Tag Archives: Google

Printing food, changing prostheses, and talking with Google (Larry Page) at TED 2014′s Session 6: Wired

I’m covering two speakers and an interview from this session. First, Avi Reichental, CEO (Chief Executive Officer) 3D Sytems, from his TED biography (Note: A link has been removed),

At 3D Systems, Avi Reichental is helping to imagine a future where 3D scanning-and-printing is an everyday act, and food, clothing, objects are routinely output at home.

Lately, he’s been demo-ing the Cube, a tabletop 3D printer that can print a basketball-sized object, and the ChefJet, a food-grade machine that prints in sugar and chocolate. His company is also rolling out consumer-grade 3D scanning cameras that clip to a tablet to capture three-dimensional objects for printing out later. He’s an instructor at Singularity University (watch his 4-minute intro to 3D printing).

Reichental started by talking about his grandfather, a cobbler who died in the Holocaust and whom he’d never met. Nonetheless, his grandfather had inspired him to be a maker of things in a society where craftsmanship and crafting atrophied until recently with the rise of ‘maker’ culture and 3D printing.

There were a number of items on the stage, shoes, a cake, a guitar and more, all of which had been 3D printed. Reichental’s shoes had also been produced on a 3D printer. If I understand his dream properly, it is to enable everyone to make what they need more cheaply and better.

Next, Hugh Herr, bionics designer, from his TED biography,

Hugh Herr directs the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab, where he is pioneering a new class of biohybrid smart prostheses and exoskeletons to improve the quality of life for thousands of people with physical challenges. A computer-controlled prosthesis called the Rheo Knee, for instance, is outfitted with a microprocessor that continually senses the joint’s position and the loads applied to the limb. A powered ankle-foot prosthesis called the BiOM emulates the action of a biological leg to create a natural gait, allowing amputees to walk with normal levels of speed and metabolism as if their legs were biological.

Herr is the founder and chief technology officer of BiOM Inc., which markets the BiOM as the first in a series of products that will emulate or even augment physiological function through electromechanical replacement. You can call it (as they do) “personal bionics.”

Herr walked on his two bionic limbs onto the TED stage. He not only researches and works in the field of bionics, he lives it. His name was mentioned in a previous presentation by David Sengeh (can be found in my March 17, 2014 posting), a 2014 TED Fellow.

Herr talked about biomimcry, i.e., following nature’s lead in design but he also suggested that design is driving (affecting) nature.  If I understand him rightly, he was referencing some of the work with proteins, ligands, etc. and creating devices that are not what we would consider biological or natural as we have tended to use the term.

His talk contrasted somewhat with Reichental’s as Herr wants to remove the artisanal approach to developing prosthetics and replacing the artisanal with data-driven strategies. Herr covered the mechanical, the dynamic, and the electrical as applied to bionic limbs. I think the term prosthetic is being applied the older, artisanal limbs as opposed to these mechanical, electrical, dynamic marvels known as bionic limbs.

The mechanical aspect has to do with figuring out how your specific limbs are formed and used and getting precise measurements (with robotic tools) because everyone is a little bit different. The dynamic aspect, also highly individual, is how your muscles work. For example, standing still, walking, etc. all require dynamic responses from your muscles. Finally, there’s the integration with the nervous system so you can feel your limb.

Herr shows a few videos including one of a woman who lost part of her leg in last year’s Boston Marathon bombing (April 15, 2013). A ballroom dancer, Herr invites her to the stage so she can perform in front of the TED 2014 audience. She got a standing ovation.

In the midst of session 6, there was an interview conducted by Charlie Rose (US television presenter) with Larry Page, a co-founder of Google.

Very briefly, I was mildly relieved (although I’m not convinced) to hear that Page is devoted to the notion that search is important. I’ve been concerned about the Google search results I get. Those results seem less rich and interesting than they were a few years ago. I attribute the situation to the chase for advertising dollars and a decreasing interest in ‘search’ as the company expands with initiatives such as ‘Google glass’, artificial intelligence, and pursues other interests distinct from what had been the company’s core focus.

