Tag Archives: China

The ultimate natural sunscreen

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, sunscreen season is on the horizon. While the “ultimate natural sunscreen” researchers from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) have developed is a long way from the marketplace, this is encouraging news (from a May 17, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Chemists, materials scientists and nanoengineers at UC San Diego have created what may be the ultimate natural sunscreen.

In a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Central Science, they report the development of nanoparticles that mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes, melanin-producing cell structures that protect our skin, eyes and other tissues from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.

“Basically, we succeeded in making a synthetic version of the nanoparticles that our skin uses to produce and store melanin and demonstrated in experiments in skin cells that they mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, materials science and engineering and nanoengineering at UC San Diego, who headed the team of researchers. The achievement has practical applications.

A May 17, 2017 UCSD news release, which originated the news item, delves into the research,

“Defects in melanin production in humans can cause diseases such as vitiligo and albinism that lack effective treatments,” Gianneschi added.

Vitiligo develops when the immune system wrongly attempts to clear normal melanocytes from the skin, effectively stopping the production of melanocytes. Albinism is due to genetic defects that lead to either the absence or a chemical defect in tyrosinase, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Both of these diseases lack effective treatments and result in a significant risk of skin cancer for patients.

“The widespread prevalence of these melanin-related diseases and an increasing interest in the performance of various polymeric materials related to melanin prompted us to look for novel synthetic routes for preparing melanin-like materials,” Gianneschi said.

UC San Diego Ultimate natural sunscreenThe scientists found that the synthetic nanoparticles were taken up in tissue culture by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin. Photo by Yuran Huang and Ying Jones/UC San Diego

Melanin particles are produced naturally in many different sizes and shapes by animals—for iridescent feathers in birds or the pigmented eyes and skin of some reptiles. But scientists have discovered that extracting melanins from natural sources is a difficult and potentially more complex process than producing them synthetically.

Gianneschi and his team discovered two years ago that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles could be developed in a precisely controllable manner to mimic the performance of natural melanins used in bird feathers.

“We hypothesized that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles would mimic naturally occurring melanosomes and be taken up by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin,” said Gianneschi.

In healthy humans, melanin is delivered to keratinocytes in the skin after being excreted as melanosomes from melanocytes.

The UC San Diego scientists prepared melanin-like nanoparticles through the spontaneous oxidation of dopamine—developing biocompatible, synthetic analogues of naturally occurring melanosomes. Then they studied their update, transport, distribution and ultraviolet radiation-protective capabilities in human keratinocytes in tissue culture.

The researchers found that these synthetic nanoparticles were not only taken up and distributed normally, like natural melanosomes, within the keratinocytes, they protected the skin cells from DNA damage due to ultraviolet radiation.

“Considering limitations in the treatment of melanin-defective related diseases and the biocompatibility of these synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles in terms of uptake and degradation, these systems have potential as artificial melanosomes for the development of novel therapies, possibly supplementing the biological functions of natural melanins,” the researchers said in their paper.

The other co-authors of the study were Yuran Huang and Ziying Hu of UC San Diego’s Materials Science and Engineering Program, Yiwen Li and Maria Proetto of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Xiujun Yue of the Department of Nanoengineering; and Ying Jones of the Electron Microscopy Core Facility.

The UC San Diego Office of Innovation and Commercialization has filed a patent application on the use of polydopamine-based artificial melanins as an intracellular UV-shield. Companies interested in commercializing this invention should contact Skip Cynar at invent@ucsd.edu

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

Mimicking Melanosomes: Polydopamine Nanoparticles as Artificial Microparasols by
Yuran Huang, Yiwen Li, Ziying Hu, Xiujun Yue, Maria T. Proetto, Ying Jones, and Nathan C. Gianneschi. ACS Cent. Sci., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.6b00230 Publication Date (Web): May 18, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This is an open access paper,

Using CRISPR to reverse retinosa pigmentosa (eye disease)

Years ago I worked as a publicist for the BC (British Columbia) Motorcycle Federation’s Ride for Sight; they were raising funds for research into retinitis pigmentosa (RP). I hadn’t thought about that in years but it all came back when I saw this April 21, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9, researchers at University of California San Diego [UCSD] School of Medicine and Shiley Eye Institute at UC San Diego Health, with colleagues in China, have reprogrammed mutated rod photoreceptors to become functioning cone photoreceptors, reversing cellular degeneration and restoring visual function in two mouse models of retinitis pigmentosa.

Caption: This is a confocal micrograph of mouse retina depicting optic fiber layer. Credit: Image courtesy of National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, UC San Diego.

An April 21, 2017 UCSD news release by Scott LaFee (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into retinitis pigmentosa and this CRISPR research,

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a group of inherited vision disorders caused by numerous mutations in more than 60 genes. The mutations affect the eyes’ photoreceptors, specialized cells in the retina that sense and convert light images into electrical signals sent to the brain. There are two types: rod cells that function for night vision and peripheral vision, and cone cells that provide central vision (visual acuity) and discern color. The human retina typically contains 120 million rod cells and 6 million cone cells.

