The Canadian science scene and the 2017 Canadian federal budget

There’s not much happening in the 2017-18 budget in terms of new spending according to Paul Wells’ March 22, 2017 article for TheStar.com,

This is the 22nd or 23rd federal budget I’ve covered. And I’ve never seen the like of the one Bill Morneau introduced on Wednesday [March 22, 2017].

Not even in the last days of the Harper Conservatives did a budget provide for so little new spending — $1.3 billion in the current budget year, total, in all fields of government. That’s a little less than half of one per cent of all federal program spending for this year.

But times are tight. The future is a place where we can dream. So the dollars flow more freely in later years. In 2021-22, the budget’s fifth planning year, new spending peaks at $8.2 billion. Which will be about 2.4 per cent of all program spending.

He’s not alone in this 2017 federal budget analysis; CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) pundits, Chantal Hébert, Andrew Coyne, and Jennifer Ditchburn said much the same during their ‘At Issue’ segment of the March 22, 2017 broadcast of The National (news).

Before I focus on the science and technology budget, here are some general highlights from the CBC’s March 22, 2017 article on the 2017-18 budget announcement (Note: Links have been removed,

Here are highlights from the 2017 federal budget:

  • Deficit: $28.5 billion, up from $25.4 billion projected in the fall.
  • Trend: Deficits gradually decline over next five years — but still at $18.8 billion in 2021-22.
  • Housing: $11.2 billion over 11 years, already budgeted, will go to a national housing strategy.
  • Child care: $7 billion over 10 years, already budgeted, for new spaces, starting 2018-19.
  • Indigenous: $3.4 billion in new money over five years for infrastructure, health and education.
  • Defence: $8.4 billion in capital spending for equipment pushed forward to 2035.
  • Care givers: New care-giving benefit up to 15 weeks, starting next year.
  • Skills: New agency to research and measure skills development, starting 2018-19.
  • Innovation: $950 million over five years to support business-led “superclusters.”
  • Startups: $400 million over three years for a new venture capital catalyst initiative.
  • AI: $125 million to launch a pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
  • Coding kids: $50 million over two years for initiatives to teach children to code.
  • Families: Option to extend parental leave up to 18 months.
  • Uber tax: GST to be collected on ride-sharing services.
  • Sin taxes: One cent more on a bottle of wine, five cents on 24 case of beer.
  • Bye-bye: No more Canada Savings Bonds.
  • Transit credit killed: 15 per cent non-refundable public transit tax credit phased out this year.

You can find the entire 2017-18 budget here.

Science and the 2017-18 budget

For anyone interested in the science news, you’ll find most of that in the 2017 budget’s Chapter 1 — Skills, Innovation and Middle Class jobs. As well, Wayne Kondro has written up a précis in his March 22, 2017 article for Science (magazine),

Finance officials, who speak on condition of anonymity during the budget lock-up, indicated the budgets of the granting councils, the main source of operational grants for university researchers, will be “static” until the government can assess recommendations that emerge from an expert panel formed in 2015 and headed by former University of Toronto President David Naylor to review basic science in Canada [highlighted in my June 15, 2016 posting ; $2M has been allocated for the advisor and associated secretariat]. Until then, the officials said, funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) will remain at roughly $848 million, whereas that for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will remain at $773 million, and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC] at $547 million.

NSERC, though, will receive $8.1 million over 5 years to administer a PromoScience Program that introduces youth, particularly unrepresented groups like Aboriginal people and women, to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through measures like “space camps and conservation projects.” CIHR, meanwhile, could receive modest amounts from separate plans to identify climate change health risks and to reduce drug and substance abuse, the officials added.

… Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, would funnel $600 million over 5 years allocated in 2016, and $112.5 million slated for public transit and green infrastructure, to create Silicon Valley–like “super clusters,” which the budget defined as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” …

… The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research will receive $93.7 million [emphasis mine] to “launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy … (to) position Canada as a world-leading destination for companies seeking to invest in artificial intelligence and innovation.”

… Among more specific measures are vows to: Use $87.7 million in previous allocations to the Canada Research Chairs program to create 25 “Canada 150 Research Chairs” honoring the nation’s 150th year of existence, provide $1.5 million per year to support the operations of the office of the as-yet-unappointed national science adviser [see my Dec. 7, 2016 post for information about the job posting, which is now closed]; provide $165.7 million [emphasis mine] over 5 years for the nonprofit organization Mitacs to create roughly 6300 more co-op positions for university students and grads, and provide $60.7 million over five years for new Canadian Space Agency projects, particularly for Canadian participation in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Kondros was either reading an earlier version of the budget or made an error regarding Mitacs (from the budget in the “A New, Ambitious Approach to Work-Integrated Learning” subsection),

Mitacs has set an ambitious goal of providing 10,000 work-integrated learning placements for Canadian post-secondary students and graduates each year—up from the current level of around 3,750 placements. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $221 million [emphasis mine] over five years, starting in 2017–18, to achieve this goal and provide relevant work experience to Canadian students.

As well, the budget item for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is $125M.

Moving from Kondros’ précis, the budget (in the “Positioning National Research Council Canada Within the Innovation and Skills Plan” subsection) announces support for these specific areas of science,

Stem Cell Research

The Stem Cell Network, established in 2001, is a national not-for-profit organization that helps translate stem cell research into clinical applications, commercial products and public policy. Its research holds great promise, offering the potential for new therapies and medical treatments for respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, auto-immune disorders and Parkinson’s disease. To support this important work, Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Stem Cell Network with renewed funding of $6 million in 2018–19.

Space Exploration

Canada has a long and proud history as a space-faring nation. As our international partners prepare to chart new missions, Budget 2017 proposes investments that will underscore Canada’s commitment to innovation and leadership in space. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $80.9 million on a cash basis over five years, starting in 2017–18, for new projects through the Canadian Space Agency that will demonstrate and utilize Canadian innovations in space, including in the field of quantum technology as well as for Mars surface observation. The latter project will enable Canada to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) next Mars Orbiter Mission.

Quantum Information

The development of new quantum technologies has the potential to transform markets, create new industries and produce leading-edge jobs. The Institute for Quantum Computing is a world-leading Canadian research facility that furthers our understanding of these innovative technologies. Budget 2017 proposes to provide the Institute with renewed funding of $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18.

Social Innovation

Through community-college partnerships, the Community and College Social Innovation Fund fosters positive social outcomes, such as the integration of vulnerable populations into Canadian communities. Following the success of this pilot program, Budget 2017 proposes to invest $10 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to continue this work.

