Getting chipped

A January 23, 2018 article by John Converse Townsend for Fast Company highlights the author’s experience of ‘getting chipped’ in Wisconsin (US),

I have an RFID, or radio frequency ID, microchip implanted in my hand. Now with a wave, I can unlock doors, fire off texts, login to my computer, and even make credit card payments.

There are others like me: The majority of employees at the Wisconsin tech company Three Square Market (or 32M) have RFID implants, too. Last summer, with the help of Andy “Gonzo” Whitehead, a local body piercer with 17 years of experience, the company hosted a “chipping party” for employees who’d volunteered to test the technology in the workplace.

“We first presented the concept of being chipped to the employees, thinking we might get a few people interested,” CEO [Chief Executive Officer] Todd Westby, who has implants in both hands, told me. “Literally out of the box, we had 40 people out of close to 90 that were here that said, within 10 minutes, ‘I would like to be chipped.’”

Westby’s left hand can get him into the office, make phone calls, and stores his living will and drivers license information, while the chip in his right hand is using for testing new applications. (The CEO’s entire family is chipped, too.) Other employees said they have bitcoin wallets and photos stored on their devices.

The legendary Gonzo Whitehead was waiting for me when I arrived at Three Square Market HQ, located in quiet River Falls, 40 minutes east of Minneapolis. The minutes leading up to the big moment were a bit nervy, after seeing the size of the needle (it’s huge), but the experience was easier than I could have imagined. The RFID chip is the size of a grain of basmati rice, but the pain wasn’t so bad–comparable to a bee sting, and maybe less so. I experienced a bit of bruising afterward (no bleeding), and today the last remaining mark of trauma is a tiny, fading scar between my thumb and index finger. Unless you were looking for it, the chip resting under my skin is invisible.

Truth is, the applications for RFID implants are pretty cool. But right now, they’re also limited. Without a near-field communication (NFC) writer/reader, which powers on a “passive” RFID chip to write and read information to the device’s memory, an implant isn’t of much use. But that’s mostly a hardware issue. As NFC technology becomes available, which is increasingly everywhere thanks to Samsung Pay and Apple Pay and new contactless “tap-and-go” credit cards, the possibilities become limitless. [emphasis mine]

Health and privacy?

Townsend does cover a few possible downsides to the ‘limitless possibilities’ offered by RFID’s combined with NFC technology,

From a health perspective, the RFID implants are biologically safe–not so different from birth control implants [emphasis mine]. [US Food and Drug Administration] FDA-sanctioned for use in humans since 2004, the chips neither trigger metal detectors nor disrupt [magnetic resonance imaging] MRIs, and their glass casings hold up to pressure testing, whether that’s being dropped from a rooftop or being run over by a pickup truck.

The privacy side of things is a bit more complicated, but the undeniable reality is that privacy isn’t as prized as we’d like to think [emphasis mine]. It’s already a regular concession to convenience.

“Your information’s for sale every day,” McMullen [Patrick McMullen, president, Three Square Market] says. “Thirty-four billion avenues exist for your information to travel down every single day, whether you’re checking Facebook, checking out at the supermarket, driving your car . . . your information’s everywhere.

Townsend may not be fully up-to-date on the subject of birth control implants. I think ‘safeish’ might be a better description in light of this news of almost two years ago (from a March 1, 2016 news item on CBS [Columbia Broadcasting Service] News [online]), Note: Links have been removed,

[US] Federal health regulators plan to warn consumers more strongly about Essure, a contraceptive implant that has drawn thousands of complaints from women reporting chronic pain, bleeding and other health problems.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Monday it would add a boxed warning — its most serious type — to alert doctors and patients to problems reported with the nickel-titanium implant.

But the FDA stopped short of removing the device from the market, a step favored by many women who have petitioned the agency in the last year. Instead, the agency is requiring manufacturer Bayer to conduct studies of the device to further assess its risks in different groups of women.

The FDA is requiring Bayer to conduct a study of 2,000 patients comparing problems like unplanned pregnancy and pelvic pain between patients getting Essure and those receiving traditional “tube tying” surgery. Agency officials said they have reviewed more than 600 reports of women becoming pregnant after receiving Essure. Women are supposed to get a test after three months to make sure Essure is working appropriately, but the agency noted some women do not follow-up for the test.

FDA officials acknowledged the proposed study would take years to complete, but said Bayer would be expected to submit interim results by mid-2017.

According to a Sept. 25, 2017 article by Kerri O’Brien for WRIC.com, Bayer had suspended sales of their device in all countries except the US,

Bayer, the manufacturer of Essure, has announced it’s halting sales of Essure in all countries outside of the U.S. In a statement, Bayer told 8News it’s due to a lack of interest in the product outside of the U.S.

“Bayer made a commercial decision this Spring to discontinue the distribution of Essure® outside of the U.S. where there is not as much patient interest in permanent birth control,” the statement read.

The move also comes after the European Union suspended sales of the device. The suspension was prompted by the National Standards Authority of Ireland declining to renew Essure’s CE marketing. “CE,” according to the European Commission website signifies products sold in the EEA that has been assessed to meet “high safety, health, and environmental protection requirements.”

These excerpts are about the Essure birth control implant. Perhaps others are safer? That noted, it does seem that Townsend was a bit dismissive of safety concerns.

As for privacy, he does investigate further to discover this,

As technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, the methods to break it also evolve and get more sophisticated, says D.C.-based privacy expert Michelle De Mooy. Even so, McMullen believes that our personal information is safer in our hand than in our wallets. He  says the smartphone you touch 2,500 times a day does 100 times more reporting of data than does an RFID implant, plus the chip can save you from pickpockets and avoid credit card skimmers altogether.

Well, the first sentence suggests some caution. As for De Mooy, there’s this from her profile page on the Center for Democracy and Technology website (Note: A link has been removed),

Michelle De Mooy is Director of the Privacy & Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology. She advocates for data privacy rights and protections in legislation and regulation, works closely with industry and other stakeholders to investigate good data practices and controls, as well as identifying and researching emerging technology that impacts personal privacy. She leads CDT’s health privacy work, chairing the Health Privacy Working Group and focusing on the intersection between individual privacy, health information and technology. Michelle’s current research is focused on ethical and privacy-aware internal research and development in wearables, the application of data analytics to health information found on non-traditional platforms, like social media, and the growing market for genetic data. She has testified before Congress on health policy, spoken about native advertising at the Federal Trade Commission, and written about employee wellness programs for US News & World Report’s “Policy Dose” blog. Michelle is a frequent media contributor, appearing in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Vice, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as on The Today Show, Voice of America, and Government Matters TV programs.

Ethics anyone?

Townsend does raise some ethical issues (Note: A link has been removed),

… Word from CEO Todd Westby is that parents in Wisconsin have been asking whether (and when) they can have their children implanted with GPS-enabled devices (which, incidentally, is the subject of the “Arkangel” episode in the new season of Black Mirror [US television programme]). But that, of course, raises ethical questions: What if a kid refused to be chipped? What if they never knew?

Final comments on implanted RFID chips and bodyhacking

It doesn’t seem that implantable chips have changed much since I first wrote about them in a May 27, 2010 posting titled: Researcher infects self with virus.  In that instance, Dr Mark Gasson, a researcher at the University of Reading. introduced a virus into a computer chip implanted in his body.

Of course since 2010, there are additional implantable items such as computer chips and more making their way into our bodies and it doesn’t seem to be much public discussion (other than in popular culture) about the implications.

Presumably, there are policy makers tracking these developments. I have to wonder if the technology gurus will continue to tout these technologies as already here or having made such inroads that we (the public) are presented with a fait accompli with the policy makers following behind.

Hedy Lamarr documentary

It was the tech community which brought Hedy Lamarr’s scientific and technical accomplishments to light in the 1990s. The movie actress was better known for other aspects of her work and life.

She was the first actress to portray an orgasm on screen, the movie was Ecstasy (in English), the year was 1933; and, Hedy Lamarr was 18 years-old. Shortly after the film was released, Lamarr, of Jewish descent, married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian with ties to fascist regimes led by Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. A controlling and jealous man, she eventually escaped Mandl in the middle of the night with all the jewels she could pack on her person.

That’s just the prelude for a documentary celebrating the extraordinary Lamarr. ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ (directed and written by Alexandra Dean) has been making its way around the festival circuit for the last several months. I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October 2017 and the house was packed.

