Author Archives: Maryse de la Giroday

Does understanding your pet mean understanding artificial intelligence better?

Heather Roff’s take on artificial intelligence features an approach I haven’t seen before. From her March 30, 2017 essay for The Conversation (h/t March 31, 2017 news item on phys.org),

It turns out, though, that we already have a concept we can use when we think about AI: It’s how we think about animals. As a former animal trainer (albeit briefly) who now studies how people use AI, I know that animals and animal training can teach us quite a lot about how we ought to think about, approach and interact with artificial intelligence, both now and in the future.

Using animal analogies can help regular people understand many of the complex aspects of artificial intelligence. It can also help us think about how best to teach these systems new skills and, perhaps most importantly, how we can properly conceive of their limitations, even as we celebrate AI’s new possibilities.
Looking at constraints

As AI expert Maggie Boden explains, “Artificial intelligence seeks to make computers do the sorts of things that minds can do.” AI researchers are working on teaching computers to reason, perceive, plan, move and make associations. AI can see patterns in large data sets, predict the likelihood of an event occurring, plan a route, manage a person’s meeting schedule and even play war-game scenarios.

Many of these capabilities are, in themselves, unsurprising: Of course a robot can roll around a space and not collide with anything. But somehow AI seems more magical when the computer starts to put these skills together to accomplish tasks.

Thinking of AI as a trainable animal isn’t just useful for explaining it to the general public. It is also helpful for the researchers and engineers building the technology. If an AI scholar is trying to teach a system a new skill, thinking of the process from the perspective of an animal trainer could help identify potential problems or complications.

For instance, if I try to train my dog to sit, and every time I say “sit” the buzzer to the oven goes off, then my dog will begin to associate sitting not only with my command, but also with the sound of the oven’s buzzer. In essence, the buzzer becomes another signal telling the dog to sit, which is called an “accidental reinforcement.” If we look for accidental reinforcements or signals in AI systems that are not working properly, then we’ll know better not only what’s going wrong, but also what specific retraining will be most effective.

This requires us to understand what messages we are giving during AI training, as well as what the AI might be observing in the surrounding environment. The oven buzzer is a simple example; in the real world it will be far more complicated.

Before we welcome our AI overlords and hand over our lives and jobs to robots, we ought to pause and think about the kind of intelligences we are creating. …

Source: pixabay.com

It’s just last year (2016) that an AI system beat a human Go master player. Here’s how a March 17, 2016 article by John Russell for TechCrunch described the feat (Note: Links have been removed),

Much was written of an historic moment for artificial intelligence last week when a Google-developed AI beat one of the planet’s most sophisticated players of Go, an East Asia strategy game renowned for its deep thinking and strategy.

Go is viewed as one of the ultimate tests for an AI given the sheer possibilities on hand. “There are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible positions [in the game] — that’s more than the number of atoms in the universe, and more than a googol times larger than chess,” Google said earlier this year.

If you missed the series — which AlphaGo, the AI, won 4-1 — or were unsure of exactly why it was so significant, Google summed the general importance up in a post this week.

Far from just being a game, Demis Hassabis, CEO and Co-Founder of DeepMind — the Google-owned company behind AlphaGo — said the AI’s development is proof that it can be used to solve problems in ways that humans may be not be accustomed or able to do:

We’ve learned two important things from this experience. First, this test bodes well for AI’s potential in solving other problems. AlphaGo has the ability to look “globally” across a board—and find solutions that humans either have been trained not to play or would not consider. This has huge potential for using AlphaGo-like technology to find solutions that humans don’t necessarily see in other areas.

I find Roff’s thesis intriguing and is likely applicable to the short-term but in the longer term and in light of the attempts to  create devices that mimic neural plasticity and neuromorphic engineering  I don’t find her thesis convincing.

Recycling apples to regenerate bone and cartilage tissue

A March 30, 2017 news item on phys.org announces research utilizing apple waste as a matrix for regenerating bones and cartilage,

Researchers from UPM and CSIC [both organizations are in Spain] have employed waste from the agri-food industry to develop biomaterials that act as matrices to regenerate bone and cartilage tissues, which is of great interest for the treatment of diseases related to aging.

The researchers have produced biocompatible materials from apple pomace resulting from juice production. These materials can be used as 3-D matrices for the regeneration of bone and cartilage tissues, useful in regenerative medicine for diseases such as osteoporosis, arthritis or osteoarthritis, all of them rising due to the increasing average age of the population.

A March 30, 2017 Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) press release, which originated the news item,, expands on the theme,

Apple pomace is an abundant raw material. The world production of apples was more than 70 million tons in 2015, of which the European Union contributed with more than 15%, while half a million tons of which came from Spain. About 75% of apples can be converted into juice and the rest, known as apple pomace, that contains approximately 20–30% dried matter, is used mainly as animal feed or for compost. Since apple pomace is generated in vast quantities and contains a large fraction of water, it poses storage problems and requires immediate treatments to prevent putrefaction. An alternative of great environmental interest is its transformation into value added commodities, thus reducing the volume of waste.

The procedure of the multivalorization of apple pomace carried out by the UPM and CSIC researchers are based on sequential extractions of different bioactive molecules, such as antioxidants or pectin, to finally obtain the waste from which they prepare a biomaterial with suitable porosity and texture to be used in tissue engineering.

The primary extraction of antioxidants and carbohydrates constitutes 2% of the dry weight of apple pomace and pectin extraction is 10%. The extracted chemical cells have a recognized value as nutraceuticals and pectin is a material of great utility in different medical applications, given its high biocompatibility and being part of antitumor drugs or in the treatment of coetaneous wounds.

Furthermore, it has been found that the materials remaining after antioxidant and pectin removal from apple pomace can still be designed with adequate structure, texture and composition to grow diverse types of cells. In this particularly case, the chosen cells were osteoblasts and chondrocytes, both of them related to the regeneration of bone and cartilage tissues because of their application in regenerative medicine in diseases such as osteoporosis, arthritis or osteoarthritis.

