Monthly Archives: October 2010

Voluntary regulation and oversight for nanotechnology: a review

It’s been a while since I’ve had an invite for a Project on Emerging Technologies (PEN) event. November 4, 2010, the organization will be hosting an event hosting the release of a new report (from the news release),

Join us on Thursday, November 4, 2010, at 12:30 p.m. for the release of Voluntary Initiatives, Regulation, and Nanotechnology Oversight: Charting a Path, a new PEN report by Dr. Daniel Fiorino followed by a commentary by J. Clarence (Terry) Davies.“This report is the most extensive analysis done to date of how voluntary programs can be applied to managing nanotechnology’s possible environmental and health effects,” said David Rejeski, Director of the project. “The report’s analysis and recommendations extend beyond nanotechnology to the newer generation challenges that we face as science rapidly advances.”

Given that most voluntary programmes run by governments have been deemed a failure, I’m quite interested in hearing about how voluntary programmes could be better implemented.

If you’re in Washington, DC and want to attend in person, you will need to RSVP for the event (they’re serving a light lunch at 12 noon EST) which takes place from 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm EST.

The event is livestreamed in a webcast.

Slime, titanium dioxide, and marine ecosystems

I have wondered what happens when titanium dioxide nanoparticles in sunscreens wash off. Apparently, I’m not alone. Two scientists in Connecticut are studying marine biofilm (the slimy green stuff) found on rocks and docks at the seaside. According to a news item on Nanowerk,

While swimmers and boaters along any shore consider the slimy green film that coats everything from rocks to docks as a nuisance, University of New Haven (UNH) chemical engineering student Nicole Reardon and Assistant Professor Shannon Ciston, Ph.D. think otherwise. They view the slime, or biofilm, as a complex community that may hold the key to informing humanity of the true environmental impact of the chemical nanoparticles that find their way from area kitchens, baths and garages into Long Island Sound. One such controversial compound is titanium dioxide, which is used to whiten and brighten a multitude of products, including candy, cosmetics, toothpaste and paint.

… Noting that “large” particles of titanium dioxide are considered safe by the FDA, Ciston and Reardon are interested in how nanoparticles of titanium dioxode affect marine ecosystems, particularly in terms of the humble biofilm. Reardon explains that while marine biofilms can be a bother, they are critical players in the oceanic environment. In addition to transforming nitrogen and carbon in ways that positively impact the greater food web, biofilms clean waste water by eating harmful organic matter and can even be used to clean oil and gasoline spills through bioremediation.

I was hoping to find more information about this project on the University of New Haven website but they appear to have sent out a news release only.  Unfortunately, Dr. Shannon Ciston’s webpage doesn’t offer any additional insight and I could not find a webpage for graduate student Nicole Reardon. My guess is that the lack of more information is due to the University of New Haven being a small university with limited resources. Bravo to their communications team for getting this project noticed and I hope to hear more about it as it progresses.

Otellini and nano

Paul Otellini, Chief Executive Officer of Intel, just announced that the company will invest $6B to $8B for new and upgraded manufacturing facilities to produce 22 nanometre (nm) computer chips. From the news item on Nanowerk,

“Today’s announcement reflects the next tranche of the continued advancement of Moore’s Law and a further commitment to invest in the future of Intel and America,” said Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini. “The most immediate impact of our multi-billion-dollar investment will be the thousands of jobs associated with building a new fab and upgrading four others, and the high-wage, high-tech manufacturing jobs that follow.”

The new investments reinforce Intel’s leadership in the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing in the world. Intel’s brand-new development fab in Oregon – to be called “D1X” – is scheduled for R&D startup in 2013. Upgrades are also planned for a total of four existing factories in Arizona (known as Fab 12 and Fab 32) and Oregon (known as D1C and D1D).

“Intel makes approximately 10 billion transistors per second. Our factories produce the most advanced computer technology in the world and these investments will create capacity for innovation we haven’t yet imagined,” said Brian Krzanich, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Manufacturing and Supply Chain. “Intel and the world of technology lie at the heart of this future. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we can retain a vibrant manufacturing economy here in the United States by focusing on the industries of the future.”

While Intel generates approximately three-fourths of its revenues overseas, it maintains three-fourths of its microprocessor manufacturing in the United States. This new investment commitment also allows the company to maintain its existing manufacturing employment base at these sites.

