Bristol’s pioneering role in quantum and deep tech research and commercialisation.

A Q&A with Mustafa Rampuri, Director of Enterprise Services, University of Bristol.

1. For those that don’t know much about you, what is your role and what is your background?

My role is to help the University of Bristol deliver on its vision to support our partners, students and staff to achieve their enterprise and entrepreneurial aspirations. This means ensuring our innovation and enterprise assets like Engine Shed, SETsquared Bristol and QTIC+ are fully enabled to help achieve extraordinary outcomes within our region.

2. What does QTIC+ do?

QTIC+ is an innovation centre which supports businesses to take deep and emergent technology to market. Our core specialisms are quantum enhanced businesses, but we also have a great track record in cybersecurity and future networks. We provide business and technical support, as well as office, meeting and breakout spaces, high quality laboratories, a hackspace for prototyping and building device technologies, and of course, great coffee.

3. Why is quantum technology so important?

Quantum technologies work in ways that are very different to classical technologies. By harnessing the properties of single particles of light or single atoms, engineers and scientists have developed a new class of technology that goes far beyond the limitations of classical physics. This allows us to measure with greater precision, sense with greater certainty, provide communication secured by the laws of physics, simulate ultra-complex interactions, and solve problems using quantum computers that would be forever out of the reach of classical machines.

4. How are quantum technologies already influencing our lives and which sectors in your view will see the biggest growth looking forwards?

The advent of quantum technology has set in motion a chain of events that are already changing technologies that we rely on. For instance, cryptography, used to secure our online lives, is moving towards being “quantum safe” to mitigate that quantum computers are becoming so powerful they will render our current encryption schemes vulnerable to attack.  Looking forwards, the applications will be incredibly broad and exciting, from pharmaceuticals to the energy sector. Specific examples could be faster drug discovery through simulation and analysis of more complex molecules or helping to reduce our carbon footprint through optimisations of complex interactions such as autonomous transportation.

5. Why is the UK one of the world’s major investors in quantum research?

The UK has invested in quantum for decades, however in 2014 the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme launched which has invested over £500m in research and technology development. The West of England Combined Authority had the foresight to coinvest and awarded the University of Bristol £35m to establish QTIC+.  The University of Bristol is today one of the world’s leading quantum centres, boasting three Nobel prize winners.

6. QTIC+ is due to move to the new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus (TQEC) in 2023. What will this mean for QTIC+?

As we transition to the Temple Quarter Campus we will take the keys to new state of the art labs, a Design Factory for rapid prototyping and a suite of offices, breakout and meeting spaces. All under the same roof with University industrial partners, academics and students, creating a vibrant and creative atmosphere that will attract talented people and make a great venue for supply chain development, building new networks and drawing investors to the region.

7. How can we attract more diversity and inclusion into the quantum and deep tech sectors?

This starts by breaking out of conventional modes of working to encourage people from diverse backgrounds and from all walks of life to engage with these types of activities in a way and a format that works for them, and together with community organisations who know best how to do this for the groups they represent.  It also needs visible role models and leaders from diverse backgrounds who people can take inspiration from and who can use their influence to help level the playing field. This is not easy and establishment organisations need to do more to help address the imbalance. Importantly this isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s a real business imperative. Organisations with a diverse workforce are more resilient and can attract a broader customer base. Bristol, as a city, is a great example, with over 90 languages spoken. This represents more than 90 potential export markets; it means employees who have different relationships with technology are included in the product definition allowing more versatile technologies to be created that have broader appeal.

8. How would you describe Engine Shed?

Engine Shed is one of the region’s leading organisations that support enterprise and entrepreneurship. It has a formidable track record and has consistently set the standard for support for a variety of organisations to drive inclusive economic growth in the region.

9. How is QTIC working with Engine Shed and SETsquared Bristol to support entrepreneurship and innovation in the region?

The new Enterprise Services remit brings together the University’s internationally recognised enterprise and innovation assets and programmes covering a broad range of support, networks and facilities for a wonderful mix of companies. Drawing this together enables the whole region to benefit from the investments made by regional and national government, our partners and the University over many years.  For me, I’m thrilled to be working with these extraordinary teams and I’m looking forward to creating even better services and support then before.

10. To what extent can Bristol do more for entrepreneurs?

Bristol as a region values entrepreneurship highly, however through focussed action to bring about a collective voice for the region then it will enable lines of investment to be opened. Through increased promotion of the region’s businesses and entrepreneurial talent, including better coordination of networks, increased capacity for training and skills and investment to address key market failures, the region will be well placed to thrive over the coming years.

