Author Archives: Maryse de la Giroday

Popcorn-powered robots

A soft robotic device powered by popcorn, constructed by researchers in Cornell’s Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab. Courtesy: Cornell University

What an intriguing idea, popcorn-powered robots, and one I have difficulty imagining even with the help of the image above. A July 26, 2018 Cornell University news release (an edited version is on EurekAlert) by Melanie Lefkowitz describes the concept,

Cornell researchers have discovered how to power simple robots with a novel substance that, when heated, can expand more than 10 times in size, change its viscosity by a factor of 10 and transition from regular to highly irregular granules with surprising force.

You can also eat it with a little butter and salt.

“Popcorn-Driven Robotic Actuators,” a recent paper co-authored by doctoral student Steven Ceron, mechanical engineering, and Kirstin H. Petersen, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, examines how popcorn’s unique qualities can power inexpensive robotic devices that grip, expand or change rigidity.

“The goal of our lab is to try to make very minimalistic robots which, when deployed in high numbers, can still accomplish great things,” said Petersen, who runs Cornell’s Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab. “Simple robots are cheap and less prone to failures and wear, so we can have many operating autonomously over a long time. So we are always looking for new and innovative ideas that will permit us to have more functionalities for less, and popcorn is one of those.”

The study is the first to consider powering robots with popcorn, which is inexpensive, readily available, biodegradable and of course, edible. Since kernels can expand rapidly, exerting force and motion when heated, they could potentially power miniature jumping robots. Edible devices could be ingested for medical procedures. The mix of hard, unpopped granules and lighter popped corn could replace fluids in soft robots without the need for air pumps or compressors.

“Pumps and compressors tend to be more expensive, and they add a lot of weight and expense to your robot,” said Ceron, the paper’s lead author. “With popcorn, in some of the demonstrations that we showed, you just need to apply voltage to get the kernels to pop, so it would take all the bulky and expensive parts out of the robots.”

Since kernels can’t shrink once they’ve popped, a popcorn-powered mechanism can generally be used only once, though multiple uses are conceivable because popped kernels can dissolve in water, Ceron said.

The researchers experimented with Amish Country Extra Small popcorn, which they chose because the brand did not use additives. The extra-small variety had the highest expansion ratio of those they tested.

After studying popcorn’s properties using different types of heating, the researchers constructed three simple robotic actuators – devices used to perform a function.

For a jamming actuator, 36 kernels of popcorn heated with nichrome wire were used to stiffen a flexible silicone beam. For an elastomer actuator, they constructed a three-fingered soft gripper, whose silicone fingers were stuffed with popcorn heated by nichrome wire. When the kernels popped, the expansion exerted pressure against the outer walls of the fingers, causing them to curl. For an origami actuator, they folded recycled Newman’s Own organic popcorn bags into origami bellows folds, filled them with kernels and microwaved them. The expansion of the kernels was strong enough to support the weight of a nine-pound kettlebell.

The paper was presented at the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May and co-authored with Aleena Kurumunda ’19, Eashan Garg ’20, Mira Kim ’20 and Tosin Yeku ’20. Petersen said she hopes it inspires researchers to explore the possibilities of other nontraditional materials.

“Robotics is really good at embracing new ideas, and we can be super creative about what we use to generate multifunctional properties,” she said. “In the end we come up with very simple solutions to fairly complex problems. We don’t always have to look for high-tech solutions. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us.”

The work was supported by the Cornell Engineering Learning Initiative, the Cornell Electrical and Computer Engineering Early Career Award and the Cornell Sloan Fellowship.

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

Popcorn-Driven Robotic Actuators by Steven Ceron, Aleena Kurumunda, Eashan Garg, Mira Kim, Tosin Yeku, and Kirstin Petersen. Presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation held in May 21-25, 2018 in Brisbane, Australia.

The researchers have made this video demonstrating the technology,

Bristly hybrid materials

Caption: [Image 1] A carbon fiber covered with a spiky forest of NiCoHC nanowires. Credit: All images reproduced from reference 1 under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License© 2018 KAUST

It makes me think of small, cuddly things like cats and dogs but it’s not. From an August 7, 2018 King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST; Saudi Arabia) news release (also published on August 12, 2018 on EurekAlert),

By combining multiple nanomaterials into a single structure, scientists can create hybrid materials that incorporate the best properties of each component and outperform any single substance. A controlled method for making triple-layered hollow nanostructures has now been developed at KAUST. The hybrid structures consist of a conductive organic core sandwiched between layers of electrocatalytically active metals: their potential uses range from better battery electrodes to renewable fuel production.

Although several methods exist to create two-layer materials, making three-layered structures has proven much more difficult, says Peng Wang from the Water Desalination and Reuse Center who co-led the current research with Professor Yu Han, member of the Advanced Membranes and Porous Materials Center at KAUST. The researchers developed a new, dual-template approach, explains Sifei Zhuo, a postdoctoral member of Wang’s team.

The researchers grew their hybrid nanomaterial directly on carbon paper–a mat of electrically conductive carbon fibers. They first produced a bristling forest of nickel cobalt hydroxyl carbonate (NiCoHC) nanowires onto the surface of each carbon fiber (image 1). Each tiny inorganic bristle was coated with an organic layer called hydrogen substituted graphdiyne (HsGDY) (image 2 [not included here]).

