Tag Archives: Australia

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (one of two)

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

What is a robot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robot ethics in Vancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexbots, could they kill?

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

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

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

Maldonado also embedded this video into her piece,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexbots as spies

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

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

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

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

Does that make you think twice about a sexbot?

Robots and artificial intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: part two for the rest.

Narrating neuroscience in Toronto (Canada) on Oct. 20, 2017 and knitting a neuron

What is it with the Canadian neuroscience community? First, there’s The Beautiful Brain an exhibition of the extraordinary drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) at the Belkin Gallery on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus in Vancouver and a series of events marking the exhibition (for more see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting ; scroll down about 30% for information about the drawings and the events still to come).

I guess there must be some money floating around for raising public awareness because now there’s a neuroscience and ‘storytelling’ event (Narrating Neuroscience) in Toronto, Canada. From a Sept. 25, 2017 ArtSci Salon announcement (received via email),

With NARRATING NEUROSCIENCE we plan to initiate a discussion on the  role and the use of storytelling and art (both in verbal and visual  forms) to communicate abstract and complex concepts in neuroscience to  very different audiences, ranging from fellow scientists, clinicians and patients, to social scientists and the general public. We invited four guests to share their research through case studies and experiences stemming directly from their research or from other practices they have adopted and incorporated into their research, where storytelling and the arts have played a crucial role not only in communicating cutting edge research in neuroscience, but also in developing and advancing it.


MATTEO FARINELLA, PhD, Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience – Columbia University

SHELLEY WALL , AOCAD, MSc, PhD – Assistant professor, Biomedical Communications Graduate Program and Department of Biology, UTM

ALFONSO FASANO, MD, PhD, Associate Professor – University of Toronto Clinician Investigator – Krembil Research Institute Movement Disorders Centre – Toronto Western Hospital

TAHANI BAAKDHAH, MD, MSc, PhD candidate – University of Toronto

DATE: October 20, 2017
TIME: 6:00-8:00 pm
LOCATION: The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
222 College Street, Toronto, ON

Events Facilitators: Roberta Buiani and Stephen Morris (ArtSci Salon) and Nina Czegledy (Leonardo Network)

TAHANI BAAKDHAH is a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying how the stem cells built our retina during development, the mechanism by which the light sensing cells inside the eye enable us to see this beautiful world and how we can regenerate these cells in case of disease or injury.

MATTEO FARINELLA combines a background in neuroscience with a lifelong passion for drawing, making comics and illustrations about the brain. He is the author of _Neurocomic_ (Nobrow 2013) published with the support of the Wellcome Trust, _Cervellopoli_ (Editoriale Scienza 2017) and he has collaborated with universities and educational institutions around
the world to make science more clear and accessible. In 2016 Matteo joined Columbia University as a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, where he investigates the role of visual narratives in science communication. Working with science journalists, educators and cognitive neuroscientists he aims to understand how these tools may
affect the public perception of science and increase scientific literacy (cartoonscience.org [2]).

ALFONSO FASANO graduated from the Catholic University of Rome, Italy, in 2002 and became a neurologist in 2007. After a 2-year fellowship at the University of Kiel, Germany, he completed a PhD in neuroscience at the Catholic University of Rome. In 2013 he joined the Movement Disorder Centre at Toronto Western Hospital, where he is the co-director of the
surgical program for movement disorders. He is also an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Neurology at the University of Toronto and clinician investigator at the Krembil Research Institute. Dr. Fasano’s main areas of interest are the treatment of movement  disorders with advanced technology (infusion pumps and neuromodulation), pathophysiology and treatment of tremor and gait disorders. He is author of more than 170 papers and book chapters. He is principal investigator of several clinical trials.

SHELLEY WALL is an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Biomedical Communications graduate program, a certified medical illustrator, and inaugural Illustrator-in-Residence in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto. One of her primary areas of research, teaching, and creation is graphic medicine—the intersection of comics with illness, medicine, and caregiving—and one of her ongoing projects is a series of comics about caregiving and young onset Parkinson’s disease.

You can register for this free Toronto event here.

One brief observation, there aren’t any writers (other than academics) or storytellers included in this ‘storytelling’ event. The ‘storytelling’ being featured is visual. To be blunt I’m not of the ‘one picture is worth a thousand words’ school of thinking (see my Feb. 22, 2011 posting). Yes, sometimes pictures are all you need but that tiresome aphorism which suggests  communication can be reduced to one means of communication really needs to be retired. As for academic writing, it’s not noted for its storytelling qualities or experimentation. Academics are not judged on their writing or storytelling skills although there are some who are very good.

Getting back to the Toronto event, they seem to have the visual part of their focus  ” … discussion on the  role and the use of storytelling and art (both in verbal and visual  forms) … ” covered. Having recently attended a somewhat similar event in Vancouver, which was announced n my Sept. 11, 2017 posting, there were some exciting images and ideas presented.

The ArtSci Salon folks also announced this (from the Sept. 25, 2017 ArtSci Salon announcement; received via email),


In addition to being a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Tahani Baakdhah is a prolific knitter and crocheter and has been the motor behind two successful Knit-a-Neuron Toronto initiatives. We invite all Knitters and Crocheters among our ArtSci Salonistas to pick a pattern
(link below) and knit a neuron (or 2! Or as many as you want!!)


