Monthly Archives: June 2017

A question of consciousness: Facebotlish (a new language); a July 5, 2017 rap guide performance in Vancouver, Canada; Tom Stoppard’s play; and a little more

This would usually be a simple event announcement but with the advent of a new, related (in my mind if no one else’s) development on Facebook, this has become a roundup of sorts.

Facebotlish (Facebook’s chatbots create their own language)

The language created by Facebook’s chatbots, Facebotlish, was an unintended consequence—that’s right Facebook’s developers did not design a language for the chatbots or anticipate its independent development, apparently.  Adrienne LaFrance’s June 20, 2017 article for explores the development and the question further,

Something unexpected happened recently at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research lab. Researchers who had been training bots to negotiate with one another realized that the bots, left to their own devices, started communicating in a non-human language.

In order to actually follow what the bots were saying, the researchers had to tweak their model, limiting the machines to a conversation humans could understand. (They want bots to stick to human languages because eventually they want those bots to be able to converse with human Facebook users.) …

Here’s what the language looks like (from LaFrance article),

Here’s an example of one of the bot negotiations that Facebook observed:Bob: i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i i can i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob: i . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have 0 to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob: you i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

It is incomprehensible to humans even after being tweaked, even so, some successful negotiations can ensue.

Facebook’s researchers aren’t the only one to come across the phenomenon (from LaFrance’s article; Note: Links have been removed),

Other AI researchers, too, say they’ve observed machines that can develop their own languages, including languages with a coherent structure, and defined vocabulary and syntax—though not always actual meaningful, by human standards.

In one preprint paper added earlier this year [2017] to the research repository arXiv, a pair of computer scientists from the non-profit AI research firm OpenAI wrote about how bots learned to communicate in an abstract language—and how those bots turned to non-verbal communication, the equivalent of human gesturing or pointing, when language communication was unavailable. (Bots don’t need to have corporeal form to engage in non-verbal communication; they just engage with what’s called a visual sensory modality.) Another recent preprint paper, from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Virginia Tech, describes an experiment in which two bots invent their own communication protocol by discussing and assigning values to colors and shapes—in other words, the researchers write, they witnessed the “automatic emergence of grounded language and communication … no human supervision!”

The implications of this kind of work are dizzying. Not only are researchers beginning to see how bots could communicate with one another, they may be scratching the surface of how syntax and compositional structure emerged among humans in the first place.

LaFrance’s article is well worth reading in its entirety especially since the speculation is focused on whether or not the chatbots’ creation is in fact language. There is no mention of consciousness and perhaps this is just a crazy idea but is it possible that these chatbots have consciousness? The question is particularly intriguing in light of some of philosopher David Chalmers’ work (see his 2014 TED talk in Vancouver, Canada: runs roughly 18 mins.); a text transcript is also featured. There’s a condensed version of Chalmers’ TED talk offered in a roughly 9 minute NPR (US National Public Radio) interview by Gus Raz. Here are some highlights from the text transcript,

So we’ve been hearing from brain scientists who are asking how a bunch of neurons and synaptic connections in the brain add up to us, to who we are. But it’s consciousness, the subjective experience of the mind, that allows us to ask the question in the first place. And where consciousness comes from – that is an entirely separate question.

DAVID CHALMERS: Well, I like to distinguish between the easy problems of consciousness and the hard problem.

RAZ: This is David Chalmers. He’s a philosopher who coined this term, the hard problem of consciousness.

CHALMERS: Well, the easy problems are ultimately a matter of explaining behavior – things we do. And I think brain science is great at problems like that. It can isolate a neural circuit and show how it enables you to see a red object, to respondent and say, that’s red. But the hard problem of consciousness is subjective experience. Why, when all that happens in this circuit, does it feel like something? How does a bunch of – 86 billion neurons interacting inside the brain, coming together – how does that produce the subjective experience of a mind and of the world?

RAZ: Here’s how David Chalmers begins his TED Talk.


CHALMERS: Right now, you have a movie playing inside your head. It has 3-D vision and surround sound for what you’re seeing and hearing right now. Your movie has smell and taste and touch. It has a sense of your body, pain, hunger, orgasms. It has emotions, anger and happiness. It has memories, like scenes from your childhood, playing before you. This movie is your stream of consciousness. If we weren’t conscious, nothing in our lives would have meaning or value. But at the same time, it’s the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe. Why are we conscious?

RAZ: Why is consciousness more than just the sum of the brain’s parts?

CHALMERS: Well, the question is, you know, what is the brain? It’s this giant complex computer, a bunch of interacting parts with great complexity. What does all that explain? That explains objective mechanism. Consciousness is subjective by its nature. It’s a matter of subjective experience. And it seems that we can imagine all of that stuff going on in the brain without consciousness. And the question is, where is the consciousness from there? It’s like, if someone could do that, they’d get a Nobel Prize, you know?

RAZ: Right.

CHALMERS: So here’s the mapping from this circuit to this state of consciousness. But underneath that is always going be the question, why and how does the brain give you consciousness in the first place?