(If you missed it on the festival circuit, don’t worry. It’s being broadcast by most, if not all PBS stations, on May 18, 2018 as part of the American Masters series.)

*ETA video clips May 18, 2018 at 0945 hours PDT*

Over the last few decades there’s been a major reevaluation of Lamarr’s place in history. She was dangerous not just for her beauty (bombshell) but also in the way that people who aren’t easily categorized are always dangerous.

Before she did her ground-breaking work as an inventor and after her dramatic middle-of-the-night escape, Lamarr made her way to London* where she sought out Louis B. Mayer in 1937 and turned down his offer of a contract at MGM. Not enough money. Instead, she booked passage n a ship bound for New York City which was also carrying Louis B. Mayer and his wife. By the time they landed, Lamarr had gotten a contract that she was happy with and a brand-new name. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler effectively became Hedy Lamarr for the rest of her life.

Lamarr’s famous quote: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” provides an interesting juxtaposition with her role (along with avant-garde musician and composer George Antheil) in developing a technology that laid the basis for secure Wi-Fi, GPS (global positioning system), and Bluetooth. Or as some of us think of it, life in the 21st century.

She claimed to have advised Howard Hughes on the design for the of his airplanes; she was inspired by the wings on birds and fins on fish. She created a tablet that when reconstituted with water became a carbonated drink (according to Lamarr, it was not very tasty). There was also her influence in the field of plastic surgery. Those incisions that are in hard-to-see places? That was at Hedy Lamarr’s suggestion.

Her inventions spanned electrical engineering (telecommunications), bio-inspired engineering and physics (airplane wings), chemistry (the drink tablets), and plastic surgery. That’s an extraordinary range and there’s more. She created her own movie production company in 1945/46* (it was a failure) and was instrumental in designing a resort (she was never fairly recompensed for that).

She suffered throughout her life in various ways.The US government shafted her and George Antheil by politely refusing their invention in 1942. To be fair, it would have been difficult to use with the technology available at the time but somebody must have recognized its potential. At some point in the 1950s the US Navy developed the technology (without informing either inventor or compensating them as had been their deal).

There was more, her achievements were ignored or, worse, attributed to anyone except her the better part of her life; the Hollywood factory is not kind to older actresses, especially those of Lamarr’s generation; and she made serious mistakes.

Ironically, one of those mistakes involved plastic surgery. It’s hard to know what the effect will be on television but in the movie house, there was a big gasp when some footage from her last years was shown. She’s not monstrous but after an hour or more of footage from her ‘glamorous’ years, it’s a bit of a shock. If you can see past the effects of some ‘bad’ plastic surgery, you’ll find a woman who despite everything kept on. She never gave up and there’s a kind of beauty in that act which is indelible in a way that her physical beauty could never hope to be.

The documentary is fascinating not only for what it includes but for what it doesn’t. You’d think she’d never had a woman friend in her life but according to J. E. Smyth’s 2018 book ‘Nobody’s Girl Friday; The Women Who Ran Hollywood’, she and Bette Davis were good friends. There’s also mention of her poverty but none of her late life litigiousness and the $3M estate she left when she died in 2000.*** At a guess, having learned from the debacle with the US Navy (she could have sued but didn’t realize she had the right), she litigated her way into some financial health. As for the ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ movements which have formed since the Hollywood sex scandals of 2017 – ????, one can only imagine what Lamarr’s stories might have been.

If you have the time, see the documentary. Lamarr was a helluva dame.

*’Paris’ corrected to ‘London’ and ‘1945’ changed to 1945/46′ on on May 21, 2018 after watching the PBS broadcast of the documentary on May 18, 2018.

.***ETA May 21, 2018: See the Hedy Lamarr Wikipedia entry for more about her estate and other details of her life.***

CRISPR-Cas12a as a new diagnostic tool

Similar to Cas9, Cas12a is has an added feature as noted in this February 15, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Utilizing an unsuspected activity of the CRISPR-Cas12a protein, researchers created a simple diagnostic system called DETECTR to analyze cells, blood, saliva, urine and stool to detect genetic mutations, cancer and antibiotic resistance and also diagnose bacterial and viral infections. The scientists discovered that when Cas12a binds its double-stranded DNA target, it indiscriminately chews up all single-stranded DNA. They then created reporter molecules attached to single-stranded DNA to signal when Cas12a finds its target.

A February 15, 2018 University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) news release by Robert Sanders and which originated the news item, provides more detail and history,

CRISPR-Cas12a, one of the DNA-cutting proteins revolutionizing biology today, has an unexpected side effect that makes it an ideal enzyme for simple, rapid and accurate disease diagnostics.

blood in test tube

(iStock)

Cas12a, discovered in 2015 and originally called Cpf1, is like the well-known Cas9 protein that UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier turned into a powerful gene-editing tool in 2012.

CRISPR-Cas9 has supercharged biological research in a mere six years, speeding up exploration of the causes of disease and sparking many potential new therapies. Cas12a was a major addition to the gene-cutting toolbox, able to cut double-stranded DNA at places that Cas9 can’t, and, because it leaves ragged edges, perhaps easier to use when inserting a new gene at the DNA cut.

But co-first authors Janice Chen, Enbo Ma and Lucas Harrington in Doudna’s lab discovered that when Cas12a binds and cuts a targeted double-stranded DNA sequence, it unexpectedly unleashes indiscriminate cutting of all single-stranded DNA in a test tube.

Most of the DNA in a cell is in the form of a double-stranded helix, so this is not necessarily a problem for gene-editing applications. But it does allow researchers to use a single-stranded “reporter” molecule with the CRISPR-Cas12a protein, which produces an unambiguous fluorescent signal when Cas12a has found its target.

“We continue to be fascinated by the functions of bacterial CRISPR systems and how mechanistic understanding leads to opportunities for new technologies,” said Doudna, a professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

DETECTR diagnostics

The new DETECTR system based on CRISPR-Cas12a can analyze cells, blood, saliva, urine and stool to detect genetic mutations, cancer and antibiotic resistance as well as diagnose bacterial and viral infections. Target DNA is amplified by RPA to make it easier for Cas12a to find it and bind, unleashing indiscriminate cutting of single-stranded DNA, including DNA attached to a fluorescent marker (gold star) that tells researchers that Cas12a has found its target.

The UC Berkeley researchers, along with their colleagues at UC San Francisco, will publish their findings Feb. 15 [2018] via the journal Science’s fast-track service, First Release.

The researchers developed a diagnostic system they dubbed the DNA Endonuclease Targeted CRISPR Trans Reporter, or DETECTR, for quick and easy point-of-care detection of even small amounts of DNA in clinical samples. It involves adding all reagents in a single reaction: CRISPR-Cas12a and its RNA targeting sequence (guide RNA), fluorescent reporter molecule and an isothermal amplification system called recombinase polymerase amplification (RPA), which is similar to polymerase chain reaction (PCR). When warmed to body temperature, RPA rapidly multiplies the number of copies of the target DNA, boosting the chances Cas12a will find one of them, bind and unleash single-strand DNA cutting, resulting in a fluorescent readout.

The UC Berkeley researchers tested this strategy using patient samples containing human papilloma virus (HPV), in collaboration with Joel Palefsky’s lab at UC San Francisco. Using DETECTR, they were able to demonstrate accurate detection of the “high-risk” HPV types 16 and 18 in samples infected with many different HPV types.

“This protein works as a robust tool to detect DNA from a variety of sources,” Chen said. “We want to push the limits of the technology, which is potentially applicable in any point-of-care diagnostic situation where there is a DNA component, including cancer and infectious disease.”

The indiscriminate cutting of all single-stranded DNA, which the researchers discovered holds true for all related Cas12 molecules, but not Cas9, may have unwanted effects in genome editing applications, but more research is needed on this topic, Chen said. During the transcription of genes, for example, the cell briefly creates single strands of DNA that could accidentally be cut by Cas12a.

The activity of the Cas12 proteins is similar to that of another family of CRISPR enzymes, Cas13a, which chew up RNA after binding to a target RNA sequence. Various teams, including Doudna’s, are developing diagnostic tests using Cas13a that could, for example, detect the RNA genome of HIV.

infographic about DETECTR system

(Infographic by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

These new tools have been repurposed from their original role in microbes where they serve as adaptive immune systems to fend off viral infections. In these bacteria, Cas proteins store records of past infections and use these “memories” to identify harmful DNA during infections. Cas12a, the protein used in this study, then cuts the invading DNA, saving the bacteria from being taken over by the virus.