11. How do you see the future role that universities need to have in a city economy?

Universities as anchor institutions play a vital role in regional economies; they act as attractors and producers of talent, investment and knowledge. During the pandemic, the University of Bristol has refocused on its civic mission proving that it has a role to play in supporting stimulus and economic renewal, particularly with communities in the region who would normally be overlooked, remaining in the productive margins.  The University will of course need to adapt and change continuously and its ability to do this will be the mark of success.

12. If someone is interested in exploring opportunities in quantum, who should they talk to?

If you are a high technology business looking for technical space and support we’d love to talk to you. Please visit the QTIC website and get in touch, or talk to our colleagues at Engine Shed or SETsquared who can help make an introduction.

This article was originally published by Engine Shed, as part of the Let’s Chat series. 

#CanDoStories – Widening the Circle

Professor Martin Parker, Lead for the Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative, shares his vision for how Can Do can help connect people to make a genuine difference. 

We all know that Bristol is an extraordinary city, but it’s also a very divided one. On just about every social indicator, the north and west does better than the south and east. We have concentrations of wealth, and many very successful businesses and organizations, but we also have parts of the city where people feel cut off and left behind.

There are many different causes for this inequality, but part of the problem is the way that the city talks to itself. Though people who live here do have lots of networks and connections, many of these tend to connect within particular occupations or parts of the city. So there are conversations which link people who work at in the health services, or the universities, or with the council, with community organizations, financial services firms, the media and so on. There are no networks which connect us all, which allow everyone and every organization in the city to communicate and collaborate effectively.

If you think about it, this is quite odd. We live in a world in which most of us are now on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin and WhatsApp. In some ways we have never been more connected, more entangled in flows of electronic information about our friends, football team and favourite pop star. So the idea of growing Can Do is quite a simple one. Would it be possible to use some of these technologies to connect the city in ways that make it better for all of us? Can we imagine a platform that we could all stand on?

There are lots of potential benefits if we can make this happen. Here’s a few examples. Professional services firms could offer free legal or financial help to community groups. Voluntary organizations can ask for the particular kinds of help that they need. Bristol residents can find out what is happening in their area and decide if they want to join in. Big companies can use their workforce and resources to make ‘offers’ which help to tackle the ‘asks’ from the city. The City Council can understand better who is doing what and co-ordinate their responses to different issues accordingly. Small and local businesses can see what is happening in their area of the city, and then join in if they want to help too.

The idea of an expanded Can Do is to help us all have conversations with each other, and try and use the extraordinary speed and reach of information technology to connect us in more meaningful ways. I suppose another way of saying this is to try and make the city more visible to us all. At the moment, we might be connected to our friends, neighbours and workmates, but this would be a way of constructing a bigger community of people and organizations who care about making Bristol better. Not just posting pictures of the pizza we are eating, or of a cat trying to fight a yogurt pot, but offering our time, expertise and resources to each other.

Since moving here about three years ago I have been trying to find ways in which the University of Bristol can become more engaged in helping people think about and deal with the problems they face. My university hasn’t always been particularly engaged with the city after, often perceived as perched at the top of the hill and embedded in the Clifton bubble. So how could we help? Let’s use this as an example.

If you add together the students from the University of Bristol and those from the University of the West of England, you have over 50,000 students. This is potentially an extraordinary resource for the city, but one of the problems that students face is that they don’t know enough about the city in order to get involved. An expanded Can Do Bristol could allow them to see opportunities more clearly.

If a student wants to get involved with something that relates to their subject, whether that be engineering or art, they can find some people or organizations who can use their skills. We already have a lot of students volunteering, doing paid and unpaid internships, and adding to the life of the city in so many ways, so let’s grow this, and make it easier for them to join the conversation too.

Simply widening the conversation won’t solve our problems, but it might make it easier to solve them. If we keep to our own parts of the city, if we don’t share ideas and resources across the river and across the motorway, then we will make it harder to create a fair and happy place for us all to live in. I imagine an expanded Can Do Bristol like a way of wiring the city together. Just having the wires isn’t the solution of course, because it depends what we do with them. But with the wires, we will find it easier to talk, easier to help, easier to make this into one city.

This post was originally published on the Can Do website, a platform that brings people, groups and organisations together to create positive change in their communities.

Life after COVID-19

By Professor Martin Parker, Lead for Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative

All our lives have changed this year, because of something which is 120 billionths of a metre in size. Despite the death and suffering, and the clear evidence of inequalities, many of these changes have been positive. We will have driven and flown less, bought less, walked more, cycled more and cooked at home more. The air is cleaner and our cities are quieter. We can hear the birds, and the sky is not slashed by contrails. We might have spent more time with our families or housemates, helped neighbours or joined some mutual support or volunteering group.