Come to the ArtSci Salon and knit there!
You can’t come?
Share a picture with @ArtSci_Salon @SciCommTO #KnitANeuronTO [3] on
social media
Or…Drop us a line at artscisalon@gmail.com !

I think it’s been a few years since my last science knitting post. No, it was Oct. 18, 2016. Moving on, I found more neuron knitting while researching this piece. Here’s the Neural Knitworks group, which is part of Australia’s National Science Week (11-19 August 2018) initiative (from the Neural Knitworks webpage),

Neural Knitworks is a collaborative project about mind and brain health.

Whether you’re a whiz with yarn, or just discovering the joy of craft, now you can crochet wrap, knit or knot—and find out about neuroscience.

During 2014 an enormous number of handmade neurons were donated (1665 in total!) and used to build a giant walk-in brain, as seen here at Hazelhurst Gallery [scroll to end of this post]. Since then Neural Knitworks have been held in dozens of communities across Australia, with installations created in Queensland, the ACT, Singapore, as part of the Cambridge Science Festival in the UK and in Philadelphia, USA.

In 2017, the Neural Knitworks team again invites you to host your own home-grown Neural Knitwork for National Science Week*. Together we’ll create a giant ‘virtual’ neural network by linking your displays visually online.

* If you wish to host a Neural Knitwork event outside of National Science Week or internationally we ask that you contact us to seek permission to use the material, particularly if you intend to create derivative works or would like to exhibit the giant brain. Please outline your plans in an email.

Your creation can be big or small, part of a formal display, or simply consist of neighbourhood neuron ‘yarn-bombings’. Knitworks can be created at home, at work or at school. No knitting experience is required and all ages can participate.

See below for how to register your event and download our scientifically informed patterns.

What is a neuron?

Neurons are electrically excitable cells of the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves. The billions of neurons in your body connect to each other in neural networks. They receive signals from every sense, control movement, create memories, and form the neural basis of every thought.

Check out the neuron microscopy gallery for some real-world inspiration.

What happens at a Neural Knitwork?

Neural Knitworks are based on the principle that yarn craft, with its mental challenges, social connection and mindfulness, helps keep our brains and minds sharp, engaged and healthy.

Have fun as you

  • design your own woolly neurons, or get inspired by our scientifically-informed knitting, crochet or knot patterns;
  • natter with neuroscientists and teach them a few of your crafty tricks;
  • contribute to a travelling textile brain exhibition;
  • increase your attention span and test your memory.

Calm your mind and craft your own brain health as you

  • forge friendships;
  • solve creative and mental challenges;
  • practice mindfulness and relaxation;
  • teach and learn;
  • develop eye-hand coordination and fine motor dexterity.

Interested in hosting a Neural Knitwork?

  1. Log your event on the National Science Week calendar to take advantage of multi-channel promotion.
  2. Share the link^ for this Neural Knitwork page on your own website or online newsletter and add information your own event details.
  3. Use this flyer template (2.5 MB .docx) to promote your event in local shop windows and on noticeboards.
  4. Read our event organisers toolbox for tips on hosting a successful event.
  5. You’ll need plenty of yarn, needles, copies of our scientifically-based neuron crafting pattern books (3.4 MB PDF) and a comfy spot in which to create.
  6. Gather together a group of friends who knit, crochet, design, spin, weave and anyone keen to give it a go. Those who know how to knit can teach others how to do it, and there’s even an easy no knit pattern that you can knot.
  7. Download a neuroscience podcast to listen to, and you’ve got a Neural Knitwork!
  8. Join the Neural Knitworks community on Facebook  to share and find information about events including public talks featuring neuroscientists.
  9. Tweet #neuralknitworks to show us your creations.
  10. Find display ideas in the pattern book and on our Facebook page.

Finally,, the knitted neurons from Australia’s 2014 National Science Week brain exhibit,

[downloaded from https://www.scienceweek.net.au/neural-knitworks/]

In scientific race US sees China coming up from rear

Sometime it seems as if scientific research is like a race with everyone competing for first place. As in most sports, there are multiple competitions for various sub-groups but only one important race. The US has held the lead position for decades although always with some anxiety. These days the anxiety is focused on China. A June 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily suggests that US dominance is threatened in at least one area of research—the biomedical sector,

American scientific teams still publish significantly more biomedical research discoveries than teams from any other country, a new study shows, and the U.S. still leads the world in research and development expenditures.

But American dominance is slowly shrinking, the analysis finds, as China’s skyrocketing investing on science over the last two decades begins to pay off. Chinese biomedical research teams now rank fourth in the world for total number of new discoveries published in six top-tier journals, and the country spent three-quarters what the U.S. spent on research and development during 2015.

Meanwhile, the analysis shows, scientists from the U.S. and other countries increasingly make discoveries and advancements as part of teams that involve researchers from around the world.

A June 15, 2017 Michigan Medicine University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, details the research team’s insights,

The last 15 years have ushered in an era of “team science” as research funding in the U.S., Great Britain and other European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, stagnated. The number of authors has also grown over time. For example, in 2000 only two percent of the research papers the new study looked include 21 or more authors — a number that increased to 12.5 percent in 2015.