International Research Collaborations

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) connects Canadian researchers with collaborative research networks led by eminent Canadian and international researchers on topics that touch all humanity. Past collaborations facilitated by CIFAR are credited with fostering Canada’s leadership in artificial intelligence and deep learning. Budget 2017 proposes to provide renewed and enhanced funding of $35 million over five years, starting in 2017–18.

Earlier this week, I highlighted Canada’s strength in the field of regenerative medicine, specifically stem cells in a March 21, 2017 posting. The $6M in the current budget doesn’t look like increased funding but rather a one-year extension. I’m sure they’re happy to receive it  but I imagine it’s a little hard to plan major research projects when you’re not sure how long your funding will last.

As for Canadian leadership in artificial intelligence, that was news to me. Here’s more from the budget,

Canada a Pioneer in Deep Learning in Machines and Brains

CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program has shaken up the field of artificial intelligence by pioneering a technique called “deep learning,” a computer technique inspired by the human brain and neural networks, which is now routinely used by the likes of Google and Facebook. The program brings together computer scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists and others, and the result is rich collaborations that have propelled artificial intelligence research forward. The program is co-directed by one of Canada’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, the Université de Montréal’s Yoshua Bengio, and for his many contributions to the program, the University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton, another Canadian leader in this field, was awarded the title of Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR in 2014.

Meanwhile, from chapter 1 of the budget in the subsection titled “Preparing for the Digital Economy,” there is this provision for children,

Providing educational opportunities for digital skills development to Canadian girls and boys—from kindergarten to grade 12—will give them the head start they need to find and keep good, well-paying, in-demand jobs. To help provide coding and digital skills education to more young Canadians, the Government intends to launch a competitive process through which digital skills training organizations can apply for funding. Budget 2017 proposes to provide $50 million over two years, starting in 2017–18, to support these teaching initiatives.

I wonder if BC Premier Christy Clark is heaving a sigh of relief. At the 2016 #BCTECH Summit, she announced that students in BC would learn to code at school and in newly enhanced coding camp programmes (see my Jan. 19, 2016 posting). Interestingly, there was no mention of additional funding to support her initiative. I guess this money from the federal government comes at a good time as we will have a provincial election later this spring where she can announce the initiative again and, this time, mention there’s money for it.

Attracting brains from afar

Ivan Semeniuk in his March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) reads between the lines to analyze the budget’s possible impact on Canadian science,

But a between-the-lines reading of the budget document suggests the government also has another audience in mind: uneasy scientists from the United States and Britain.

The federal government showed its hand at the 2017 #BCTECH Summit. From a March 16, 2017 article by Meera Bains for the CBC news online,

At the B.C. tech summit, Navdeep Bains, Canada’s minister of innovation, said the government will act quickly to fast track work permits to attract highly skilled talent from other countries.

“We’re taking the processing time, which takes months, and reducing it to two weeks for immigration processing for individuals [who] need to come here to help companies grow and scale up,” Bains said.

“So this is a big deal. It’s a game changer.”

That change will happen through the Global Talent Stream, a new program under the federal government’s temporary foreign worker program.  It’s scheduled to begin on June 12, 2017.

U.S. companies are taking notice and a Canadian firm, True North, is offering to help them set up shop.

“What we suggest is that they think about moving their operations, or at least a chunk of their operations, to Vancouver, set up a Canadian subsidiary,” said the company’s founder, Michael Tippett.

“And that subsidiary would be able to house and accommodate those employees.”

Industry experts says while the future is unclear for the tech sector in the U.S., it’s clear high tech in B.C. is gearing up to take advantage.

US business attempts to take advantage of Canada’s relative stability and openness to immigration would seem to be the motive for at least one cross border initiative, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From my Feb. 28, 2017 posting,

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

It gets better, it seems Microsoft has been positioning itself for a while if Matt Day’s analysis is correct (from my Feb. 28, 2017 posting),

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year [2016] opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

This was all prior to President Trump’s legislative moves in the US, which have at least one Canadian observer a little more gleeful than I’m comfortable with. From a March 21, 2017 article by Susan Lum  for CBC News online,

U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit travel into his country while simultaneously cutting money from science-based programs provides an opportunity for Canada’s science sector, says a leading Canadian researcher.

“This is Canada’s moment. I think it’s a time we should be bold,” said Alan Bernstein, president of CIFAR [which on March 22, 2017 was awarded $125M to launch the Pan Canada Artificial Intelligence Strategy in the Canadian federal budget announcement], a global research network that funds hundreds of scientists in 16 countries.

Bernstein believes there are many reasons why Canada has become increasingly attractive to scientists around the world, including the political climate in the United States and the Trump administration’s travel bans.

Thankfully, Bernstein calms down a bit,

“It used to be if you were a bright young person anywhere in the world, you would want to go to Harvard or Berkeley or Stanford, or what have you. Now I think you should give pause to that,” he said. “We have pretty good universities here [emphasis mine]. We speak English. We’re a welcoming society for immigrants.”​

Bernstein cautions that Canada should not be seen to be poaching scientists from the United States — but there is an opportunity.

“It’s as if we’ve been in a choir of an opera in the back of the stage and all of a sudden the stars all left the stage. And the audience is expecting us to sing an aria. So we should sing,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the federal government, with this week’s so-called innovation budget, can help Canada hit the right notes.

“Innovation is built on fundamental science, so I’m looking to see if the government is willing to support, in a big way, fundamental science in the country.”

Pretty good universities, eh? Thank you, Dr. Bernstein, for keeping some of the boosterism in check. Let’s leave the chest thumping to President Trump and his cronies.

Ivan Semeniuk’s March 23, 2017 article (for the Globe and Mail) provides more details about the situation in the US and in Britain,

Last week, Donald Trump’s first budget request made clear the U.S. President would significantly reduce or entirely eliminate research funding in areas such as climate science and renewable energy if permitted by Congress. Even the National Institutes of Health, which spearheads medical research in the United States and is historically supported across party lines, was unexpectedly targeted for a $6-billion (U.S.) cut that the White House said could be achieved through “efficiencies.”

In Britain, a recent survey found that 42 per cent of academics were considering leaving the country over worries about a less welcoming environment and the loss of research money that a split with the European Union is expected to bring.

In contrast, Canada’s upbeat language about science in the budget makes a not-so-subtle pitch for diversity and talent from abroad, including $117.6-million to establish 25 research chairs with the aim of attracting “top-tier international scholars.”

For good measure, the budget also includes funding for science promotion and $2-million annually for Canada’s yet-to-be-hired Chief Science Advisor, whose duties will include ensuring that government researchers can speak freely about their work.

“What we’ve been hearing over the last few months is that Canada is seen as a beacon, for its openness and for its commitment to science,” said Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science], who did not refer directly to either the United States or Britain in her comments.