Today, there are products in the market with the same applications, however they have a high price reaching over €100 per gram, while waste used in this work hardly reaches €100 per ton. For this reason, there are consistent incentives to convert this waste into final products of great added value.

According to Milagro Ramos, a female researcher of the study, “with this approach we achieve a double goal, firstly using waste as a renewable raw material of high value and chemical diversity, and secondly, to reduce the impact of such waste accumulation on the environment”.

Thanks to the new materials obtained in this work, researchers are developing new technological applications that allow them to structure customized biomaterials through 3D printing techniques.

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

Multivalorization of apple pomace towards materials and chemicals. Waste to wealth by Malcolm Yates, Milagros Ramos Gomez, Maria A. Martin-Luengo, Violeta Zurdo Ibañez, Ana Maria Martinez Serrano. Journal of Cleaner Production Volume 143, 1 February 2017, Pages 847–853  http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.036

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dancing quantum entanglement (Ap. 20 – 22, 2017) and performing mathematics (Ap. 26 – 30, 2017) in Vancouver, Canada

I have listings for two art/science events in Vancouver (Canada).

Dance, poetry and quantum entanglement

From April 20, 2017 (tonight) – April 22, 2017, there will be 8 p.m. performances of Lesley Telford’s ‘Three Sets/Relating At A Distance; My tongue, your ear / If / Spooky Action at a Distance (phase 1)’ at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie St, Yes, that third title is a reference to Einstein’s famous phrase describing his response of the concept of quantum entanglement.

An April 19, 2017 article by Janet Smith for the Georgia Straight features the dancer’s description of the upcoming performances,

One of the clearest definitions of quantum entanglement—a phenomenon Albert Einstein dubbed “spooky action at a distance”—can be found in a vampire movie.

In Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive Tom Hiddleston’s depressed rock-star bloodsucker explains it this way to Tilda Swinton’s Eve, his centuries-long partner: “When you separate an entwined particle and you move both parts away from the other, even at opposite ends of the universe, if you alter or affect one, the other will be identically altered or affected.”

In fact, it was by watching the dark love story that Vancouver dance artist Lesley Telford learned about quantum entanglement—in which particles are so closely connected that they cannot act independently of one another, no matter how much space lies between them. She became fascinated not just with the scientific possibilities of the concept but with the romantic ones. …

 “I thought, ‘What a great metaphor,’ ” the choreographer tells the Straight over sushi before heading into a Dance Centre studio. “It’s the idea of quantum entanglement and how that could relate to human entanglement.…It’s really a metaphor for human interactions.”

First, though, as is so often the case with Telford, she needed to form those ideas into words. So she approached poet Barbara Adler to talk about the phenomenon, and then to have her build poetry around it—text that the writer will perform live in Telford’s first full evening of work here.

“Barbara talked a lot about how you feel this resonance with people that have been in your life, and how it’s tied into romantic connections and love stories,” Telford explains. “As we dig into it, it’s become less about that and more of an underlying vibration in the work; it feels like we’ve gone beyond that starting point.…I feel like she has a way of making it so down-to-earth and it’s given us so much food to work with. Are we in control of the universe or is it in control of us?”

Spooky Action at a Distance, a work for seven dancers, ends up being a string of duets that weave—entangle—into other duets. …

There’s more information about the performance, which concerns itself with more than quantum entanglement in the Scotiabank Dance Centre’s event webpage,

Lesley Telford’s choreography brings together a technically rigorous vocabulary and a thought-provoking approach, refined by her years dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater and creating for companies at home and abroad, most recently Ballet BC. This triple bill features an excerpt of a new creation inspired by Einstein’s famous phrase “spooky action at a distance”, referring to particles that are so closely linked, they share the same existence: a collaboration with poet Barbara Adler, the piece seeks to extend the theory to human connections in our phenomenally interconnected world. The program also includes a new extended version of If, a trio based on Anne Carson’s poem, and the duet My tongue, your ear, with text by Wislawa Szymborska.

Here’s what appears to be an excerpt from a rehearsal for ‘Spooky Action …’,

I’m not super fond of the atonal music/sound they’re using. The voice you hear is Adler’s and here’s more about Barbara Adler from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Barbara Adler is a musician, poet, and storyteller based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a past Canadian Team Slam Champion, was a founding member of the Vancouver Youth Slam, and a past CBC Poetry Face Off winner.[1]

She was a founding member of the folk band The Fugitives with Brendan McLeod, C.R. Avery and Mark Berube[2][3] until she left the band in 2011 to pursue other artistic ventures. She was a member of the accordion shout-rock band Fang, later Proud Animal, and works under the pseudonym Ten Thousand Wolves.[4][5][6][7][8]

In 2004 she participated in the inaugural Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, winning the Spoken Wordlympics with her fellow team members Shane Koyczan, C.R. Avery, and Brendan McLeod.[9][10] In 2010 she started on The BC Memory Game, a traveling storytelling project based on the game of memory[11] and has also been involved with the B.C. Schizophrenia Society Reach Out Tour for several years.[12][13][14] She is of Czech-Jewish descent.[15][16]

Barbara Adler has her bachelor’s degree and MFA from Simon Fraser University, with a focus on songwriting, storytelling, and community engagement.[17][18] In 2015 she was a co-star in the film Amerika, directed by Jan Foukal,[19][20] which premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.[21]

Finally, Telford is Artist in Residence at the Dance Centre and TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics and accelerator-based science.

To buy tickets ($32 or less with a discount), go here. Telford will be present on April 21, 2017 for a post-show talk.

