Category Archives: social networking

Almost Human (tv series), smartphones, and anxieties about life/nonlife

The US-based Fox Broadcasting Company is set to premiere a new futuristic television series, Almost Human, over two nights, Nov. 17, and 18, 2013 for US and Canadian viewers. Here’s a description of the premise from its Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

The series is set thirty-five years in the future when humans in the Los Angeles Police Department are paired up with lifelike androids; a detective who has a dislike for robots partners with an android capable of emotion.

One of the showrunners, Naren Shankar, seems to have also been functioning both as a science consultant and as a crime writing consultant,in addition to his other duties. From a Sept. 4, 2013 article by Lisa Tsering for Indiawest.com,

FOX is the latest television network to utilize the formidable talents of Naren Shankar, an Indian American writer and producer best known to fans for his work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as well as “Farscape,” the recently cancelled ABC series “Zero Hour” and “The Outer Limits.”

Set 35 years in the future, “Almost Human” stars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy as a crimefighting duo of a cop who is part-machine and a robot who is part-human. [emphasis mine]

“We are extrapolating the things we see today into the near future,” he explained. For example, the show will comment on the pervasiveness of location software, he said. “There will also be issues of technology such as medical ethics, or privacy; or how technology enables the rich but not the poor, who can’t afford it.”

Speaking at Comic-Con July 20 [2013], Shankar told media there, “Joel [J.H. Wyman] was looking for a collaboration with someone who had come from the crime world, and I had worked on ‘CSI’ for eight years.

“This is like coming back to my first love, since for many years I had done science fiction. It’s a great opportunity to get away from dismembered corpses and autopsy scenes.”

There’s plenty of drama — in the new series, the year is 2048, and police officer John Kennex (Karl Urban, “Dr. Bones” from the new “Star Trek” films) is trying to bounce back from one of the most catastrophic attacks ever made against the police department. Kennex wakes up from a 17-month coma and can’t remember much, except that his partner was killed; his girlfriend left him and one of his legs has been amputated and is now outfitted with a high-tech synthetic appendage. According to police department policy, every cop must partner with a robot, so Kennex is paired with Dorian (Ealy), an android with an unusual glitch that makes it have human emotions.

Shankar took an unusual path into television. He started college at age 16 and attended Cornell University, where he earned a B. Sc., an M.S. and a Ph.D. in engineering physics and electrical engineering, and was a member of the elite Kappa Alpha Society, he decided he didn’t want to work as a scientist and moved to Los Angeles to try to become a writer.

Shankar is eager to move in a new direction with “Almost Human,” which he says comes at the right time. “People are so technologically sophisticated now that maybe the audience is ready for a show like this,” he told India-West.

I am particularly intrigued by the ‘man who’s part machine and the machine that’s part human’ concept (something I’ve called machine/flesh in previous postings such as this May 9, 2012 posting titled ‘Everything becomes part machine’) and was looking forward to seeing how they would be integrating this concept along with some of the more recent scientific work being done on prosthetics and robots, given they had an engineer as part of the team (albeit with lots of crime writing experience), into the stories. Sadly, only days after Tserling’s article was published, Shankar parted ways with Almost Human according to the Sept. 10, 2013 posting on the Almost Human blog,

So this was supposed to be the week that I posted a profile of Naren Shankar, for whom I have developed a full-on crush–I mean, he has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Cornell, he was hired by Gene Roddenberry to be science consultant on TNG, he was saying all sorts of great things about how he wanted to present the future in AH…aaaand he quit as co-showrunner yesterday, citing “creative differences.” That leaves Wyman as sole showrunner, with no plans to replace Shankar.

I’d like to base some of my comments on the previews, unfortunately, Fox Broadcasting,, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to block Canadians from watching Almost Human previews online. (Could someone please explain why? I mean, Canadians will be tuning in to watch or record for future viewing  the series premiere on the 17th & 18th of November 2013 just like our US neighbours, so, why can’t we watch the previews online?)

