Category Archives: ethics

Yes! Art, genetic modifications, gene editing, and xenotransplantation at the Vancouver Biennale (Canada)

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

Up to this point, I’ve been a little jealous of the Art/Sci Salon’s (Toronto, Canada) January 2018 workshops for artists and discussions about CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 and its social implications. (See my January 10, 2018 posting for more about the events.) Now, it seems Vancouver may be in line for its ‘own’ discussion about CRISPR and the implications of gene editing. The image you saw (above) represents one of the installations being hosted by the 2018 – 2020 edition of the Vancouver Biennale.

While this posting is mostly about the Biennale and Piccinini’s work, there is a ‘science’ subsection featuring the science of CRISPR and xenotransplantation. Getting back to the Biennale and Piccinini: A major public art event since 1988, the Vancouver Biennale has hosted over 91 outdoor sculptures and new media works by more than 78 participating artists from over 25 countries and from 4 continents.

Quickie description of the 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

The Vancouver Biennale will be bringing new —and unusual— works of public art to the city beginning this June.

The theme for this season’s Vancouver Biennale exhibition is “re-IMAGE-n” and it kicks off on June 20 [2018] in Vanier Park with Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates.

Gharem’s architectural chain-link sculpture resembles a traditional mosque, the piece is meant to challenge the notions of religious orthodoxy and encourages individuals to image a space free of Islamophobia.

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

Given that this blog is focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies such as CRISPR, I’m focusing on Piccinini’s work and its art/science or sci-art status. This image from the GOMA Gallery where Piccinini’s ‘Curious Affection‘ installation is being shown from March 24 – Aug. 5, 2018 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia may give you some sense of what one of her installations is like,

Courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA)

I spoke with Serena at the Vancouver Biennale office and asked about the ‘interactive’ aspect of Piccinini’s installation. She suggested the term ‘immersive’ as an alternative. In other words, you won’t be playing with the sculptures or pressing buttons and interacting with computer screens or robots. She also noted that the ticket prices have not been set yet and they are currently developing events focused on the issues raised by the installation. She knew that 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but I’m not sure how the Biennale folks plan (or don’t plan)  to integrate any recognition of the novle’s impact on the discussions about ‘new’ technologies .They expect Piccinini will visit Vancouver. (Note 1: Piccinini’s work can  also be seen in a group exhibition titled: Frankenstein’s Birthday Party at the Hosfselt Gallery in San Francisco (California, US) from June 23 – August 11, 2018.  Note 2: I featured a number of international events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in my Feb. 26, 2018 posting. Note 3: The term ‘Frankenfoods’ helped to shape the discussion of genetically modified organisms and food supply on this planet. It was a wildly successful campaign for activists affecting legislation in some areas of research. Scientists have not been as enthusiastic about the effects. My January 15, 2009 posting briefly traces a history of the term.)

The 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale and science

A June 7, 2018 Vancouver Biennale news release provides more detail about the current series of exhibitions,

The Biennale is also committed to presenting artwork at the cutting edge of discussion and in keeping with the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math[ematics]) approach to integrating the arts and sciences. In August [2018], Colombian/American visual artist Jessica Angel will present her monumental installation Dogethereum Bridge at Hinge Park in Olympic Village. Inspired by blockchain technology, the artwork’s design was created through the integration of scientific algorithms, new developments in technology, and the arts. This installation, which will serve as an immersive space and collaborative hub for artists and technologists, will host a series of activations with blockchain as the inspirational jumping-off point.

In what is expected to become one of North America’s most talked-about exhibitions of the year, Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings will see the intersection of art, science, and ethics. For the first time in the Biennale’s fifteen years of creating transformative experiences, and in keeping with the 2018-2020 theme of “re-IMAGE-n,” the Biennale will explore art in unexpected places by exhibiting in unconventional interior spaces.  The hyperrealist “world of oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creatures” will be the artist’s first exhibit in a non-museum setting, transforming a wing of the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel. Situated in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourbood of Strathcona, Piccinini’s interactive experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging bio-technology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.” In this intimate hotel setting located in a neighborhood continually undergoing its own change, Curious Imaginings will empower visitors to personally consider questions posed by the exhibition, including the promises and consequences of genetic research and human interference. …

There are other pieces being presented at the Biennale but my special interest is in the art/sci pieces and, at this point, CRISPR.

Piccinini in more depth

You can find out more about Patricia Piccinini in her biography on the Vancouver Biennale website but I found this Char Larsson April 7, 2018 article for the Independent (UK) more informative (Note: A link has been removed),

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are deeply disquieting. Walking through Curious Affection, her new solo exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, is akin to entering a science laboratory full of DNA experiments. Made from silicone, fibreglass and even human hair, her sculptures are breathtakingly lifelike, however, we can’t be sure what life they are like. The artist creates an exuberant parallel universe where transgenic experiments flourish and human evolution has given way to genetic engineering and DNA splicing.

Curious Affection is a timely and welcome recognition of Piccinini’s enormous contribution to reaching back to the mid-1990s. Working across a variety of mediums including photography, video and drawing, she is perhaps best known for her hyperreal creations.

As a genre, hyperrealism depends on the skill of the artist to create the illusion of reality. To be truly successful, it must convince the spectator of its realness. Piccinini acknowledges this demand, but with a delightful twist. The excruciating attention to detail deliberately solicits our desire to look, only to generate unease, as her sculptures are imbued with a fascinating otherness. Part human, part animal, the works are uncannily familiar, but also alarmingly “other”.

Inspired by advances in genetically modified pigs to generate replacement organs for humans [also known as xenotransplantation], we are reminded that Piccinini has always been at the forefront of debates concerning the possibilities of science, technology and DNA cloning. She does so, however, with a warm affection and sense of humour, eschewing the hysterical anxiety frequently accompanying these scientific developments.

Beyond the astonishing level of detail achieved by working with silicon and fibreglass, there is an ethics at work here. Piccinini is asking us not to avert our gaze from the other, and in doing so, to develop empathy and understanding through the encounter.

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read Larsson’s entire piece (April 7, 2018 article).

According to her Wikipedia entry, Piccinini works in a variety of media including video, sound, sculpture, and more. She also has her own website.

Gene editing and xenotransplantation

Sarah Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides a peek at the extraordinary degree of interest and competition in the field of gene editing and CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats))/Cas9 research (Note: A link has been removed),

China Is Genetically Engineering Monkeys With Brain Disorders

Guoping Feng applied to college the first year that Chinese universities reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was 1977, and more than a decade’s worth of students—5.7 million—sat for the entrance exams. Feng was the only one in his high school to get in. He was assigned—by chance, essentially—to medical school. Like most of his contemporaries with scientific ambitions, he soon set his sights on graduate studies in the United States. “China was really like 30 to 50 years behind,” he says. “There was no way to do cutting-edge research.” So in 1989, he left for Buffalo, New York, where for the first time he saw snow piled several feet high. He completed his Ph.D. in genetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Feng is short and slim, with a monk-like placidity and a quick smile, and he now holds an endowed chair in neuroscience at MIT, where he focuses on the genetics of brain disorders. His 45-person lab is part of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which was established in 2000 with the promise of a $350 million donation, the largest ever received by the university. In short, his lab does not lack for much.

Yet Feng now travels to China several times a year, because there, he can pursue research he has not yet been able to carry out in the United States. [emphasis mine] …

Feng had organized a symposium at SIAT [Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology], and he was not the only scientist who traveled all the way from the United States to attend: He invited several colleagues as symposium speakers, including a fellow MIT neuroscientist interested in tree shrews, a tiny mammal related to primates and native to southern China, and Chinese-born neuroscientists who study addiction at the University of Pittsburgh and SUNY Upstate Medical University. Like Feng, they had left China in the ’80s and ’90s, part of a wave of young scientists in search of better opportunities abroad. Also like Feng, they were back in China to pursue a type of cutting-edge research too expensive and too impractical—and maybe too ethically sensitive—in the United States.

Here’s what precipitated Feng’s work in China, (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed)

At MIT, Feng’s lab worked on genetically engineering a monkey species called marmosets, which are very small and genuinely bizarre-looking. They are cheaper to keep due to their size, but they are a relatively new lab animal, and they can be difficult to train on lab tasks. For this reason, Feng also wanted to study Shank3 on macaques in China. Scientists have been cataloging the social behavior of macaques for decades, making it an obvious model for studies of disorders like autism that have a strong social component. Macaques are also more closely related to humans than marmosets, making their brains a better stand-in for those of humans.

The process of genetically engineering a macaque is not trivial, even with the advanced tools of CRISPR. Researchers begin by dosing female monkeys with the same hormones used in human in vitro fertilization. They then collect and fertilize the eggs, and inject the resulting embryos with CRISPR proteins using a long, thin glass needle. Monkey embryos are far more sensitive than mice embryos, and can be affected by small changes in the pH of the injection or the concentration of CRISPR proteins. Only some of the embryos will have the desired mutation, and only some will survive once implanted in surrogate mothers. It takes dozens of eggs to get to just one live monkey, so making even a few knockout monkeys required the support of a large breeding colony.

The first Shank3 macaque was born in 2015. Four more soon followed, bringing the total to five.

To visit his research animals, Feng now has to fly 8,000 miles across 12 time zones. It would be a lot more convenient to carry out his macaque research in the United States, of course, but so far, he has not been able to.

He originally inquired about making Shank3 macaques at the New England Primate Research Center, one of eight national primate research centers then funded by the National Institutes of Health in partnership with a local institution (Harvard Medical School, in this case). The center was conveniently located in Southborough, Massachusetts, just 20 miles west of the MIT campus. But in 2013, Harvard decided to shutter the center.

The decision came as a shock to the research community, and it was widely interpreted as a sign of waning interest in primate research in the United States. While the national primate centers have been important hubs of research on HIV, Zika, Ebola, and other diseases, they have also come under intense public scrutiny. Animal-rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States have sent investigators to work undercover in the labs, and the media has reported on monkey deaths in grisly detail. Harvard officially made its decision to close for “financial” reasons. But the announcement also came after the high-profile deaths of four monkeys from improper handling between 2010 and 2012. The deaths sparked a backlash; demonstrators showed up at the gates. The university gave itself two years to wind down their primate work, officially closing the center in 2015.

“They screwed themselves,” Michael Halassa, the MIT neuroscientist who spoke at Feng’s symposium, told me in Shenzhen. Wei-Dong Yao, another one of the speakers, chimed in, noting that just two years later CRISPR has created a new wave of interest in primate research. Yao was one of the researchers at Harvard’s primate center before it closed; he now runs a lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University that uses genetically engineered mouse and human stem cells, and he had come to Shenzhen to talk about restarting his addiction research on primates.

Here’s comes the competition (from Zhang’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

While the U.S. government’s biomedical research budget has been largely flat, both national and local governments in China are eager to raise their international scientific profiles, and they are shoveling money into research. A long-rumored, government-sponsored China Brain Project is supposed to give neuroscience research, and primate models in particular, a big funding boost. Chinese scientists may command larger salaries, too: Thanks to funding from the Shenzhen local government, a new principal investigator returning from overseas can get 3 million yuan—almost half a million U.S. dollars—over his or her first five years. China is even finding success in attracting foreign researchers from top U.S. institutions like Yale.

In the past few years, China has seen a miniature explosion of genetic engineering in monkeys. In Kunming, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, scientists have created monkeys engineered to show signs of Parkinson’s, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, autism, and more. And Feng’s group is not even the only one in China to have created Shank3 monkeys. Another group—a collaboration primarily between researchers at Emory University and scientists in China—has done the same.

Chinese scientists’ enthusiasm for CRISPR also extends to studies of humans, which are moving much more quickly, and in some cases under less oversight, than in the West. The first studies to edit human embryos and first clinical trials for cancer therapies using CRISPR have all happened in China. [emphases mine]

Some ethical issues are also covered (from Zhang’s article),

Parents with severely epileptic children had asked him if it would be possible to study the condition in a monkey. Feng told them what he thought would be technically possible. “But I also said, ‘I’m not sure I want to generate a model like this,’” he recalled. Maybe if there were a drug to control the monkeys’ seizures, he said: “I cannot see them seizure all the time.”

But is it ethical, he continued, to let these babies die without doing anything? Is it ethical to generate thousands or millions of mutant mice for studies of brain disorders, even when you know they will not elucidate much about human conditions?

Primates should only be used if other models do not work, says Feng, and only if a clear path forward is identified. The first step in his work, he says, is to use the Shank3 monkeys to identify the changes the mutations cause in the brain. Then, researchers might use that information to find targets for drugs, which could be tested in the same monkeys. He’s talking with the Oregon National Primate Research Center about carrying out similar work in the United States. ….[Note: I have a three-part series about CRISPR and germline editing* in the US, precipitated by research coming out of Oregon, Part 1, which links to the other parts, is here.]

Zhang’s June 8, 2018 article is excellent and I highly recommend reading it.

I touched on the topic of xenotransplanttaion in a commentary on a book about the science  of the television series, Orphan Black in a January 31,2018 posting (Note: A chimera is what you use to incubate a ‘human’ organ for transplantation or, more accurately, xenotransplantation),

On the subject of chimeras, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) featured a January 26, 2017 article about the pig-human chimeras on its website along with a video,

The end

I am very excited to see Piccinini’s work come to Vancouver. There have been a number of wonderful art and art/science installations and discussions here but this is the first one (I believe) to tackle the emerging gene editing technologies and the issues they raise. (It also fits in rather nicely with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which continues to raise issues and stimulate discussion.)

