Soft Robotics at Pint of Science

Pint of Science is an informal way to find out more about an array of weird and fascinating facts. Spanning 37 UK locations, and a handful of international ones, it runs for a few days in May every year. On Wednesday 24 May 2023 I went to the gathering (in the Student Union bar) at Queen Mary University London to learn more about robots!

Apparently “soft robotics” has been around since about 2018 although this was the first time I had heard of it. I had a fascination with robots when I was much younger, bought an original Aibo mark 1 in 2006, but have never been any good at making my own robots.

Today, the big question is “how do robot hands know how much grip to apply when picking up hard or soft objects”? And because they lack eyes, experience and human sentience, how do they carry out delicate and proportionate touch? The answer is cilia, lots of cleverly constructed cilia containing micro magnets.

Cilia are the fine hairs on the outside of microscopic organisms.

simple diagram of a microbe with about 80 cilia, and a picture of pine needles, about 200 of them in 3 prongs at the end of a pine tree branch

Scale them up a bit and they look like the gentlest, softest pine needles at the extremities of your Christmas tree.

Make some miniature ones out of silicone, embed some magnets inside them, and in effect you have what looks like a row of railway carriage windows in a soft bendy tube.

simple black and white illustration of a row of railway carriage windows, first straight and then slightly bent into an S curve

Why magnets? Magnets have magnetic fields, and when magnets move they create electrical impulses. That’s how dynamos work, and if you reverse the system that’s how electric motors work.

photos of a lecturer beside a table with robot devices, a close of of a two finger robot gripper, and a diagram showing that the cilia are fitted to the tip of one finger of the robot

Tiny magnets in soft bendy silicone tubes create tiny magnetic fields which can move about and create variations in their tiny electrical impulses. Now, all you need to do is to place an electrical impulse sensor near the soft bendy silicone tubes. Not inside them! That’s the crucial bit, these artificial cilia are independent of the electrical bits around them, they can operate freely, and they “sense” in a similar way to the tips of your fingers.

daigram of robotic cilia with magnetic fields, and size comparison of cilia pad about the size of a finger nail

The slightest touch of the cilia creates a magnetic distortion, and the level and speed of the distortion tells the robot gripper how hard or soft the object is. That in turn allows the software to calculate how much grip is to be applied, and that message is passed back to the motors which control the movement of the robot gripper.

Fascinating! How did I not know this sooner?

Maybe Pint of Science has rekindled my interest in robotics!

How to write a photo essay

This week, the hallway track was where I learnt how to write a photo essay!

The hallway track is one of my favourite places at conferences and seminars. It helps my business with “lead generation”, and who doesn’t want a bit of “lead generation” when you’re running a business?

A hallway track is the collection of gaps in the proceedings at big conferences and at small events, a place where you have a chance to chat with people, to shoot the breeze, and to explore conversations that you might not ordinarily have had in your daily working life. That happened to me this week, when I went to an event run by the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry (LCCI) to celebrate the achievements of The Royal Photographic Society (RPS).

As a result, this blogpost is a bit of a double whammy! This article is an overview of what I learnt at the LCCI event and then there’s a link at the end, to a full blown example of what I learnt, how to write a photo essay.


Do you have one or more objectives when you go to business events?

I do. In brief:

• Meet some new people
• Get some business cards
• Learn something new
• Follow up

It doesn’t always work like that, though this week I was able to tick every item on the list. It helps to do a little advance preparation. In my mind I had already likened photography to art, and so I quickly checked my library of quotable quotes to see who has said what about art. Just in case I needed to kick start a conversation with some relevant material. I found a quote from Aristotle and another from Tolstoy.

Aristotle: “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Tolstoy: “the main purpose of art is that it tell the truth about the soul, revealing and giving expression to all the secrets that one cannot say in simple words – art is a microscope that the artist focuses on the secrets of his own soul, and that then reveals to men the secrets common to them all.”

Photos are a form of art, so I thought that I had a reasonable foundation before I arrived at the LCCI venue. In the event, I didn’t use any of the prepared material, as my customary open ended questions turned out to be more than sufficient.


The formal presentations were predictable, and lasted around 30 minutes. The hallway track before and after was very illuminating. I was talking to Mark Phillips who is the chair of the RPS Documentary Group, and my normal conversations start with something like “so tell me, why is X so important” or “what’s the thing you’re most proud of” or in this case (with my art quotes mentally prepared) I said “how do I judge the significance of a photo”.