The chance discovery of Cas12a’s unusual behavior highlights the importance of basic research, Chen said, since it came from a basic curiosity about the mechanism Cas12a uses to cleave double-stranded DNA.

“It’s cool that, by going after the question of the cleavage mechanism of this protein, we uncovered what we think is a very powerful technology useful in an array of applications,” Chen said.

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

CRISPR-Cas12a target binding unleashes indiscriminate single-stranded DNase activity by Janice S. Chen, Enbo Ma, Lucas B. Harrington, Maria Da Costa, Xinran Tian, Joel M. Palefsky, Jennifer A. Doudna. Science 15 Feb 2018: eaar6245 DOI: 10.1126/science.aar6245

This paper is behind a paywall.

May 16, 2018: UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) First International Day of Light

Courtesy: UNESCO

From a May 11, 2018 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) press release (received via email),

UNESCO will welcome leading scientists on 16 May 2018 for the 1st edition of the International Day of Light (02:30-08:00 pm) to celebrate the role light plays in our daily lives. Researchers and intellectuals will examine how light-based technologies can contribute to meet pressing challenges in diverse areas, such as medicine, education, agriculture and energy.

            UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay will open this event, which will count with the participation of renowned scientists, including:

  • Kip Thorne, 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, California Institute of Technology (United States of America).
  • Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, Collège de France.
  • Khaled Toukan, Director of the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) based in Allan, Jordan.

The programme of keynotes and roundtables will address many key issues including science policy, our perception of the universe, and international cooperation, through contributions from experts and scientists from around the world.

The programme also includes cultural events, an illumination of UNESCO Headquarters, a photonics science show and an exhibit on the advances of light-based technologies and art.

            The debates that flourished in 2015, in the framework of the International Year of Light, highlighted the importance of light sciences and light-based technologies in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Several thousand events were held in 147 countries during the Year placed under the auspices of UNESCO.  

The proclamation of 16 May as the International Day of Light was supported by UNESCO’s Executive Board following a proposal by Ghana, Mexico, New Zealand and the Russian Federation, and approved by the UNESCO General Conference in November 2017.

More information:

I have taken a look at the programme which is pretty interesting. Unfortunately, I can’t excerpt parts of it for inclusion here as very odd things happen when I attempt to ‘copy and paste’. On the plus side. there’s a bit more information about this ‘new day’ on its event page,

Light plays a central role in our lives. On the most fundamental level, through photosynthesis, light is at the origin of life itself. The study of light has led to promising alternative energy sources, lifesaving medical advances in diagnostics technology and treatments, light-speed internet and many other discoveries that have revolutionized society and shaped our understanding of the universe. These technologies were developed through centuries of fundamental research on the properties of light – starting with Ibn Al-Haytham’s seminal work, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), published in 1015 and including Einstein’s work at the beginning of the 20th century, which changed the way we think about time and light.

The International Day of Light celebrates the role light plays in science, culture and art, education, and sustainable development, and in fields as diverse as medicine, communications, and energy. The will allow many different sectors of society worldwide to participate in activities that demonstrates how science, technology, art and culture can help achieve the goals of UNESCO – building the foundation for peaceful societies.

The International Day of Light is celebrated on 16 May each year, the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer, Theodore Maiman. This day is a call to strengthen scientific cooperation and harness its potential to foster peace and sustainable development.

Happy International Day of Light on Wednesday, May 16, 2018!

“Living” bandages made from biocompatible anti-burn nanofibers

A February 16, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces research from a Russian team about their work on “living” bandages,

In regenerative medicine, and particularly in burn therapy, the effective regeneration of damaged skin tissue and the prevention of scarring are usually the main goals. Scars form when skin is badly damaged, whether through a cut, burn, or a skin problem such as acne or fungal infection.

Scar tissue mainly consists of irreversible collagen and significantly differs from the tissue it replaces, having reduced functional properties. For example, scars on skin are more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, are not elastic, and the sweat glands and hair follicles are not restored in the area.

The solution of this medical problem was proposed by the researchers from the NUST MISIS [National University of Science and Technology {formerly Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys State Technological University})] Inorganic Nanomaterials Laboratory, led by PhD Anton Manakhov, a senior researcher. The team of nanotechnology scientists has managed to create multi-layer ‘bandages’ made of biodegradable fibers and multifunctional bioactive nanofilms, which [the bandages] prevent scarring and accelerate tissue regeneration.

A February 14, 2018 NUST MISIS press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The addition of the antibacterial effect by the introduction of silver nanoparticles or joining antibiotics, as well as the increase of biological activity to the surface of hydrophilic groups (-COOH) and the blood plasma proteins have provided unique healing properties to the material.

A significant acceleration of the healing process, the successful regeneration of normal skin covering tissue, and the prevention of scarring on the site of burnt or damaged skin have been observed when applying these bandages made of the developed material to an injured area. The antibacterial components of multifunctional nanofibers decrease inflammation, and the blood plasma with an increased platelet level — vital and multi-purposed for every element in the healing process — stimulates the regeneration of tissues. The bandages should not be removed or changed during treatment as it may cause additional pain to the patient. After a certain period of time, the biodegradable fiber simply “dissolves” without any side effects.

“With the help of chemical bonds, we were able to create a stable layer containing blood plasma components (growth factors, fibrinogens, and other important proteins that promote cell growth) on a polycaprolactone base. The base fibers were synthesized by electroforming. Then, with the help of plasma treatment, to increase the material`s hydrophilic properties, a polymer layer containing carboxyl groups was applied to the surface. The resulting layer was enriched with antibacterial and protein components”, noted Elizabeth Permyakova, one of the project members and laboratory scientists.

The researchers have made images of their work available including this one,

Courtesy NUST MISS [downloaded from http://en.misis.ru/university/news/science/2018-02/5219/]

There is doesn’t appear to be an accompanying published paper.

Tractor beams for artificial cells

This particular piece has videos of cells moving around. I won’t be including all of them but they are weirdly fascinating. First, a May 14, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces the latest in tractor beam news from the Imperial College London (ICL; UK),

Researchers have used lasers to connect, arrange and merge artificial cells, paving the way for networks of artificial cells that act like tissues.

The team say that by altering artificial cell membranes they can now get the cells to stick together like ‘stickle bricks’ – allowing them to be arranged into whole new structures.

Biological cells can perform complex functions, but are difficult to controllably engineer.

Artificial cells, however, can in principle be made to order. Now, researchers from Imperial College London and Loughborough University have demonstrated a new level of complexity with artificial cells by arranging them into basic tissue structures with different types of connectivity.

These structures could be used to perform functions like initiating chemical reactions or moving chemicals around networks of artificial and biological cells. This could be useful in carrying out chemical reactions in ultra-small volumes, in studying the mechanisms through which cells communicate with one another, and in the development of a new generation of smart biomaterials.

A May 14, 2018 ICL press release by Hayley Dunning , which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Cells are the basic units of biology, which are capable of working together as a collective when arranged into tissues. In order to do this, cells must be connected and be capable of exchanging materials with one another.

The team were able to link up artificial cells into a range of new architectures, the results of which are published today in Nature Communications.

The artificial cells have a membrane-like layer as their shell, which the researchers engineered to ‘stick’ to each other. In order to get the cells to come close enough, the team first had to manipulate the cells with ‘optical tweezers’ that act like mini ‘tractor beams’ dragging and dropping cells into any position. Once connected in this way the cells can be moved as one unit.

Lead researcher Dr Yuval Elani, an EPSRC Research Fellow from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, said: “Artificial cell membranes usually bounce off each other like rubber balls. By altering the biophysics of the membranes in our cells, we got them instead to stick to each other like stickle bricks.

“With this, we were able to form networks of cells connected by ‘biojunctions’. By reinserting biological components such as proteins in the membrane, we could get the cells to communicate and exchange material with one another. This mimics what is seen in nature, so it’s a great step forward in creating biological-like artificial cell tissues.”

Building up complexity

The team were also able to engineer a ‘tether’ between two cells. Here the membranes are not stuck together, but a tendril of membrane material links them so that they can be moved together.

Once they had perfected the cell-sticking process, the team were able to build up more complex arrangements. These include lines of cells, 2D shapes like squares, and 3D shapes like pyramids. Once the cells are stuck together, they can be rearranged, and also pulled by the laser beam as an ensemble

Finally, the team were also able to connect two cells, and then make them merge into one larger cell. This was achieved by coating the membranes with gold nanoparticles.