The new findings, published in JCI Insight by a team of University of Michigan researchers, come at a critical time for the debate over the future of U.S. federal research funding. The study is based on a careful analysis of original research papers published in six top-tier and four mid-tier journals from 2000 to 2015, in addition to data on R&D investment from those same years.

The study builds on other work that has also warned of America’s slipping status in the world of science and medical research, and the resulting impact on the next generation of aspiring scientists.

“It’s time for U.S. policy-makers to reflect and decide whether the year-to-year uncertainty in National Institutes of Health budget and the proposed cuts are in our societal and national best interest,” says Bishr Omary, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the new data-supported opinion piece and chief scientific officer of Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. “If we continue on the path we’re on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career.”

The analysis charts South Korea’s entry into the top 10 countries for publications, as well as China’s leap from outside the top 10 in 2000 to fourth place in 2015. They also track the major increases in support for research in South Korea and Singapore since the start of the 21st Century.

Meticulous tracking

First author of the study, U-M informationist Marisa Conte, and Omary co-led a team that looked carefully at the currency of modern science: peer-reviewed basic science and clinical research papers describing new findings, published in journals with long histories of accepting among the world’s most significant discoveries.

They reviewed every issue of six top-tier international journals (JAMA, Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Cell, Nature and Science), and four mid-ranking journals (British Medical Journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, Journal of Cell Science, FASEB Journal), chosen to represent the clinical and basic science aspects of research.

The analysis included only papers that reported new results from basic research experiments, translational studies, clinical trials, metanalyses, and studies of disease outcomes. Author affiliations for corresponding authors and all other authors were recorded by country.

The rise in global cooperation is striking. In 2000, 25 percent of papers in the six top-tier journals were by teams that included researchers from at least two countries. In 2015, that figure was closer to 50 percent. The increasing need for multidisciplinary approaches to make major advances, coupled with the advances of Internet-based collaboration tools, likely have something to do with this, Omary says.

The authors, who also include Santiago Schnell, Ph.D. and Jing Liu, Ph.D., note that part of their group’s interest in doing the study sprang from their hypothesis that a flat NIH budget is likely to have negative consequences but they wanted to gather data to test their hypothesis.

They also observed what appears to be an increasing number of Chinese-born scientists who had trained in the U.S. going back to China after their training, where once most of them would have sought to stay in the U.S. In addition, Singapore has been able to recruit several top notch U.S. and other international scientists due to their marked increase in R&D investments.

The same trends appear to be happening in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and other countries the authors studied – where research investing has stayed consistent when measured as a percentage of the U.S. total over the last 15 years.

The authors note that their study is based on data up to 2015, and that in the current 2017 federal fiscal year, funding for NIH has increased thanks to bipartisan Congressional appropriations. The NIH contributes to most of the federal support for medical and basic biomedical research in the U.S. But discussion of cuts to research funding that hinders many federal agencies is in the air during the current debates for the 2018 budget. Meanwhile, the Chinese R&D spending is projected to surpass the U.S. total by 2022.

“Our analysis, albeit limited to a small number of representative journals, supports the importance of financial investment in research,” Omary says. “I would still strongly encourage any child interested in science to pursue their dream and passion, but I hope that our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams.”

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

Globalization and changing trends of biomedical research output by Marisa L. Conte, Jing Liu, Santiago Schnell, and M. Bishr Omary. JCI Insight. 2017;2(12):e95206 doi:10.1172/jci.insight.95206 Volume 2, Issue 12 (June 15, 2017)

Copyright © 2017, American Society for Clinical Investigation

This paper is open access.

The notion of a race and looking back to see who, if anyone, is gaining on you reminded me of a local piece of sports lore, the Roger Banister-John Landy ‘Miracle Mile’. In the run up to the 1954 Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver, Canada, two runners were known to have broken the 4-minute mile limit (previously thought to have been impossible) and this meeting was considered an historic meeting. Here’s more from the miraclemile1954.com website,

On August 7, 1954 during the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., England’s Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy met for the first time in the one mile run at the newly constructed Empire Stadium.

Both men had broken the four minute barrier previously that year. Bannister was the first to break the mark with a time of 3:59.4 on May 6th in Oxford, England. Subsequently, on June 21st in Turku, Finland, John Landy became the new record holder with an official time of 3:58.

The world watched eagerly as both men approached the starting blocks. As 35,000 enthusiastic fans looked on, no one knew what would take place on that historic day.

Promoted as “The Mile of the Century”, it would later be known as the “Miracle Mile”.

With only 90 yards to go in one of the world’s most memorable races, John Landy glanced over his left shoulder to check his opponent’s position. At that instant Bannister streaked by him to victory in a Commonwealth record time of 3:58.8. Landy’s second place finish in 3:59.6 marked the first time the four minute mile had been broken by two men in the same race.

The website hosts an image of the moment memorialized in bronze when Landy looks to his left as Banister passes him on his right,

By Statue: Jack HarmanPhoto: Paul Joseph from vancouver, bc, canada – roger bannister running the four minute mileUploaded by Skeezix1000, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9801121

Getting back to science, I wonder if some day we’ll stop thinking of it as a race where, inevitably, there’s one winner and everyone else loses and find a new metaphor.

