Category Archives: public relations

Artificial intelligence (AI) company (in Montréal, Canada) attracts $135M in funding from Microsoft, Intel, Nvidia and others

It seems there’s a push on to establish Canada as a centre for artificial intelligence research and, if the federal and provincial governments have their way, for commercialization of said research. As always, there seems to be a bit of competition between Toronto (Ontario) and Montréal (Québec) as to which will be the dominant hub for the Canadian effort if one is to take Braga’s word for the situation.

In any event, Toronto seemed to have a mild advantage over Montréal initially with the 2017 Canadian federal government  budget announcement that the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), based in Toronto, would launch a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy and with an announcement from the University of Toronto shortly after (from my March 31, 2017 posting),

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

However, Montréal and the province of Québec are no slouches when it comes to supporting to technology. From a June 14, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online (Note: Links have been removed),

One of the most promising new hubs for artificial intelligence research in Canada is going international, thanks to a $135 million investment with contributions from some of the biggest names in tech.

The company, Montreal-based Element AI, was founded last October [2016] to help companies that might not have much experience in artificial intelligence start using the technology to change the way they do business.

It’s equal parts general research lab and startup incubator, with employees working to develop new and improved techniques in artificial intelligence that might not be fully realized for years, while also commercializing products and services that can be sold to clients today.

It was co-founded by Yoshua Bengio — one of the pioneers of a type of AI research called machine learning — along with entrepreneurs Jean-François Gagné and Nicolas Chapados, and the Canadian venture capital fund Real Ventures.

In an interview, Bengio and Gagné said the money from the company’s funding round will be used to hire 250 new employees by next January. A hundred will be based in Montreal, but an additional 100 employees will be hired for a new office in Toronto, and the remaining 50 for an Element AI office in Asia — its first international outpost.

They will join more than 100 employees who work for Element AI today, having left jobs at Amazon, Uber and Google, among others, to work at the company’s headquarters in Montreal.

The expansion is a big vote of confidence in Element AI’s strategy from some of the world’s biggest technology companies. Microsoft, Intel and Nvidia all contributed to the round, and each is a key player in AI research and development.

The company has some not unexpected plans and partners (from the Braga, article, Note: A link has been removed),

The Series A round was led by Data Collective, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, and included participation by Fidelity Investments Canada, National Bank of Canada, and Real Ventures.

What will it help the company do? Scale, its founders say.

“We’re looking at domain experts, artificial intelligence experts,” Gagné said. “We already have quite a few, but we’re looking at people that are at the top of their game in their domains.

“And at this point, it’s no longer just pure artificial intelligence, but people who understand, extremely well, robotics, industrial manufacturing, cybersecurity, and financial services in general, which are all the areas we’re going after.”

Gagné says that Element AI has already delivered 10 projects to clients in those areas, and have many more in development. In one case, Element AI has been helping a Japanese semiconductor company better analyze the data collected by the assembly robots on its factory floor, in a bid to reduce manufacturing errors and improve the quality of the company’s products.

There’s more to investment in Québec’s AI sector than Element AI (from the Braga article; Note: Links have been removed),

Element AI isn’t the only organization in Canada that investors are interested in.

In September, the Canadian government announced $213 million in funding for a handful of Montreal universities, while both Google and Microsoft announced expansions of their Montreal AI research groups in recent months alongside investments in local initiatives. The province of Quebec has pledged $100 million for AI initiatives by 2022.

Braga goes on to note some other initiatives but at that point the article’s focus is exclusively Toronto.

For more insight into the AI situation in Québec, there’s Dan Delmar’s May 23, 2017 article for the Montreal Express (Note: Links have been removed),

Advocating for massive government spending with little restraint admittedly deviates from the tenor of these columns, but the AI business is unlike any other before it. [emphasis misn] Having leaders acting as fervent advocates for the industry is crucial; resisting the coming technological tide is, as the Borg would say, futile.

The roughly 250 AI researchers who call Montreal home are not simply part of a niche industry. Quebec’s francophone character and Montreal’s multilingual citizenry are certainly factors favouring the development of language technology, but there’s ample opportunity for more ambitious endeavours with broader applications.

AI isn’t simply a technological breakthrough; it is the technological revolution. [emphasis mine] In the coming decades, modern computing will transform all industries, eliminating human inefficiencies and maximizing opportunities for innovation and growth — regardless of the ethical dilemmas that will inevitably arise.