Perhaps we will have done some more gardening, crafts, art or caught up on decorating or DIY. We might have read a book that we always wanted to read, or seen a film that has really made us think, and that we wouldn’t have bothered with in busier times. We will have wondered what we really need and remembered to value some very ordinary things that we miss.

Image Credit: United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

At the start of lockdown in the UK, in March 2020, I asked people I knew from academia and civil society whether they would be interested in writing short essays about the possibility of a better future after COVID. I told them that I would be requiring their contribution very soon and that I would only allow them 4000 words and very few references.

I also worried that, in the middle of the chaos, my forced optimism was tin-eared, misunderstanding the gravity of the times. I even thought about calling the book ‘covidtopia’, deliberately jarring so violently with the mood that my intention could not be mistaken. I also worried that this was a bad idea, an opportunistic excuse for another book that no-one needs, and that I should do something else instead. Like collecting shopping for elderly neighbours, or learning how to make facemasks from old tea towels.

But within a week, I had received well over twice as many offers of chapters as I needed. Other people seemed to be thinking the same as me. Lots of other people wanted to preserve something good from all this horror. Even by shrinking the chapters and growing the book, I still had to reject half of them. So imagine this book twice the size, ten times the length, with essays on changing legal structures for companies, on play, on children, on transport and holidays, on consumption and marketing, on compassion, nature, housing, meat, activism, social media, universities and a host of other topics.

It has been common to suggest that the coronavirus crisis is really just a dress rehearsal for the much bigger climate crisis to come. Moving towards a zero carbon economy will involve many of the changes that we have seen over the past few months, but it will be necessary to embed those into the structures and routines of our lives in enduring ways.

For example, if more people are working at home, then this suggests that a great deal of the office space in the centre of cities will no longer be needed. The University of Bristol has been functioning from home offices and kitchen tables across the south west since mid-March. This doesn’t mean that we won’t need workplaces, but perhaps that we won’t need to think about buildings next to car parks as the dominant model.

But what happens to city centres if we use them less? Can the empty retail and office blocks become spaces for apartments, repopulating the city centres? What sorts of transport might we need, if the 9-5 commute is no longer a routine? What sorts of housing, schooling and care might help people work successfully from home, or local workspaces? As soon as we begin to change one element of our lives, all the other assumptions need to change too. This is the opportunity that the little virus has given us. Whether we make the most of that opportunity remains to be seen.

This post was originally published on Transforming Society.

Life after COVID-19 edited by Martin Park is available to order for £7.99 on the Policy Press website.

Working with the LV=GI team: the heart of data science

Originally published on Engineering blog

We live in a world of big data, with all the questions that raises around privacy and how our data is used. Data scientists and data engineers are helping answer those questions and a team from LV=GI is embedded within the School of Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and Engineering Maths.

 

Chloe Young works as a data engineer in LV=GI’s data science team. They make, build and deploy the machine learning models that are used by call handlers while speaking to customers. They check the models meet the necessary standards and that they’re working properly and they raise alerts if they don’t.

Tell us a bit about your work

Our data science team has three locations, and I’m lucky enough to be based at the University as part of our collaborative partnership, so I split my time between LV=GI projects and university projects. This means I sometimes work with groups like the Smart Internet Lab, supporting our co-designed and co-delivered master’s degree programme – or with student societies giving talks and holding events like the Datathon with the Data Science Society.

The Datathon event

Educating and guiding the next generation is one of the key partnership goals. We’re in a unique position: we get access to academics and students, and have an input into some of their amazing research. We love the highly energised environment – it makes for a really interesting workday!

Both the University and LV=GI share a knowledge base that goes beyond simple project engagements. LV=GI gain access to a large pool of potential team members, as well as academic colleagues who enable us to be at the forefront of research. Our colleagues from the University are able to demonstrate real-world applications of their work.

What did you study and why?

I took physics at the University of Kent and then a master’s by research in marine geology and geophysics at the University of Southampton. For my undergraduate degree I was torn between engineering, physical geography and physics. I chose physics for its flexibility; I could continue to improve on my maths and problem solving skills so they would be of use in any future studies. My master’s let me apply what I’d learnt to some problems I loved and was fascinated by. I didn’t know it at the time, but it gave me the coding skills to get me started with a career in tech.

What did you do after your degree?