In early 2009 and in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown, Otellini announced a $7B investment to upgrade four manufacturing facilities to produce 32 nm computer chips (my posting of February 11, 2009). So this 2010 announcement represents an ongoing commitment,

This new capital expenditure follows a U.S. investment announcement made in February 2009 to support state-of-the-art upgrades to its manufacturing process. Those upgrades resulted in 32nm process technology which has already produced computer chips being used today in PCs, servers, embedded and mobile devices around the world. Intel’s first 22nm microprocessors, codenamed “Ivy Bridge,” will be in production in late 2011 and will boost further levels of performance and power efficiency.

It’s interesting how these new nanoscale sized chips are the implementation of a top-down engineering approach to nanotechnology-enabled products resulting in ‘more of the same’ features, i.e. faster, more efficient. Where are the paradigm-shifting features and capabilities of the nanoscale?

Vancouver: very liveable but not attractive to scientists?

The journal Nature has an intriguing article by Richard Van Noorden titled, Cities: Building the best cities for science; Which urban regions produce the best research — and can their success be replicated? It’s an attempt to synthesize research on what makes certain cities notable for scientific achievement and ways to duplicate that success elsewhere.

Given the discussion about Canada’s scientific achievements combined with our perceived lack of innovation, I was curious as to whether any Canadian cities (particularly Vancouver) might be mentioned and in what context. First, here’s the story behind the research on ‘scientific’ cities (from the article),

When the Øresund bridge connecting Copenhagen, Denmark, with Malmö, Sweden, opened in 2000, both sides had much to gain. Sweden would get a physical connection to the rest of mainland Europe; residents of Copenhagen would have access to cheaper homes close to the city; and economic cooperation would increase. But Christian Matthiessen, a geographer at the University of Copenhagen, saw another benefit — the joining of two burgeoning research areas. “Everyone was talking about the transport of goods and business connections,” he says, “and we argued that another benefit would be to establish links between researchers.”

Ten years later, those links seem to be strong. The bridge encouraged the establishment of the ‘Øresund region’, a loose confederation of nine universities, 165,000 students and 12,000 researchers. Co-authorship between Copenhagen and the southernmost province of Sweden has doubled, says Matthiessen. The collaborations have attracted multinational funds from the European Union. And the European Spallation Source, a €1.4-billion (US$2-billion) neutron facility, is on track to begin construction in Lund, Sweden, in 2013.

The region’s promoters claim that it is emerging as a research hub of northern Europe, aided in part by construction of the bridge. For Matthiessen, the bridge also inspired the start of a unique research project — to catalogue the growth and connections of geographical clusters of scientific productivity all over the world. [emphases mine]

It’s not hard to believe that other cities and regions are eager to emulate the Copenhagen/Malmö experience. Van Noorden’s article synthesizes Mathiesson’s research with research done for Nature by Elsevier to find some similar results, for example, Boston scores high while Beijing’s scientific output is increasing.

As for Vancouver,

Moreover, cities generally held to be the most ‘liveable’ in surveys — Vancouver and various urban centres in Canada and Australia — are often not associated with outstanding creativity [scientists are included as ‘creatives’ as defined by academics such as Richard Florida at the University of Toronto], says Peter Hall, a geographer at University College London. [emphases mine]

Van Noorden does not explore the question of why the most  ‘liveable’ cities “are often not associated with outstanding creativity.”

I’m reminded of the excitement over the recruitment of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (my May 20, 2010 posting) and am suggesting that, like liveability, attracting world class researchers does not necessarily lead to the creative scientific and technological results hoped for so dearly.

As the article points there are many factor influencing why the rise and fall of ‘science’ cities,

Many factors are out of the hands of urban planners and local policy- makers, however, and more sophisticated spatial scientometrics studies into why and where scientists cluster geographically could help to explain the influence of these factors. The evolution of a metropolitan region such as Øresund [Copenhagen/Malmö] was shaped by national and international policies and economics. National policies, for example, have largely determined the evolution of science cities in France, Spain, Portugal, South Africa and Russia in the past few decades by pushing money, and by extension scientists, into smaller cities in need of a boost.

Researchers such as Michel Grossetti at the University of Toulouse (France), are attempting sophisticated analyses to get at the heart of why scientists do or do not cluster in certain regions as Van Noorden’s article notes.