Pi Theatre’s ‘Long Division’

This theatrical performance of concepts in mathematics runs from April 26 – 30, 2017 (check here for the times as they vary) at the Annex at 823 Seymour St.  From the Georgia Straight’s April 12, 2017 Arts notice,

Mathematics is an art form in itself, as proven by Pi Theatre’s number-charged Long Division. This is a “refreshed remount” of Peter Dickinson’s ambitious work, one that circles around seven seemingly unrelated characters (including a high-school math teacher, a soccer-loving imam, and a lesbian bar owner) bound together by a single traumatic incident. Directed by Richard Wolfe, with choreography by Lesley Telford and musical score by Owen Belton, it’s a multimedia, movement-driven piece that has a strong cast. …

Here’s more about the play from Pi Theatre’s Long Division page,

Long Division uses text, multimedia, and physical theatre to create a play about the mathematics of human connection.

Long Division focuses on seven characters linked – sometimes directly, sometimes more obliquely – by a sequence of tragic events. These characters offer lessons on number theory, geometry and logic, while revealing aspects of their inner lives, and collectively the nature of their relationships to one another.

Playwright: Peter Dickinson
Director: Richard Wolfe
Choreographer: Lesley Telford, Inverso Productions
Composer: Owen Belton
Assistant Director: Keltie Forsyth

Cast:  Anousha Alamian, Jay Clift, Nicco Lorenzo Garcia, Jennifer Lines, Melissa Oei, LInda Quibell & Kerry Sandomirsky

Costume Designer: Connie Hosie
Lighting Designer: Jergus Oprsal
Set Designer: Lauchlin Johnston
Projection Designer: Jamie Nesbitt
Production Manager: Jayson Mclean
Stage Manager: Jethelo E. Cabilete
Assistant Projection Designer: Cameron Fraser
Lighting Design Associate: Jeff Harrison

Dates/Times: April 26 – 29 at 8pm, April 29 and 30 at 2pm
Student performance on April 27 at 1pm

A Talk-Back will take place after the 2pm show on April 29th.

Shawn Conner engaged the playwright, Peter Dickinson in an April 20, 2017 Q&A (question and answer) for the Vancouver Sun,

Q: Had you been working on Long Division for a long time?

A: I’d been working on it for about five years. I wrote a previous play called The Objecthood of Chairs, which has a similar style in that I combine lecture performance with physical and dance theatre. There are movement scores in both pieces.

In that first play, I told the story of two men and their relationship through the history of chair design. It was a combination of mining my research about that and trying to craft a story that was human and where the audience could find a way in. When I was thinking about a subject for a new play, I took the profession of one of the characters in that first play, who was a math teacher, and said, “Let’s see what happens to his character, let’s see where he goes after the breakup of his relationship.”

At first, I wrote it (Long Division) in an attempt at completely real, kitchen-sink naturalism, and it was a complete disaster. So I went back into this lecture-style performance.

Q: Long Division is set in a bar. Is the setting left over from that attempt at realism?

A: I guess so. It’s kind of a meta-theatrical play in the sense that the characters address the audience, and they’re aware they’re in a theatrical setting. One of the characters is an actress, and she comments on the connection between mathematics and theatre.

Q: This is being called a “refreshed” remount. What’s changed since its first run 

A: It’s mostly been cuts, and some massaging of certain sections. And I think it’s a play that actually needs a little distance.

Like mathematics, the patterns only reveal themselves at a remove. I think I needed that distance to see where things were working and where they could be better. So it’s a gift for me to be given this opportunity, to make things pop a little more and to make the math, which isn’t meant to be difficult, more understandable and relatable.

You may have noticed that Lesley Telford from Spooky Action is also choreographer for this production. I gather she’s making a career of art/science pieces, at least for now.

In the category of ‘Vancouver being a small town’, Telford lists a review of one of her pieces,  ‘AUDC’s Season Finale at The Playhouse’, on her website. Intriguingly, the reviewer is Peter Dickinson who in addition to being the playwright with whom she has collaborated for Pi Theatre’s ‘Long Division’ is also the Director of SFU’s (Simon Fraser University’s) Institute for Performance Studies. I wonder how many more ways these two crisscross professionally? Personally and for what it’s worth, it might be a good idea for Telford (and Dickinson, if he hasn’t already done so) to make readers aware of their professional connections when there’s a review at stake.

Final comment: I’m not sure how quantum entanglement or mathematics with the pieces attributed to concepts from those fields but I’m sure anyone attempting to make the links will find themselves stimulated.

ETA April 21, 2017: I’m adding this event even though the tickets are completely subscribed. There will be a standby line the night of the event (from the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies The Hidden Beauty of Mathematics event page,

02 May 2017

7:00 pm (doors open at 6:00 pm)

The Vogue Theatre

918 Granville St.

Vancouver, BC

Register

Good luck!

Why are jokes funny? There may be a quantum explanation

Some years ago a friend who’d attended a conference on humour told me I really shouldn’t talk about humour until I had a degree on the topic. I decided the best way to deal with that piece of advice was to avoid all mention of any theories about humour to that friend. I’m happy to say the strategy has worked well although this latest research may allow me to broach the topic once again. From a March 17, 2017 Frontiers (publishing) news release on EurekAlert (Note: A link has been removed),

Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 789. Whether this pun makes you giggle or groan in pain, your reaction is a consequence of the ambiguity of the joke. Thus far, models have not been able to fully account for the complexity of humor or exactly why we find puns and jokes funny, but a research article recently published in Frontiers in Physics suggests a novel approach: quantum theory.

By the way, it took me forever to get the joke. I always blame these things on the fact that I learned French before English (although my English is now my strongest language). So, for anyone who may immediately grasp the pun: Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 78 (ate) 9.