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 theatlantic.com 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: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_chalmers_how_do_you_explain_consciousness/transcript?language=en 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 reviewshub.com), 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7J8rWu6HJg (it runs approximately 40 mins.). Then, there’s the chat Stoppard has with previously mentioned philosopher, David Chalmers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BPY2c_CiwA (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!

Is there a risk of resistance to nanosilver?

Anyone who’s noticed how popular silver has become as an antibacterial, antifungal, or antiviral agent may have wondered if resistance might occur as its use becomes more common. I have two bits on the topic, one from Australia and the other from Canada.


Researchers in Australia don’t have a definitive statement on the issue but are suggesting more caution (from a March 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney [UTS] warn that the broad-spectrum antimicrobial effectiveness of silver is being put at risk by the widespread and inappropriate expansion of nanosilver use in medical and consumer goods.

As well as their use in medical items such as wound dressings and catheters, silver nanoparticles are becoming ubiquitous in everyday items, including toothbrushes and toothpaste, baby bottles and teats, bedding, clothing and household appliances, because of their antibacterial potency and the incorrect assumption that ordinary items should be kept “clean” of microbes.

Nanobiologist Dr Cindy Gunawan, from the ithree institute at UTS and lead researcher on the investigation, said alarm bells should be ringing at the commercialisation of nanosilver use because of a “real threat” that resistance to nanosilver will develop and spread through microorganisms in the human body and the environment.

A March 31 (?), 2017 University of Technology Sydney press release by Fiona McGill, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Dr Gunawan and ithree institute director Professor Liz Harry, in collaboration with researchers at UNSW [University of New South Wales] and abroad, investigated more than 140 commercially available medical devices, including wound dressings and tracheal and urinary catheters, and dietary supplements, which are promoted as immunity boosters and consumed by throat or nasal spray.

Their perspective article in the journal ACS Nano concluded that the use of nanosilver in these items could lead to prolonged exposure to bioactive silver in the human body. Such exposure creates the conditions for microbial resistance to develop.

E. coli bacteria. Photo: Flickr/NIAID


The use of silver as an antimicrobial agent dates back centuries. Its ability to destroy pathogens while seemingly having low toxicity on human cells has seen it widely employed, in treating burns or purifying water, for example. More recently, ultra-small (less than 10,000th of a millimetre) silver nanoparticles have been engineered for antimicrobial purposes.  Their commercial appeal lies in superior potency at lower concentrations than “bulk” silver.

“Nanosilver is a proven antimicrobial agent whose reliability is being jeopardised by the commercialisation of people’s fear of bacteria,” Dr Gunawan said.

“Our use of it needs to be far more judicious, in the same way we need to approach antibiotic usage. Nanosilver is a useful tool but we need to be careful, use it wisely and only when the benefit outweighs the risk.

“People need to be made aware of just how widely it is used, but more importantly they need to be made aware that the presence of nanosilver has been shown to cause antimicrobial resistance.”

What is also needed, Dr Gunawan said, is a targeted surveillance strategy to monitor for any occurrence of resistance.

Professor Harry said the findings were a significant contribution to addressing the global antimicrobial resistance crisis.

“This research emphasises the threat posed to our health and that of the environment by the inappropriate use of nanosilver as an antibacterial, particularly in ordinary household and consumer items,” she said.

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

Widespread and Indiscriminate Nanosilver Use: Genuine Potential for Microbial Resistance by Cindy Gunawan, Christopher P. Marquis, Rose Amal, Georgios A. Sotiriou, Scott A. Rice⊥, and Elizabeth J. Harry. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b01166 Publication Date (Web): March 24, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University Calgary (Alberta, Canada) may have discovered what could cause resistance to silver.


This April 25, 2017 news release on EurekAlert is from the Experimental Biology Annual Meeting 2017,

Silver and other metals have been used to fight infections since ancient times. Today, researchers are using sophisticated techniques such as the gene-editing platform Crispr-Cas9 to take a closer look at precisely how silver poisons pathogenic microbes–and when it fails. The work is yielding new insights on how to create effective antimicrobials and avoid the pitfalls of antimicrobial resistance.

Joe Lemire, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, will present his work in this area at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting, to be held April 22-26 in Chicago.

“Our overarching goal is to deliver the relevant scientific evidence that would aid policymakers in developing guidelines for when and how silver could be used in the clinic to combat and control infectious pathogens,” said Lemire. “With our enhanced mechanistic understanding of silver toxicity, we also aim to develop novel silver-based antimicrobial therapies, and potentially rejuvenate other antibiotic therapies that bacteria have come to resist, via silver-based co-treatment strategies.”

Lemire and his colleagues are using Crispr-Cas9 genome editing to screen for and delete genes that allow certain bacterial species to resist silver’s antimicrobial properties. [emphasis mine] Although previous methods allowed researchers to identify genes that confer antibiotic resistance or tolerance, Crispr-Cas9 is the first technology to allow researchers to cleanly delete these genes from the genome without leaving behind any biochemical markers or “scars.”

The team has discovered many biological pathways involved in silver toxicity and some surprising ways that bacteria avoid succumbing to silver poisoning, Lemire said. While silver is used to control bacteria in many clinical settings and has been incorporated into hundreds of commercial products, gaining a more complete understanding of silver’s antimicrobial properties is necessary if we are to make the most of this ancient remedy for years to come.