I’m not sure what to make of this research simply because there’s been a lot of talk about how the internet and being online has obliterated geography (by working online, you can live wherever you choose as physical proximity is no longer necessary). This research suggests otherwise, i.e., physical or face to face contact is very important.

ETC group, nanotechnology and Africa

There’s a lot of valuable information and insight along with an almost old-fashioned approach to the politics in the October 6, 2010 article, Big continent and tiny technology: Nanotechnology and Africa, by Kathy Jo Wetter of the ETC Group. The article is well written and researched. Here’s an excerpt from the its technical explanation of nanotechnology,

Nanotechnology is a suite of techniques used to manipulate matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology speaks solely to scale: Nano refers to a measurement, not an object. A nanometre (nm) equals one-billionth of a metre. Ten atoms of hydrogen lined up side-by-side equal one nanometre. A DNA molecule is about 2.5nm wide (which makes DNA a nanoscale material). A red blood cell is enormous in comparison: about 5,000nm in diameter. Everything on the nanoscale is invisible to the unaided eye and even to all but the most powerful microscopes….

Key to understanding the potential of nanotech is that, at the nanoscale, a material’s properties can change dramatically; the changes are called ‘quantum effects’. With only a reduction in size (to around 300nm or smaller in at least one dimension) and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new characteristics – such as electrical conductivity, increased bioavailability, elasticity, greater strength or reactivity – properties that the very same substances may not exhibit at larger scales. For example, carbon in the form of graphite (like pencil ‘lead’) is soft and malleable; at the nanoscale carbon can be stronger than steel and is six times lighter; nanoscale copper is elastic at room temperature, able to stretch to 50 times its original length without breaking.

The point that some countries might choose to block the importation of nanomaterials due to issues around risk (as per the participants in a regional awareness-raising workshop in the Côte d’Ivoire) is well taken. From the article,

Here was a group of experts in Africa questioning the received wisdom of nanotechnology’s central role in solving the problems of the developing world, even going so far as to suggest that in some cases it may make sense to ‘say no to nano’.

I thought this next passage was particularly cogent,

Because nanoscale manipulations are now possible and, because the basic components of both living and non-living matter exist on the nanoscale (e.g., atoms, molecules and DNA), it is now possible to converge technologies to an unprecedented degree. Technological convergence, enabled by nanotechnology and its tools, can involve biology, biotechnology and synthetic biology, physics, material sciences, chemistry, cognitive sciences, informatics, geoengineering, electronics and robotics, among others. At the nanoscale there is no qualitative difference between living and non-living matter.

I first came across the statement about there being no appreciable gap between living and nonliving matter in a book about philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s work, Process and Reality (which was written in the late 1920s). At the time, that statement affected my thinking profoundly and forced me to examine my assumptions about the boundaries between living and nonliving matter.

Getting back to the article, the section about market impact is interesting and problematic for me,

The most direct impact of new designer materials created using nanotechnology is multiple raw-material options for industrial manufacturers, which could mean major disruptions to traditional commodity markets. It is too early to predict with certainty which commodities or workers will be affected and how quickly. However, if a new nano-engineered material outperforms a conventional material and can be produced at a comparable cost, it is likely to replace the conventional commodity. History shows that there will be a push to replace commodities such as cotton and strategic minerals – both heavily sourced in Africa and critical export earners – with cheaper raw materials that can be sourced or manufactured by new processes closer to home.

Yes, if manufacturers can find a way to make their products cheaper, they will certainly do that regardless of whom may get hurt as Americans found out when production of various electronics products was outsourced to places where labour is cheaper. As for reliance on  commodities for export, Canadians know that story well.

What seems to have been ignored in Wetter’s article is the pressure to produce more closer to home for environmental reasons. It’s at this point that the article starts to lose credibility for me.

The section on Health and Environmental Aspects is carefully designed to evoke great concern while remaining nominally truthful,

While there is great uncertainty about the toxicity of nanoparticles, hundreds of published studies now exist that show manufactured nanoparticles, currently in widespread commercial use (including zinc, zinc oxide, silver and titanium dioxide) can be toxic.

Damning all uses of the nanoparticles (as named in the article) seems as helpful as announcing that peanuts,which are in widespread commercial use, can be toxic. Interestingly, the author does not mention the use of zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide nanoparticles in sunscreens which have been given a cautious passing grade by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). (I last posted about nanosunscreens and the EWG, June 16, 2010.)