Getting back to machine/flesh (human with prosthetic)s and life/nonlife (android with feelings), it seems that Almost Human (as did the latest version of Battlestar Galactica, from 2004-2009) may be giving a popular culture voice to some contemporary anxieties being felt about the boundary or lack thereof between humans and machines and life/nonlife. I’ve touched on this topic many times both within and without the popular culture context. Probably one of my more comprehensive essays on machine/flesh is Eye, arm, & leg prostheses, cyborgs, eyeborgs, Deus Ex, and ableism from August 30, 2011, which includes this quote from a still earlier posting on this topic,

Here’s an excerpt from my Feb. 2, 2010 posting which reinforces what Gregor [Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary] is saying,

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.” [originally excerpted from Paul Hochman’s Feb. 1, 2010 article, Bionic Legs, i-Limbs, and Other Super Human Prostheses You’ll Envy for Fast Company]

Here’s something else from the Hochman article,

But Bailey is most surprised by his own reaction. “When I’m wearing it, I do feel different: I feel stronger. As weird as that sounds, having a piece of machinery incorporated into your body, as a part of you, well, it makes you feel above human. [semphasis mine] It’s a very powerful thing.”

Bailey isn’t  almost human’, he’s ‘above human’. As Hochman points out. repeatedly throughout his article, this sentiment is not confined to Bailey. My guess is that Kennex (Karl Urban’s character) in Almost Human doesn’t echo Bailey’s sentiments and, instead feels he’s not quite human while the android, Dorian, (Michael Ealy’s character) struggles with his feelings in a human way that clashes with Kennex’s perspective on what is human and what is not (or what we might be called the boundary between life and nonlife).

Into this mix, one could add the rising anxiety around ‘intelligent’ machines present in real life, as well as, fiction as per this November 12 (?), 2013 article by Ian Barker for Beta News,

The rise of intelligent machines has long been fertile ground for science fiction writers, but a new report by technology research specialists Gartner suggests that the future is closer than we think.

“Smartphones are becoming smarter, and will be smarter than you by 2017,” says Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner. “If there is heavy traffic, it will wake you up early for a meeting with your boss, or simply send an apology if it is a meeting with your colleague. The smartphone will gather contextual information from its calendar, its sensors, the user’s location and personal data”.

Your smartphone will be able to predict your next move or your next purchase based on what it knows about you. This will be made possible by gathering data using a technique called “cognizant computing”.

Gartner analysts will be discussing the future of smart devices at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2013 in Barcelona from November 10-14 [2013].

The Gartner Symposium/Txpo in Barcelona is ending today (Nov. 14, 2013) but should you be curious about it, you can go here to learn more.

This notion that machines might (or will) get smarter or more powerful than humans (or wizards) is explored by Will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas) and, futurist, Brian David Johnson in their upcoming comic book, Wizards and Robots (mentioned in my Oct. 6, 2013 posting),. This notion of machines or technology overtaking human life is also being discussed at the University of Cambridge where there’s talk of founding a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (from my Nov. 26, 2012 posting)

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Our emerging technologies give rise to questions abut what constitutes life and where human might fit in. For example,

  • are sufficiently advanced machines a new form of life,?
  • what does it mean when human bodies are partially integrated at the neural level with machinery?
  • what happens when machines have feelings?
  • etc.

While this doesn’t exactly fit into my theme of life/nonlife or machine/flesh, this does highlight how some popular culture efforts are attempting to integrate real science into the storytelling. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Cosima Herter, the science consultant and namesake/model for one of the characters on Orphan Black (from the March 29, 2013 posting on the space.ca blog),

Cosima Herter is Orphan Black’s Science Consultant, and the inspiration for her namesake character in the series. In real-life, Real Cosima is a PhD. student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota, working on the History and Philosophy of Biology. Hive interns Billi Knight & Peter Rowley spoke with her about her role on the show and the science behind it…

Q: Describe your role in the making of Orphan Black.

A: I’m a resource for the biology, particularly insofar as evolutionary biology is concerned. I study the history and the philosophy of biology, so I do offer some suggestions and some creative ideas, but also help correct some of the misconceptions about science.  I offer different angles and alternatives to look at the way biological science is represented, so (it’s) not reduced to your stereotypical tropes about evolutionary biology and cloning, but also to provide some accuracy for the scripts.