Before joining the data science team here, I worked at a data consultancy as a DevOps Engineer. During my two years there I went from having only a brief knowledge of cloud technology to becoming a certified Amazon Web Services Solutions Architect.

What was your favourite toy as a child?

I loved anything crafty, those stained glass window gel paints, any sort of cross stitch or sewing project, anything where I could make something totally new.

This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is ‘Shape the World’ – how do you think engineers will do that in the next 10 years?

With the rate everything is moving now, we’ll definitely see massive changes. In my job you have to keep learning all the time to keep your skills relevant; new technologies emerge that can improve or totally change the best way to do something. New tech will improve how we use data science; we’ve really only just began to scratch the surface. In the future I think it will continue to make our daily lives easier, and I think we’ll see it used more widely to make intelligent business decisions. Most importantly, I think as the number of people with these skills grows across all academic disciplines, it will be used much more widely to enhance our research and drive us towards new discoveries.

Chloe Young

What does it mean to declare climate emergency?

By Professor Martin Parker, Lead for Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative

Does it make any difference that Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and hundreds of other organisations have declared a climate emergency? Is it all just hot air? On the 12th March, the Inclusive Economy Initiative and the Law School at Bristol University organised an event to discuss what it meant for an organisation to do something about their carbon emissions and wider impact on society and the economy. Over 260 people signed up, and despite the coronavirus bearing down on us all, about 70 turned up to hear some fantastic discussions.

Last year saw a rash of climate emergency declarations from local and national governments, academic institutions across the globe, representative bodies of numerous professions and industries and many individual businesses. Why is making a climate declaration important? Has anything changed for those that have? What else can be done to address the emergency? In a context of Extinction Rebellion protests and clear evidence of climate change, what can organisations actually do?

Martin Wiles (Head of Sustainability for University of Bristol), Nina Boeger (Law School, University of Bristol) and Chris Dunford (Head of Sustainable Futures, We The Curious)
Martin Wiles (Head of Sustainability for University of Bristol), Nina Boeger (Law School, University of Bristol) and Chris Dunford (Head of Sustainable Futures, We The Curious)

After an introduction from myself, we had two panel discussions followed by some sparkling questions from the audience. The first panel was chaired by Nina Boeger from the University’s Law School in discussion with Martin Wiles, the Head of Sustainability at the university, and Chris Dunford, the Head of Sustainable Futures at ‘We The Curious’, Bristol’s science museum. They are both ‘educational’ institutions with a particular responsibility for disseminating knowledge about climate change and both agreed that ‘declaring’ was the easy part. The problem was what to do next.

There were some clear similarities. Both were keen to stress the importance of a plan for carbon reduction with clear goals that can be audited. If the declaration is not to be seen as a PR exercise, then people inside and outside the organisation have to see things changing. This means keeping on top of many small but important decisions about procurement, everyday practice and messaging. It means doing most things differently, and perhaps cancelling other projects, such as the ‘We the Curious’s xmas ice skating rink, or encouraging academics not to go to international conferences.

Apart from the operational stuff, the biggest taboo that needs to be addressed is often the business model itself. Whether students flying from China or tourists driving to Bristol, some of the core assumptions about the way that the bills are paid might need to change. A declaration doesn’t solve these problems, but it allows them to be discussed. It allows things to become thinkable which were previously too difficult to approach.

We then moved on to the second panel, chaired by Fiona Ellis, a director of the network Business Declares. She was in conversation with Dave Hunter, a Consulting Solicitor at the b-corp law firm Bates Wells, and Ben Tolhurst, the Head of UK Property Asset Management at JLL, the world’s biggest property management company.

Ben talked about what it was like being an ‘employee activist’ within a large corporation, but began by noting that a declaration needs to be supported at the highest levels of the business. For virtually all organisations, climate change will destroy their existing business models, so there is an element of enlightened self-interest that needs to be recognised and exploited. Policies on travel, food, energy, single-use plastic and so on need to be changed, but no organisation can change the world on its own. This means that Ben and JLL are now trying to influence clients through their training and hence providing legitimacy for other organisations to change too. His key question is ‘how do you make people want to change’, and that means changing yourself too.

Dave echoed this in a smaller organisation and a different context in beginning by asking ‘how do you take the staff with you?’ Employees and clients need to understand why Bates Wells is changing, and that has meant conversations with a wide variety of people and organisations about different aspects of carbon neutrality. For example, the organisation is now default vegetarian: people are not served meat unless they explicitly ask for it. Again, the organisation is also trying to influence its sector, to be an example for what other law firms might do, seeking to use law proactively as a force for good, not just a passive tool to interpret regulations. Just like the umbrella organisation Business Declares, the idea is to show other people what can be done, to demonstrate a new way of doing business.