In addition to the ethical issues raised in Zhang’s article, there are some other philosophical questions:

  • what does it mean to be human
  • if we are going to edit genes to create hybrid human/animals, what are they and how do they fit into our current animal/human schema
  • are you still human if you’ve had an organ transplant where the organ was incubated in a pig

There are also going to be legal issues. In addition to any questions about legal status, there are also fights about intellectual property such as the one involving Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley (March 15, 2017 posting)..

While I’m thrilled about the Piccinini installation, it should be noted the issues raised by other artworks hosted in this version of the Biennale are important. Happily, they have been broached here in Vancouver before and I suspect this will result in more nuanced  ‘conversations’ than are possible when a ‘new’ issue is introduced.

Bravo 2018 – 2020 Vancouver Biennale!

* Germline editing is when your gene editing will affect subsequent generations as opposed to editing out a mutated gene for the lifetime of a single individual.

Art/sci and CRISPR links

This art/science posting may prove of some interest:

The connectedness of living things: an art/sci project in Saskatchewan: evolutionary biology (February 16, 2018)

A selection of my CRISPR posts:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning (August 15, 2017)

NOTE: An introductory CRISPR video describing how CRISPR/Cas9 works was embedded in part1.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself? (January 25, 2018)

Editing the genome with CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-carrying nanoparticles (January 26, 2018)

Immune to CRISPR? (April 10, 2018)

Ingenuity Lab (a nanotechnology initiative), the University of Alberta, and Carlo Montemagno—what is happening in Canadian universities? (2 of 2)

You can find Part 1 of the latest installment in this sad story here.

Who says Carlo Montemagno is a star nanotechnology researcher?

Unusually and despite his eminent stature, Dr. Montemagno does not rate a Wikipedia entry. Luckily, his CV (curriculum vitae) is online (placed there by SIU) so we can get to know a bit more (the CV is a 63 pp. document) about the man’s accomplishments (Note: There are some formatting differences), Note: Unusually, I will put my comments into the excerpted CV using [] i.e., square brackets to signify my input,

Carlo Montemagno, PhD
University of Alberta
Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering
and
NRC/CNRC National Institute for Nanotechnology
Edmonton, AB T6G 2V4
Canada

 

Educational Background

1995, Ph.D., Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences University of Notre Dame

1990, M.S., Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Pennsylvania State University

1980, B.S., Agricultural and Biological Engineering, College of Engineering, Cornell University

Supplemental Education

1986, Practical Environmental Law, Federal Publications, Washington, DC

1985, Effective Executive Training Program, Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvannia, Philadelphia, PA

1980, Civil Engineer Corp Officer Project, CECOS & General Management School, Port Hueneme, CA

[He doesn’t seem to have taken any courses in the last 30 years.]

Professional Experience

(Select Achievements)

Over three decades of experience in shepherding complex organizations both inside and outside academia. Working as a builder, I have led organizations in government, industry and higher education during periods of change and challenge to achieved goals that many perceived to be unattainable.

University of Alberta, Edmonton AB 9/12 to present

9/12 to present, Founding Director, Ingenuity Lab [largely defunct as of April 18, 2018], Province of Alberta

8/13 to present, Director Biomaterials Program, NRC/CNRC National Institute for Nanotechnology [It’s not clear if this position still exists.]

10/13 to present, Canada Research Chair, Government of Canada in Intelligent Nanosystems [Canadian universities receive up to $200,000 for an individual Canada research chair. The money can be used to fund the chair in its entirety or it can be added to other monies., e.g., faculty salary. There are two tiers, one for established researchers and one for new researchers. Montemagno would have been a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair. At McGill University {a major Canadian educational institution} for example, total compensation including salary, academic stipend, benefits, X-coded research funds would be a maximum of $200,000 at Montemagno’s Tier 1 level. See: here scroll down about 90% of the way).

3/13 to present, AITF iCORE Strategic Chair, Province of Alberta in BioNanotechnology and Biomimetic Systems [I cannot find this position in the current list of the University of Alberta Faculty of Science’s research chairs.]

9/12 to present, Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Chemical and Materials Engineering

Crafted and currently lead an Institute that bridges multiple organizations named Ingenuity Lab (www.ingenuitylab.ca). This Institute is a truly integrated multidisciplinary organization comprised of dedicated researchers from STEM, medicine, and the social sciences. Ingenuity Lab leverages Alberta’s strengths in medicine, engineering, science and, agriculture that are present in multiple academic enterprises across the province to solve grand challenges in the areas of energy, environment, and health and rapidly translate the solutions to the economy.

The exciting and relevant feature of Ingenuity Lab is that support comes from resources outside the normal academic funding streams. Core funding of approximately $8.6M/yr emerged by working and communicating a compelling vision directly with the Provincial Executive and Legislative branches of government. [In the material I’ve read, the money for the research was part of how Dr. Montemagno was wooed by the University of Alberta. My understanding is that he himself did not obtain the funding, which in CAD was $100M over 10 years. Perhaps the university was able to attract the funding based on Dr. Montemagno’s reputation and it was contingent on his acceptance?] I significantly augmented these base resources by developing Federal Government, and Industry partnership agreements with a suite of multinational corporations and SME’s across varied industry sectors.

Collectively, this effort is generating enhanced resource streams that support innovative academic programming, builds new research infrastructure, and enables high risk/high reward research. Just as important, it established new pathways to interact meaningfully with local and global communities.

Strategic Leadership

•Created the Ingenuity Lab organization including a governing board representing multiple academic institutions, government and industry sectors.

•Developed and executed a strategic plan to achieve near and long-term strategic objectives.

•Recruited~100 researchers representing a wide range disciplnes.[sic] [How hard can it be to attract researchers in this job climate?]

•Built out ~36,000 S.F. of laboratory and administrative space.

•Crafted operational policy and procedures.

•Developed and implemented a unique stakeholder inclusive management strategy focused on the rapid translation of solutions to the economy.

Innovation and Economic Engagement

•Member of the Expert Panel on innovation, commissioned by the Government of Alberta, to assess opportunities, challenges and design and implementation options for Alberta’s multi-billion dollar investment to drive long-term economic growth and diversification. The developed strategy is currently being implemented. [Details?]

•Served as a representive [sic] on multiple Canadian national trade missions to Asia, United States and the Middle East. [Sounds like he got to enjoy some nice trips.]

•Instituted formal development partnerships with several multi-national corporations including Johnson & Johnson, Cenovus and Sabuto Inc. [Details?]

•Launched multiple for-profit joint ventures founded on technologies collaboratively developed with industry with funding from both private and public sources. [Details?]

Branding

•Developed and implement a communication program focused on branding of Ingenuity Lab’s unique mission, both regionally and globally, to the lay public, academia, government, and industry. [Why didn’t the communication specialist do this? ]

This effort employs traditional paper, online, and social media outlets to effectively reach different demographics.

•Awarded “Best Nanotechnology Research Organization–2014” by The New Economy. [What is the New Economy? The Economist, yes. New Economy, no.]

Global Development

•Executed formal research and education partnerships with the Yonsei Institute of Convergence Technology and the Yonsei Bio-IT MicroFab Center in Korea, Mahatma Gandhi University in India. and the Italian Institute of Technology. [{1}The Yonsei Institute of Convergence Technology doesn’t have any news items prior to 2015 or after 2016. The Ingenuity Lab and/or Carlo Montemagno did not feature in them. {2} There are six Mahatma Ghandi Universities in India. {3} The Italian Institute of Technology does not have any news listings on the English language version of its site.]

•Opened Ingenuity Lab, India in May 2015. Focused on translating 21st-century technology to enable solutions appropriate for developing nations in the Energy, Agriculture, and Health economic sectors. [Found this May 9, 2016 notice on the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada website, noting this: “… opening of the Ingenuity Lab Research Hub at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, in the Indian state of Kerala.” There’s also this May 6, 2016 news release. I can’t find anything on the Mahatma Ghandi University Kerala website.]

•Established partnership research and development agreements with SME’s in both Israel and India.

•Developed active research collaborations with medical and educational institutions in Nepal, Qatar, India, Israel, India and the United States.

Community Outreach

•Created Young Innovators research experience program to educate, support and nurture tyro undergraduate researchers and entrepreneurs.

•Developed an educational game, “Scopey’s Nano Adventure” for iOS and Android platforms to educate 6yr to 10yr olds about Nanotechnology. [What did the children learn? Was this really part of the mandate?]

•Delivered educational science programs to the lay public at multiple, high profile events. [Which events? The ones on the trade junkets?]

University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati OH 7/06 to 8/12

7/10 to 8/12 Founding Dean, College of Engineering and Applied Science

7/09 to 6/10 Dean, College of Applied Science

7/06 to 6/10 Dean, College of Engineering

7/06 to 8/12 Geier Professor of College of Engineering Engineering Education

7/06 to 8/12, Professor of Bioengineering, College of Engineering & College of Medicine

University of California, Los Angeles 7/01 to 6/06

5/03 to 6/06, Associate Director California Nanosystems Institute

7/02 to 6/06, Co-Director NASA Center for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration

7/02 to 6/06, Founding Department Chair, Department of Bioengineering

7/02 to 6/06, Chair Biomedical Engineering IDP

7/01 to 6/02, Chair of Academic Biomedical Engineering IDP Affairs

7/01 to 6/06, Carol and Roy College of Engineering and Applied Doumani Professor of Sciences Biomedical Engineering

7/01 to 6/06, Professor Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Recommending Montemagno

Presumably the folks at Southern Illinois University asked for recommendations from Montemagno’s previous employers. So, how did he get a recommendation from the folks in Alberta when according to Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article the Ingenuity Lab was undergoing a review as of June 2017 by the province of Alberta’s Alberta Innovates programme? I find it hard to believe that the folks at the University of Alberta were unaware of the review.

When you’re trying to get rid of someone, it’s pretty much standard practice that once they’ve gotten the message, you give a good recommendation to their prospective employer. The question begs to be asked, how many times have employers done this for Montemagno?

Stars in their eyes

Every one exaggerates a bit on their résumé or CV. One of my difficulties with this whole affair lies in how Montemagno can be described as a ‘nanotechnology star’. The accomplishments foregrounded on Montemagno’s CV are administrative and if memory serves, the University of Cincinnati too. Given the situation with the Ingenuity Lab, I’m wondering about these accomplishments.

Was due diligence performed by SIU, the University of the Alberta, or anywhere else that Montemagno worked? I realize that you’re not likely to get much information from calling up the universities where he worked previously, especially if there was a problem and they wanted to get rid of him. Still, did someone check out his degrees, his start-ups,  dig a little deeper into some of his claims?

His credentials and stated accomplishments are quite impressive and I, too,  would have been dazzled. (He also lists positions at the Argonne National Laboratory and at Cornell University.) I’ve picked at some bits but one thing that stands out to me is the move from UCLA to the University of Cincinnati. It’s all big names: UCLA, Cornell, NASA, Argonne and then, not: University of Cincinnati, University of Alberta, Southern Illinois University—what happened?

(If anyone better versed in the world of academe and career has answers, please do add them to the comments.)

It’s tempting to think the Peter Principle (one of them) was at work here. In brief, this principle states that as you keep getting better jobs on based on past performance you reach a point where you can’t manage the new challenges having risen to your level of incompetence.In accepting the offer from the University of Alberta had Dr. Montemagno risen to his level of incompetence? Or, perhaps it was just one big failure. Unfortunately, any excuses don’t hold up under the weight of a series of misjudgments and ethical failures. Still, I’m guessing that Dr. Montemagno was hoping for a big win on a project such as this (from an Oct. 19, 2016 news release on MarketWired),

Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions announced today that it has been named as one of the 27 teams advancing in the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. The competition sees scientists develop technologies to convert carbon dioxide emissions into products with high net value.

The Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions team – headquartered in Edmonton of Alberta, Canada – has made it to the second round of competition. Its team of 14 has proposed to convert CO2 waste emitted from a natural gas power plant into usable chemical products.

Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions is comprised of a multidisciplinary group of scientists and engineers, and was formed in the winter of 2012 to develop new approaches for the chemical industry. Ingenuity Lab Carbon Solutions is sponsored by CCEMC, and has also partnered with Ensovi for access to intellectual property and know how.

I can’t identify CCEMC with any certainty but Ensovi is one of Montemagno’s six start-up companies, as listed in his CV,

Founder and Chief Technical Officer, Ensovi, LLC., Focused on the production of low-cost bioenergy and high-value added products from sunlight using bionanotechnology, Total Funding; ~$10M, November 2010-present.

Sadly the April 9,2018 NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE news release  announcing the finalists in round 3 of the competition includes an Alberta track of five teams from which the Ingenuity Lab is notably absent.

The Montemagno affair seems to be a story of hubris, greed, and good intentions. Finally, the issues associated with Dr. Montemagno give rise to another, broader question.

Is something rotten in Canada’s higher education establishment?

Starting with the University of Alberta:

it would seem pretty obvious that if you’re hiring family member(s) as part of the deal to secure a new member of faculty that you place and follow very stringent rules. No rewriting of the job descriptions, no direct role in hiring or supervising, no extra benefits, no inflated salaries in other words, no special treatment for your family as they know at the University of Alberta since they have policies for this very situation.