When the laser beam at the heart of the ‘optical tweezer’ technology was concentrated at the junction between the two cells, the nanoparticles resonated, breaking the membranes at that point. The membrane then reforms as a whole.

Merging cells in this way allowed whatever chemicals they were carrying to mix within the new, larger cell, kicking off chemical reactions. This could be useful, for example, for delivering materials such as drugs into cells, and in changing the composition of cells in real time, getting them to adopt new functions.

Professor Oscar Ces, also from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial, said: “Connecting artificial cells together is a valuable technology in the wider toolkit we are assembling for creating these biological systems using bottom-up approaches.

“We can now start to scale up basic cell technologies into larger tissue-scale networks, with precise control over the kind of architecture we create.”

Here’s one of the videos that has been embedded with ICL press release,

You can see the whole series if you go to the May 14, 2018 ICL press release.

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

Sculpting and fusing biomimetic vesicle networks using optical tweezers by Guido Bolognesi, Mark S. Friddin, Ali Salehi-Reyhani, Nathan E. Barlow, Nicholas J. Brooks, Oscar Ces, & Yuval Elani. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 1882 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04282-w Published: 14 May 2018

This paper is open access.

Curiosity Collider event: May 16, 2018 and exhibit: June 8 – 22, 2018 in Vancouver (Canada)

I have two bits of news from the Curiosity Collider folks. One event is part of their regular Collider Cafe series and the other is a special event.

Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Chronicles.

From the Curiosity Collider May 16, 2018 event page,

Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Chronicles.

Map Unavailable

Date/Time
Date(s) – 16/05/2018
8:00 pm – 9:30 pm

Location
Café Deux Soleils

 

#ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science. Meet. Discover. Connect. Create.

Are you curious? Join us at “Collider Cafe: Art. Science. Chronicles.” to explore how art and science intersect in the exploration of curiosity.

  • Armin Mortazavi (science cartoonist): Scientooning Adventures
  • Cheryl Hamilton (conceptual artist): Image Analysis – inspirations from cancer research
  • Kayla Glynn (science communicator and researcher): True, Personal Stories About Science
  • Marlene Swidzinski (comedian, humorist, and technical writer/editor): Travelling at the Speed of Oy / That Joke Would Kill at a Physics Convention
  • Rachel Rozanski (artist): In Between Tides

The event starts promptly at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm). $5.00-10.00 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

Visit our Facebook page to let us know you are coming, and see event updates and speaker profiles.

Interstitial

This upcoming exhibit was first mentioned here in a March 27, 2018 posting in the context of a call for submissions. I’m glad to see they have moved onto the exhibit phase, from the Curiosity Collider ‘Interstitial’ event page,

Interstitial: Science Innovations by Canadian Women

Date/Time
Date(s) – 08/06/2018 – 22/06/2018
12:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Location
Beaumont Gallery

 

Interstitial: Science Innovations by Canadian Women is an exhibition with events in June 2018, showcasing 2D work by female artists featuring women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM, or STEAM when Arts is included). Our approach intends to challenge the public as to how they think of women in STEM. What does it take for a woman to be “in” with the science community?

The importance of storytelling, and using art in the dissemination of scientific information, has grown in the past few years. The Sci/Art and STEAM movements have rapidly gained momentum. Creative outlets are critical to sharing science and stories of science, and to connecting with people on an personal level. We are establishing new connections in the community, and presenting women in STEM through a different experience.

This exhibition and associated events are created by women, feature women, and highlight the achievements of women in STEM. We seek to encourage girls and young women to see themselves as eligible for the opportunities available in STEAM industries, to connect with them beyond what is written in the books or taught in school. We present women as capable participants within the STEAM community. It is important that as women, we tell our own stories, support, and celebrate each other.

This event is curated by Larissa Blokhuis, Exhibitions Director, Curiosity Collider.

Opening Night: June 8, 2018 from 7pm till late

Art+Science Workshops on June 9 / 16. More information to come.

Artists

Cheryl Hamilton (oil paint on wood panel)

Cheryl Hamilton is a conceptual artist with a penchant for visual ingenuity.  A stickler for perfection, Cheryl imbues her design work with a kineticism inspired by her education as an animator at Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute.  Her recent training in the techniques of glass blowing at Alberta’s Red Deer College and Pilchuck Glass School coupled with her metal-working expertise now enable her to animate light and colour within her monumental steel structures.  Cheryl also draws and paints and exhibits internationally. Her goal as an artist is to render an accessible beauty that withstands the test of time.

Ele Willoughby (linocut prints (water based inks) on Japanese paper)

Artist Ele Willoughby is a modern Renaissance woman.  After pursuing her doctorate in physics, she built her portfolio while working as an ocean-going marine geophysicist by day and printmaker by night.  Her hand-pulled block prints reflect her love of science and the natural world with a hint of humour and whimsy. Many of her works focus on the history of science and scientists.  She also makes interactive multimedia work, incorporating colour-changing or electrically conductive inks and electronics, which straddle the art/science divide. She lives and works in Toronto with her husband, and young son.

Paige Blumer (digital painting with photoshop printed on canvas)

Paige was born in Montreal Quebec where she had a competing passion for art and science.  She chose to pursue science and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. Upon graduation, she decided to follow her yearning to pursue art, specifically cartoons, and applied to the Art Fundamentals program at Sheridan College in Ontario.  It was there that she developed a love for illustration. A professor told her that there were five specialized graduate programs in North America where she could combine her art skills with her passion for health and the human body. It took three years for her to polish her portfolio and finally get accepted into the Biomedical Visualization program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In Chicago, she learned how to visually represent health and scientific concepts through traditional, digital, and technical media. She get to use these skills everyday at the University of British Columbia where she is a Biomedical Visualization Specialist in the Faculty of Medicine.  She loves telling the stories of the human body at a physiological level and this affinity is inspiring me to write a graphic novel about the life of two red blood cells.

Acknowledgement

We would like to thank eng.cite and WWEST for their generous support for this exhibition and associated events.

There you have it.

AI (artificial intelligence) for Good Global Summit from May 15 – 17, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland: details and an interview with Frederic Werner

With all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI), a lot more attention seems to be paid to apocalyptic scenarios: loss of jobs, financial hardship, loss of personal agency and privacy, and more with all of these impacts being described as global. Still, there are some folks who are considering and working on ‘AI for good’.

If you’d asked me, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would not have been my first guess (my choice would have been United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]) as an agency likely to host the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit. But, it turns out the ITU is a UN (United Nations agency) and, according to its Wikipedia entry, it’s an intergovernmental public-private partnership, which may explain the nature of the participants in the upcoming summit.

The news

First, there’s a May 4, 2018 ITU media advisory (received via email or you can find the full media advisory here) about the upcoming summit,

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now widely identified as being able to address the greatest challenges facing humanity – supporting innovation in fields ranging from crisis management and healthcare to smart cities and communications networking.

The second annual ‘AI for Good Global Summit’ will take place 15-17 May [2018] in Geneva, and seeks to leverage AI to accelerate progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately benefit humanity.

WHAT: Global event to advance ‘AI for Good’ with the participation of internationally recognized AI experts. The programme will include interactive high-level panels, while ‘AI Breakthrough Teams’ will propose AI strategies able to create impact in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society – through interactive sessions. The summit will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

A special demo & exhibit track will feature innovative applications of AI designed to: protect women from sexual violence, avoid infant crib deaths, end child abuse, predict oral cancer, and improve mental health treatments for depression – as well as interactive robots including: Alice, a Dutch invention designed to support the aged; iCub, an open-source robot; and Sophia, the humanoid AI robot.

WHEN: 15-17 May 2018, beginning daily at 9 AM

WHERE: ITU Headquarters, 2 Rue de Varembé, Geneva, Switzerland (Please note: entrance to ITU is now limited for all visitors to the Montbrillant building entrance only on rue Varembé).

WHO: Confirmed participants to date include expert representatives from: Association for Computing Machinery, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Consumer Trade Association, Facebook, Fraunhofer, Google, Harvard University, IBM Watson, IEEE, Intellectual Ventures, ITU, Microsoft, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Partnership on AI, Planet Labs, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, University of California at Berkeley, University of Tokyo, XPRIZE Foundation, Yale University – and the participation of “Sophia” the humanoid robot and “iCub” the EU open source robotcub.