Yes, people should have concerns and more research on environmental and health impacts of nanomaterials and nanotechnology-enabled products is urgently needed but the article, unless very carefully read, could be deemed misleading with regard to health and environmental impacts.

The section I was specifically referring to when I described this article has having an old-fashioned approach to the politics comes at the end with, Who’s in Control?,

Many who envision nanotech bringing benefits to Africa ignore the realities of technology transfer and intellectual property. Intellectual property is being driven by the North and promotes the interests of dominant economic groups, both North and South. A 2006 study reported that Africa accounts for just 0.4 per cent of all patents granted throughout the world, while the United States and Europe together account for 81.8 per cent.

More than 12,000 patents in the field of nanotechnology have been awarded, granted over three decades (1976–2006) by the three offices responsible for most of the world’s nanotech patenting – the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), the European Patent Office and the Japan Patent Office.[6] As of March 2010, close to 6,000 nanotech patents had been granted by the USPTO and a further 5,184 applications were waiting in the queue. Multinational corporations, universities and nanotech start-ups (primarily in the OECD countries) have secured ‘foundational patents’ on nanotech tools, materials and processes – that is, seminal inventions upon which later innovations are built – and nanotech ‘patent thickets’ are already causing concern in the US and Europe.

While I agree with much of the analysis, I think the author does not seem to be aware that China is quickly catching up (or has China already caught up?) to the US in terms of claiming patents for advances in science and technology.

The reference to North and South seems dated to me especially in light an alliance (as cited in the article itself) between India, Brazil and South Africa,

South Africa is also a player in a cooperative nanotech R&D programme under the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA). Nanotech is one area of science collaboration, led by India, funded by a US$3 million trilateral research pool.

The geopolitics are changing rapidly and couching the discussion about developing/emerging economies and nanotechnology in terms coined more than 30 years ago seems counterproductive. For anyone who’s interested, do read the article because there’s lots of good material but caution needs to be exercised.

Canadian federal scientists (or their union) have launched a media campaign and website

These are interesting times. A union representing scientists employed by the Canadian federal government has launched a campaign and website promoting science. From the CBC October 18, 2010 news item,

A union representing federal scientists has launched a campaign targeting what it calls the government’s “worrying trend away from evidence-based policy-making.”

“If the science isn’t supported … then you’re going to find that decisions are going to be made more at the political level,” Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said Monday as the union launched a website called

The site aims to highlight science done for the public good — much of it taxpayer-funded and carried out by government scientists — and to “mobilize” scientists and the public to pressure politicians to support it. It features interviews with federal scientists about their work, along with interviews with science policy experts.

The other goal of the campaign is to create a more positive public image of federal scientists by highlighting their work, Corbett said.

He said what the public hears about civil servants these days is mainly criticism of their pensions and salaries.

The union represents 59,000 federal and provincial public servants, including 23,000 involved in scientific research, testing advice and other “knowledge products.”

As of 3 p.m. ET, Natural Resources Canada said it was preparing a response to the union’s news release.

I find this quite interesting not just for the science aspect but for what it says about how the union is positioning itself, i.e., as a voice speaking out for its members’ contributions to society rather than a voice stridently demanding more money and benefits.

As for the response promised from Natural Resources Canada on this union initiative, I’m waiting with some anticipation, given the recent kerfuffle over seeming attempts to muzzle scientists in that ministry as per my Sept. 16, 2010 posting).

The timing for this union initiative seems quite auspicious, or well-timed, given that this is Canada’s National Science and Technology Week (Oct. 15-24, 2010) and the Canadian Science Policy Conference is on from Oct. 20-22, 2010 in Montréal, Québec.

The union’s website is here at I notice that Adam Holbrook (a.k.a. J. Adam Holbrook) is featured on the front page. He’s a Professor and Associate Director of the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology, Simon Fraser University (British Columbia), a member of the Advisory Committee for the Canadian Science Policy Conference coming up in Montréal, and a speaker at 2010’s public service science policy conference this spring (both conferences are mentioned in my April 22, 2010 posting).

UK’s ‘Science is Vital’ rally attracts crowd of scientists

The results for the UK’s  ‘Science is Vital’ rally (first mentioned in my Oct. 6, 2010 posting) are in. A BBC News article declares that the rally which took place Sat., Oct. 9, 2010 saw this,

Hundreds of scientists have gathered outside the Treasury to protest against expected cuts to science funding.