CHALMERS: Right now, nobody knows the answers to those questions. So we may need one or two ideas that initially seem crazy before we can come to grips with consciousness, scientifically. The first crazy idea is that consciousness is fundamental. Physicists sometimes take some aspects of the universe as fundamental building blocks – space and time and mass – and you build up the world from there. Well, I think that’s the situation we’re in. If you can’t explain consciousness in terms of the existing fundamentals – space, time – the natural thing to do is to postulate consciousness itself as something fundamental – a fundamental building block of nature. The second crazy idea is that consciousness might be universal. This view is sometimes called panpsychism – pan, for all – psych, for mind. Every system is conscious. Not just humans, dogs, mice, flies, but even microbes. Even a photon has some degree of consciousness. The idea is not that photons are intelligent or thinking. You know, it’s not that a photon is wracked with angst because it’s thinking, oh, I’m always buzzing around near the speed of light. I never get to slow down and smell the roses. No, not like that. But the thought is, maybe photons might have some element of raw subjective feeling, some primitive precursor to consciousness.

RAZ: So this is a pretty big idea – right? – like, that not just flies, but microbes or photons all have consciousness. And I mean we, like, as humans, we want to believe that our consciousness is what makes us special, right – like, different from anything else.

CHALMERS: Well, I would say yes and no. I’d say the fact of consciousness does not make us special. But maybe we’ve a special type of consciousness ’cause you know, consciousness is not on and off. It comes in all these rich and amazing varieties. There’s vision. There’s hearing. There’s thinking. There’s emotion and so on. So our consciousness is far richer, I think, than the consciousness, say, of a mouse or a fly. But if you want to look for what makes us distinct, don’t look for just our being conscious, look for the kind of consciousness we have. …

Intriguing, non?

Vancouver premiere of Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness

Baba Brinkman, former Vancouverite and current denizen of New York City, is back in town offering a new performance at the Rio Theatre (1680 E. Broadway, near Commercial Drive). From a July 5, 2017 Rio Theatre event page and ticket portal,

Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness

Wednesday, July 5 [2017] at 6:30pm PDT

Baba Brinkman’s new hip-hop theatre show “Rap Guide to Consciousness” is all about the neuroscience of consciousness. See it in Vancouver at the Rio Theatre before it goes to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August [2017].

This event also features a performance of “Off the Top” with Dr. Heather Berlin (cognitive neuroscientist, TV host, and Baba’s wife), which is also going to Edinburgh.

Wednesday, July 5
Doors 6:00 pm | Show 6:30 pm

Advance tickets $12 | $15 at the door

*All ages welcome!
*Sorry, Groupons and passes not accepted for this event.

“Utterly unique… both brilliantly entertaining and hugely informative” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – Broadway Baby

“An education, inspiring, and wonderfully entertaining show from beginning to end” ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – Mumble Comedy

There’s quite the poster for this rap guide performance,

In addition to  the Vancouver and Edinburgh performance (the show was premiered at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May 2017; see Simon Topping’s very brief review in this May 10, 2017 posting on the, Brinkman is raising money (goal is $12,000US; he has raised a little over $3,000 with approximately one month before the deadline) to produce a CD. Here’s more from the Rap Guide to Consciousness campaign page on Indiegogo,

Brinkman has been working with neuroscientists, Dr. Anil Seth (professor and co-director of Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science) and Dr. Heather Berlin (Brinkman’s wife as noted earlier; see her Wikipedia entry or her website).

There’s a bit more information about the rap project and Anil Seth in a May 3, 2017 news item by James Hakner for the University of Sussex,

The research frontiers of consciousness science find an unusual outlet in an exciting new Rap Guide to Consciousness, premiering at this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival.

Professor Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, has teamed up with New York-based ‘peer-reviewed rapper’ Baba Brinkman, to explore the latest findings from the neuroscience and cognitive psychology of subjective experience.

What is it like to be a baby? We might have to take LSD to find out. What is it like to be an octopus? Imagine most of your brain was actually built into your fingertips. What is it like to be a rapper kicking some of the world’s most complex lyrics for amused fringe audiences? Surreal.

In this new production, Baba brings his signature mix of rap comedy storytelling to the how and why behind your thoughts and perceptions. Mixing cutting-edge research with lyrical performance and projected visuals, Baba takes you through the twists and turns of the only organ it’s better to donate than receive: the human brain. Discover how the various subsystems of your brain come together to create your own rich experience of the world, including the sights and sounds of a scientifically peer-reviewed rapper dropping knowledge.

The result is a truly mind-blowing multimedia hip-hop theatre performance – the perfect meta-medium through which to communicate the dazzling science of consciousness.

Baba comments: “This topic is endlessly fascinating because it underlies everything we do pretty much all the time, which is probably why it remains one of the toughest ideas to get your head around. The first challenge with this show is just to get people to accept the (scientifically uncontroversial) idea that their brains and minds are actually the same thing viewed from different angles. But that’s just the starting point, after that the details get truly amazing.”

Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist and award-winning playwright, best known for his “Rap Guide” series of plays and albums. Baba has toured the world and enjoyed successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and off-Broadway in New York. The Rap Guide to Religion was nominated for a 2015 Drama Desk Award for “Unique Theatrical Experience” and The Rap Guide to Evolution (“Astonishing and brilliant” NY Times), won a Scotsman Fringe First Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination for “Outstanding Solo Performance”. The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos premiered in Edinburgh in 2015, followed by a six-month off-Broadway run in 2016.