I didn’t find much else of interest. Larry Page wants to help people and he’s interested in artificial intelligence and transportation. His perspective seemed a bit simplistic (technology will solve our problems) but perhaps that was for the benefit of people like me. I suspect one of a speaker’s challenges at TED is finding the right level. Certainly, I’ve experienced difficulties with some of the more technical presentations.

One more observation, there was no mention of a current scandal at Google profiled in the April 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, (by Vanessa Grigoriadis)

 O.K., Glass: Make Google Eyes

The story behind Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s liaison with Google Glass marketing manager Amanda Rosenberg—and his split from his wife, genetic-testing entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki— has a decidedly futuristic edge. But, as Vanessa Grigoriadis reports, the drama leaves Silicon Valley debating emotional issues, from office romance to fear of mortality.

Given that Page agreed to be on the TED stage in the last 10 days, this appearance seems like an attempt at damage control especially with the mention of Brin who had his picture taken with the telepresent Ed Snowden on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at TED 2014.

Unintended consequences of reading science news online

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Dominique Brossard and  Dietram Scheufele have written a cautionary piece for the AAAS’s (American Association for the Advancement of Science) magazine, Science, according to a Jan. 3, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

A science-inclined audience and wide array of communications tools make the Internet an excellent opportunity for scientists hoping to share their research with the world. But that opportunity is fraught with unintended consequences, according to a pair of University of Wisconsin-Madison life sciences communication professors.

Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele, writing in a Perspectives piece for the journal Science, encourage scientists to join an effort to make sure the public receives full, accurate and unbiased information on science and technology.

“This is an opportunity to promote interest in science — especially basic research, fundamental science — but, on the other hand, we could be missing the boat,” Brossard says. “Even our most well-intended effort could backfire, because we don’t understand the ways these same tools can work against us.”

The Jan. 3, 2012 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release by Chris Barncard (which originated the news item) notes,

Recent research by Brossard and Scheufele has described the way the Internet may be narrowing public discourse, and new work shows that a staple of online news presentation — the comments section — and other ubiquitous means to provide endorsement or feedback can color the opinions of readers of even the most neutral science stories.

Online news sources pare down discussion or limit visibility of some information in several ways, according to Brossard and Scheufele.

Many news sites use the popularity of stories or subjects (measured by the numbers of clicks they receive, or the rate at which users share that content with others, or other metrics) to guide the presentation of material.

The search engine Google offers users suggested search terms as they make requests, offering up “nanotechnology in medicine,” for example, to those who begin typing “nanotechnology” in a search box. Users often avail themselves of the list of suggestions, making certain searches more popular, which in turn makes those search terms even more likely to appear as suggestions.

Brossard and Scheufele have published an earlier study about the ‘narrowing’ effects of search engines such as Google, using the example of the topic ‘nanotechnology’, as per my May 19, 2010 posting. The researchers appear to be building on this earlier work,

The consequences become more daunting for the researchers as Brossard and Scheufele uncover more surprising effects of Web 2.0.

In their newest study, they show that independent of the content of an article about a new technological development, the tone of comments posted by other readers can make a significant difference in the way new readers feel about the article’s subject. The less civil the accompanying comments, the more risk readers attributed to the research described in the news story.

“The day of reading a story and then turning the page to read another is over,” Scheufele says. “Now each story is surrounded by numbers of Facebook likes and tweets and comments that color the way readers interpret even truly unbiased information. This will produce more and more unintended effects on readers, and unless we understand what those are and even capitalize on them, they will just cause more and more problems.”

If even some of the for-profit media world and advocacy organizations are approaching the digital landscape from a marketing perspective, Brossard and Scheufele argue, scientists need to turn to more empirical communications research and engage in active discussions across disciplines of how to most effectively reach large audiences.

“It’s not because there is not decent science writing out there. We know all kinds of excellent writers and sources,” Brossard says. “But can people be certain that those are the sites they will find when they search for information? That is not clear.”

It’s not about preparing for the future. It’s about catching up to the present. And the present, Scheufele says, includes scientific subjects — think fracking, or synthetic biology — that need debate and input from the public.

Here’s a citation and link for the Science article,

Science, New Media, and the Public by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele in Science 4 January 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6115 pp. 40-41 DOI: 10.1126/science.1232329

This article is behind a paywall.