Providing a less optimistic note, Erica Alini in her March 22, 2017 online article for Global News mentions a perennial problem, the Canadian brain drain,

The budget includes a slew of proposed reforms and boosted funding for existing training programs, as well as new skills-development resources for unemployed and underemployed Canadians not covered under current EI-funded programs.

There are initiatives to help women and indigenous people get degrees or training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM subjects) and even to teach kids as young as kindergarten-age to code.

But there was no mention of how to make sure Canadians with the right skills remain in Canada, TD’s DePratto {Toronto Dominion Bank} Economics; TD is currently experiencing a scandal {March 13, 2017 Huffington Post news item}] told Global News.

Canada ranks in the middle of the pack compared to other advanced economies when it comes to its share of its graduates in STEM fields, but the U.S. doesn’t shine either, said DePratto [Brian DePratto, senior economist at TD .

The key difference between Canada and the U.S. is the ability to retain domestic talent and attract brains from all over the world, he noted.

To be blunt, there may be some opportunities for Canadian science but it does well to remember (a) US businesses have no particular loyalty to Canada and (b) all it takes is an election to change any perceived advantages to disadvantages.

Digital policy and intellectual property issues

Dubbed by some as the ‘innovation’ budget (official title:  Building a Strong Middle Class), there is an attempt to address a longstanding innovation issue (from a March 22, 2017 posting by Michael Geist on his eponymous blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The release of today’s [march 22, 2017] federal budget is expected to include a significant emphasis on innovation, with the government revealing how it plans to spend (or re-allocate) hundreds of millions of dollars that is intended to support innovation. Canada’s dismal innovation record needs attention, but spending our way to a more innovative economy is unlikely to yield the desired results. While Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, has talked for months about the importance of innovation, Toronto Star columnist Paul Wells today delivers a cutting but accurate assessment of those efforts:

“This government is the first with a minister for innovation! He’s Navdeep Bains. He frequently posts photos of his meetings on Twitter, with the hashtag “#innovation.” That’s how you know there is innovation going on. A year and a half after he became the minister for #innovation, it’s not clear what Bains’s plans are. It’s pretty clear that within the government he has less than complete control over #innovation. There’s an advisory council on economic growth, chaired by the McKinsey guru Dominic Barton, which periodically reports to the government urging more #innovation.

There’s a science advisory panel, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, that delivered a report to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan more than three months ago. That report has vanished. One presumes that’s because it offered some advice. Whatever Bains proposes, it will have company.”

Wells is right. Bains has been very visible with plenty of meetings and public photo shoots but no obvious innovation policy direction. This represents a missed opportunity since Bains has plenty of policy tools at his disposal that could advance Canada’s innovation framework without focusing on government spending.

For example, Canada’s communications system – wireless and broadband Internet access – falls directly within his portfolio and is crucial for both business and consumers. Yet Bains has been largely missing in action on the file. He gave approval for the Bell – MTS merger that virtually everyone concedes will increase prices in the province and make the communications market less competitive. There are potential policy measures that could bring new competitors into the market (MVNOs [mobile virtual network operators] and municipal broadband) and that could make it easier for consumers to switch providers (ban on unlocking devices). Some of this falls to the CRTC, but government direction and emphasis would make a difference.

Even more troubling has been his near total invisibility on issues relating to new fees or taxes on Internet access and digital services. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has taken control of the issue with the possibility that Canadians could face increased costs for their Internet access or digital services through mandatory fees to contribute to Canadian content.  Leaving aside the policy objections to such an approach (reducing affordable access and the fact that foreign sources now contribute more toward Canadian English language TV production than Canadian broadcasters and distributors), Internet access and e-commerce are supposed to be Bains’ issue and they have a direct connection to the innovation file. How is it possible for the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister to have remained silent for months on the issue?

Bains has been largely missing on trade related innovation issues as well. My Globe and Mail column today focuses on a digital-era NAFTA, pointing to likely U.S. demands on data localization, data transfers, e-commerce rules, and net neutrality.  These are all issues that fall under Bains’ portfolio and will impact investment in Canadian networks and digital services. There are innovation opportunities for Canada here, but Bains has been content to leave the policy issues to others, who will be willing to sacrifice potential gains in those areas.

Intellectual property policy is yet another area that falls directly under Bains’ mandate with an obvious link to innovation, but he has done little on the file. Canada won a huge NAFTA victory late last week involving the Canadian patent system, which was challenged by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. Why has Bains not promoted the decision as an affirmation of how Canada’s intellectual property rules?

On the copyright front, the government is scheduled to conduct a review of the Copyright Act later this year, but it is not clear whether Bains will take the lead or again cede responsibility to Joly. The Copyright Act is statutorily under the Industry Minister and reform offers the chance to kickstart innovation. …

For anyone who’s not familiar with this area, innovation is often code for commercialization of science and technology research efforts. These days, digital service and access policies and intellectual property policies are all key to research and innovation efforts.

The country that’s most often (except in mainstream Canadian news media) held up as an example of leadership in innovation is Estonia. The Economist profiled the country in a July 31, 2013 article and a July 7, 2016 article on apolitical.co provides and update.

Conclusions

Science monies for the tri-council science funding agencies (NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR) are more or less flat but there were a number of line items in the federal budget which qualify as science funding. The $221M over five years for Mitacs, the $125M for the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, additional funding for the Canada research chairs, and some of the digital funding could also be included as part of the overall haul. This is in line with the former government’s (Stephen Harper’s Conservatives) penchant for keeping the tri-council’s budgets under control while spreading largesse elsewhere (notably the Perimeter Institute, TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics], and, in the 2015 budget, $243.5-million towards the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a $1.5-billion project). This has lead to some hard feelings in the past with regard to ‘big science’ projects getting what some have felt is an undeserved boost in finances while the ‘small fish’ are left scrabbling for the ever-diminishing (due to budget cuts in years past and inflation) pittances available from the tri-council agencies.

Mitacs, which started life as a federally funded Network Centre for Excellence focused on mathematics, has since shifted focus to become an innovation ‘champion’. You can find Mitacs here and you can find the organization’s March 2016 budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance here. At the time, they did not request a specific amount of money; they just asked for more.

The amount Mitacs expects to receive this year is over $40M which represents more than double what they received from the federal government and almost of 1/2 of their total income in the 2015-16 fiscal year according to their 2015-16 annual report (see p. 327 for the Mitacs Statement of Operations to March 31, 2016). In fact, the federal government forked over $39,900,189. in the 2015-16 fiscal year to be their largest supporter while Mitacs’ total income (receipts) was $81,993,390.