Next was the key dual-template step. When the team added a chemical mixture that reacts with the inner NiCoHC, the HsGDY acted as a partial barrier. Some nickel and cobalt ions from the inner layer diffused outward, where they reacted with thiomolybdate from the surrounding solution to form the outer nickel-, cobalt-co-doped MoS2 (Ni,Co-MoS2) layer. Meanwhile, some sulfur ions from the added chemicals diffused inwards to react with the remaining nickel and cobalt. The resulting substance (image 3 [not included here]) had the structure Co9S8, Ni3S2@HsGDY@Ni,Co-MoS2, in which the conductive organic HsGDY layer is sandwiched between two inorganic layers (image 4 [not included here]).

The triple layer material showed good performance at electrocatalytically breaking up water molecules to generate hydrogen, a potential renewable fuel. The researchers also created other triple-layer materials using the dual-template approach

“These triple-layered nanostructures hold great potential in energy conversion and storage,” says Zhuo. “We believe it could be extended to serve as a promising electrode in many electrochemical applications, such as in supercapacitors and sodium-/lithium-ion batteries, and for use in water desalination.”

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

Dual-template engineering of triple-layered nanoarray electrode of metal chalcogenides sandwiched with hydrogen-substituted graphdiyne by Sifei Zhuo, Yusuf Shi, Lingmei Liu, Renyuan Li, Le Shi, Dalaver H. Anjum, Yu Han, & Peng Wang. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 3132 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-05474-0 Published 07 August 2018

This paper is open access.

 

Ooblek (non-Newtonian goo) and bras from Reebok

I have taken a liberty in the title for this piece, strictly speaking the non-Newtonian goo in the bra isn’t the stuff (ooblek) made of cornstarch and water from your childhood science experiments but it has many of the same qualities. The material in the Reebok bra, PureMove, is called Shear Thickening Fluid and was developed at the University of Delaware in 2005 and subsequently employed by NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) for use in the suits used by astronauts as noted in an August 6, 2018 article by Elizabeth Secgran for Fast Company who explains how it came be used for the latest sports bra,

While the activewear industry floods the market with hundreds of different sports bras every season, research shows that most female consumers are unsatisfied with their sports bra options, and 1 in 5 women avoid exercise altogether because they don’t have a sports bra that fits them properly.

Reebok wants to make that experience a thing of the past. Today, it launches a new bra, the PureMove, that adapts to your movements, tightening up when you’re moving fast and relaxing when you’re not. …

When I visited Reebok’s Boston headquarters, Witek [Danielle Witek, Reebok designer who spearheaded the R&D making the bra possible] handed me a jar of the fluid with a stick in it. When I moved the stick quickly, it seemed to turn into a solid, and when I moved it slowly, it had the texture of honey. Witek and the scientists have incorporated this fluid into a fabric that Reebok dubs “Motion Sense Technology.” The fluid is woven into the textile, so that on the surface, it looks and feels like the synthetic material you might find in any sports bra. But what you can’t see is that the fabric adapts to the body’s shape, the velocity of the breast tissue in motion, and the type and force of movement. It stretches less with high-impact movements and then stretches more during rest and lower intensity activities.

I tested an early version of the PureMove bra a few months ago, before it had even gone into production. I did a high-intensity workout that involved doing jumping jacks and sprints, followed by a cool-down session. The best thing about the bra was that I didn’t notice it at all. I didn’t feel stifled when I was just strolling around the gym, and I didn’t feel like I was unsupported when I was running around. Ultimately, the best bras are the ones that you don’t have to think about so you can focus on getting on with your life.

Since this technology is so new, Reebok had to do a lot of testing to make sure the bra would actually do what it advertised. The company set up a breast biomechanics testing center with the help of the University of Delaware, with 54 separate motion sensors tracking and measuring various parts of a tester’s chest area. This is a far more rigorous approach than most testing facilities in the industry that typically only use between two to four sensors. Over the course of a year, the facility gathered the data required for the scientists and Reebok product designers to develop the PureMove bra.

… If it’s well-received, the logical next step would be to incorporate the Motion Sense Technology into other products, like running tights or swimsuits, since transitioning between compression and looseness is something that we want in all of our sportswear. ..

According to the Reebok PureMove bra webpage, it was available from August 16, 2018,

Credit: Reebok

It’s $60 (I imagine those are US dollars).

For anyone interested in the science of non-Newtonian goo, shear thickening fluid, and NASA, there’s a November 24, 2015 article by Lydia Chain for Popular Science (Note: Links have been removed),

There’s an experiment you may have done in high school: When you mix cornstarch with water—a concoction colloquially called oobleck—and give it a stir, it acts like a liquid. But scrape it quickly or hit it hard, and it stiffens up into a solid. If you set the right pace, you can even run on top of a pool of the stuff. This phenomenon is called shear force thickening, and scientists have been trying to understand how it happens for decades.

There are two main theories, and figuring out which is right could affect the way we make things like cement, body armor, concussion preventing helmets, and even spacesuits.

The prevailing theory is that it’s all about the fluid dynamics (the nature of how fluids move) of the liquid and the particles in a solution. As the particles are pushed closer and closer together, it becomes harder to squeeze the liquid out from between them. Eventually, it’s too hard to squeeze out any more fluid and the particles lock up into hydrodynamic clusters, still separated by a thin film of fluid. They then move together, thickening the mixture and forming a solid.

The other idea is that contact forces like friction keep the particles locked together. Under this theory, when force is applied, the particles actually touch. The shearing force and friction keep them pressed together, which makes the solution more solid.

