Category Archives: Technology

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.

“Innovation and its enemies” and “Science in Wonderland”: a commentary on two books and a few thoughts about fish (1 of 2)

There’s more than one way to approach the introduction of emerging technologies and sciences to ‘the public’. Calestous Juma in his 2016 book, ”Innovation and Its Enemies; Why People Resist New Technologies” takes a direct approach, as can be seen from the title while Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain” presents a more fantastical one. The fish in the headline tie together, thematically and tenuously, both books with a real life situation.

Innovation and Its Enemies

Calestous Juma, the author of “Innovation and Its Enemies” has impressive credentials,

  • Professor of the Practice of International Development,
  • Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Better Science and International Affairs,
  • Founding Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi (Kenya),
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and
  • Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Even better, Juma is an excellent storyteller perhaps too much so for a book which presents a series of science and technology adoption case histories. (Given the range of historical time periods, geography, and the innovations themselves, he always has to stop short.)  The breadth is breathtaking and Juma manages with aplomb. For example, the innovations covered include: coffee, electricity, mechanical refrigeration, margarine, recorded sound, farm mechanization, and the printing press. He also covers two recently emerging technologies/innovations: transgenic crops and AquAdvantage salmon (more about the salmon later).

Juma provides an analysis of the various ways in which the public and institutions panic over innovation and goes on to offer solutions. He also injects a subtle note of humour from time to time. Here’s how Juma describes various countries’ response to risks and benefits,

In the United States products are safe until proven risky.

In France products are risky until proven safe.

In the United Kingdom products are risky even when proven safe.

In India products are safe when proven risky.

In Canada products are neither safe nor risky.

In Japan products are either safe or risky.

In Brazil products are both safe and risky.

In sub-Saharan Africa products are risky even if they do not exist. (pp. 4-5)

To Calestous Juma, thank you for mentioning Canada and for so aptly describing the quintessentially Canadian approach to not just products and innovation but to life itself, ‘we just don’t know; it could be this or it could be that or it could be something entirely different; we just don’t know and probably will never know.’.

One of the aspects that I most appreciated in this book was the broadening of the geographical perspective on innovation and emerging technologies to include the Middle East, China, and other regions/countries. As I’ve  noted in past postings, much of the discussion here in Canada is Eurocentric and/or UScentric. For example, the Council of Canadian Academies which conducts assessments of various science questions at the request of Canadian and regional governments routinely fills the ‘international’ slot(s) for their expert panels with academics from Europe (mostly Great Britain) and/or the US (or sometimes from Australia and/or New Zealand).

A good example of Juma’s expanded perspective on emerging technology is offered in Art Carden’s July 7, 2017 book review for Forbes.com (Note: A link has been removed),

In the chapter on coffee, Juma discusses how Middle Eastern and European societies resisted the beverage and, in particular, worked to shut down coffeehouses. Islamic jurists debated whether the kick from coffee is the same as intoxication and therefore something to be prohibited. Appealing to “the principle of original permissibility — al-ibaha, al-asliya — under which products were considered acceptable until expressly outlawed,” the fifteenth-century jurist Muhamad al-Dhabani issued several fatwas in support of keeping coffee legal.

This wasn’t the last word on coffee, which was banned and permitted and banned and permitted and banned and permitted in various places over time. Some rulers were skeptical of coffee because it was brewed and consumed in public coffeehouses — places where people could indulge in vices like gambling and tobacco use or perhaps exchange unorthodox ideas that were a threat to their power. It seems absurd in retrospect, but political control of all things coffee is no laughing matter.

The bans extended to Europe, where coffee threatened beverages like tea, wine, and beer. Predictably, and all in the name of public safety (of course!), European governments with the counsel of experts like brewers, vintners, and the British East India Tea Company regulated coffee importation and consumption. The list of affected interest groups is long, as is the list of meddlesome governments. Charles II of England would issue A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses in 1675. Sweden prohibited coffee imports on five separate occasions between 1756 and 1817. In the late seventeenth century, France required that all coffee be imported through Marseilles so that it could be more easily monopolized and taxed.

Carden who teaches economics at Stanford University (California, US) focuses on issues of individual liberty and the rule of law with regards to innovation. I can appreciate the need to focus tightly when you have a limited word count but Carden could have a spared a few words to do more justice to Juma’s comprehensive and focused work.

At the risk of being accused of the fault I’ve attributed to Carden, I must mention the printing press chapter. While it was good to see a history of the printing press and attendant social upheavals noting its impact and discovery in regions other than Europe; it was shocking to someone educated in Canada to find Marshall McLuhan entirely ignored. Even now, I believe it’s virtually impossible to discuss the printing press as a technology, in Canada anyway, without mentioning our ‘communications god’ Marshall McLuhan and his 1962 book, The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Getting back to Juma’s book, his breadth and depth of knowledge, history, and geography is packaged in a relatively succinct 316 pp. As a writer, I admire his ability to distill the salient points and to devote chapters on two emerging technologies. It’s notoriously difficult to write about a currently emerging technology and Juma even managed to include a reference published only months (in early 2016) before “Innovation and its enemires” was published in July 2016.

Irrespective of Marshall McLuhan, I feel there are a few flaws. The book is intended for policy makers and industry (lobbyists, anyone?), he reaffirms (in academia, industry, government) a tendency toward a top-down approach to eliminating resistance. From Juma’s perspective, there needs to be better science education because no one who is properly informed should have any objections to an emerging/new technology. Juma never considers the possibility that resistance to a new technology might be a reasonable response. As well, while there was some mention of corporate resistance to new technologies which might threaten profits and revenue, Juma didn’t spare any comments about how corporate sovereignty and/or intellectual property issues are used to stifle innovation and quite successfully, by the way.

My concerns aside, testimony to the book’s worth is Carden’s review almost a year after publication. As well, Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the federal government of New Zealand, mentions Juma’s book in his January 16, 2017 talk, Science Advice in a Troubled World, for the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

Science in Wonderland

Melanie Keene’s 2015 book, “Science in Wonderland; The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain” provides an overview of the fashion for writing and reading scientific and mathematical fairy tales and, inadvertently, provides an overview of a public education programme,

A fairy queen (Victoria) sat on the throne of Victoria’s Britain, and she presided over a fairy tale age. The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented interest in fairies and in their tales, as they were used as an enchanted mirror in which to reflection question, and distort contemporary society.30  …  Fairies could be found disporting themselves thought the century on stage and page, in picture and print, from local haunts to global transports. There were myriad ways in which authors, painters, illustrators, advertisers, pantomime performers, singers, and more, capture this contemporary enthusiasm and engaged with fairyland and folklore; books, exhibitions, and images for children were one of the most significant. (p. 13)

… Anthropologists even made fairies the subject of scientific analysis, as ‘fairyology’ determined whether fairies should be part of natural history or part of supernatural lore; just on aspect of the revival of interest in folklore. Was there a tribe of fairy creatures somewhere out thee waiting to be discovered, across the globe of in the fossil record? Were fairies some kind of folks memory of any extinct race? (p. 14)

Scientific engagements with fairyland was widespread, and not just as an attractive means of packaging new facts for Victorian children.42 … The fairy tales of science had an important role to play in conceiving of new scientific disciplines; in celebrating new discoveries; in criticizing lofty ambitions; in inculcating habits of mind and body; in inspiring wonder; in positing future directions; and in the consideration of what the sciences were, and should be. A close reading of these tales provides a more sophisticated understanding of the content and status of the Victorian sciences; they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants. (p. 18)

Segue: Should you be inclined to believe that society has moved on from fairies; it is possible to become a certified fairyologist (check out the fairyologist.com website).