Joe Lemire will present this research at 12-2:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, [2017] in Hall F, McCormick Place Convention Center (poster B379 939.2) (abstract). Contact the media team for more information or to obtain a free press pass to attend the meeting.

About Experimental Biology 2017

Experimental Biology is an annual meeting comprised of more than 14,000 scientists and exhibitors from six host societies and multiple guest societies. With a mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping clinical advances, the meeting offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchange among scientists from across the U.S. and the world who represent dozens of scientific areas, from laboratory to translational to clinical research. http://www.experimentalbiology.org #expbio

About the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)

ASBMB is a nonprofit scientific and educational organization with more than 12,000 members worldwide. Founded in 1906 to advance the science of biochemistry and molecular biology, the society publishes three peer-reviewed journals, advocates for funding of basic research and education, supports science education at all levels, and promotes the diversity of individuals entering the scientific workforce. http://www.asbmb.org

Lemire’s co-authors for the work presented at the 2017 annual meeting are: Kate Chatfield-Reed (The University of Calgary), Lindsay Kalan (Perelman School of Medicine), Natalie Gugala (The University of Calgary), Connor Westersund (The University of Calgary), Henrik Almblad (The University of Calgary), Gordon Chua (The University of Calgary), Raymond Turner (The University of Calgary).

For anyone who wants to pursue this research a little further, the most recent paper I can find is this one from 2015,

Silver oxynitrate: An Unexplored Silver Compound with Antimicrobial and Antibiofilm Activity by Joe A. Lemire, Lindsay Kalan, Alexandru Bradu, and Raymond J. Turner. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 05177-14, doi: 10.1128/AAC.05177-14 Accepted manuscript posted online 27 April 2015

This paper appears to be open access.

Seaweed supercapacitors

I like munching on seaweed from time to time but it seems that seaweed may be more than just a foodstuff according to an April 5, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Seaweed, the edible algae with a long history in some Asian cuisines, and which has also become part of the Western foodie culture, could turn out to be an essential ingredient in another trend: the development of more sustainable ways to power our devices. Researchers have made a seaweed-derived material to help boost the performance of superconductors, lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells.

The team will present the work today [April 5, 2017] at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, is holding the meeting here through Thursday. It features more than 14,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.

An April 5, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, gives more details about the presentation,

“Carbon-based materials are the most versatile materials used in the field of energy storage and conversion,” Dongjiang Yang, Ph.D., says. “We wanted to produce carbon-based materials via a really ‘green’ pathway. Given the renewability of seaweed, we chose seaweed extract as a precursor and template to synthesize hierarchical porous carbon materials.” He explains that the project opens a new way to use earth-abundant materials to develop future high-performance, multifunctional carbon nanomaterials for energy storage and catalysis on a large scale.

Traditional carbon materials, such as graphite, have been essential to creating the current energy landscape. But to make the leap to the next generation of lithium-ion batteries and other storage devices, an even better material is needed, preferably one that can be sustainably sourced, Yang says.

With these factors in mind, Yang, who is currently at Qingdao University (China), turned to the ocean. Seaweed is an abundant algae that grows easily in salt water. While Yang was at Griffith University in Australia, he worked with colleagues at Qingdao University and at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the U.S. to make porous carbon nanofibers from seaweed extract. Chelating, or binding, metal ions such as cobalt to the alginate molecules resulted in nanofibers with an “egg-box” structure, with alginate units enveloping the metal ions. This architecture is key to the material’s stability and controllable synthesis, Yang says.

Testing showed that the seaweed-derived material had a large reversible capacity of 625 milliampere hours per gram (mAhg-1), which is considerably more than the 372 mAhg-1 capacity of traditional graphite anodes for lithium-ion batteries. This could help double the range of electric cars if the cathode material is of equal quality. The egg-box fibers also performed as well as commercial platinum-based catalysts used in fuel-cell technologies and with much better long-term stability. They also showed high capacitance as a superconductor material at 197 Farads per gram, which could be applied in zinc-air batteries and supercapacitors. The researchers published their initial results in ACS Central Science in 2015 and have since developed the materials further.

For example, building on the same egg-box structure, the researchers say they have suppressed defects in seaweed-based, lithium-ion battery cathodes that can block the movement of lithium ions and hinder battery performance. And recently, they have developed an approach using red algae-derived carrageenan and iron to make a porous sulfur-doped carbon aerogel with an ultra-high surface area. The structure could be a good candidate to use in lithium-sulfur batteries and supercapacitors.

More work is needed to commercialize the seaweed-based materials, however. Yang says currently more than 20,000 tons of alginate precursor can be extracted from seaweed per year for industrial use. But much more will be required to scale up production.

Here’s an image representing the research,

Scientists have created porous ‘egg-box’ structured nanofibers using seaweed extract. Credit: American Chemical Society

I’m not sure that looks like an egg-box but I’ll take their word for it.

Energy storage inspired by a fern’s fractal patterns

Australian researchers have come up with a bio-inspired approach to making solar energy storage more viable according to a March 31, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Inspired by an American fern, researchers have developed a groundbreaking prototype that could be the answer to the storage challenge still holding solar back as a total energy solution (Science Express, “Bioinspired fractal electrodes for solar energy storages”).