The rally was organised by the Science is Vital campaign, whose petition calling for no cuts to funding has been signed by more than 20,000 people.

Speaking at the protest, the former head of the Medical Research Council, Professor Colin Blakemore, said cuts would be “disastrous”.

The government says science spending must stand up to “economic scrutiny”.

Meanwhile, Jenny Rohn, the scientist who accidentally started the campaign with one of her blog postings, had this to say about the rally on the Guardian’s Science Desk blog in her Oct. 12, 2010 posting,

Last Saturday, several thousand scientists and their supporters massed in front of the Treasury building in Westminster to speak out against proposed funding cuts for scientific research. Standing on the stage for my opening speech, I surveyed the sea of protestors in a state of awe.

It was past the starting time of 2pm, but people were still streaming into King Charles Street from both ends of the road. I could see people of all descriptions: famous scientists, young students, families with small children. Many people sported white coats and held up placards or colourful accessories: a foam model of Jupiter; a buckyball on a stick; the international symbol for toxic irritants with a photo of Vince Cable superimposed within the yellow triangle. The mood was well-behaved and upbeat, but the opening cheer echoed with a mighty roar, driving home just how formidable people can be when many act as one.

It had been only a month since I wrote a blog post proposing that scientists take to the streets – four short weeks from a crazy idea to its culmination. Along the way I received a whirlwind education in politics and grassroots organisation. My colleagues and I might be good at splicing genes or peering into the depths of the universe, but how many scientists does it take to assemble 300 placards in four hours while being faintly high on spray glue? (Answer: about a dozen.) These lessons and others occurred in a haze of distracted days and late nights, and go some way toward explaining the complaint that more scientists don’t engage in policy activism: if they did, at least on this scale, research would grind to a halt.

After having been in more than one rally, I can say that officials almost always underestimate while organizers overestimate attendance.

Rohn’s project developed some synergistic energy (she got some help and they got a boost in media interest) from the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) in the UK. This resulted in what both groups must have rejoiced over, a meeting in the House of Commons. From the Guardian’s Science Desk blog October 13, 2010 posting,

It’s rare to see the largest committee room at the House of Commons packed with constituents demanding to meet their MPs. It’s rarer still for those constituents to be mild-mannered scientists and engineers.

But that’s exactly what we had yesterday when well over 100 constituents came to parliament to lobby their MPs about the importance of science funding.

Many of them had never been to parliament before, and some had come from as far afield as Norwich and Pembrokeshire, to do so.

… more than 20 MPs came to listen to their constituents concerns, and yet more sent along their staff.

The lobby was organised by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) as part of the Science is Vital campaign – to show the political price that would be paid for cuts to the UK’s research funding, and to drive home core messages about what such cuts would mean.

I wish the scientists good luck with the UK budget due on Wednesday, October 20, 2010.

Robots, pain, and dance

There was a time many years ago when I knew and interacted with a lot of dancers (mostly in the modern genre) and they often talked about pain. It seems to be a feature of any field where you push your body, e.g., sports, dance, combat, etc. This is somewhat unrelated to the post I’d planned on robots and pain but, this morning I found some information on robots and dance in addition to the previous material on pain and that old memory about dancers and pain popped up out of nowhere.

The article which started this ball rolling in the first place is by Kit Eaton for Fast Company and is titled, Why Robots Are Learning Our Pain Threshold (from the article),

How do you teach a robot how not to hurt humans? Train one to hit someone in an experiment, to find our pain limit. Sounds infinitely sensible, doesn’t it? Until you remember your dystopian sci-fi and consider the implications. [emphasis mine]

The robot experiments are taking place at the lab of Professor Borut Povse in Slovenia. (Yes, he is probably well aware that he sounds like a Bond villain.) He’s been thinking about the future of human-machine interactions, when our daily lives involve working much more closely with robots than we do now. …

Povse spotted a key problem with this scenario: Machines don’t know how much energy in any given impact would result in pain to a person. Or to put it in laymen’s terms, robots don’t know their own strength. Hence he came up with an experiment to solve the problem. Somewhere in Solvenia there’s a robot punching volunteers at a variety of energies, with blunt or sharper “hammers,” so it can work out where the pain threshold is.

The plan is to use the data to inform the design of robots that will operate in close proximity to humans, so that they don’t make sudden movements with too much energy.