This news release was posted by Anna Sigurdsson on March 22, 2017 on the Frontiers blog,

Aiming to answer the question of what kind of formal theory is needed to model the cognitive representation of a joke, researchers suggest that a quantum theory approach might be a contender. In their paper, they outline a quantum inspired model of humor, hoping that this new approach may succeed at a more nuanced modeling of the cognition of humor than previous attempts and lead to the development of a full-fledged, formal quantum theory model of humor. This initial model was tested in a study where participants rated the funniness of verbal puns, as well as the funniness of variants of these jokes (e.g. the punchline on its own, the set-up on its own). The results indicate that apart from the delivery of information, something else is happening on a cognitive level that makes the joke as a whole funny whereas its deconstructed components are not, and which makes a quantum approach appropriate to study this phenomenon.

For decades, researchers from a range of different fields have tried to explain the phenomenon of humor and what happens on a cognitive level in the moment when we “get the joke”. Even within the field of psychology, the topic of humor has been studied using many different approaches, and although the last two decades have seen an upswing of the application of quantum models to the study of psychological phenomena, this is the first time that a quantum theory approach has been suggested as a way to better understand the complexity of humor.

Previous computational models of humor have suggested that the funny element of a joke may be explained by a word’s ability to hold two different meanings (bisociation), and the existence of multiple, but incompatible, ways of interpreting a statement or situation (incongruity). During the build-up of the joke, we interpret the situation one way, and once the punch line comes, there is a shift in our understanding of the situation, which gives it a new meaning and creates the comical effect.

However, the authors argue that it is not the shift of meaning, but rather our ability to perceive both meanings simultaneously, that makes a pun funny. This is where a quantum approach might be able to account for the complexity of humor in a way that earlier models cannot. “Quantum formalisms are highly useful for describing cognitive states that entail this form of ambiguity,” says Dr. Liane Gabora from the University of British Columbia, corresponding author of the paper. “Funniness is not a pre-existing ‘element of reality’ that can be measured; it emerges from an interaction between the underlying nature of the joke, the cognitive state of the listener, and other social and environmental factors. This makes the quantum formalism an excellent candidate for modeling humor,” says Dr. Liane Gabora.

Although much work and testing remains before the completion of a formal quantum theory model of humor to explain the cognitive aspects of reacting to a pun, these first findings provide an exciting first step and opens for the possibility of a more nuanced modeling of humor. “The cognitive process of “getting” a joke is a difficult process to model, and we consider the work in this paper to be an early first step toward an eventually more comprehensive theory of humor that includes predictive models. We believe that the approach promises an exciting step toward a formal theory of humor, and that future research will build upon this modest beginning,” concludes Dr. Liane Gabora.

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

Toward a Quantum Theory of Humor by Liane Gabora and Kirsty Kitto. Front. Phys., 26 January 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fphy.2016.00053

This paper has been published in an open access journal. In viewing the acknowledgements at the end of the paper I found what I found to be a surprising funding agency,

This work was supported by a grant (62R06523) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We are grateful to Samantha Thomson who assisted with the development of the questionnaire and the collection of the data for the study reported here.

While I’m at this, I might as well mention that Kirsty Katto is from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia and, for those unfamiliar with the geography, the University of British Columbia is the the Canada’s province of British Columbia.

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) April 25, 2017 talk: No Small Feat: Seeing Atoms and Molecules

I thought I’d been knocked off the list but finally I have a notice for an upcoming Café Scientifique talk that arrived and before the event, at that.  From an April 12, 2017 notice (received via email),

Our next café will happen on TUESDAY APRIL 25TH, 7:30PM in the back
room at YAGGER’S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender). Our speaker for the
evening will be DR. SARAH BURKE, an Assistant Professor in the
Department of Physics and Astronomy/ Department of Chemistry at UBC [University of British Columbia]. The title of her talk is:

NO SMALL FEAT: SEEING ATOMS AND MOLECULES

From solar cells to superconductivity, the properties of materials and
the devices we make from them arise from the atomic scale structure of
the atoms that make up the material, their electrons, and how they all
interact.  Seeing this takes a microscope, but not like the one you may
have had as a kid or used in a university lab, which are limited to
seeing objects on the scale of the wavelength of visible light: still
thousands of times bigger than the size of an atom.  Scanning probe
microscopes operate more like a nanoscale record player, scanning a very
sharp tip over a surface and measuring interactions between the tip and
surface to create atomically resolved images.  These techniques show us
where atoms and electrons live at surfaces, on nanostructures, and in
molecules.  I will describe how these techniques give us a powerful
glimpse into a tiny world.

I have a little more about Sarah Burke from her webpage in the UBC Physics and Astronomy webspace,

Building an understanding of important electronic and optoelectronic processes in nanoscale materials from the atomic scale up will pave the way for next generation materials and technologies.

My research interests broadly encompass the study of electronic processes where nanoscale structure influences or reveals the underlying physics. Using scanning probe microscopy (SPM) techniques, my group investigates materials for organic electronics and optoelectronics, graphene and other carbon-based nanomaterials, and other materials where a nanoscale view offers the potential for new understanding. We also work to expand the SPM toolbox; developing new methods in order to probe different aspects of materials, and working to understand leading edge techniques.

For the really curious, you can find more information about her research group, UBC Laboratory for Atomic Imaging Research (LAIR) here.

Graphene-based neural probes

I have two news bits (dated almost one month apart) about the use of graphene in neural probes, one from the European Union and the other from Korea.

European Union (EU)

This work is being announced by the European Commission’s (a subset of the EU) Graphene Flagship (one of two mega-funding projects announced in 2013; 1B Euros each over ten years for the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project).

According to a March 27, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, researchers have developed a graphene-based neural probe that has been tested on rats,

Measuring brain activity with precision is essential to developing further understanding of diseases such as epilepsy and disorders that affect brain function and motor control. Neural probes with high spatial resolution are needed for both recording and stimulating specific functional areas of the brain. Now, researchers from the Graphene Flagship have developed a new device for recording brain activity in high resolution while maintaining excellent signal to noise ratio (SNR). Based on graphene field-effect transistors, the flexible devices open up new possibilities for the development of functional implants and interfaces.

