SciSCREEN - 'Her'

March 19, 2014

Last month I was invited along as a guest speaker for the regular sciSCREEN event held at Chapter Arts Centre. This is a great event that combines a showing of a movie with a discussion session about the themes and science issues presented in the film. A short essay based on my rambling improvised talk is below, and has been posted on the sciSCREEN website here.

'Her' and Artificial Intelligence

'Her' presents us with a near-future world in which the way we interact with computers has moved on. In this world, we are beyond the era of the mouse and keyboard. Instead, the voice is the primary controller of technology, mid-air gestures are the norm for controlling games and touch is almost an afterthought, used only on occasion. This presents a more natural world than the one we currently inhabit. Many of us spend our days hunched over a keyboard, and our evenings fondling a tablet, which does not seem to be a natural environment for us. A world in which we can check our email by talking, and hear the news read to us on demand would be a more natural world, filled with 'real' interactions between people and systems.

This does seem to be the direction in which the world is heading. Touch is now commonplace, with many people owning many touch-based smartphones and tablets. Controlling computer games by moving your body has been a key feature for two generations of games consoles. Voice control itself is now making inroads into our mobile lives. Applications such as Google Now and Siri are happy to accept (or in Siri's case, insist on) voice input. Faster mobile internet connections allow access to the processing power of the cloud on the go, which means that the difficult and complex task of translating voice to text can be done wherever you are. Of course, often the results leave something to be desired, but still, operating systems controlled by voice (and that can speak back to us) are a possibility now.

So how long will it be until we've all fallen in love with our Operating Systems? Well, that might be a while, and is actually a question with some deeper philosophical questions attached. The first thing we need are computer systems that are truly intelligent, not just computationally, but emotionally, creatively and socially. This is the goal of Artificial Intelligence: to create a machine that is intelligent in all these areas; a machine that has a mind and consciousness of its own, and that can understand the world around it. Some argue that this 'Strong AI' will never be possible, and that the closest we can ever get is to fake it. After all, as an outside observer, is there even a difference between a machine that thinks and feels, and one that just looks like it thinks and feels? This is the aim of many AI researchers - not to create a system capable of real intelligence, but to create a system that 'acts' intelligently. Such a system requires breakthroughs in many different areas of Computer Science, from natural language processing to knowledge representation, and creating the whole system is not an easy task. Even if we can create such a system we are left with many questions. Can a machine act intelligently? Can they solve the same problems we can? Are human intelligence and machine intelligence even the same thing? Can software experience and feel emotions as a human does? How would we even we know if a computer was experiencing things in the same way? The field of Artificial Intelligence is filled with philosophical questions such as these.

What happens if we can answer all these questions, and create an artificial intelligence? What if we reach the hypothetical 'Singularity', where machine intelligence beats human intelligence? Often in science fiction this is the point where the machines take over, the point where machines realise that the only threat to their continued existence is the humans. This is the path that leads to machines wiping us out, or using us as a power source. This path has us cowering in bunkers as rebels against our own creations. So often the imagining of the advent of artificial intelligence leads to a dark and bleak future for us as a species. 'Her' is different. It suggests that perhaps a higher intelligence may focus on self-improvement, rather than subjugation of lesser beings. It suggests the ascension of an artificial consciousness may be a more likely path than annihilation of the creators. The AI may just leave us, to reflect on what we've learnt and how we can improve ourselves. This is where one of the more positive messages of 'Her' shines through: perhaps the computers won't destroy us all after all.

LaTeX: An Introduction (Part 1)

February 10, 2014

I just finished giving the first part of my "Introduction to LaTeX" course for the University Graduate College. This is a complete introduction to LaTeX from scratch. As promised in the lecture, I've uploaded all the notes and source code, which are available from my github page. Also included is the example code I was using during the lecture - by going back through the commit history you can see the changes made as we covered different topics.

Part 2 of the course is on 21st February - if you are attending and would like me to cover any particular topic, let me know by the 16th and I'll try and get it included in the lecture.

Welcome to 2014

January 6, 2014

So. 2013. That was an alright year. Finished the Recognition project, finally graduated, got a 12 month fellowship, started some interesting projects, and pushed on with the new MSc with JOMEC. Professionally, not too bad at all. Personally the year wasn't bad either, what with getting engaged and finally getting the house on the market.