Mark was very enthusiastic about lots of things, and he gave me the big “golden nugget” of the day. Normally at every event there’s a golden nugget, if you go and look for it.

That’s one of my other stock questions for events . . . in the group networking after the formal presentations have ended I will often ask “what was the one big thing that stood out from that talk”. Try it, you might be surprised that half the time your counterpart will reply “I dunno”.

And half of half the time, I agree with them! The speakers really didn’t say much at all. The other half of half the time I ask myself if the delegate was really listening. This week I was listening carefully (as usual), and Simon Hill (President of the RPS) did have something valuable to say. He told us about London’s heritage with a focus on trade and shopkeepers. That tied in with the photo exhibition which is on display at the LCCI Queen Street venue for one month.

Anyway, the golden nugget was Mark telling me about Life magazine and Time magazine, and how they had an “Eight Photo” guidance document on how to prepare a photo essay for publication. It’s guidance, it’s not a strict formula, and it was clearly the right way to handle articles in paper magazines in the pre internet era. There’s a lot of value in it still, and in order to demonstrate that I have dived in head first and prepared an “Eight Photo” essay on my experience of Stirling University.

That comes a bit later! I prepared it because (a) I liked the idea of an essay formula (though it’s not a strict formula) and (b) I wanted to have the experience of doing one for myself and (c) it ties in neatly with my fourth objective which says I have to follow up!

In summary the eight photographs recommended by the magazines are:

• Overview – typically wide-angle giving comprehensive impression
• Medium Shot – focussed on activity or a group
• Close-up – spotlighting one element, or detail
• Interaction – humans element, talking or activity
• Portrait – strong image, or key protagonist or character
• Signature Image – synthesis that tells whole story in one image
• Series –show how something happens, inject pace or convey action
• The Clincher – often a close-up to close the series

My outline preparation looked like this, before I even started thinking about adding the dialogue:

a grey scale composite image of 8 small photos labelled from Overview to Clincher illustrating life at Stirling University

Follow Up

How do you follow up a business meeting? Especially one where nobody is pressing you to do a follow up?

Send some thank you letters or emails. And write a blogpost. In my case I also add some notes to my company knowledge base. This week the knowledge base has a new section entitled “photo essay” and as a result of that new information, the section entitled “blogpost” has also been tweaked a little.

Then email some more people, and tell them what you learnt and what you’ve blogged!

“University” was an apt choice for my photo essay, because my son is now in the final stages of his journey through university, and it brought back memories of my own. And, having completed his final essay, my son shared with me a quotable quote from his conclusion. It recognises that some people feel they can’t start a conversation, or they can’t make the most of the hallway track, or they can’t begin writing a blogpost or a photo essay.

How to Actually Start the Task You’ve Been Avoiding

Bregman: “the biggest challenge to moving forward on anything is the transition to working on it. It almost always represents a shift from doing something comfortable to doing something uncomfortable”.

Bregman’s article in the Harvard Business Review helps with that, so does Checkland, and so does Descartes.

Bregman’s details have been added to my library of quotable quotes which is on my own knowledge base. That’s one of the tools that help my clients, firstly you need a business plan, then secondly a knowledge base, and thirdly a team which helps the business grow. Checkland has retired. Descartes is dead. Is this knowledge base something that I could help you with?

By the way, here’s my article A Stirling University Photo Essay which helps illustrate how I interpret the advice I was given this week.

22 March 2024 edit

And (eleven months after this blogpost was written) here’s an example of The Guardian newspaper doing a modern photo essay online. They’ve used a lot more photos, but the principle eight are the larger ones as you scroll down the page. It seems that the extra ones are often clustered into small groups of four. However, the principle eight can still be clearly identified, and they fit the style guide used by Life magazine and Time magazine.

a grey scale composite image of 8 small photos labelled from Overview to Clincher illustrating life at New Convent Garden Market=

The Guardian: Night time in New Covent Garden market – a photo essay

A Eurovision Song Contest ServQual

ServQual is a system for measuring things which cannot be measured.

Actually, it’s for measuring things which are difficult to measure because they do not fit neatly onto an ordinal scale. For example, it’s not easy to say that “this school uniform policy scores 7 out of 10”, or to score the standard of the service in your local supermarket, or to judge the quality of a song in the Eurovision Song Contest. What one person thinks is “7 out of 10” is not always the same as what somebody else thinks.