UN’s International Telecommunications Union holds patent summit in Geneva on Oct. 10, 2012

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) patent summit being held today (Oct. 10, 2012) in Geneva, Switzerland was announced in July 2012 as noted in this July 6, 2012 news item on the BBC News website,

A rash of patent lawsuits has prompted the UN to call smartphone makers and others mobile industry bodies together.

It said the parties needed to address the “innovation-stifling use of intellectual property” which had led to several devices being banned from sale.

It said innovations deemed essential to industry standards, such as 3G or Jpeg photos, would be the meeting’s focus.

It noted that if just one patent holder demanded unreasonable compensation the cost of a device could “skyrocket”.

Microsoft and Apple are among firms that have called on others not to enforce sales bans on the basis of such standards-essential patents.

However, lawyers have noted that doing so would deprive other companies of way to counter-attacking other types of patent lawsuits pursued by the two companies.

Here’s a sample of the activity that has led to convening this summit (excerpted from the BBC news item),

“We are seeing an unwelcome trend in today’s marketplace to use standards-essential patents to block markets,” said the ITU secretary general Dr Hamadoun Toure.

Motorola Mobility – now owned by Google – managed to impose a brief sales ban of iPhone and iPads in Germany last year after Apple refused to pay it a licence fee. The dispute centred on a patent deemed crucial to the GPRS data transmission standard used by GSM cellular networks.

Samsung has also attempted to use its 3G patents to bar Apple from selling products in Europe, Japan and the US.

However, industry watchers note that Apple has used lawsuits to ban Samsung products in both the US and Australia and attempted to restrict sales of other companies’ devices powered by Android.

Mike Masnick commented briefly about the summit in his July 12, 2012 posting on Techdirt,

The UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — the same unit looking at very questionable plans concerning taxing the internet — has apparently decided that it also needs to step in over the massive patent thicket around smartphones. It’s convening a summit … it looks like they’re only inviting the big companies who make products, and leaving the many trolls out of it. Also, it’s unclear from the description if the ITU really grasps the root causes of the problem: the system itself. …

There’s more information on the ITU summit or patent roundtable webpage,

This Roundtable will assess the effectiveness of RAND (reasonable and non-discriminatory) – based patent policies. The purpose of this initiative is to provide a neutral venue for industry, standards bodies and regulators to exchange innovative ideas that can guide future discussions on whether current patent policies and existing industry practices adequately respond to the needs of the various stakeholders.

I was particularly interested in the speakers from industry (from the Patent Roundtable programme/agenda),

Segment 1 (Part II: Specific perspectives of certain key stakeholders in “360 view” format):

Moderator: Mr. Knut Blind, Rotterdam School of Management [ Biography ]

Perspectives from certain key stakeholders:

  • Standard Development Organizations:
    Mr. Antoine Dore, ITU
    [ Biography ]
    Mr. Dirk Weiler, ETSI
    [ Biography ]
  • Industry players:
    Mr. BJ Watrous, Apple
    [ Biography ]
    Mr. Ray Warren, Motorola Mobility
    [ Biography ]
    Mr. Michael Fröhlich, RIM [emphasis mine]
    [ Biography ]
  • Patent offices:
    Mr. Michel Goudelis, European Patent Office
    [ Biography ]
    Mr. Stuart Graham, United States Patent and Trademark Office
    [ Biography ]
  • Academic Institution:
    Mr. Tim Pohlmann, Technical University of Berlin

I was surprised to note the presence of a Canadian company at the summit.

In general, hopes do not seem high that anything will be resolved putting me in mind of Middle Eastern peace talks, which have stretched on for decades with no immediate end in sight. We’ll see.

Future of Film & Video event being livestreamed from Dublin’s Science Gallery July 13, 2012

As I’ve noted previously (my April 29, 2011 posting) Dublin is celebrating itself as a ‘City of Science’ this year. As part of the festivities (e.g. the Euroscience Open Forum [ESOF} meetings are now taking place in Dublin), the Future of Film & Video at the Science Gallery will be livestreamed on Friday, July 13, 2012 from 1800 to 1930 hours (10 am - 11:30 am PST), from the event page,

Join Academy award winners Anil Kokaram and Simon Robinson, and BAFTA award winner Mark Jacobs as they discuss the future of film and video, from today’s cutting-edge 3D tech, to tomorrow’s innovations being imagined in labs across the world. You’ll never look at a screen the same way as these visionaries show that in the film and video industry you should expect the unexpected.