It’s a strange thing but too much money, etc. can be as bad as too little. I wish the folks Mitacs nothing but good luck with their windfall.

I don’t see anything in the budget that encourages innovation and investment from the industrial sector in Canada.

Finallyl, innovation is a cultural issue as much as it is a financial issue and having worked with a number of developers and start-up companies, the most popular business model is to develop a successful business that will be acquired by a large enterprise thereby allowing the entrepreneurs to retire before the age of 30 (or 40 at the latest). I don’t see anything from the government acknowledging the problem let alone any attempts to tackle it.

All in all, it was a decent budget with nothing in it to seriously offend anyone.

Singing posters and talking shirts can communicate with you via car radio or smartphones

Singing posters and talking shirts haven’t gone beyond the prototype stage yet but I imagine University of Washington engineers are hoping this will happen sooner rather than later. In the meantime, they are  presenting their work at a conference according to a March 1, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Imagine you’re waiting in your car and a poster for a concert from a local band catches your eye. What if you could just tune your car to a radio station and actually listen to that band’s music? Or perhaps you see the poster on the side of a bus stop. What if it could send your smartphone a link for discounted tickets or give you directions to the venue?

Going further, imagine you go for a run, and your shirt can sense your perspiration and send data on your vital signs directly to your phone.

A new technique pioneered by University of Washington engineers makes these “smart” posters and clothing a reality by allowing them to communicate directly with your car’s radio or your smartphone. For instance, bus stop billboards could send digital content about local attractions. A street sign could broadcast the name of an intersection or notice that it is safe to cross a street, improving accessibility for the disabled. In addition, clothing with integrated sensors could monitor vital signs and send them to a phone. [emphasis mine]

“What we want to do is enable smart cities and fabrics where everyday objects in outdoor environments — whether it’s posters or street signs or even the shirt you’re wearing — can ‘talk’ to you by sending information to your phone or car,” said lead faculty and UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering Shyam Gollakota.

“The challenge is that radio technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth and conventional FM radios would last less than half a day with a coin cell battery when transmitting,” said co-author and UW electrical engineering doctoral student Vikram Iyer. “So we developed a new way of communication where we send information by reflecting ambient FM radio signals that are already in the air, which consumes close to zero power.”

The UW team has — for the first time — demonstrated how to apply a technique called “backscattering” to outdoor FM radio signals. The new system transmits messages by reflecting and encoding audio and data in these signals that are ubiquitous in urban environments, without affecting the original radio transmissions. Results are published in a paper to be presented in Boston at the 14th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation in March [2017].

The team demonstrated that a “singing poster” for the band Simply Three placed at a bus stop could transmit a snippet of the band’s music, as well as an advertisement for the band, to a smartphone at a distance of 12 feet or to a car over 60 feet away. They overlaid the audio and data on top of ambient news signals from a local NPR radio station.

The University of Washington has produced a video demonstration of the technology

A March 1, 2017 University of Washington news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains further (Note: Links have been removed),

“FM radio signals are everywhere. You can listen to music or news in your car and it’s a common way for us to get our information,” said co-author and UW computer science and engineering doctoral student Anran Wang. “So what we do is basically make each of these everyday objects into a mini FM radio station at almost zero power.”

Such ubiquitous low-power connectivity can also enable smart fabric applications such as clothing integrated with sensors to monitor a runner’s gait and vital signs that transmits the information directly to a user’s phone. In a second demonstration, the researchers from the UW Networks & Mobile Systems Lab used conductive thread to sew an antenna into a cotton T-shirt, which was able to use ambient radio signals to transmit data to a smartphone at rates up to 3.2 kilobits per second.

The system works by taking an everyday FM radio signal broadcast from an urban radio tower. The “smart” poster or T-shirt uses a low-power reflector to manipulate the signal in a way that encodes the desired audio or data on top of the FM broadcast to send a “message” to the smartphone receiver on an unoccupied frequency in the FM radio band.

“Our system doesn’t disturb existing FM radio frequencies,” said co-author Joshua Smith, UW associate professor of computer science and engineering and of electrical engineering. “We send our messages on an adjacent band that no one is using — so we can piggyback on your favorite news or music channel without disturbing the original transmission.”

The team demonstrated three different methods for sending audio signals and data using FM backscatter: one simply overlays the new information on top of the existing signals, another takes advantage of unused portions of a stereo FM broadcast, and the third uses cooperation between two smartphones to decode the message.

“Because of the unique structure of FM radio signals, multiplying the original signal with the backscattered signal actually produces an additive frequency change,” said co-author Vamsi Talla, a UW postdoctoral researcher in computer science and engineering. “These frequency changes can be decoded as audio on the normal FM receivers built into cars and smartphones.”

In the team’s demonstrations, the total power consumption of the backscatter system was 11 microwatts, which could be easily supplied by a tiny coin-cell battery for a couple of years, or powered using tiny solar cells.

I cannot help but notice the interest in using this technology is for monitoring purposes, which could be benign or otherwise.

For anyone curious about the 14th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation being held March 27 – 29, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts, you can find out more here.

Magic nano ink

Colour changes © Nature Communications 2017 / MPI [Max Planck Institute] for Intelligent Systems

A March 1, 2017 news item on Nanowerk helps to explain the image seen above (Note: A link has been removed),

Plasmonic printing produces resolutions several times greater than conventional printing methods. In plasmonic printing, colours are formed on the surfaces of tiny metallic particles when light excites their electrons to oscillate. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart have now shown how the colours of such metallic particles can be altered with hydrogen (Nature Communications, “Dynamic plasmonic colour display”).

The technique could open the way for animating ultra-high-resolution images and for developing extremely sharp displays. At the same time, it provides new approaches for encrypting information and detecting counterfeits.

A March 1, 2017 Max Planck Institute press release, which originated the news item, provides more  history and more detail about the research,

Glass artisans in medieval times exploited the effect long before it was even known. They coloured the magnificent windows of gothic cathedrals with nanoparticles of gold, which glowed red in the light. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the underlying physical phenomenon was given a name: plasmons. These collective oscillations of free electrons are stimulated by the absorption of incident electromagnetic radiation. The smaller the metallic particles, the shorter the wavelength of the absorbed radiation. In some cases, the resonance frequency, i.e., the absorption maximum, falls within the visible light spectrum. The unabsorbed part of the spectrum is then scattered or reflected, creating an impression of colour. The metallic particles, which usually appear silvery, copper-coloured or golden, then take on entirely new colours.

A resolution of 100,000 dots per inch

Researchers are also taking advantage of the effect to develop plasmonic printing, in which tailor-made square metal particles are arranged in specific patterns on a substrate. The edge length of the particles is in the order of less than 100 nanometres (100 billionths of a metre). This allows a resolution of 100,000 dots per inch – several times greater than what today’s printers and displays can achieve.