“Science in Wonderland,” the title being a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, was marketed quite differently than “innovation and its enemies”. There is no description of the author, as is the protocol in academic tomes, so here’s more from her webpage on the University of Cambridge (Homerton College) website,

Role:
Fellow, Graduate Tutor, Director of Studies for History and Philosophy of Science

Getting back to Keene’s book, she makes the point that the fairy tales were based on science and integrated scientific terminology in imaginative ways although some books with more success than other others. Topics ranged from paleontology, botany, and astronomy to microscopy and more.

This book provides a contrast to Juma’s direct focus on policy makers with its overview of the fairy narratives. Keene is primarily interested in children but her book casts a wider net  “… they give insights into what these new scientific disciplines were trying to do; how they were trying to cement a certain place in the world; and how they hoped to recruit and train new participants.”

In a sense both authors are describing how technologies are introduced and integrated into society. Keene provides a view that must seem almost halcyon for many contemporary innovation enthusiasts. As her topic area is children’s literature any resistance she notes is primarily literary invoking a debate about whether or not science was killing imagination and whimsy.

It would probably help if you’d taken a course in children’s literature of the 19th century before reading Keene’s book is written . Even if you haven’t taken a course, it’s still quite accessible, although I was left wondering about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and its relationship to mathematics (see Melanie Bayley’s December 16, 2009 story for the New Scientist for a detailed rundown).

As an added bonus, fairy tale illustrations are included throughout the book along with a section of higher quality reproductions.

One of the unexpected delights of Keene’s book was the section on L. Frank Baum and his electricity fairy tale, “The Master Key.” She stretches to include “The Wizard of Oz,” which doesn’t really fit but I can’t see how she could avoid mentioning Baum’s most famous creation. There’s also a surprising (to me) focus on water, which when it’s paired with the interest in microscopy makes sense. Keene isn’t the only one who has to stretch to make things fit into her narrative and so from water I move onto fish bringing me back to one of Juma’s emerging technologies

Part 2: Fish and final comments

Vancouver’s (Canada) Fringe Festival (Sept. 7 – 17, 2017) and science

A lot of writers feel the need to comment when art and science are brought together in various artistic/scientific works. Here’s Janet Smith in a Sept. 6, 2017 article about science at Vancouver’s 2017 Fringe Festival for the Georgia Straight,

Science and art are often seen as opposites [emphasis mine], but they seem to be intermingling like never before at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival.

Experimental cancer treatments, zoology lectures, cryogenically frozen heads: they’re just some of the topics inspiring theatrical outings.

Smith is right and wrong. She’s right if your perspective ranges from the mid-20th century to the present day. “The Two Cultures” a 1959 lecture (and later a book) by C.P. Snow discusses a divide between two cultures: science and the humanities and he includes the arts in with the humanities. However, if you dive deeper into the past, you’ll find that humanities/arts and sciences have been more closely linked. Science sprang from ‘Natural Philosophy’ and faculties of arts and sciences are still found in universities.

Returning to the 2017 Vancouver Fringe Festival, I found some 17 shows that are science-inflected or using the mention of science as a marketing tool. Here they are:

Distractingly Sexy: Join real life scientist (and writer) Molly Mumford for an interactive, ultra-funny quite wild, pretty-durn-sexy history of how women in science have been f*S%ed over for centuries.

Thursday September 14, 2017 6:45 pm
Friday September 15, 2017 8:35 pm
Saturday Sept. 16, 2017 2:45 pm

Shadowlands: Cells in a petrii dish. A scientist. A ghost. A laboratory mouse. We are on a journey to see what can’t be seen. We are on a quest to find truth in the dark. …

No more showtimes

Interstellar Elder: Meet Kitt, age 96, fierce lone astronaut protecting the last of humankind. Images Ridley Scott’s ‘Aliens’ meets ‘Golden Girls’.

Wednesday September 13, 2017 5:00 pm
Friday September 16, 2017 6:40 pm
Saturday Sept. 16, 2017 12:30 pm
Sunday September 17, 2017 5:15 pm

Let Me Freeze Your Head: Why leave the futture to your children when you can have it for yourself? Attend our short sales presentation to learn how you preserve your brain to live again! This one-person show takes you on a deeply personal journey into the world of human cryonic preservation.

Wednesday September 13, 2017 9:45 pm
Friday September 15, 2017 5:00 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 6:00 p.m

The Immaculate Big Bang: Sparked by the death of his father birth of his daughter; comedian Bill Santiago goes in search of answers and laughs at the border of science religion exploring the comic nature of the cosmic quest for understanding existence, life, and death (not necessarily in the order).

Tuesday September 12, 2017 9:30 pm
Friday September 15, 2017 10:25 pm
Sunday September 17, 2017 6:30 pm

Field Zoology, 101: From the untamed wilds of the Vancouver Landfill in the loading bay behind the Burger Kin, Field Zoologist Brad GooseBerry has seen it all. In this introductory course, he shares a lifetime of “knowledge” and “experience” teaching you to thrive and survive in the harrowing world of field zoology.

Wednesday September 13, 2017 9:20 pm
Friday September 15, 2017 5:10 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 3:50 pm

Scientist Turned Comedian: “Lee, who got his PhD before realizing where his true talents lay, blends science talk (complete with PowerPoint presentations) with comedy. The hilarious result is like what would happen if you crossed your high-school chem teacher with George Carlin.”

Thursday September 14, 2017 6:40 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 5:25 pm
Sunday September 17, 2017 2:45 pm

Acceleration: It’s 2012. The world’s top physicists are searching for the elusive Higgs boson particle and it’s been a year since Elise’s sister disappeared. Desperate to forget, Elise wraps herself up in the search for the Higgs. But what we’re looking for isn’t always what we find. A moving exploration of how we cope with a world that doesn’t make sense.

Wednesday September 13, 2017 10:15 pm
Friday September 15, 2017 8:30 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 2:15 pm

Two series (five shows in total) about climate change: Generation Hot Waterborne

O Sandada 150M: 150 million years later … the world stops—and out of the basic elements sand and water, comes … life. Under the sun, Sandadians build beautiful castles, sing the National Sandthem, and glorify the Sandadian flag. Meanwhile under the stars, Wateries plan their attack. On the natural/industrial stage of the grassy knoll on Granville Island, two culture try to make peace. Fantastical Apocalyptic Puppets.

Twenty Feet Away: A site-specific theatrical adventure based on the bank of Vancouver’s False Creek. Two entrepreneurs daringly attempt to bottle themselves a new life while facing difficult ethical questions.

Brothers: Bonds are tested, sides taken, and loyalty is questioned. Two brothers come to terms with progress and preservation while on a fishing trip.

Wednesday September 13, 2017 6:00 pm
Thursday September 14, 2017 6:00 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 6:00 pm

WYSPA: A group of youth stranded on an urchin-infested island guide the audience through a magic-infused ceremony and explore their world views that have turned them into survivors. Part documentary verbatim script drive by your aged 5-16.

Citlali: A fantastic tale about water by a Mexican poet: A mythological tale about the origins of Mexico and the journey of a demigoddess on a search for water.

Wednesday September 13, 2017 8:00 pm
Thursday September 14, 2017 8:00 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 8:00 pm

Go, no go: .. the story of 13 barrier-breaking pilots who in 1961 petitioned NASA {US National Aeronautics and Space Administration] to be become the first femal astronatus. And it’s about why you don’t know their names. Welcome to the space race.