“By 2020, we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain,” said (in 2009) futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, a seminal 2006 book that has inspired a generation of AI technologists. Kurzweil’s projections are not science fiction but perhaps conservative, as some forms of AI already effectively replace many human cognitive functions. “By 2045, we’ll have expanded the intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billion-fold. That will be the singularity.”

The singularity concept, borrowed from physicists describing event horizons bordering matter-swallowing black holes in the cosmos, is the point of no return where human and machine intelligence will have completed their convergence. That’s when the machines “take over,” so to speak, and accelerate the development of civilization beyond traditional human understanding and capability.

The claims I’ve highlighted in Delmar’s article have been made before for other technologies, “xxx is like no other business before’ and “it is a technological revolution.”  Also if you keep scrolling down to the bottom of the article, you’ll find Delmar is a ‘public relations consultant’ which, if you look at his LinkedIn profile, you’ll find means he’s a managing partner in a PR firm known as Provocateur.

Bertrand Marotte’s May 20, 2017 article for the Montreal Gazette offers less hyperbole along with additional detail about the Montréal scene (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem like an ambitious goal, but key players in Montreal’s rapidly growing artificial-intelligence sector are intent on transforming the city into a Silicon Valley of AI.

Certainly, the flurry of activity these days indicates that AI in the city is on a roll. Impressive amounts of cash have been flowing into academia, public-private partnerships, research labs and startups active in AI in the Montreal area.

…, researchers at Microsoft Corp. have successfully developed a computing system able to decipher conversational speech as accurately as humans do. The technology makes the same, or fewer, errors than professional transcribers and could be a huge boon to major users of transcription services like law firms and the courts.

Setting the goal of attaining the critical mass of a Silicon Valley is “a nice point of reference,” said tech entrepreneur Jean-François Gagné, co-founder and chief executive officer of Element AI, an artificial intelligence startup factory launched last year.

The idea is to create a “fluid, dynamic ecosystem” in Montreal where AI research, startup, investment and commercialization activities all mesh productively together, said Gagné, who founded Element with researcher Nicolas Chapados and Université de Montréal deep learning pioneer Yoshua Bengio.

“Artificial intelligence is seen now as a strategic asset to governments and to corporations. The fight for resources is global,” he said.

The rise of Montreal — and rival Toronto — as AI hubs owes a lot to provincial and federal government funding.

Ottawa promised $213 million last September to fund AI and big data research at four Montreal post-secondary institutions. Quebec has earmarked $100 million over the next five years for the development of an AI “super-cluster” in the Montreal region.

The provincial government also created a 12-member blue-chip committee to develop a strategic plan to make Quebec an AI hub, co-chaired by Claridge Investments Ltd. CEO Pierre Boivin and Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton.

But private-sector money has also been flowing in, particularly from some of the established tech giants competing in an intense AI race for innovative breakthroughs and the best brains in the business.

Montreal’s rich talent pool is a major reason Waterloo, Ont.-based language-recognition startup Maluuba decided to open a research lab in the city, said the company’s vice-president of product development, Mohamed Musbah.

“It’s been incredible so far. The work being done in this space is putting Montreal on a pedestal around the world,” he said.

Microsoft struck a deal this year to acquire Maluuba, which is working to crack one of the holy grails of deep learning: teaching machines to read like the human brain does. Among the company’s software developments are voice assistants for smartphones.

Maluuba has also partnered with an undisclosed auto manufacturer to develop speech recognition applications for vehicles. Voice recognition applied to cars can include such things as asking for a weather report or making remote requests for the vehicle to unlock itself.

Marotte’s Twitter profile describes him as a freelance writer, editor, and translator.

Part-time job at the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST)

The Vancouver-based Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) has a part-time, contract position available. From the SCWIST Coordinator – MS Infinity Program job page,

The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) is a non-profit association that promotes, encourages and empowers women and girls in science, engineering and technology. Ms Infinity programs introduce girls to exciting career options and female role models in science and technology. Conferences and workshops with fun filled activities bring science alive. Girls are introduced to jobs from all areas of science and get the support they need when deciding how to take their interest in science further with e-mentor and role model programs.