If only there was a consistent way to measure this stuff . . .

Firstly, let’s explore what ServQual does, and then work on the example of the Eurovision Song Contest.

How ServQual Works

The common element of evaluation systems that try to measure these things will often have tick boxes like this:

strongly disagree disagree slightly disagree neutral slightly agree agree strongly agree

And, what’s the difference between an “agree” and a “strongly agree”? Is a “strongly agree” worth twice the value of an “agree”?

There are seven boxes at the top of the sheet, should they be numbered 1 to 7 in turn? Is that 1 to 7 measurement really a fair representation of the sentiment? Is “neutral” really worth 4? What’s the solution?

The ServQual methodology provides a way in which users can evaluate services and products when the “value” is hard to measure

During the 1990s a joint venture (backed by UK Government NHS funding) involved PhD students in pharmacology at the Lahore Institute of Quality & Technology Management and PhD students at the University of Stirling. They built an evaluation and measurement system for things which do not fit an ordinal scale. Representations of ticks or crosses on evaluation forms provided a simple heuristic review, what Nielsen calls a “does it look right” test.

Taking the “does it look right” test one step further, and by using the X2 test (the Chi squared test – measures of association on a non ordinal scale) the PhD students’ more detailed findings were relayed back to the governing bodies (in support of requests for more funding). For example, the researchers found that users valued sympathetic human contact, stating:

“we identified a wide gap in the perception of a ‘perfect’ receptionist and a ‘current’ receptionist, and now we need to do more research on how to make receptionists smile more.”

The PhD thesis added:

“Improving this single factor will lead to the biggest improvement in the ServQual score, and hence the biggest improvement in stress reduction (i.e. in patient happiness) in clinical encounters.”

If you’re interested in A Level statistics look up the X2 test (the Chi squared test), it is truly fascinating and enlightening for number geeks. The rest of us will just settle for Nielsen’s “does it look right” test.

The Eurovision Song Contest

Your job now, is to work out how to evaluate a song in the Eurovision Song Contest. The “public vote” is a gut reaction thing, but as an official judge you and your fellow judges will want to have a robust system for evaluating the quality of a song. Something that is true and fair and can stand up to scrutiny from your critics. Something that assigns the right degree of importance across a number of attributes. ServQual fits the bill.

What you need are a few “statements” which the judges can use as a basis for making their decisions. Something in the order of 8 to 12 statements is about right, and here are 4 to get you started. If you want to add yours to a word doc then you can download this basic proforma and add more detail.

In a perfect Eurovision Song Contest a perfect song would have:

1. a memorable melody, or tune, which you can remember and hum
2. a captivating first 10 seconds
3. a proportionate amount of canon fire
4. a touch of horror or shock tactics

In advance of the contest, each item is discussed by the panel of judges, and they may also be working with older ServQual docs form previous years. The judges collectively decide (for example) that “a captivating first 10 seconds” is rated a strongly agree and that “a touch of horror or shock tactics” is rated a disagree. We are talking here about a “perfect song”.

strongly disagree disagree slightly disagree neutral slightly agree agree strongly agree
1. a captivating first 10 seconds  




2. a touch of horror or shock tactics  




Half the job is done. They now have an indication of a perfect song in a perfect world (on a sheet with 8 to 12 statements). The next task is to score an individual song according to these statements, and they have a new, clean sheet with a blank matrix to help them do that.

In this particular case, this song has . . .

strongly disagree disagree slightly disagree neutral slightly agree agree strongly agree
1. a captivating first 10 seconds  




2. a touch of horror or shock tactics  




Once the “perfect song” and “this song” matrices have both been completed, a comparison can be made. The judges want to see a complete correlation in order to get a perfect song. With 8 to 12 statements it’s unlikely that anything will get to “perfection” but it could be close. The one with the closest correlation is the judges’ choice. Clearly with the examples above, the use of shock horror has moved this song away from the perfect song.

Number geeks may have already worked out that the judging sheets for Eurovision are then subjected to the X2 test (the Chi squared test) in order to get a scientific answer to the “correlation” issue.

And guess what? You can do this in business. Is your receptionist close to being a perfect receptionist, or way off target? Does your sales team get wonderful figures at the expense of upsetting customers? Do your managers manage effectively or simply annoy the staff? Is that why there are so many regular resignations and recruitment costs?