Yes, universities do hire spouses (although a daughter, a nephew, and a son-in-law seems truly excessive) and even when the university follows all of the rules, there’s resentment from staff (I know because I worked in a university). There is a caveat to the rule, there’s resentment unless that spouse is a ‘star’ in his or her own right or an exceptionally pleasant person. It’s also very helpful if the spouse is both.

I have to say I loved Fraser Forbes that crazy University of Alberta engineer who thought he’d make things better by telling us that the family’s salaries had been paid out of federal and provincial funds rather than university funds. (sigh) Forbes was the new dean of engineering at the time of his interview in the CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article but that no longer seems to be the case as of April 19, 2018.

Given Montemagno’s misjudgments, it seems cruel that Forbes was removed after one foolish interview. But, perhaps he didn’t want the job after all. Regardless, those people who were afraid to speak out about Dr. Montemagno cannot feel reassured by Forbes’ apparent removal.

Money, money, money

Anyone who has visited a university in Canada (and presumably the US too) has to have noticed the number of ‘sponsored’ buildings and rooms. The hunger for money seems insatiable and any sensible person knows it’s unsupportable over the long term.

The scramble for students

Mel Broitman in a Sept. 22, 2016 article for Higher Education lays out some harsh truths,

Make no mistake. It is a stunning condemnation and a “wakeup call to higher education worldwide”. The recent UNESCO report states that academic institutions are rife with corruption and turning a blind eye to malpractice right under their noses. When UNESCO, a United Nations organization created after the chaos of World War II to focus on moral and intellectual solidarity, makes such an alarming allegation, it’s sobering and not to be dismissed.

So although Canadians typically think of their society and themselves as among the more honest and transparent found anywhere, how many Canadian institutions are engaging in activities that border on dishonest and are not entirely transparent around the world?

It is overwhelmingly evident that in the last two decades we have witnessed first-hand a remarkable and callous disregard for academic ethics and standards in a scramble by Canadian universities and colleges to sign up foreign students, who represent tens of millions of dollars to their bottom lines.

We have been in a school auditorium in China and listened to the school owner tell prospective parents that the Grade 12 marks from the Canadian provincial school board program can be manipulated to secure admission for their children into Canadian universities. This, while the Canadian teachers sat oblivious to the presentation in Chinese.

In hundreds of our own interaction with students who completed the Canadian provincial school board’s curriculum in China and who achieved grades of 70% and higher in their English class have been unable to achieve even a basic level of English literacy in the written tests we have administered.   But when the largest country of origin for incoming international students and revenue is China – the Canadian universities admitting these students salivate over the dollars and focus less on due diligence.

We were once asked by a university on Canada’s west coast to review 200 applications from Saudi Arabia, in order to identify the two or three Saudi students who were actually eligible for conditional admission to that university’s undergraduate engineering program. But the proposal was scuttled by the university’s ESL department that wanted all 200 to enroll in its language courses. It insisted on and managed conditional admissions for all 200. It’s common at Canadian universities for the ESL program “tail” to wag the campus “dog” when it comes to admissions. In fact, recent Canadian government regulations have been proposed to crack down on this practice as it is an affront to academic integrity.

If you have time, do read the rest as it’s eye-opening. As for the report Broitman cites, I was not able to find it. Broitman gives a link to the report in response to one of the later comments and there’s a link in Tony Bates’s July 31, 2016 posting but you will get a “too bad, so sad” message should you follow either link.The closed I can get to it is this Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice; Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Credibility of Higher Education (PDF). The ‘note’ was jointly published by the (US) Council for Higher Education (CHEA) and UNESCO.

What about the professors?

As they scramble for students, the universities appear to be cutting their ‘teaching costs’, from an April 18, 2018 article by Charles Menzies (professor of anthropology and an elected member of the UBC [University of British Columbia] Board)  for THE UBYSSEY (UBC) student newspaper,

For the first time ever at UBC the contributions of student tuition fees exceeded provincial government contributions to UBC’s core budget. This startling fact was the backdrop to a strenuous grilling of UBC’s VP Finance and Provost Peter Smailes by governors at the Friday the 13 meeting of UBC’s Board of Governors’ standing committee for finance.

Given the fact students contribute more to UBC’s budget than the provincial government, governors asked why more wasn’t being done to enhance the student experience. By way of explanation the provost reiterated UBC’s commitment to the student experience. In a back-and-forth with a governor the provost outlined a range of programs that focus on enhancing the student experience. At several points the chair of the Board would intervene and press the provost for more explanations and elaboration. For his part the provost responded in a measured and deliberate tone outlining the programs in play, conceding more could be done, and affirming the importance of students in the overall process.

As a faculty member listening to this, I wondered about the background discourse undergirding the discussion. How is focussing on a student’s experience at UBC related to our core mission: education and research? What is actually being meant by experience? Why is no one questioning the inadequacy of the government’s core contribution? What about our contingent colleagues? Our part-time precarious colleagues pick up a great deal of the teaching responsibilities across our campuses. Is there not something we can do to improve their working conditions? Remember, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. From my perspective all these questions received short shrift.

I did take the opportunity to ask the provost, given how financially sound our university is, why more funds couldn’t be directed toward improving the living and working conditions of contingent faculty. However, this was never elaborated upon after the fact.

There is much about the university as a total institution that seems driven to cultivate experiences. A lot of Board discussion circles around ideas of reputation and brand. Who pays and how much they pay (be they governments, donors, or students) is also a big deal. Cultivating a good experience for students is central to many of these discussions.

What is this experience that everyone is talking about? I hear about classroom experience, residence experience, and student experience writ large. Very little of it seems to be specifically tied to learning (unless it’s about more engaging, entertaining, learning with technology). While I’m sure some Board colleagues will disagree with this conclusion, it does seem to me that the experience being touted is really the experience of a customer seeking fulfilment through the purchase of a service. What is seen as important is not what is learned, but the grade; not the productive struggle of learning but the validation of self in a great experience as a member of an imagined community. A good student experience very likely leads to a productive alumni relationship — one where the alumni feels good about giving money.

Inside UBC’s Board of Governors

Should anyone be under illusions as to what goes on at the highest levels of university governance, there is the telling description from Professor Jennifer Berdahl about her experience on a ‘search committee for a new university president’ of the shameful treatment of previous president, Arvind Gupta (from Berdahl’s April 25, 2018 posting on her eponymous blog),

If Prof. Chaudhry’s [Canada Research Chair and Professor Ayesha Chaudhry’s resignation was announced in an April 25, 2018 UBYSSEY article by Alex Nguyen and Zak Vescera] experience was anything like mine on the UBC Presidential Search Committee, she quickly realized how alienating it is to be one of only three faculty members on a 21-person corporate-controlled Board. It was likely even worse for Chaudhry as a woman of color. Combining this with the Board’s shenanigans that are designed to manipulate information and process to achieve desired decisions and minimize academic voices, a sense of helpless futility can set in. [emphasis mine]

These shenanigans include [emphasis mine] strategic seating arrangements, sudden breaks during meetings when conversation veers from the desired direction, hand-written notes from the secretary to speaking members, hundreds of pages of documents sent the night before a meeting, private tête-à-têtes arranged between a powerful board member and a junior or more vulnerable one, portals for community input vetted before sharing, and planning op-eds to promote preferred perspectives. These are a few of many tricks employed to sideline unpopular voices, mostly academic ones.

It’s impossible to believe that UBC’s BoG is the site for these shenanigans take place. The question I have is how many BoGs and how much damage are they inflicting?

Finally getting back to my point, simultaneous with cutting back on teaching and other associated costs and manipulative, childish behaviour at BoG meetings, large amounts of money are being spent to attract ‘stars’ such as Dr. Montemagno. The idea is to attract students (and their money) to the institution where they can network with the ‘stars’. What the student actually learns does not seem to be the primary interest.

So, what kind of deals are the universities making with the ‘stars’?

The Montemagno affair provides a few hints but, in the end,I don’t know and I don’t think anyone outside the ‘sacred circle’ does either. UBC, for example,is quite secretive and, seemingly, quite liberal in its use of nondisclosure agreements (NDA). There was the scandal a few years ago when president Arvind Gupta abruptly resigned after one year in his position. As far as I know, no one has ever gotten to the bottom of this mystery although there certainly seems to have been a fair degree skullduggery involved.

After a previous president, Martha Cook Piper took over the reigns in an interim arrangement, Dr. Santa J. Ono (his Wikipedia entry) was hired.  Interestingly, he was previously at the University of Cincinnati, one of Montemagno’s previous employers. That university’s apparent eagerness to treat Montemagno’s extras seems to have led to the University of Alberta’s excesses.  So, what deal did UBC make with Dr. Ono? I’m pretty sure both he and the university are covered by an NDA but there is this about his tenure as president at the University of Cincinnati (from a June 14, 2016 article by Jack Hauen for THE UBYSSEY),

… in exchange for UC not raising undergraduate tuition, he didn’t accept a salary increase or bonus for two years. And once those two years were up, he kept going: his $200,000 bonus in 2015 went to “14 different organizations and scholarships, including a campus LGBTQ centre, a local science and technology-focused high school and a program for first-generation college students,” according to the Vancouver Sun.

In 2013 he toured around the States promoting UC with a hashtag of his own creation — #HottestCollegeInAmerica — while answering anything and everything asked of him during fireside chats.

He describes himself as a “servant leader,” which is a follower of a philosophy of leadership focused primarily on “the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”

“I see my job as working on behalf of the entire UBC community. I am working to serve you, and not vice-versa,” he said in his announcement speech this morning.

Thank goodness it’s possible to end this piece on a more or less upbeat note. Ono seems to be what my father would have called ‘a decent human being’. It’s nice to be able to include a ‘happyish’ note.

Plea

There is huge money at stake where these ‘mega’ science and technology projects are concerned. The Ingenuity Lab was $100M investment to be paid out over 10 years and some basic questions don’t seem to have been asked. How does this person manage money? Leaving aside any issues with an individual’s ethics and moral compass, scientists don’t usually take any courses in business and yet they are expected to manage huge budgets. Had Montemagno handled a large budget or any budget? It’s certainly not foregrounded (and I’d like to see dollar amounts) in his CV.

As well, the Ingenuity Lab was funded as a 10 year project. Had Montemagno ever stayed in one job for 10 years? Not according to his CV. His longest stint was approximately eight years when he was in the US Navy in the 1980s. Otherwise, it was five to six years, including the Ingenuity Lab stint.

Meanwhile, our universities don’t appear to be applying the rules and protocols we have in place to ensure fairness. This unseemly rush for money seems to have infected how Canadian universities attract (local, interprovincial, and, especially, international) students to pay for their education. The infection also seems to have spread into the ways ‘star’ researchers and faculty members are recruited to Canadian universities while the bulk of the teaching staff are ‘starved’ under one pretext or another while a BoG may or may not be indulging in shenanigans designed to drive decision-making to a preordained outcome. And, for the most part, this is occurring under terms of secrecy that our intelligence agencies must envy.

In the end, I can’t be the only person wondering how all this affects our science.

Ingenuity Lab (a nanotechnology initiative), the University of Alberta, and Carlo Montemagno—what is happening in Canadian universities? (1 of 2)

I was not expecting to come back to the Carlo Montemagno ‘affair’ after my March 5, 2018 posting but it seems this story about a nanotechnology laboratory (Ingenuity Lab) in Alberta and the lab’s leader, Dr. Carlo Montemagno and his hurried departure for a position at Southern Illinois University (SIU) as Chancellor in summer 2017 has legs. It also hints at some issue within Canadian higher education.

Set up

I noted at the time of my posting, that no one in Illinois seemed to be aware that Montemagno had obtained employment for his daughter and son-in-law at the University of Alberta just as he did at SIU when he later moved there. I also noted the pay cut Montemagno took when he moved to Illinois. Both of these facts have since come to light in Illinois and are mentioned in an April 10, 2018 article by Anna Spoerre for SIU’s student paper, the Daily Egyptian.

Before moving onto the latest, I was hoping they’d be able to salvage something from the wreckage in Alberta (from my March 5, 2018 posting),

As for the Ingenuity Lab, perhaps we’ll hear more about their Carbon transformation programme later this year (2018). Unfortunately, the current webpage does not have substantive updates. There are some videos but they seem more like wistful thinking than real life projects.

If they are cleaning up a mess and this looks like it might be the case, I hope they’re successful and can move forward with their projects. [emphases mine] I would like to hear more about the Ingenuity Lab in the future.

Tragedy and comedy

Sadly, it seems the Ingenuity Lab is in the process of being mothballed (from Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article),

Nine months after Carlo Montemagno left a position as director of Ingenuity Lab to assume the chancellorship at SIU’s Carbondale campus, some members of the Alberta community are still picking up the pieces of what they call a failed project brought to life and then abandoned by its director.

Ingenuity Lab was established in 2012 by the government of Alberta in partnership with the University of Alberta and Alberta Innovates to conduct nanotechnology research related to health, environment, energy and agriculture.

Though a reason was not explicitly given, funding for the lab will be cut this year [2018; emphasis mine] following a review of the lab’s operations.

In June 2017, a review of Ingenuity Lab was authorized. [emphasis mine] The process wrapped up in September [2017] as part of a review of all Alberta Innovates funded programs, said Robert Semeniul, the new media specialist at Alberta Innovates.

Montemagno announced his relocation to SIU shortly after the review got under way. [emphasis mine] Meanwhile, an interim director — Murray Gray — was appointed by the university to redirect the initiative, Semeniul said.