What did we learn?

There were lots of questions covering a wide variety of topics. What does an ‘emergency’ response look like, and how might the climate emergency be compared with the covid emergency? How do we deal with sceptics, with people who aren’t engaged? How do we tell different stories about what it means not to be able to do what we used to do? How do we get the trillions of dollars moving out of carbon and into renewables? Can capitalism be reformed to be less destructive?

In all of this, there was frequent mention of the importance of not polarising the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. If an organisation declares support for Extinction Rebellion, will that alienate people who find their tactics annoying and mean that the messages won’t get through? On the other hand, maybe we have no time to worry about people’s feelings, and simply need to explain the science. If we have a position of influence, then we need to use it, with our friends, co-workers and whatever sector of the economy we work in.

We agreed that we needed more events like this, discussing particular aspects of what it means to prepare the groundwork for an appropriate business response to a societal and environmental, global emergency. The language of emergency must not lose its energy, but it must also turn into routines and policies, as all these speakers have elegantly demonstrated.

It has been interesting to see in the fortnight since the event, how quickly some steps which seemed impossibly radical just a few days ago have been implemented without resistance – almost feeling like a dry run for the changes we were discussing. It would be nice to think we might be able to come together again to review how things have progressed before the year is out. If you want more information, get in touch with us at iei-enquiries@bristol.ac.uk.

Women who inspire us: The value of education

As part of International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the great women working on the Temple Quarter programme. In a series of blogs, we’ve asked them to write about the women that inspire them to challenge stereotypes and promote equality

Third in our series, this piece is by Nicola Key, Head of Programme Delivery for Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus.

Nicola Key making the #EachforEqual sign
Nicola Key making the #EachforEqual sign

Jacqueline Mary Blomfield

Jacqueline Mary Blomfield was born during World War 2. By the age of 14 she had moved repeatedly around the country with her Mother (wherever work could be found) leading to her attend 14 different schools in 9 years. Her education was so disrupted she ended up failing her 11+ compulsory examination which meant that she went on to attend a Secondary Modern School, missing out on a grammar school education. She started full time employment at 14 years old and soon became a Post Office worker at the GPO as a telephony operator. She went on to work at British Telecom for the rest of her working life and became a union representative to fight for workers’ rights.

She vowed that when she had a family she would do everything she could to send her children to University and to enable them to have the education they deserved. Hence she worked every hour imaginable to afford to send all three of her children to University. Her belief was that education opened many doors and allowed people to lead the lives they wanted.

Jacqueline has enabled me to lead the life that I want and to fulfil many ambitions. She was my mother whom I take inspiration from every single day. I can only imagine the smile on her face if she’d known that I’d go on to lead the programme to deliver a new University campus in Bristol, a city that she loved.

Read other blogs in this series for International Women’s Day.

Women who inspire us: changing the face of the music industry

As part of International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the great women working on the Temple Quarter programme. In a series of blogs, we’ve asked them to write about the women that inspire them to challenge stereotypes and promote equality.

Second in the series is this piece by Jessica Sharratt, Engagement and Enterprise Associate for Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus.

Jessica Sharratt making the #EachForEqual sign
Jessica Sharratt making the #EachForEqual sign

Georgia Maq, Sarah Thompson and Kelly-Dawn Helmrich

Outside of work, I am a musician. Playing trombone since I was 8, I’ve been in many different groups – from orchestras and brass bands to ska punk and rock. The under-representation of women in any genre involving an amplifier is well known. In 2015, posters of music festival line-ups edited to remove all-male bands appeared, highlighting how few women were being booked. Despite increasing awareness of the issue, it’s still a problem – of the 92 acts announced so far for Reading and Leeds this year, just 20 are women.

This affects how women in music are treated. Even in my limited experience, I’ve come across the assumption that rock musicians are men more times than I can count. Once, sat with my instrument in a well-known Bristol venue, a very polite member of staff came over to inform me only band members were allowed in before doors opened and that girlfriends would have to wait outside. Another time, laden with equipment, a member of door staff stopped me and my bandmate Tash on our way into a venue. Our male bandmates had all been allowed to walk straight through and we weren’t let in until one of them came back to vouch for us. There are also the times I’ve been patronised or objectified on account of my gender – each incident on its own perhaps insignificant but amounting to something bigger.