The research, published in 2D Materials, was a collaborative effort involving Flagship partners Technical University of Munich (TU Munich; Germany), Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; Spain), Spanish National Research Council (CSIC; Spain), The Biomedical Research Networking Center in Bioengineering, Biomaterials and Nanomedicine (CIBER-BBN; Spain) and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2; Spain).

Caption: Graphene transistors integrated in a flexible neural probe enables electrical signals from neurons to be measured with high accuracy and density. Inset: The tip of the probe contains 16 flexible graphene transistors. Credit: ICN2

A March 27, 2017 Graphene Flagship press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work,  in more detail,

The devices were used to record the large signals generated by pre-epileptic activity in rats, as well as the smaller levels of brain activity during sleep and in response to visual light stimulation. These types of activities lead to much smaller electrical signals, and are at the level of typical brain activity. Neural activity is detected through the highly localised electric fields generated when neurons fire, so densely packed, ultra-small measuring devices is important for accurate brain readings.

The neural probes are placed directly on the surface of the brain, so safety is of paramount importance for the development of graphene-based neural implant devices. Importantly, the researchers determined that the graphene-based probes are non-toxic, and did not induce any significant inflammation.

Devices implanted in the brain as neural prosthesis for therapeutic brain stimulation technologies and interfaces for sensory and motor devices, such as artificial limbs, are an important goal for improving quality of life for patients. This work represents a first step towards the use of graphene in research as well as clinical neural devices, showing that graphene-based technologies can deliver the high resolution and high SNR needed for these applications.

First author Benno Blaschke (TU Munich) said “Graphene is one of the few materials that allows recording in a transistor configuration and simultaneously complies with all other requirements for neural probes such as flexibility, biocompability and chemical stability. Although graphene is ideally suited for flexible electronics, it was a great challenge to transfer our fabrication process from rigid substrates to flexible ones. The next step is to optimize the wafer-scale fabrication process and improve device flexibility and stability.”

Jose Antonio Garrido (ICN2), led the research. He said “Mechanical compliance is an important requirement for safe neural probes and interfaces. Currently, the focus is on ultra-soft materials that can adapt conformally to the brain surface. Graphene neural interfaces have shown already great potential, but we have to improve on the yield and homogeneity of the device production in order to advance towards a real technology. Once we have demonstrated the proof of concept in animal studies, the next goal will be to work towards the first human clinical trial with graphene devices during intraoperative mapping of the brain. This means addressing all regulatory issues associated to medical devices such as safety, biocompatibility, etc.”

Caption: The graphene-based neural probes were used to detect rats’ responses to visual stimulation, as well as neural signals during sleep. Both types of signals are small, and typically difficult to measure. Credit: ICN2

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

Mapping brain activity with flexible graphene micro-transistors by Benno M Blaschke, Núria Tort-Colet, Anton Guimerà-Brunet, Julia Weinert, Lionel Rousseau, Axel Heimann, Simon Drieschner, Oliver Kempski, Rosa Villa, Maria V Sanchez-Vives. 2D Materials, Volume 4, Number 2 DOI https://doi.org/10.1088/2053-1583/aa5eff Published 24 February 2017

© 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd

This paper is behind a paywall.

Korea

While this research from Korea was published more recently, the probe itself has not been subjected to in vivo (animal testing). From an April 19, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Electrodes placed in the brain record neural activity, and can help treat neural diseases like Parkinson’s and epilepsy. Interest is also growing in developing better brain-machine interfaces, in which electrodes can help control prosthetic limbs. Progress in these fields is hindered by limitations in electrodes, which are relatively stiff and can damage soft brain tissue.

Designing smaller, gentler electrodes that still pick up brain signals is a challenge because brain signals are so weak. Typically, the smaller the electrode, the harder it is to detect a signal. However, a team from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science & Technology [DGIST} in Korea developed new probes that are small, flexible and read brain signals clearly.

This is a pretty interesting way to illustrate the research,

Caption: Graphene and gold make a better brain probe. Credit: DGIST

An April 19, 2017 DGIST press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

The probe consists of an electrode, which records the brain signal. The signal travels down an interconnection line to a connector, which transfers the signal to machines measuring and analysing the signals.

The electrode starts with a thin gold base. Attached to the base are tiny zinc oxide nanowires, which are coated in a thin layer of gold, and then a layer of conducting polymer called PEDOT. These combined materials increase the probe’s effective surface area, conducting properties, and strength of the electrode, while still maintaining flexibility and compatibility with soft tissue.

Packing several long, thin nanowires together onto one probe enables the scientists to make a smaller electrode that retains the same effective surface area of a larger, flat electrode. This means the electrode can shrink, but not reduce signal detection. The interconnection line is made of a mix of graphene and gold. Graphene is flexible and gold is an excellent conductor. The researchers tested the probe and found it read rat brain signals very clearly, much better than a standard flat, gold electrode.

“Our graphene and nanowires-based flexible electrode array can be useful for monitoring and recording the functions of the nervous system, or to deliver electrical signals to the brain,” the researchers conclude in their paper recently published in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The probe requires further clinical tests before widespread commercialization. The researchers are also interested in developing a wireless version to make it more convenient for a variety of applications.