The breakthrough electrode prototype (right) can be combined with a solar cell (left) for on-chip energy harvesting and storage. (Image: RMIT University)

A March 31, 2017 RMIT University press release, which originated the news item on Nanowerk, provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

The new type of electrode created by RMIT University researchers could boost the capacity of existing integrable storage technologies by 3000 per cent.

But the graphene-based prototype also opens a new path to the development of flexible thin film all-in-one solar capture and storage, bringing us one step closer to self-powering smart phones, laptops, cars and buildings.

The new electrode is designed to work with supercapacitors, which can charge and discharge power much faster than conventional batteries. Supercapacitors have been combined with solar, but their wider use as a storage solution is restricted because of their limited capacity.

RMIT’s Professor Min Gu said the new design drew on nature’s own genius solution to the challenge of filling a space in the most efficient way possible – through intricate self-repeating patterns known as “fractals”.

“The leaves of the western swordfern are densely crammed with veins, making them extremely efficient for storing energy and transporting water around the plant,” said Gu, Leader of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics and Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship at RMIT.

“Our electrode is based on these fractal shapes – which are self-replicating, like the mini structures within snowflakes – and we’ve used this naturally-efficient design to improve solar energy storage at a nano level.

“The immediate application is combining this electrode with supercapacitors, as our experiments have shown our prototype can radically increase their storage capacity – 30 times more than current capacity limits.

“Capacity-boosted supercapacitors would offer both long-term reliability and quick-burst energy release – for when someone wants to use solar energy on a cloudy day for example – making them ideal alternatives for solar power storage.”

Combined with supercapacitors, the fractal-enabled laser-reduced graphene electrodes can hold the stored charge for longer, with minimal leakage.

The fractal design reflected the self-repeating shape of the veins of the western swordfern, Polystichum munitum, native to western North America.

Lead author, PhD researcher Litty Thekkekara, said because the prototype was based on flexible thin film technology, its potential applications were countless.

“The most exciting possibility is using this electrode with a solar cell, to provide a total on-chip energy harvesting and storage solution,” Thekkekara said.

“We can do that now with existing solar cells but these are bulky and rigid. The real future lies in integrating the prototype with flexible thin film solar – technology that is still in its infancy.

“Flexible thin film solar could be used almost anywhere you can imagine, from building windows to car panels, smart phones to smart watches. We would no longer need batteries to charge our phones or charging stations for our hybrid cars.

“With this flexible electrode prototype we’ve solved the storage part of the challenge, as well as shown how they can work with solar cells without affecting performance. Now the focus needs to be on flexible solar energy, so we can work towards achieving our vision of fully solar-reliant, self-powering electronics.”

The repeating pattern of veins in the leaves of the western swordfern, as seen here magnified 400 times, served as the inspiration for the new high-density electrode(Credit: RMIT University)

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

Bioinspired fractal electrodes for solar energy storages by Litty V. Thekkekara & Min Gu. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 45585 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep45585 Published online: 31 March 2017

This is an open access paper.

Why are jokes funny? There may be a quantum explanation

Some years ago a friend who’d attended a conference on humour told me I really shouldn’t talk about humour until I had a degree on the topic. I decided the best way to deal with that piece of advice was to avoid all mention of any theories about humour to that friend. I’m happy to say the strategy has worked well although this latest research may allow me to broach the topic once again. From a March 17, 2017 Frontiers (publishing) news release on EurekAlert (Note: A link has been removed),

Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 789. Whether this pun makes you giggle or groan in pain, your reaction is a consequence of the ambiguity of the joke. Thus far, models have not been able to fully account for the complexity of humor or exactly why we find puns and jokes funny, but a research article recently published in Frontiers in Physics suggests a novel approach: quantum theory.

By the way, it took me forever to get the joke. I always blame these things on the fact that I learned French before English (although my English is now my strongest language). So, for anyone who may immediately grasp the pun: Why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 78 (ate) 9.

This news release was posted by Anna Sigurdsson on March 22, 2017 on the Frontiers blog,

Aiming to answer the question of what kind of formal theory is needed to model the cognitive representation of a joke, researchers suggest that a quantum theory approach might be a contender. In their paper, they outline a quantum inspired model of humor, hoping that this new approach may succeed at a more nuanced modeling of the cognition of humor than previous attempts and lead to the development of a full-fledged, formal quantum theory model of humor. This initial model was tested in a study where participants rated the funniness of verbal puns, as well as the funniness of variants of these jokes (e.g. the punchline on its own, the set-up on its own). The results indicate that apart from the delivery of information, something else is happening on a cognitive level that makes the joke as a whole funny whereas its deconstructed components are not, and which makes a quantum approach appropriate to study this phenomenon.

For decades, researchers from a range of different fields have tried to explain the phenomenon of humor and what happens on a cognitive level in the moment when we “get the joke”. Even within the field of psychology, the topic of humor has been studied using many different approaches, and although the last two decades have seen an upswing of the application of quantum models to the study of psychological phenomena, this is the first time that a quantum theory approach has been suggested as a way to better understand the complexity of humor.