The interview

Frederic Werner, Senior Communications Officer at the International Telecommunication Union and and one of the organizers of the AI for Good Global Summit 2018 kindly took the time to speak to me and provide a few more details about the upcoming event.

Werner noted that the 2018 event grew out of a much smaller 2017 ‘workshop’ and first of its kind, about beneficial AI which this year has ballooned in size to 91 countries (about 15 participants are expected from Canada), 32 UN agencies, and substantive representation from the private sector. The 2017 event featured Dr. Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal  (Université de Montréal) was a featured speaker.

“This year, we’re focused on action-oriented projects that will help us reach our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. We’re looking at near-term practical AI applications,” says Werner. “We’re matchmaking problem-owners and solution-owners.”

Academics, industry professionals, government officials, and representatives from UN agencies are gathering  to work on four tracks/themes:

In advance of this meeting, the group launched an AI repository (an action item from the 2017 meeting) on April 25, 2018 inviting people to list their AI projects (from the ITU’s April 25, 2018? AI repository news announcement),

ITU has just launched an AI Repository where anyone working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) can contribute key information about how to leverage AI to help solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

This is the only global repository that identifies AI-related projects, research initiatives, think-tanks and organizations that aim to accelerate progress on the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To submit a project, just press ‘Submit’ on the AI Repository site and fill in the online questionnaire, providing all relevant details of your project. You will also be asked to map your project to the relevant World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) action lines and the SDGs. Approved projects will be officially registered in the repository database.

Benefits of participation on the AI Repository include:

WSIS Prizes recognize individuals, governments, civil society, local, regional and international agencies, research institutions and private-sector companies for outstanding success in implementing development oriented strategies that leverage the power of AI and ICTs.

Creating the AI Repository was one of the action items of last year’s AI for Good Global Summit.

We are looking forward to your submissions.

If you have any questions, please send an email to: ai@itu.int

“Your project won’t be visible immediately as we have to vet the submissions to weed out spam-type material and projects that are not in line with our goals,” says Werner. That said, there are already 29 projects in the repository. As you might expect, the UK, China, and US are in the repository but also represented are Egypt, Uganda, Belarus, Serbia, Peru, Italy, and other countries not commonly cited when discussing AI research.

Werner also pointed out in response to my surprise over the ITU’s role with regard to this AI initiative that the ITU is the only UN agency which has 192* member states (countries), 150 universities, and over 700 industry members as well as other member entities, which gives them tremendous breadth of reach. As well, the organization, founded originally in 1865 as the International Telegraph Convention, has extensive experience with global standardization in the information technology and telecommunications industries. (See more in their Wikipedia entry.)

Finally

There is a bit more about the summit on the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage,

The 2nd edition of the AI for Good Global Summit will be organized by ITU in Geneva on 15-17 May 2018, in partnership with XPRIZE Foundation, the global leader in incentivized prize competitions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and sister United Nations agencies including UNESCO, UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNIDO, Global Pulse, UNICRI, UNODA, UNIDIR, UNODC, WFP, IFAD, UNAIDS, WIPO, ILO, UNITAR, UNOPS, OHCHR, UN UniversityWHO, UNEP, ICAO, UNDP, The World Bank, UN DESA, CTBTOUNISDRUNOG, UNOOSAUNFPAUNECE, UNDPA, and UNHCR.

The AI for Good series is the leading United Nations platform for dialogue on AI. The action​​-oriented 2018 summit will identify practical applications of AI and supporting strategies to improve the quality and sustainability of life on our planet. The summit will continue to formulate strategies to ensure trusted, safe and inclusive development of AI technologies and equitable access to their benefits.

While the 2017 summit sparked the first ever inclusive global dialogue on beneficial AI, the action-oriented 2018 summit will focus on impactful AI solutions able to yield long-term benefits and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. ‘Breakthrough teams’ will demonstrate the potential of AI to map poverty and aid with natural disasters using satellite imagery, how AI could assist the delivery of citizen-centric services in smart cities, and new opportunities for AI to help achieve Universal Health Coverage, and finally to help achieve transparency and explainability in AI algorithms.

Teams will propose impactful AI strategies able to be enacted in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society. Strategies will be evaluated by the mentors according to their feasibility and scalability, potential to address truly global challenges, degree of supporting advocacy, and applicability to market failures beyond the scope of government and industry. The exercise will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

“As the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies, ITU is well placed to guide AI innovation towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development ​Goals. We are providing a neutral close quotation markplatform for international dialogue aimed at ​building a ​common understanding of the capabilities of emerging AI technologies.​​” Houlin Zhao, Secretary General ​of ITU​

Should you be close to Geneva, it seems that registration is still open. Just go to the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage, scroll the page down to ‘Documentation’ and you will find a link to the invitation and a link to online registration. Participation is free but I expect that you are responsible for your travel and accommodation costs.

For anyone unable to attend in person, the summit will be livestreamed (webcast in real time) and you can watch the sessions by following the link below,

https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-T/AI/2018/Pages/webcast.aspx

For those of us on the West Coast of Canada and other parts distant to Geneva, you will want to take the nine hour difference between Geneva (Switzerland) and here into account when viewing the proceedings. If you can’t manage the time difference, the sessions are being recorded and will be posted at a later date.

*’132 member states’ corrected to ‘192 member states’ on May 11, 2018 at 1500 hours PDT.

Socially responsible AI—it’s time says University of Manchester (UK) researchers

A May 10, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily describes a report on the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ being released by the University of Manchester,

The development of new Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is often subject to bias, and the resulting systems can be discriminatory, meaning more should be done by policymakers to ensure its development is democratic and socially responsible.

This is according to Dr Barbara Ribeiro of Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at The University of Manchester, in On AI and Robotics: Developing policy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a new policy report on the role of AI and Robotics in society, being published today [May 10, 2018].

Interestingly, the US White House is hosting a summit on AI today, May 10, 2018, according to a May 8, 2018 article by Danny Crichton for TechCrunch (Note: Links have been removed),

Now, it appears the White House itself is getting involved in bringing together key American stakeholders to discuss AI and those opportunities and challenges. …

Among the confirmed guests are Facebook’s Jerome Pesenti, Amazon’s Rohit Prasad, and Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich. While the event has many tech companies present, a total of 38 companies are expected to be in attendance including United Airlines and Ford.

AI policy has been top-of-mind for many policymakers around the world. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a comprehensive national AI strategy, as has Canada, which has put together a research fund and a set of programs to attempt to build on the success of notable local AI researchers such as University of Toronto professor George Hinton, who is a major figure in deep learning.

But it is China that has increasingly drawn the attention and concern of U.S. policymakers. The country and its venture capitalists are outlaying billions of dollars to invest in the AI industry, and it has made leading in artificial intelligence one of the nation’s top priorities through its Made in China 2025 program and other reports. …

In comparison, the United States has been remarkably uncoordinated when it comes to AI. …

That lack of engagement from policymakers has been fine — after all, the United States is the world leader in AI research. But with other nations pouring resources and talent into the space, DC policymakers are worried that the U.S. could suddenly find itself behind the frontier of research in the space, with particular repercussions for the defense industry.

Interesting contrast: do we take time to consider the implications or do we engage in a race?

While it’s becoming fashionable to dismiss dichotomous questions of this nature, the two approaches (competition and reflection) are not that compatible and it does seem to be an either/or proposition.

A May 10, 2018 University of Manchester press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of responsibility and AI,

Dr Ribeiro adds because investment into AI will essentially be paid for by tax-payers in the long-term, policymakers need to make sure that the benefits of such technologies are fairly distributed throughout society.

She says: “Ensuring social justice in AI development is essential. AI technologies rely on big data and the use of algorithms, which influence decision-making in public life and on matters such as social welfare, public safety and urban planning.”

“In these ‘data-driven’ decision-making processes some social groups may be excluded, either because they lack access to devices necessary to participate or because the selected datasets do not consider the needs, preferences and interests of marginalised and disadvantaged people.”

On AI and Robotics: Developing policy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a comprehensive report written, developed and published by Policy@Manchester with leading experts and academics from across the University.

The publication is designed to help employers, regulators and policymakers understand the potential effects of AI in areas such as industry, healthcare, research and international policy.

However, the report doesn’t just focus on AI. It also looks at robotics, explaining the differences and similarities between the two separate areas of research and development (R&D) and the challenges policymakers face with each.