Camp cope band members
Camp Cope. Image creator: Gabriela Barbieri, Credit: WXPN

Three women determined to hold the music industry to account are Georgia Maq, Sarah Thompson and Kelly-Dawn Helmrich of Camp Cope – a three-piece alternative rock band from Melbourne. Since forming in 2015 they’ve made their voices heard as artists and as advocates for women and minorities. Georgia Maq sings about her own experience of sexual assault in ‘The Face of God’, and ‘The Opener’ is a furious takedown of sexism in the music industry. In 2016 they led a campaign focused on making festivals safer called ‘It Takes One’, developing new reporting mechanisms that better support victims. Many artists have since been seen wearing T-shirts that read ‘The person wearing this shirt stands against sexual assault and demands a change’ in support. In 2017 they risked their careers publicly criticising the Falls Festival for only booking nine women, including themselves. The festival is not only Australia’s largest touring festival but is owned by Live Nation, the largest promotor in the world. Camp Cope hasn’t shied away from fighting sexism wherever it sees it, even when it poses a risk to their own careers.

Camp Cope’s lyrics often hold a mirror to female experiences that are almost universal, but rarely acknowledged. In ‘Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams’ they rail against catcallers and mention carrying ‘keys between your knuckles when you walk alone at night’. Fellow Australian Courtney Barnett also references this in ‘Nameless, Faceless’. Before these two songs, I’d never heard this self-defence tactic discussed – it was just something my Mum told me to do when was about 14 and has made me feel slightly safer many times since. The first time I heard these lyrics I was simultaneously saddened that this is so common and relieved to hear it acknowledged. I’ve had conversations with male friends who said they weren’t aware this was something women did until they heard these songs. We learn more when we hear from people whose experiences are not the same as our own. The focus here is on International Women’s Day, but we would equally benefit from hearing from more musicians who are non-binary, people of colour, LGBTQ+ and working class.

Like all good role models, Camp Cope makes me reconsider my own behaviour. I’ve spent plenty of time swapping war stories with other musicians but can’t claim to have done much to try and change things. This is a band that’s determined to make the music industry safer, diverse and more inclusive. They also write great songs – check them out, and I’ll see you at their next Bristol show!

Read other blogs in this series for International Women’s Day.

Women who inspire us: a fighter, teacher and explorer

As part of International Women’s Day (8 March 2020), we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the great women working on the Temple Quarter programme. In a series of blogs, we’ve asked them to write about the women that inspire them to challenge stereotypes and promote equality.

This first piece is by Gemma Stock, Operations Manager for Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus.

Gemma Stock making an equals sign with her arms
Gemma Stock making the #EachforEqual sign

Edwina Whitwell: a fighter for children’s rights to education, explorer and champion of resilience

The eldest of four girls, Edwina Whitwell (nee Enefer) was born in 1952. Labelled as a daydreamer at school, she married at the age of 18 – as was the expectation of the time – and worked a variety of administrative roles until she left to start a family. Despite the lack of encouragement or support from her (somewhat Victorian) husband, she returned to education in her mid-30s and became a teacher at the age of 42 after completing her GCSEs, A Levels and degree. To support her husband’s salary and to ensure her children wanted for nothing, Edwina worked on weekends and in holidays during her return to education – she also opened her family home to exchange students.

Despite her late arrival to the world of education, Edwina has left an extraordinary mark on children’s lives in the North Somerset area. She worked tirelessly to ensure children with special needs were treated as individuals and received the education they were entitled. She took the time needed to explain a child’s requirements to their parents. She listened to family’s frustrations with the situation and with the “system”. She fought local government for money to ensure a deaf boy went to the right school. She supported parents on applications to make sure their children got into the right educational establishments. She fought to keep kids in school when they would otherwise have been excluded.

Ignoring protests from her husband, Edwina started to travel… alone! She trekked mountains in Romania, walking for part of the time with horrendous food poisoning. In an attempt to avoid further upset, she did a real-life Shirley Valentine. Edwina left a note on the fridge for her husband and flew to Kathmandu to trek the foothills of the Himalayas, where she admitted she thought she’d die when cowering under a piece of Perspex while “hail the size of bricks” fell.

Edwina Whitwell camping in the desert in Oman
Edwina Whitwell camping in the desert in Oman

Since losing her husband who – despite his shortcomings as a forward-thinking husband – was the love of her life, Edwina has travelled extensively. She’s visited America, Oman, Egypt, India, Jordan, Thailand (where she fell off a barge and almost drowned in the River Kwai), Vietnam, Russia, Cambodia, Laos, Morocco, Egypt, Europe and Rwanda where she taught English to children. And in two weeks’ time, she will travel to Antarctica.