This event is part of the UCD Imagine Science Film Festival, and is part of Dublin City of Science. We are grateful for the support of Google Dublin, the Chrome-Media Group at Google, Mountain View, the Sigmedia Group in the Engineering Dept, Trinity College Dublin and also Science Foundation Ireland."

Simon Robinson

Academy Award winner, Simon Robinson is a Founder and the Chief Scientist of The Foundry, one of the most well recognised names in the creation of visual effects software. His technology has touched most of the blockbusters that reach our screens today e.g. Oscar Winning titles Hugo, Rango and effects laden works such as The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and Avatar. In 2007 he was awarded a SciTech Academy Award for his influence on motion picture technology and in 2010 he was ranked in the top 100 most creative people in business in the fast Company’s annual ranking. His company has made the Sunday Times tech track top 100 list for two years in a row. The Foundry now numbers over 100 employees and speaking to the FT recently Simon is quoted as saying , “We never wanted to grow beyond six staff. We never thought we would sell it. We never thought we would buy it back. We are often wrong."

Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs is a BAFTA award winning Producer/Director with a unique track record in innovation. His extensive experience of more than 25 years in broadcasting, with the BBC and other organisations, ranges from traditional programme making and commissioning, to delivering cutting edge innovation. Mark pioneered some of the first applications of 3D animation for both the BBC and Discovery and in 2000 he joined the BBC's R&D arm to help pioneer new ways of using multimedia content.  Mark has recently produced a 40 minute, multi-screen interactive film for the Natural History Museum with David Attenborough and led the BBC’s series of natural history documentary trials for stereo 3D production. He has a BAFTA for Interactive TV/ Mobile and introduced some of the first tests in computer graphics and augmented reality into the BBC. He has produced many award winning films for BBC series, ranging from Wildlife On One and Supersense to landmark series on the natural history of Polynesia and Central America and also a programme on the Dingle Dolphin!

Anil Kokaram

Academy award winner, Anil Kokaram is a Professor at Trinity College Dublin with a long history in developing new technologies for digital video processing and particularly in the art of making old movies look like new. He started a company called GreenParrotPictures in 2004 which specialised in translating cinematic effects tools into the semi-professional and consumer space. In 2007 Anil was awarded a SciTech Academy award for his work in developing motion estimation technology for the cinema industry in collaboration with Simon Robinson.  GreenParrotPictures was acquired by Google in 2011 and Anil now heads a team of engineers in the Chrome Media Group in the Googleplex, Mountain View, California developing new video tools for Chrome and YouTube.  He continues to collaborate with his research group www.sigmedia.tv in Trinity College Dublin.

Location:

Paccar Theatre

Admission:

Free - prebooking essential  [go to event page to prebook]

I’m hoping this will be focussed on something other than the future of 3D technology.

DARPA/Google and Regina Dugan

One of my more recent (Nov. 22, 2011) postings on DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) highlighted their entrepreneurial focus and the person encouraging that focus, agency director Regina Dugan. Given that she’s held the position for roughly 2.5 years, I was surprised to see that she has left to joint Google. From the Mar.13, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

Google on Monday [March 12, 2012] confirmed that Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency chief Regina Dugan is taking a yet-to-be-revealed role at the Internet powerhouse.

Dugan’s Wikipedia entry has already been updated,

Regina E. Dugan was the 19th Director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). She was appointed to that position on July 20, 2009. In March 2012, she left her position to take an executive role at Google. She was the first female director of DARPA.

Much of her working career (1996-2012) seems to have been spent at DARPA. I don’t think I’m going to draw too many conclusions from this move but I am intrigued especially in light of an essay about a departing Google employee, James Whitaker. From Whitaker’s March 13, 2012 posting on his JW on Tech blog,

The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.

Technically I suppose Google has always been an advertising company, but for the better part of the last three years, it didn’t feel like one. Google was an ad company only in the sense that a good TV show is an ad company: having great content attracts advertisers.