Professor Anna Scaife, Co-Director of the University’s Policy@Manchester team, explains: “Although the challenges that companies and policymakers are facing with respect to AI and robotic systems are similar in many ways, these are two entirely separate technologies – something which is often misunderstood, not just by the general public, but policymakers and employers too. This is something that has to be addressed.”

One particular area the report highlights where robotics can have a positive impact is in the world of hazardous working environments, such a nuclear decommissioning and clean-up.

Professor Barry Lennox, Professor of Applied Control and Head of the UOM Robotics Group, adds: “The transfer of robotics technology into industry, and in particular the nuclear industry, requires cultural and societal changes as well as technological advances.

“It is really important that regulators are aware of what robotic technology is and is not capable of doing today, as well as understanding what the technology might be capable of doing over the next -5 years.”

The report also highlights the importance of big data and AI in healthcare, for example in the fight against antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Lord Jim O’Neill, Honorary Professor of Economics at The University of Manchester and Chair of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance explains: “An important example of this is the international effort to limit the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The AMR Review gave 27 specific recommendations covering 10 broad areas, which became known as the ‘10 Commandments’.

“All 10 are necessary, and none are sufficient on their own, but if there is one that I find myself increasingly believing is a permanent game-changer, it is state of the art diagnostics. We need a ‘Google for doctors’ to reduce the rate of over prescription.”

The versatile nature of AI and robotics is leading many experts to predict that the technologies will have a significant impact on a wide variety of fields in the coming years. Policy@Manchester hopes that the On AI and Robotics report will contribute to helping policymakers, industry stakeholders and regulators better understand the range of issues they will face as the technologies play ever greater roles in our everyday lives.

As far as I can tell, the report has been designed for online viewing only. There are none of the markers (imprint date, publisher, etc.) that I expect to see on a print document. There is no bibliography or list of references but there are links to outside sources throughout the document.

It’s an interesting approach to publishing a report that calls for social justice, especially since the issue of ‘trust’ is increasingly being emphasized where all AI is concerned. With regard to this report, I’m not sure I can trust it. With a print document or a PDF I have markers. I can examine the index, the bibliography, etc. and determine if this material has covered the subject area with reference to well known authorities. It’s much harder to do that with this report. As well, this ‘souped up’ document also looks like it might be easy to change something without my knowledge. With a print or PDF version, I can compare the documents but not with this one.

The Royal Bank of Canada reports ‘Humans wanted’ and some thoughts on the future of work, robots, and artificial intelligence

It seems the Royal Bank of Canada ((RBC or Royal Bank) wants to weigh in and influence what is to come with regard to what new technologies will bring us and how they will affect our working lives.  (I will be offering my critiques of the whole thing.)

Launch yourself into the future (if you’re a youth)

“I’m not planning on being replaced by a robot.” That’s the first line of text you’ll see if you go to the Royal Bank of Canada’s new Future Launch web space and latest marketing campaign and investment.

This whole endeavour is aimed at ‘youth’ and represents a $500M investment. Of course, that money will be invested over a 10-year period which works out to $50M per year and doesn’t seem quite so munificent given how much money Canadian banks make (from a March 1, 2017 article by Don Pittis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] news website),

Yesterday [February 28, 2017] the Bank of Montreal [BMO] said it had made about $1.5 billion in three months.

That may be hard to put in context until you hear that it is an increase in profit of nearly 40 per cent from the same period last year and dramatically higher than stock watchers had been expecting.

Not all the banks have done as well as BMO this time. The Royal Bank’s profits were up 24 per cent at $3 billion. [emphasis mine] CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce] profits were up 13 per cent. TD [Toronto Dominion] releases its numbers tomorrow.

Those numbers would put the RBC on track to a profit of roughly $12B n 2017. This means  $500M represents approximately 4.5% of a single year’s profits which will be disbursed over a 10 year period which makes the investment work out to approximately .45% or less than 1/2 of one percent. Paradoxically, it’s a lot of money and it’s not that much money.

Advertising awareness

First, there was some advertising (in Vancouver at least),

[downloaded from http://flinflononline.com/local-news/356505]

You’ll notice she has what could be described as a ‘halo’. Is she an angel or, perhaps, she’s an RBC angel? After all, yellow and gold are closely associated as colours and RBC sports a partially yellow logo. As well, the model is wearing a blue denim jacket, RBC’s other logo colour.

Her ‘halo’ is intact but those bands of colour bend a bit and could be described as ‘rainbow-like’ bringing to mind ‘pots of gold’ at the end of the rainbow.  Free association is great fun and allows people to ascribe multiple and/or overlapping ideas and stories to the advertising. For example, people who might not approve of imagery that hearkens to religious art might have an easier time with rainbows and pots of gold. At any rate, none of the elements in images/ads are likely to be happy accidents or coincidence. They are intended to evoke certain associations, e.g., anyone associated with RBC will be blessed with riches.

The timing is deliberate, too, just before Easter 2018 (April 1), suggesting to some us, that even when the robots arrive destroying the past, youth will rise up (resurrection) for a new future. Or, if you prefer, Passover and its attendant themes of being spared and moving to the Promised Land.

Enough with the semiotic analysis and onto campaign details.

Humans Wanted: an RBC report

It seems the precursor to Future Launch, is an RBC report, ‘Humans Wanted’, which itself is the outcome of still earlier work such as this Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) report, Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work, March 2017 (authors: Creig Lamb and Sarah Doyle), which features a quote from RBC’s President and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) David McKay,

“Canada’s future prosperity and success will rely on us harnessing the innovation of our entire talent pool. A huge part of our success will depend on how well we integrate this next generation of Canadians into the workforce. Their confidence, optimism and inspiration could be the key to helping us reimagine traditional business models, products and ways of working.”  David McKay, President and CEO, RBC

There are a number of major trends that have the potential to shape the future of work, from climate change and resource scarcity to demographic shifts resulting from an aging population and immigration. This report focuses on the need to prepare Canada’s youth for a future where a great number of jobs will be rapidly created, altered or made obsolete by technology.

Successive waves of technological advancements have rocked global economies for centuries, reconfiguring the labour force and giving rise to new economic opportunities with each wave. Modern advances, including artificial intelligence and robotics, once again have the potential to transform the economy, perhaps more rapidly and more dramatically than ever before. As past pillars of Canada’s economic growth become less reliable, harnessing technology and innovation will become increasingly important in driving productivity and growth. 1, 2, 3

… (p. 2 print; p. 4 PDF)

The Brookfield Institute (at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) report is worth reading if for no other reason than its Endnotes. Unlike the RBC materials, you can find the source for the information in the Brookfield report.

After Brookfield, there was the RBC Future Launch Youth Forums 2017: What We Learned  document (October 13, 2017 according to ‘View Page Info’),

In this rapidly changing world, there’s a new reality when it comes to work. A degree or diploma no longer guarantees a job, and some of the positions, skills and trades of today won’t exist – or be relevant – in the future.

Through an unprecedented 10-year, $500 million commitment, RBC Future LaunchTM  is focused on driving real change and preparing today’s young people for the future world of work, helping them access the skills, job experience and networks that will enable their success.

At the beginning of this 10-year journey RBC® wanted to go beyond research and expert reports to better understand the regional issues facing youth across Canada and to hear directly from young people and organizations that work with them. From November 2016 to May 2017, the RBC Future Launch team held 15 youth forums across the country, bringing together over 430 partners, including young people, to uncover ideas and talk through solutions to address the workforce gaps Canada’s youth face today.

Finally,  a March 26, 2018 RBC news release announces the RBC report: ‘Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption’,

Automation to impact at least 50% of Canadian jobs in the next decade: RBC research

Human intelligence and intuition critical for young people and jobs of the future

  • Being ‘human’ will ensure resiliency in an era of disruption and artificial intelligence
  • Skills mobility – the ability to move from one job to another – will become a new competitive advantage

TORONTO, March 26, 2018 – A new RBC research paper, Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption, has revealed that 50% of Canadian jobs will be disrupted by automation in the next 10 years.

As a result of this disruption, Canada’s Gen Mobile – young people who are currently transitioning from education to employment – are unprepared for the rapidly changing workplace. With 4 million Canadian youth entering the workforce over the next decade, and the shift from a jobs economy to a skills economy, the research indicates young people will need a portfolio of “human skills” to remain competitive and resilient in the labour market.

“Canada is at a historic cross-roads – we have the largest generation of young people coming into the workforce at the very same time technology is starting to impact most jobs in the country,” said Dave McKay, President and CEO, RBC. “Canada is on the brink of a skills revolution and we have a responsibility to prepare young people for the opportunities and ambiguities of the future.”