“The debate has been raging, and we’ve been wracking our brains to think of a method to conclusively go one way or the other,” says Itai Cohen, a physicist at Cornell University. He and his team recently ran a new experiment that seems to point to friction as the driving cause of shear thickening.

Norman Wagner, a chemical engineer at the University of Delaware, says that research into frictional interactions like this is important, but notes that he isn’t completely convinced as Cohen’s team didn’t measure friction directly (they inferred it was friction from their modeling however they didn’t find the exact measurement of the friction between the particles). He also says that there’s a lot of data in the field already that strongly indicates hydrodynamic clusters as the cause for shear thickening.

Wagner and his team are working on a NASA funded project to improve space suits so that micrometeorites or other debris can’t puncture them. They have also bent their technology to make padding for helmets and shin guards that would do a better job protecting athletes from harmful impacts. They are even making puncture resistant gloves that would give healthcare workers the same dexterity as current ones but with extra protection against accidental needle sticks.

“It’s a very exciting area,” says Wagner. He’s very interested in designing materials that automatically protect someone, without robotics or power. …

I guess that in 2015 Wagner didn’t realize his work would also end up in a 2018 sports bra.

Build nanoparticles using techniques from the ancient Egyptians

Great Pyramid of Giza and Sphinx [downloaded from http://news.ifmo.ru/en/science/photonics/news/7731/]

Russian and German scientists have taken a closer look at the Great Pyramid as they investigate better ways of designing sensors and solar cells. From a July 30, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

An international research group applied methods of theoretical physics to investigate the electromagnetic response of the Great Pyramid to radio waves. Scientists predicted that under resonance conditions the pyramid can concentrate electromagnetic energy in its internal chambers and under the base. The research group plans to use these theoretical results to design nanoparticles capable of reproducing similar effects in the optical range. Such nanoparticles may be used, for example, to develop sensors and highly efficient solar cells.

A July 30, 2018 ITMO University press release, which originated the news item,  expands on the theme,

While Egyptian pyramids are surrounded by many myths and legends, we have little scientifically reliable information about their physical properties. As it turns out, sometimes this information proves to be more fascinating than any fiction. This idea found confirmation in a new joint study undertaken by scientists from ITMO University and the Laser Zentrum Hannover. The physicists took an interest in how the Great Pyramid would interact with electromagnetic waves of a proportional, or resonant, length. Calculations showed that in the resonant state the pyramid can concentrate electromagnetic energy in its internal chambers as well as under its base, where the third unfinished chamber is located.

These conclusions were derived on the basis of numerical modeling and analytical methods of physics. The researchers first estimated that resonances in the pyramid can be induced by radio waves with a length ranging from 200 to 600 meters. Then they made a model of the electromagnetic response of the pyramid and calculated the extinction cross section. This value helps to estimate which part of the incident wave energy can be scattered or absorbed by the pyramid under resonant conditions. Finally, for the same conditions, the scientists obtained the electromagnetic fields distribution inside the pyramid.

3D model of the pyramid. Credit: cheops.SU
3D model of the pyramid. Credit: cheops.SU

In order to explain the results, the scientists conducted a multipole analysis. This method is widely used in physics to study the interaction between a complex object and electromagnetic field. The object scattering the field is replaced by a set of simpler sources of radiation: multipoles. The collection of multipoles radiation coincides with the field scattering by an entire object. Therefore, by knowing the type of each multipole, it is possible to predict and explain the distribution and configuration of the scattered fields in the whole system.

The Great Pyramid attracted the researchers’ attention while they were studying the interaction between light and dielectric nanoparticles. The scattering of light by nanoparticles depends on their size, shape, and refractive index of the source material. By varying these parameters, it is possible to determine the resonance scattering regimes and use them to develop devices for controlling light at the nanoscale.

“Egyptian pyramids have always attracted great attention. We as scientists were interested in them as well, and so we decided to look at the Great Pyramid as a particle resonantly dissipating radio waves. Due to the lack of information about the physical properties of the pyramid, we had to make some assumptions. For example, we assumed that there are no unknown cavities inside, and the building material has the properties of an ordinary limestone and is evenly distributed in and out of the pyramid. With these assumptions, we obtained interesting results that can have important practical applications,” says Andrey Evlyukhin, DSc, scientific supervisor and coordinator of the research.

Now the scientists plan to use the results to reproduce similar effects at the nanoscale.

Polina Kapitanova
Polina Kapitanova

“By choosing a material with suitable electromagnetic properties, we can obtain pyramidal nanoparticles with a potential for practical application in nanosensors and effective solar cells,” says Polina Kapitanova, PhD, associate at the Faculty of Physics and Engineering of ITMO University.

The research was supported by the Russian Science Foundation and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (grants № 17-79-20379 and №16-12-10287).

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

Electromagnetic properties of the Great Pyramid: First multipole resonances and energy concentration featured by Mikhail Balezin, Kseniia V. Baryshnikova, Polina Kapitanova, and Andrey B. Evlyukhin. Journal of Applied Physics 124, 034903 (2018) https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5026556 or Journal of Applied Physics, Volume 124, Issue 3. 10.1063/1.5026556 Published Online 20 July 2018

This paper is behind a paywall..

Observing individual silver nanoparticles in real time

A new technique for better understanding how silver nanoparticles might affect the environment was announced in a July 30, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Chemists at Ruhr-Universität Bochum have developed a new method of observing the chemical reactions of individual silver nanoparticles, which only measure a thousandth of the thickness of a human hair, in real time. The particles are used in medicine, food and sports items because they have an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effect. However, how they react and degrade in ecological and biological systems is so far barely understood. The team in the Research Group for Electrochemistry and Nanoscale Materials showed that the nanoparticles transform into poorly soluble silver chloride particles under certain conditions. The group led by Prof Dr Kristina Tschulik reports on the results in the Journal of the American Chemical Society from July 11, 2018.