POSITION OVERVIEW & KEY RESPONSIBILITIES

Title: Coordinator – MS Infinity Program
Type: Part-time contract (12 – 18 hours per week)
Start: ASAP
Application deadline: January 20, 2015
Reports to: Director of Outreach
Time Commitment:  This is a 6-month contract, to be renewed based on grant funding

Coordination and promotion of ms infinity programming:

  • Volunteer recruitment and management
  • Volunteer training, development and communication (quarterly e-newsletter)
  • Preparation of promotional material and marketing of the program
  • Organization of and communication with the ms infinity committee
  • Communication with workshop/ event/ conference organizers
  • Promotion of ms infinity offerings to SCWIST members
  • Assistance in workshop, event and conference organization
  • Research of new workshop and event possibilities to extend the reach of ms infinity
  • Development of new educational workshops
  • Grant application, reporting and budget management

Coordination of the e-mentoring program:

  • Program administration
  • Recruitment of mentors and mentees
  • Organization of discussion topics

Qualifications:

  • A degree in science or education
  • Experience in informal science education and program coordination
  • Positive, enthusiastic attitude
  • Ability to present the Society well in the science learning and promotion community
  • Strong organizational and communication skills
  • Self-motivated with attention to detail
  • Experience in event organization and management, as well as experience managing budgets
  • Excellent knowledge in MS Office and social media tools

Additional application information is on the job page.

Become a press and communications officer for the UK’s Society of Biology

The application deadline for the job is Monday, June 23, 2014 5 pm (London, UK time). Should you be living on the West Coast of Canada or the US (not sure about Mexico as that country curves east the further south you travel) move the time back 8 hours for a 9 am deadline.

Here’s more about the job (h/t Rebecca N) from the Press & Communications Officer posting on the Society of Biology’s Job Board,

Job title: Press & Communications Officer

Reports to: Director of Membership, Marketing & Communications

Overall purpose: To ensure, through proactive media & PR activity, that the Society has the profile and level of publicity to support the organisation’s vision and brand. To co-ordinate Biology Week and use it as a way to raise the profile of the Society of Biology and of the biosciences.

Contract: Permanent

Hours: Full-time

Salary: £25,000 to £29,000 (depending on experience)

Key responsibilities:

1.    Develop and lead a proactive and effective media strategy; build relationships with journalists, and act as the main point of contact for journalist enquiries; write press releases and news articles for the website; produce background briefings and prepare spokespeople for interviews, co-ordinating media interviews and requests; arrange media interviews and develop a public profile for key staff; monitor current issues and public opinion to inform the media strategy; work with Member Organisations and the Science Media Centre; ensure that all media communications comply with the Society’s brand identity and guidelines

2.    Develop a PR strategy; identify and exploit PR opportunities to maximise the Society’s policy work, to promote the Society as the unifying voice of biology, to promote the benefits of membership, and to promote key events; evaluate all PR activity

3.    Work with the Society’s branches and special interest groups to support and/or deliver regional/specialist press work

4.    Monitor the Society’s press and broadcast coverage, feeding this information back to staff and volunteers

5.    Assist in managing the media in a potential crisis situation, including availability outside normal office hours: ensure any negative coverage is swiftly and effectively responded to, including production of position statements prior to any media interest

6.    Maintain the media database with key contacts

7.    Co-ordinate Biology Week, including liaising with teachers and increasing the number of external events, and managing an intern

8.    Organise Biology Week events, including a reception in the House of Commons, and use the events to raise the Society’s profile

9.    Manage the Society’s social media outlets, including a blog, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and increase its online following

10.    Work with team to produce photographs, videos and podcasts

11.    Co-ordinate citizen science projects, including the flying ant survey

12.    Carrying out such other duties as may be required, including occasional UK travel and stays overnight

This looks like it could be fun, ‘co-ordinate a citizen science flying ant survey’. And, seeing one of the other duties involves organizing a reception at the House of Commons, the requirement “Able to get on with people at all levels” seems more important than it might ordinarily. Although how one would evaluate the quality mystifies me. The rest of the requirements and more application details are available here.

Here’s more about the Society of Biology from its About us page (Note: Links have been removed),

The Society of Biology is a single unified voice for biology: advising Government and influencing policy; advancing education and professional development; supporting our members, and engaging and encouraging public interest in the life sciences. The Society represents a diverse membership of individuals, learned societies and other organisations.

Individual members include practising scientists, students at all levels, professionals in academia, industry and education, and non-professionals with an interest in biology.
Our vision is of a world that understands the true value of biology and how it can contribute to improving life for all.

Our mission is to be the unifying voice for biology, to facilitate the promotion of new discoveries in biological science for national and international benefit, and to engage the wider public with our work.

Good luck!