In RP, which affects approximately 100,000 Americans and 1 in 4,000 persons worldwide, rod-specific genetic mutations cause rod photoreceptor cells to dysfunction and degenerate over time. Initial symptoms are loss of peripheral and night vision, followed by diminished visual acuity and color perception as cone cells also begin to fail and die. There is no treatment for RP. The eventual result may be legal blindness.

In their published research, a team led by senior author Kang Zhang, MD, PhD, chief of ophthalmic genetics, founding director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine and co-director of biomaterials and tissue engineering at the Institute of Engineering in Medicine, both at UC San Diego School of Medicine, used CRISPR/Cas9 to deactivate a master switch gene called Nrl and a downstream transcription factor called Nr2e3.

CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, allows researchers to target specific stretches of genetic code and edit DNA at precise locations, modifying select gene functions. Deactivating either Nrl or Nr2e3 reprogrammed rod cells to become cone cells.

“Cone cells are less vulnerable to the genetic mutations that cause RP,” said Zhang. “Our strategy was to use gene therapy to make the underlying mutations irrelevant, resulting in the preservation of tissue and vision.”

The scientists tested their approach in two different mouse models of RP. In both cases, they found an abundance of reprogrammed cone cells and preserved cellular architecture in the retinas. Electroretinography testing of rod and cone receptors in live mice show improved function.

Zhang said a recent independent study led by Zhijian Wu, PhD, at National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, also reached similar conclusions.

The researchers used adeno-associated virus (AAV) to perform the gene therapy, which they said should help advance their work to human clinical trials quicker. “AAV is a common cold virus and has been used in many successful gene therapy treatments with a relatively good safely profile,” said Zhang. “Human clinical trials could be planned soon after completion of preclinical study. There is no treatment for RP so the need is great and pressing. In addition, our approach of reprogramming mutation-sensitive cells to mutation-resistant cells may have broader application to other human diseases, including cancer.”

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

Gene and mutation independent therapy via CRISPR-Cas9 mediated cellular reprogramming in rod photoreceptors by Jie Zhu, Chang Ming, Xin Fu, Yaou Duan, Duc Anh Hoang, Jeffrey Rutgard, Runze Zhang, Wenqiu Wang, Rui Hou, Daniel Zhang, Edward Zhang, Charlotte Zhang, Xiaoke Hao, Wenjun Xiong, and Kang Zhang. Cell Research advance online publication 21 April 2017; doi: 10.1038/cr.2017.57

This paper (it’s in the form of a letter to the editor) is open access.

4D printing, what is that?

According to an April 12, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, shapeshifting in response to environmental stimuli is the fourth dimension (I have a link to a posting about 4D printing with another fourth dimension),

A team of researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology and two other institutions has developed a new 3-D printing method to create objects that can permanently transform into a range of different shapes in response to heat.

The team, which included researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Xi’an Jiaotong University in China, created the objects by printing layers of shape memory polymers with each layer designed to respond differently when exposed to heat.

“This new approach significantly simplifies and increases the potential of 4-D printing by incorporating the mechanical programming post-processing step directly into the 3-D printing process,” said Jerry Qi, a professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. “This allows high-resolution 3-D printed components to be designed by computer simulation, 3-D printed, and then directly and rapidly transformed into new permanent configurations by simply heating.”

The research was reported April 12 [2017] in the journal Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The work is funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Singapore National Research Foundation through the SUTD DManD Centre.

An April 12, 2017 Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) press release on EurekAlert provides more detail,

4D printing is an emerging technology that allows a 3D-printed component to transform its structure by exposing it to heat, light, humidity, or other environmental stimuli. This technology extends the shape creation process beyond 3D printing, resulting in additional design flexibility that can lead to new types of products which can adjust its functionality in response to the environment, in a pre-programmed manner. However, 4D printing generally involves complex and time-consuming post-processing steps to mechanically programme the component. Furthermore, the materials are often limited to soft polymers, which limit their applicability in structural scenarios.

A group of researchers from the SUTD, Georgia Institute of Technology, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Zhejiang University has introduced an approach that significantly simplifies and increases the potential of 4D printing by incorporating the mechanical programming post-processing step directly into the 3D printing process. This allows high-resolution 3D-printed components to be designed by computer simulation, 3D printed, and then directly and rapidly transformed into new permanent configurations by using heat. This approach can help save printing time and materials used by up to 90%, while completely eliminating the time-consuming mechanical programming process from the design and manufacturing workflow.

“Our approach involves printing composite materials where at room temperature one material is soft but can be programmed to contain internal stress, and the other material is stiff,” said Dr. Zhen Ding of SUTD. “We use computational simulations to design composite components where the stiff material has a shape and size that prevents the release of the programmed internal stress from the soft material after 3D printing. Upon heating, the stiff material softens and allows the soft material to release its stress. This results in a change – often dramatic – in the product shape.” This new shape is fixed when the product is cooled, with good mechanical stiffness. The research demonstrated many interesting shape changing parts, including a lattice that can expand by almost 8 times when heated.