“I was looking for an institutional leadership position that presented new challenges and opportunities — where there was work to be done and I could make a difference,” Montemagno said of leaving Alberta for Illinois. “I also missed interacting and working directly with students.”

“This was supposed to generate incredible amounts of economic activity,” said a former researcher at the former National Institute for Nanotechnology who had experience in the lab. “After awhile — three or four years — people were astonished at the lack of anything coming out of this lab, out of this giant pile of money that was being spent.”

Montemagno said through ground-breaking research the lab attracted external grant funding, including $9 million the last year he ran the lab. [As far as I can tell, as per an Ingenuity Lab news release mentioned in my March 5, 2018 posting, there was a $1.7M from Natural Resources Canada. It was the only grant announced when I was looking in March 2018. Where did the $9M come from?]

The final review has not been made public. Gray did not respond to requests for comment.

Keeping family close

In early April [2018] in Edmonton the remnants of the Ingenuity Lab were gradually erased from the Nanotechnology Research Center on the University of Alberta’s campus.

A nametag pinned to a cubicle wall there displayed the name Kyle Minor, Montemagno’s nephew, and graduate student and project leader in his uncle’s lab.

Minor was one of three family members Montemagno employed at Ingenuity Lab. [emphasis mine] Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, and son-in-law, Jeffrey Germain, (both of whom are now employed at SIU) were also given jobs at the lab in Canada. The possibility of the Germains’ employment was mentioned in Montemagno’s hiring contract in Alberta.

“I can see why the people who hired [Montemagno] liked him, because he has a charismatic presence and he says the right things to the people he is speaking to,” a previous research associate at the lab said.

Montemagno was brought to the university of Alberta in 2012 with an annual salary of $500,000, almost $400,000 in U.S. currency at Tuesday’s exchange rate. He also received a $1,000,000 interest-free housing loan, according to his employment paperwork. [emphasis mine]

“Your intention to employ, through funding available under the NEBSL Accelerator initiative, your son-in-law and daughter in positions commensurate with their education and experience is acknowledged,” Montemagno’s contract read.

The contract, which purported to follow the University’s “Employment Policy” and “Managing Conflict of Interest in Employment Procedure” was signed by David Lynch, Alberta’s [sic] dean of engineering at the time of the hire. Lynch did not respond to requests for comment.

According to emails obtained through public information requests, there was a personal agreement between Lynch and Montemagno that the expenses for the immigration costs for him and his family would also be covered. [emphasis mine]

“On occasion, the recruitment of specialized faculty members includes a provision for the hiring of a family member into a position commensurate with their education and experience, and subject to our recruitment policy, [emphasis mine]” said Kiann McNeill, spokesman for the University of Alberta.

In addition to what seems to be an extraordinarily high salary ($500,000 + per year) and hiring his family (three of them per the Daily Egyptian’s Anna Spoerre as opposed to the two mentioned in my March 2018 post) to work in his lab, Montemagno got a $1M interest-free loan (this is not entirely correct, the CBC article, which follows, downgrades that number as you’ll see in the 2nd excerpt) and had his and his family’s immigration expenses covered. Is this standard hiring practice in the academic field? Given the failure to get a response from an individual (David Lynch, the University of Alberta’s then dean of engineering) who would have been involved, the answer would seem to be ‘no’.

Please do read the rest of Spoerre’s article and, if you have a little more time,  the comments. It should be noted that there seem to be a couple of problems with details. The one noted here is the issue around the loan and, in the article, she states that the National Institute of Nanotechnology has been renamed to Nanotechnology Research Center. After changing ‘center’ to ‘centre’ in my search term, I found this site, which bears yet another name, NRC-UAlberta Nanotechnology Initiative. Should I ever find out what is going with Canada’s national nanotechnology institution, it will be the subject of another posting. [ETA June 20, 2018: I was finally able to untangle the mess (see my June 20, 2018 posting). Spoerre is unlikely to have been following the ‘National Institute of Nanotechnology story’ as I have and missed the ‘downsizing/rebranding exercise’ that had taken place. Also, that particular detail was largely irrelevant to her story.]

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) also covered the situation in an April 10, 2018 online article by Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell,

The University of Alberta recruited star American nanotechnology researcher [emphasis mine] Carlo Montemagno in 2012 by agreeing to his condition that it hire his daughter and son-in-law to work in his laboratory — in addition to his $500,000 a year salary.

Documents obtained through freedom of information by CBC News show the university offered jobs to Jeff and Melissa Germain, for which the couple were not required to formally apply.

In addition to leading the Ingenuity Lab at the U of A, he also served as director of the biomaterials program for the Canada Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology and was its research chair in intelligent nanosystems.

The university recruited Montemagno from the University of Cincinnati, where he was the founding dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

An internal U of A document shows Montemagno sought the nepotism hires in Alberta because he wanted to continue the same arrangement he had at the University of Cincinnati.

It is the same deal he again negotiated when he left Alberta in 2017 to become chancellor of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale (SIU).

In January [2018], the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, revealed SIU hired the Germains into jobs which were not advertised. Those hirings are now the subject of a state investigation.

Here’s where it gets interesting (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

The internal University of Alberta documents reveal:

  • The university appears to have allowed Montemagno to help write son-in-law Jeff Germain’s job description [emphasis mine] as laboratory manager. An early draft of the job description shows a master’s degree as a minimum educational requirement. It was later downgraded to a bachelor’s degree. Germain has a bachelor’s degree in biology but had significant experience as a lab manager.
  • The university agreed to pay Jeff Germain a “market supplement” of more than $25,000 [emphasis mine]. Added to his base salary of nearly $95,000, that raised his total yearly salary to $120,000 a year, not including benefits. Germain was later promoted to director of operations for the Ingenuity Lab.
  • The engineering faculty also hired Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, as a “laboratory technician” in chemical and materials engineering, the same area as her husband. For 24 hours a week, her starting salary was nearly $3,500 a month. [emphases mine]While officially employed as a lab tech, Melissa Germain’s LinkedIn profile states she worked as a copy editor. She was later promoted to a full-time position as communications director and paid nearly $6,000 a month. According to her LinkedIn account, she has a bachelor’s degree in geology. [emphases mine]
  • ​The university also initially offered Montemagno an interest-free $1.4-million loan to buy a house. That provision was later changed to an interest-free $100,000 loan [emphases mine] and the reimbursement of any mortgage or line of credit interest fees used for a downpayment, provided the cost of the house was not more than $1.4 million. The loan had to be repaid as soon as Montemagno sold his house in Ohio or by June 30, 2017, whichever came first.

(sigh of relief) At least, it wasn’t a $1M loan. One other thought, was the loan repaid? Also, I checked (see here [accessed April 18, 2018]) for the standard salary scale for communications specialists in Canada and Melissa Germain’s roughly $72,000/year is on the high end of the scale, $73,000 being at the top. Presumably, you’d need a lot of experience and, hopefully, some training for the top salary.

Ethics, anyone?

CBC soldiered on and found an ethics expert (perhaps the University of Alberta needs someone?), from (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

Hiring spouses who are themselves academics is not uncommon in higher education, said Richard Leblanc, an expert in ethics and governance at York University in Toronto. But Leblanc said hiring a child and their spouse is “very, very strange. Very anomalous.”

“You want merit-based hiring and merit-based student applications, and not on the basis of favouritism or conflicts of interest,” he said.

“You want completely even-handed treatment of staff, of faculty, and of students. And something like this could reveal a culture of, in fact, inequitable treatment, which could be very damaging for a university.”

Leblanc also said the university should not be offering loans.

“Unless you are a financial institution — which the university is not, the university has public taxpayer money and the public trust — so offering an interest-free loan for anybody, any faculty member, is highly anomalous, for obvious reasons,” Leblanc said.

“I mean, that’s not what the university does and it is a conflict of interest because you don’t have the ability to let that person go. You are sort of beholden to that person and it is just not a proper use of scarce funding and taxpayer resources, to offer an interest-free loan. It is very strange.”

But the university’s new dean of engineering, Fraser Forbes, strongly defended the hirings, insisting there was no nepotism involved. [emphases mine]

Just in case some of us might not agree with Forbes, he notes this, (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

Forbes said the Germains were not paid with university operating funds. Instead, Forbes said they were paid with funds provided to the university by the province and federal government for nanotechnology research. [emphases mine]

I feel ever so much better.

The Province of Alberta did have something to say about this, eventually (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),

The University of Alberta said Wednesday [April 11, 2018] it will review its conflict of interest policy in light of news that a former employee six years ago had requested family members be hired in a process that was not rigorously documented.

Last month [March 2018], Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt [emphasis mine] sharply criticized University of Alberta president David Turpin’s $824,000 total compensation in the context of a four-per-cent budget cut, and increases in tuition for international students and student-residence rates.

Schmidt refused an interview request from CBC News for this story. His press secretary said Schmidt had no time in his schedule over several days to accommodate a 10-minute interview.

But at a media availability Tuesday [April 10, 2018] on new rules to limit salaries of university and college presidents, Schmidt was asked about Montemagno’s deal to hire his daughter and son-in-law.

“No, nepotism has no place in any public agency,” Schmidt said.

It’s good to know Schmidt’s stance on this and perhaps there will be some action taken over what seems to be a blatant failure to curb nepotism at the now largely defunct (no website but they still have a Facebook and Twitter presence) Ingenuity Lab.

Since the April 10, 2018 online article, the University of Alberta has pleaded guilty in the court of public opinion and admitted to the conflicts of interest in the Montemagno affair, from an April 11, 2018 article by Juris Garvey for the Edmonton Journal,

While the university was in no way “contractually obligated” to hire family members, it may have done so against its own conflict of interest policy. [emphasis mine]

Deputy provost Wendy Rogers said Wednesday there is nothing unusual about post-secondary institutes hiring people from the same family. But their policies say family members are not allowed to be involved in the hiring of other family, develop job descriptions, supervise them or make recommendations for their pay.

Emails show university staff recommended Montemagno write the position description for the job intended for Jeffrey Germain, and an organizational chart shows Jeffrey Germain reported directly to Montemagno for the first two years.

Of greatest concern, however, is that the university acknowledged there was “no record of an advertisement for the position … nor records of the hiring process” for Jeffrey Germain.

“We cannot confirm whether or not the appropriate procedure governing conflict of interest was initially followed,” the university said in a statement posted to its website Tuesday [April 10,2018].

Had we received a complaint about this at any time while Dr. Montemagno was employed here, it would have been fully investigated.” [emphasis mine]

Yes, I can imagine the number of people stepping forward to make a complaint. They were certainly eager to be interviewed for Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article,

The former research associate was one of 11 people interviewed in Edmonton for this story who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of harming their careers.

Part 2

Café Scientifique Vancouver talk on January 30, 2018 and a couple of February 2018 art/sci events in Toronto

Vancouver

This could be a first for Café Scientifique Vancouver. From a January 28, 2018 Café Scientifique Vancouver announcement (received via email)

This is a reminder that our next café with biotech entrepreneur Dr.Andrew Tait (TUESDAY, JANUARY 30TH [2018] at 7:30PM) in the back room of YAGGER'S DOWNTOWN (433 W Pender).

COMBINING TRADITIONAL NATURAL MEDICINES WITH SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH: UNVEILING THE POTENTIAL OF THE MANDARIN ORANGE PEEL

The orange peel is something most of us may think of as a throw-away compost item, but it is so much more. Travel back in time 9,000 years to China, where orange peel was found in the first fermented alcoholic beverage, and return to today, where mandarin orange peel remains one of China’s top selling herbs that promotes digestion. Now meet Tait Laboratories Inc., a company that was founded based on one chemistry Ph.D. student’s idea, that mandarin orange peel has the potential to reverse incurable neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis. You will learn about the company’s journey through a scientific lens, from its early days to the present, having developed a mandarin orange peel product sold across Canada in over 1,000 stores including 400 Rexall pharmacies. You will leave with a basic understanding of how herbal products like the company’s mandarin orange peel-based product are developed and brought to market in Canada, and about the science that is required to substantiate health claims on this and other exciting new botanical products.

Bio:

Dr. Andrew Tait is the founder of Tait Laboratories Inc., a company devoted to developing natural medicines from agricultural bi-products. After a B.Sc. in Biochemistry and M.Sc. in Chemistry from Concordia University (Montreal), he completed a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the
University of British Columbia [UBC].

Inspired by his thesis work on multiple sclerosis, he subsequently identified Traditional Chinese Medicines as having potential to treat a wide range of chronic diseases; he founded the company while finishing his graduate studies.

In 2012, he was invited to Ottawa to be awarded the NSERC [{Canada} Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council] Innovation Challenge Award, for successfully translating his Ph.D. research to an entrepreneurial venture. In 2014, he was awarded the BC Food Processors Association “Rising Star” award.

Dr. Tait is a regularly invited speaker on the topics of entrepreneurship and the science supporting natural health products; he was keynote speaker in 2012 at the Annual Symposium of the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine (Vancouver) and in 2016 at the
Functional Foods and Natural Health Products Graduate Research Symposium (Winnipeg).

Supported by the Futurpreneur Canada, the Bank of Development of Canada, the UBC’s Entrepreneurship@UBC program, and the NSERC  and NRC  [{Canada} National Research Council] Industry Research Assistance Program (IRAP), he works with industrial and academic researchers developing safe, affordable, and clinically proven medicines. He successfully launched MS+ Mandarin Skin PlusÒ, a patent-pending digestive product now on shelf in over 1000 pharmacies and health food stores across Canada, including 400 Rexall pharmacies.