– See more at: http://www.space.ca/article/Orphan-Black-science-consultant#sthash.7P36bbPa.dpuf

For anyone not familiar with the series, from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series starring Tatiana Maslany as several identical women who are revealed to be clones.

Sick and tired of the ‘social media is changing how science is practiced’ narrative

The whole ‘social media is changing ______’ puzzles me. You can fill in the blank with science/government/social relationships/etc. It’s always the same notion. Somehow social media is engendering changes the like of which we’ve never seen before.

  • The February 2011 overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt was all due to social media, as is the current social unrest in many Middle Eastern Countries.
  • Social relationships are being negatively impacted (nobody talks to anybody else anymore or it’s opening new avenues for relationships)
  • The practice of science is being changed by the use of social media.
  • etc.

Mostly I’m concerned with the one about science since I recently ended up on a panel where the discussion turned on this topic. I think there are a lot of things having an impact on how science is practiced and trying to establish the role social media is playing, if any, is a little premature.

We had Rosie Redfield on the panel. Rosie is a professor at the University of British Columbia who was part of the ‘arsenic life’ story that took the internet by a storm in late November/early December 2010. (Confession: I got caught up in the excitement in my Dec. 6, 2010 posting and recanted in my Dec. 8, 2010 posting.) Recently, there’s been a story about ‘arsenic life’ by Carl Zimmer for Slate magazine titled, How #arseniclife changed science. Here’s Zimmer’s set up (from the Slate article),

On November 29, NASA announced that it would soon hold a press conference to “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Wild speculation ran amok—perhaps scientists had found living things on one of Saturn’s moons. At the press conference, the scientists did not unveil an actual extraterrestrial, but they did have big news. A new paper had just been published in the journal Science, they said, which described bacteria that seemed able to build their own DNA from arsenic. If that were true, it would be an historic discovery, because no such ability has ever been found among Earth’s life-forms.

The paper was published online in late November and attracted a great deal of discussion and criticism almost immediately on blogs (Rosie Redfield’s RRResearch amongst them) and on twitter via the hash tag topic, #arseniclife. The print version of the paper, along with critical letters, will appear in the June 3, 2011 issue of Science.

Here’s Zimmer’s take on what makes this particular scientific dust-up different,

For those of us who have been tracking #arseniclife since last Thanksgiving, however, today comes as an anticlimax. There’s not much in the letters to Science that we haven’t read before. In the past, scientists might have kept their thoughts to themselves, waiting for journals to decide when and how they could debate the merits of a study. But this time, they started talking right away, airing their criticisms on the Internet. In fact, the true significance of the aliens-that-weren’t will be how it helped change the way scientists do science.

Zimmer goes on to describe this new practice,

Redfield and her colleagues are starting to carry out a new way of doing science, known as post-publication peer review. Rather than leaving the evaluation of new studies to a few anonymous scientists, researchers now debate the merit of papers after they have been published. The collective decision they come to stays open to revision.

Post-publication peer review—and open science in general—is attracting a growing number of followers in the scientific community. But some critics have argued that it’s been more successful in theory than in practice. The #arseniclife affair is one of the first cases in which the scientific community openly vetted a high-profile paper, and influenced how the public at large thought about it.

Post-publication peer review existed before social media as per ‘cold fusion’ (Wikipedia essay). I remember it because I wasn’t particularly interested in science at the time but this was everywhere and it went on for months. There was the initial excitement and enthusiasm (the ‘cold fusion’ scientists were featured on the cover of Times or Newsweek or maybe both in the days when those magazines were powerhouse publications). Then, as the initial enthusiasm died down, the storm of scientific criticism started (those other scientists may not have had social media but they made themselves felt). The story took place over eight to 10 months and achieved public awareness in a way that scientists can only fantasize about these days.  By comparison, the arsenic story blew up and disappeared from public consciousness within roughly two weeks, if that.

Social media may yet change how science is practiced but I wouldn’t use Zimmer’s story about #arsencilife to support that belief, in fact, I think it could support another idea altogether.