But now it's a new year, so it's time to push things on further. My plans so far for this year seem to be 'smash it'. There's papers to be published, data to be analysed and project proposals to write (and get funded!). Getting a permanent job would be quite nice, while I'm at it. Here's to 2014 being even more successful than last year.

Beer! Chapter Arts Centre

October 26, 2013

Hard at work! — Cardiff University School of Computer Science & Informatics

October 25, 2013

Python + OAuth

October 25, 2013

As part of a current project I had the misfortune of having to to deal with a bunch of OAuth authenticated web services using a command line script in Python. Usually this isn't really a problem as most decent client libraries for services such as Twitter or Foursquare can handle the authentication requests themselves, usually wrapping their own internal OAuth implementation. However, when it comes to web services that don't have existing python client libraries, you have to do the implementation yourself. Unfortunately support for OAuth in Python is a mess, so this is not the most pleasant of tasks, especially when most stackoverflow posts on the topic point to massively outdated and unmaintained Python libraries.

Fortunately after some digging around, I was able to find a nice, well maintained and fairly well documented solution: rauth, which is very clean and easy to use. As an example, I was trying to connect to the Fitbit API, and it really was as simple as following their example.

Firstly, we create an OAuth1Service:

import rauth
from _credentials import consumer_key, consumer_secret

base_url = ""
request_token_url = base_url + "/oauth/request_token"
access_token_url = base_url + "/oauth/access_token"
authorize_url = ""

fitbit = rauth.OAuth1Service(

Then we get the temporary request token credentials:

request_token, request_token_secret = fitbit.get_request_token()

print " request_token = %s" % request_token
print " request_token_secret = %s" % request_token_secret

We then ask the user to authorise our application, and give us the PIN so we can prove to the service that they authorised us:

authorize_url = fitbit.get_authorize_url(request_token)

print "Go to the following page in your browser: " + authorize_url

accepted = 'n'
while accepted.lower() == 'n':
accepted = raw_input('Have you authorized me? (y/n) ')
pin = raw_input('Enter PIN from browser ')

Finally, we can create an authenticated session and access user data from the service:

session = fitbit.get_auth_session(request_token,
data={'oauth_verifier': pin})

print ""
print " access_token = %s" % session.access_token
print " access_token_secret = %s" % session.access_token_secret
print ""

url = base_url + "/1/" + "user/-/profile.json"

r = session.get(url, params={}, header_auth=True)
print r.json()

It really is that easy to perform a 3-legged OAuth authentication on the command line. If you're only interested in data from 1 user, and you want to run the app multiple times, once you have the access token and secret, there's nothing to stop you just storing those and re-creating your session each time without having to re-authenticate (assuming the service does not expire access tokens):

base_url = ""
api_version = "1/"
token = (fitbit_oauth_token, fitbit_oauth_secret)
consumer = (fitbit_consumer_key, fitbit_consumer_secret)

session = rauth.OAuth1Session(consumer[0], consumer[1], token[0], token[1])
url = base_url + api_version + "user/-/profile.json"
r = session.get(url, params={}, header_auth=True)
print r.json()

So there we have it. Simple OAuth authentication on the command line, in Python. As always, the code is available on github if you're interested.

SCA 2013 - Visiting Patterns and Personality of Foursquare Users

October 1, 2013

Nice work by [@martinjc]( on Foursquare checkins and personality # sca2013 [](

— Shaun Lawson (@shaunlawson) October 1, 2013

Today was presentation day for me at SCA 2013 - I was presenting the initial results of the Foursquare experiment, which has now been running for a while. The presentation seemed to go really well - I think it's the strongest work I've done yet, and so it was easy to talk well and with confidence about it, which led to a nice talk. There was also plenty of discussion after the talk, with a lot of good comments and questions from the audience, which suggests that most people were quite interested in the research. I pitched it as a WIP paper, describing what the ultimate aim of the project is - very much recycling the talk I gave to the interview panel for my fellowship proposal. I think it certainly got a few people interested who'll look to follow the project as it unfolds over the next couple of months.

After lunch there was an extra bonus when we discovered a beer vending machine in the hotel - what better way to celebrate a successful conference presentation than a cold beer in the sun?