Keithly’s ‘How Nanotechnology Could Reengineer Us’ infographic*

There’s a rather striking infographic from Keithley, a Tektronix company, making the rounds,

[downloaded from http://www.keithley.com/knowledgecenter/How-Nanotechnology-Could-Reengineer-Us]

[downloaded from http://www.keithley.com/knowledgecenter/How-Nanotechnology-Could-Reengineer-Us]

Difficult to see here, I encourage the curious to check it out here on the company’s website and do keep in mind that this represents aspirational research. Assuming any number of technical difficulties can be surmounted, we may one day be able to repair brains, regrow teeth, etc.

The commentary on Reddit about this infographic is illuminating. From the How Nanotechnology Could Reengineer Us comments  page in Futurology on the Reddit.com website,

Benchtop nano scientist (phd student) here. The choice of r/Futurology [section for this infographic] is a generous one — if there were an r/post-future-ology it might be a more accurate estimate. It is going to take a long, long time to translate “nanotechnology” — however you want to define it — into these medical advances. …

I’m in a nanomolecular engineering class right now, granted that it’s an undergraduate course I can say that the life regeneration aspect is too far in the future. The closest medical implementation I have seen I better targeted drug delivery and even that was all theoretical. And in the classes its just a whole bunch of quantum physics and chemistry and basic engineering tools. Full on regeneration I assume will be at least 20 years. Professors working in the field are even skeptical of the stuff above. Sure they’ll write the stuff in their grants but in reality it’s really far off.

I don’t know if you know much about pur current drug delivery mechanisms by they not as sophisticated as we think they don’t penetrate the cell and certainly have no effect on the DNA. The research I read was targeting the DNA penetrating the cell using a nanomolecular ligands that coated specific silencing RNA. Look up the research it is conducted by Suzie Pun.

I interviewed with Pun at UW when applying for BME PhD programs. Very cool work. I’m going somewhere else for grad school but still working on targeted siRNA delivery.

It has huge potential, but will take quite a long time to make it through the clinic and gain FDA approval.

Getting back to the infographic, I was quite happy to see a list of sources at the bottom. It’s reassuring to see what research they examined before producing their infographic. Too many people and institutions don’t* share the sources for their information.

Here’s some information about Tektronix, Keithley’s parent company, (from the its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Tektronix, Inc. is an American company best known for manufacturing test and measurement devices such as oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, and video and mobile test protocol equipment. In November 2007, Danaher Corporation acquired Tektronix as a subsidiary.[2]

Here’s more from the About Keithley page,

Keithley, a Tektronix company, designs, develops, manufactures, and markets advanced electrical test instruments and systems for the specialized needs of electronics manufacturers in high-performance production testing, process monitoring, product development, and research.

Keithley has approximately 500 products that are used to source, measure, connect, control, or communicate direct current (DC) or pulsed electrical signals. Product offerings include integrated systems along with instruments and personal computer (PC) plug-in boards that can be used as system components or stand-alone solutions. Keithley customers include scientists and engineers in the worldwide electronics industry involved with advanced materials research, semiconductor device development and fabrication, and the production of end products such as portable wireless devices.

This infographic seems like an interesting public relations ploy as it has certainly gotten the company some attention.

* ‘don’t’ added to sentence on Sept. 29, 2014.

* ‘inforgraphic’ changed to ‘infographic’ on April 23, 2015.

Advice on marketing nano from a process engineering perspective

Robert Ferris, PhD, is writing a series of posts about the ‘Process Engineering of Nanotechnology’ on the Emerson Process Experts blog. Before getting to his marketing post, I’m going to briefly discuss his Jan. 4, 2014 posting (the first in this business-oriented series) which offers a good primer on the topic of nanotechnology although I do have a proviso, Ferris’ posts should be read with some caution,

I contribute [sic]  the knowledge gap to the fact that most of the writing out there is written by science-brains and first-adopters. Previous authors focus on the technology and potentials of bench-top scale innovation. This is great for the fellow science-brain but useless to the general population. I can say this because I am one of those science-brains.

The unfortunate truth is that most people do not understand nanotechnology nor care about the science behind it. They only care if the new product is better than the last. Nanotechnology is not a value proposition. So, the articles written do not focus on what the general population cares about. Instead, people are confused by nanotechnology and as a result are unsure of how it can be used.

I think Ferris means ‘attribute’ rather than ‘contribute’ and I infer from the evidence provided by the error that he (in common with me) does not have a copy editor. BTW, my worst was finding three errors in one of my sentences (sigh) weeks after after I’d published. At any rate, I’m suggesting caution not due to this error but to passages such as this (Note: Links have been removed),

Nanotechnology is not new; in fact, it was used as far back as the 16th century in stain glass windows. Also, nanotechnology is already being used in products today, ranging from consumer goods to food processing. Don’t be surprised if you didn’t know, a lot of companies do not publicize the fact that they use nanotechnology.