A July 30,2018 Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) press release (also on EurekAlert) by Julia Weiler, which originated the news item, provides more information,

Even under well-defined laboratory conditions, current research has yielded different, sometimes contradictory, results on the reaction of silver nanoparticles. “In every batch of nanoparticles, the individual properties of the particles, such as size and shape, vary,” says Kristina Tschulik, a member of the Cluster of Excellence Ruhr Explores Solvation. “With previous procedures, a myriad of particles was generally investigated at the same time, meaning that the effects of these variations could not be recorded. Or the measurements took place in a high vacuum, not under natural conditions in an aqueous solution.”

The team led by Kristina Tschulik thus developed a method that enables individual silver particles to be investigated in a natural environment. “Our aim is to be able to record the reactivity of individual particles,” explains the researcher. This requires a combination of electrochemical and spectroscopic methods. With optical and hyperspectral dark-field microscopy, the group was able to observe individual nanoparticles as visible and coloured pixels. Using the change in the colour of the pixels, or more precisely their spectral information, the researchers were able to follow what was happening in an electrochemical experiment in real time.

Degradation of the particles slowed down

In the experiment, the team replicated the oxidation of silver in the presence of chloride ions, which often takes place in ecological and biological systems. “Until now, it was generally assumed that the silver particles dissolve in the form of silver ions,” describes Kristina Tschulik. However, poorly soluble silver chloride was formed in the experiment – even if only a few chloride ions were present in the solution.

“This extends the lifespan of the nanoparticles to an extreme extent and their breakdown is slowed down in an unexpectedly drastic manner,” summarises Tschulik. “This is equally important for bodies of water and for living beings because this mechanism could cause the heavy metal silver to accumulate locally, which can be toxic for many organisms.”

Further development planned

The Bochum-based group now wants to further improve its technology for analysing individual nanoparticles in order to better understand the ageing mechanisms of such particles. The researchers thus want to obtain more information about the biocompatibility of the silver particles and the lifespan and ageing of catalytically active nanoparticles in the future.

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

Simultaneous Opto- and Spectro-Electrochemistry: Reactions of Individual Nanoparticles Uncovered by Dark-Field Microscopy by Kevin Wonner, Mathies V. Evers, and Kristina Tschulik. J. Am. Chem. Soc., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/jacs.8b02367 Publication Date (Web): July 11, 2018

Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Bringing memristors to the masses and cutting down on energy use

One of my earliest posts featuring memristors (May 9, 2008) focused on their potential for energy savings but since then most of my postings feature research into their application in the field of neuromorphic (brainlike) computing. (For a description and abbreviated history of the memristor go to this page on my Nanotech Mysteries Wiki.)

In a sense this July 30, 2018 news item on Nanowerk is a return to the beginning,

A new way of arranging advanced computer components called memristors on a chip could enable them to be used for general computing, which could cut energy consumption by a factor of 100.

This would improve performance in low power environments such as smartphones or make for more efficient supercomputers, says a University of Michigan researcher.

“Historically, the semiconductor industry has improved performance by making devices faster. But although the processors and memories are very fast, they can’t be efficient because they have to wait for data to come in and out,” said Wei Lu, U-M professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-founder of memristor startup Crossbar Inc.

Memristors might be the answer. Named as a portmanteau of memory and resistor, they can be programmed to have different resistance states–meaning they store information as resistance levels. These circuit elements enable memory and processing in the same device, cutting out the data transfer bottleneck experienced by conventional computers in which the memory is separate from the processor.

A July 30, 2018 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

… unlike ordinary bits, which are 1 or 0, memristors can have resistances that are on a continuum. Some applications, such as computing that mimics the brain (neuromorphic), take advantage of the analog nature of memristors. But for ordinary computing, trying to differentiate among small variations in the current passing through a memristor device is not precise enough for numerical calculations.

Lu and his colleagues got around this problem by digitizing the current outputs—defining current ranges as specific bit values (i.e., 0 or 1). The team was also able to map large mathematical problems into smaller blocks within the array, improving the efficiency and flexibility of the system.

Computers with these new blocks, which the researchers call “memory-processing units,” could be particularly useful for implementing machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms. They are also well suited to tasks that are based on matrix operations, such as simulations used for weather prediction. The simplest mathematical matrices, akin to tables with rows and columns of numbers, can map directly onto the grid of memristors.

The memristor array situated on a circuit board.

The memristor array situated on a circuit board. Credit: Mohammed Zidan, Nanoelectronics group, University of Michigan.

Once the memristors are set to represent the numbers, operations that multiply and sum the rows and columns can be taken care of simultaneously, with a set of voltage pulses along the rows. The current measured at the end of each column contains the answers. A typical processor, in contrast, would have to read the value from each cell of the matrix, perform multiplication, and then sum up each column in series.

“We get the multiplication and addition in one step. It’s taken care of through physical laws. We don’t need to manually multiply and sum in a processor,” Lu said.

His team chose to solve partial differential equations as a test for a 32×32 memristor array—which Lu imagines as just one block of a future system. These equations, including those behind weather forecasting, underpin many problems science and engineering but are very challenging to solve. The difficulty comes from the complicated forms and multiple variables needed to model physical phenomena.