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

Enhancement of Interface Characteristics of Neural Probe Based on Graphene, ZnO Nanowires, and Conducting Polymer PEDOT by Mingyu Ryu, Jae Hoon Yang, Yumi Ahn, Minkyung Sim, Kyung Hwa Lee, Kyungsoo Kim, Taeju Lee, Seung-Jun Yoo, So Yeun Kim, Cheil Moon, Minkyu Je, Ji-Woong Choi, Youngu Lee, and Jae Eun Jang. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2017, 9 (12), pp 10577–10586 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.7b02975 Publication Date (Web): March 7, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Plasmonic ‘Goldfinger’: antifungal nail polish with metallic nanoparticles

A March 29,.2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new kind of nanopolish,

Since ancient times, people have used lustrous silver, platinum and gold to make jewelry and other adornments. Researchers have now developed a new way to add the metals to nail polish with minimal additives, resulting in durable, tinted — and potentially antibacterial — nail coloring.

Using metal nanoparticles in clear nail polish makes it durable and colorful without extra additives.
Credit: American Chemical Society

A March 29, 2017 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, adds a little more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

Nail polish comes in a bewildering array of colors. Current coloring techniques commonly incorporate pigment powders and additives. Scientists have recently started exploring the use of nanoparticles in polishes and have found that they can improve their durability and, in the case of silver nanoparticles, can treat fungal toenail infections. Marcus Lau, Friedrich Waag and Stephan Barcikowski wanted to see if they could come up with a simple way to integrate metal nanoparticles in nail polish.

The researchers started with store-bought bottles of clear, colorless nail polish and added small pieces of silver, gold, platinum or an alloy to them. To break the metals into nanoparticles, they shone a laser on them in short bursts over 15 minutes. Analysis showed that the method resulted in a variety of colored, transparent polishes with a metallic sheen. The researchers also used laser ablation to produce a master batch of metal nanoparticles in ethyl acetate, a polish thinner, which could then be added to individual bottles of polish. This could help boost the amount of production for commercialization. The researchers say the technique could also be used to create coatings for medical devices.

The authors acknowledge funding from the INTERREG-Program Germany-Netherlands.

A transparent nail varnish can be colored simply and directly with laser-generated nanoparticles. This does not only enable coloring of the varnish for cosmetic purposes, but also gives direct access to nanodoped varnishes to be used on any solid surface. Therefore, nanoparticle properties such as plasmonic properties or antibacterial effects can be easily adapted to surfaces for medical or optical purposes. The presented method for integration of metal (gold, platinum, silver, and alloy) nanoparticles into varnishes is straightforward and gives access to nanodoped polishes with optical properties, difficult to be achieved by dispersing powder pigments in the high-viscosity liquids. Courtesy: Industrial and Engineering & Chemistry Research

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

Direct Integration of Laser-Generated Nanoparticles into Transparent Nail Polish: The Plasmonic “Goldfinger” by Marcus Lau, Friedrich Waag, and Stephan Barcikowski. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., 2017, 56 (12), pp 3291–3296 DOI: 10.1021/acs.iecr.7b00039 Publication Date (Web): March 7, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Worm-inspired gel material and soft robots

The Nereis virens worm inspired new research out of the MIT Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics. Its jaw is made of soft organic material, but is as strong as harder materials such as human dentin. Photo: Alexander Semenov/Wikimedia Commons

What an amazing worm! Here’s more about robots inspired by the Nereis virens worm in a March 20, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

A new material that naturally adapts to changing environments was inspired by the strength, stability, and mechanical performance of the jaw of a marine worm. The protein material, which was designed and modeled by researchers from the Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics (LAMM) in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology {MIT}], and synthesized in collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, expands and contracts based on changing pH levels and ion concentrations. It was developed by studying how the jaw of Nereis virens, a sand worm, forms and adapts in different environments.

The resulting pH- and ion-sensitive material is able to respond and react to its environment. Understanding this naturally-occurring process can be particularly helpful for active control of the motion or deformation of actuators for soft robotics and sensors without using external power supply or complex electronic controlling devices. It could also be used to build autonomous structures.

A March 20, 2017 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“The ability of dramatically altering the material properties, by changing its hierarchical structure starting at the chemical level, offers exciting new opportunities to tune the material, and to build upon the natural material design towards new engineering applications,” wrote Markus J. Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering, head of CEE, and senior author of the paper.

The research, recently published in ACS Nano, shows that depending on the ions and pH levels in the environment, the protein material expands and contracts into different geometric patterns. When the conditions change again, the material reverts back to its original shape. This makes it particularly useful for smart composite materials with tunable mechanics and self-powered roboticists that use pH value and ion condition to change the material stiffness or generate functional deformations.

Finding inspiration in the strong, stable jaw of a marine worm

In order to create bio-inspired materials that can be used for soft robotics, sensors, and other uses — such as that inspired by the Nereis — engineers and scientists at LAMM and AFRL needed to first understand how these materials form in the Nereis worm, and how they ultimately behave in various environments. This understanding involved the development of a model that encompasses all different length scales from the atomic level, and is able to predict the material behavior. This model helps to fully understand the Nereis worm and its exceptional strength.

“Working with AFRL gave us the opportunity to pair our atomistic simulations with experiments,” said CEE research scientist Francisco Martin-Martinez. AFRL experimentally synthesized a hydrogel, a gel-like material made mostly of water, which is composed of recombinant Nvjp-1 protein responsible for the structural stability and impressive mechanical performance of the Nereis jaw. The hydrogel was used to test how the protein shrinks and changes behavior based on pH and ions in the environment.

The Nereis jaw is mostly made of organic matter, meaning it is a soft protein material with a consistency similar to gelatin. In spite of this, its strength, which has been reported to have a hardness ranging between 0.4 and 0.8 gigapascals (GPa), is similar to that of harder materials like human dentin. “It’s quite remarkable that this soft protein material, with a consistency akin to Jell-O, can be as strong as calcified minerals that are found in human dentin and harder materials such as bones,” Buehler said.