This new shape becomes permanent and the composite material will not return to its original 3D-printed shape, upon further heating or cooling. “This is because of the shape memory effect,” said Prof. H. Jerry Qi of Georgia Tech. “In the two-material composite design, the stiff material exhibits shape memory, which helps lock the transformed shape into a permanent one. Additionally, the printed structure also exhibits the shape memory effect, i.e. it can then be programmed into further arbitrary shapes that can always be recovered to its new permanent shape, but not its 3D-printed shape.”

Said SUTD’s Prof. Martin Dunn, “The key advance of this work, is a 4D printing method that is dramatically simplified and allows the creation of high-resolution complex 3D reprogrammable products; it promises to enable myriad applications across biomedical devices, 3D electronics, and consumer products. It even opens the door to a new paradigm in product design, where components are designed from the onset to inhabit multiple configurations during service.”

Here’s a video,


Uploaded on Apr 17, 2017

A research team led by the Singapore University of Technology and Design’s (SUTD) Associate Provost of Research, Professor Martin Dunn, has come up with a new and simplified 4D printing method that uses a 3D printer to rapidly create 3D objects, which can permanently transform into a range of different shapes in response to heat.

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

Direct 4D printing via active composite materials by Zhen Ding, Chao Yuan, Xirui Peng, Tiejun Wang, H. Jerry Qi, and Martin L. Dunn. Science Advances  12 Apr 2017: Vol. 3, no. 4, e1602890 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1602890

This paper is open access.

Here is a link to a post about another 4th dimension, time,

4D printing: a hydrogel orchid (Jan. 28, 2016)

China and the world’s largest multifunctional research platform for nanotechnology

Weirdly, I got this news about China in a March 28 (?), 2017 news item from the Nigeria News Agency,

Chinese scientists are building the world’s largest multifunctional research platform for nano-science and nano-technology that could help develop more powerful computers and more intelligent robots.

The Vacuum Interconnected Nano-X Research Facility in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, integrates the state-of-art capabilities of material growth, device fabrication and testing in one ultra-high vacuum environment, said Ding Sunan, deputy director of the project.

“We are exploring a new technology route of nano-scale devices production on the platform, which simulates the ultra-high vacuum environment of space,” said Ding, a researcher at the Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Nano-X is designed as a complete system for materials growth, device fabrication and testing. All samples can be transferred accurately, quickly and smoothly among all tools in an ultra-high vacuum environment.

The facility can prevent surface contamination from the air, keeping a material’s intrinsic properties unchanged and realizing quantum manipulation and control, said Ding.

Experts say it will help make breakthroughs in common and critical problems in materials science and device technology, and develop new manufacturing technologies of nano-materials and core devices in the fields of energy and information.

Nano-X is expected to be incorporated into China’s national research infrastructure system, and become a world-class open platform for research and development in nano-science and nano-technology, providing advanced technical support for the national strategy of high technologies.

I’ve come across ‘Suzhou’ and nanotechnology in China before but first, here are a few more details about Nano-X in a March 29, 2017 news item by PTI on the bgr.in (India) website,

Nano-X has received initial funding of 320 million Yuan (about $46.5 million) and will eventually have a budget of 1.5 billion Yuan, state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Construction of the first stage began in 2014 and is expected to be completed in 2018. It comprises 100-metre-long ultra-high vacuum pipelines connecting 30 pieces of equipment. Ultimately the facility will have ultra-high vacuum pipelines of about 500 metres, connecting more than 100 large pieces of equipment, Ding said.

I gather Nano-X is part of the Suzhou Industrial Park’s Nanopolis. I’m somewhat confused about Nanopolis since I wrote in a Sept.. 26, 2014 posting that it hadn’t yet opened officially but the Nanopolis Background webpage suggests is been open since 2013,

On the journey of starting a new undertaking led by the industry transformation and upgrading campaign, Suzhou Industrial Park has chosen the nanotech application industry as the strategic emerging industry to lead the campaign, as the first one in China that has taken this initiative. 

officially [sic] put into use  in 2013 as a key component of the nanotech advancement strategy, and has developed into the main battlefield of Suzhou Industrial Park for nanotechnology applications.

In the concept of “industry ecosystem” for nanotech applications, Nanopolis Suzhou focuses on new sectors, pools creative resources and invents new models to build a high-end, leading platform that’s innovation and development friendly so as to promote the transformation and upgrading of the regional industries.

In any event, Nanopolis now bills itself as (from the Nanopolis Overview webpage),

… the world’s largest hub of nanotech innovation and commercialization [emphasis mine] with a floorage of 100 acres and a planned construction area of 1.5 million m2. Besides,it’s also the China International Nanotech Innovation Cluster and the core area of the National Nano Hi-tech Industry Base.

I imagine there will be many openings for buildings and other initiatives.

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.

China, US, and the race for artificial intelligence research domination

John Markoff and Matthew Rosenberg have written a fascinating analysis of the competition between US and China regarding technological advances, specifically in the field of artificial intelligence. While the focus of the Feb. 3, 2017 NY Times article is military, the authors make it easy to extrapolate and apply the concepts to other sectors,

Robert O. Work, the veteran defense official retained as deputy secretary by President Trump, calls them his “A.I. dudes.” The breezy moniker belies their serious task: The dudes have been a kitchen cabinet of sorts, and have advised Mr. Work as he has sought to reshape warfare by bringing artificial intelligence to the battlefield.