For metallic particles measuring several 100 nanometres across, the resonance frequency of the plasmons lies within the visible light spectrum. When white light falls on such particles, they appear in a specific colour, for example red or blue. The colour of the metal in question is determined by the size of the particles and their distance from each other. These adjustment parameters therefore serve the same purpose in plasmonic printing as the palette of colours in painting.

The trick with the chemical reaction

The Smart Nanoplasmonics Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart also makes use of this colour variability. They are currently working on making dynamic plasmonic printing. They have now presented an approach that allows them to alter the colours of the pixels predictably – even after an image has been printed. “The trick is to use magnesium. It can undergo a reversible chemical reaction in which the metallic character of the element is lost,” explains Laura Na Liu, who leads the Stuttgart research group. “Magnesium can absorb up to 7.6% of hydrogen by weight to form magnesium hydride, or MgH2”, Liu continues. The researchers coat the magnesium with palladium, which acts as a catalyst in the reaction.

During the continuous transition of metallic magnesium into non-metallic MgH2, the colour of some of the pixels changes several times. The colour change and the speed of the rate at which it proceeds follow a clear pattern. This is determined both by the size of and the distance between the individual magnesium particles as well as by the amount of hydrogen present.

In the case of total hydrogen saturation, the colour disappears completely, and the pixels reflect all the white light that falls on them. This is because the magnesium is no longer present in metallic form but only as MgH2. Hence, there are also no free metal electrons that can be made to oscillate.

Minerva’s vanishing act

The scientists demonstrated the effect of such dynamic colour behaviour on a plasmonic print of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, which also bore the logo of the Max Planck Society. They chose the size of their magnesium particles so that Minerva’s hair first appeared reddish, the head covering yellow, the feather crest red and the laurel wreath and outline of her face blue. They then washed the micro-print with hydrogen. A time-lapse film shows how the individual colours change. Yellow turns red, red turns blue, and blue turns white. After a few minutes all the colours disappear, revealing a white surface instead of Minerva.

The scientists also showed that this process is reversible by replacing the hydrogen stream with a stream of oxygen. The oxygen reacts with the hydrogen in the magnesium hydride to form water, so that the magnesium particles become metallic again. The pixels then change back in reverse order, and in the end Minerva appears in her original colours.

In a similar manner the researchers first made the micro image of a famous Van Gogh painting disappear and then reappear. They also produced complex animations that give the impression of fireworks.

The principle of a new encryption technique

Laura Na Liu can imagine using this principle in a new encryption technology. To demonstrate this, the group formed various letters with magnesium pixels. The addition of hydrogen then caused some letters to disappear over time, like the image of Minerva. “As for the rest of the letters, a thin oxide layer formed on the magnesium particles after exposing the sample in air for a short time before palladium deposition,” Liu explains. This layer is impermeable to hydrogen. The magnesium lying under the oxide layer therefore remains metallic − and visible − because light is able to excite the plasmons in the magnesium.

In this way it is possible to conceal a message, for example by mixing real and nonsensical information. Only the intended recipient is able to make the nonsensical information disappear and filter out the real message. For example, after decoding the message “Hartford” with hydrogen, only the words “art or” would remain visible. To make it more difficult to crack such encrypted messages, the group is currently working on a process that would require a precisely adjusted hydrogen concentration for deciphering.

Liu believes that the technology could also be used some day in the fight against counterfeiting. “For example, plasmonic security features could be printed on banknotes or pharmaceutical packs, which could later be checked or read only under specific conditions unknown to counterfeiters.”

It doesn’t necessarily have to be hydrogen

Laura Na Liu knows that the use of hydrogen makes some applications difficult and impractical for everyday use such as in mobile displays. “We see our work as a starting shot for a new principle: the use of chemical reactions for dynamic printing,” the Stuttgart physicist says. It is certainly conceivable that the research will soon lead to the discovery of chemical reactions for colour changes other than the phase transition between magnesium and magnesium dihydride, for example, reactions that require no gaseous reactants.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Dynamic plasmonic colour display by Xiaoyang Duan, Simon Kamin, & Na Liu. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14606 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14606 Published online: 24 February 2017

This paper is open access.

Making lead look like gold (so to speak)

Apparently you can make lead ‘look’ like gold if you can get it to reflect light in the same way. From a Feb. 28, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Since the Middle Ages, alchemists have sought to transmute elements, the most famous example being the long quest to turn lead into gold. Transmutation has been realized in modern times, but on a minute scale using a massive particle accelerator.

Now, theorists at Princeton University have proposed a different approach to this ancient ambition — just make one material behave like another. A computational theory published Feb. 24 [2017] in the journal Physical Review Letters (“How to Make Distinct Dynamical Systems Appear Spectrally Identical”) demonstrates that any two systems can be made to look alike, even if just for the smallest fraction of a second.

In this context, for two objects to “look” like each other, they need to reflect light in the same way. The Princeton researchers’ method involves using light to make non-permanent changes to a substance’s molecules so that they mimic the reflective properties of another substance’s molecules. This ability could have implications for optical computing, a type of computing in which electrons are replaced by photons that could greatly enhance processing power but has proven extremely difficult to engineer. It also could be applied to molecular detection and experiments in which expensive samples could be replaced by cheaper alternatives.

A Feb. 28, 2017 Princeton University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Tien Nguyen, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

“It was a big shock for us that such a general statement as ‘any two objects can be made to look alike’ could be made,” said co-author Denys Bondar, an associate research scholar in the laboratory of co-author Herschel Rabitz, Princeton’s Charles Phelps Smyth ’16 *17 Professor of Chemistry.

The Princeton researchers posited that they could control the light that bounces off a molecule or any substance by controlling the light shone on it, which would allow them to alter how it looks. This type of manipulation requires a powerful light source such as an ultrafast laser and would last for only a femtosecond, or one quadrillionth of a second. Unlike normal light sources, this ultrafast laser pulse is strong enough to interact with molecules and distort their electron cloud while not actually changing their identity.

“The light emitted by a molecule depends on the shape of its electron cloud, which can be sculptured by modern lasers,” Bondar said. Using advanced computational theory, the research team developed a method called “spectral dynamic mimicry” that allowed them to calculate the laser pulse shape, which includes timing and wavelength, to produce any desired spectral output. In other words, making any two systems look alike.

Conversely, this spectral control could also be used to make two systems look as different from one another as possible. This differentiation, the researchers suggested, could prove valuable for applications of molecular detections such as identifying toxic versus safe chemicals.

