Doesn’t kill you: makes you weaker

As things stand a scientific assessment would suggest that Britain is Bangladesh for bees.

Here’s a fun experiment. Give your child – or a neighbour’s child, if you don’t have one of your own – a couple of large glasses of Malbec and then send them off to school. The wine probably won’t kill them, just as the neonicotinoid-based pesticides in routine use on our agricultural land aren’t directly killing bees. The child may well make it across the roads safely and get to school, just as most of the bees are still leaving the hive and finding pollen-bearing flowers. The chances are that the child will perform as badly at school that morning as the pesticideridden bees do at bringing back pollen. But you could still choose to label two glasses of wine a safe dose.

Last month, when the UK government told the EU that neonicotinoids aren’t a proven problem for bees, it brandished scientific evidence. Yet the tests it referred to showed little more than whether the likely doses were lethal. They did not look at whether neonicotinoids hamper a bee’s ability to go about its business effectively – to gather pollen, to navigate between flower sources and hives, or to communicate with other members of the colony.

Better tests show that all these activities are hampered by everyday exposure to neonicotinoids, which may have contributed to the ongoing collapse of bee colonies. For instance, studies carried out by researchers at the University of Stirling found that bumblebees will produce 85 per cent fewer queens. And scientists at Royal Holloway, London, discovered that bumblebees exposed to real-world neonicotinoid levels are 55 per cent more likely to get lost while foraging. That makes sense in the light of studies carried out by researchers at the universities of Newcastle and Dundee, which showed a disruptive effect on the honeybee brain, “observed at concentrations . . . encountered by foraging honeybees and within the hive”.

None of this is surprising. These pesticides are toxins that cause disorder in the brain. Just because they don’t cause immediate observable harm to a single bee when the chemicals are assessed individually doesn’t mean they are not a problem when all the various neurotoxins in the bee’s environment accumulate. As the Dundee and Newcastle researchers reported, “exposure to multiple pesticides . . . will cause enhanced toxicity”. There are probably safe doses of gin, vodka and whisky for a toddler. Give those measures all at once, however, and harm will ensue.

Anyone can avoid accepting inconvenient evidence in science, where findings are rarely black and white. A paper published last autumn in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, for instance, demonstrates how epidemiologists and toxicologists work out the effects of interacting exposures to chemicals in different ways, which can lead to completely different conclusions about whether there is any effect at all.

But arguing over definitions is no good to bees. The collapse of the jerry-built garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, last month offers a salutary lesson applicable to bee-colony collapse: you can rationalise the greedy pursuit of short-term gain all you like, but if catastrophe strikes, you are still responsible for the loss.

Economists put the annual value of insect pollinators to the UK economy at roughly £440m. Moral considerations aside, ensuring that their working conditions are as safe and sustainable as possible seems to make economic good sense. As things stand, however – and soon they might fall – a scientific assessment would suggest that Britain is Bangladesh for bees.

Bees. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.