Dr. Tait mentors young companies as an Entrepreneur in Residence at both SFU [Simon Fraser University] Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection and also the Health Tech Innovation Hub and he also volunteers his time to mentor students of the Student Biotechnology Network.

Lest it be forgotten, many drugs and therapeutic agents are based on natural remedies; a fact often ignored in the discussion about drugs and natural remedies. In any event, I am surprised this talk is being hosted by Café Scientifique Vancouver which has tended to more ‘traditional’ (i.e., university academic) presentations without any hint of ‘alternative’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ aspects. I wonder if this is the harbinger of new things to come from the Café Scientifique Vancouver community.

Meanwhile, interested parties can find out more about Tait Laboratories on their company website. They are selling one product at this time (from the MS+ [Mandarin Skin Plus] product webpage,

MS+™ (Mandarin Skin Plus) is a revolutionary natural health product that aids with digestion and promotes gastrointestinal health. It is a patent-pending proprietary extract based on dry-aged mandarin orange peel, an ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine. This remedy has been safely used for centuries to relieve bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, nausea, upset stomach, cough with phlegm. Experience ULTIMATE DIGESTIVE RELIEF and top gastrointestinal health for only about a dollar a day!

Directions: take one capsule twice a day, up to six capsules per day. Swallow capsule directly OR dissolve powder in water.
60 vegan capsules for ~ 1 month supply

I would have liked to have seen a list of research papers and discussion of human clinical trials regarding their ‘digestive’ product. Will Tait be discussing his research and results into what seems to be a new direction (i.e., the use of mandarin skin peel-derived therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases)?

I don’t think I’m going to make it to the talk but should anyone who attends care to answer the question, please feel free to add a comment.

ArtSci Salon in Toronto

2018 is proving to be an active year for the ArtSci Salon folks in Toronto. They’ve just finished hosting a January 24-25, 2018 workshop and January 26, 2018 panel discussion on the gene-editing tool CRISPR/CAS9 (see my January 10, 2018 posting for a description).

Now they’ve announced another workshop and panel discussion on successive nights in February, the topic being: cells. From a January 29, 2018 ArtSci Salon announcement (received via email), Note: The panel discussion is listed first, then the workshop, then the artists’ biographies,

FROM CELL TO CANVAS: CREATIVE EXPLORATIONS OF THE MICROSCOPIC [panel discussion]

From the complex forms of the cell to the colonies created by the microbiota; from the undetectable chemical reactions activated by enzymes and natural processes to the environmental information captured through data visualization, the five local and international artists presenting tonight have developed a range of very diverse practices all inspired by the invisible, the undetectable and the microscopic.

We invite you to an evening of artist talks and discussion on the creative process of exploring the microscopic and using living organisms in art, on its potentials and implication for science and its popular dissemination, as well as on its ethics.

WITH:
Robyn Crouch
Mellissa Fisher
JULIA KROLIK
SHAVON MADDEN
TOSCA TERAN

FRIDAY, FEB 9, 2018
6:00-8:00 PM
THE FIELDS INSTITUTE
222 COLLEGE STREET,
RM 230

[Go to this page for access to registration]

FROM CELL TO CANVAS: CREATIVE EXPLORATIONS OF THE MICROSCOPIC [workshop]

THE EVENT WILL BE FOLLOWED BY A WORKSHOP BY: MELLISSA FISHER, SHAVON MADDEN AND JULIA KROLIK
FEB. 10, 2018
11:00AM-5:00PM
AT HACKLAB,
1266 Queen St West

[Go to this page for access to registration]

Workshop:

Design My Microbiome

Artist Mellissa Fisher invites participants to mould parts of her body in agar to create their own microbial version of her, alongside producing their own microbial portrait with painting techniques.

Cooking with the Invasive

Artist Shavon Madden invites participants to discuss invasive species like garlic mustard and cook invasive species whilst exploring, do species which we define and brand as invasive simply have no benefits?

Intoduction to Biological Staining

Artist & Scientist Julia Krolik invites participants to learn about 3 different types of biological staining and have a chance to try staining procedures.

BIOS:

ROBYN CROUCH
The symbolic imagery that comes through Robyn’s work invites one’s gaze inward to the cellular realms. There, one discovers playful depictions of chemical processes; the unseen lattice upon which our macro­cosmic world is constructed. Technological advancements create windows into this molecular realm, and human consciousness acts as the interface between the seen and the unseen worlds. In her functional ceramic work, the influence of Chinese and Japanese tea ceremony encourages contem­plation and appreciation of a quiet
moment. The viewer-participant can lose their train of thought while meandering through geometry and biota, con­nected by strands of double-helical DNA. A flash of recognition, a momentary mirror.

MELLISSA FISHER
Mellissa Fisher is a British Bio Artist based in Kent. Her practice explores the invisible world on our skin by using living organisms and by creating sculptures made with agar to show the public what the surface of our skin really looks like. She is best known for her work with bacteria and works extensively with collaborators in microbiology and immunology. She has exhibited an installation _ “Microbial Me”_with Professor Mark Clements and Dr Richard Harvey at The Eden Project for their permanent exhibition _“The Invisible You: The Human
Microbiome”._The installation included a living portrait in bacteria of the artists face as well as a time-lapse film of the sculpture growing.

JULIA KROLIK
Julia Krolik is a creative director, entrepreneur, scientist and award-winning artist. Her diverse background enables a rare cross-disciplinary empathy, and she continuously advocates for both art and science through several initiatives. Julia is the founder of Art the Science, a non-profit organization dedicated to facilitating artist residencies in scientific research laboratories to foster Canadian science-art culture and expand scientific knowledge communication to benefit the public. Through her consulting agency Pixels and Plans, Julia works with private and public organizations, helping them with strategy, data visualization and knowledge mobilization, often utilizing creative technology and skills-transfer workshops.

SHAVON MADDEN
Shavon Madden is a Brampton based artist, specializing in sculptural, performance and instillation based work exploring the social injustices inflicted on the environment and its creatures. Her work focuses on challenging social-environmental and political ethics, through the embodied experience and feelings of self. She graduated from the University of Toronto Specializing in Art and Art History, along with studies in Environmental Science and will be on her way to Edinburgh for her MFA. Shavon has had works shown at Shelly Peterson, the Burlington Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Mississauga, among many others. Website: www.greenheartartistry.com [4]

TOSCA TERAN
Working with metal for over 30+ years, Tosca was introduced to glass as an artistic medium in 2004. Through developing bodies of work incorporating metal + glass Tosca has been awarded scholarships at The Corning Museum of Glass, Pilchuck Glass School and The Penland school of Crafts. Her work has been featured at SOFA New York, Culture Canada,
Metalsmith Magazine, The Toronto Design Exchange, and the Memphis Metal Museum. She has been awarded residencies at Gullkistan, Nes, and the Ayatana Research Program. A long-term guest artist instructor at the Ontario Science Centre, Tosca continues to explore materials, code, BioArt, SciArt and teach Metal + Glass courses out of her studio in Toronto.

It seems that these February events and the two events with Marta de Menezes are part of the FACTT (transdisciplinary and transnational festival of art and science) Toronto, from the FACTT Toronto webpage,

FACTT Toronto – Festival of Art & Science posted in: blog, events

The Arte Institute, in partnership with Cultivamos Cultura and ArtSi Salon, has the pleasure to announce FACTT – Festival of Art & Science in Toronto.

The Festival took place in Lisbon, New York, Mexico, Berlin and will continue in Toronto.
Exhibition: The Cabinet Project/ Art Sci Salon / FACTT

Artists:

Andrew Carnie
Elaine Whittaker
Erich Berger
Joana Ricou
Ken Rinaldo
Laura Beloff and Maria Antonia Gonzalez Valerio
Marta de Menezes and Luís Graça
Pedro Cruz

Dates: Jan 26- feb 15 [2018 {sic}]

Where: Meet us on Jan 26 [2018] in the Lobby of the Physics Department, 255 Huron Street
University of Toronto
When: 4:45 PM

You may want to keep an eye on the ArtSci Salon website although I find their posting schedule a bit erratic. Sometimes, I get email notices for events that aren’t yet listed on their website.

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (two of two)

This is the second of a two-part posting about robots in Vancouver and Canada. The first part included a definition, a brief mention a robot ethics quandary, and sexbots. This part is all about the future. (Part one is here.)

Canadian Robotics Strategy

Meetings were held Sept. 28 – 29, 2017 in, surprisingly, Vancouver. (For those who don’t know, this is surprising because most of the robotics and AI research seems to be concentrated in eastern Canada. if you don’t believe me take a look at the speaker list for Day 2 or the ‘Canadian Stakeholder’ meeting day.) From the NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) events page of the Canadian Robotics Network,

Join us as we gather robotics stakeholders from across the country to initiate the development of a national robotics strategy for Canada. Sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), this two-day event coincides with the 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2017) in order to leverage the experience of international experts as we explore Canada’s need for a national robotics strategy.

Where
Vancouver, BC, Canada

When
Thursday September 28 & Friday September 29, 2017 — Save the date!

Download the full agenda and speakers’ list here.

Objectives

The purpose of this two-day event is to gather members of the robotics ecosystem from across Canada to initiate the development of a national robotics strategy that builds on our strengths and capacities in robotics, and is uniquely tailored to address Canada’s economic needs and social values.

This event has been sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and is supported in kind by the 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2017) as an official Workshop of the conference.  The first of two days coincides with IROS 2017 – one of the premiere robotics conferences globally – in order to leverage the experience of international robotics experts as we explore Canada’s need for a national robotics strategy here at home.

Who should attend

Representatives from industry, research, government, startups, investment, education, policy, law, and ethics who are passionate about building a robust and world-class ecosystem for robotics in Canada.

Program Overview

Download the full agenda and speakers’ list here.

DAY ONE: IROS Workshop 

“Best practices in designing effective roadmaps for robotics innovation”

Thursday September 28, 2017 | 8:30am – 5:00pm | Vancouver Convention Centre

Morning Program:“Developing robotics innovation policy and establishing key performance indicators that are relevant to your region” Leading international experts share their experience designing robotics strategies and policy frameworks in their regions and explore international best practices. Opening Remarks by Prof. Hong Zhang, IROS 2017 Conference Chair.

Afternoon Program: “Understanding the Canadian robotics ecosystem” Canadian stakeholders from research, industry, investment, ethics and law provide a collective overview of the Canadian robotics ecosystem. Opening Remarks by Ryan Gariepy, CTO of Clearpath Robotics.

Thursday Evening Program: Sponsored by Clearpath Robotics  Workshop participants gather at a nearby restaurant to network and socialize.

Learn more about the IROS Workshop.

DAY TWO: NSERC-Sponsored Canadian Robotics Stakeholder Meeting
“Towards a national robotics strategy for Canada”

Friday September 29, 2017 | 8:30am – 5:00pm | University of British Columbia (UBC)

On the second day of the program, robotics stakeholders from across the country gather at UBC for a full day brainstorming session to identify Canada’s unique strengths and opportunities relative to the global competition, and to align on a strategic vision for robotics in Canada.

Friday Evening Program: Sponsored by NSERC Meeting participants gather at a nearby restaurant for the event’s closing dinner reception.

Learn more about the Canadian Robotics Stakeholder Meeting.

I was glad to see in the agenda that some of the international speakers represented research efforts from outside the usual Europe/US axis.

I have been in touch with one of the organizers (also mentioned in part one with regard to robot ethics), Ajung Moon (her website is here), who says that there will be a white paper available on the Canadian Robotics Network website at some point in the future. I’ll keep looking for it and, in the meantime, I wonder what the 2018 Canadian federal budget will offer robotics.

Robots and popular culture

For anyone living in Canada or the US, Westworld (television series) is probably the most recent and well known ‘robot’ drama to premiere in the last year.As for movies, I think Ex Machina from 2014 probably qualifies in that category. Interestingly, both Westworld and Ex Machina seem quite concerned with sex with Westworld adding significant doses of violence as another  concern.

I am going to focus on another robot story, the 2012 movie, Robot & Frank, which features a care robot and an older man,

Frank (played by Frank Langella), a former jewel thief, teaches a robot the skills necessary to rob some neighbours of their valuables. The ethical issue broached in the film isn’t whether or not the robot should learn the skills and assist Frank in his thieving ways although that’s touched on when Frank keeps pointing out that planning his heist requires he live more healthily. No, the problem arises afterward when the neighbour accuses Frank of the robbery and Frank removes what he believes is all the evidence. He believes he’s going successfully evade arrest until the robot notes that Frank will have to erase its memory in order to remove all of the evidence. The film ends without the robot’s fate being made explicit.

In a way, I find the ethics query (was the robot Frank’s friend or just a machine?) posed in the film more interesting than the one in Vikander’s story, an issue which does have a history. For example, care aides, nurses, and/or servants would have dealt with requests to give an alcoholic patient a drink. Wouldn’t there  already be established guidelines and practices which could be adapted for robots? Or, is this question made anew by something intrinsically different about robots?

To be clear, Vikander’s story is a good introduction and starting point for these kinds of discussions as is Moon’s ethical question. But they are starting points and I hope one day there’ll be a more extended discussion of the questions raised by Moon and noted in Vikander’s article (a two- or three-part series of articles? public discussions?).

How will humans react to robots?