Strictly speaking the first sentence is problematic since Ferris is describing ‘accidental’ nanotechnology. The artisans weren’t purposefully creating gold nanoparticles to get that particular shade of red in the glass as opposed to what we’re doing today and I think that’s a significant difference. (Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog for the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] has been very clear that these previous forays (Damascus steel, the Lycurgus Cup) cannot be described as nanotechnology since they were unintended.) As for the rest of the excerpt, it’s all quite true.

Ferris’ Feb. 11, 2014 post tackles marketing,

… While companies and products can miss growth targets for any number of reasons, one of the more common failures for nanotechnology-enabled products is improper marketing. Most would agree that marketing is as much art as science but marketing of nanotechnology-enabled products can be particularly tricky.

True again and he’s about to focus on one aspect of marketing,

Companies that develop nanotechnology-enabled products tend to fall into two camps—those that use nanotechnology as a differentiator in their marketing materials and those that do not. In the 5 P’s of marketing (Product, Place, Price, Promotion, and People), we are contrasting how each company approaches product marketing.

Product marketing focuses on communicating how that product meets a customer need. To do this, the marketing material must differentiate from other potential solutions. The question is, does nanotechnology serves as a differentiating value proposition for the customer?

As I understand it, communicating about the product and value propositions would fall under Promotion while decisions about what features to offer, physical design elements, etc. would fall under Product. Still, Ferris goes on to make some good points with his example of selling a nano-manufactured valve,

A local salesperson calls you up to see what you think. As a customer, you ask a simple question, “Why should we buy this new valve over the one we have been using for years?” What will you think if the sales-person answers, “Because it is based on nanotechnology!”? Answering this way does not address your pain points or satisfy your concerns over the risks of purchasing a new product.

My main difficulty with Ferris’ marketing post is a lack of clarity. He never distinguishes between business-to-business (B2B) marketing and business to consumer (B2C) marketing. There are differences, for example, consumers may not have the scientific or technical training to understand the more involved aspects of the product but a business may have someone on staff who can and could respond negatively to a lack of technical/scientific information.

I agree with Ferris on many points but I do feel he might address the issue of selling technology. He uses L’Oréal as an example of a company selling nanotechnology-enabled products  which they do but their product is beauty. The company’s  nanotechnology-enabled products are simply a means of doing that. By contrast a company like IBM sells technology and a component or product that’s nanotechnology-enabled may require a little or a lot of education depending on the component/product and the customer.

For anyone who’s interested in marketing nanotechnology-enabled and products based on other emerging technologies, I recommend reading Geoffrey A. Moore’s book, Crossing the Chasm. His examples are dated as this written about the ‘computer revolution’ but I think the basis principles still hold. As for Ferris’ postings, there’s good information but you may want to check out other sources and I recommend Dexter Johnson’s Nanoclast blog and Cientifica, an emerging technologies consultancy. (Dexter works for Cientifica, in addition to writing for the IEEE, but most of the publications on that site are by Tim Harper). Oh, and you can check here too, although the business side of things is not my main focus, I still manage to write the odd piece about marketing (promotion usually).

Work experience (science communication) opportunity in London (UK)

Here’s a description of the opportunity being offered by Proof Communication,

Work experience opportunity in London Science Communication Firm

Richard Moss Director, Proof Communication

Proof is looking for a bright, ambitious young individual to undertake a couple of weeks of work experience in our London office. If you know of anyone seeking a real insight into the world of science communication and technical PR, please get in touch – info@proofcommunication.com

This was posted in one of my LinkedIn groups (Science Public Relations) fairly recently (Jan. 11, 2014 … I believe). I wasn’t able to find any additional information about the opportunity on the company website but Proof Communication does have this to say about itself on its homepage,

Proof specialises in helping science, engineering, and technology organisations communicate clearly with the people they need to influence.

We work for national science labs; international science facilities; global technology companies; European funded research projects; universities; multinational engineering businesses; and start-ups. Part of an international network of similar-sized agencies, we operate in more than 26 countries around the world. [emphasis mine]

We support organisations with complexity at their heart. We help them explain that complexity in ways that non-specialists can understand and appreciate.