He lays out the situation here,

It turns out that there was one place where the Google innovation machine faltered and that one place mattered a lot: competing with Facebook. Informal efforts produced a couple of antisocial dogs in Wave and Buzz. Orkut never caught on outside Brazil. Like the proverbial hare confident enough in its lead to risk a brief nap, Google awoke from its social dreaming to find its front runner status in ads threatened.

Google could still put ads in front of more people than Facebook, but Facebook knows so much more about those people. Advertisers and publishers cherish this kind of personal information, so much so that they are willing to put the Facebook brand before their own. Exhibit A: www.facebook.com/nike, a company with the power and clout of Nike putting their own brand after Facebook’s? No company has ever done that for Google and Google took it personally.

Larry Page himself assumed command to right this wrong. Social became state-owned, a corporate mandate called Google+. It was an ominous name invoking the feeling that Google alone wasn’t enough. Search had to be social. Android had to be social. You Tube, once joyous in their independence, had to be … well, you get the point.  [emphasis mine] Even worse was that innovation had to be social. Ideas that failed to put Google+ at the center of the universe were a distraction.

That point about YouTube really strikes home as I’ve become quite dismayed with the advertising on the videos. The consequence is that I’m starting to search for clips on Vimeo first as it doesn’t have intrusive advertising.

Getting back to Whitaker, he notes this about Google and advertising,

The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.

It’s interesting to contrast Whitaker’s take on the situation, which suggests that the company has lost its entrepreneurial spirit as it focuses on advertising, with the company’s latest hire, Regina Dugan who seems to have introduced entrepreneurship into DARPA’s activities.

As for the military connection (DARPA is US Dept. of Defense agency), I remain mindful that the military and the intelligence communities have an interest in gathering data but would need something more substantive than a hiring decision to draw any conclusions.

For anyone who’s interested in these types of queries, I would suggest reading a 2007 posting, Facebook, the CIA, and You on the Brainsturbator blog, for a careful unpacking of the connections (extremely tenuous) between Facebook and the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency). The blog owner and essayist, Jordan Boland, doesn’t dismiss the surveillance concern; he’s simply pointing out that it’s difficult to make an unequivocal claim while displaying a number of intriguing connections between agencies and organizations.

Ranking atoms the Google way

According to the Feb. 13, 2012 news item on Nanowerk, professor Aurora Clark has developed a laboratory-free technique for analyzing molecules which she derived from Google’s PageRank software,

The technology that Google uses to analyze trillions of Web pages is being brought to bear on the way molecules are shaped and organized.

Aurora Clark, an associate professor of chemistry at Washington State University, has adapted Google’s PageRank software to create moleculaRnetworks, which scientists can use to determine molecular shapes and chemical reactions without the expense, logistics and occasional danger of lab experiments.

I was particularly interested in this relationship between webpages and molecules,

Google’s PageRank software, developed by its founders at Stanford University, uses an algorithm—a set of mathematical formulas—to measure and prioritize the relevance of various Web pages to a user’s search. Clark and her colleagues realized that the interactions between molecules are a lot like links between Web pages. Some links between some molecules will be stronger and more likely than others.

“So the same algorithm that is used to understand how Web pages are connected can be used to understand how molecules interact,” says Clark.

The PageRank algorithm is particularly efficient because it can look at a massive amount of the Web at once. Similarly, it can quickly characterize the interactions of millions of molecules and help researchers predict how various chemicals will react with one another.

Clark has a special interest given her specialty,

Clark, who uses Pacific Northwest National Laboratories supercomputers and a computer cluster on WSU’s Pullman campus, specializes in the remediation and separation of radioactive materials. With computational chemistry and her Google-based software, she says, she “can learn about all those really nasty things without ever touching them.”

You can find out more about moleculaRnetworks and download the software from this webpage. There’s more about Aurora Clark and her work here.

Patents as weapons and obstacles

I’m going to start with the phones and finish with the genes. The news article titled Patents emerge as significant tech strategy by Janet I. Tu featured Oct. 27, 2011 on physorg.com provides some insight into problems with  phones and patents,

It seems not a week goes by these days without news of another patent battle or announcement: Microsoft reaching licensing agreements with various device manufacturers. Apple and various handset manufacturers filing suits and countersuits. Oracle suing Google over the use of Java in Android.