Baba is also a pioneer in the genre of “lit-hop” or literary hip-hop, known for his adaptations of The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh. He is a recent recipient of the National Center for Science Education’s “Friend of Darwin Award” for his efforts to improve the public understanding of evolutionary biology.

Anil Seth is an internationally renowned researcher into the biological basis of consciousness, with more than 100 (peer-reviewed!) academic journal papers on the subject. Alongside science he is equally committed to innovative public communication. A Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow (from 2016) and the 2017 British Science Association President (Psychology), Professor Seth has co-conceived and consulted on many science-art projects including drama (Donmar Warehouse), dance (Siobhan Davies dance company), and the visual arts (with artist Lindsay Seers). He has also given popular public talks on consciousness at the Royal Institution (Friday Discourse) and at the main TED conference in Vancouver. He is a regular presence in print and on the radio and is the recipient of awards including the BBC Audio Award for Best Single Drama (for ‘The Sky is Wider’) and the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize (for EyeBenders). This is his first venture into rap.

Professor Seth said: “There is nothing more familiar, and at the same time more mysterious than consciousness, but research is finally starting to shed light on this most central aspect of human existence. Modern neuroscience can be incredibly arcane and complex, posing challenges to us as public communicators.

“It’s been a real pleasure and privilege to work with Baba on this project over the last year. I never thought I’d get involved with a rap artist – but hearing Baba perform his ‘peer reviewed’ breakdowns of other scientific topics I realized here was an opportunity not to be missed.”

Interestingly, Seth has another Canadian connection; he’s a Senior Fellow of the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR; Wikipedia entry). By the way, the institute  was promised $93.7M in the 2017 Canadian federal government budget for the establishment of a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy (see my March 24, 2017 posting; scroll down about 25% of the way and look for the highlighted dollar amount). You can find out more about the Azrieli programme here and about CIFAR on its website.

The Hard Problem (a Tom Stoppard play)

Brinkman isn’t the only performance-based artist to be querying the concept of consciousness, Tom Stoppard has written a play about consciousness titled ‘The Hard Problem’, which debuted at the National Theatre (UK) in January 2015 (see BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] news online’s Jan. 29, 2015 roundup of reviews). A May 25, 2017 commentary by Andrew Brown for the Guardian offers some insight into the play and the issues (Note: Links have been removed),

There is a lovely exchange in Tom Stoppard’s play about consciousness, The Hard Problem, when an atheist has been sneering at his girlfriend for praying. It is, he says, an utterly meaningless activity. Right, she says, then do one thing for me: pray! I can’t do that, he replies. It would betray all I believe in.

So prayer can have meanings, and enormously important ones, even for people who are certain that it doesn’t have the meaning it is meant to have. In that sense, your really convinced atheist is much more religious than someone who goes along with all the prayers just because that’s what everyone does, without for a moment supposing the action means anything more than asking about the weather.

The Hard Problem of the play’s title is a phrase coined by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers to describe the way in which consciousness arises from a physical world. What makes it hard is that we don’t understand it. What makes it a problem is slightly different. It isn’t the fact of consciousness, but our representations of consciousness, that give rise to most of the difficulties. We don’t know how to fit the first-person perspective into the third-person world that science describes and explores. But this isn’t because they don’t fit: it’s because we don’t understand how they fit. For some people, this becomes a question of consuming interest.

There are also a couple of video of Tom Stoppard, the playwright, discussing his play with various interested parties, the first being the director at the National Theatre who tackled the debut run, Nicolas Hytner: (it runs approximately 40 mins.). Then, there’s the chat Stoppard has with previously mentioned philosopher, David Chalmers: (this runs approximately 1 hr. 32 mins.).

I gather ‘consciousness’ is a hot topic these days and, in the venacular of the 1960s, I guess you could describe all of this as ‘expanding our consciousness’. Have a nice weekend!

Canada: Happy 150th anniversary!

There’s a bit of fun in the title for Jennifer Pascoe’s June 27, 2017 University of Alberta news release, (assuming you’re familiar with the opening words for Canada’s national anthem: “O Canada!”),


At just 32 atoms and visible only through a million-dollar scanning tunneling microscope, a tiny maple leaf created by UAlberta PhD student Roshan Achal illustrates the next wave of green technology, all while showing patriotic pride.

Invisible to the naked eye, the little leaf is pulling triple duty: celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, attempting a world record, and—with critical implications for our technology-driven information society—providing critical steps towards the next generation of smaller and faster computers.

“It’s super cool and super Canadian and demonstrates our strength and skill in this niche of nanotechnology,” said Achal. “Almost no one else in the world can do it this well.”

Unlike other ultra-small atomic creations, this maple leaf retains its structure at room temperature.

A tiny act of patriotism

At ten nanometres in width, the leaf is roughly 100 times smaller than the world’s smallest national flag—created at the University of Waterloo in September 2016—10,000 times smaller than a human hair, and 53 million times smaller than the world’s largest maple leaf.

The leaf demonstrates the technique of building structures atom by atom (via something called scanning tunneling microscopy), which is being used to create and study circuitry to make smaller computational components while simultaneously speeding them up. In this particular niche of nanotechnology, Canada rates high on the international stage, with the University of Alberta leading the way.