When solving partial differential equations exactly is impossible, solving them approximately can require supercomputers. These problems often involve very large matrices of data, so the memory-processor communication bottleneck is neatly solved with a memristor array. The equations Lu’s team used in their demonstration simulated a plasma reactor, such as those used for integrated circuit fabrication.

This work is described in a study, “A general memristor-based partial differential equation solver,” published in the journal Nature Electronics.

It was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (grant no. HR0011-17-2-0018) and by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (grant no. CCF-1617315).

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

A general memristor-based partial differential equation solver by Mohammed A. Zidan, YeonJoo Jeong, Jihang Lee, Bing Chen, Shuo Huang, Mark J. Kushner & Wei D. Lu. Nature Electronicsvolume 1, pages411–420 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-018-0100-6 Published: 13 July 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the curious, Dr. Lu’s startup company, Crossbar can be found here.

Artificial intelligence (AI) brings together International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and World Health Organization (WHO) and AI outperforms animal testing

Following on my May 11, 2018 posting about the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit in mid- May, there’s an announcement. My other bit of AI news concerns animal testing.

Leveraging the power of AI for health

A July 24, 2018 ITU press release (a shorter version was received via email) announces a joint initiative focused on improving health,

Two United Nations specialized agencies are joining forces to expand the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the health sector to a global scale, and to leverage the power of AI to advance health for all worldwide. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will work together through the newly established ITU Focus Group on AI for Health to develop an international “AI for health” standards framework and to identify use cases of AI in the health sector that can be scaled-up for global impact. The group is open to all interested parties.

“AI could help patients to assess their symptoms, enable medical professionals in underserved areas to focus on critical cases, and save great numbers of lives in emergencies by delivering medical diagnoses to hospitals before patients arrive to be treated,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “ITU and WHO plan to ensure that such capabilities are available worldwide for the benefit of everyone, everywhere.”

The demand for such a platform was first identified by participants of the second AI for Good Global Summit held in Geneva, 15-17 May 2018. During the summit, AI and the health sector were recognized as a very promising combination, and it was announced that AI-powered technologies such as skin disease recognition and diagnostic applications based on symptom questions could be deployed on six billion smartphones by 2021.

The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health is coordinated through ITU’s Telecommunications Standardization Sector – which works with ITU’s 193 Member States and more than 800 industry and academic members to establish global standards for emerging ICT innovations. It will lead an intensive two-year analysis of international standardization opportunities towards delivery of a benchmarking framework of international standards and recommendations by ITU and WHO for the use of AI in the health sector.

“I believe the subject of AI for health is both important and useful for advancing health for all,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health will also engage researchers, engineers, practitioners, entrepreneurs and policy makers to develop guidance documents for national administrations, to steer the creation of policies that ensure the safe, appropriate use of AI in the health sector.

“1.3 billion people have a mobile phone and we can use this technology to provide AI-powered health data analytics to people with limited or no access to medical care. AI can enhance health by improving medical diagnostics and associated health intervention decisions on a global scale,” said Thomas Wiegand, ITU Focus Group on AI for Health Chairman, and Executive Director of the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, as well as professor at TU Berlin.

He added, “The health sector is in many countries among the largest economic sectors or one of the fastest-growing, signalling a particularly timely need for international standardization of the convergence of AI and health.”

Data analytics are certain to form a large part of the ITU focus group’s work. AI systems are proving increasingly adept at interpreting laboratory results and medical imagery and extracting diagnostically relevant information from text or complex sensor streams.

As part of this, the ITU Focus Group for AI for Health will also produce an assessment framework to standardize the evaluation and validation of AI algorithms — including the identification of structured and normalized data to train AI algorithms. It will develop open benchmarks with the aim of these becoming international standards.

The ITU Focus Group for AI for Health will report to the ITU standardization expert group for multimedia, Study Group 16.

I got curious about Study Group 16 (from the Study Group 16 at a glance webpage),

Study Group 16 leads ITU’s standardization work on multimedia coding, systems and applications, including the coordination of related studies across the various ITU-T SGs. It is also the lead study group on ubiquitous and Internet of Things (IoT) applications; telecommunication/ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities; intelligent transport system (ITS) communications; e-health; and Internet Protocol television (IPTV).

Multimedia is at the core of the most recent advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) – especially when we consider that most innovation today is agnostic of the transport and network layers, focusing rather on the higher OSI model layers.

SG16 is active in all aspects of multimedia standardization, including terminals, architecture, protocols, security, mobility, interworking and quality of service (QoS). It focuses its studies on telepresence and conferencing systems; IPTV; digital signage; speech, audio and visual coding; network signal processing; PSTN modems and interfaces; facsimile terminals; and ICT accessibility.

I wonder which group deals with artificial intelligence and, possibly, robots.

Chemical testing without animals

Thomas Hartung, professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University (US), describes in his July 25, 2018 essay (written for The Conversation) on phys.org the situation where chemical testing is concerned,

Most consumers would be dismayed with how little we know about the majority of chemicals. Only 3 percent of industrial chemicals – mostly drugs and pesticides – are comprehensively tested. Most of the 80,000 to 140,000 chemicals in consumer products have not been tested at all or just examined superficially to see what harm they may do locally, at the site of contact and at extremely high doses.

I am a physician and former head of the European Center for the Validation of Alternative Methods of the European Commission (2002-2008), and I am dedicated to finding faster, cheaper and more accurate methods of testing the safety of chemicals. To that end, I now lead a new program at Johns Hopkins University to revamp the safety sciences.