Tuesday September 12, 2017 1:30 pm

Kurt Vonnegut’s the Euphio Question: A new adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1951 short story. A young physicist discovers radio waves from outer space that mage anyone withing earshot completely and utterly euphoric. The Euphio Question asks audiences what the true cost of happiness is when it comes at the mere flick of a switch.

Tuesday September 12, 2017 6:00 pm
Thursday September 14, 2017 7:30 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 6:30 pm
Sunday September 17, 2017 3:45 pm

Gutenberg: The Musical: In this whirlwind 90-minute musical comedy, Chris Adams and Erik Gow play over 30 characters in two-man spoof . A pair of aspiring playwrights perform a backers’ audition for this new project—a big, splashy musical about printing press inventor Johann [Johannes] Gutenberg. Too bad their musical is terrible.

Tuesday September 12, 2017 6:00 pm
Thursday September 14, 2017 10:45 pm
Friday September 15, 2017 6:00 pm
Saturday September 16, 2017 7:45 pm
Sunday September 17, 2017 2:00 pm

Brain machine: Award-wining monologist Andrew Bailey (The Adversary, Phantom Signal) proudly premieres: “Brain Machine.” Generations of scientists create the web to bring “harmony and understanding” to humanity. Chaos ensues. Bailey attempts to escape technology by moving to a cabin in the woods. While there he accidentally creates a viral video Chaos ensues.

Wednesday September 13, 2017 6:15 pm
Thursday September 14, 2017 8:00 pm
Friday September 15, 2017 9:45 pm
Sunday September 17, 2017 6:15 pm

Admittedly the science or technology element is quite tangential is some of these shows but I think it’s interesting that there’s any mention of science in 17 (16%) of 104 shows at this year’s Fringe. If memory serves, there have been man years where no mention of any kind has been made of science or technology, let alone 1q6% of the programme.

Women in science is a thread linking a number of the shows in this year’s Fringe Festival as Janet Smith notes in her Sept. 6, 2017 article (Women get their science on at the Vancouver Fringe Festival) for the Georgia Straight.

One final comment, I’ve done my best but I was copying the information out of the programme and have likely made errors, as well, schedules can change so do check the festival website or at the Fringe Festival’s updated schedule boards on Granville Island.

Science for the global citizen course at McMaster University in Winter 2018

It’s never too early to start planning for your course load if a June 20, 2017 McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) news release is to be believed,

In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions.This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen.

The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration.

Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.

After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

3 
 63 
 1 
 68 How can science help address the key challenges in our society? How does society affect the way that science is conducted? Do citizens have a strong enough understanding of science and its methods to answer these and other similar questions? In the Winter 2018 term, the School of Interdisciplinary Science is offering Science 2M03: Science for the Global Citizen, a new course designed to explore those questions and more. In this blended-learning course, students from all Faculties will examine the links between science and the larger society through live guest lecturers and evidence-based online discussions. This course is open to students enrolled in Level II or above in any program. No scientific background is needed, only an interest in becoming a more engaged and informed citizen. The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications. Topics range from artificial intelligence (AI) to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to space exploration. Course instructors, Dr. Kim Dej, Dr. Chad Harvey, Dr. Rosa da Silva, and Dr. Sarah Symons, all from the School of Interdisciplinary Science, will examine the basic scientific theories and concepts behind these topical issues, and highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy. After taking this course, students from all academic backgrounds will have a better understanding of how science is conducted, how knowledge changes, and how we can become better consumers of scientific information and more informed citizens.

I’m glad to see this kind of course being offered. It does seem a bit odd that none of the instructors involved with this course appear to be from the social sciences or humanities. Drs. Dej, Harvey, and da Silva all have a background in biological sciences and Dr. Symons is a physicist. Taking another look at this line from the course description, “The new course will cover a broad range of contemporary scientific issues with significant political, economic, social, and health implications,” has me wondering how these scientists are going to cover the material, especially as I couldn’t find any papers on these topics written by any of these instructors. This section puzzles me even more, “… highlight the application and interpretation of science in popular media and public policy.” Again none of these instructors seem to have published on the topic of science in popular media or science public policy.

Guest speakers can help to fill in the blanks but with four instructors (and I would imagine a tight budget) it’s hard to believe there are going to be that many guests.

I appreciate that this is more of what they used to call a ‘survey course’ meant to introduce a number of ideas rather than conveying any in depth information but I do find the instructors’ apparent lack of theoretical knowledge about anything other than their respective fields of science somewhat disconcerting.

Regardless, I wish both the instructors and the students all the best.

The greatest intellectual theft in history? Tea!

Following my green tea and sensitive teeth story (August 4, 2017 posting), I stumbled on this August 2, 2017 story by Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber for The Atlantic,

… The Chinese domesticated tea over thousands of years, but they lost their near monopoly on international trade when a Scottish botanist, disguised as a Chinese nobleman, smuggled it out of China in the 1800s, in order to secure Britain’s favorite beverage and prop up its empire for another century. The story involves pirates, ponytails, and hard drugs—and, to help tell the tale, Cynthia and Nicky visit Britain’s one and only commercial tea plantation, tucked away in a secret garden on an aristocratic estate on the Cornish coast. While harvesting and processing tea leaves, we learn the difference between green and black tea, as well as which is better for your health. Put the kettle on, and settle in for the science and history of tea!

A podcast from Gastropod (Nicola Twilley’s and Cynthia Graber’s blog) is embedded into The Atlantic story but you can also find it here on the Gastropod website along with more details in the accompanying text (Note: Links have been removed),

It seemed so simple in the mid-1700s: China had tea, Britain wanted tea. First introduced by Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza in 1662, tea soon overtook beer as Britain’s favorite brew. The only problem, according to Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, was that the Chinese weren’t purchasing any British goods in return. Britain was simply dumping its silver into China, creating a serious balance of payments problem. Britain’s solution? Trade drugs for drugs—specifically, the caffeine fix in tea for the poppies that grow abundantly on the Afghan-Pakistan border, which at the time was part of the British empire. “They just start dumping opium into China,” explained Rose. But drug-dealing proved to be an expensive headache, and so, in 1848, Britain embarked on the biggest botanical heist in history, as well as one of the biggest thefts of intellectual property to date: stealing Chinese tea plants, as well as Chinese tea-processing expertise, in order to create a tea industry in India.

I first wrote about Robert Fortune, master thief and scientist and Sarah Rose, author of ‘For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History‘ (2011) in the context of computer chips, US and China relations, and piracy fears (my Aug. 11, 2010 posting).

In the Gastropod podcast, Rose seems to be willing to give more details from her book now that it’s no longer fresh off the press. Amongst other gems, you’ll find out that Fortune was six feet* or more in height, had shaved himself bald and had a queue sewn into his scalp, couldn’t speak any Chinese languages, and was a white Scotsman. How did he pass? It had to do with how the Chinese in that period viewed ‘foreigness’; for more details you’ll need to listed to the podcast. Rose also mentions the British East India Company, a quasi-government (they had their own army) , in some jurisdictions, and pirates.

As regular readers know, I have often featured intellectual property stories here and while this doesn’t seem to fit into my emerging technologies focus, arguably, tea could be described as an emerging technology (albeit stolen from China) for the British Empire at that time.

I strongly suggest listening to and/or reading the July 31, 2017 Gastropod posting in its entirety.

*One quick comment, I had a professor some years ago who was involved with various Chinese ethnic groups who were to be displaced by the massive ‘Three Gorges Project’ and learned this. The Han people are dominant in China but my professor noted there are others including are least one ethnic group where males are six feet and taller and the females five foot 10 inches and taller due to their preference for eating buckwheat rather than white rice as their main grain. Robert Fortune’s height may not have been quite as unusual as I would have believed prior to that lecture.