Previous computational models of humor have suggested that the funny element of a joke may be explained by a word’s ability to hold two different meanings (bisociation), and the existence of multiple, but incompatible, ways of interpreting a statement or situation (incongruity). During the build-up of the joke, we interpret the situation one way, and once the punch line comes, there is a shift in our understanding of the situation, which gives it a new meaning and creates the comical effect.

However, the authors argue that it is not the shift of meaning, but rather our ability to perceive both meanings simultaneously, that makes a pun funny. This is where a quantum approach might be able to account for the complexity of humor in a way that earlier models cannot. “Quantum formalisms are highly useful for describing cognitive states that entail this form of ambiguity,” says Dr. Liane Gabora from the University of British Columbia, corresponding author of the paper. “Funniness is not a pre-existing ‘element of reality’ that can be measured; it emerges from an interaction between the underlying nature of the joke, the cognitive state of the listener, and other social and environmental factors. This makes the quantum formalism an excellent candidate for modeling humor,” says Dr. Liane Gabora.

Although much work and testing remains before the completion of a formal quantum theory model of humor to explain the cognitive aspects of reacting to a pun, these first findings provide an exciting first step and opens for the possibility of a more nuanced modeling of humor. “The cognitive process of “getting” a joke is a difficult process to model, and we consider the work in this paper to be an early first step toward an eventually more comprehensive theory of humor that includes predictive models. We believe that the approach promises an exciting step toward a formal theory of humor, and that future research will build upon this modest beginning,” concludes Dr. Liane Gabora.

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

Toward a Quantum Theory of Humor by Liane Gabora and Kirsty Kitto. Front. Phys., 26 January 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fphy.2016.00053

This paper has been published in an open access journal. In viewing the acknowledgements at the end of the paper I found what I found to be a surprising funding agency,

This work was supported by a grant (62R06523) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We are grateful to Samantha Thomson who assisted with the development of the questionnaire and the collection of the data for the study reported here.

While I’m at this, I might as well mention that Kirsty Katto is from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia and, for those unfamiliar with the geography, the University of British Columbia is the the Canada’s province of British Columbia.

Revolutionizing electronics with liquid metal technology?

I’m not sure I’d call it the next big advance in electronics, there are too many advances jockeying for that position but this work from Australia and the US is fascinating. From a Feb. 17, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new technique using liquid metals to create integrated circuits that are just atoms thick could lead to the next big advance for electronics.

The process opens the way for the production of large wafers around 1.5 nanometres in depth (a sheet of paper, by comparison, is 100,000nm thick).

Other techniques have proven unreliable in terms of quality, difficult to scale up and function only at very high temperatures — 550 degrees or more.

A Feb. 17, 2017 RMIT University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

Distinguished Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, from RMIT’s School of Engineering, led the project, which also included colleagues from RMIT and researchers from CSIRO, Monash University, North Carolina State University and the University of California.

He said the electronics industry had hit a barrier.

“The fundamental technology of car engines has not progressed since 1920 and now the same is happening to electronics. Mobile phones and computers are no more powerful than five years ago.

“That is why this new 2D printing technique is so important – creating many layers of incredibly thin electronic chips on the same surface dramatically increases processing power and reduces costs.

“It will allow for the next revolution in electronics.”

Benjamin Carey, a researcher with RMIT and the CSIRO, said creating electronic wafers just atoms thick could overcome the limitations of current chip production.

It could also produce materials that were extremely bendable, paving the way for flexible electronics.

“However, none of the current technologies are able to create homogenous surfaces of atomically thin semiconductors on large surface areas that are useful for the industrial scale fabrication of chips.

“Our solution is to use the metals gallium and indium, which have a low melting point.

“These metals produce an atomically thin layer of oxide on their surface that naturally protects them. It is this thin oxide which we use in our fabrication method.

“By rolling the liquid metal, the oxide layer can be transferred on to an electronic wafer, which is then sulphurised. The surface of the wafer can be pre-treated to form individual transistors.

“We have used this novel method to create transistors and photo-detectors of very high gain and very high fabrication reliability in large scale.”

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

Wafer-scale two-dimensional semiconductors from printed oxide skin of liquid metals by Benjamin J. Carey, Jian Zhen Ou, Rhiannon M. Clark, Kyle J. Berean, Ali Zavabeti, Anthony S. R. Chesman, Salvy P. Russo, Desmond W. M. Lau, Zai-Quan Xu, Qiaoliang Bao, Omid Kevehei, Brant C. Gibson, Michael D. Dickey, Richard B. Kaner, Torben Daeneke, & Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14482 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14482
Published online: 17 February 2017

This paper is open access.

Atomic force microscope (AFM) shrunk down to a dime-sized device?

Before getting to the announcement, here’s a little background from Dexter Johnson’s Feb. 21, 2017 posting on his NanoClast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website; Note: Links have been removed),

Ever since the 1980s, when Gerd Binnig of IBM first heard that “beautiful noise” made by the tip of the first scanning tunneling microscope (STM) dragging across the surface of an atom, and he later developed the atomic force microscope (AFM), these microscopy tools have been the bedrock of nanotechnology research and development.

AFMs have continued to evolve over the years, and at one time, IBM even looked into using them as the basis of a memory technology in the company’s Millipede project. Despite all this development, AFMs have remained bulky and expensive devices, costing as much as $50,000 [or more].