The ‘arsenic’ story was, by comparison, with ‘cold fusion’ greatly truncated and most members of the public never really heard about it and, as a consequence, were not exposed to the furious debate and discussion as they were with  ‘cold fusion’.  They did not get exposed to how science ‘really works and therein lies a problem because they did not see the uncertainties, the mistakes, and revised ideas.

As for what factors may be having an impact on scientific practice, I’d suggest reading Identifying good scientists and keeping them honest on The Black Hole blog by David Kent. Here’s an excerpt,

In a February 2011 interview with Lab Times, Cambridge scientist Peter Lawrence1 reflects on his own career and complains that “the heart of research is sick” as he charts the changes in the way in which science is pursued.  Briefly, he cites impact factors and the increased need to assign metrics to scientists (# of publications, H-index, etc) as main drivers of producing low quality research and unfairly squeezing out some good scientists who do not publish simply for the sake of publishing.  Impact factor fever runs deep throughout laboratories but, most damagingly, exists at the funding agency and university administrative level as well.

ETA June 17, 2011: For anyone who’d like to read some updated and contrasting discussion about the #arseniclife aftermath for scientific practice and science education there are two June 16, 2011 guest posts for Scientific American, one from Rosie Redfield and the other from Marie-Claire Shanahan. Plus, if you are interested in more details about the cold fusion story and the role electronic communication played, check out Marie-Claire Shanahan’s post,  Arsenic, cold fusion and the legitimacy of online critique, on the Boundary Vision blog.

nanoHUB; growing an online community?

I joined the nanoHUB ages ago (Sept. 2007) and haven’t paid much attention until recently when they sent me a survey to analyze my needs and, a few weeks after that, sent me a newsletter. Still, I was a bit surprised to find out they have 150,000 users on their hub and are now canvassing for people to join a user group (from the Nov. 12 2010 news item on Nanowerk),

To better serve its more than 150,000 users this year, nanoHUB.org is establishing a User Group to serve as a forum to facilitate the exchange of ideas among nanoHUB users.

The inaugural User Group meeting will be Wednesday, December 8, 2010, at the Westin Arlington Gateway hotel in Arlington, Virginia. The meeting will begin at 3:30 p.m., and will be in conjunction with the National Science Foundation’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Grantees Conference. Registration is required to attend and may be made at https://nanohub.org/eventregistration/.

The meeting topics will be: “150,000 Users and Growing: A nanoHUB.org Overview”; “nanoHUB.org: Real Users and Real Stories”; and “The Future of nanoHUB.org”. nanoHUB.org users are invited to attend.

Members of the User Group include representatives from education, research and industry. Insight gathered from the user Group will help guide selection of content, improve the understanding of user needs, and accelerate the evolution of nanoHUB.

nanoHUB.org is funded by the National Science Foundation, is a project of the Network for Computational Nanotechnology which, according to its contact page, is located at the University of Purdue in Indiana (US).

There is an August 2007 ELI paper (No. 7) written by Carie Windham for EDUCAUSE which gives a history and some insight into nanoHUB’s development,

In 2002, when Purdue University researchers merged the six-year-old Purdue University Network Computing Hubs (PUNCH) with the mission of the NSF’s Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN), scientists saw, from the beginning, a new frontier for computational science. What would happen, they wondered, if researchers in the field of nanotechnology (the study of particles 25,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair) could harness the power of grid computing to provide a single entry point to scientific tools, discoveries, and research on the Web without forcing the user to download a single piece of code?

The fruits of that marriage became the nanoHUB (http://www.nanohub.org/), a Science Gateway1 for researchers, faculty, and students in nanotechnology. Taking advantage of PUNCH’s extensive cyberinfrastructure and later that of TeraGrid—which employs supercomputers and data storage at nine partner sites—the nanoHUB portal enables users to access scientific tools for research, demonstration, and collaboration. It also serves as a resource for nanotechnology workshops, lectures, and curricula. Users can run experiments, brush up on nanotechnology research, or download a series of undergraduate lectures meant to explain the science at a level appropriate for novices.