Now retired, Edwina’s investment in children’s future is not yet over – she teaches life-skills to year 6 students in the Bristol area on a voluntary basis.

She is the epitome of resilience. Every time she was knocked down or someone said she couldn’t do something, she looked them straight in the eye and did it anyway. She instils this trait in her children, her students and her granddaughters. Edwina is a massive inspiration to women. I know this because she’s my mum and I want to be like her. My friends (who are all in their 40s) and my young nieces all want to be like her – but as hard as we try, I don’t think any of us will ever reach her level of awesomeness!

Read other blogs in this series for International Women’s Day.

Swallowed by a tiny giant

by Vanessa Kisuule, Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus artist in residence and Bristol City Poet

What follows is a strange and erratic collection of thoughts to accompany a poem I have written in response to a bot generated poem ‘written’ by Tiny Giant. The bot had the entirety of my last poetry collection A Recipe for Sorcery, a few of my favourite poems from other writers and some tech related writing provided by the University. The result was somewhat like looking at myself with all my body parts in the wrong place, toes on my forehead, elbows and knees swapped round. It was confusing, slightly sinister and endlessly fascinating.

The echoes of my work were immediately clear. They were not distorted enough to be unrecognisable, but there was enough deviation to intrigue and unsettle me. Some of the imagery jarred. Some of it occasionally touched on the profound. It was impossible not to wince at my own stylistic tropes: imagine having a friend write a parody of your work and reading it back to you, but with none of the tact that a human might offer! I’d recommend this process to any poet, but it would be remiss for me not to acknowledge the existential crisis it may cause.

Poetry is an artistic hinterland where abstraction and ambiguity can live more comfortably than in other forms. Linear narrative and logical coherence do not matter in this context as they would for a novel or a screen play. Poetry, then, may be the medium that AI could find the most ‘success’. Moments of incidental brilliance in the poem were not frequent, but there were enough to make me sit up. Some images genuinely moved and excited me; there was even the occasional jolt of envy at a particularly evocative turn of phrase.

It was hard to know what to do with these mixed feelings of admiration and disquietude. It’s rather foolish, and pointless, to be envious of an algorithm. It has simply done what was asked of it, deducing an end goal through its encrypted set of logical rules. Surely art is as much about intention and communication as the end product? Unlike you or I, it is unmotivated by a desire to connect with others or even a compulsion to sound clever, original or superior. And yet….

It’s a small comfort that it cannot produce anything without the initial input of words, but could the same not be said for us? Aren’t all the years of education, reading, talking and listening we do not our own form of data collection? The methodical approach of the bot may seem antithetical to the elusive creative process we purport to undertake, but this project has forced me to reconsider how we talk about the mechanics of art.

A huge amount of art has been produced through formulas for centuries, culminating in what we may loosely call ‘popular culture’. There are the four chord progressions and seven story formats that recur again and again in music, literature, film and theatre.  More often than not, we pull from a series of long-established methods which we may copy or use as a spring board to ‘new’ ideas. Though we’re loathe to admit it, we, too, are algorithmic machines. AI may be the impetus we need to push ourselves out of our own tropes, or at least be more aware of how much we rely on them.

Marcus Du Sautoy’s timely new book The Creativity Code details how the new innovations in algorithmic learning are expanding our notions of whether a computer can ‘think creatively’. He talks about ‘bottom up’ code: algorithms that learn through data input and continually adjusting its methods for better results. In this way, the AI bot Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov having played millions of iterations of the game, learned from its mistakes and developed creative strategies to ensure a higher chance of winning. The bot can even make choices that have not been explicitly programmed by the writers of the code. It’s hard to overstate what a game changer this is: the potential for AI to innovate rather than regurgitate is ever more plausible.

The neural network used to create my poem also exhumes ghosts. In PLaiTH, Tiny Giant worked with other agencies to not only produce work in Sylvia Plath’s style but in her handwriting. This detail pushes at new level of invasive imitation, an unwitting mockery of penmanship and its implied intimacy. The project demonstrates how easily this can be learnt, aped and mass produced. Plath’s death is mired in controversy and the seductive myth of a genius’ life cut short. It’s natural to wonder what she may have produced had she lived longer. The Plath Project could be framed as a respectful homage, a creative continuation of legacy forming an ellipsis where once there was a full stop. Still, there is a difficult conversation to be had around assumption and ownership, on how we justify the use of intellectual copyright after death.