Shaul Mukamel, a chemistry professor at the University of California-Irvine, said that the Princeton research is a step forward in an important and active research field called coherent control, in which light can be manipulated to control behavior at the molecular level. Mukamel, who has collaborated with the Rabitz lab but was not involved in the current work, said that the Rabitz group has had a prominent role in this field for decades, advancing technology such as quantum computing and using light to drive artificial chemical reactivity.

“It’s a very general and nice application of coherent control,” Mukamel said. “It demonstrates that you can, by shaping the optical paths, bring the molecules to do things that you want beforehand — it could potentially be very significant.”

Since the Middle Ages, alchemists have sought to transmute elements, the most famous example being the long quest to turn lead into gold. Now, theorists at Princeton University have proposed a different approach to this ancient ambition — just make one material behave like another, even if just for the smallest fraction of a second. The researchers are, left to right, Renan Cabrera, an associate research scholar in chemistry; Herschel Rabitz, Princeton’s Charles Phelps Smyth ’16 *17 Professor of Chemistry; associate research scholar in chemistry Denys Bondar; and graduate student Andre Campos. (Photo by C. Todd Reichart, Department of Chemistry)

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

How to Make Distinct Dynamical Systems Appear Spectrally Identical by
Andre G. Campos, Denys I. Bondar, Renan Cabrera, and Herschel A. Rabitz.
Phys. Rev. Lett. 118, 083201 (Vol. 118, Iss. 8) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.118.083201 Published 24 February 2017

© 2017 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Scientifica radio

Scientifica Radio, a CKUT.ca (Montréal McGill [University] Campus Community Radio) radio science magazine has been broadcasting since October 2016. Episode 11 features a series of interviews held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2017 annual meeting held Feb. 16, – 20, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. From the Episode 11 webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

On today’s [Feb. 24, 2017] episode, Bethany Wong follows Brïte Pauchet as she head [sic] to Boston to cover the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science  (AAAS). This is one of the world’s largest general scientific conferences, bringing together researchers, science communicators, policy makers and educators from around the world.

Brite Pauchet writes and publishes the Brite Sciences blog. Her blog, where I found the reference to Scientifica Radio, is written in French but the version of Episode 11 I’ve linked to is in English.

Peripheral nerves (a rat’s) regenerated when wrapped with nanomesh fiber

A Feb.28,2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a proposed nerve regeneration technique (Note: A link has been removed),

A research team consisting of Mitsuhiro Ebara, MANA associate principal investigator, Mechanobiology Group, NIMS, and Hiroyuki Tanaka, assistant professor, Orthopaedic Surgery, Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine, developed a mesh which can be wrapped around injured peripheral nerves to facilitate their regeneration and restore their functions (Acta Biomaterialia, “Electrospun nanofiber sheets incorporating methylcobalamin promote nerve regeneration and functional recovery in a rat sciatic nerve crush injury model”).

This mesh incorporates vitamin B12—a substance vital to the normal functioning of nervous systems—which is very soft and degrades in the body. When the mesh was applied to injured sciatic nerves in rats, it promoted nerve regeneration and recovery of their motor and sensory functions.

A Feb. 27, 2017 Japan National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) press release for Osaka University, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Artificial nerve conduits have been developed in the past to treat peripheral nerve injuries, but they merely form a cross-link to the injury site and do not promote faster nerve regeneration. Moreover, their application is limited to relatively few patients suffering from a complete loss of nerve continuity. Vitamin B12 has been known to facilitate nerve regeneration, but oral administration of it has not proven to be very effective, and no devices capable of delivering vitamin B12 directly to affected sites had been available. Therefore, it had been hoped to develop such medical devices to actively promote nerve regeneration in the many patients who suffer from nerve injuries but have not lost nerve continuity.

The NIMS-Osaka University joint research team recently developed a special mesh that can be wrapped around an injured nerve which releases vitamin B12 (methylcobalamin) until the injury heals. By developing very fine mesh fibers (several hundred nanometers in diameter) and reducing the crystallinity of the fibers, the team successfully created a very soft mesh that can be wrapped around a nerve. This mesh is made of a biodegradable plastic which, when implanted in animals, is eventually eliminated from the body. In fact, experiments demonstrated that application of the mesh directly to injured sciatic nerves in rats resulted in regeneration of axons and recovery of motor and sensory functions within six weeks.

The team is currently negotiating with a pharmaceutical company and other organizations to jointly study clinical application of the mesh as a medical device to treat peripheral nerve disorders, such as CTS.

This study was supported by the JSPS KAKENHI program (Grant Number JP15K10405) and AMED’s Project for Japan Translational and Clinical Research Core Centers (also known as Translational Research Network Program).

Figure 1. Conceptual diagram showing a nanofiber mesh incorporating vitamin B12 and its application to treat a peripheral nerve injury.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Electrospun nanofiber sheets incorporating methylcobalamin promote nerve regeneration and functional recovery in a rat sciatic nerve crush injury model by Koji Suzuki, Hiroyuki Tanaka, Mitsuhiro Ebara, Koichiro Uto, Hozo Matsuoka, Shunsuke Nishimoto, Kiyoshi Okada, Tsuyoshi Murase, Hideki Yoshikawa. Acta Biomaterialia http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.actbio.2017.02.004 Available online 5 February 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada’s strength in regenerative medicine

Urgh! I will scream if I see the phrase “Canada punches above its weight” or some variant thereof one more time. Please! Stop the madness! The latest culprit is the Canadian Council of Academies in the title for its March 9, 2017 news release on EurekAlert,

Canada continues to punch above its weight in the field of regenerative medicine

A new workshop report, Building on Canada’s Strengths in Regenerative Medicine, released today [March 9, 2017] by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA), confirms that Canadian researchers continue to be recognized as scientific leaders in the field of regenerative medicine and stem cell science.

“Overall, the evidence shows that Canadian research in regenerative medicine continues to be strong,” said Dr. Janet Rossant, FRSC, Chair of the Workshop Steering Committee and President and Scientific Director of the Gairdner Foundation. “While Canadian research is both of high quality and highly cited, it is our collaborative culture, enhanced by our national networks that keeps Canada leading in this field.”

Since the discovery of stem cells in the early 1960s by Canadian scientists Drs. James Till and Ernest McCulloch, significant advancements in regenerative medicine have followed, many by Canadian researchers and practitioners. The appeal of regenerative medicine lies in its curative approach. It replaces or regenerates human cells, tissues, or organs to restore or establish normal function using stem cells. A well-known example of regenerative medicine is the use of bone marrow transplants for leukemia. Although Canada has been historically strong in the field of regenerative medicine, experts caution that we must not lose momentum.

