greatest Makers Wraps Up First Season, Unclear If It Will Be Only Season

On Tuesday the finale of the first season of America’s Greatest Makers will air on TBS.  The five finalist teams will pitch their products to the judges, and the winning team will receive $1 million. Guest judges for the finale are Mike Rowe (host of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It) and TNT basketball analyst Kenny Smith.  Smith was part of the panel judging initial pitches, but the finalists have had several weeks to refine their products and pass a second round of judging before facing Smith again.

While there has been a lot of video and other information on the program’s website, the television show has not been as prominent.  There has been some cross-promotion, including a guest appearance by one of the team on the Conan program, but the network has not yet announced that the show is coming back.  The ratings having been up and down, spiking with the first episode of the second round of competition and declining slightly since then.

Speaking just about the television program, I found the format a bit awkward, shifting between hour-long and half-hour segments.  I also found it somewhat light on describing the underlying Intel technology that was part of the competition.  Perhaps there was a concern about not making the product placement so obvious, but I think that sacrificed the opportunity to better explain the guts of these products.

The producers of the program are casting for a second season, and Intel has supported maker competitions before, so I think it possible that someone could apply and be accepted.  I just wouldn’t count on being part of a reality show.

OpenAI Has A Toolkit For Home Use

Last month OpenAI, the non-profit organization focused on artificial intelligence research, released the public beta of its OpenAI Gym (H/T WIRED).  The Gym is a toolkit for reinforcement learning algorithms.  These algorithms govern decision making and motor control, and the OpenAI Gym has been used by the company in support of its own research on reinforcement learning.

The public release of Gym is consistent with OpenAI’s intent to be an open source operation.  A goal of that focus is to try and ensure that the research and knowledge about AI remain accessible to those without the deep pockets of a Google or a Facebook.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that some of the current challenges in the field would benefit from having a lot of different people working on the problems and generating their own datasets for comparison.  In support of that goal, those who download and use the OpenAI Gym are encouraged to upload their results and try and reproduce the results of others.

Presumably one of the metrics of success would be use of the Gym and growth of a community of researchers and research data.  Not quite a month after release, I suspect it’s too early to evaluate where things are.

Attention Kids: White House Wants Your Science And Technology Input

At last month’s White House Science Fair, Jacob Leggette, one of the young people who presented their work to President Obama, suggested that the President have a kid science adviser.  President Obama was taken by the suggestion enough to mention in his remarks at the Fair.

Now there’s been some follow up.  While it’s probably not exactly what Jacob had in mind, the White House is seeking input from kid about science, technology, engineering and math.  Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren posted today that the White House wants to hear two things from kids:

What is your favorite thing about science, technology, engineering or math?

What one idea would you pitch the President about to make our country work better using science or technology?

The White House is taking comments until June 17.  No word in the post about how these ideas might be synthesized by the Administration and/or communicated back to the public.

While the post is written for an audience of kid scientists and innovators, I think any kid could (and should) submit his or her ideas.

2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference Returns To Ottawa

The 2016 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), the eighth such event, will return to the nation’s capital from November 8-10.  This is the third year the Conference will take place in Ottawa, and the first time it has been held in the same city in consecutive years.  I attended the first conference in 2009, and the event has grown in size and stature every year since.  I’d encourage anyone interested in Canadian science policy, or even in how interested researchers and practitioners form and grow a community, to review previous conferences and consider attending the event.

The conference themes have been announced, and conference organizers are looking for panel proposals.  The deadline for submitting them is June 17th.  Most of the conference themes reflect the change in Canadian government (which took place just before the last CSPC) and the statements that government has made regarding science, technology and innovation policies for the country.  These new policies include the establishment of a science adviser of some kind (distinct from the government’s Minister of Science, Kristy Duncan, who spoke at the 2015 conference) and a spending review for fundamental science research.

More information on the 2016 conference should trickle in over the summer.

First Arctic Science Ministerial Will Take Place In Washington This Fall

Last week Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren announced that the United States will host the first Arctic Science Ministerial on September 28, 2016 in Washington, D.C.  Representatives will attend from many countries as well as indigenous groups.

It’s not clear from the announcement which countries and native groups will be participating.  However, the Arctic Council, which the United States is chairing this year, has as its members the Arctic States (the Kingdom of Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Norway and the United States) and six international groups representing indigenous people in the Arctic States.  I don’t know enough to guess at what other countries and groups might participate.  Perhaps there will be some representation of countries and people affected by Antarctic science.

The White House announcement named four themes for the Ministerial meeting,

  1. Arctic Science Challenges and their Regional and Global Implications.
  2. Strengthening and Integrating Arctic Observations and Data Sharing.
  3. Applying Expanded Scientific Understanding of the Arctic to Build Regional Resilience and Shape Global Responses.
  4. Arctic Science as a Vehicle for STEM Education and Citizen Empowerment. 

The overarching goal of the meeting is to expand collaborative efforts in Arctic science, including but not limited to: data sharing, research, monitoring, and observations.  With an increasing interest in the region, this first meeting has the capacity to address how new activities in the Arctic can add to the climatic changes already taking place.