At MIT, the researchers looked at the makeup of the Nereis jaw on a molecular scale to see what makes the jaw so strong and adaptive. At this scale, the metal-coordinated crosslinks, the presence of metal in its molecular structure, provide a molecular network that makes the material stronger and at the same time make the molecular bond more dynamic, and ultimately able to respond to changing conditions. At the macroscopic scale, these dynamic metal-protein bonds result in an expansion/contraction behavior.

Combining the protein structural studies from AFRL with the molecular understanding from LAMM, Buehler, Martin-Martinez, CEE Research Scientist Zhao Qin, and former PhD student Chia-Ching Chou ’15, created a multiscale model that is able to predict the mechanical behavior of materials that contain this protein in various environments. “These atomistic simulations help us to visualize the atomic arrangements and molecular conformations that underlay the mechanical performance of these materials,” Martin-Martinez said.

Specifically, using this model the research team was able to design, test, and visualize how different molecular networks change and adapt to various pH levels, taking into account the biological and mechanical properties.

By looking at the molecular and biological makeup of a the Nereis virens and using the predictive model of the mechanical behavior of the resulting protein material, the LAMM researchers were able to more fully understand the protein material at different scales and provide a comprehensive understanding of how such protein materials form and behave in differing pH settings. This understanding guides new material designs for soft robots and sensors.

Identifying the link between environmental properties and movement in the material

The predictive model explained how the pH sensitive materials change shape and behavior, which the researchers used for designing new PH-changing geometric structures. Depending on the original geometric shape tested in the protein material and the properties surrounding it, the LAMM researchers found that the material either spirals or takes a Cypraea shell-like shape when the pH levels are changed. These are only some examples of the potential that this new material could have for developing soft robots, sensors, and autonomous structures.

Using the predictive model, the research team found that the material not only changes form, but it also reverts back to its original shape when the pH levels change. At the molecular level, histidine amino acids present in the protein bind strongly to the ions in the environment. This very local chemical reaction between amino acids and metal ions has an effect in the overall conformation of the protein at a larger scale. When environmental conditions change, the histidine-metal interactions change accordingly, which affect the protein conformation and in turn the material response.

“Changing the pH or changing the ions is like flipping a switch. You switch it on or off, depending on what environment you select, and the hydrogel expands or contracts” said Martin-Martinez.

LAMM found that at the molecular level, the structure of the protein material is strengthened when the environment contains zinc ions and certain pH levels. This creates more stable metal-coordinated crosslinks in the material’s molecular structure, which makes the molecules more dynamic and flexible.

This insight into the material’s design and its flexibility is extremely useful for environments with changing pH levels. Its response of changing its figure to changing acidity levels could be used for soft robotics. “Most soft robotics require power supply to drive the motion and to be controlled by complex electronic devices. Our work toward designing of multifunctional material may provide another pathway to directly control the material property and deformation without electronic devices,” said Qin.

By studying and modeling the molecular makeup and the behavior of the primary protein responsible for the mechanical properties ideal for Nereis jaw performance, the LAMM researchers are able to link environmental properties to movement in the material and have a more comprehensive understanding of the strength of the Nereis jaw.

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

Ion Effect and Metal-Coordinated Cross-Linking for Multiscale Design of Nereis Jaw Inspired Mechanomutable Materials by Chia-Ching Chou, Francisco J. Martin-Martinez, Zhao Qin, Patrick B. Dennis, Maneesh K. Gupta, Rajesh R. Naik, and Markus J. Buehler. ACS Nano, 2017, 11 (2), pp 1858–1868 DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b07878 Publication Date (Web): February 6, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Tree-on-a-chip

It’s usually organ-on-a-chip or lab-on-a-chip or human-on-a-chip; this is my first tree-on-a-chip.

Engineers have designed a microfluidic device they call a “tree-on-a-chip,” which mimics the pumping mechanism of trees and other plants. Courtesy: MIT

From a March 20, 2017 news item on phys.org,

Trees and other plants, from towering redwoods to diminutive daisies, are nature’s hydraulic pumps. They are constantly pulling water up from their roots to the topmost leaves, and pumping sugars produced by their leaves back down to the roots. This constant stream of nutrients is shuttled through a system of tissues called xylem and phloem, which are packed together in woody, parallel conduits.

Now engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and their collaborators have designed a microfluidic device they call a “tree-on-a-chip,” which mimics the pumping mechanism of trees and plants. Like its natural counterparts, the chip operates passively, requiring no moving parts or external pumps. It is able to pump water and sugars through the chip at a steady flow rate for several days. The results are published this week in Nature Plants.

A March 20, 2017 MIT news release by Jennifer Chu, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Anette “Peko” Hosoi, professor and associate department head for operations in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, says the chip’s passive pumping may be leveraged as a simple hydraulic actuator for small robots. Engineers have found it difficult and expensive to make tiny, movable parts and pumps to power complex movements in small robots. The team’s new pumping mechanism may enable robots whose motions are propelled by inexpensive, sugar-powered pumps.

“The goal of this work is cheap complexity, like one sees in nature,” Hosoi says. “It’s easy to add another leaf or xylem channel in a tree. In small robotics, everything is hard, from manufacturing, to integration, to actuation. If we could make the building blocks that enable cheap complexity, that would be super exciting. I think these [microfluidic pumps] are a step in that direction.”

Hosoi’s co-authors on the paper are lead author Jean Comtet, a former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering; Kaare Jensen of the Technical University of Denmark; and Robert Turgeon and Abraham Stroock, both of Cornell University.

A hydraulic lift

The group’s tree-inspired work grew out of a project on hydraulic robots powered by pumping fluids. Hosoi was interested in designing hydraulic robots at the small scale, that could perform actions similar to much bigger robots like Boston Dynamic’s Big Dog, a four-legged, Saint Bernard-sized robot that runs and jumps over rough terrain, powered by hydraulic actuators.