Last spring, he asked, “O.K., you guys are the smartest guys in A.I., right?”

No, the dudes told him, “the smartest guys are at Facebook and Google,” Mr. Work recalled in an interview.

Now, increasingly, they’re also in China. The United States no longer has a strategic monopoly on the technology, which is widely seen as the key factor in the next generation of warfare.

The Pentagon’s plan to bring A.I. to the military is taking shape as Chinese researchers assert themselves in the nascent technology field. And that shift is reflected in surprising commercial advances in artificial intelligence among Chinese companies. [emphasis mine]

Having read Marshal McLuhan (de rigeur for any Canadian pursuing a degree in communications [sociology-based] anytime from the 1960s into the late 1980s [at least]), I took the movement of technology from military research to consumer applications as a standard. Television is a classic example but there are many others including modern plastic surgery. The first time, I encountered the reverse (consumer-based technology being adopted by the military) was in a 2004 exhibition “Massive Change: The Future of Global Design” produced by Bruce Mau for the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery.

Markoff and Rosenberg develop their thesis further (Note: Links have been removed),

Last year, for example, Microsoft researchers proclaimed that the company had created software capable of matching human skills in understanding speech.

Although they boasted that they had outperformed their United States competitors, a well-known A.I. researcher who leads a Silicon Valley laboratory for the Chinese web services company Baidu gently taunted Microsoft, noting that Baidu had achieved similar accuracy with the Chinese language two years earlier.

That, in a nutshell, is the challenge the United States faces as it embarks on a new military strategy founded on the assumption of its continued superiority in technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence.

First announced last year by Ashton B. Carter, President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, the “Third Offset” strategy provides a formula for maintaining a military advantage in the face of a renewed rivalry with China and Russia.

As consumer electronics manufacturing has moved to Asia, both Chinese companies and the nation’s government laboratories are making major investments in artificial intelligence.

The advance of the Chinese was underscored last month when Qi Lu, a veteran Microsoft artificial intelligence specialist, left the company to become chief operating officer at Baidu, where he will oversee the company’s ambitious plan to become a global leader in A.I.

The authors note some recent military moves (Note: Links have been removed),

In August [2016], the state-run China Daily reported that the country had embarked on the development of a cruise missile system with a “high level” of artificial intelligence. The new system appears to be a response to a missile the United States Navy is expected to deploy in 2018 to counter growing Chinese military influence in the Pacific.

Known as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or L.R.A.S.M., it is described as a “semiautonomous” weapon. According to the Pentagon, this means that though targets are chosen by human soldiers, the missile uses artificial intelligence technology to avoid defenses and make final targeting decisions.

The new Chinese weapon typifies a strategy known as “remote warfare,” said John Arquilla, a military strategist at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif. The idea is to build large fleets of small ships that deploy missiles, to attack an enemy with larger ships, like aircraft carriers.

“They are making their machines more creative,” he said. “A little bit of automation gives the machines a tremendous boost.”

Whether or not the Chinese will quickly catch the United States in artificial intelligence and robotics technologies is a matter of intense discussion and disagreement in the United States.

Markoff and Rosenberg return to the world of consumer electronics as they finish their article on AI and the military (Note: Links have been removed),

Moreover, while there appear to be relatively cozy relationships between the Chinese government and commercial technology efforts, the same cannot be said about the United States. The Pentagon recently restarted its beachhead in Silicon Valley, known as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental facility, or DIUx. It is an attempt to rethink bureaucratic United States government contracting practices in terms of the faster and more fluid style of Silicon Valley.

The government has not yet undone the damage to its relationship with the Valley brought about by Edward J. Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices. Many Silicon Valley firms remain hesitant to be seen as working too closely with the Pentagon out of fear of losing access to China’s market.

“There are smaller companies, the companies who sort of decided that they’re going to be in the defense business, like a Palantir,” said Peter W. Singer, an expert in the future of war at New America, a think tank in Washington, referring to the Palo Alto, Calif., start-up founded in part by the venture capitalist Peter Thiel. “But if you’re thinking about the big, iconic tech companies, they can’t become defense contractors and still expect to get access to the Chinese market.”

Those concerns are real for Silicon Valley.

If you have the time, I recommend reading the article in its entirety.

Impact of the US regime on thinking about AI?

A March 24, 2017 article by Daniel Gross for Slate.com hints that at least one high level offician in the Trump administration may be a little naïve in his understanding of AI and its impending impact on US society (Note: Links have been removed),

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is a sharp guy. He’s a (legacy) alumnus of Yale and Goldman Sachs, did well on Wall Street, and was a successful movie producer and bank investor. He’s good at, and willing to, put other people’s money at risk alongside some of his own. While he isn’t the least qualified person to hold the post of treasury secretary in 2017, he’s far from the best qualified. For in his 54 years on this planet, he hasn’t expressed or displayed much interest in economic policy, or in grappling with the big picture macroeconomic issues that are affecting our world. It’s not that he is intellectually incapable of grasping them; they just haven’t been in his orbit.

Which accounts for the inanity he uttered at an Axios breakfast Friday morning about the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs.