“Canada has been a leader in the field of regenerative medicine for decades, but maintaining this excellence requires ongoing efforts including continued stable and strategic investment in researchers, collaborative networks, and infrastructure,” Dr. Rossant notes. “Several countries are investing heavily in regenerative medicine and stem cell science. Canada has a real opportunity to stay ahead of the curve and remain at the forefront of this field, but it will require us to harness key opportunities now.” [emphasis mine]

The workshop report identifies several opportunities to strengthen the regenerative medicine community in Canada. Opportunities identified as particularly promising focus on:

* formalizing the coordination among regenerative medicine initiatives and key players to speak with one voice on common priorities;

* establishing long-term and stable support for current networks, including those focused on commercialization, to help address the so-called “valley of death” that exists when translating research discoveries to clinical and industry settings;

* enhancing coordination and alignment between the federal regulatory system and provincial healthcare systems; and

* supporting existing manufacturing infrastructure and growing the regenerative medicine industry in Canada to provide jobs for highly-skilled personnel while also benefiting the Canadian economy.

The workshop participants also considered several specific opportunities such as:

* enhancing coordination of Canada’s regenerative medicine clinical trial sites to enable sharing of best practices related to funding, design, and recruitment;

* continued support for cross-training programs to ensure future generations of Canadian researchers have wide-ranging skills suited to the multidisciplinary nature of regenerative medicine;

* new incentives that encourage partnerships between research institutions and industry; and

* increasing efforts related to public engagement and outreach.

“Sometimes becoming excellent is easier than maintaining excellence,” said Dr. Eric M. Meslin, FCAHS, President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. “This is why taking stock of Canada’s place in the regenerative medicine landscape at a point in time is important, especially where the science is moving quickly; it helps those in the field understand the opportunities and will contribute to the ongoing policy discussion in Canada.”

This report was released a few weeks in advance of the federal budget (due tomorrow Wednesday, March 22, 2017). That’s a coincidence, yes?  Interestingly, the 2017 iteration is supposed to be an ‘innovation’ budget, i.e.. designed to stimulate the tech sector if a March 20, 2017 article by David Cochrane for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online is to be believed. Nowhere in the article is there any mention of regenerative medicine or science, for that matter.

You can download the full report (60 pp.) from the Building on Canada’s Strengths in Regenerative Medicine webpage on the CCA website.

Do your physical therapy and act as a citizen scientist at the same time

I gather that recovering from a serious injury and/or surgery can require exercise regimens which help strengthen you but can be mind-numbingly boring. According to a Feb. 23, 30217 New York University Tandon School of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), scientists have found a way to make the physical rehabilitation process more meaningful,

Researchers at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering have devised a method by which patients requiring repetitive rehabilitative exercises, such as those prescribed by physical therapists, can voluntarily contribute to scientific projects in which massive data collection and analysis is needed.

Citizen science empowers people with little to no scientific training to participate in research led by professional scientists in different ways. The benefit of such an activity is often bidirectional, whereby professional scientists leverage the effort of a large number of volunteers in data collection or analysis, while the volunteers increase their knowledge on the topic of the scientific endeavor. Tandon researchers added the benefit of performing what can sometimes be boring or painful exercise regimes in a more appealing yet still therapeutic manner.

The citizen science activity they employed entailed the environmental mapping of a polluted body of water (in this case Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal) with a miniature instrumented boat, which was remotely controlled by the participants through their physical gestures, as tracked by a low-cost motion capture system that does not require the subject to don special equipment. The researchers demonstrated that the natural user interface offers an engaging and effective means for performing environmental monitoring tasks. At the same time, the citizen science activity increased the commitment of the participants, leading to a better motion performance, quantified through an array of objective indices.

Visiting Researcher Eduardo Palermo (of Sapienza University of Rome), Post-doctoral Researcher Jeffrey Laut, Professor of Technology Management and Innovation Oded Nov, late Research Professor Paolo Cappa, and Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Maurizio Porfiri provided subjects with a Microsoft Kinect sensor, a markerless human motion tracker capable of estimating three-dimensional coordinates of human joints that was initially designed for gaming but has since been widely repurposed as an input device for natural user interfaces. They asked participants to pilot the boat, controlling thruster speed and steering angle, by lifting one arm away from the trunk and using wrist motions, in effect, mimicking one widely adopted type of rehabilitative exercises based on repetitively performing simple movements with the affected arm. Their results suggest that an inexpensive, off-the-shelf device can offer an engaging means to contribute to important scientific tasks while delivering relevant and efficient physical exercises.

“The study constitutes a first and necessary step toward rehabilitative treatments of the upper limb through citizen science and low-cost markerless optical systems,” Porfiri explains. “Our methodology expands behavioral rehabilitation by providing an engaging and fun natural user interface, a tangible scientific contribution, and an attractive low-cost markerless technology for human motion capture.”

Caption: NYU Tandon researchers reported that volunteers who performed repetitive exercises while contributing as citizen scientists were more effective in their physical therapy motions. In the experiment, the volunteers controlled a small boat monitoring the polluted Gowanus Canal by performing hand and arm motions using the Microsoft Kinect motion capture system. Credit: NYU Tandon, PLoS ONE

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A Natural User Interface to Integrate Citizen Science and Physical Exercise by Eduardo Palermo, Jeffrey Laut, Oded Nov, Paolo Cappa, Maurizio Porfiri. Public Library of Science (PLoS) http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172587 Published: February 23, 2017

This paper is open access.

Bidirectional prosthetic-brain communication with light?

The possibility of not only being able to make a prosthetic that allows a tetraplegic to grab a coffee but to feel that coffee  cup with their ‘hand’ is one step closer to reality according to a Feb. 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Since the early seventies, scientists have been developing brain-machine interfaces; the main application being the use of neural prosthesis in paralyzed patients or amputees. A prosthetic limb directly controlled by brain activity can partially recover the lost motor function. This is achieved by decoding neuronal activity recorded with electrodes and translating it into robotic movements. Such systems however have limited precision due to the absence of sensory feedback from the artificial limb. Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, asked whether it was possible to transmit this missing sensation back to the brain by stimulating neural activity in the cortex. They discovered that not only was it possible to create an artificial sensation of neuroprosthetic movements, but that the underlying learning process occurs very rapidly. These findings, published in the scientific journal Neuron, were obtained by resorting to modern imaging and optical stimulation tools, offering an innovative alternative to the classical electrode approach.