As Eaton goes on to note, robots could also be used to hurt/torture in very precise ways that could evade detection. These ethical issues are raised in the article with a suggestion that ethical issues around another ‘robotic programme’, the Predator drone programme (Predator drones are remotely controlled, unmanned planes) have not been handled as well as they could be. Eaton specifically cites an article by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker Magaine (The Predator War; What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?). If you’re interested in these kinds of issues please do read the article. As I don’t want to copy Mayer’s entire piece into this posting I’m going to focus on the pragmatic aspects of the problems  discussed (from the article),

David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency warfare expert who has advised General David Petraeus in Iraq, has said that the propaganda costs of drone attacks have been disastrously high. Militants have used the drone strikes to denounce the Zardari government—a shaky and unpopular regime—as little more than an American puppet. A study that Kilcullen co-wrote for the Center for New American Security, a think tank, argues, “Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.” His co-writer, Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger who has advised General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, told me, “Neither Kilcullen nor I is a fundamentalist—we’re not saying drones are not part of the strategy. But we are saying that right now they are part of the problem. If we use tactics that are killing people’s brothers and sons, not to mention their sisters and wives, we can work at cross-purposes with insuring that the tribal population doesn’t side with the militants. Using the Predator is a tactic, not a strategy.”

Exum says that he’s worried by the remote-control nature of Predator warfare. “As a military person, I put myself in the shoes of someone in FATA”—Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas—“and there’s something about pilotless drones that doesn’t strike me as an honorable way of warfare,” he said. [emphasis mine] “As a classics major, I have a classical sense of what it means to be a warrior.” An Iraq combat veteran who helped design much of the military’s doctrine for using unmanned drones also has qualms. He said, “There’s something important about putting your own sons and daughters at risk when you choose to wage war as a nation. We risk losing that flesh-and-blood investment if we go too far down this road.”

It seems to me that from a practical perspective, the use of drones (according to the military strategists quoted in the article) is turning neutral parties into hostile parties at a greater rate than standard warfare tactics would accomplish. At least one of these advisors is also implying that the morale of the parties using the drones is at risk if the means of warfare (the drones) are viewed as less than honourable.

On a possibly less disturbing note, Kit Eaton has another Fast Company article, Robots Dance Their Way Into Uncanny Valley, Next Stop: Your Heart, about a recent demonstration of the HRP-C4 robot. From the article,

Now rewind it, squint a little, and watch again: You’ll almost be able to mistake the ‘bot for one of the real dancers on the stage. Uncanny valley, ladies and gentlemen–HRP4C is busy dancing her way in here, and if the trend continues we can imagine future HRPx units dancing out the other side with a realism and finesse that may even be enough to move you emotionally if you saw them performing live.

Here’s one of the videos available (you can find at least one more on YouTube) but this gives you the best grasp of the ‘uncanny valley’,

For those who like definitions, here’s one for ‘uncanny valley’ from a Wikipedia essay,

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis regarding the field of robotics.[2] The theory holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

I think that’s enough for robots and disturbing thoughts about ethics and ‘uncanny valleys’.

Science, Critical Thinking, Richard Dawkins, & Cory Doctorow at TAM London

The Amazing Meeting (TAM) London starts officially on Saturday October 16, 2010 (tomorrow) but Martin Robbins (from The Lay Scientist blog which is part of the Guardian Science blogs site) started live blogging the event this morning (October 15, 2010). Here’s a brief description from the Guardian Science Desk’s blog,

What do comedians and scientists have in common? Often, it’s a love of all things geeky, and nowhere is that more obvious than at TAM London, the UK’s biggest conference celebrating science and critical thinking. Now in its second year, TAM (short for The Amazing Meeting) has been described by Jonathan Ross as “the best event ever!!!” and arrives this weekend with a line-up of speakers including Richard Dawkins, comic book legend Alan Moore, Graham Linehan and Stephen Fry.

TAM London is a fundraiser for the James Randi Educational Foundation, home of the Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which promotes critical thinking and scientific literacy.

TAM events originated in the the US. The James Randi Educational Foundation’s (JREF) 8th TAM meeting took place in July 2010 and you can find out more abut the US TAMs here.

As for the London TAM, I went to their website and found this,

TAM London 2010 is a world-class fundraising conference which this year is being held on 16 – 17 October 2010 at the Hilton London Metropole hotel. Join amazing speakers and over 1000 like-minded delegates for a fundraising celebration of science, critical thinking and entertainment in the heart of the city.