“it’s not even on our radar screen…. 50-100 more years” away, he said. “I’m not worried at all” about robots displacing humans in the near future, he said, adding: “In fact I’m optimistic.”

A.I. is already affecting the way people work, and the work they do. (In fact, I’ve long suspected that Mike Allen, Mnuchin’s Axios interlocutor, is powered by A.I.) I doubt Mnuchin has spent much time in factories, for example. But if he did, he’d see that machines and software are increasingly doing the work that people used to do. They’re not just moving goods through an assembly line, they’re soldering, coating, packaging, and checking for quality. Whether you’re visiting a GE turbine plant in South Carolina, or a cable-modem factory in Shanghai, the thing you’ll notice is just how few people there actually are. It’s why, in the U.S., manufacturing output rises every year while manufacturing employment is essentially stagnant. It’s why it is becoming conventional wisdom that automation is destroying more manufacturing jobs than trade. And now we are seeing the prospect of dark factories, which can run without lights because there are no people in them, are starting to become a reality. The integration of A.I. into factories is one of the reasons Trump’s promise to bring back manufacturing employment is absurd. You’d think his treasury secretary would know something about that.

It goes far beyond manufacturing, of course. Programmatic advertising buying, Spotify’s recommendation engines, chatbots on customer service websites, Uber’s dispatching system—all of these are examples of A.I. doing the work that people used to do. …

Adding to Mnuchin’s lack of credibility on the topic of jobs and robots/AI, Matthew Rozsa’s March 28, 2017 article for Salon.com features a study from the US National Bureau of Economic Research (Note: Links have been removed),

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that every fully autonomous robot added to an American factory has reduced employment by an average of 6.2 workers, according to a report by BuzzFeed. The study also found that for every fully autonomous robot per thousand workers, the employment rate dropped by 0.18 to 0.34 percentage points and wages fell by 0.25 to 0.5 percentage points.

I can’t help wondering if the US Secretary of the Treasury is so oblivious to what is going on in the workplace whether that’s representative of other top-tier officials such as the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Labor, etc. What is going to happen to US research in fields such as robotics and AI?

I have two more questions, in future what happens to research which contradicts or makes a top tier Trump government official look foolish? Will it be suppressed?

You can find the report “Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets” by Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo. NBER (US National Bureau of Economic Research) WORKING PAPER SERIES (Working Paper 23285) released March 2017 here. The introduction featured some new information for me; the term ‘technological unemployment’ was introduced in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes.

Moving from a wholly US-centric view of AI

Naturally in a discussion about AI, it’s all US and the country considered its chief sceince rival, China, with a mention of its old rival, Russia. Europe did rate a mention, albeit as a totality. Having recently found out that Canadians were pioneers in a very important aspect of AI, machine-learning, I feel obliged to mention it. You can find more about Canadian AI efforts in my March 24, 2017 posting (scroll down about 40% of the way) where you’ll find a very brief history and mention of the funding for a newly launching, Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

If any of my readers have information about AI research efforts in other parts of the world, please feel free to write them up in the comments.

International Women’s Day March 8, 2017 and UNESCO/L’Oréal’s For Women in Science (Rising Talents)

Before getting to the science, here’s a little music in honour of March 8, 2017 International Women’s Day,

There is is a Wikipedia entry devoted to Rise Up (Parachute Club song), Note: Links have been removed<

“Rise Up” is a pop song recorded by the Canadian group Parachute Club on their self-titled 1983 album. It was produced and engineered by Daniel Lanois, and written by Parachute Club members Billy Bryans, Lauri Conger, Lorraine Segato and Steve Webster with lyrics contributed by filmmaker Lynne Fernie.

An upbeat call for peace, celebration, and “freedom / to love who we please,” the song was a national hit in Canada, and was hailed as a unique achievement in Canadian pop music:

“ Rarely does one experience a piece of music in white North America where the barrier between participant and observer breaks down. Rise Up rises right up and breaks down the wall.[1] ”

According to Segato, the song was not written with any one individual group in mind, but as a universal anthem of freedom and equality;[2] Fernie described the song’s lyrics as having been inspired in part by West Coast First Nations rituals in which young girls would “rise up” at dawn to adopt their adult names as a rite of passage.[3]

It remains the band’s most famous song, and has been adopted as an activist anthem for causes as diverse as gay rights, feminism, anti-racism and the New Democratic Party.[4] As well, the song’s reggae and soca-influenced rhythms made it the first significant commercial breakthrough for Caribbean music in Canada.

L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science

From a March 8, 2017 UNESCO press release (received via email),

Fifteen outstanding young women researchers, selected
among more than 250 candidates in the framework of the 19th edition of
the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards, will receive the
International Rising Talent fellowship during a gala on 21 March at the
hotel Pullman Tour Eiffel de Paris. By recognizing their achievements at
a key moment in their careers, the _For Women in Science programme aims
to help them pursue their research.

Since 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO _For Women in Science programme [1]
has highlighted the achievements of outstanding women scientists and
supported promising younger women who are in the early stages of their
scientific careers. Selected among the best national and regional
L’Oréal-UNESCO fellows, the International Rising Talents come from
all regions of the world (Africa and Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe,
Latin America and North America).