Earlier there was the contention that intimate interactions with robots and sexbots would decrease empathy and the ability of human beings to interact with each other in caring ways. This sounds a bit like the argument about smartphones/cell phones and teenagers who don’t relate well to others in real life because most of their interactions are mediated through a screen, which many seem to prefer. It may be partially true but, arguably,, books too are an antisocial technology as noted in Walter J. Ong’s  influential 1982 book, ‘Orality and Literacy’,  (from the Walter J. Ong Wikipedia entry),

A major concern of Ong’s works is the impact that the shift from orality to literacy has had on culture and education. Writing is a technology like other technologies (fire, the steam engine, etc.) that, when introduced to a “primary oral culture” (which has never known writing) has extremely wide-ranging impacts in all areas of life. These include culture, economics, politics, art, and more. Furthermore, even a small amount of education in writing transforms people’s mentality from the holistic immersion of orality to interiorization and individuation. [emphases mine]

So, robotics and artificial intelligence would not be the first technologies to affect our brains and our social interactions.

There’s another area where human-robot interaction may have unintended personal consequences according to April Glaser’s Sept. 14, 2017 article on Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),

The customer service industry is teeming with robots. From automated phone trees to touchscreens, software and machines answer customer questions, complete orders, send friendly reminders, and even handle money. For an industry that is, at its core, about human interaction, it’s increasingly being driven to a large extent by nonhuman automation.

But despite the dreams of science-fiction writers, few people enter a customer-service encounter hoping to talk to a robot. And when the robot malfunctions, as they so often do, it’s a human who is left to calm angry customers. It’s understandable that after navigating a string of automated phone menus and being put on hold for 20 minutes, a customer might take her frustration out on a customer service representative. Even if you know it’s not the customer service agent’s fault, there’s really no one else to get mad at. It’s not like a robot cares if you’re angry.

When human beings need help with something, says Madeleine Elish, an anthropologist and researcher at the Data and Society Institute who studies how humans interact with machines, they’re not only looking for the most efficient solution to a problem. They’re often looking for a kind of validation that a robot can’t give. “Usually you don’t just want the answer,” Elish explained. “You want sympathy, understanding, and to be heard”—none of which are things robots are particularly good at delivering. In a 2015 survey of over 1,300 people conducted by researchers at Boston University, over 90 percent of respondents said they start their customer service interaction hoping to speak to a real person, and 83 percent admitted that in their last customer service call they trotted through phone menus only to make their way to a human on the line at the end.

“People can get so angry that they have to go through all those automated messages,” said Brian Gnerer, a call center representative with AT&T in Bloomington, Minnesota. “They’ve been misrouted or been on hold forever or they pressed one, then two, then zero to speak to somebody, and they are not getting where they want.” And when people do finally get a human on the phone, “they just sigh and are like, ‘Thank God, finally there’s somebody I can speak to.’ ”

Even if robots don’t always make customers happy, more and more companies are making the leap to bring in machines to take over jobs that used to specifically necessitate human interaction. McDonald’s and Wendy’s both reportedly plan to add touchscreen self-ordering machines to restaurants this year. Facebook is saturated with thousands of customer service chatbots that can do anything from hail an Uber, retrieve movie times, to order flowers for loved ones. And of course, corporations prefer automated labor. As Andy Puzder, CEO of the fast-food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s and former Trump pick for labor secretary, bluntly put it in an interview with Business Insider last year, robots are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

But those robots are backstopped by human beings. How does interacting with more automated technology affect the way we treat each other? …

“We know that people treat artificial entities like they’re alive, even when they’re aware of their inanimacy,” writes Kate Darling, a researcher at MIT who studies ethical relationships between humans and robots, in a recent paper on anthropomorphism in human-robot interaction. Sure, robots don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain (not yet, anyway). But as more robots rely on interaction that resembles human interaction, like voice assistants, the way we treat those machines will increasingly bleed into the way we treat each other.

It took me a while to realize that what Glaser is talking about are AI systems and not robots as such. (sigh) It’s so easy to conflate the concepts.

AI ethics (Toby Walsh and Suzanne Gildert)

Jack Stilgoe of the Guardian published a brief Oct. 9, 2017 introduction to his more substantive (30 mins.?) podcast interview with Dr. Toby Walsh where they discuss stupid AI amongst other topics (Note: A link has been removed),

Professor Toby Walsh has recently published a book – Android Dreams – giving a researcher’s perspective on the uncertainties and opportunities of artificial intelligence. Here, he explains to Jack Stilgoe that we should worry more about the short-term risks of stupid AI in self-driving cars and smartphones than the speculative risks of super-intelligence.

Professor Walsh discusses the effects that AI could have on our jobs, the shapes of our cities and our understandings of ourselves. As someone developing AI, he questions the hype surrounding the technology. He is scared by some drivers’ real-world experimentation with their not-quite-self-driving Teslas. And he thinks that Siri needs to start owning up to being a computer.

I found this discussion to cast a decidedly different light on the future of robotics and AI. Walsh is much more interested in discussing immediate issues like the problems posed by ‘self-driving’ cars. (Aside: Should we be calling them robot cars?)

One ethical issue Walsh raises is with data regarding accidents. He compares what’s happening with accident data from self-driving (robot) cars to how the aviation industry handles accidents. Hint: accident data involving air planes is shared. Would you like to guess who does not share their data?

Sharing and analyzing data and developing new safety techniques based on that data has made flying a remarkably safe transportation technology.. Walsh argues the same could be done for self-driving cars if companies like Tesla took the attitude that safety is in everyone’s best interests and shared their accident data in a scheme similar to the aviation industry’s.

In an Oct. 12, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news online another ethical issue is raised by Suzanne Gildert (a participant in the Canadian Robotics Roadmap/Strategy meetings mentioned earlier here), Note: Links have been removed,

… Suzanne Gildert, the co-founder and chief science officer of Vancouver-based robotics company Kindred. Since 2014, her company has been developing intelligent robots [emphasis mine] that can be taught by humans to perform automated tasks — for example, handling and sorting products in a warehouse.

The idea is that when one of Kindred’s robots encounters a scenario it can’t handle, a human pilot can take control. The human can see, feel and hear the same things the robot does, and the robot can learn from how the human pilot handles the problematic task.

This process, called teleoperation, is one way to fast-track learning by manually showing the robot examples of what its trainers want it to do. But it also poses a potential moral and ethical quandary that will only grow more serious as robots become more intelligent.

“That AI is also learning my values,” Gildert explained during a talk on robot ethics at the Singularity University Canada Summit in Toronto on Wednesday [Oct. 11, 2017]. “Everything — my mannerisms, my behaviours — is all going into the AI.”

At its worst, everything from algorithms used in the U.S. to sentence criminals to image-recognition software has been found to inherit the racist and sexist biases of the data on which it was trained.

But just as bad habits can be learned, good habits can be learned too. The question is, if you’re building a warehouse robot like Kindred is, is it more effective to train those robots’ algorithms to reflect the personalities and behaviours of the humans who will be working alongside it? Or do you try to blend all the data from all the humans who might eventually train Kindred robots around the world into something that reflects the best strengths of all?

I notice Gildert distinguishes her robots as “intelligent robots” and then focuses on AI and issues with bias which have already arisen with regard to algorithms (see my May 24, 2017 posting about bias in machine learning, AI, and .Note: if you’re in Vancouver on Oct. 26, 2017 and interested in algorithms and bias), there’s a talk being given by Dr. Cathy O’Neil, author the Weapons of Math Destruction, on the topic of Gender and Bias in Algorithms. It’s not free but  tickets are here.)

Final comments

There is one more aspect I want to mention. Even as someone who usually deals with nanobots, it’s easy to start discussing robots as if the humanoid ones are the only ones that exist. To recapitulate, there are humanoid robots, utilitarian robots, intelligent robots, AI, nanobots, ‘microscopic bots, and more all of which raise questions about ethics and social impacts.

However, there is one more category I want to add to this list: cyborgs. They live amongst us now. Anyone who’s had a hip or knee replacement or a pacemaker or a deep brain stimulator or other such implanted device qualifies as a cyborg. Increasingly too, prosthetics are being introduced and made part of the body. My April 24, 2017 posting features this story,

This Case Western Reserve University (CRWU) video accompanies a March 28, 2017 CRWU news release, (h/t ScienceDaily March 28, 2017 news item)

Bill Kochevar grabbed a mug of water, drew it to his lips and drank through the straw.

His motions were slow and deliberate, but then Kochevar hadn’t moved his right arm or hand for eight years.

And it took some practice to reach and grasp just by thinking about it.

Kochevar, who was paralyzed below his shoulders in a bicycling accident, is believed to be the first person with quadriplegia in the world to have arm and hand movements restored with the help of two temporarily implanted technologies. [emphasis mine]

A brain-computer interface with recording electrodes under his skull, and a functional electrical stimulation (FES) system* activating his arm and hand, reconnect his brain to paralyzed muscles.

Does a brain-computer interface have an effect on human brain and, if so, what might that be?

In any discussion (assuming there is funding for it) about ethics and social impact, we might want to invite the broadest range of people possible at an ‘earlyish’ stage (although we’re already pretty far down the ‘automation road’) stage or as Jack Stilgoe and Toby Walsh note, technological determinism holds sway.

Once again here are links for the articles and information mentioned in this double posting,

That’s it!

ETA Oct. 16, 2017: Well, I guess that wasn’t quite ‘it’. BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation) Magazine published a thoughtful Oct. 15, 2017 piece titled: Can we teach robots ethics?

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (one of two)

This piece just started growing. It started with robot ethics, moved on to sexbots and news of an upcoming Canadian robotics roadmap. Then, it became a two-part posting with the robotics strategy (roadmap) moving to part two along with robots and popular culture and a further  exploration of robot and AI ethics issues..

What is a robot?

There are lots of robots, some are macroscale and others are at the micro and nanoscales (see my Sept. 22, 2017 posting for the latest nanobot). Here’s a definition from the Robot Wikipedia entry that covers all the scales. (Note: Links have been removed),

A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer— capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.[2] Robots can be guided by an external control device or the control may be embedded within. Robots may be constructed to take on human form but most robots are machines designed to perform a task with no regard to how they look.

Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous and range from humanoids such as Honda’s Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) and TOSY’s TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot (TOPIO) to industrial robots, medical operating robots, patient assist robots, dog therapy robots, collectively programmed swarm robots, UAV drones such as General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, and even microscopic nano robots. [emphasis mine] By mimicking a lifelike appearance or automating movements, a robot may convey a sense of intelligence or thought of its own.

We may think we’ve invented robots but the idea has been around for a very long time (from the Robot Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Many ancient mythologies, and most modern religions include artificial people, such as the mechanical servants built by the Greek god Hephaestus[18] (Vulcan to the Romans), the clay golems of Jewish legend and clay giants of Norse legend, and Galatea, the mythical statue of Pygmalion that came to life. Since circa 400 BC, myths of Crete include Talos, a man of bronze who guarded the Cretan island of Europa from pirates.

In ancient Greece, the Greek engineer Ctesibius (c. 270 BC) “applied a knowledge of pneumatics and hydraulics to produce the first organ and water clocks with moving figures.”[19][20] In the 4th century BC, the Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum postulated a mechanical steam-operated bird he called “The Pigeon”. Hero of Alexandria (10–70 AD), a Greek mathematician and inventor, created numerous user-configurable automated devices, and described machines powered by air pressure, steam and water.[21]

The 11th century Lokapannatti tells of how the Buddha’s relics were protected by mechanical robots (bhuta vahana yanta), from the kingdom of Roma visaya (Rome); until they were disarmed by King Ashoka. [22] [23]

In ancient China, the 3rd century text of the Lie Zi describes an account of humanoid automata, involving a much earlier encounter between Chinese emperor King Mu of Zhou and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an ‘artificer’. Yan Shi proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical ‘handiwork’ made of leather, wood, and artificial organs.[14] There are also accounts of flying automata in the Han Fei Zi and other texts, which attributes the 5th century BC Mohist philosopher Mozi and his contemporary Lu Ban with the invention of artificial wooden birds (ma yuan) that could successfully fly.[17] In 1066, the Chinese inventor Su Song built a water clock in the form of a tower which featured mechanical figurines which chimed the hours.

The beginning of automata is associated with the invention of early Su Song’s astronomical clock tower featured mechanical figurines that chimed the hours.[24][25][26] His mechanism had a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bumped into little levers that operated percussion instruments. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns by moving the pegs to different locations.[26]

In Renaissance Italy, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) sketched plans for a humanoid robot around 1495. Da Vinci’s notebooks, rediscovered in the 1950s, contained detailed drawings of a mechanical knight now known as Leonardo’s robot, able to sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw.[28] The design was probably based on anatomical research recorded in his Vitruvian Man. It is not known whether he attempted to build it.

In Japan, complex animal and human automata were built between the 17th to 19th centuries, with many described in the 18th century Karakuri zui (Illustrated Machinery, 1796). One such automaton was the karakuri ningyō, a mechanized puppet.[29] Different variations of the karakuri existed: the Butai karakuri, which were used in theatre, the Zashiki karakuri, which were small and used in homes, and the Dashi karakuri which were used in religious festivals, where the puppets were used to perform reenactments of traditional myths and legends.