After Microsoft and Samsung announced a patent-licensing agreement last month involving Google’s Android operating system, Google issued a statement saying, in part: “This is the same tactic we’ve seen time and again from Microsoft. Failing to succeed in the smartphone market, they are resorting to legal measures to extort profit from others’ achievements and hinder the pace of innovation.”

Microsoft’s PR chief Frank Shaw shot back via Twitter: “Let me boil down the Google statement … from 48 words to 1: Waaaah.”

This was Microsoft’s PR chief??? I do find this to be impressive,but not in a good way. Note: Tu’s article was originally published in The Seattle Times. [Dec.17.11: I've edited my original sentence to make the meaning clearer, i. e., I changed it from 'I don't find this to be impressive ...]

My Sept. 27, 2011 posting focused on the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and their Science Technology and Industry 2011 Scorecard where they specifically name patenting practices as a worldwide problem for innovation. As both the scorecard and Tu note (from the Tu article),

… technology companies’ patent practices have evolved from using them to defend their own inventions to deploying them as a significant part of competitive strategies …

Tu notes,

Microsoft says it’s trying to protect its investment in research and development – an investment resulting in some 32,000 current and 36,500 pending patents. [emphasis mine] It consistently ranks among the top three computer-software patent holders in the U.S.

One reason these patent issues are being negotiated now is because smartphones are computing devices with features that “are generally in the sweet spot of the innovations investments Microsoft has made in the past 20 years,” said Microsoft Deputy General Counsel Horacio Gutierrez.

There’s no arguing Microsoft is gaining a lot strategically from its patents: financially, legally and competitively.

Royalties from Android phones have become a fairly significant revenue stream.

Investment firm Goldman Sachs has estimated that, based on royalties of $3 to $6 per device, Microsoft will get about $444 million in fiscal year 2012 from Android-based device makers with whom it has negotiated agreements.

Some think that estimate may be low.

Microsoft is not disclosing how much it gets in royalties, but Smith, the company’s attorney, has said $5 per device “seems like a fair price.”

Various tech companies wield patents also to slow down competitors or to frustrate, and sometimes stop, a rival from entering a market. [emphases mine]

It’s not just one industry sector either. Another major player in this ‘patenting innovation to death game’ is the health care industry. Mike Masnick in his Oct. 28, 2011 Techdirt posting (Deadly Monopolies: New Book Explores How Patenting Genes Has Made Us Less Healthy) notes,

A few years ago, David Koepsell, came out with the excellent book, Who Owns You?, with the subtitle, “The corporate gold rush to patent your genes.” It looks like there’s now a new book [Deadly Monopolies] out exploring the same subject, by medical ethicist Harriet Washington.

NPR (National Public Radio) highlights this story in their feature on  Washington’s book,

Restrictive patents on genes prevent competition that can keep the medical cost of treatment down, says Washington. In addition to genes, she also points to tissue samples, which are also being patented — sometimes without patients’ detailed knowledge and consent. Washington details one landmark case in California in which medically valuable tissue samples from a patient’s spleen were patented by a physician overseeing his treatment for hairy-cell leukemia. The physician then established a laboratory to determine whether tissue samples could be used to create various drugs without informing the patient.

“[The patient] was told that he had to come to [the physician's] lab for tests … in the name of vigilance to treat his cancer and keep him healthy,” says Washington.

The patient, a man named John Moore, was never told that his discarded body parts could be used in other ways. He sued his doctor and the University of California, where the procedure took place, for lying to him about his tissue — and because he did not want to be the subject of a patent. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court, where Moore lost. In the decision, the court noted that Moore had no right to any share of the profits obtained from anything developed from his discarded body parts.

According to the webpage featuring Deadly Monopolies on the NPR website, this state of affairs is due to a US Supreme Court ruling made in 1980 where the court ruled,

… living, human-made microorganisms could be patented by their developers. The ruling opened the gateway for cells, tissues, genetically modified plants and animals, and genes to be patented.

I gather the US Supreme Court is currently reconsidering their stance on patents and genes. (As for Canada, we didn’t take that route with the consequence that it is not possible to patent a gene or tissue culture here. Of course, things could change.)

Space contest for teenagers

I caught this Oct. 10, 2011 news item (Google and Hawking seek space mad teenagers) on the BBC News website,

YouTube has enlisted the help of Prof Stephen Hawking in the hunt for budding young scientists.