Now, here’s the announcement in a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas have created an atomic force microscope on a chip, dramatically shrinking the size — and, hopefully, the price tag — of a high-tech device commonly used to characterize material properties.

“A standard atomic force microscope is a large, bulky instrument, with multiple control loops, electronics and amplifiers,” said Dr. Reza Moheimani, professor of mechanical engineering at UT Dallas. “We have managed to miniaturize all of the electromechanical components down onto a single small chip.”

A Feb. 15, 2017 University of Texas at Dallas news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

An atomic force microscope (AFM) is a scientific tool that is used to create detailed three-dimensional images of the surfaces of materials, down to the nanometer scale — that’s roughly on the scale of individual molecules.

The basic AFM design consists of a tiny cantilever, or arm, that has a sharp tip attached to one end. As the apparatus scans back and forth across the surface of a sample, or the sample moves under it, the interactive forces between the sample and the tip cause the cantilever to move up and down as the tip follows the contours of the surface. Those movements are then translated into an image.

“An AFM is a microscope that ‘sees’ a surface kind of the way a visually impaired person might, by touching. You can get a resolution that is well beyond what an optical microscope can achieve,” said Moheimani, who holds the James Von Ehr Distinguished Chair in Science and Technology in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “It can capture features that are very, very small.”

The UT Dallas team created its prototype on-chip AFM using a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) approach.

“A classic example of MEMS technology are the accelerometers and gyroscopes found in smartphones,” said Dr. Anthony Fowler, a research scientist in Moheimani’s Laboratory for Dynamics and Control of Nanosystems and one of the article’s co-authors. “These used to be big, expensive, mechanical devices, but using MEMS technology, accelerometers have shrunk down onto a single chip, which can be manufactured for just a few dollars apiece.”

The MEMS-based AFM is about 1 square centimeter in size, or a little smaller than a dime. It is attached to a small printed circuit board, about half the size of a credit card, which contains circuitry, sensors and other miniaturized components that control the movement and other aspects of the device.

Conventional AFMs operate in various modes. Some map out a sample’s features by maintaining a constant force as the probe tip drags across the surface, while others do so by maintaining a constant distance between the two.

“The problem with using a constant height approach is that the tip is applying varying forces on a sample all the time, which can damage a sample that is very soft,” Fowler said. “Or, if you are scanning a very hard surface, you could wear down the tip,”

The MEMS-based AFM operates in “tapping mode,” which means the cantilever and tip oscillate up and down perpendicular to the sample, and the tip alternately contacts then lifts off from the surface. As the probe moves back and forth across a sample material, a feedback loop maintains the height of that oscillation, ultimately creating an image.

“In tapping mode, as the oscillating cantilever moves across the surface topography, the amplitude of the oscillation wants to change as it interacts with sample,” said Dr. Mohammad Maroufi, a research associate in mechanical engineering and co-author of the paper. “This device creates an image by maintaining the amplitude of oscillation.”

Because conventional AFMs require lasers and other large components to operate, their use can be limited. They’re also expensive.

“An educational version can cost about $30,000 or $40,000, and a laboratory-level AFM can run $500,000 or more,” Moheimani said. “Our MEMS approach to AFM design has the potential to significantly reduce the complexity and cost of the instrument.

“One of the attractive aspects about MEMS is that you can mass produce them, building hundreds or thousands of them in one shot, so the price of each chip would only be a few dollars. As a result, you might be able to offer the whole miniature AFM system for a few thousand dollars.”

A reduced size and price tag also could expand the AFMs’ utility beyond current scientific applications.

“For example, the semiconductor industry might benefit from these small devices, in particular companies that manufacture the silicon wafers from which computer chips are made,” Moheimani said. “With our technology, you might have an array of AFMs to characterize the wafer’s surface to find micro-faults before the product is shipped out.”

The lab prototype is a first-generation device, Moheimani said, and the group is already working on ways to improve and streamline the fabrication of the device.

“This is one of those technologies where, as they say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ We anticipate finding many applications as the technology matures,” Moheimani said.

In addition to the UT Dallas researchers, Michael Ruppert, a visiting graduate student from the University of Newcastle in Australia, was a co-author of the journal article. Moheimani was Ruppert’s doctoral advisor.

So, an AFM that could cost as much as $500,000 for a laboratory has been shrunk to this size and become far less expensive,

A MEMS-based atomic force microscope developed by engineers at UT Dallas is about 1 square centimeter in size (top center). Here it is attached to a small printed circuit board that contains circuitry, sensors and other miniaturized components that control the movement and other aspects of the device. Courtesy: University of Texas at Dallas

Of course, there’s still more work to be done as you’ll note when reading Dexter’s Feb. 21, 2017 posting where he features answers to questions he directed to the researchers.

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

On-Chip Dynamic Mode Atomic Force Microscopy: A Silicon-on-Insulator MEMS Approach by  Michael G. Ruppert, Anthony G. Fowler, Mohammad Maroufi, S. O. Reza Moheimani. IEEE Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems Volume: 26 Issue: 1  Feb. 2017 DOI: 10.1109/JMEMS.2016.2628890 Date of Publication: 06 December 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.