09 Sep 2008

Head Back to the Future with The Open University and James May’s Big Ideas on BBC TWO

Just going out for a 'fly'

Just going out for a 'fly'

James May presents a new series on BBC TWO with three programmes looking at three different and distinct future concepts in James May’s Big Ideas.

Fully funded by The Open University, each programme looks at a specific idea close to James’ heart – Personal Transport, Robotics and Energy.

In ‘Come Fly With Me’’, James deals with the difficulty in getting from A to B. He laments the fact that we're still reliant on 19th and early 20th century transport solutions for the 21st century and looks to find a better, bolder way of getting about.

He begins by travelling to Russia to take the controls of a means of transport kept secret from the public until the 1990’s, and to the USA where he gets to pilot the only surviving flying car, and ponders why we don't have them and the air traffic nightmare that would ensue.

James says: “Flying cars are an idea that has been around for 100 years. I do believe one day we will move around in the sky. There is this vast space above our heads, what we need to do is to find an easy and safe way to move around it, and we have not done it yet.

“We don’t know exactly what kind of vehicle it will be – I don’t think it will be a mini-Metro with a propeller! The issue is how you control it in the air, if you don’t want to end up with a massive disaster – think how some people drive on the ground.”

In ‘Man-Machine’ James confronts the impending convergence between human and machine and explores the world of cyborgs, robots, robotics and the difficulties of making an artificial version of himself. In Japan he meets a man who has done just this, gets to play baseball with a robot and attempts to move himself using only the power of his mind.

James says: “One of the robotics scientists I talked to said robotics is a perfect way to learn about the human body – the more they try to make robots work, the more they realise how complicated humans are. Our bodies are so refined and sophisticated, we can’t replicate the means of controlling them with algorithms and computer programs.

“Robots and computers, at the moment, are very good at doing the things we don’t do so well, like making calculations very quickly, but they’re useless at the things we do brilliantly, like playing football, playing the piano – even turning our heads. We need a new dawn in computer intelligence, a ‘machine instinct’ and no-one knows how it will happen.”

In the final programme ‘Power to the People’ James wonders why, in the shiny bright 21st century, virtually all of it is powered by burning dead plants and animals, James looks for brighter, more powerful and technologically forward thinking sources of energy. He travels to New Mexico to see how he might run his car on thin air, and to Holland where scientists are looking to harness a Japanese discovery 20km above the earth which causes him to wonder if we really want to be considered advanced, might the solution be in outer-space?

James says: “I think we will eventually change our attitude to what ‘energy’ is. ‘Alternative energy’ is applied to things like wind and solar power, but it’s not alternative energy, it’s just energy and we need to find ways to tap it, and when we do will have more energy than we can ever imagine.”

Dr Tony Nixon, Senior Lecturer in Information Systems with The Open University and Academic Adviser on the series says:-

“This series gives occasional glimpses of the future which are at once disturbing and exciting. Our lives are often governed by technologies in far deeper ways than we may think and, more than ever, we need people to engage with big ideas.

“By watching the programmes and taking up the challenges on the open2.net web site, we hope people will be motivated and excited by engineering and technology.”

Also on open2.net, users will be invited to take James May’s Big Transport Challenge – can they find the most efficient way to get to the North Pole – or the noisiest way to make an entrance at a classical music concert? Visit www.open2.net/jamesmay from September 28.

Editor’s Notes

‘James May’s Big Ideas’ is a fully-funded Open University production for BBC TWO.

The series will broadcast on BBC TWO on Sunday 28 September 2008 at 9pm. Check media for details.

Series Producer for the BBC is Nigel Paterson. Executive Producer for The Open University is Catherine McCarthy. The Open University Academic Adviser is Dr Tony Nixon. Broadcast Learning Executive for The Open University is Dr Sally Crompton.

The Open University and BBC have been in partnership for more than 30 years, providing educational programming to a mass audience. In recent times this partnership has evolved from late night programming for delivering courses to peak time programmes with a broad appeal to encourage wider participation in learning.

All broadcast information is correct at time of issue.

Related Courses and programmes from The Open University:-

- Y157 Understanding society
- T211 Design and designing
- T184: Robotics & the meaning of life: a practical guide to things that think
- T206: Energy for a sustainable future
- T173: Engineering the future
- T207:The engineer as a problem solver
- T172: Working with our environment: technology for a sustainable future
- TXR174 Technology in action
- TXR220 Engineering in action
- U116: Environment: journeys through a changing world. (First presentation 2009)

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