“It’s hard to imagine, because it’s so small, but picture a surface almost like bubble wrap,” explained Achal of the silicon crystal wafer on which the leaf is patterned. “The bubbles are actually hydrogen atoms bonded to the surface, and we are able to pop those bubbles to create patterns.”

Nano pioneers

Achal is working on perfecting that patterning process to make atomic structures which will help revolutionize the next generation of computing by consuming less power. He’s using an ultra-sharp tool, a tip just one atom in width, which was perfected by his supervisor, UAlberta physics professor Robert Wolkow, whom Achal calls a “visionary.”

A pioneer in scanning tunneling microscopy technology, Wolkow already has a Guinness World Record for the nano-tip, the world’s sharpest man-made object, which provides unparalleled precision for patterning electronic circuits.

Achal explained the team wanted to do something to demonstrate their technological capabilities, but also something fun and meaningful to mark the occasion of Canada 150.

While they wait to hear back from Guinness World Records with an official nod to their small sculpture, the scientists continue to perfect their technique, with significant implications for next generation computing. This capability is now being put to commercial use by local spin-off Quantum Silicon Incorporated to make revolutionary ultra-fast and efficient silicon electronic devices.

It’s nice to see the enthusiasm although calling Wolkow ‘a visionary’ seems a little over the top especially with all of the other exuberance (super Canadian?). In any event, there are very few visionaries, maybe Wolkow could have been described as amazing, groundbreaking, and/or extraordinary?

Getting back to the point: Happy 150th Canada Day July 1, 2017!

h/t June 27, 2017 news item on Nanowerk.

Scientists claim off-the-shelf, power-generating clothes almost here

PEDOT-coated yarns act as “normal” wires to transmit electricity from a wall outlet to an incandescent lightbulb. Materials scientist Trisha Andrew at UMass Amherst and colleagues outline in a new paper how they have invented a way to apply breathable, pliable, metal-free electrodes to fabric and off-the-shelf clothing so it feels good to the touch and also transports electricity to power small electronics. Harvesting body motion energy generates the power. Courtesy: UMass Amherst

I’m not quite as optimistic (it’s a long way from the lab to the marketplace) as the scientists do eventually note but this does seem promising (from a May 23, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

A lightweight, comfortable jacket that can generate the power to light up a jogger at night may sound futuristic, but materials scientist Trisha Andrew at the University of Massachusetts Amherst could make one today.

In a new paper this month, she and colleagues outline how they have invented a way to apply breathable, pliable, metal-free electrodes to fabric and off-the-shelf clothing so it feels good to the touch and also transports enough electricity to power small electronics.

A May 23, 2017 University of Massachusetts Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item,

She says, “Our lab works on textile electronics. We aim to build up the materials science so you can give us any garment you want, any fabric, any weave type, and turn it into a conductor. Such conducting textiles can then be built up into sophisticated electronics. One such application is to harvest body motion energy and convert it into electricity in such a way that every time you move, it generates power.” Powering advanced fabrics that can monitor health data remotely are important to the military and increasingly valued by the health care industry, she notes.

Generating small electric currents through relative movement of layers is called triboelectric charging, explains Andrew, who trained as a polymer chemist and electrical engineer. Materials can become electrically charged as they create friction by moving against a different material, like rubbing a comb on a sweater. “By sandwiching layers of differently materials between two conducting electrodes, a few microwatts of power can be generated when we move,” she adds.

In the current early online edition of Advanced Functional Materials, she and postdoctoral researcher Lu Shuai Zhang in her lab describe the vapor deposition method they use to coat fabrics with a conducting polymer, poly(3,4-ethylenedioxytiophene) also known as PEDOT, to make plain-woven, conducting fabrics that are resistant to stretching and wear and remain stable after washing and ironing. The thickest coating they put down is about 500 nanometers, or about 1/10 the diameter of a human hair, which retains a fabric’s hand feel.

The authors report results of testing electrical conductivity, fabric stability, chemical and mechanical stability of PEDOT films and textile parameter effects on conductivity for 14 fabrics, including five cottons with different weaves, linen and silk from a craft store.

“Our article describes the materials science needed to make these robust conductors,” Andrew says. “We show them to be stable to washing, rubbing, human sweat and a lot of wear and tear.” PEDOT coating did not change the feel of any fabric as determined by touch with bare hands before and after coating. Coating did not increase fabric weight by more than 2 percent. The work was supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Until recently, she and Zhang point out, textile scientists have tended not to use vapor deposition because of technical difficulties and high cost of scaling up from the laboratory. But over the last 10 years, industries such as carpet manufacturers and mechanical component makers have shown that the technology can be scaled up and remain cost-effective. The researchers say their invention also overcomes the obstacle of power-generating electronics mounted on plastic or cladded, veneer-like fibers that make garments heavier and/or less flexible than off-the-shelf clothing “no matter how thin or flexible these device arrays are.”

“There is strong motivation to use something that is already familiar, such as cotton/silk thread, fabrics and clothes, and imperceptibly adapting it to a new technological application.” Andrew adds, “This is a huge leap for consumer products, if you don’t have to convince people to wear something different than what they are already wearing.”