Robots and a new perspective on disability

I’ve long wondered about how disabilities would be viewed in a future (h/t May 4, 2017 news item on phys.org) where technology could render them largely irrelevant. A May 4, 2017 essay by Thusha (Gnanthusharan) Rajendran of Heriot-Watt University on TheConversation.com provides a perspective on the possibilities (Note: Links have been removed),

When dealing with the otherness of disability, the Victorians in their shame built huge out-of-sight asylums, and their legacy of “them” and “us” continues to this day. Two hundred years later, technologies offer us an alternative view. The digital age is shattering barriers, and what used to the norm is now being challenged.

What if we could change the environment, rather than the person? What if a virtual assistant could help a visually impaired person with their online shopping? And what if a robot “buddy” could help a person with autism navigate the nuances of workplace politics? These are just some of the questions that are being asked and which need answers as the digital age challenges our perceptions of normality.

The treatment of people with developmental conditions has a chequered history. In towns and cities across Britain, you will still see large Victorian buildings that were once places to “look after” people with disabilities, that is, remove them from society. Things became worse still during the time of the Nazis with an idealisation of the perfect and rejection of Darwin’s idea of natural diversity.

Today we face similar challenges about differences versus abnormalities. Arguably, current diagnostic systems do not help, because they diagnose the person and not “the system”. So, a child has challenging behaviour, rather than being in distress; the person with autism has a communication disorder rather than simply not being understood.

Natural-born cyborgs

In contrast, the digital world is all about systems. The field of human-computer interaction is about how things work between humans and computers or robots. Philosopher Andy Clark argues that humans have always been natural-born cyborgs – that is, we have always used technology (in its broadest sense) to improve ourselves.

The most obvious example is language itself. In the digital age we can become truly digitally enhanced. How many of us Google something rather than remembering it? How do you feel when you have no access to wi-fi? How much do we favour texting, tweeting and Facebook over face-to-face conversations? How much do we love and need our smartphones?

In the new field of social robotics, my colleagues and I are developing a robot buddy to help adults with autism to understand, for example, if their boss is pleased or displeased with their work. For many adults with autism, it is not the work itself that stops from them from having successful careers, it is the social environment surrounding work. From the stress-inducing interview to workplace politics, the modern world of work is a social minefield. It is not easy, at times, for us neurotypticals, but for a person with autism it is a world full contradictions and implied meaning.

Rajendra goes on to highlight efforts with autistic individuals; he also includes this video of his December 14, 2016 TEDx Heriot-Watt University talk, which largely focuses on his work with robots and autism  (Note: This runs approximately 15 mins.),

The talk reminded me of a Feb. 6, 2017 posting (scroll down about 33% of the way) where I discussed a recent book about science communication and its failure to recognize the importance of pop culture in that endeavour. As an example, I used a then recent announcement from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) about their emotion detection wireless application and the almost simultaneous appearance of that application in a Feb. 2, 2017 episode of The Big Bang Theory (a popular US television comedy) featuring a character who could be seen as autistic making use of the emotion detection device.

In any event, the work described in the MIT news release is very similar to Rajendra’s albeit the communication is delivered to the public through entirely different channels: TEDx Talk and TheConversation.com (channels aimed at academics and those with academic interests) and a pop culture television comedy with broad appeal.

May/June 2017 scienceish events in Canada (mostly in Vancouver)

I have five* events for this posting

(1) Science and You (Montréal)

The latest iteration of the Science and You conference took place May 4 – 6, 2017 at McGill University (Montréal, Québec). That’s the sad news, the good news is that they have recorded and released the sessions onto YouTube. (This is the first time the conference has been held outside of Europe, in fact, it’s usually held in France.) Here’s why you might be interested (from the 2017 conference page),

The animator of the conference will be Véronique Morin:

Véronique Morin is science journalist and communicator, first president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and serves as judge for science communication awards. She worked for a science program on Quebec’s public TV network, CBCRadio-Canada, TVOntario, and as a freelancer is also a contributor to -among others-  The Canadian Medical Journal, University Affairs magazine, NewsDeeply, while pursuing documentary projects.

Let’s talk about S …

Holding the attention of an audience full of teenagers may seem impossible… particularly on topics that might be seen as boring, like sciences! Yet, it’s essential to demistify science in order to make it accessible, even appealing in the eyes of futur citizens.
How can we encourage young adults to ask themselves questions about the surrounding world, nature and science? How can we make them discover sciences with and without digital tools?

Find out tips and tricks used by our speakers Kristin Alford and Amanda Tyndall.

Kristin Alford
Dr Kristin Alford is a futurist and the inaugural Director of MOD., a futuristic museum of discovery at the University of South Australia. Her mind is presently occupied by the future of work and provoking young adults to ask questions about the role of science at the intersection of art and innovation.

Internet Website

Amanda Tyndall
Over 20 years of  science communication experience with organisations such as Café Scientifique, The Royal Institution of Great Britain (and Australia’s Science Exchange), the Science Museum in London and now with the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Particularly interested in engaging new audiences through linkages with the arts and digital/creative industries.

Internet Website

A troll in the room

Increasingly used by politicians, social media can reach thousand of people in few seconds. Relayed to infinity, the message seems truthful, but is it really? At a time of fake news and alternative facts, how can we, as a communicator or a journalist, take up the challenge of disinformation?
Discover the traps and tricks of disinformation in the age of digital technologies with our two fact-checking experts, Shawn Otto and Vanessa Schipani, who will offer concrete solutions to unravel the true from the false..

 

Shawn Otto
Shawn Otto was awarded the IEEE-USA (“I-Triple-E”) National Distinguished Public Service Award for his work elevating science in America’s national public dialogue. He is cofounder and producer of the US presidential science debates at ScienceDebate.org. He is also an award-winning screenwriter and novelist, best known for writing and co-producing the Academy Award-nominated movie House of Sand and Fog.

Vanessa Schipani
Vanessa is a science journalist at FactCheck.org, which monitors U.S. politicians’ claims for accuracy. Previously, she wrote for outlets in the U.S., Europe and Japan, covering topics from quantum mechanics to neuroscience. She has bachelor’s degrees in zoology and philosophy and a master’s in the history and philosophy of science.

At 20,000 clicks from the extreme

Sharing living from a space station, ship or submarine. The examples of social media use in extreme conditions are multiplying and the public is asking for more. How to use public tools to highlight practices and discoveries? How to manage the use of social networks of a large organisation? What pitfalls to avoid? What does this mean for citizens and researchers?
Find out with Phillipe Archambault and Leslie Elliott experts in extrem conditions.

Philippe Archambault

Professor Philippe Archambault is a marine ecologist at Laval University, the director of the Notre Golfe network and president of the 4th World Conference on Marine Biodiversity. His research on the influence of global changes on biodiversity and the functioning of ecosystems has led him to work in all four corners of our oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic, through Papua New Guinea and the French Polynesia.

Website

Leslie Elliott

Leslie Elliott leads a team of communicators at Ocean Networks Canada in Victoria, British Columbia, home to Canada’s world-leading ocean observatories in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Audiences can join robots equipped with high definition cameras via #livedive to discover more about our ocean.

Website

Science is not a joke!

Science and humor are two disciplines that might seem incompatible … and yet, like the ig-Nobels, humour can prove to be an excellent way to communicate a scientific message. This, however, can prove to be quite challenging since one needs to ensure they employ the right tone and language to both captivate the audience while simultaneously communicating complex topics.