The nanoHUB site has to lots to offer even if you’re not a member or particularly scientific and it could even provide an interesting case study for developing online communities.

nanoAlberta tweets

Joel Burford at nanoAlberta contacted me yesterday with the information that nanoAlberta can now be followed on Twitter the usual way (having a Twitter account of your own and ‘following them’) or by RSS feed if you don’t have an account.

http://twitter.com/nanoalberta

Here’s a sampling of their latest tweets,

# Handling nanomaterials? Check out the GoodNanoGuide: http://tinyurl.com/2c5n5ej about 19 hours ago via web

# Dr. Paul Burrows in Edmonton, Alberta speaking about nanotechnology on Citytv: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uk-iASnf9nY about 19 hours ago via web

# state of the art electron microscopy product development centre established at the NINT. http://tinyurl.com/2b8rah5 about 19 hours ago via web

# Gary Albach and Dr. Paul Burrows speak on the Global News “Morning Edition” : http://tinyurl.com/2g56b26 about 19 hours ago via web

Industrial production of carbon nanotubes?; Portland Art Museum’s China exhibit; scientific business not a good idea

We hear a lot of hype about all the new products and materials that nanotechnology will make possible for us but it’s always at some unspecified future date or  something like ‘it will come to market in three to five years or, five to seven years’.  I’m still waiting for self-cleaning windows which, as far as I know, no one has promised to bring market at any time (sigh). There is a ray of light regarding new carbon nanotube-based materials according to an article by Michael Berger on Nanowerk. From the article,

For years now, nanotechnology researchers have been promising us carbon nanotubes as the basis for numerous breakthrough applications such as multifunctional high-strength fibres, coatings and transparent conducting films. Not to mention as a cure for cancer (see “Horeradish, carbon nanotubes and cancer therapy”) and a solution to the energy crisis. … CNTs are notoriously difficult to work with and, because researchers haven’t found efficient ways yet to assemble them, the resulting materials demonstrate only a small fraction of the possible single-object properties of CNTs. …

New research reported this week has now established an industrially relevant process for assembling carbon nanotubes that allows them to efficiently be made into fibers, coatings and films – the basic forms of material that can be used in engineering applications.

With the possibility of producing carbon nanotubes on a large scale, I would imagine some folks will be curious about health & safety and environmental issues. On occasion I’ve included information about research on carbon nanotubes and their resemblance to asbestos fibres. These carbon nanotubes are multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) and the ones being made ready for industrial purposes in Berger’s article are single-walled CNTs. I have not come across anything yet which suggests that single-walled CNTs resemble asbestos fibres.

Back to China. The Portland (Oregon) Art Museum has a major exhibit called China Design Now according to an article by Steve McCallion, The Portland Art Museum Transforms an Art Exhibition into a Social Platform, in Fast Company. From the article,

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Portland Art Museum brought China Design Now, the London Victoria & Albert exhibit, to Portland to attract a new audience and elevate Portland’s cultural discourse to a global level. The exhibition documents China’s impressive advancement in graphics, fashion and design over the last 20 years. In my last post  I discussed how the Portland Art Museum used story and metaphor to make the exhibition even more meaningful. The museum’s most significant innovation, however, is not in the content of the exhibition–it’s the museum experience itself.

I’m very enthused about this and would dearly love to get to Portland to experience the various shows, that’s right plural–shows not show. The museum folks encouraged artists and people working in galleries to put on their own shows as part of a larger dialog for Portland. The art museum also extended itself online,

To extend community involvement online, the museum created CDNPDX.org where sixteen different blog editors from the community contribute content and editorial perspectives daily. They are not museum employees, but people from the community that have insight into China and/or design, and are willing to contribute to the discourse for free.

While including potentially offensive underground comics and “amateur” art may make some traditional museum-goers uncomfortable, the museum believes that inviting people to be part of the experience is necessary to remain relevant and worth the risk.

Meanwhile at the Vancouver Art Gallery, we continue with the traditional art museum experience (sigh).