“For small systems, it’s often expensive to manufacture tiny moving pieces,” Hosoi says. “So we thought, ‘What if we could make a small-scale hydraulic system that could generate large pressures, with no moving parts?’ And then we asked, ‘Does anything do this in nature?’ It turns out that trees do.”

The general understanding among biologists has been that water, propelled by surface tension, travels up a tree’s channels of xylem, then diffuses through a semipermeable membrane and down into channels of phloem that contain sugar and other nutrients.

The more sugar there is in the phloem, the more water flows from xylem to phloem to balance out the sugar-to-water gradient, in a passive process known as osmosis. The resulting water flow flushes nutrients down to the roots. Trees and plants are thought to maintain this pumping process as more water is drawn up from their roots.

“This simple model of xylem and phloem has been well-known for decades,” Hosoi says. “From a qualitative point of view, this makes sense. But when you actually run the numbers, you realize this simple model does not allow for steady flow.”

In fact, engineers have previously attempted to design tree-inspired microfluidic pumps, fabricating parts that mimic xylem and phloem. But they found that these designs quickly stopped pumping within minutes.

It was Hosoi’s student Comtet who identified a third essential part to a tree’s pumping system: its leaves, which produce sugars through photosynthesis. Comtet’s model includes this additional source of sugars that diffuse from the leaves into a plant’s phloem, increasing the sugar-to-water gradient, which in turn maintains a constant osmotic pressure, circulating water and nutrients continuously throughout a tree.

Running on sugar

With Comtet’s hypothesis in mind, Hosoi and her team designed their tree-on-a-chip, a microfluidic pump that mimics a tree’s xylem, phloem, and most importantly, its sugar-producing leaves.

To make the chip, the researchers sandwiched together two plastic slides, through which they drilled small channels to represent xylem and phloem. They filled the xylem channel with water, and the phloem channel with water and sugar, then separated the two slides with a semipermeable material to mimic the membrane between xylem and phloem. They placed another membrane over the slide containing the phloem channel, and set a sugar cube on top to represent the additional source of sugar diffusing from a tree’s leaves into the phloem. They hooked the chip up to a tube, which fed water from a tank into the chip.

With this simple setup, the chip was able to passively pump water from the tank through the chip and out into a beaker, at a constant flow rate for several days, as opposed to previous designs that only pumped for several minutes.

“As soon as we put this sugar source in, we had it running for days at a steady state,” Hosoi says. “That’s exactly what we need. We want a device we can actually put in a robot.”

Hosoi envisions that the tree-on-a-chip pump may be built into a small robot to produce hydraulically powered motions, without requiring active pumps or parts.

“If you design your robot in a smart way, you could absolutely stick a sugar cube on it and let it go,” Hosoi says.

This research was supported, in part, by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency [DARPA].

This research’s funding connection to DARPA reminded me that MIT has an Institute of Soldier Nanotechnologies.

Getting back to the tree-on-a-chip, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Passive phloem loading and long-distance transport in a synthetic tree-on-a-chip by Jean Comtet, Kaare H. Jensen, Robert Turgeon, Abraham D. Stroock & A. E. Hosoi. Nature Plants 3, Article number: 17032 (2017)  doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.32 Published online: 20 March 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

‘Golden’ protein crystals

Yet another use for gold. From a March 14, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Scientists from the London Centre for Nanotechnology (LCN) have revealed how materials such as gold can help create protein crystals. The team hope their findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports (“Protein crystal nucleation in pores”), could aid the discovery of new medicines and treatments. The Lead author; Professor Naomi Chayen states that “Gold doesn’t react with proteins, due to its inert nature, which makes it an ideal material to create crystals”.

Image: Crystals of an antibody peptide complex related to AIDS research Courtesy: LCN

A March 14, 2017 (?) LCN press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Proteins are crucial to numerous functions in the body – yet scientists are still in the dark about what most of them look like. This is because the most powerful way of revealing the structure of proteins is to turn them into crystals, and then analyse these with X-rays. However, persuading proteins to turn into useful crystals is notoriously difficult. All crystals start from a conception stage when the first molecules come together; this is called nucleation. But reaching nucleation is often difficult as it requires a lot of energy – and many proteins simply can’t overcome this barrier. Scientists also struggle to create medicines that bind to particular proteins – for instance a protein involved in cancer formation, if they don’t know the protein’s structure.

“How can you target a protein if you have no idea what it looks like? It’s like recognising a face in a crowd – you need a picture,” explained Professor Naomi Chayen, lead author of the research.

Forcing molecules together with gold

One technique for allowing proteins to reach their nucleation point is to trap them in tiny holes. This forces the molecules together, which helps them overcome the energy barrier needed to trigger the first crystal. One material that scientists have found to be effective at growing crystals is gold. Creating many holes in the metal creates a substance called porous gold, which acts as a perfect environment for growing crystals, explained Professor Chayen: “Gold doesn’t react with proteins, due to its inert nature, which makes it an ideal material to create crystals. Creating holes in the metal enable it to act a bit like coral, with each hole providing an ideal environment to harbour crystals.”

Creating crystals

In the latest research, the team investigated the best size hole needed to create crystals. They found that a variety of different sized holes produced the highest quality crystals. Most holes were around 5-10nm, just slightly larger than the width of a human hair. Professor Chayen explained: “Imagine walking down a street with many potholes – some of the holes will be big enough for me to step out of, while some will be too small for my foot to fall into. “However, some will be the exact size of my foot, and will trap me in them. This is the same principle as having different pore sizes – it allows us to trap different size protein molecules, enabling them to form crystals.”

She added that the findings which give a simple explanation of why, and under what conditions porous materials can induce protein crystal nucleation may help scientists design porous materials that would produce the highest quality crystals.

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

Protein crystal nucleation in pores by Christo N. Nanev, Emmanuel Saridakis & Naomi E. Chayen. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 35821 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep35821 Published online: 16 January 2017

This is an open access article.