As part of this effort, we have now developed a computer method of testing chemicals that could save more than a US$1 billion annually and more than 2 million animals. Especially in times where the government is rolling back regulations on the chemical industry, new methods to identify dangerous substances are critical for human and environmental health.

Having written on the topic of alternatives to animal testing on a number of occasions (my December 26, 2014 posting provides an overview of sorts), I was particularly interested to see this in Hartung’s July 25, 2018 essay on The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Following the vision of Toxicology for the 21st Century, a movement led by U.S. agencies to revamp safety testing, important work was carried out by my Ph.D. student Tom Luechtefeld at the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. Teaming up with Underwriters Laboratories, we have now leveraged an expanded database and machine learning to predict toxic properties. As we report in the journal Toxicological Sciences, we developed a novel algorithm and database for analyzing chemicals and determining their toxicity – what we call read-across structure activity relationship, RASAR.

This graphic reveals a small part of the chemical universe. Each dot represents a different chemical. Chemicals that are close together have similar structures and often properties. Thomas Hartung, CC BY-SA

To do this, we first created an enormous database with 10 million chemical structures by adding more public databases filled with chemical data, which, if you crunch the numbers, represent 50 trillion pairs of chemicals. A supercomputer then created a map of the chemical universe, in which chemicals are positioned close together if they share many structures in common and far where they don’t. Most of the time, any molecule close to a toxic molecule is also dangerous. Even more likely if many toxic substances are close, harmless substances are far. Any substance can now be analyzed by placing it into this map.

If this sounds simple, it’s not. It requires half a billion mathematical calculations per chemical to see where it fits. The chemical neighborhood focuses on 74 characteristics which are used to predict the properties of a substance. Using the properties of the neighboring chemicals, we can predict whether an untested chemical is hazardous. For example, for predicting whether a chemical will cause eye irritation, our computer program not only uses information from similar chemicals, which were tested on rabbit eyes, but also information for skin irritation. This is because what typically irritates the skin also harms the eye.

How well does the computer identify toxic chemicals?

This method will be used for new untested substances. However, if you do this for chemicals for which you actually have data, and compare prediction with reality, you can test how well this prediction works. We did this for 48,000 chemicals that were well characterized for at least one aspect of toxicity, and we found the toxic substances in 89 percent of cases.

This is clearly more accurate that the corresponding animal tests which only yield the correct answer 70 percent of the time. The RASAR shall now be formally validated by an interagency committee of 16 U.S. agencies, including the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration], that will challenge our computer program with chemicals for which the outcome is unknown. This is a prerequisite for acceptance and use in many countries and industries.

The potential is enormous: The RASAR approach is in essence based on chemical data that was registered for the 2010 and 2013 REACH [Registration, Evaluation, Authorizations and Restriction of Chemicals] deadlines [in Europe]. If our estimates are correct and chemical producers would have not registered chemicals after 2013, and instead used our RASAR program, we would have saved 2.8 million animals and $490 million in testing costs – and received more reliable data. We have to admit that this is a very theoretical calculation, but it shows how valuable this approach could be for other regulatory programs and safety assessments.

In the future, a chemist could check RASAR before even synthesizing their next chemical to check whether the new structure will have problems. Or a product developer can pick alternatives to toxic substances to use in their products. This is a powerful technology, which is only starting to show all its potential.

It’s been my experience that these claims having led a movement (Toxicology for the 21st Century) are often contested with many others competing for the title of ‘leader’ or ‘first’. That said, this RASAR approach seems very exciting, especially in light of the skepticism about limiting and/or making animal testing unnecessary noted in my December 26, 2014 posting.it was from someone I thought knew better.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper mentioned in Hartung’s essay,

Machine learning of toxicological big data enables read-across structure activity relationships (RASAR) outperforming animal test reproducibility by Thomas Luechtefeld, Dan Marsh, Craig Rowlands, Thomas Hartung. Toxicological Sciences, kfy152, https://doi.org/10.1093/toxsci/kfy152 Published: 11 July 2018

This paper is open access.

Quantum back action and devil’s play

I always appreciate a reference to James Clerk Maxwell’s demon thought experiment (you can find out about it in the Maxwell’s demon Wikipedia entry). This time it comes from physicist  Kater Murch in a July 23, 2018 Washington University in st. Louis (WUSTL) news release (published July 25, 2018 on EurekAlert) written by Brandie Jefferson (offering a good explanation of the thought experiment and more),

Thermodynamics is one of the most human of scientific enterprises, according to Kater Murch, associate professor of physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It has to do with our fascination of fire and our laziness,” he said. “How can we get fire” — or heat — “to do work for us?”

Now, Murch and colleagues have taken that most human enterprise down to the intangible quantum scale — that of ultra low temperatures and microscopic systems — and discovered that, as in the macroscopic world, it is possible to use information to extract work.

There is a catch, though: Some information may be lost in the process.

“We’ve experimentally confirmed the connection between information in the classical case and the quantum case,” Murch said, “and we’re seeing this new effect of information loss.”

The results were published in the July 20 [2018] issue of Physical Review Letters.

The international team included Eric Lutz of the University of Stuttgart; J. J. Alonzo of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; Alessandro Romito of Lancaster University; and Mahdi Naghiloo, a Washington University graduate research assistant in physics.