Together with the five laureates of the 2017 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women
in Science awards [2], they will participate in a week of events,
training and exchanges that will culminate with the award ceremony on 23
March 2017 at the Mutualité in Paris.

The 2017 International Rising Talent are recognized for their work in
the following five categories:

WATCHING THE BRAIN AT WORK

* DOCTOR LORINA NACI, Canada
Fundamental medicine
In a coma: is the patient conscious or unconscious?     * ASSOCIATE
PROFESSOR MUIREANN IRISH, Australia

Clinical medicine
Recognizing Alzheimer’s before the first signs appear.

ON THE ROAD TO CONCEIVING NEW MEDICAL TREATMENTS

* DOCTOR HYUN LEE, Germany
Biological Sciences
Neurodegenerative diseases: untangling aggregated proteins.
* DOCTOR NAM-KYUNG YU, Republic of Korea
Biological Sciences
Rett syndrome: neuronal cells come under fire
* DOCTOR STEPHANIE FANUCCHI, South Africa
Biological Sciences
Better understanding the immune system.
* DOCTOR JULIA ETULAIN, Argentina
Biological Sciences
Better tissue healing.

Finding potential new sources of drugs

* DOCTOR RYM BEN SALLEM, Tunisia
Biological Sciences
New antibiotics are right under our feet.
* DOCTOR HAB JOANNA SULKOWSKA, Poland
Biological Sciences
Unraveling the secrets of entangled proteins.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF MATTER

* MS NAZEK EL-ATAB, United Arab Emirates
Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering
Miniaturizing electronics without losing memory.
* DOCTOR BILGE DEMIRKOZ, Turkey
Physics
Piercing the secrets of cosmic radiation.
* DOCTOR TAMARA ELZEIN, Lebanon
Material Sciences
Trapping radioactivity.
* DOCTOR RAN LONG, China
Chemistry
Unlocking the potential of energy resources with nanochemistry.

EXAMINING THE PAST TO SHED LIGHT ON THE FUTURE – OR VICE VERSA

* DOCTOR FERNANDA WERNECK, Brazil
Biological Sciences
Predicting how animal biodiversity will evolve.
* DOCTOR SAM GILES, United Kingdom
Biological Sciences
Taking another look at the evolution of vertebrates thanks to their
braincases.
* DOCTOR ÁGNES KÓSPÁL, Hungary
Astronomy and Space Sciences
Looking at the birth of distant suns and planets to better understand
the solar system.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

You can find out more about these awards and others on the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards webpage or on the For Women In Science website. (Again in honour of the 2017 International Women’s Day, I was the 92758th signer of the For Women in Science Manifesto.)

International Women’s Day origins

Thank you to Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year.[2] It commemorates the movement for women’s rights.

The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York and organized by the Socialist Party of America.[3] On March 8, 1917, in the capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd, a demonstration of women textile workers began, covering the whole city. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution.[4] Seven days later, the Emperor of Russia Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.[3] March 8 was declared a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917. The day was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations.

It seems only fitting to bookend this post with another song (Happy International Women’s Day March 8, 2017),

While the lyrics are unabashedly romantic, the video is surprisingly moody with a bit of a ‘stalker vive’ although it does end up with her holding centre stage while singing and bouncing around in time to Walking on Sunshine.

Drive to operationalize transistors that outperform silicon gets a boost

Dexter Johnson has written a Jan. 19, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]) about work which could lead to supplanting silicon-based transistors with carbon nanotube-based transistors in the future (Note: Links have been removed),

The end appears nigh for scaling down silicon-based complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) transistors, with some experts seeing the cutoff date as early as 2020.

While carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have long been among the nanomaterials investigated to serve as replacement for silicon in CMOS field-effect transistors (FETs) in a post-silicon future, they have always been bogged down by some frustrating technical problems. But, with some of the main technical showstoppers having been largely addressed—like sorting between metallic and semiconducting carbon nanotubes—the stage has been set for CNTs to start making their presence felt a bit more urgently in the chip industry.

Peking University scientists in China have now developed carbon nanotube field-effect transistors (CNT FETs) having a critical dimension—the gate length—of just five nanometers that would outperform silicon-based CMOS FETs at the same scale. The researchers claim in the journal Science that this marks the first time that sub-10 nanometer CNT CMOS FETs have been reported.

More importantly than just being the first, the Peking group showed that their CNT-based FETs can operate faster and at a lower supply voltage than their silicon-based counterparts.

A Jan. 20, 2017 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org provides more insight into the work at Peking University,

One of the most promising candidates is carbon nanotubes—due to their unique properties, transistors based on them could be smaller, faster and more efficient. Unfortunately, the difficulty in growing carbon nanotubes and their sometimes persnickety nature means that a way to make them and mass produce them has not been found. In this new effort, the researchers report on a method of creating carbon nanotube transistors that are suitable for testing, but not mass production.