A Feb. 22, 2017 Université de Genève press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Motor function is at the heart of all behavior and allows us to interact with the world. Therefore, replacing a lost limb with a robotic prosthesis is the subject of much research, yet successful outcomes are rare. Why is that? Until this moment, brain-machine interfaces are operated by relying largely on visual perception: the robotic arm is controlled by looking at it. The direct flow of information between the brain and the machine remains thus unidirectional. However, movement perception is not only based on vision but mostly on proprioception, the sensation of where the limb is located in space. “We have therefore asked whether it was possible to establish a bidirectional communication in a brain-machine interface: to simultaneously read out neural activity, translate it into prosthetic movement and reinject sensory feedback of this movement back in the brain”, explains Daniel Huber, professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences of the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE.

Providing artificial sensations of prosthetic movements

In contrast to invasive approaches using electrodes, Daniel Huber’s team specializes in optical techniques for imaging and stimulating brain activity. Using a method called two-photon microscopy, they routinely measure the activity of hundreds of neurons with single cell resolution. “We wanted to test whether mice could learn to control a neural prosthesis by relying uniquely on an artificial sensory feedback signal”, explains Mario Prsa, researcher at UNIGE and the first author of the study. “We imaged neural activity in the motor cortex. When the mouse activated a specific neuron, the one chosen for neuroprosthetic control, we simultaneously applied stimulation proportional to this activity to the sensory cortex using blue light”. Indeed, neurons of the sensory cortex were rendered photosensitive to this light, allowing them to be activated by a series of optical flashes and thus integrate the artificial sensory feedback signal. The mouse was rewarded upon every above-threshold activation, and 20 minutes later, once the association learned, the rodent was able to more frequently generate the correct neuronal activity.

This means that the artificial sensation was not only perceived, but that it was successfully integrated as a feedback of the prosthetic movement. In this manner, the brain-machine interface functions bidirectionally. The Geneva researchers think that the reason why this fabricated sensation is so rapidly assimilated is because it most likely taps into very basic brain functions. Feeling the position of our limbs occurs automatically, without much thought and probably reflects fundamental neural circuit mechanisms. This type of bidirectional interface might allow in the future more precisely displacing robotic arms, feeling touched objects or perceiving the necessary force to grasp them.

At present, the neuroscientists at UNIGE are examining how to produce a more efficient sensory feedback. They are currently capable of doing it for a single movement, but is it also possible to provide multiple feedback channels in parallel? This research sets the groundwork for developing a new generation of more precise, bidirectional neural prostheses.

Towards better understanding the neural mechanisms of neuroprosthetic control

By resorting to modern imaging tools, hundreds of neurons in the surrounding area could also be observed as the mouse learned the neuroprosthetic task. “We know that millions of neural connections exist. However, we discovered that the animal activated only the one neuron chosen for controlling the prosthetic action, and did not recruit any of the neighbouring neurons”, adds Daniel Huber. “This is a very interesting finding since it reveals that the brain can home in on and specifically control the activity of just one single neuron”. Researchers can potentially exploit this knowledge to not only develop more stable and precise decoding techniques, but also gain a better understanding of most basic neural circuit functions. It remains to be discovered what mechanisms are involved in routing signals to the uniquely activated neuron.

Caption: A novel optical brain-machine interface allows bidirectional communication with the brain. While a robotic arm is controlled by neuronal activity recorded with optical imaging (red laser), the position of the arm is fed back to the brain via optical microstimulation (blue laser). Credit: © Daniel Huber, UNIGE

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rapid Integration of Artificial Sensory Feedback during Operant Conditioning of Motor Cortex Neurons by Mario Prsa, Gregorio L. Galiñanes, Daniel Huber. Neuron Volume 93, Issue 4, p929–939.e6, 22 February 2017 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2017.01.023 Open access funded by European Research Council

This paper is open access.

The inside scoop on beetle exoskeletons

In the past I’ve covered work on the Namib beetle and its bumps which allow it to access condensation from the air in one of the hottest places on earth and work on jewel beetles and how their structural colo(u)r is derived. Now, there’s research into a beetle’s body armor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln according to a Feb. 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Beetles wear a body armor that should weigh them down — think medieval knights and turtles. In fact, those hard shells protecting delicate wings are surprisingly light, allowing even flight.

Better understanding the structure and properties of beetle exoskeletons could help scientists engineer lighter, stronger materials. Such materials could, for example, reduce gas-guzzling drag in vehicles and airplanes and reduce the weight of armor, lightening the load for the 21st-century knight.

But revealing exoskeleton architecture at the nanoscale has proven difficult. Nebraska’s Ruiguo Yang, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, and his colleagues found a way to analyze the fibrous nanostructure. …

A Feb. 22, 2017 University of Nebraska-Lincoln news release by Gillian Klucas (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes skeletons and the work in more detail,

The lightweight exoskeleton is composed of chitin fibers just around 20 nanometers in diameter (a human hair measures approximately 75,000 nanometers in diameter) and packed and piled into layers that twist in a spiral, like a spiral staircase. The small diameter and helical twisting, known as Bouligand, make the structure difficult to analyze.

Yang and his team developed a method of slicing down the spiral to reveal a surface of cross-sections of fibers at different orientations. From that viewpoint, the researchers were able to analyze the fibers’ mechanical properties with the aid of an atomic force microscope. This type of microscope applies a tiny force to a test sample, deforms the sample and monitors the sample’s response. Combining the experimental procedure and theoretical analysis, the researchers were able to reveal the nanoscale architecture of the exoskeleton and the material properties of the nanofibers.

Yang holds a piece of the atomic force microscope used to measure the beetle's surface. A small wire can barely be seen in the middle of the piece. Unseen is a two-nano-size probe attached to the wire, which does the actual measuring.

Craig Chandler | University Communication

Yang holds a piece of the atomic force microscope used to measure the beetle’s surface. A small wire can barely be seen in the middle of the piece. Unseen is a two-nano-size probe attached to the wire, which does the actual measuring.

They made their discoveries in the common figeater beetle, Cotinis mutabilis, a metallic green native of the western United States. But the technique can be used on other beetles and hard-shelled creatures and might also extend to artificial materials with fibrous structures, Yang said.

Comparing beetles with differing demands on their exoskeletons, such as defending against predators or environmental damage, could lead to evolutionary insights as well as a better understanding of the relationship between structural features and their properties.

Yang’s co-authors are Alireza Zaheri and Horacio Espinosa of Northwestern University; Wei Gao of the University of Texas at San Antonio; and Cheryl Hayashi of the University of California, Riverside.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Exoskeletons: AFM Identification of Beetle Exocuticle: Bouligand Structure and Nanofiber Anisotropic Elastic Properties by Ruiguo Yang, Alireza Zaheri,Wei Gao, Charely Hayashi, Horacio D. Espinosa. Adv. Funct. Mater. vol. 27 (6) 2017 DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201770031 First published: 8 February 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.