That we can get energy from information on a macroscopic scale was most famously illustrated in a thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon. [emphasis mine] The “demon” presides over a box filled with molecules. The box is divided in half by a wall with a door. If the demon knows the speed and direction of all of the molecules, it can open the door when a fast-moving molecule is moving from the left half of the box to the right side, allowing it to pass. It can do the same for slow particles moving in the opposite direction, opening the door when a slow-moving molecule is approaching from the right, headed left. ­

After a while, all of the quickly-moving molecules are on the right side of the box. Faster motion corresponds to higher temperature. In this way, the demon has created a temperature imbalance, where one side of the box is hotter. That temperature imbalance can be turned into work — to push on a piston as in a steam engine, for instance. At first the thought experiment seemed to show that it was possible create a temperature difference without doing any work, and since temperature differences allow you to extract work, one could build a perpetual motion machine — a violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

“Eventually, scientists realized that there’s something about the information that the demon has about the molecules,” Murch said. “It has a physical quality like heat and work and energy.”

His team wanted to know if it would be possible to use information to extract work in this way on a quantum scale, too, but not by sorting fast and slow molecules. If a particle is in an excited state, they could extract work by moving it to a ground state. (If it was in a ground state, they wouldn’t do anything and wouldn’t expend any work).

But they wanted to know what would happen if the quantum particles were in an excited state and a ground state at the same time, analogous to being fast and slow at the same time. In quantum physics, this is known as a superposition.

“Can you get work from information about a superposition of energy states?” Murch asked. “That’s what we wanted to find out.”

There’s a problem, though. On a quantum scale, getting information about particles can be a bit … tricky.

“Every time you measure the system, it changes that system,” Murch said. And if they measured the particle to find out exactly what state it was in, it would revert to one of two states: excited, or ground.

This effect is called quantum backaction. To get around it, when looking at the system, researchers (who were the “demons”) didn’t take a long, hard look at their particle. Instead, they took what was called a “weak observation.” It still influenced the state of the superposition, but not enough to move it all the way to an excited state or a ground state; it was still in a superposition of energy states. This observation was enough, though, to allow the researchers track with fairly high accuracy, exactly what superposition the particle was in — and this is important, because the way the work is extracted from the particle depends on what superposition state it is in.

To get information, even using the weak observation method, the researchers still had to take a peek at the particle, which meant they needed light. So they sent some photons in, and observed the photons that came back.

“But the demon misses some photons,” Murch said. “It only gets about half. The other half are lost.” But — and this is the key — even though the researchers didn’t see the other half of the photons, those photons still interacted with the system, which means they still had an effect on it. The researchers had no way of knowing what that effect was.

They took a weak measurement and got some information, but because of quantum backaction, they might end up knowing less than they did before the measurement. On the balance, that’s negative information.

And that’s weird.

“Do the rules of thermodynamics for a macroscopic, classical world still apply when we talk about quantum superposition?” Murch asked. “We found that yes, they hold, except there’s this weird thing. The information can be negative.

“I think this research highlights how difficult it is to build a quantum computer,” Murch said.

“For a normal computer, it just gets hot and we need to cool it. In the quantum computer you are always at risk of losing information.”

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

Information Gain and Loss for a Quantum Maxwell’s Demon by M. Naghiloo, J. J. Alonso, A. Romito, E. Lutz, and K. W. Murch. Phys. Rev. Lett. 121, 030604 (Vol. 121, Iss. 3 — 20 July 2018) DOI:https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.030604 Published 17 July 2018

© 2018 American Physical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Watch a Physics Nobel Laureate make art on February 26, 2019 at Mobile World Congress 19 in Barcelona, Spain

Konstantin (Kostya) Novoselov (Nobel Prize in Physics 2010) strikes out artistically, again. The last time was in 2018 (see my August 13, 2018 posting about Novoselov’s project with artist Mary Griffiths).

This time around, Novoselov and artist, Kate Daudy, will be creating an art piece during a demonstration at the Mobile World Congress 19 (MWC 19) in Barcelona, Spain. From a February 21, 2019 news item on Azonano,

Novoselov is most popular for his revolutionary experiments on graphene, which is lightweight, flexible, stronger than steel, and more conductive when compared to copper. Due to this feat, Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov grabbed the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Moreover, Novoselov is one of the founding principal researchers of the Graphene Flagship, which is a €1 billion research project funded by the European Commission.

At MWC 2019, Novoselov will join hands with British textile artist Kate Daudy, a collaboration which indicates his usual interest in art projects. During the show, the pair will produce a piece of art using materials printed with embedded graphene. The installation will be named “Everything is Connected,” the slogan of the Graphene Flagship and reflective of the themes at MWC 2019.

The demonstration will be held on Tuesday, February 26th, 2019 at 11:30 CET in the Graphene Pavilion, an area devoted to showcasing inventions accomplished by funding from the Graphene Flagship. Apart from the art demonstration, exhibitors in the Graphene Pavilion will demonstrate 26 modern graphene-based prototypes and devices that will revolutionize the future of telecommunications, mobile phones, home technology, and wearables.

A February 20, 2019 University of Manchester press release, which originated the news item, goes on to describe what might be called the real point of this exercise,

Interactive demonstrations include a selection of health-related wearable technologies, which will be exhibited in the ‘wearables of the future’ area. Prototypes in this zone include graphene-enabled pressure sensing insoles, which have been developed by Graphene Flagship researchers at the University of Cambridge to accurately identify problematic walking patterns in wearers.

Another prototype will demonstrate how graphene can be used to reduce heat in mobile phone batteries, therefore prolong their lifespan. In fact, the material required for this invention is the same that will be used during the art installation demonstration.

