A robot that’s smarter than us? There’s one big problem with that…

[ooyala id=”Y1cmhjMjogL5tMsqt4VkddB7rgzUu_fa” ] The day I realised that machines were going to take over the world was March 29 2011, when I saw a YouTube video of two quadcopter drones playing ping-pong. Yes, I know, ping-pong is an unlikely choice of combat technique. But it was creepy. They were obviously tracking the movement of the…

The curse of Ebola

Ebola has arrived in Spain, and many in Britain are now suggesting that we screen new arrivals at our airports for the disease.  But deadly as the virus is, it is also easily destroyed, Tom Chivers reports In a hospital somewhere in a rural part of sub-Saharan Africa, a patient presents with an unknown disease….

Medicalising the healthy: is ‘pre-diabetes’ a useful term?

Diabetes is the great modern scourge. More than three million people suffer the disease in this country. The NHS says that about 10 per cent of its budget, roughly £10 billion a year – £27 million a day – is spent treating it and its complications – including but not limited to blindness, kidney stones,…

Botany: the roots of civilisation

Plants underpin all life, yet botany fails to capture our imagination. Tom Chivers hopes a BBC radio series will change that view A billion years ago, a primitive single-celled organism ended up inside another, slightly less primitive organism, and something strange happened: it didn’t die. Now, a billion years later, the descendants of that hybrid…

Brazil v Germany, Nate Silver v Piers Morgan: do sport pundits ever get it right?

The Reverend Thomas Bayes, RA Fisher, Johann Gauss: your boys took one hell of a beating. That’s right, apparently it wasn’t only the Brazilian national team that suffered ignominious defeat on Tuesday night, as Germany tore them apart in a brutal, tragicomic home-turf humiliation. It was also the abstract concept of statistical probability. Nate Silver,…

Making smoking illegal would be the worst idea ever

As we’ve seen in the war on drugs, the best way to stop people taking things that are bad for them is definitely to make that thing illegal. After all, no one smokes marijuana any more. And you just can’t get cocaine or MDMA or heroin for love nor money these days. And certainly an…

Jeremy Hunt: ‘12,000 unnecessary NHS deaths a year’. Is that a lot?

Apparently, at a Press Gallery lunch earlier today, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, said that there were 12,000 “unnecessary deaths” in the NHS every year. My only source for this is our correspondent Christopher Hope, who was at the lunch, and tweeted it – I haven’t yet seen any news stories based on it. So…

Why it pays to be narcissistic

Tony Blair has been accused of it; Charles Saatchi has admitted it. But is it really a problem that some people fall in love with themselves, asks Tom Chivers Narcissus was a beautiful youth. So beautiful that a nymph, a spirit-creature, fell in love with him; when he rejected her, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution,…

The apps that will save your life – or not

[ooyala id=”d1MDk1bjprxpwYNQdbMU4nGD97ASNlyD” ] Health and fitness is the new growth area for reward-driven apps, but do they actually work? One of the favourite words of the smartphone era is “gamification”. Computer games entice players with a series of small rewards, little pats on the head, whenever some arbitrary goal is reached; and this creates a…

‘Mindfulness techniques’: nonsense or medicine?

It’s tempting to debunk alternative medicines, but this is one fad that has some substance The trouble with being sceptical about quackish health-care fads is that it’s sometimes easy to throw out the useful baby with the nonsense bathwater. If you’ve spent much time over the years wearily explaining to people that homeopathy doesn’t work,…

Ann Maguire murder: are video games linked to killings?

Do video games cause violence? The appalling murder of Ann Maguire has revived the old claims of a link; we report that the 15-year-old alleged killer played Dark Souls, “a violent video game marketed with the slogan ‘prepare to die’”; the Mail reports the same. Ever since the Columbine killers were found to be fans…