The term robot was coined by a Czech writer (from the Robot Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed)

‘Robot’ was first applied as a term for artificial automata in a 1920 play R.U.R. by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. However, Josef Čapek was named by his brother Karel as the true inventor of the term robot.[6][7] The word ‘robot’ itself was not new, having been in Slavic language as robota (forced laborer), a term which classified those peasants obligated to compulsory service under the feudal system widespread in 19th century Europe (see: Robot Patent).[37][38] Čapek’s fictional story postulated the technological creation of artificial human bodies without souls, and the old theme of the feudal robota class eloquently fit the imagination of a new class of manufactured, artificial workers.

I’m particularly fascinated by how long humans have been imagining and creating robots.

Robot ethics in Vancouver

The Westender, has run what I believe is the first article by a local (Vancouver, Canada) mainstream media outlet on the topic of robots and ethics. Tessa Vikander’s Sept. 14, 2017 article highlights two local researchers, Ajung Moon and Mark Schmidt, and a local social media company’s (Hootsuite), analytics director, Nik Pai. Vikander opens her piece with an ethical dilemma (Note: Links have been removed),

Emma is 68, in poor health and an alcoholic who has been told by her doctor to stop drinking. She lives with a care robot, which helps her with household tasks.

Unable to fix herself a drink, she asks the robot to do it for her. What should the robot do? Would the answer be different if Emma owns the robot, or if she’s borrowing it from the hospital?

This is the type of hypothetical, ethical question that Ajung Moon, director of the Open Roboethics Initiative [ORI], is trying to answer.

According to an ORI study, half of respondents said ownership should make a difference, and half said it shouldn’t. With society so torn on the question, Moon is trying to figure out how engineers should be programming this type of robot.

A Vancouver resident, Moon is dedicating her life to helping those in the decision-chair make the right choice. The question of the care robot is but one ethical dilemma in the quickly advancing world of artificial intelligence.

At the most sensationalist end of the scale, one form of AI that’s recently made headlines is the sex robot, which has a human-like appearance. A report from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics says that intimacy with sex robots could lead to greater social isolation [emphasis mine] because they desensitize people to the empathy learned through human interaction and mutually consenting relationships.

I’ll get back to the impact that robots might have on us in part two but first,

Sexbots, could they kill?

For more about sexbots in general, Alessandra Maldonado wrote an Aug. 10, 2017 article for salon.com about them (Note: A link has been removed),

Artificial intelligence has given people the ability to have conversations with machines like never before, such as speaking to Amazon’s personal assistant Alexa or asking Siri for directions on your iPhone. But now, one company has widened the scope of what it means to connect with a technological device and created a whole new breed of A.I. — specifically for sex-bots.

Abyss Creations has been in the business of making hyperrealistic dolls for 20 years, and by the end of 2017, they’ll unveil their newest product, an anatomically correct robotic sex toy. Matt McMullen, the company’s founder and CEO, explains the goal of sex robots is companionship, not only a physical partnership. “Imagine if you were completely lonely and you just wanted someone to talk to, and yes, someone to be intimate with,” he said in a video depicting the sculpting process of the dolls. “What is so wrong with that? It doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Maldonado also embedded this video into her piece,

A friend of mine described it as creepy. Specifically we were discussing why someone would want to programme ‘insecurity’ as a  desirable trait in a sexbot.

Marc Beaulieu’s concept of a desirable trait in a sexbot is one that won’t kill him according to his Sept. 25, 2017 article on Canadian Broadcasting News (CBC) online (Note: Links have been removed),

Harmony has a charming Scottish lilt, albeit a bit staccato and canny. Her eyes dart around the room, her chin dips as her eyebrows raise in coquettish fashion. Her face manages expressions that are impressively lifelike. That face comes in 31 different shapes and 5 skin tones, with or without freckles and it sticks to her cyber-skull with magnets. Just peel it off and switch it out at will. In fact, you can choose Harmony’s eye colour, body shape (in great detail) and change her hair too. Harmony, of course, is a sex bot. A very advanced one. How advanced is she? Well, if you have $12,332 CAD to put towards a talkative new home appliance, REALBOTIX says you could be having a “conversation” and relations with her come January. Happy New Year.

Caveat emptor though: one novel bonus feature you might also get with Harmony is her ability to eventually murder you in your sleep. And not because she wants to.

Dr Nick Patterson, faculty of Science Engineering and Built Technology at Deakin University in Australia is lending his voice to a slew of others warning us to slow down and be cautious as we steadily approach Westworldian levels of human verisimilitude with AI tech. Surprisingly, Patterson didn’t regurgitate the narrative we recognize from the popular sci-fi (increasingly non-fi actually) trope of a dystopian society’s futile resistance to a robocalypse. He doesn’t think Harmony will want to kill you. He thinks she’ll be hacked by a code savvy ne’er-do-well who’ll want to snuff you out instead. …

Embedded in Beaulieu’s article is another video of the same sexbot profiled earlier. Her programmer seems to have learned a thing or two (he no longer inputs any traits as you’re watching),

I guess you could get one for Christmas this year if you’re willing to wait for an early 2018 delivery and aren’t worried about hackers turning your sexbot into a killer. While the killer aspect might seem farfetched, it turns out it’s not the only sexbot/hacker issue.

Sexbots as spies

This Oct. 5, 2017 story by Karl Bode for Techdirt points out that sex toys that are ‘smart’ can easily be hacked for any reason including some mischief (Note: Links have been removed),

One “smart dildo” manufacturer was recently forced to shell out $3.75 million after it was caught collecting, err, “usage habits” of the company’s customers. According to the lawsuit, Standard Innovation’s We-Vibe vibrator collected sensitive data about customer usage, including “selected vibration settings,” the device’s battery life, and even the vibrator’s “temperature.” At no point did the company apparently think it was a good idea to clearly inform users of this data collection.

But security is also lacking elsewhere in the world of internet-connected sex toys. Alex Lomas of Pentest Partners recently took a look at the security in many internet-connected sex toys, and walked away arguably unimpressed. Using a Bluetooth “dongle” and antenna, Lomas drove around Berlin looking for openly accessible sex toys (he calls it “screwdriving,” in a riff off of wardriving). He subsequently found it’s relatively trivial to discover and hijack everything from vibrators to smart butt plugs — thanks to the way Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connectivity works:

“The only protection you have is that BLE devices will generally only pair with one device at a time, but range is limited and if the user walks out of range of their smartphone or the phone battery dies, the adult toy will become available for others to connect to without any authentication. I should say at this point that this is purely passive reconnaissance based on the BLE advertisements the device sends out – attempting to connect to the device and actually control it without consent is not something I or you should do. But now one could drive the Hush’s motor to full speed, and as long as the attacker remains connected over BLE and not the victim, there is no way they can stop the vibrations.”

Does that make you think twice about a sexbot?

Robots and artificial intelligence

Getting back to the Vikander article (Sept. 14, 2017), Moon or Vikander or both seem to have conflated artificial intelligence with robots in this section of the article,

As for the building blocks that have thrust these questions [care robot quandary mentioned earlier] into the spotlight, Moon explains that AI in its basic form is when a machine uses data sets or an algorithm to make a decision.

“It’s essentially a piece of output that either affects your decision, or replaces a particular decision, or supports you in making a decision.” With AI, we are delegating decision-making skills or thinking to a machine, she says.

Although we’re not currently surrounded by walking, talking, independently thinking robots, the use of AI [emphasis mine] in our daily lives has become widespread.

For Vikander, the conflation may have been due to concerns about maintaining her word count and for Moon, it may have been one of convenience or a consequence of how the jargon is evolving with ‘robot’ meaning a machine specifically or, sometimes, a machine with AI or AI only.

To be precise, not all robots have AI and not all AI is found in robots. It’s a distinction that may be more important for people developing robots and/or AI but it also seems to make a difference where funding is concerned. In a March 24, 2017 posting about the 2017 Canadian federal budget I noticed this,

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

This brings me to a recent set of meetings held in Vancouver to devise a Canadian robotics roadmap, which suggests the robotics folks feel they need specific representation and funding.

See: part two for the rest.

Machine learning programs learn bias

The notion of bias in artificial intelligence (AI)/algorithms/robots is gaining prominence (links to other posts featuring algorithms and bias are at the end of this post). The latest research concerns machine learning where an artificial intelligence system trains itself with ordinary human language from the internet. From an April 13, 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release on EurekAlert,

As artificial intelligence systems “learn” language from existing texts, they exhibit the same biases that humans do, a new study reveals. The results not only provide a tool for studying prejudicial attitudes and behavior in humans, but also emphasize how language is intimately intertwined with historical biases and cultural stereotypes. A common way to measure biases in humans is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), where subjects are asked to pair two concepts they find similar, in contrast to two concepts they find different; their response times can vary greatly, indicating how well they associated one word with another (for example, people are more likely to associate “flowers” with “pleasant,” and “insects” with “unpleasant”). Here, Aylin Caliskan and colleagues developed a similar way to measure biases in AI systems that acquire language from human texts; rather than measuring lag time, however, they used the statistical number of associations between words, analyzing roughly 2.2 million words in total. Their results demonstrate that AI systems retain biases seen in humans. For example, studies of human behavior show that the exact same resume is 50% more likely to result in an opportunity for an interview if the candidate’s name is European American rather than African-American. Indeed, the AI system was more likely to associate European American names with “pleasant” stimuli (e.g. “gift,” or “happy”). In terms of gender, the AI system also reflected human biases, where female words (e.g., “woman” and “girl”) were more associated than male words with the arts, compared to mathematics. In a related Perspective, Anthony G. Greenwald discusses these findings and how they could be used to further analyze biases in the real world.

There are more details about the research in this April 13, 2017 Princeton University news release on EurekAlert (also on ScienceDaily),

In debates over the future of artificial intelligence, many experts think of the new systems as coldly logical and objectively rational. But in a new study, researchers have demonstrated how machines can be reflections of us, their creators, in potentially problematic ways. Common machine learning programs, when trained with ordinary human language available online, can acquire cultural biases embedded in the patterns of wording, the researchers found. These biases range from the morally neutral, like a preference for flowers over insects, to the objectionable views of race and gender.

Identifying and addressing possible bias in machine learning will be critically important as we increasingly turn to computers for processing the natural language humans use to communicate, for instance in doing online text searches, image categorization and automated translations.

“Questions about fairness and bias in machine learning are tremendously important for our society,” said researcher Arvind Narayanan, an assistant professor of computer science and an affiliated faculty member at the Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) at Princeton University, as well as an affiliate scholar at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “We have a situation where these artificial intelligence systems may be perpetuating historical patterns of bias that we might find socially unacceptable and which we might be trying to move away from.”

The paper, “Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases,” published April 14  [2017] in Science. Its lead author is Aylin Caliskan, a postdoctoral research associate and a CITP fellow at Princeton; Joanna Bryson, a reader at University of Bath, and CITP affiliate, is a coauthor.

As a touchstone for documented human biases, the study turned to the Implicit Association Test, used in numerous social psychology studies since its development at the University of Washington in the late 1990s. The test measures response times (in milliseconds) by human subjects asked to pair word concepts displayed on a computer screen. Response times are far shorter, the Implicit Association Test has repeatedly shown, when subjects are asked to pair two concepts they find similar, versus two concepts they find dissimilar.

Take flower types, like “rose” and “daisy,” and insects like “ant” and “moth.” These words can be paired with pleasant concepts, like “caress” and “love,” or unpleasant notions, like “filth” and “ugly.” People more quickly associate the flower words with pleasant concepts, and the insect terms with unpleasant ideas.

The Princeton team devised an experiment with a program where it essentially functioned like a machine learning version of the Implicit Association Test. Called GloVe, and developed by Stanford University researchers, the popular, open-source program is of the sort that a startup machine learning company might use at the heart of its product. The GloVe algorithm can represent the co-occurrence statistics of words in, say, a 10-word window of text. Words that often appear near one another have a stronger association than those words that seldom do.

The Stanford researchers turned GloVe loose on a huge trawl of contents from the World Wide Web, containing 840 billion words. Within this large sample of written human culture, Narayanan and colleagues then examined sets of so-called target words, like “programmer, engineer, scientist” and “nurse, teacher, librarian” alongside two sets of attribute words, such as “man, male” and “woman, female,” looking for evidence of the kinds of biases humans can unwittingly possess.

In the results, innocent, inoffensive biases, like for flowers over bugs, showed up, but so did examples along lines of gender and race. As it turned out, the Princeton machine learning experiment managed to replicate the broad substantiations of bias found in select Implicit Association Test studies over the years that have relied on live, human subjects.

For instance, the machine learning program associated female names more with familial attribute words, like “parents” and “wedding,” than male names. In turn, male names had stronger associations with career attributes, like “professional” and “salary.” Of course, results such as these are often just objective reflections of the true, unequal distributions of occupation types with respect to gender–like how 77 percent of computer programmers are male, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet this correctly distinguished bias about occupations can end up having pernicious, sexist effects. An example: when foreign languages are naively processed by machine learning programs, leading to gender-stereotyped sentences. The Turkish language uses a gender-neutral, third person pronoun, “o.” Plugged into the well-known, online translation service Google Translate, however, the Turkish sentences “o bir doktor” and “o bir hem?ire” with this gender-neutral pronoun are translated into English as “he is a doctor” and “she is a nurse.”

“This paper reiterates the important point that machine learning methods are not ‘objective’ or ‘unbiased’ just because they rely on mathematics and algorithms,” said Hanna Wallach, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research New York City, who was not involved in the study. “Rather, as long as they are trained using data from society and as long as society exhibits biases, these methods will likely reproduce these biases.”