Patrick Baud and Brian Malow, both well-renowned scientific communicators, will give you with the tools you need to capture your audience and also convey a proper scientific message. You will be surprised how, even in Science, a good dose of humour can make you laugh and think.

Patrick Baud
Patrick Baud is a French author who was born on June 30, 1979, in Avignon. He has been sharing for many years his passion for tales of fantasy, and the marvels and curiosities of the world, through different media: radio, web, novels, comic strips, conferences, and videos. His YouTube channel “Axolot”, was created in 2013, and now has over 420,000 followers.

Internet Website
Youtube

Brian Malow
Brian Malow is Earth’s Premier Science Comedian (self-proclaimed).  Brian has made science videos for Time Magazine and contributed to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show.  He worked in science communications at a museum, blogged for Scientific American, and trains scientists to be better communicators.

Internet Website
YouTube

I don’t think they’ve managed to get everything up on YouTube yet but the material I’ve found has been subtitled (into French or English, depending on which language the speaker used).

Here are the opening day’s talks on YouTube with English subtitles or French subtitles when appropriate. You can also find some abstracts for the panel presentations here. I was particularly in this panel (S3 – The Importance of Reaching Out to Adults in Scientific Culture), Note: I have searched out the French language descriptions for those unavailable in English,

Organized by Coeur des sciences, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
Animator: Valérie Borde, Freelance Science Journalist

Anouk Gingras, Musée de la civilisation, Québec
Text not available in English

[La science au Musée de la civilisation c’est :
• Une cinquantaine d’expositions et espaces découvertes
• Des thèmes d’actualité, liés à des enjeux sociaux, pour des exposition souvent destinées aux adultes
• Un potentiel de nouveaux publics en lien avec les autres thématiques présentes au Musée (souvent non scientifiques)
L’exposition Nanotechnologies : l’invisible révolution :
• Un thème d’actualité suscitant une réflexion
• Un sujet sensible menant à la création d’un parcours d’exposition polarisé : choix entre « oui » ou « non » au développement des nanotechnologies pour l’avenir
• L’utilisation de divers éléments pour rapprocher le sujet du visiteur

  • Les nanotechnologies dans la science-fiction
  • Les objets du quotidien contenant des nanoparticules
  • Les objets anciens qui utilisant les nanotechnologies
  • Divers microscopes retraçant l’histoire des nanotechnologies

• Une forme d’interaction suscitant la réflexion du visiteur via un objet sympatique : le canard  de plastique jaune, muni d’une puce RFID

  • Sept stations de consultation qui incitent le visiteur à se prononcer et à réfléchir sur des questions éthiques liées au développement des nanotechnologies
  • Une compilation des données en temps réel
  • Une livraison des résultats personnalisée
  • Une mesure des visiteurs dont l’opinion s’est modifiée à la suite de la visite de l’exposition

Résultats de fréquentation :
• Public de jeunes adultes rejoint (51%)
• Plus d’hommes que de femmes ont visité l’exposition
• Parcours avec canard: incite à la réflexion et augmente l’attention
• 3 visiteurs sur 4 prennent le canard; 92% font l’activité en entier]

Marie Lambert-Chan, Québec Science
Capting the attention of adult readership : challenging mission, possible mission
Since 1962, Québec Science Magazine is the only science magazine aimed at an adult readership in Québec. Our mission : covering topical subjects related to science and technology, as well as social issues from a scientific point of view. Each year, we print eight issues, with a circulation of 22,000 copies. Furthermore, the magazine has received several awards and accolades. In 2017, Québec Science Magazine was honored by the Canadian Magazine Awards/Grands Prix du Magazine and was named Best Magazine in Science, Business and Politics category.
Although we have maintained a solid reputation among scientists and the media industry, our magazine is still relatively unknown to the general public. Why is that ? How is it that, through all those years, we haven’t found the right angle to engage a broader readership ?
We are still searching for definitive answers, but here are our observations :
Speaking science to adults is much more challenging than it is with children, who can marvel endlessly at the smallest things. Unfortunately, adults lose this capacity to marvel and wonder for various reasons : they have specific interests, they failed high-school science, they don’t feel competent enough to understand scientific phenomena. How do we bring the wonder back ? This is our mission. Not impossible, and hopefully soon to be accomplished. One noticible example is the number of reknown scientists interviewed during the popular talk-show Tout le monde en parle, leading us to believe the general public may have an interest in science.
However, to accomplish our mission, we have to recount science. According to the Bulgarian writer and blogger Maria Popova, great science writing should explain, elucidate and enchant . To explain : to make the information clear and comprehensible. To elucidate : to reveal all the interconnections between the pieces of information. To enchant : to go beyond the scientific terms and information and tell a story, thus giving a kaleidoscopic vision of the subject. This is how we intend to capture our readership’s attention.
Our team aims to accomplish this challenge. Although, to be perfectly honest, it would be much easier if we had more resources, financial-wise or human-wise. However, we don’t lack ideas. We dream of major scientific investigations, conferences organized around themes from the magazine’s issues, Web documentaries, podcasts… Such initiatives would give us the visibility we desperately crave.
That said, even in the best conditions, would be have more subscribers ? Perhaps. But it isn’t assured. Even if our magazine is aimed at adult readership, we are convinced that childhood and science go hand in hand, and is even decisive for the children’s future. At the moment, school programs are not in place for continuous scientific development. It is possible to develop an interest for scientific culture as adults, but it is much easier to achieve this level of curiosity if it was previously fostered.

Robert Lamontagne, Université de Montréal
Since the beginning of my career as an astrophysicist, I have been interested in scientific communication to non-specialist audiences. I have presented hundreds of lectures describing the phenomena of the cosmos. Initially, these were mainly offered in amateur astronomers’ clubs or in high-schools and Cégeps. Over the last few years, I have migrated to more general adult audiences in the context of cultural activities such as the “Festival des Laurentides”, the Arts, Culture and Society activities in Repentigny and, the Université du troisième âge (UTA) or Senior’s University.
The Quebec branch of the UTA, sponsored by the Université de Sherbrooke (UdeS), exists since 1976. Seniors universities, created in Toulouse, France, are part of a worldwide movement. The UdeS and its senior’s university antennas are members of the International Association of the Universities of the Third Age (AIUTA). The UTA is made up of 28 antennas located in 10 regions and reaches more than 10,000 people per year. Antenna volunteers prepare educational programming by drawing on a catalog of courses, seminars and lectures, covering a diverse range of subjects ranging from history and politics to health, science, or the environment.
The UTA is aimed at people aged 50 and over who wish to continue their training and learn throughout their lives. It is an attentive, inquisitive, educated public and, given the demographics in Canada, its number is growing rapidly. This segment of the population is often well off and very involved in society.
I usually use a two-prong approach.
• While remaining rigorous, the content is articulated around a few ideas, avoiding analytical expressions in favor of a qualitative description.
• The narrative framework, the story, which allows to contextualize the scientific content and to forge links with the audience.