Proof is a member of something called the Public Relations Network (PRN), which is how they can claim to have a global reach, from the PRN homepage,

 PRN is a global collective of like minded Public Relations specialists, dedicated to providing high level consultancy and quality local support for worldwide PR campaigns. PRN has affiliate PR agencies based across Europe, Africa, America, AsiaPac and Australasia.

Our goal is your PR success.

The list of countries which hosts a member public relations company include: Australia, Morocco, Poland, Romania, China, Venezuela, Austria and more, with up to 26 countries in total. It seems the network accepts only one member agency per country.

Getting back to Proof Communication, good luck to the bright, ambitious young individuals applying for work experience!

Graphene hype; the emerging story in an interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino (University of Twente, Netherlands)

i’m delighted to be publishing this interview with Carla Alvial Palavicino, PhD student at the University of Twente (Netherlands), as she is working on the topicof  graphene ‘hype’. Here’s a bit more about the work from her University of Twente webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

From its origins the field of nanotechnology has been populated of expectations. Pictured as “the new industrial revolution” the economic promise holds strong, but also nanotechnologies as a cure for almost all the human ills, sustainers of future growth, prosperity and happiness. In contrast to these promises, the uncertainties associated to the introduction of such a new and revolutionary technology, and mainly risks of nanomaterials, have elicited concerns among governments and the public. Nevertheless, the case of the public can be characterized as concerns about concerns, based on the experience of previous innovations (GMO, etc.).

Expectations, both as promises and concerns, have played and continue playing a central role in the “real-time social and political constitution of nanotechnology” (Kearnes and Macnaghten 2006). A circulation of visions, promises and concerns in observed in the field, from the broadly defined umbrella promises to more specific expectations, and references to grand challenges as moral imperatives. These expectations have become such an important part of the social repertoire of nano applications that we observe the proliferation of systematic and intentional modes of expectation building such as roadmaps, technology assessment, etc.; as well as a considerable group of reports on risk, concerns, and ethical and social aspects. This different modes of expectation building (Konrad 2010) co-exist and contribute to the articulation of the nano field.

This project seeks to identify, characterize and contextualize the existing modes of expectations building, being those intentional (i.e. foresight, TA, etc.) or implicit in arenas of public discourse, associated to ongoing and emerging social processes in the context of socio-technical change.

This dynamics are being explored in relation to the new material graphene.

Before getting to the interview, here’s Alvial Palavicino’s biography,

Carla Alvial Palavicino has a bachelor degree in Molecular Biology Engineering, School of Science, University of Chile, Chile and a Master’s degree on Sustainability Sciences, Graduate School of Frontier Science, University of Tokyo, Japan. She has worked in technology transfer and more recently, in Smart Grids and local scale renewable energy provision.

Finally, here’s the interview (Note: At the author’s request, there have been some grammatical changes made to conform with Canadian English.),

  • What is it that interests you about the ‘hype’ that some technologies receive and how did you come to focus on graphene in particular?

My research belongs to a field called the Sociology of Expectations, which deals with the role of promises, visions, concerns and ideas of the future in the development of technologies, and how these ideas actually affect people’s strategies in technology development. Part of the dynamic found for these expectations are hype-disappointment cycles, much like the ones the Gartner Group uses. And hype has become an expectation itself; people expect that there will be too many promises and some, maybe many of them are not going to be fulfilled, followed by disappointment.

I came to know about graphene because, initially, I was broadly interested in nanoelectronics (my research project is part of NanoNextNL a large Dutch Nano research programme), due to the strong future orientation in the electronics industry. The industry has been organizing, and continues to organize around the promise of Moore’s law for more than 50 years! So I came across graphene as thriving to some extent on the expectations around the end of Moore’s law and because simply everybody was talking about it as the next big thing! Then I thought, this is a great opportunity to investigate hype in real-time

  • Is there something different about the hype for graphene or is this the standard ‘we’ve found a new material and it will change everything’?

I guess with every new technology and new material you find a portion of genuine enthusiasm which might lead to big promises. But that doesn’t necessarily turn into big hype. One thing is that all hype is not the same and you might have technologies that disappeared after the hype such as High Temperature Semiconductors, or technologies that go through a number of hype cycles and disappointment cycles throughout their development (for example, Fuel Cells). Now with graphene what you certainly have is very ‘loud’ hype – the amount of attention it has received in so little time is extraordinary. If that is a characteristic of graphene or a consequence of the current conditions in which the hype has been developed, such as faster ways of communication (social media for example) or different incentives for science and innovation well, this is part of what I am trying to find out.