PLUS delegates have the chance to buy exclusive tickets to the premiere of Tim Minchin’s Storm movie and spend Saturday evening being entertained by Tim and special guests. A totally unique opportunity!

And if that wasn’t amazing enough, we’ve also arranged for a very special performance of Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories on Friday 15th October just for TAM Delegates, with £5 off all tickets!

It all sounds very interesting and exciting but I checked out James Randi very quickly and found this essay about him on Wikipedia,

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida non-profit organization founded in 1996 by magician and skeptic James Randi. The JREF’s mission includes educating the public and the media on the dangers of accepting unproven claims, and to support research into paranormal claims in controlled scientific experimental conditions.

The organization offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars which it will pay out to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. The JREF also maintains a legal defense fund to assist persons who are attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims.

This is an agenda which I would not have guessed at from reading information on the TAM London website. From the About TAM London page,

TAM is ‘The Amaz!ng Meeting’, the fundraising conference of the James Randi Educational Foundation. TAM London 2009 was the first of these conferences to be held outside the USA and sold out in just one hour. The 2010 event continues this amazing success and is in addition to TAM8 to be held in Las Vegas in July 2010. Previous TAM speakers have included Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, magicians Penn and Teller, Prof Brian Cox and dozens of other noted scientists, entertainers and academics. You can expect a warm welcome from the hundreds of like-minded people who attend TAMs, from all walks of life and backgrounds but with a common interest in critical thinking.

It becomes more clear if you find the About JREF page,

The proceeds of TAM London support the work of JREF and its mission of education and combating pseudoscience.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is a Florida-based non-profit organization founded in 1996 by magician and skeptic James Randi. The President of the JREF is DJ Grothe.

The Foundation’s goals include:

* Creating a new generation of critical thinkers through lively classroom demonstrations and by reaching out to the next generation in the form of scholarships and awards.

* Demonstrating to the public and the media, through educational seminars, the consequences of accepting paranormal and supernatural claims without questioning.

* Supporting and conducting research into paranormal claims through well-designed experiments utilizing “the scientific method” and by publishing the findings in the JREF official newsletter, Swift, and other periodicals.

* Also providing reliable information on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims by maintaining a comprehensive library of books, videos, journals, and archival resources open to the public.

* Assisting those who are being attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims, by maintaining a legal defense fund available to assist these individuals.

* The JREF offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with having an agenda but it wasn’t obvious from the the Guardian’s Science desk posting about the event,

Organiser Tracy King said: “The focus is on entertainment and education. People come to TAM because they want to learn and hear from leading speakers on subjects which interest them, but they want to have a good time doing it. Our mix of academics, comedians and writers ensures an incredible event where the public can meet like-minded people without feeling like being into science or geek stuff makes them a minority.

With science funding under threat, it’s more important than ever for TAM London to reach the public with its message – that science, technology and rational thinking are essential to the healthy future of the UK.” [emphases mine]

I may be fantasizing here but I sense a certain evangelical edge to the event which seems to antithetical to critical thinking.

Mark your calendar for Oct. 2, 2011 and the WAVE Conference

Shortly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s announcement of $2M in funding (noted in my Oct. 11, 2010 posting) for ACAMP, or the Alberta Centre for Advanced Microsystems and Nanotechnology Products as it’s known more formally,  the organization announced a conference for 2011. From the Oct. 12, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

Products incoporating micro and nano technology, play a powerful role in reducing cost and integrating new functionality for the world market. On Oct 2nd 2011, a three day global gathering of stakeholders bent on taking state of the art products incorporating MNT (Micro & Nano Technology) to market will be converge on Lake Louise.

This business to business event, the WAVE2011 conference and exhibition theme is bringing products to market incorporating MNT. Over 125 exhibitors will demonstrate and present new technologies to an international audience.

“This three day event brings together the stakeholders involved in the value chain from materials supply through end product, including distributors and sales representatives, manufacturers, materials producers, equipment suppliers and investors.” explained Ken Brizel, CEO of ACAMP, “The event will focus on five primary market area’s Cleantech, Health & Medical, Agriculture & Forestry, Conventional Energy, Consumer & Commercial, with a global perspective.”

I realize it’s early days yet but if ACAMP’s upcoming WAVE conference interests you, the website can be found here.