Test results were sometimes a surprise, Andrew notes. “You’d be amazed how much stress your clothes go through until you try to make a coating that will survive a shirt being pulled over the head. The stress can be huge, up to a thousand newtons of force. For comparison, one footstep is equal to about 10 newtons, so it’s yanking hard. If your coating is not stable, a single pull like that will flake it all off. That’s why we had to show that we could bend it, rub it and torture it. That is a very powerful requirement to move forward.”

Andrew is director of wearable electronics at the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring in UMass Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS). Since the basic work reported this month was completed, her lab has also made a wearable heart rate monitor with an off-the-shelf fitness bra to which they added eight monitoring electrodes. They will soon test it with volunteers on a treadmill at the IALS human movement facility.

She explains that a hospital heart rate monitor has 12 electrodes, while the wrist-worn fitness devices popular today have one, which makes them prone to false positives. They will be testing a bra with eight electrodes, alone and worn with leggings that add four more, against a control to see if sensors can match the accuracy and sensitivity of what a hospital can do. As the authors note in their paper, flexible, body-worn electronics represent a frontier of human interface devices that make advanced physiological and performance monitoring possible.

For the future, Andrew says, “We’re working on taking any garment you give us and turning it into a solar cell so that as you are walking around the sunlight that hits your clothes can be stored in a battery or be plugged in to power a small electronic device.”

Zhang and Andrew believe their vapor coating is able to stick to fabrics by a process called surface grafting, which takes advantage of free bonds dangling on the surface chemically bonding to one end of the polymer coating, but they have yet to investigate this fully.

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

Rugged Textile Electrodes for Wearable Devices Obtained by Vapor Coating Off-the-Shelf, Plain-Woven Fabrics by Lushuai Zhang, Marianne Fairbanks, and Trisha L. Andrew. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: 10.1002/adfm.201700415 Version of Record online: 2 MAY 2017

© 2017 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gold nanoparticles used to catalyze biofuel waste and create a useful additive

This work is the result of an international collaboration including Russia (from a May 23, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Gold nanoparticles serve as catalysts for obtaining valuable chemical products based on glycerol. Scientists from Tomsk Polytechnic University and their international colleagues are developing gold catalysts to recycle one of the main byproducts of biofuel production. The obtained products are in high demand in medicine, agriculture, cosmetic industry and other sectors.

Scientists from the University of Milano (Italy), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Institute of Catalysis and Petrochemistry of Madrid (Spain) and the University of Porto (Portugal) take part in the study of gold nanoparticles.

A May 23, 2027 Tomsk Polytechnic University press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Today the production of biofuels is an important area in many countries. They can be obtained from a great variety of biomasses. In Latin America it is orange and tangerine peel as well as banana skin. In USA biofuels are produced from corn, in the central part of Russia and Europe – from rape (Brassica napus). When processing these plants into biofuels a large amount of glycerol is formed. Its esters constitute the basis of oils and fats. Glycerol is widely used in cosmetic industry as an individual product. However, much more glycerol is obtained in the production of biofuels – many thousands of tons a year. As a result, unused glycerol merely becomes waste,’ describes the problem Alexey Pestryakov, the Head of the Department of Physical and Analytical Chemistry. ‘Now, a lot of research groups are engaged in this issue as to how to transform excess glycerol into other useful products. Along with our foreign colleagues we offered catalysts based on gold nanoparticles.’

The authors of the research note that catalytic oxidation on gold is one of the most effective techniques to obtain from glycerol such useful products as aldehydes, esters, carboxylic acids and other substances.

‘All these substances are products of fine organic chemistry and are in demand in a wide range of industries, first of all, in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. In agriculture they are applied as part of different feed additives, veterinary drugs, fertilizers, plant treatment products, etc.

Thus, unused glycerol after being processed will further be applied,’ sums up Alexey Pestryakov.

Gold catalysts are super active. They can enter into chemical reactions with other substances at room temperature (other catalysts need to be heated), in some case even under zero. However, gold can be a catalyst only at the nanolevel.

‘If you take a piece of gold, even very tiny, there will be no chemical reaction. In order to make gold become chemically active, the size of its particle should be less than two nanometers. Only then it gets its amazing properties,’ explains the scientist.

As a catalyst gold was discovered not so long ago, in the early 1990s, by Japanese chemists.

To date, TPU scientists and their colleagues are not the only ones who develop such catalysts.

Unlike their counterparts the gold catalysts developed at TPU are more stable (they retain their activity longer).

‘A great challenge in this area is that gold catalysts are very rapidly deactivated, not only during work, but even during storage. Our objective is to ensure their longer shelf life. It is also important to use oxygen as an oxidizer, since toxic and corrosive peroxide compounds are often used for such purposes,’ says Alexey Petryakov.

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

More Insights into Support and Preparation Method Effects in Gold Catalyzed Glycerol Oxidation by Nina Bogdanchikova, Inga Tuzovskaya, Laura Prati, Alberto Villa, Alexey Pestryakov, Mario Farías. Current Organic Synthesis VOLUME: 14 ISSUE: 3 Year: 2017Page: [377 – 382] Pages: 6 DOI: 10.2174/1570179413666161031114833

This paper is behind a paywall. (Scroll down the page to find the article.)