Quite clearly, the hype in graphene seems to be more ‘reflexive’ than others, that is, people seem to be more conscious about hype now. We have had the experience with carbon nanotubes only recently and scientist, companies and investors are less naïve about what can be expected of the technology, and what needs to be done to move it forward ‘in the right direction’. And they do act in ways that try to soften the slope of the hype-disappointment curve. Having said that, actors [Ed. Note: as in actor-network theory] are also aware of how they can take some advantage of the hype (for funding, investment, or another interest), how to make use of it and hopefully leave safely, before disappointment. In the end, it is rather hard to ask accountability of big promises over the long-term.

  • In the description of your work you mention intentional and implicit modes of building expectations, could explain the difference between the two?

One striking feature of technology development today is that we found more and more activities directed at learning about, assess, and shaping the future, such as forecasts, foresights, Delphi, roadmaps and so on. There are even specialized future actors such as consultancy organisations or foresight experts,  Cientifica among them. And these formalized ways of anticipating  the future are expected to be performative by those who produce them and use them, that is, influence the way the future – and the present- turns out. But this is not a linear story, it’s not like 100% of a roadmap can be turned practice (not even for the ITRS roadmap [Ed. Note: International Technology Roadmap for Semi-conductors] that sustains Moore’s law, some expectations change quite radically between editions of the roadmap). Besides that, there are other forms of building expectations which are embedded in practices around new technologies. Think of the promises made in high profile journals or grant applications; and of expectations incorporated in patents and standards. All these embody particular forms and directions for the future, and exclude others. These are implicit forms of expectation-building, even if not primarily intended as such. These forms are shaped by particular expectations which themselves shape further development. So, in order to understand how these practices, both intentional and implicit, anticipate futures you need to look at the interplay between the various types.

  • Do you see a difference internationally with regard to graphene hype? Is it more prevalent in Europe than in the North America? Is it particularly prevalent in some jurisdiction, e.g. UK?

I think the graphene ‘hype’ has been quite global, but it is moving to different communities, or actors groups, as Tim Harper from Cientifica has mentioned in his recent report about graphene

What is interesting in relation to the different ‘geographical’ responses to graphene is that they exemplify nicely how a big promise (graphene, in this case) is connected to other circulating visions, expectations or concerns. In the case of the UK, the *Nobel prize on Graphene and the following investment was connected to the idea of a perceived crisis of innovation in the country. Thus, the decision to invest in graphene was presented and discussed in reference to global competitiveness, showing a political commitment for science and innovation that was in doubt at that time.

In the European case with its *Graphene flagship, something similar happened. While there is no doubt of the scientific excellence of the flagship project, the reasons why it finally became a winner in the flagship competition might have been related to the attention on graphene. The project itself started quite humbly, and it differed from the other flagship proposals that were much more oriented towards economic or societal challenges. But the attention graphene received after the Nobel Prize, plus the engagement of some large companies, helped to frame the project in terms of its economic profitability.  And. this might have helped to bring attention and make sense of the project in the terms the European Commission was interested in.

In contrast, if you think of the US, the hype has been there (the number of companies engaged in graphene research is only increasing) but it has not had a big echo in policy. One of the reasons might be because this idea of global competition and being left behind is not so present in the US. And in the case of Canada for example, graphene has been taken up by the graphite (mining) community, which is a very local feature.

So answering your questions, the hype has been quite global and fed in a global way (developments in one place resonate in the other) but different geographical areas have reacted in relation to their contingent expectations to what this hype dynamic provided.

  • What do you think of graphene?

I think it’s the new material with more YouTube videos (this one is particularly good in over promising for example)  and the coolest superhero (Mr G from the Flagship). But seriously,  I often get asked that question when I do interviews with actors in the field, since they are curious to learn about the outsider perspective. But to be honest I try to remain as neutral and distant as possible regarding my research object… and not getting caught in the hype!

Thanks so much for a fascinating interview Carla and I very much appreciate the inclusion of Canada in your response to the question about the international response to graphene hype. (Here are three of my postings on graphite and mining in Canada: Canada’s contribution to graphene research: big graphite flakes [Feb. 6, 2012]; A ‘graphite today, graphene tomorrow’ philosophy from Focus Graphite [April 17, 2013[; and Lomiko’s Quatre Milles graphite flakes—pure and ultra pure [April 17, 2013] There are others you can find by searching ‘graphite’ in the blog’s search box.)