To create the transistors, the researchers took a novel approach—instead of growing carbon nanotubes that had certain desired properties, they grew some and put them randomly on a silicon surface and then added electronics that would work with the properties they had—clearly not a strategy that would work for mass production, but one that allowed for building a carbon nanotube transistor that could be tested to see if it would verify theories about its performance. Realizing there would still be scaling problems using traditional electrodes, the researchers built a new kind by etching very tiny sheets of graphene. The result was a very tiny transistor, the team reports, capable of moving more current than a standard CMOS transistor using just half of the normal amount of voltage. It was also faster due to a much shorter switch delay, courtesy of a gate capacitance of just 70 femtoseconds.

Peking University has published an edited and more comprehensive version of the phys.org article first reported by Lisa Zyga and edited by Arthars,

Now in a new paper published in Nano Letters, researchers Tian Pei, et al., at Peking University in Beijing, China, have developed a modular method for constructing complicated integrated circuits (ICs) made from many FETs on individual CNTs. To demonstrate, they constructed an 8-bits BUS system–a circuit that is widely used for transferring data in computers–that contains 46 FETs on six CNTs. This is the most complicated CNT IC fabricated to date, and the fabrication process is expected to lead to even more complex circuits.

SEM image of an eight-transistor (8-T) unit that was fabricated on two CNTs (marked with two white dotted lines). The scale bar is 100 μm. (Copyright: 2014 American Chemical Society)

Ever since the first CNT FET was fabricated in 1998, researchers have been working to improve CNT-based electronics. As the scientists explain in their paper, semiconducting CNTs are promising candidates for replacing silicon wires because they are thinner, which offers better scaling-down potential, and also because they have a higher carrier mobility, resulting in higher operating speeds.

Yet CNT-based electronics still face challenges. One of the most significant challenges is obtaining arrays of semiconducting CNTs while removing the less-suitable metallic CNTs. Although scientists have devised a variety of ways to separate semiconducting and metallic CNTs, these methods almost always result in damaged semiconducting CNTs with degraded performance.

To get around this problem, researchers usually build ICs on single CNTs, which can be individually selected based on their condition. It’s difficult to use more than one CNT because no two are alike: they each have slightly different diameters and properties that affect performance. However, using just one CNT limits the complexity of these devices to simple logic and arithmetical gates.

The 8-T unit can be used as the basic building block of a variety of ICs other than BUS systems, making this modular method a universal and efficient way to construct large-scale CNT ICs. Building on their previous research, the scientists hope to explore these possibilities in the future.

“In our earlier work, we showed that a carbon nanotube based field-effect transistor is about five (n-type FET) to ten (p-type FET) times faster than its silicon counterparts, but uses much less energy, about a few percent of that of similar sized silicon transistors,” Peng said.

“In the future, we plan to construct large-scale integrated circuits that outperform silicon-based systems. These circuits are faster, smaller, and consume much less power. They can also work at extremely low temperatures (e.g., in space) and moderately high temperatures (potentially no cooling system required), on flexible and transparent substrates, and potentially be bio-compatible.”

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

Scaling carbon nanotube complementary transistors to 5-nm gate lengths by Chenguang Qiu, Zhiyong Zhang, Mengmeng Xiao, Yingjun Yang, Donglai Zhong, Lian-Mao Peng. Science  20 Jan 2017: Vol. 355, Issue 6322, pp. 271-276 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaj1628

This paper is behind a paywall.

Soy and cellulose come together for a bionano air filter

A Jan. 18, 2017 news item on Nanowerk describes research into an environmentally friendly air filter from Washington State University,

Washington State University researchers have developed a soy-based air filter that can capture toxic chemicals, such as carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, which current air filters can’t.

The research could lead to better air purifiers, particularly in regions of the world that suffer from very poor air quality. …

Working with researchers from the University of Science and Technology Beijing, the WSU team, including Weihong (Katie) Zhong, professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and graduate student Hamid Souzandeh, used a pure soy protein along with bacterial cellulose for an all-natural, biodegradable, inexpensive air filter.

Here’s an image the researchers have made available,

Bionano air filter before and after filtration. Courtesy: Washington State University

A Jan. 12, 2017 Washington State University news release by Tilda Hilding, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Poor air quality causes health problems worldwide and is a factor in diseases such as asthma, heart disease and lung cancer. Commercial air purifiers aim for removing the small particles that are present in soot, smoke or car exhaust because these damaging particles are inhaled directly into the lungs.

With many sources of pollution in some parts of the world, however, air pollution also can contain a mix of hazardous gaseous molecules, such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and other volatile organic compounds.

Typical air filters, which are usually made of micron-sized fibers of synthetic plastics, physically filter the small particles but aren’t able to chemically capture gaseous molecules. Furthermore, they’re most often made of glass and petroleum products, which leads to secondary pollution, Zhong said.

Soy captures nearly all pollutants

The WSU and Chinese team developed a new kind of air filtering material that uses natural, purified soy protein and bacterial cellulose – an organic compound produced by bacteria. The soy protein and cellulose are cost effective and already used in numerous applications, such as adhesives, plastic products, tissue regeneration materials and wound dressings.

Soy contains a large number of functional chemical groups – it includes 18 types of amino groups. Each of the chemical groups has the potential to capture passing pollution at the molecular level. The researchers used an acrylic acid treatment to disentangle the very rigid soy protein, so that the chemical groups can be more exposed to the pollutants.