‘There is a changing demand for skills,” said John Stackhouse, Senior Vice-President, RBC. “According to our findings, if employers and the next generation of employees focus on foundational ‘human skills’, they’ll be better able to navigate a new age of career mobility as technology continues to reshape every aspect of the world around us.”

Key Findings:

  • Canada’s economy is on target to add 2.4 million jobs over the next four years, virtually all of which will require a different mix of skills.
  • A growing demand for “human skills” will grow across all job sectors and include: critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving.
  • Rather than a nation of coders, digital literacy – the ability to understand digital items, digital technologies or the Internet fluently – will be necessary for all new jobs.
  • Canada’s education system, training programs and labour market initiatives are inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate the new skills economy, resulting in roughly half a million 15-29 year olds who are unemployed and another quarter of a million who are working part-time involuntarily.
  • Canadian employers are generally not prepared, through hiring, training or retraining, to recruit and develop the skills needed to ensure their organizations remain competitive in the digital economy.

“As digital and machine technology advances, the next generation of Canadians will need to be more adaptive, creative and collaborative, adding and refining skills to keep pace with a world of work undergoing profound change,” said McKay. “Canada’s future prosperity depends on getting a few big things right and that’s why we’ve introduced RBC Future Launch.”

RBC Future Launch is a decade-long commitment to help Canadian youth prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. RBC is committed to acting as a catalyst for change, bringing government, educators, public sector and not-for-profits together to co-create solutions to help young people better prepare for the future of the work through “human skills” development, networking and work experience.

Top recommendations from the report include:

  • A national review of post-secondary education programs to assess their focus on “human skills” including global competencies
  • A national target of 100% work-integrated learning, to ensure every undergraduate student has the opportunity for an apprenticeship, internship, co-op placement or other meaningful experiential placement
  • Standardization of labour market information across all provinces and regions, and a partnership with the private sector to move skills and jobs information to real-time, interactive platforms
  • The introduction of a national initiative to help employers measure foundational skills and incorporate them in recruiting, hiring and training practices

Join the conversation with Dave McKay and John Stackhouse on Wednesday, March 28 [2018] at 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. EDT at RBC Disruptors on Facebook Live.

Click here to read: Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption.

About the Report
RBC Economics amassed a database of 300 occupations and drilled into the skills required to perform them now and projected into the future. The study groups the Canadian economy into six major clusters based on skillsets as opposed to traditional classifications and sectors. This cluster model is designed to illustrate the ease of transition between dissimilar jobs as well as the relevance of current skills to jobs of the future.

Six Clusters
Doers: Emphasis on basic skills
Transition: Greenhouse worker to crane operator
High Probability of Disruption

Crafters: Medium technical skills; low in management skills
Transition: Farmer to plumber
Very High Probability of Disruption

Technicians: High in technical skills
Transition: Car mechanic to electrician
Moderate Probability of Disruption

Facilitators: Emphasis on emotional intelligence
Transition: Dental assistant to graphic designer
Moderate Probability of Disruption

Providers: High in Analytical Skills
Transition: Real estate agent to police officer
Low Probability of Disruption

Solvers: Emphasis on management skills and critical thinking
Transition: Mathematician to software engineer
Minimal Probability of Disruption

About RBC
Royal Bank of Canada is a global financial institution with a purpose-driven, principles-led approach to delivering leading performance. Our success comes from the 81,000+ employees who bring our vision, values and strategy to life so we can help our clients thrive and communities prosper. As Canada’s biggest bank, and one of the largest in the world based on market capitalization, we have a diversified business model with a focus on innovation and providing exceptional experiences to our 16 million clients in Canada, the U.S. and 34 other countries. Learn more at rbc.com.‎

We are proud to support a broad range of community initiatives through donations, community investments and employee volunteer activities. See how at http://www.rbc.com/community-sustainability/.

– 30 – 

The report features a lot of bulleted points, airy text (large fonts and lots of space between the lines), inoffensive graphics, and human interest stories illustrating the points made elsewhere in the text.

There is no bibliography or any form of note telling you where to find the sources for the information in the report. The 2.4M jobs mentioned in the news release are also mentioned in the report on p. 16 (PDF) and is credited in the main body of the text to the EDSC. I’m not up-to-date on my abbreviations but I’m pretty sure it does not stand for East Doncaster Secondary College or East Duplin Soccer Club. I’m betting it stands for Employment and Social Development Canada. All that led to visiting the EDSC website and trying (unsuccessfully) to find the report or data sheet used to supply the figures RBC quoted in their report and news release.

Also, I’m not sure who came up with or how they developed the ‘crafters, ‘doers’, ‘technicians’, etc. categories.

Here’s more from p. 2 of their report,

CANADA, WE HAVE A PROBLEM. [emphasis mine] We’re hurtling towards the 2020s with perfect hindsight, not seeing what’s clearly before us. The next generation is entering the workforce at a time of profound economic, social and technological change. We know it. [emphasis mine] Canada’s youth know it. And we’re not doing enough about it.

RBC wants to change the conversation, [emphasis mine] to help Canadian youth own the 2020s — and beyond. RBC Future Launch is our 10-year commitment to that cause, to help young people prepare for and navigate a new world of work that, we believe, will fundamentally reshape Canada. For the better. If we get a few big things right.

This report, based on a year-long research project, is designed to help that conversation. Our team conducted one of the biggest labour force data projects [emphasis mine] in Canada, and crisscrossed the country to speak with students and workers in their early careers, with educators and policymakers, and with employers in every sector.

We discovered a quiet crisis — of recent graduates who are overqualified for the jobs they’re in, of unemployed youth who weren’t trained for the jobs that are out there, and young Canadians everywhere who feel they aren’t ready for the future of work.

Sarcasm ahead

There’s nothing like starting your remarks with a paraphrased quote from a US movie about the Apollo 13 spacecraft crisis as in, “Houston, we have a problem.” I’ve always preferred Trudeau (senior) and his comment about ‘keeping our noses out of the nation’s bedrooms’. It’s not applicable but it’s more amusing and a Canadian quote to boot.

So, we know we’re having a crisis which we know about but RBC wants to tell us about it anyway (?) and RBC wants to ‘change the conversation’. OK. So how does presenting the RBC Future Launch change the conversation? Especially in light of the fact, that the conversation has already been held, “a year-long research project … Our team conducted one of the biggest labour force data projects [emphasis mine] in Canada, and crisscrossed the country to speak with students and workers in their early careers, with educators and policymakers, and with employers in every sector.” Is the proposed change something along the lines of ‘Don’t worry, be happy; RBC has six categories (Doers, Crafters, Technicians, Facilitators, Providers, Solvers) for you.’ (Yes, for those who recognized it, I’m referencing I’m referencing Bobby McFerrin’s hit song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy.)

Also, what data did RBC collect and how do they collect it? Could Facebook and other forms of social media have been involved? (My March 29, 2018 posting mentions the latest Facebook data scandal; scroll down about 80% of the way.)

There are the people leading the way and ‘changing the conversation’ as it were and they can’t present logical, coherent points. What kind of conversation could they possibly have with youth (or anyone else for that matter)?

And, if part of the problem is that employers are not planning for the future, how does Future Launch ‘change that part of the conversation’?

RBC Future Launch

Days after the report’s release,there’s the Future Launch announcement in an RBC March 28, 2018 news release,

TORONTO, March 28, 2017 – In an era of unprecedented economic and technological change, RBC is today unveiling its largest-ever commitment to Canada’s future. RBC Future Launch is a 10-year, $500-million initiative to help young people gain access and opportunity to the skills, job experience and career networks needed for the future world of work.

“Tomorrow’s prosperity will depend on today’s young people and their ability to take on a future that’s equally inspiring and unnerving,” said Dave McKay, RBC president and CEO. “We’re sitting at an intersection of history, as a massive generational shift and unprecedented technological revolution come together. And we need to ensure young Canadians are prepared to help take us forward.”

Future Launch is a core part of RBC’s celebration of Canada 150, and is the result of two years of conversations with young Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

“Young people – Canada’s future – have the confidence, optimism and inspiration to reimagine the way our country works,” McKay said. “They just need access to the capabilities and connections to make the 21st century, and their place in it, all it should be.”