Following my concerns about introducing scientific methods into government bureaucracies, I found this somewhat related article by Linda Tischler (in Fast Company) about scientific methods in business. From the article, a portion of the interview with Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto,

Martin: Well, yes. With every good thing in life, there’s often a dark shadow. The march of science is good, and corporations are being run more scientifically. But what they analyze is the past. And if the future is not exactly like the past, or there are things happening that are hard to measure scientifically, they get ignored. Corporations are pushing analytical thinking so far that it’s become unproductive. The future has no legitimacy for analytical thinkers.

Fast Company: What’s the alternative?

Martin: New ideas must come from a new kind of thinking. The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce called it abductive logic. It’s a logical leap of the mind that you can’t prove from past data.

Fast Company: I can’t see many CEOs being comfortable with that!

Martin: Why not? The scientific method starts with a hypothesis. It’s often what happens in the shower or when an apple hits you on the head. It’s what we call ‘intuitive thinking.’ Its purpose is to know without explicit reasoning.

I’m relieved to see that Martin points out that scientific thinking does require creativity but his point that things which are hard to measure scientifically get ignored is well taken. While scientific breakthroughs often arise from a creative leap, the work (using the scientific method) to achieve that leap is painstaking and the narratives within the field tend to ignore the creative element. This is almost the opposite of an artistic or creative endeavour which also requires a creative leap and painstaking work to achieve but where narrative focuses primarily on the creative.

The scientific method for many is considered to be  rigorously objective and inspires a certain faith (at times, religious in its intensity). It is a tool and a very effective tool in some, not all, situations. After all, you use a hammer ti build something with a nail, you don’t use it to paint your walls.

As for the Thomson Reuters report on China, I tried but had no joy when trying to retrieve it.

Art conservation and nanotechnology; the science of social networks; carbon nanotubes and possible mesothelioma; Eric Drexler has a few words

It looks like nanotechnology innovations in the field of art conservation may help preserve priceless works for longer and with less damage. The problem as articulated in Michael Berger’s article on Nanowerk is,

“Nowadays, one of the most important problems faced during the cleaning of works of art is the removal of organic materials, mainly acrylic polymers, applied in the past as consolidants or protective coatings,” explains Piero Baglioni, a professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence. “Unfortunately, their application induces a drastic alteration of the interfacial properties of the artwork and leads to increased degradation. These organic materials must therefore be removed.”

Baglioni and his colleagues at the University of Florence have developed “… a micro-emulsion cleaning agent that is designed to dissolve only the organic molecules on the surface of a painting …”

This is a little off Azonano’s usual beat (and mine too) but Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Army Research Laboratory is launching an interdisciplinary research center for the study of social and cognitive networks.  From the news item,

“Rensselaer offers a unique research environment to lead this important new network science center,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “We have assembled an outstanding team of researchers, and built powerful new research platforms. The team will work with one of the largest academic supercomputing centers in the world – the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations – and the leading visualization and simulation capabilities within our new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. The Center for Social and Cognitive Networks will bring together our world-class scientists in the areas of computer science, cognitive science, physics, Web science, and mathematics in an unprecedented collaboration to investigate all aspects of the ever-changing and global social climate of today.”

The center will study the fundamentals of social and cognitive networks and their roles in today’s society and organizations, including the U.S. Army. The goal will be to gain a deeper understanding of these networks and build a firm scientific basis in the field of network science. The work will include research on large social networks, with a focus on networks with mobile agents. An example of a mobile agent is someone who is interacting (e.g., communicating, observing, helping, distracting, interrupting, etc.) with others while moving around the environment.

My suspicion is that the real goal for the work is to exploit the data for military advantage, if possible. Any other benefits would be incidental. Of course, a fair chunk of the technology we enjoy today (for example, tv and the internet) was investigated by the military first.

I’ve mentioned carbon nanotubes and possible toxicology before. Specifically, some carbon nanotubes resemble asbestos fibers and pilot studies have suggested they may behave the same way when ingested by one means or another  into the body. There is a new confirmation of this hypothesis with a study where mice inhaled carbon nanotubes. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Using mice in an animal model study, the researchers set out to determine what happens when multi-walled carbon nanotubes are inhaled. Specifically, researchers wanted to determine whether the nanotubes would be able to reach the pleura, which is the tissue that lines the outside of the lungs and is affected by exposure to certain types of asbestos fibers which cause the cancer mesothelioma. The researchers used inhalation exposure and found that inhaled nanotubes do reach the pleura and cause health effects.