Sophie Malavoy, Coeur des sciences – UQAM

Many obstacles need to be overcome in order to reach out to adults, especially those who aren’t in principle interested in science.
• Competing against cultural activities such as theater, movies, etc.
• The idea that science is complex and dull
• A feeling of incompetence. « I’ve always been bad in math and physics»
• Funding shortfall for activities which target adults
How to reach out to those adults?
• To put science into perspective. To bring its relevance out by making links with current events and big issues (economic, heath, environment, politic). To promote a transdisciplinary approach which includes humanities and social sciences.
• To stake on originality by offering uncommon and ludic experiences (scientific walks in the city, street performances, etc.)
• To bridge between science and popular activities to the public (science/music; science/dance; science/theater; science/sports; science/gastronomy; science/literature)
• To reach people with emotions without sensationalism. To boost their curiosity and ability to wonder.
• To put a human face on science, by insisting not only on the results of a research but on its process. To share the adventure lived by researchers.
• To liven up people’s feeling of competence. To insist on the scientific method.
• To invite non-scientists (citizens groups, communities, consumers, etc.) to the reflections on science issues (debate, etc.).  To move from dissemination of science to dialog

Didier Pourquery, The Conversation France
Text not available in English

[Depuis son lancement en septembre 2015 la plateforme The Conversation France (2 millions de pages vues par mois) n’a cessé de faire progresser son audience. Selon une étude menée un an après le lancement, la structure de lectorat était la suivante
Pour accrocher les adultes et les ainés deux axes sont intéressants ; nous les utilisons autant sur notre site que sur notre newsletter quotidienne – 26.000 abonnés- ou notre page Facebook (11500 suiveurs):
1/ expliquer l’actualité : donner les clefs pour comprendre les débats scientifiques qui animent la société ; mettre de la science dans les discussions (la mission du site est de  « nourrir le débat citoyen avec de l’expertise universitaire et de la recherche »). L’idée est de poser des questions de compréhension simple au moment où elles apparaissent dans le débat (en période électorale par exemple : qu’est-ce que le populisme ? Expliqué par des chercheurs de Sciences Po incontestables.)
Exemples : comprendre les conférences climat -COP21, COP22 – ; comprendre les débats de société (Gestation pour autrui); comprendre l’économie (revenu universel); comprendre les maladies neurodégénératives (Alzheimer) etc.
2/ piquer la curiosité : utiliser les formules classiques (le saviez-vous ?) appliquées à des sujets surprenants (par exemple : «  Que voit un chien quand il regarde la télé ? » a eu 96.000 pages vues) ; puis jouer avec ces articles sur les réseaux sociaux. Poser des questions simples et surprenantes. Par exemple : ressemblez-vous à votre prénom ? Cet article académique très sérieux a comptabilisé 95.000 pages vues en français et 171.000 en anglais.
3/ Susciter l’engagement : faire de la science participative simple et utile. Par exemple : appeler nos lecteurs à surveiller l’invasion de moustiques tigres partout sur le territoire. Cet article a eu 112.000 pages vues et a été republié largement sur d’autres sites. Autre exemple : appeler les lecteurs à photographier les punaises de leur environnement.]

Here are my very brief and very rough translations. (1) Anouk Gingras is focused largely on a nanotechnology exhibit and whether or not visitors went through it and participated in various activities. She doesn’t seem specifically focused on science communication for adults but they are doing some very interesting and related work at Québec’s Museum of Civilization. (2) Didier Pourquery is describing an online initiative known as ‘The Conversation France’ (strange—why not La conversation France?). Moving on, there’s a website with a daily newsletter (blog?) and a Facebook page. They have two main projects, one is a discussion of current science issues in society, which is informed with and by experts but is not exclusive to experts, and more curiosity-based science questions and discussion such as What does a dog see when it watches television?

Serendipity! I hadn’t stumbled across this conference when I posted my May 12, 2017 piece on the ‘insanity’ of science outreach in Canada. It’s good to see I’m not the only one focused on science outreach for adults and that there is some action, although seems to be a Québec-only effort.

(2) Ingenious—a book launch in Vancouver

The book will be launched on Thursday, June 1, 2017 at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch (from the Ingenious: An Evening of Canadian Innovation event page)

Ingenious: An Evening of Canadian Innovation
Thursday, June 1, 2017 (6:30 pm – 8:00 pm)
Central Branch
Description

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and OpenText Corp. chair Tom Jenkins discuss Canadian innovation and their book Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier.

Books will be available for purchase and signing.

Doors open at 6 p.m.

INGENIOUS : HOW CANADIAN INNOVATORS MADE THE WORLD SMARTER, SMALLER, KINDER, SAFER, HEALTHIER, WEALTHIER, AND HAPPIER

Address:

350 West Georgia St.
VancouverV6B 6B1

Get Directions

  • Phone:

Location Details:

Alice MacKay Room, Lower Level

I do have a few more details about the authors and their book. First, there’s this from the Ottawa Writer’s Festival March 28, 2017 event page,

To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, Governor General David Johnston and Tom Jenkins have crafted a richly illustrated volume of brilliant Canadian innovations whose widespread adoption has made the world a better place. From Bovril to BlackBerrys, lightbulbs to liquid helium, peanut butter to Pablum, this is a surprising and incredibly varied collection to make Canadians proud, and to our unique entrepreneurial spirit.

Successful innovation is always inspired by at least one of three forces — insight, necessity, and simple luck. Ingenious moves through history to explore what circumstances, incidents, coincidences, and collaborations motivated each great Canadian idea, and what twist of fate then brought that idea into public acceptance. Above all, the book explores what goes on in the mind of an innovator, and maps the incredible spectrum of personalities that have struggled to improve the lot of their neighbours, their fellow citizens, and their species.

From the marvels of aboriginal invention such as the canoe, snowshoe, igloo, dogsled, lifejacket, and bunk bed to the latest pioneering advances in medicine, education, philanthropy, science, engineering, community development, business, the arts, and the media, Canadians have improvised and collaborated their way to international admiration. …

Then, there’s this April 5, 2017 item on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online,

From peanut butter to the electric wheelchair, the stories behind numerous life-changing Canadian innovations are detailed in a new book.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Tom Jenkins, chair of the National Research Council and former CEO of OpenText, are the authors of Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier and Happier. The authors hope their book reinforces and extends the culture of innovation in Canada.

“We started wanting to tell 50 stories of Canadian innovators, and what has amazed Tom and myself is how many there are,” Johnston told The Homestretch on Wednesday. The duo ultimately chronicled 297 innovations in the book, including the pacemaker, life jacket and chocolate bars.

“Innovations are not just technological, not just business, but they’re social innovations as well,” Johnston said.

Many of those innovations, and the stories behind them, are not well known.

“We’re sort of a humble people,” Jenkins said. “We’re pretty quiet. We don’t brag, we don’t talk about ourselves very much, and so we then lead ourselves to believe as a culture that we’re not really good inventors, the Americans are. And yet we knew that Canadians were actually great inventors and innovators.”

‘Opportunities and challenges’

For Johnston, his favourite story in the book is on the light bulb.

“It’s such a symbol of both our opportunities and challenges,” he said. “The light bulb was invented in Canada, not the United States. It was two inventors back in the 1870s that realized that if you passed an electric current through a resistant metal it would glow, and they patented that, but then they didn’t have the money to commercialize it.”

American inventor Thomas Edison went on to purchase that patent and made changes to the original design.

Johnston and Jenkins are also inviting readers to share their own innovation stories, on the book’s website.

I’m looking forward to the talk and wondering if they’ve included the botox and cellulose nanocrystal (CNC) stories to the book. BTW, Tom Jenkins was the chair of a panel examining Canadian research and development and lead author of the panel’s report (Innovation Canada: A Call to Action) for the then Conservative government (it’s also known as the Jenkins report). You can find out more about in my Oct. 21, 2011 posting.

(3) Made in Canada (Vancouver)

This is either fortuitous or there’s some very high level planning involved in the ‘Made in Canada; Inspiring Creativity and Innovation’ show which runs from April 21 – Sept. 4, 2017 at Vancouver’s Science World (also known as the Telus World of Science). From the Made in Canada; Inspiring Creativity and Innovation exhibition page,

Celebrate Canadian creativity and innovation, with Science World’s original exhibition, Made in Canada, presented by YVR [Vancouver International Airport] — where you drive the creative process! Get hands-on and build the fastest bobsled, construct a stunning piece of Vancouver architecture and create your own Canadian sound mashup, to share with friends.