Working together with young people, RBC will bring community leaders, industry experts, governments, educators and employers to help design solutions and harness resources for young Canadians to chart a more prosperous and inclusive future.

Over 10 years, RBC Future Launch will invest in areas that help young people learn skills, experience jobs, share knowledge and build resilience. The initiative will address the following critical gaps:

  • A lack of relevant experience. Too many young Canadians miss critical early opportunities because they’re stuck in a cycle of “no experience, no job.” According to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 83 per cent of educators believe youth are prepared for the workforce, but only 34 per cent of employers and 44 per cent of young people agree. RBC will continue to help educators and employers develop quality work-integrated learning programs to build a more dynamic bridge between school and work.
  • A lack of relevant skills. Increasingly, young people entering the workforce require a complex set of technical, entrepreneurial and social skills that cannot be attained solely through a formal education. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum states that by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill-sets of most occupations will be different from today — if that job still exists. RBC will help ensure young Canadians gain the skills, from critical thinking to coding to creative design, that will help them integrate into the workplace of today, and be more competitive for the jobs of tomorrow.
  • A lack of knowledge networks. Young people are at a disadvantage in the job market if they don’t have an opportunity to learn from others and discover the realities of jobs they’re considering. Many have told RBC that there isn’t enough information on the spectrum of jobs that are available. From social networks to mentoring programs, RBC will harness the vast knowledge and goodwill of Canadians in guiding young people to the opportunities that exist and will exist, across Canada.
  • A lack of future readiness. Many young Canadians know their future will be defined by disruption. A new report, Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work, by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, found that 42 per cent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of being affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years. Young Canadians are okay with that: they want to be the disruptors and make the future workforce more creative and productive. RBC will help to create opportunities, through our education system, workplaces and communities at large to help young Canadians retool, rethink and rebuild as the age of disruption takes hold.

By helping young people unlock their potential and launch their careers, RBC can assist them with building a stronger future for themselves, and a more prosperous Canada for all. RBC created The Launching Careers Playbook, an interactive, digital resource focused on enabling young people to reach their full potential through three distinct modules: I am starting my career; I manage interns and I create internship programs. The Playbook shares the design principles, practices, and learnings captured from the RBC Career Launch Program over three years, as well as the research and feedback RBC has received from young people and their managers.

More information on RBC Future Launch can be found at www.rbc.com/futurelaunch.

Weirdly, this news release is the only document which gives you sources for some of RBC’s information. If you should be inclined, you can check the original reports as cited in the news release and determine if you agree with the conclusions the RBC people drew from them.

Cynicism ahead

They are planning to change the conversation, are they? I can’t help wondering what return they’re (RBC)  expecting to make on their investment ($500M over10 years). The RBC is prominently displayed not only on the launch page but in several of the subtopics listed on the page.

There appears to be some very good and helpful information although much of it leads you to using a bank for one reason or another. For example, if you’re planning to become an entrepreneur (and there is serious pressure from the government of Canada on this generation to become precisely that), then it’s very handy that you have easy access to RBC from any of the Future Launch pages. As well, you can easily apply for a job at or get a loan from RBC after you’ve done some of the exercises on the website and possibly given RBC a lot of data about yourself.

For anyone who believes I’m being harsh about the bank, you might want to check out a March 15, 2017 article by Erica Johnson for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Go Public website. It highlights just how ruthless Canadian banks can be,

Employees from all five of Canada’s big banks have flooded Go Public with stories of how they feel pressured to upsell, trick and even lie to customers to meet unrealistic sales targets and keep their jobs.

The deluge is fuelling multiple calls for a parliamentary inquiry, even as the banks claim they’re acting in customers’ best interests.

In nearly 1,000 emails, employees from RBC, BMO, CIBC, TD and Scotiabank locations across Canada describe the pressures to hit targets that are monitored weekly, daily and in some cases hourly.

“Management is down your throat all the time,” said a Scotiabank financial adviser. “They want you to hit your numbers and it doesn’t matter how.”

CBC has agreed to protect their identities because the workers are concerned about current and future employment.

An RBC teller from Thunder Bay, Ont., said even when customers don’t need or want anything, “we need to upgrade their Visa card, increase their Visa limits or get them to open up a credit line.”

“It’s not what’s important to our clients anymore,” she said. “The bank wants more and more money. And it’s leading everyone into debt.”

A CIBC teller said, “I am expected to aggressively sell products, especially Visa. Hit those targets, who cares if it’s hurting customers.”

….

Many bank employees described pressure tactics used by managers to try to increase sales.

An RBC certified financial planner in Guelph, Ont., said she’s been threatened with pay cuts and losing her job if she doesn’t upsell enough customers.

“Managers belittle you,” she said. “We get weekly emails that highlight in red the people who are not hitting those sales targets. It’s bullying.”

Some TD Bank employees told CBC’s Go Public they felt they had to break the law to keep their jobs. (Aaron Harris/Reuters)

Employees at several RBC branches in Calgary said there are white boards posted in the staff room that list which financial advisers are meeting their sales targets and which advisers are coming up short.

A CIBC small business associate who quit in January after nine years on the job said her district branch manager wasn’t pleased with her sales results when she was pregnant.

While working in Waterloo, Ont., she says her manager also instructed staff to tell all new international students looking to open a chequing account that they had to open a “student package,” which also included a savings account, credit card and overdraft.

“That is unfair and not the law, but we were told to do it for all of them.”

Go Public requested interviews with the CEOs of the five big banks — BMO, CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank and TD — but all declined.

If you have the time, it’s worth reading Johnson’s article in its entirety as it provides some fascinating insight into Canadian banking practices.

Final comments and an actual ‘conversation’ about the future of work

I’m torn, It’s good to see an attempt to grapple with the extraordinary changes we are likely to see in the not so distant future. It’s hard to believe that this Future Launch initiative is anything other than a self-interested means of profiting from fears about the future and a massive public relations campaign designed to engender good will. Doubly so since the very bad publicity the banks including RBC garnered last year (2017), as mentioned in the Johnson article.

Also, RBC and who knows how many other vested interests appear to have gathered data and information which they’ve used to draw any number of conclusions. First, I can’t find any information about what data RBC is gathering, who else might have access, and what plans, if any, they have to use it. Second, RBC seems to have predetermined how this ‘future of work’ conversation needs to be changed.

I suggest treading as lightly as possible and keeping in mind other ‘conversations’ are possible. For example, Mike Masnick at Techdirt has an April 3, 2018 posting about a new ‘future of work’ initiative,

For the past few years, there have been plenty of discussions about “the future of work,” but they tend to fall into one of two camps. You have the pessimists, who insist that the coming changes wrought by automation and artificial intelligence will lead to fewer and fewer jobs, as all of the jobs of today are automated out of existence. Then, there are the optimists who point to basically every single past similar prediction of doom and gloom due to innovation, which have always turned out to be incorrect. People in this camp point out that technology is more likely to augment than replace human-based work, and vaguely insist that “the jobs will come.” Whether you fall into one of those two camps — or somewhere in between or somewhere else entirely — one thing I’d hope most people can agree on is that the future of work will be… different.

Separately, we’re also living in an age where it is increasingly clear that those in and around the technology industry must take more responsibility in thinking through the possible consequences of the innovations they’re bringing to life, and exploring ways to minimize the harmful results (and hopefully maximizing the beneficial ones).

That brings us to the project we’re announcing today, Working Futures, which is an attempt to explore what the future of work might really look like in the next ten to fifteen years. We’re doing this project in partnership with two organizations that we’ve worked with multiples times in the past: Scout.ai and R Street.

….

The key point of this project: rather than just worry about the bad stuff or hand-wave around the idea of good stuff magically appearing, we want to really dig in — figure out what new jobs may actually appear, look into what benefits may accrue as well as what harms may be dished out — and see if there are ways to minimize the negative consequences, while pushing the world towards the beneficial consequences.

To do that, we’re kicking off a variation on the classic concept of scenario planning, bringing together a wide variety of individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas to run through a fun and creative exercise to imagine the future, while staying based in reality. We’re adding in some fun game-like mechanisms to push people to think about where the future might head. We’re also updating the output side of traditional scenario planning by involving science fiction authors, who obviously have a long history of thinking up the future, and who will participate in this process and help to craft short stories out of the scenarios we build, making them entertaining, readable and perhaps a little less “wonky” than the output of more traditional scenario plans.

There you have it; the Royal Bank is changing the conversation and Techdirt is inviting you to join in scenario planning and more.