Hacking the human brain with a junction-based artificial synaptic device

Earlier today I published a piece featuring Dr. Wei Lu’s work on memristors and the movement to create an artificial brain (my June 28, 2017 posting: Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips). For this posting I’m featuring a non-memristor (if I’ve properly understood the technology) type of artificial synapse. From a June 28, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

One of the greatest challenges facing artificial intelligence development is understanding the human brain and figuring out how to mimic it.

Now, one group reports in ACS Nano (“Emulating Bilingual Synaptic Response Using a Junction-Based Artificial Synaptic Device”) that they have developed an artificial synapse capable of simulating a fundamental function of our nervous system — the release of inhibitory and stimulatory signals from the same “pre-synaptic” terminal.

Unfortunately, the American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, doesn’t provide too much more detail,

The human nervous system is made up of over 100 trillion synapses, structures that allow neurons to pass electrical and chemical signals to one another. In mammals, these synapses can initiate and inhibit biological messages. Many synapses just relay one type of signal, whereas others can convey both types simultaneously or can switch between the two. To develop artificial intelligence systems that better mimic human learning, cognition and image recognition, researchers are imitating synapses in the lab with electronic components. Most current artificial synapses, however, are only capable of delivering one type of signal. So, Han Wang, Jing Guo and colleagues sought to create an artificial synapse that can reconfigurably send stimulatory and inhibitory signals.

The researchers developed a synaptic device that can reconfigure itself based on voltages applied at the input terminal of the device. A junction made of black phosphorus and tin selenide enables switching between the excitatory and inhibitory signals. This new device is flexible and versatile, which is highly desirable in artificial neural networks. In addition, the artificial synapses may simplify the design and functions of nervous system simulations.

Here’s how I concluded that this is not a memristor-type device (from the paper [first paragraph, final sentence]; a link and citation will follow; Note: Links have been removed)),

The conventional memristor-type [emphasis mine](14-20) and transistor-type(21-25) artificial synapses can realize synaptic functions in a single semiconductor device but lacks the ability [emphasis mine] to dynamically reconfigure between excitatory and inhibitory responses without the addition of a modulating terminal.

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

Emulating Bilingual Synaptic Response Using a Junction-Based Artificial Synaptic Device by
He Tian, Xi Cao, Yujun Xie, Xiaodong Yan, Andrew Kostelec, Don DiMarzio, Cheng Chang, Li-Dong Zhao, Wei Wu, Jesse Tice, Judy J. Cha, Jing Guo, and Han Wang. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b03033 Publication Date (Web): June 28, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

It’s been a while since I’ve featured Dr. Wei Lu’s work here. This April  15, 2010 posting features Lu’s most relevant previous work.) Here’s his latest ‘memristor’ work , from a May 22, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Inspired by how mammals see, a new “memristor” computer circuit prototype at the University of Michigan has the potential to process complex data, such as images and video orders of magnitude, faster and with much less power than today’s most advanced systems.

Faster image processing could have big implications for autonomous systems such as self-driving cars, says Wei Lu, U-M professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Lu is lead author of a paper on the work published in the current issue of Nature Nanotechnology (“Sparse coding with memristor networks”).

Lu’s next-generation computer components use pattern recognition to shortcut the energy-intensive process conventional systems use to dissect images. In this new work, he and his colleagues demonstrate an algorithm that relies on a technique called “sparse coding” to coax their 32-by-32 array of memristors to efficiently analyze and recreate several photos.

A May 22, 2017 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information about memristors and about the research,

Memristors are electrical resistors with memory—advanced electronic devices that regulate current based on the history of the voltages applied to them. They can store and process data simultaneously, which makes them a lot more efficient than traditional systems. In a conventional computer, logic and memory functions are located at different parts of the circuit.

“The tasks we ask of today’s computers have grown in complexity,” Lu said. “In this ‘big data’ era, computers require costly, constant and slow communications between their processor and memory to retrieve large amounts data. This makes them large, expensive and power-hungry.”

But like neural networks in a biological brain, networks of memristors can perform many operations at the same time, without having to move data around. As a result, they could enable new platforms that process a vast number of signals in parallel and are capable of advanced machine learning. Memristors are good candidates for deep neural networks, a branch of machine learning, which trains computers to execute processes without being explicitly programmed to do so.

“We need our next-generation electronics to be able to quickly process complex data in a dynamic environment. You can’t just write a program to do that. Sometimes you don’t even have a pre-defined task,” Lu said. “To make our systems smarter, we need to find ways for them to process a lot of data more efficiently. Our approach to accomplish that is inspired by neuroscience.”

A mammal’s brain is able to generate sweeping, split-second impressions of what the eyes take in. One reason is because they can quickly recognize different arrangements of shapes. Humans do this using only a limited number of neurons that become active, Lu says. Both neuroscientists and computer scientists call the process “sparse coding.”

“When we take a look at a chair we will recognize it because its characteristics correspond to our stored mental picture of a chair,” Lu said. “Although not all chairs are the same and some may differ from a mental prototype that serves as a standard, each chair retains some of the key characteristics necessary for easy recognition. Basically, the object is correctly recognized the moment it is properly classified—when ‘stored’ in the appropriate category in our heads.”