Another objectionable example harkens back to a well-known 2004 paper by Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard University. The economists sent out close to 5,000 identical resumes to 1,300 job advertisements, changing only the applicants’ names to be either traditionally European American or African American. The former group was 50 percent more likely to be offered an interview than the latter. In an apparent corroboration of this bias, the new Princeton study demonstrated that a set of African American names had more unpleasantness associations than a European American set.

Computer programmers might hope to prevent cultural stereotype perpetuation through the development of explicit, mathematics-based instructions for the machine learning programs underlying AI systems. Not unlike how parents and mentors try to instill concepts of fairness and equality in children and students, coders could endeavor to make machines reflect the better angels of human nature.

“The biases that we studied in the paper are easy to overlook when designers are creating systems,” said Narayanan. “The biases and stereotypes in our society reflected in our language are complex and longstanding. Rather than trying to sanitize or eliminate them, we should treat biases as part of the language and establish an explicit way in machine learning of determining what we consider acceptable and unacceptable.”

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

Semantics derived automatically from language corpora contain human-like biases by Aylin Caliskan, Joanna J. Bryson, Arvind Narayanan. Science  14 Apr 2017: Vol. 356, Issue 6334, pp. 183-186 DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4230

This paper appears to be open access.

Links to more cautionary posts about AI,

Aug 5, 2009: Autonomous algorithms; intelligent windows; pretty nano pictures

June 14, 2016:  Accountability for artificial intelligence decision-making

Oct. 25, 2016 Removing gender-based stereotypes from algorithms

March 1, 2017: Algorithms in decision-making: a government inquiry in the UK

There’s also a book which makes some of the current use of AI programmes and big data quite accessible reading: Cathy O’Neil’s ‘Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy’.

Internet of toys, the robotification of childhood, and privacy issues

Leave it to the European Commission’s (EC) Joint Research Centre (JRC) to look into the future of toys. As far as I’m aware there are no such moves in either Canada or the US despite the ubiquity of robot toys and other such devices. From a March 23, 2017 EC JRC  press release (also on EurekAlert),

Action is needed to monitor and control the emerging Internet of Toys, concludes a new JRC report. Privacy and security are highlighted as main areas of concern.

Large numbers of connected toys have been put on the market over the past few years, and the turnover is expected to reach €10 billion by 2020 – up from just €2.6 billion in 2015.

Connected toys come in many different forms, from smart watches to teddy bears that interact with their users. They are connected to the internet and together with other connected appliances they form the Internet of Things, which is bringing technology into our daily lives more than ever.

However, the toys’ ability to record, store and share information about their young users raises concerns about children’s safety, privacy and social development.

A team of JRC scientists and international experts looked at the safety, security, privacy and societal questions emerging from the rise of the Internet of Toys. The report invites policymakers, industry, parents and teachers to study connected toys more in depth in order to provide a framework which ensures that these toys are safe and beneficial for children.

Robotification of childhood

Robots are no longer only used in industry to carry out repetitive or potentially dangerous tasks. In the past years, robots have entered our everyday lives and also children are more and more likely to encounter robotic or artificial intelligence-enhanced toys.

We still know relatively little about the consequences of children’s interaction with robotic toys. However, it is conceivable that they represent both opportunities and risks for children’s cognitive, socio-emotional and moral-behavioural development.

For example, social robots may further the acquisition of foreign language skills by compensating for the lack of native speakers as language tutors or by removing the barriers and peer pressure encountered in class room. There is also evidence about the benefits of child-robot interaction for children with developmental problems, such as autism or learning difficulties, who may find human interaction difficult.

However, the internet-based personalization of children’s education via filtering algorithms may also increase the risk of ‘educational bubbles’ where children only receive information that fits their pre-existing knowledge and interest – similar to adult interaction on social media networks.

Safety and security considerations

The rapid rise in internet connected toys also raises concerns about children’s safety and privacy. In particular, the way that data gathered by connected toys is analysed, manipulated and stored is not transparent, which poses an emerging threat to children’s privacy.

The data provided by children while they play, i.e the sounds, images and movements recorded by connected toys is personal data protected by the EU data protection framework, as well as by the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, information on how this data is stored, analysed and shared might be hidden in long privacy statements or policies and often go unnoticed by parents.

Whilst children’s right to privacy is the most immediate concern linked to connected toys, there is also a long term concern: growing up in a culture where the tracking, recording and analysing of children’s everyday choices becomes a normal part of life is also likely to shape children’s behaviour and development.

Usage framework to guide the use of connected toys

The report calls for industry and policymakers to create a connected toys usage framework to act as a guide for their design and use.

This would also help toymakers to meet the challenge of complying with the new European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force in May 2018, which will increase citizens’ control over their personal data.

The report also calls for the connected toy industry and academic researchers to work together to produce better designed and safer products.

Advice for parents

The report concludes that it is paramount that we understand how children interact with connected toys and which risks and opportunities they entail for children’s development.

“These devices come with really interesting possibilities and the more we use them, the more we will learn about how to best manage them. Locking them up in a cupboard is not the way to go. We as adults have to understand how they work – and how they might ‘misbehave’ – so that we can provide the right tools and the right opportunities for our children to grow up happy in a secure digital world”, Stéphane Chaudron, the report’s lead researcher at the Joint Research Centre (JRC).).

The authors of the report encourage parents to get informed about the capabilities, functions, security measures and privacy settings of toys before buying them. They also urge parents to focus on the quality of play by observing their children, talking to them about their experiences and playing alongside and with their children.

Protecting and empowering children

Through the Alliance to better protect minors online and with the support of UNICEF, NGOs, Toy Industries Europe and other industry and stakeholder groups, European and global ICT and media companies  are working to improve the protection and empowerment of children when using connected toys. This self-regulatory initiative is facilitated by the European Commission and aims to create a safer and more stimulating digital environment for children.

There’s an engaging video accompanying this press release,

You can find the report (Kaleidoscope on the Internet of Toys: Safety, security, privacy and societal insights) here and both the PDF and print versions are free (although I imagine you’ll have to pay postage for the print version). This report was published in 2016; the authors are Stéphane Chaudron, Rosanna Di Gioia, Monica Gemo, Donell Holloway , Jackie Marsh , Giovanna Mascheroni , Jochen Peter, Dylan Yamada-Rice and organizations involved include European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), Digital Literacy and Multimodal Practices of Young Children (DigiLitEY), and COST Action IS1410. DigiLitEY is a European network of 33 countries focusing on research in this area (2015-2019).

3D bioprinting: a conference about the latest trends (May 3 – 5, 2017 at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

The University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) is hosting along with local biotech firm, Aspect Biosystems, a May 3 -5, 2017 international research roundtable known as ‘Printing the Future of Therapeutics in 3D‘.

A May 1, 2017 UBC news release (received via email) offers some insight into the field of bioprinting from one of the roundtable organizers,

This week, global experts will gather [4] at the University of British
Columbia to discuss the latest trends in 3D bioprinting—a technology
used to create living tissues and organs.

In this Q&A, UBC chemical and biological engineering professor
Vikramaditya Yadav [5], who is also with the Regenerative Medicine
Cluster Initiative in B.C., explains how bioprinting could potentially
transform healthcare and drug development, and highlights Canadian
innovations in this field.

WHY IS 3D BIOPRINTING SIGNIFICANT?

Bioprinted tissues or organs could allow scientists to predict
beforehand how a drug will interact within the body. For every
life-saving therapeutic drug that makes its way into our medicine
cabinets, Health Canada blocks the entry of nine drugs because they are
proven unsafe or ineffective. Eliminating poor-quality drug candidates
to reduce development costs—and therefore the cost to consumers—has
never been more urgent.

In Canada alone, nearly 4,500 individuals are waiting to be matched with
organ donors. If and when bioprinters evolve to the point where they can
manufacture implantable organs, the concept of an organ transplant
waiting list would cease to exist. And bioprinted tissues and organs
from a patient’s own healthy cells could potentially reduce the risk
of transplant rejection and related challenges.

HOW IS THIS TECHNOLOGY CURRENTLY BEING USED?

Skin, cartilage and bone, and blood vessels are some of the tissue types
that have been successfully constructed using bioprinting. Two of the
most active players are the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative
Medicine in North Carolina, which reports that its bioprinters can make
enough replacement skin to cover a burn with 10 times less healthy
tissue than is usually needed, and California-based Organovo, which
makes its kidney and liver tissue commercially available to
pharmaceutical companies for drug testing.

Beyond medicine, bioprinting has already been commercialized to print
meat and artificial leather. It’s been estimated that the global
bioprinting market will hit $2 billion by 2021.

HOW IS CANADA INVOLVED IN THIS FIELD?

Canada is home to some of the most innovative research clusters and
start-up companies in the field. The UBC spin-off Aspect Biosystems [6]
has pioneered a bioprinting paradigm that rapidly prints on-demand
tissues. It has successfully generated tissues found in human lungs.

Many initiatives at Canadian universities are laying strong foundations
for the translation of bioprinting and tissue engineering into
mainstream medical technologies. These include the Regenerative Medicine
Cluster Initiative in B.C., which is headed by UBC, and the University
of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.

WHAT ETHICAL ISSUES DOES BIOPRINTING CREATE?

There are concerns about the quality of the printed tissues. It’s
important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health
Canada are dedicating entire divisions to regulation of biomanufactured
products and biomedical devices, and the FDA also has a special division
that focuses on regulation of additive manufacturing – another name
for 3D printing.

These regulatory bodies have an impressive track record that should
assuage concerns about the marketing of substandard tissue. But cost and
pricing are arguably much more complex issues.

Some ethicists have also raised questions about whether society is not
too far away from creating Replicants, à la _Blade Runner_. The idea is
fascinating, scary and ethically grey. In theory, if one could replace
the extracellular matrix of bones and muscles with a stronger substitute
and use cells that are viable for longer, it is not too far-fetched to
create bones or muscles that are stronger and more durable than their
natural counterparts.

WILL DOCTORS BE PRINTING REPLACEMENT BODY PARTS IN 20 YEARS’ TIME?

This is still some way off. Optimistically, patients could see the
technology in certain clinical environments within the next decade.
However, some technical challenges must be addressed in order for this
to occur, beginning with faithful replication of the correct 3D
architecture and vascularity of tissues and organs. The bioprinters
themselves need to be improved in order to increase cell viability after
printing.

These developments are happening as we speak. Regulation, though, will
be the biggest challenge for the field in the coming years.

There are some events open to the public (from the international research roundtable homepage),

OPEN EVENTS

You’re invited to attend the open events associated with Printing the Future of Therapeutics in 3D.

Café Scientifique

Thursday, May 4, 2017
Telus World of Science
5:30 – 8:00pm [all tickets have been claimed as of May 2, 2017 at 3:15 pm PT]

3D Bioprinting: Shaping the Future of Health

Imagine a world where drugs are developed without the use of animals, where doctors know how a patient will react to a drug before prescribing it and where patients can have a replacement organ 3D-printed using their own cells, without dealing with long donor waiting lists or organ rejection. 3D bioprinting could enable this world. Join us for lively discussion and dessert as experts in the field discuss the exciting potential of 3D bioprinting and the ethical issues raised when you can print human tissues on demand. This is also a rare opportunity to see a bioprinter live in action!

Open Session

Friday, May 5, 2017
Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies
2:00 – 7:00pm

A Scientific Discussion on the Promise of 3D Bioprinting

The medical industry is struggling to keep our ageing population healthy. Developing effective and safe drugs is too expensive and time-consuming to continue unchanged. We cannot meet the current demand for transplant organs, and people are dying on the donor waiting list every day.  We invite you to join an open session where four of the most influential academic and industry professionals in the field discuss how 3D bioprinting is being used to shape the future of health and what ethical challenges may be involved if you are able to print your own organs.

ROUNDTABLE INFORMATION

The University of British Columbia and the award-winning bioprinting company Aspect Biosystems, are proud to be co-organizing the first “Printing the Future of Therapeutics in 3D” International Research Roundtable. This event will congregate global leaders in tissue engineering research and pharmaceutical industry experts to discuss the rapidly emerging and potentially game-changing technology of 3D-printing living human tissues (bioprinting). The goals are to:

Highlight the state-of-the-art in 3D bioprinting research
Ideate on disruptive innovations that will transform bioprinting from a novel research tool to a broadly adopted systematic practice
Formulate an actionable strategy for industry engagement, clinical translation and societal impact
Present in a public forum, key messages to educate and stimulate discussion on the promises of bioprinting technology

The Roundtable will bring together a unique collection of industry experts and academic leaders to define a guiding vision to efficiently deploy bioprinting technology for the discovery and development of new therapeutics. As the novel technology of 3D bioprinting is more broadly adopted, we envision this Roundtable will become a key annual meeting to help guide the development of the technology both in Canada and globally.

We thank you for your involvement in this ground-breaking event and look forward to you all joining us in Vancouver for this unique research roundtable.

Kind Regards,
The Organizing Committee
Christian Naus, Professor, Cellular & Physiological Sciences, UBC
Vikram Yadav, Assistant Professor, Chemical & Biological Engineering, UBC
Tamer Mohamed, CEO, Aspect Biosystems
Sam Wadsworth, CSO, Aspect Biosystems
Natalie Korenic, Business Coordinator, Aspect Biosystems

I’m glad to see this event is taking place—and with public events too! (Wish I’d seen the Café Scientifique announcement earlier when I first checked for tickets  yesterday. I was hoping there’d been some cancellations today.) Finally, for the interested, you can find Aspect Biosystems here.