Vote for your favourite Canadian inventions and test fly a plane of your design. Discover famous (and not-so-famous, but super neat) Canadian inventions. Learn about amazing, local innovations like robots that teach themselves, one-person electric cars and a computer that uses parallel universes.

Imagine what you can create here, eh!!

You can find more information here.

One quick question, why would Vancouver International Airport be presenting this show? I asked that question of Science World’s Communications Coordinator, Jason Bosher, and received this response,

 YVR is the presenting sponsor. They donated money to the exhibition and they also contributed an exhibit for the “We Move” themed zone in the Made in Canada exhibition. The YVR exhibit details the history of the YVR airport, it’s geographic advantage and some of the planes they have seen there.

I also asked if there was any connection between this show and the ‘Ingenious’ book launch,

Some folks here are aware of the book launch. It has to do with the Canada 150 initiative and nothing to do with the Made in Canada exhibition, which was developed here at Science World. It is our own original exhibition.

So there you have it.

(4) Robotics, AI, and the future of work (Ottawa)

I’m glad to finally stumble across a Canadian event focusing on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and the future of work. Sadly (for me), this is taking place in Ottawa. Here are more details  from the May 25, 2017 notice (received via email) from the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC),

CSPC is Partnering with CIFAR {Canadian Institute for Advanced Research]
The Second Annual David Dodge Lecture

Join CIFAR and Senior Fellow Daron Acemoglu for
the Second Annual David Dodge CIFAR Lecture in Ottawa on June 13.
June 13, 2017 | 12 – 2 PM [emphasis mine]
Fairmont Château Laurier, Drawing Room | 1 Rideau St, Ottawa, ON
Along with the backlash against globalization and the outsourcing of jobs, concern is also growing about the effect that robotics and artificial intelligence will have on the labour force in advanced industrial nations. World-renowned economist Acemoglu, author of the best-selling book Why Nations Fail, will discuss how technology is changing the face of work and the composition of labour markets. Drawing on decades of data, Acemoglu explores the effects of widespread automation on manufacturing jobs, the changes we can expect from artificial intelligence technologies, and what responses to these changes might look like. This timely discussion will provide valuable insights for current and future leaders across government, civil society, and the private sector.

Daron Acemoglu is a Senior Fellow in CIFAR’s Insitutions, Organizations & Growth program, and the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Tickets: $15 (A light lunch will be served.)

You can find a registration link here. Also, if you’re interested in the Canadian efforts in the field of artificial intelligence you can find more in my March 24, 2017 posting (scroll down about 25% of the way and then about 40% of the way) on the 2017 Canadian federal budget and science where I first noted the $93.7M allocated to CIFAR for launching a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

(5) June 2017 edition of the Curiosity Collider Café (Vancouver)

This is an art/science (also known called art/sci and SciArt) that has taken place in Vancouver every few months since April 2015. Here’s more about the June 2017 edition (from the Curiosity Collider events page),

Collider Cafe

When
8:00pm on Wednesday, June 21st, 2017. Door opens at 7:30pm.

Where
Café Deux Soleils. 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).

Cost
$5.00-10.00 cover at the door (sliding scale). Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

***

#ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science. Meet, discover, connect, create. How do you explore curiosity in your life? Join us and discover how our speakers explore their own curiosity at the intersection of art & science.

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

Enjoy!

*I changed ‘three’ events to ‘five’ events and added a number to each event for greater reading ease on May 31, 2017.

Health technology and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) two-tier health system ‘Viewpoint’

There’s a lot of talk and handwringing about Canada’s health care system, which ebbs and flows in almost predictable cycles. Jesse Hirsh in a May 16, 2017 ‘Viewpoints’ segment (an occasional series run as part the of the CBC’s [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] flagship, daily news programme, The National) dared to reframe the discussion as one about technology and ‘those who get it’  [the technologically literate] and ‘those who don’t’,  a state Hirsh described as being illiterate as you can see and hear in the following video.

I don’t know about you but I’m getting tired of being called illiterate when I don’t know something. To be illiterate means you can’t read and write and as it turns out I do both of those things on a daily basis (sometimes even in two languages). Despite my efforts, I’m ignorant about any number of things and those numbers keep increasing day by day. BTW, Is there anyone who isn’t having trouble keeping up?

Moving on from my rhetorical question, Hirsh has a point about the tech divide and about the need for discussion. It’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me (although I think he’s taking it in the wrong direction). In fact, this business of a tech divide already exists if you consider that people who live in rural environments and need the latest lifesaving techniques or complex procedures or access to highly specialized experts have to travel to urban centres. I gather that Hirsh feels that this divide isn’t necessarily going to be an urban/rural split so much as an issue of how technically literate you and your doctor are.  That’s intriguing but then his argumentation gets muddled. Confusingly, he seems to be suggesting that the key to the split is your access (not your technical literacy) to artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms (presumably he’s referring to big data and data analytics). I expect access will come down more to money than technological literacy.

For example, money is likely to be a key issue when you consider his big pitch is for access to IBM’s Watson computer. (My Feb. 28, 2011 posting titled: Engineering, entertainment, IBM’s Watson, and product placement focuses largely on Watson, its winning appearances on the US television game show, Jeopardy, and its subsequent adoption into the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in a project to bring Watson into the examining room with patients.)

Hirsh’s choice of IBM’s Watson is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. (1) Presumably there are companies other than IBM in this sector. Why do they not rate a mention?  (2) Given the current situation with IBM and the Canadian federal government’s introduction of the Phoenix payroll system (a PeopleSoft product customized by IBM), which is  a failure of monumental proportions (a Feb. 23, 2017 article by David Reevely for the Ottawa Citizen and a May 25, 2017 article by Jordan Press for the National Post), there may be a little hesitation, if not downright resistance, to a large scale implementation of any IBM product or service, regardless of where the blame lies. (3) Hirsh notes on the home page for his eponymous website,

I’m presently spending time at the IBM Innovation Space in Toronto Canada, investigating the impact of artificial intelligence and cognitive computing on all sectors and industries.

Yes, it would seem he has some sort of relationship with IBM not referenced in his Viewpoints segment on The National. Also, his description of the relationship isn’t especially illuminating but perhaps it.s this? (from the IBM Innovation Space  – Toronto Incubator Application webpage),

Our incubator

The IBM Innovation Space is a Toronto-based incubator that provides startups with a collaborative space to innovate and disrupt the market. Our goal is to provide you with the tools needed to take your idea to the next level, introduce you to the right networks and help you acquire new clients. Our unique approach, specifically around client engagement, positions your company for optimal growth and revenue at an accelerated pace.

OUR SERVICES

IBM Bluemix
IBM Global Entrepreneur
Softlayer – an IBM Company
Watson

Startups partnered with the IBM Innovation Space can receive up to $120,000 in IBM credits at no charge for up to 12 months through the Global Entrepreneurship Program (GEP). These credits can be used in our products such our IBM Bluemix developer platform, Softlayer cloud services, and our world-renowned IBM Watson ‘cognitive thinking’ APIs. We provide you with enterprise grade technology to meet your clients’ needs, large or small.

Collaborative workspace in the heart of Downtown Toronto
Mentorship opportunities available with leading experts
Access to large clients to scale your startup quickly and effectively
Weekly programming ranging from guest speakers to collaborative activities
Help with funding and access to local VCs and investors​

Final comments

While I have some issues with Hirsh’s presentation, I agree that we should be discussing the issues around increased automation of our health care system. A friend of mine’s husband is a doctor and according to him those prescriptions and orders you get when leaving the hospital? They are not made up by a doctor so much as they are spit up by a computer based on the data that the doctors and nurses have supplied.