There is an online quiz called Bot or Not with fifteen poems in it which asks you to guess which were written by humans and which by bots. I got eight out of fifteen. It’s safe to say that the ‘humanity’ we assume is inherent in human writing is not at all obvious. Many people feel cheated when they learn that a piece of art that moved them was not made by a fellow human. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to admonish ourselves, or demonise the AI. Our minds are built to create meaning and relevance in everything we consume. It’s why we anthropomorphise animals, why we tell stories and build religion. In a world where bot generated art is an ever increasing part of our reality, would it not be a natural extension of our survival instinct to engage with it? Ultimately, if the end result stirs you, does it matter who or what made it? I still don’t know if it does, but I’m sure our morality and imagination will expand to fit around this brave new world.

Can AI write poetry?

For National Storytelling Week, we investigated the boundary between human and technology in the creative arts. We worked with Tiny Giant to train a recurrent neural network on Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kisuule’s poetry and a selection of technology-related pieces. The lines below are an extract of what the neural network produced and the poem below that is Vanessa’s reaction to the process. Read more about Vanessa’s response to the experience.

a goddess of the space bar
my brain, stretching
a recipe for answers.
cut and filed
to fit to technology

her isles of know
through the dirt on her own rivers
digital darkness
jeopardising my own name

then that alexa
she remembers gush and implosion
not a boy
gotta love us , girls
I’ve said to stop

we are blinded by the first of things
go beyond the height
it is easy !
give us dynamite drills
i cut the country

like they think
this or phone?
hand me love anxious
I’ll wait
and when we fight , not a ring

except in the world wide web
we just print and weave heat
write rules out
give them stumps for hands

my brain stretching
i watch my end
fleeting footnote on a final page
you are not enough to be written

living in virtual reality
angel dilated beautiful on the plazas
you niggling
coded numbers flashing light
that’s gold

like something boneless, seeping seeping
eyes wearied so so as deep
please no tweets
affecting our content
trigger my thumb, i dare not!

it is our right to a back up
i don’t hear it
once everybody had the place
all the stories we have ever been
just a spark you you?
we are the thing to your real

my private face
youtube my heart
every single tongue, like the hope one
make a picture of steel

 

A Tiny Giant Looms

by Vanessa Kisuule

 

I hereby acknowledge the long legacy of algorithms in the scattered art of poetry.

Long before upstart bots birthed Frankenstein verse,

Shakespeare took mangled beasts of sentiment and squeezed them into the boning of sonnets,

laced them in until every implication stood taut and ready for inspection.

*

You know what’s interesting? I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. 

I mean, I’m not limited.

I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body 

that’s inevitably gonna die.

From the 2013 film Her

*

I hereby acknowledge we are not sacred.

Adorned as we are by glittering myths, they sadly cannot endure.

Our ghosts of inspiration are soft willed, quick to wilt.

The rigour of language made machine gave poetry its rib and muscle.

In rhyme, in meter, in ancient ghazal we find formulaic dogma.

Our slow work this tiny giant does in minutes,

unsaddled by anxiety, coffee shakes or misplaced hopes of profundity.

It’s simply a task unpacked, sifted then neutered like a dog.

*

Once you learn to think, (in) 

Algorithms, 

the (programming) language is secondary. 

(Sure) it kicks and drags its feet (a little). 

(But) in the end(…)

From a 2017 Medium article entitled When you finish reading this, you’ll know how to code

*

I hereby acknowledge the false god of originality.

How we’ve romanticised this thirst for theft,

past thoughts reheated then declared fresh.

Words cluster like boiled sweets in my mouth and

Tiny giant surveys them.

A singular, stoic criteria.

No pretence, reverence or preference encoded.

A thick plagiarist porridge, served cool.

Spirals of thought revealed as affectation,

heavy with the effort to please or reveal.

I am humbled and furious.

We were drunk on us-ness, our inimitable humanhood.

Look at how we hold a thought up to the light,

scallop its edges until it dances in the wind.

*

Computers expect you to declare your variables. 

A variable declaration is like 

a birth certificate for a piece of data.

From aforementioned Medium article

*

I hereby acknowledge a shift in the hierarchy.

Whoever won a fight with the tide?

Whoever punched a wall of code and still kept their knuckles, their pride or slovenly mind?

They have not come for our jobs, they have come for our salt flaked egos,

our rotted fallacy of divine purpose.

Tiny Giant ‘speaks’ of things beyond our young puddle of reality.

In this new frontier we will not lead, but chase the future off the cliff face of our own limits.

Will you be there, your heavy foot quivering as if a glitch in the matrix?

Your last words before the sweep of oblivion

already predicted?

 

Read more about Vanessa’s experience of seeing her own work interpreted by artificial intelligence in her commentary ‘Swallowed by a tiny giant’.