This was one exposure and the mice recovered after three months. More studies will be needed to determine the effects of repeated exposure. This study (Inhaled Carbon Nanotubes Reach the Sub-Pleural Tissue in Mice by Dr. James Bonner, Dr. Jessica Ryman-Rasmussen, Dr. Arnold Brody, et. al.) can be found in the Oct. 25, 2009 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

On Friday (Oct. 23, 2009) I mentioned an essay by Chris Toumey on the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s seminal talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. Today I found a response to the essay by Eric Drexler.  From Drexler’s essay on Nanowerk,

Unfortunately, yesterday’s backward-looking guest article in Nanowerk reinforces the widespread but quite mistaken idea that my views are essentially the opposite of what I’ve stated above, and that those perverse ideas are also those of the Foresight Institute. I cannot speak for that organization, or vice versa, because I left it years ago. Contrary to what the article may suggest, I have no affiliation with the organization whatsoever. Regarding terminology, it is of course entirely appropriate to use the term “nanotechnology” to describe nanoscale technologies. The idea that there is a conflict between progress in the field and future applications of that progress is puzzling. This idea appears to stem from a strange episode that came to a head during the political push for the bill that established and funded the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, an episode in which some leading science spokesmen quite properly rejected a collection of popular fantasies, but quite improperly attributed those fantasies to me. Reading claims by confused enthusiasts and the press that “Drexler says this” or “Drexler says that” is no substitute for reading my journal articles, or the technical analysis in my book, Nanosystems, and in my MIT dissertation). The failure of these leaders to do their homework has had substantial and lingering toxic effects.

(My own focus was on the ‘origin’ story for nanotechnology and not on Drexler’s theories.) If I understand the situation rightly, much of the controversy has its roots in Drexler’s popular book, Engines of Creation. It was written over 20 years ago and struck a note which reverberates to this day. The irony is that there are writers who’d trade places with Drexler in a nano second. Imagine having that kind of impact on society and culture (in the US primarily). The downside as Drexler has discovered is that the idea or story has taken on its own life. For a similar example, take Mary Shelley’s book where Frankenstein is not the monster’s name, it’s the scientist’s name. However, the character took its own life and name.

Nanotechnology metaphors and understanding visual data

I found a typesetting metaphor today in a media release titled, ‘Molecular typesetting — proofreading without a proofreader‘.  The number of publishing, writing, and reading metaphors associated with nanotechnology has always startled me.  As for the article, it is about how proteins are built with a minimal number of errors in a process that researchers compare to typesetting. If you want to read more, you can go here to Nanowerk News.

I looked at Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog and found a posting that presents some visual data about science twittering. He has three spheres made of bubbles or smaller spheres representing the number of followers that science twittering attracts. He’s done this before and I’m still not sure how to interpret the data and I mean that from two perspectives. I don’t understand the visual data being presented very well (Maynard does provide an explanation in a screencast) and while I find the whole Twitter scene interesting I’m waiting to see if it becomes something more substantive (which seems to be Maynard’s stance as well).

With regard to visual data, I think this will become increasingly important and it was one of the reasons I was so interested in Kay O’Halloran’s talk at the 2009 Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences about mathematics and using visual data to communicate about it. Unfortunately, the organizers were not able to arrange a webcast but I’ll  see if I can dig up so more information about what she’s doing.

As for the Twitter phenomenon, it seems interesting to me that MySpace has just downsized itself (more here) as I can recall when it was as a big trend as Twitter is now. I’m not sure what conclusions can be drawn from the popularity of any social networking phenomenon. I think it is clear that people are interested in each other (and sometimes for the oddest of reasons) as for anything else I need more data.

One brief note, I had occasion to email Andrew Maynard last week and during the exhange I asked him why the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies is having fewer events. (I figured their Chief Science Advisor would know why.) He says there is a reorganization taking place.