Image of a memristor chip Image of a memristor chip Similarly, Lu’s electronic system is designed to detect the patterns very efficiently—and to use as few features as possible to describe the original input.

In our brains, different neurons recognize different patterns, Lu says.

“When we see an image, the neurons that recognize it will become more active,” he said. “The neurons will also compete with each other to naturally create an efficient representation. We’re implementing this approach in our electronic system.”

The researchers trained their system to learn a “dictionary” of images. Trained on a set of grayscale image patterns, their memristor network was able to reconstruct images of famous paintings and photos and other test patterns.

If their system can be scaled up, they expect to be able to process and analyze video in real time in a compact system that can be directly integrated with sensors or cameras.

The project is titled “Sparse Adaptive Local Learning for Sensing and Analytics.” Other collaborators are Zhengya Zhang and Michael Flynn of the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Garrett Kenyon of the Los Alamos National Lab and Christof Teuscher of Portland State University.

The work is part of a $6.9 million Unconventional Processing of Signals for Intelligent Data Exploitation project that aims to build a computer chip based on self-organizing, adaptive neural networks. It is funded by the [US] Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA].

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

Sparse coding with memristor networks by Patrick M. Sheridan, Fuxi Cai, Chao Du, Wen Ma, Zhengya Zhang, & Wei D. Lu. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.83 Published online 22 May 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the interested, there are a number of postings featuring memristors here (just use ‘memristor’ as your search term in the blog search engine). You might also want to check out ‘neuromorphic engineeering’ and ‘neuromorphic computing’ and ‘artificial brain’.

Hollywood and physics: which movie gets it right?

Colin Hunter has written a May 18, 2017 posting for the Perimeter Institute’s (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) Slice of Pi blog about Hollywood and physics,

Sometimes filmmakers base plotlines and special effects on well-established science. Sometimes they’re even prescient, anticipating or inspiring later scientific and technological advances (remember when a videophone was the stuff of Jetsons-like fantasy?). [For anyone unfamiliar with The Jetsons cartoon]

Other times, filmmakers take a bit (or a lot) of creative license with science, resulting in scenes or entire films that are considerably more “fi” than “sci.” We focused a scientific lens on some of our favourite films (and some duds) and graded them for accuracy.

What did we miss? Comment below, or tweet your favourite movie-science wins and fails to @Perimeter.

Watch a great MinutePhysics video explaining time dilation and the so-called twins paradox.

I encourage you to read the whole piece. It’s an easy read.

A t-shirt that monitors your breathing in real time

This May 18, 2017 news item on Nanowerk features research at the Université Laval (Québec, Canada), Note: A link has been removed,

Researchers at Université Laval’s Faculty of Science and Engineering and its Center for Optics, Photonics, and Lasers have created a smart T-shirt that monitors the wearer’s respiratory rate in real time.

This innovation, the details of which are published in the latest edition of Sensors (“Wearable Contactless Respiration Sensor Based on Multi-Material Fibers Integrated into Textile”), paves the way for manufacturing clothing that could be used to diagnose respiratory illnesses or monitor people suffering from asthma, sleep apnea, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A May 18, 2017 Université Laval press release, which originated the news item, provides a little more detail about the work,

Unlike other methods of measuring respiratory rate, the smart T-shirt works without any wires, electrodes, or sensors attached to the user’s body, explains Younès Messaddeq, the professor who led the team that developed the technology. “The T-shirt is really comfortable and doesn’t inhibit the subject’s natural movements. Our tests show that the data captured by the shirt is reliable, whether the user is lying down, sitting, standing, or moving around.”

The key to the smart T-shirt is an antenna sewn in at chest level that’s made of a hollow optical fiber coated with a thin layer of silver on its inner surface. The fiber’s exterior surface is covered in a polymer that protects it against the environment. “The antenna does double?duty, sensing and transmitting the signals created by respiratory movements,” adds Professor Messaddeq, who also holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Photonic Innovations. “The data can be sent to the user’s smartphone or a nearby computer.”

As the wearer breathes in, the smart fiber senses the increase in both thorax circumference and the volume of air in the lungs, explains Messaddeq. “These changes modify some of the resonant frequency of the antenna. That’s why the T-shirt doesn’t need to be tight or in direct contact with the wearer’s skin. The oscillations that occur with each breath are enough for the fiber to sense the user’s respiratory rate.”

To assess the durability of their invention, the researchers put a T-shirt equipped with an antenna through the wash—literally. “After 20 washes, the antenna had withstood the water and detergent and was still in good working condition,” says Messaddeq.

Protoype of the spiral antenna integrated into a cotton shirt. Inset: SEM images of the multi-material fiber structure. (© MDPI) (click on image to enlarge) Courtesy: Université Laval

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

Wearable Contactless Respiration Sensor Based on Multi-Material Fibers Integrated into Textile by Philippe Guay, Stepan Gorgutsa, Sophie LaRochelle, and Younes Messaddeq. Sensors 2017, 17(5), 1050; doi:10.3390/s17051050 (This article belongs to the Special Issue Biomedical Sensors and Systems 2017) Published: 6 May 2017

This article is open access.