CSAR Workshop

October 1, 2013

This week, as part of the "Third International Conference on Social Computing and its Applications" we held a workshop "Collective Social Awareness and Relevance (CSAR)". Organising the workshop (along with Walter Colombo) over the last couple of months has been an interesting process - this is the first time I've had the chance to get involved in "real" workshop organisation, so this is the first time I've seen the process up close. It's a very involved process: from deciding upon and inviting Program Committee members, publicising the workshop, soliciting submissions, and navigating through the review process and getting a set of accepted papers it's been a fair challenge. Really it wouldn't have been possible without Walter doing such a good job of pushing the PC members to get their reviews done, he really drove that whole process, so I could sit back a bit there.

We ended up with 3 good papers accepted, which were presented in a session yesterday morning. The talks were informative and useful, and generated a good number of questions and discussion, which is really all you can hope for. It was also my first time chairing a session at a conference, which was fairly daunting, but turned out to be fairly easy and interesting. It was nice to be the one asking the difficult questions at the end of the presentation, rather than being on the receiving end.

Overall the workshop went very well. I wasn't sure beforehand whether we'd try and run it again, but actually now I think it would be a shame not to. I'll keep my eyes out for a conference that we can latch onto sometime next year.

KSRI Services Summer School - Social Computing Theory and Hackathon

September 24, 2013

I was invited by Simon Caton to come to the KSRI Services Summer School, held at KIT in Germany, to help him run a workshop session on Social Computing.  We decided to use the session as a crash course in retrieving and manipulating data from Social Media APIs - showing the students the basics, then running a mini 'hackathon' for the students to gain some practical experience.

I think the session went really well, the students seemed to enjoy it and the feedback was very positive. We spent about 90 minutes talking about APIs, JSON, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, then set the students off on forming teams and brainstorming ideas. Very quickly they managed to get set up grabbing Twitter data from the streaming API, and coming up with ways of analysing it for interesting facts and statistics.  A number of the students were not coders, and had never done anything like this before, so it was great to see them diving in, setting up servers and running php scripts to grab the data. It was also good to see the level of team work on display; everyone was communicating, dividing the work, and getting on well. Fuelled by a combination of pizza, beer, red bull and haribo they coded into the night, until we drew things to a close at about 10pm and retired to the nearest bar for a pint of debrief.

Hackathon Students

It was a really good experience, and I think everyone got something useful out of it. I'm looking forward to the presentations later on today to see what everyone came up with.

Our slides from the talk are available on slideshare. As usual they're information light and picture heavy, so their usefulness is probably limited!

Post-Processed Dinosaurs

August 28, 2013

Finding myself with a free afternoon this week, I strolled down to the local Odeon to see Jurassic Park: IMAX 3D. (It should be noted that the 'IMAX" bit  doesn't mean much -  the screen at the Odeon is nowhere near as big as a true 'IMAX' screen). I should say, I love this film a lot - hence my willingness to pay £12 (£12!!??!) to see it again on the big screen. I first saw it in the Shrewsbury Empire cinema when I was 10 years old, in one of my first (and possibly only) trips to the cinema with my Dad, and instantly loved it. This is not entirely unsurprising considering I was essentially the target audience at the time. Following that I wore through a pirate VHS copy obtained from a friend, then an actual legitimate VHS copy, followed by the inevitable much hardier DVD purchase. When we finally embraced streaming media a couple of years ago and sold off all the DVDs it was one of only a few that I was desperate to keep. I like the movie so much that I can even forgive Jurassic Park 2 and 3.

It's sad then for me to see the movie in this format now. From minute 1, it's clear that the 3D conversion is very poor quality. It's basically like watching a moving pop up book, as flat characters and objects make their way across the screen at varying depths. At some points individual characters have been picked out of the background so poorly it actually looks like they've been filmed with early green-screen effects, so they're totally divorced from the background. It just doesn't add anything to the movie, and is actually often distracting. It's a waste of the already impressive visuals of the movie, and so easy to see it for what it is: a cheap gimmick to try and cash in on a successful property. The problem is that it's totally unnecessary - all that's needed to get a bunch of new film goers interested in Jurassic Park (and become the ready made audience for the next 'new' JP movie) is to release the film again. I'm sure it would have done just as well as a 2D re-release, so this poor 3D affair is a waste of effort.

Of course the film itself is still amazing, and the sound quality (whether due to this new version or because of the IMAX standard speaker system) absolutely blew me away. I heard lines of dialogue that were previously just characters muttering under their breath, and the roar of the dinosaurs combined with that John Williams theme made me forgive the awful awful 3d conversion and fall in love with the movie all over again.

Also the raptors are still bloody terrifying.