* For anyone curious about the Nobel prize and graphene, there’s this Oct.7, 2010 posting. Plus, the Graphene Flagship was one of several projects competing for one of the two 1B Euro research prizes awarded in January 2013 (the win is mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2013 posting).

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Holidays to all!

Monkey Tales games better than class excercises for teaching maths

Publicizing an unpublished academic paper, which makes the claim that a series of math games, Monkey Tales, are more effective than classroom exercises for teaching maths while trumpeting a series of unsubstantiated statistics, seems a little questionable. The paper featured in a July 8, 2013  news item on ScienceDaily is less like an academic piece and more like an undercover sales document,

To measure the effectiveness of Monkey Tales, a study was carried out with 88 second grade pupils divided into three groups. One group was asked to play the game for a period of three weeks while the second group had to solve similar math exercises on paper and a third group received no assignment. The math performance of the children was measured using an electronic arithmetic test before and after the test period. When results were compared, the children who had played the game provided significantly more correct answers: 6% more than before, compared to only 4% for the group that made traditional exercises and 2% for the control group. In addition, both the group that played the game and that which did the exercises were able to solve the test 30% faster while the group without assignment was only 10% faster.

Ordinarily, this excerpt wouldn’t be a big problem since one would have the opportunity to read the paper and analyse the methodology by asking questions such as this, how were the students chosen? Were the students with higher grades given the game? There’s another issue, percentages can be misleading when one doesn’t have the numbers, e.g., if there’s an increase from one to two, it’s perfectly valid to claim a 100% increase even if it is misleading. Finally, how were they able to measure speed? The control group, i.e., group without assignment, was 10% faster than whom?

The University of Ghent July 8, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, also includes a business case in what is supposed to be a news release about a study on maths education,

Serious or educational games are becoming increasingly important. Market research company iDate estimates that the global turnover was €2.3 billion in 2012 and expects it to rise to €6.6 billion in 2015.* A first important sector in which serious games are being used, is defence. The U.S. Army, for example, uses games to attract recruits and to teach various skills, from tactical combat training to ways of communicating with local people. Serious games are also increasingly used in companies and organizations to train staff. The Flemish company U&I Learning, for example, developed games for Audi in Vorst to teach personnel the safety instructions, for Carrefour to teach student employees how to operate the check-out system and for DHL to optimise the loading and unloading of air freight containers.

Reservations about the study aside, Monkey Tales (for PC only) looks quite charming.

[downloaded from http://www.monkeytalesgames.com/demo.php]

[downloaded from http://www.monkeytalesgames.com/demo.php]

In addition to a demo which can be downloaded, the site’s FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) provides some information about the games’ backers and the games,

Who created Monkey Tales?
Developed by European schoolbook publisher Die Keure and award winning game developer Larian Studios, Monkey Tales is based on years of research and was developed with the active participation of teachers, schools, universities and educational method-makers.

What does years of research mean ?
Exactly that. The technology behind Monkey Tales has been in development for over 4 years, and has been field tested with over 30 000 children and across several schools, with very active engagement from both teachers and educational method-makers. Additionally, a two years research project is underway in which the universities of Ghent & Leuven are participating to measure the efficiency of the methods used within Monkey Tales.

What is the educational goal behind Monkey Tales?
Monkey Tales’ aim is not to instruct, that’s what teachers and schools are for. Instead it aims to help children rehearse and improve skills they should have, by motivating them to do drill exercises with increasing time pressure.

Because the abilities of children are very diverse, the algorithm behind the game first tries to establish where a child is on the learning curve, and then stimulates the child to make progress. This way frustration is avoided, and the child makes progress without realizing that it’s being pushed forward.

There’s a demonstrable effect that playing the game helps mastery of arithmetic. Parents can experience this themselves by trying out the games.

What can my child learn from Monkey Tales?
Currently there are five games available, covering grades 2 to 6, covering the field of mathematics in line with state standards (Common Core Standards and the 2009 DoDEA standards). Future games in the series will cover language and science.

What’s special about Monkey Tales?
A key feature of Monkey Tales is its unique algorithm that allows the game to automatically adapt to the level of children so that they feel comfortable with their ability to complete the exercises, removing any stress they might feel. From there, the game then presents progressively more difficult exercises, all the time monitoring how the child is performing and adapting if necessary. One of the most remarkable achievements of Monkey Tales is its ability to put children under time pressure to complete exercises without them complaining about it!

Hopefully this Monkey Tales study or a new study will be published and a news release, which by its nature, offers skimpy information won’t provoke any doubts about the validity of the work.