A nano fabrication technique used to create next generation heart valve

I am going to have take the researchers’ word that these somehow lead to healthy heart valve tissue,

In rotary jet spinning technology, a rotating nozzle extrudes a solution of extracellular matrix (ECM) into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. By using a series of mandrels with different sizes, the manufacturing process becomes fully scalable and is able to provide JetValves for all age groups and heart sizes. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

From a May 18, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

The human heart beats approximately 35 million times every year, effectively pumping blood into the circulation via four different heart valves. Unfortunately, in over four million people each year, these delicate tissues malfunction due to birth defects, age-related deteriorations, and infections, causing cardiac valve disease.

Today, clinicians use either artificial prostheses or fixed animal and cadaver-sourced tissues to replace defective valves. While these prostheses can restore the function of the heart for a while, they are associated with adverse comorbidity and wear down and need to be replaced during invasive and expensive surgeries. Moreover, in children, implanted heart valve prostheses need to be replaced even more often as they cannot grow with the child.

A team lead by Kevin Kit Parker, Ph.D. at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently developed a nanofiber fabrication technique to rapidly manufacture heart valves with regenerative and growth potential. In a paper published in Biomaterials, Andrew Capulli, Ph.D. and colleagues fabricated a valve-shaped nanofiber network that mimics the mechanical and chemical properties of the native valve extracellular matrix (ECM). To achieve this, the team used the Parker lab’s proprietary rotary jet spinning technology — in which a rotating nozzle extrudes an ECM solution into nanofibers that wrap themselves around heart valve-shaped mandrels. “Our setup is like a very fast cotton candy machine that can spin a range of synthetic and natural occurring materials. In this study, we used a combination of synthetic polymers and ECM proteins to fabricate biocompatible JetValves that are hemodynamically competent upon implantation and support cell migration and re-population in vitro. Importantly, we can make human-sized JetValves in minutes — much faster than possible for other regenerative prostheses,” said Parker.

A May 18,2017 Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme of Jetvalves,

To further develop and test the clinical potential of JetValves, Parker’s team collaborated with the translational team of Simon P. Hoerstrup, M.D., Ph.D., at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which is a partner institution with the Wyss Institute. As a leader in regenerative heart prostheses, Hoerstrup and his team in Zurich have previously developed regenerative, tissue-engineered heart valves to replace mechanical and fixed-tissue heart valves. In Hoerstrup’s approach, human cells directly deposit a regenerative layer of complex ECM on biodegradable scaffolds shaped as heart valves and vessels. The living cells are then eliminated from the scaffolds resulting in an “off-the-shelf” human matrix-based prostheses ready for implantation.

In the paper, the cross-disciplinary team successfully implanted JetValves in sheep using a minimally invasive technique and demonstrated that the valves functioned properly in the circulation and regenerated new tissue. “In our previous studies, the cell-derived ECM-coated scaffolds could recruit cells from the receiving animal’s heart and support cell proliferation, matrix remodeling, tissue regeneration, and even animal growth. While these valves are safe and effective, their manufacturing remains complex and expensive as human cells must be cultured for a long time under heavily regulated conditions. The JetValve’s much faster manufacturing process can be a game-changer in this respect. If we can replicate these results in humans, this technology could have invaluable benefits in minimizing the number of pediatric re-operations,” said Hoerstrup.

In support of these translational efforts, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the University of Zurich announced today a cross-institutional team effort to generate a functional heart valve replacement with the capacity for repair, regeneration, and growth. The team is also working towards a GMP-grade version of their customizable, scalable, and cost-effective manufacturing process that would enable deployment to a large patient population. In addition, the new heart valve would be compatible with minimally invasive procedures to serve both pediatric and adult patients.

The project will be led jointly by Parker and Hoerstrup. Parker is a Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute and the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Hoerstrup is Chair and Director of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine (IREM), Co-Director of the recently founded Wyss Translational Center Zurich and a Wyss Institute Associate Faculty member.

Since JetValves can be manufactured in all desired shapes and sizes, and take seconds to minutes to produce, the team’s goal is to provide customized, ready-to-use, regenerative heart valves much faster and at much lower cost than currently possible.

“Achieving the goal of minimally invasive, low-cost regenerating heart valves could have tremendous impact on patients’ lives across age-, social- and geographical boundaries. Once again, our collaborative team structure that combines unique and leading expertise in bioengineering, regenerative medicine, surgical innovation and business development across the Wyss Institute and our partner institutions, makes it possible for us to advance technology development in ways not possible in a conventional academic laboratory,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at HMS and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

This scanning electron microscopy image shows how extracellular matrix (ECM) nanofibers generated with JetValve technology are arranged in parallel networks with physical properties comparable to those found in native heart tissue. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

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

JetValve: Rapid manufacturing of biohybrid scaffolds for biomimetic heart valve replacement by Andrew K. Capulli, Maximillian Y. Emmert, Francesco S. Pasqualini, b, Debora Kehl, Etem Caliskan, Johan U. Lind, Sean P. Sheehy, Sung Jin Park, Seungkuk Ahn, Benedikt Webe, Josue A. Goss. Biomaterials Volume 133, July 2017, Pages 229–241

This paper is behind a paywall.