The resulting filter was able to remove nearly all of the small particles as well as chemical pollutants, said Zhong.

Filters are economical, biodegradable

Especially in very polluted environments, people might be breathing an unknown mix of pollutants that could prove challenging to purify. But, with its large number of functional groups, the soy protein is able to attract a wide variety of polluting molecules.

“We can take advantage from those chemical groups to grab the toxics in the air,” Zhong said.

The materials are also cost-effective and biodegradable. Soybeans are among the most abundant plants in the world, she added.

Zhong occasionally visits her native China and has personally experienced the heavy pollution in Beijing as sunny skies turn to gray smog within a few days.

“Air pollution is a very serious health issue,” she said. “If we can improve indoor air quality, it would help a lot of people.”

Patents filed on filters, paper towels

In addition to the soy-based filters, the researchers have also developed gelatin- and cellulose-based air filters. They are also applying the filter material on top of low-cost and disposable paper towel to reinforce it and to improve its performance. They have filed patents on the technology and are interested in commercialization opportunities.

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

Soy protein isolate/bacterial cellulose composite membranes for high efficiency particulate air filtration by Xiaobing Liu, Hamid Souzandeh, Yudong Zheng, Yajie Xie, Wei-Hong Zhong, Cai Wang. Composites Science and Technology Volume 138, 18 January 2017, Pages 124–133         http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compscitech.2016.11.022

This paper is behind a paywall.

Prawn (shrimp) shopping bags and saving the earth

Using a material (shrimp shells) that is disposed of as waste to create a biodegradable product (shopping bags) can only be described as a major win. A Jan. 10, 2017 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement,

Bioengineers at The University of Nottingham are trialling how to use shrimp shells to make biodegradable shopping bags, as a ‘green’ alternative to oil-based plastic, and as a new food packaging material to extend product shelf life.

The new material for these affordable ‘eco-friendly’ bags is being optimised for Egyptian conditions, as effective waste management is one of the country’s biggest challenges.

An expert in testing the properties of materials, Dr Nicola Everitt from the Faculty of Engineering at Nottingham, is leading the research together with academics at Nile University in Egypt.

“Non-degradable plastic packaging is causing environmental and public health problems in Egypt, including contamination of water supplies which particularly affects living conditions of the poor,” explains Dr Everitt.

Natural biopolymer products made from plant materials are a ‘green’ alternative growing in popularity, but with competition for land with food crops, it is not a viable solution in Egypt.

A Jan. 10, 2017 University of Nottingham press release, which originated the news item,expands on the theme,

This new project aims to turn shrimp shells, which are a part of the country’s waste problem into part of the solution.

Dr Everitt said: “Use of a degradable biopolymer made of prawn shells for carrier bags would lead to lower carbon emissions and reduce food and packaging waste accumulating in the streets or at illegal dump sites. It could also make exports more acceptable to a foreign market within a 10-15-year time frame. All priorities at a national level in Egypt.”

Degradable nanocomposite material

The research is being undertaken to produce an innovative biopolymer nanocomposite material which is degradable, affordable and suitable for shopping bags and food packaging.

Chitosan is a man-made polymer derived from the organic compound chitin, which is extracted from shrimp shells, first using acid (to remove the calcium carbonate “backbone” of the crustacean shell) and then alkali (to produce the long molecular chains which make up the biopolymer).

The dried chitosan flakes can then be dissolved into solution and polymer film made by conventional processing techniques.

Chitosan was chosen because it is a promising biodegradable polymer already used in pharmaceutical packaging due to its antimicrobial, antibacterial and biocompatible properties. The second strand of the project is to develop an active polymer film that absorbs oxygen.

Enhancing food shelf life and cutting food waste

This future generation food packaging could have the ability to enhance food shelf life with high efficiency and low energy consumption, making a positive impact on food wastage in many countries.

If successful, Dr Everitt plans to approach UK packaging manufacturers with the product.

Additionally, the research aims to identify a production route by which these degradable biopolymer materials for shopping bags and food packaging could be manufactured.

I also found the funding for this project to be of interest (from the press release),

The project is sponsored by the Newton Fund and the Newton-Mosharafa Fund grant and is one of 13 Newton-funded collaborations for The University of Nottingham.

The collaborations, which are designed to tackle community issues through science and innovation, with links formed with countries such as Brazil, Egypt, Philippines and Indonesia.

Since the Newton Fund was established in 2014, the University has been awarded a total of £4.5m in funding. It also boasts the highest number of institutional-led collaborations.

Professor Nick Miles Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement said: “The University of Nottingham has a long and established record in global collaboration and research.

The Newton Fund plays to these strengths and enables us to work with institutions around the world to solve some of the most pressing issues facing communities.”

From a total of 68 universities, The University of Nottingham has emerged as the top awardee of British Council Newton Fund Institutional Links grants (13) and is joint top awardee from a total of 160 institutions competing for British Council Newton Fund Researcher Links Workshop awards (6).

Professor Miles added: “This is testament to the incredible research taking place across the University – both here in the UK and in the campuses in Malaysia and China – and underlines the strength of our research partnerships around the world.”

That’s it!