GIGO, bias, and de-skilling

Leaving aside the wonders that Hirsh describes, there’s an oldish saying in the computer business, garbage in/garbage out (gigo). At its simplest, who’s going to catch a mistake? (There are lots of mistakes made in hospitals and other health care settings.)

There are also issues around the quality of research. Are all the research papers included in the data used by the algorithms going to be considered equal? There’s more than one case where a piece of problematic research has been accepted uncritically, even if it get through peer review, and subsequently cited many times over. One of the ways to measure impact, i.e., importance, is to track the number of citations. There’s also the matter of where the research is published. A ‘high impact’ journal, such as Nature, Science, or Cell, automatically gives a piece of research a boost.

There are other kinds of bias as well. Increasingly, there’s discussion about algorithms being biased and about how machine learning (AI) can become biased. (See my May 24, 2017 posting: Machine learning programs learn bias, which highlights the issues and cites other FrogHeart posts on that and other related topics.)

These problems are to a large extent already present. Doctors have biases and research can be wrong and it can take a long time before there are corrections. However, the advent of an automated health diagnosis and treatment system is likely to exacerbate the problems. For example, if you don’t agree with your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment, you can search other opinions. What happens when your diagnosis and treatment have become data? Will the system give you another opinion? Who will you talk to? The doctor who got an answer from ‘Watson”? Is she or he going to debate Watson? Are you?

This leads to another issue and that’s automated systems getting more credit than they deserve. Futurists such as Hirsh tend to underestimate people and overestimate the positive impact that automation will have. A computer, data analystics, or an AI system are tools not gods. You’ll have as much luck petitioning one of those tools as you would Zeus.

The unasked question is how will your doctor or other health professional gain experience and skills if they never have to practice the basic, boring aspects of health care (asking questions for a history, reading medical journals to keep up with the research, etc.) and leave them to the computers? There had to be  a reason for calling it a medical ‘practice’.

There are definitely going to be advantages to these technological innovations but thoughtful adoption of these practices (pun intended) should be our goal.

Who owns your data?

Another issue which is increasingly making itself felt is ownership of data. Jacob Brogan has written a provocative May 23, 2017 piece for slate.com asking that question about the data Ancestry.com gathers for DNA testing (Note: Links have been removed),

AncestryDNA’s pitch to consumers is simple enough. For $99 (US), the company will analyze a sample of your saliva and then send back information about your “ethnic mix.” While that promise may be scientifically dubious, it’s a relatively clear-cut proposal. Some, however, worry that the service might raise significant privacy concerns.

After surveying AncestryDNA’s terms and conditions, consumer protection attorney Joel Winston found a few issues that troubled him. As he noted in a Medium post last week, the agreement asserts that it grants the company “a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA.” (The actual clause is considerably longer.) According to Winston, “With this single contractual provision, customers are granting Ancestry.com the broadest possible rights to own and exploit their genetic information.”

Winston also noted a handful of other issues that further complicate the question of ownership. Since we share much of our DNA with our relatives, he warned, “Even if you’ve never used Ancestry.com, but one of your genetic relatives has, the company may already own identifiable portions of your DNA.” [emphasis mine] Theoretically, that means information about your genetic makeup could make its way into the hands of insurers or other interested parties, whether or not you’ve sent the company your spit. (Maryam Zaringhalam explored some related risks in a recent Slate article.) Further, Winston notes that Ancestry’s customers waive their legal rights, meaning that they cannot sue the company if their information gets used against them in some way.

Over the weekend, Eric Heath, Ancestry’s chief privacy officer, responded to these concerns on the company’s own site. He claims that the transferable license is necessary for the company to provide its customers with the service that they’re paying for: “We need that license in order to move your data through our systems, render it around the globe, and to provide you with the results of our analysis work.” In other words, it allows them to send genetic samples to labs (Ancestry uses outside vendors), store the resulting data on servers, and furnish the company’s customers with the results of the study they’ve requested.

Speaking to me over the phone, Heath suggested that this license was akin to the ones that companies such as YouTube employ when users upload original content. It grants them the right to shift that data around and manipulate it in various ways, but isn’t an assertion of ownership. “We have committed to our users that their DNA data is theirs. They own their DNA,” he said.

I’m glad to see the company’s representatives are open to discussion and, later in the article, you’ll see there’ve already been some changes made. Still, there is no guarantee that the situation won’t again change, for ill this time.

What data do they have and what can they do with it?

It’s not everybody who thinks data collection and data analytics constitute problems. While some people might balk at the thought of their genetic data being traded around and possibly used against them, e.g., while hunting for a job, or turned into a source of revenue, there tends to be a more laissez-faire attitude to other types of data. Andrew MacLeod’s May 24, 2017 article for thetyee.ca highlights political implications and privacy issues (Note: Links have been removed),

After a small Victoria [British Columbia, Canada] company played an outsized role in the Brexit vote, government information and privacy watchdogs in British Columbia and Britain have been consulting each other about the use of social media to target voters based on their personal data.

The U.K.’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham [Note: Denham was formerly B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner], announced last week [May 17, 2017] that she is launching an investigation into “the use of data analytics for political purposes.”

The investigation will look at whether political parties or advocacy groups are gathering personal information from Facebook and other social media and using it to target individuals with messages, Denham said.

B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirmed it has been contacted by Denham.

Macleod’s March 6, 2017 article for thetyee.ca provides more details about the company’s role (note: Links have been removed),

The “tiny” and “secretive” British Columbia technology company [AggregateIQ; AIQ] that played a key role in the Brexit referendum was until recently listed as the Canadian office of a much larger firm that has 25 years of experience using behavioural research to shape public opinion around the world.

The larger firm, SCL Group, says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Its associated company in the U.S., Cambridge Analytica, has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

In late February [2017], the Telegraph reported that campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about C$5.75 million [emphasis mine] — with a company called AggregateIQ, run by CEO Zack Massingham in downtown Victoria.

That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.

According to media reports, Aggregate develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, then targets messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.

The Telegraph story described Victoria as “provincial” and “picturesque” and AggregateIQ as “secretive” and “low-profile.”

Canadian media also expressed surprise at AggregateIQ’s outsized role in the Brexit vote.

The Globe and Mail’s Paul Waldie wrote “It’s quite a coup for Mr. Massingham, who has only been involved in politics for six years and started AggregateIQ in 2013.”

Victoria Times Colonist columnist Jack Knox wrote “If you have never heard of AIQ, join the club.”

The Victoria company, however, appears to be connected to the much larger SCL Group, which describes itself on its website as “the global leader in data-driven communications.”

In the United States it works through related company Cambridge Analytica and has been involved in elections since 2012. Politico reported in 2015 that the firm was working on Ted Cruz’s presidential primary campaign.

And NBC and other media outlets reported that the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica millions to crunch data on 230 million U.S. adults, using information from loyalty cards, club and gym memberships and charity donations [emphasis mine] to predict how an individual might vote and to shape targeted political messages.

That’s quite a chunk of change and I don’t believe that gym memberships, charity donations, etc. were the only sources of information (in the US, there’s voter registration, credit card information, and more) but the list did raise my eyebrows. It would seem we are under surveillance at all times, even in the gym.

In any event, I hope that Hirsh’s call for discussion is successful and that the discussion includes more critical thinking about the implications of Hirsh’s ‘Brave New World’.