Andrea Ferrari, Science and Technology Officer and Chair of the management panel of the Graphene Flagship said: “Graphene and related layered materials have steadily progressed from fundamental to applied research and from the lab to the factory floor. Mobile World Congress is a prime opportunity for the Graphene Flagship to showcase how the European Commission’s investment in research is beginning to create tangible products and advanced prototypes. Outreach is also part of the Graphene Flagship mission and the interplay between graphene, culture and art has been explored by several Flagship initiatives over the years. This unique live exhibition of Kostya is a first for the Flagship and the Mobile World Congress, and I invite everybody to attend.”

More information on the Graphene Pavilion, the prototypes on show and the interactive demonstrations at MWC 2019, can be found on the press@graphene-flagship.euGraphene Flagship website. Alternatively, contact the Graphene Flagship directly on press@graphene-flagship.eu.

The Novoselov/Daudy project sounds as if they’ve drawn inspiration from performance art practices. In any case, it seems like a creative and fun way to engage the audience. For anyone curious about Kate Daudy‘s work,

[downloaded from https://katedaudy.com/]

‘Superconductivity: The Musical!’ wins the 2018 Dance Your Ph.D. competition

I can’t believe that October 24, 2011 was the last time the Dance Your Ph.D. competition was featured here. Time flies, eh? Here’s the 2018 contest winner’s submission, Superconductivity: The Musical!, (Note: This video is over 11 mins. long),

A February 17, 2019 CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news item introduces the video’s writer, producer,s musician, and scientist,

Swing dancing. Songwriting. And theoretical condensed matter physics.

It’s a unique person who can master all three, but a University of Alberta PhD student has done all that and taken it one step further by making a rollicking music video about his academic pursuits — and winning an international competition for his efforts.

Pramodh Senarath Yapa is the winner of the 2018 Dance Your PhD contest, which challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through a jargon-free medium: dance.

The prize is $1,000 and “immortal geek fame.”

Yapa’s video features his friends twirling, swinging and touch-stepping their way through an explanation of his graduate research, called “Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance.”

Jennifer Ouelette’s February 17, 2019 posting for the ars Technica blog offers more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

Yapa’s research deals with how matter behaves when it’s cooled to very low temperatures, when quantum effects kick in—such as certain metals becoming superconductive, or capable of conducting electricity with zero resistance. That’s useful for any number of practical applications. D-Wave Systems [a company located in metro Vancouver {Canada}], for example, is building quantum computers using loops of superconducting wire. For his thesis, “I had to use the theory of superconductivity to figure out how to build a better quantum computer,” said Yapa.

Condensed matter theory (the precise description of Yapa’s field of research) is a notoriously tricky subfield to make palatable for a non-expert audience. “There isn’t one unifying theory or a single tool that we use,” he said. “Condensed matter theorists study a million different things using a million different techniques.”

His conceptual breakthrough came about when he realized electrons were a bit like “unsociable people” who find joy when they pair up with other electrons. “You can imagine electrons as a free gas, which means they don’t interact with each other,” he said. “The theory of superconductivity says they actually form pairs when cooled below a certain temperature. That was the ‘Eureka!’ moment, when I realized I could totally use swing dancing.”

John Bohannon’s Feb. 15, 2019 article for Science (magazine) offers an update on Yapa’s research interests (it seems that Yapa was dancing his Masters degree) and more information about the contest itself ,

..

“I remember hearing about Dance Your Ph.D. many years ago and being amazed at all the entries,” Yapa says. “This is definitely a longtime dream come true.” His research, meanwhile, has evolved from superconductivity—which he pursued at the University of Victoria in Canada, where he completed a master’s degree—to the physics of superfluids, the focus of his Ph.D. research at the University of Alberta.

This is the 11th year of Dance Your Ph.D. hosted by Science and AAAS. The contest challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through the most jargon-free medium available: interpretive dance.

“Most people would not normally think of interpretive dance as a tool for scientific communication,” says artist Alexa Meade, one of the judges of the contest. “However, the body can express conceptual thoughts through movement in ways that words and data tables cannot. The results are both artfully poetic and scientifically profound.”

Getting back to the February 17, 2019 CBC news item,

Yapa describes his video, filmed in Victoria where he earned his master’s degree, as a “three act, mini-musical.”

“I envisioned it as talking about the social lives of electrons,” he said. “The electrons starts out in a normal metal, at normal temperatures….We say these electrons are non-interacting. They don’t talk to each other. Electrons ignore each other and are very unsociable.”

The electrons — represented by dancers wearing saddle oxfords, poodle skirts, vests and suspenders — shuffle up the dance floor by themselves.

In the second act, the metal is cooled.

“The electrons become very unhappy about being alone. They want to find a partner, some companionship for the cold times,” he said

That’s when the electrons join up into something called Cooper pairs.

The dancers join together, moving to lyrics like, “If we peek/the Coopers are cheek-to-cheek.

In the final act, Yapa gets his dancers to demonstrate what happens when the Cooper pairs meet the impurities of the materials they’re moving in. All of a sudden, a group of black-leather-clad thugs move onto the dance floor.

“The Cooper pairs come dancing near these impurities and they’re like these crotchety old people yelling and shaking their fists at these young dancers,” Yapa explained.

Yapa’s entry to the annual contest swept past 49 other contestants to earn him the win. The competition is sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Congratulations to Pramodh Senarath Yapa.