As Nielsen said “does it look right”? If you’re always getting one score way over on one side when it should be way over on the other side, then this is the statement that you should focus on most. Improving that one attribute will make the biggest improvement to your ServQual score. It’s basically the same whether you do the complex stats, or simply ask “does it look right”?

And that one thing wouldn’t happen to be time management would it?

Asking the wrong question

Today’s Sunday Times has a perfect example of “asking the wrong question”. The headline on the home page says . . .

“Firms beg Sunak: what’s the growth plan, PM?”

. . . and clicking through to the article gives you that exact same title. That’s not always the case with The Sunday Times, the article’s title can often differ from the headline on the home page.

Anyway, exactly who asked exactly what question?

screen shot of the news article

On closer inspection, business leaders are not actually asking about a plan. They already have a plan! Their plan includes “lobbying government for favourable treatment”. It’s the journalist that is playing the “click bait” game, providing a misleading heading, and spinning the facts to suit their own agenda.

Journalists like Sam Chambers are paid to incite clicks, which leads to you and me seeing adverts, which leads to advertisers placing business with news organisations, which leads to news organisations making money from advertisers. As a result, Sam Chambers gets paid, and theoretically, the news organisations make profits. There’s a whole separate debate about using “click bait” and another about the merits of placing adverts behind paywalls!

Disingenuously, Sam has started the article with a 15 month old story about Bill Gates (who has not asked Rishi Sunak “what’s the growth plan”). That story has a tenuous relationship to the thrust of today’s article. What the article says is that major blue chip companies are lobbying government for favourable treatment via legislation on tax and on immigration.

By and far the largest tool at the disposal of government is legislation. No matter what the agenda of the party in power, their only hope of implementing anything is to adjust legislation to incentivise (or to compel) individuals and businesses to behave in a certain way. Everything else is just window dressing.

Sam states that “start-ups are also being harmed by the legislative logjam” and cites the example of driverless trucks. The reason driverless cars (and trucks) are going nowhere is that they are dangerous. They still cannot handle weather patterns trickier than “partly cloudy”. There’s a thought provoking article about this on Bloomberg.

If the objective is to move goods, then moving goods in bulk using road trains consisting of a series of linked driverless trucks is a pretty inefficient and costly way to do what freight trains have been able to do since the early 1800s. More tellingly, the big tech firms like Waymo (Google) and Titan (Apple) have scaled back their self driving car ambitions. Anthony Levandowski, who pioneered the driverless car industry is now one of it’s most ardent detractors.

Change the statement “start-ups are also being harmed by the legislative logjam” to “entity A is being harmed by the absence of entity B” and you see how ridiculous that is. It’s like saying “population harmed by lack of Covid cure” when the more accurate statement is “population harmed by Coronavirus”.

Start-ups are not being harmed by anything other than their own conduct, and often that’s their own blinkered view of whatever product they want to foist onto an unsuspecting public. If their product fails to spark joy then they deserve to fail, and that’s typically what happens to about 95% of start-ups.

Sam’s article is little more than an exercise in bemoaning the ineffectiveness of the UK government. That’s not news! We all know that! What I wanted to know is which firms asked Sunak what questions?

“Urging” is not the same thing as “asking”.

Anyway, where is the growth plan? It’s a part of your business plan, a very large part, and you don’t need to ask the government about it (because they are incompetent), you need to read your own business plan and then you need to implement it. And if your business does not have a business plan then you need to ask yourself whether you should be trying to run a business in the first place.

infinite loop repeating plan do review

It all comes back to Peter Drucker’s advice “plan, do, review” and his quote “implementation is everything”. Here are a couple of questions to help your business succeed:

1. If there’s one thing you should be doing, but you’re not doing, what is that one thing?
2. What’s stopping you?

By addressing “what’s stopping you” you might decide to engage lobbyists to bring about changes to government legislation. And as part of that lobbying agenda, you might also slip a few quid to The Sunday Times to publicise your campaign. That’s all a part of a BigCo business plan. It’s most likely that The Sunday Times’ business plan has a part which says solicit income from lobbying groups!

If you’re not in that league, then instead, you might decide to engage a business coach to help you with writing and implementing your own business plan.

Do not ask the wrong question “Mr Sunak, what’s the growth plan?”

You should ask yourself “what does my business plan say about growth?”

A business plan is the single thing that will make the biggest difference to your chances of success.