The site – which is owned by Google – is launching a competition for teenagers to create an experiment that could be carried out in space.

Two winning ideas will be tested by the crew of the International Space Station.

Ravi Mandalla’s Oct. 11, 2011 article for ITProPortal provides more detail,

The competition, titled YouTube Space Lab, will allow students aged between 14 to 18 years to submit a 2 minute proposal on YouTube. The entries will be reviewed by a panel of judges comprising of astronauts, NASA scientists and Stephen Hawking. The winners will see their experiment streamed live from space as the astronauts perform it on the space station.

The BBC News item offers  a more complete list of the judging panel,

Alongside Prof Hawking, the judging panel consists of former Astronauts Leland Melvin, Frank De Winne, Akihiko Hoshide and noted “space tourist” Guy Laliberté. [emphasis mine]

Guy Laliberté, space tourist, is also the Chief Executive Officer for the Cirque du Soleil (founded in Québec, Canada). Professor Hawking also has a Canadian connection, he holds the position of Distinguished Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute (news release announcing Hawking’s appointment), located in Ontario, Canada.

Getting back to the contest, here’s how Google describes the contest (from the YouTube Space Lab contest webpage,

Your experiment, 250 miles above Earth, for the world to see.
What will you do?

We’re asking you to come up with a science experiment for space and upload a video explaining it to YouTube. If your idea wins, it will be performed on the International Space Station and live streamed on YouTube to the world. And we’ll throw in some out-of-this-world prizes, too.

Can plants survive beyond the Earth? Could proteins in space reveal the mysteries of life? Science in micro gravity can help unlock the answers. The countdown’s begun.

Good luck!

ETA Oct. 13, 2011: There’s an Oct. 11, 2011 article about this contest, which includes more information and a video, by Nidhi Subbaraman for Fast Company,

The lucky teenagers who win will have their experiments flown into space, carried on board an ISS-bound rocket, and could find themselves catapulted into YouTube stardom. Their winning entries will earn a joyride to the International Space Station, where astronauts will perform their experiment while being live-streamed on YouTube. It doesn’t end there. They’ll get to pick between one of two grand prizes: a trip to Japan in summer 2012 to see their experiment take off, or, when they turn 18, a chance to participate in the astronaut training program at Russia’s Star City. The four other regional finalists will be given a Zero-G ride, courtesy of Space Adventures, and laptops from Lenovo.

Advertising for the 21st Century: B-Reel, ‘storytelling’, and mind control

Erin Schulte at Fast Company introduced me to B-Reel, a digital production company, via her Sept. 30, 2011 posting,

Though Swedish hybrid production company B-Reel has been around since 1999, merging film, interactive, games, and mobile to create new methods of storytelling, it exploded into the broader consciousness with 2010′s “The Wilderness Downtown.”

The interactive short film dreamed up by Chris Milk and the band Arcade Fire for its song “We Used To Wait” is a Gen-Y paean of childhood nostalgia, where the singer pines for a simpler, not-so-far away yesteryear where people wrote love letters on paper and anxiously awaited the arrival of an envelope in return.

Here’s a description (followed by B-Reel’s promotiional video) of the Wilderness Downtown project, which was initiated by Google, from the company website,

Featuring Arcade Fire’s new single “We Used To Wait” from their latest album The Suburbs, The Wilderness Downtown is an interactive music video built in HTML 5, using Google Maps and Street-view for Google Chrome Experiments. The film takes an intimate approach by prompting users to input an address from their childhood which then places them at the center of the film’s narrative. Viewers see themselves in the film as they run through the streets of their old neighborhood and finally reach their childhood home. This is tied very closely to the song’s lyrics to make for a powerful emotional experience.

Here’s the video,

The making of the Wilderness Downtown. from B-Reel & B-Reel Films on Vimeo.

A subtle form of advertising for Google, this showcases some of the more innovative approaches that B-Reel takes to its work.

I did watch the Fast Company video interview with Anders Wahlquist, B-Reel Chief Executive Officer, which is included with Schulte’s posting, and he mentions that he founded the company with the intention of combining filmmaking, storytelling, and interactivity. It’s interesting how often the words storytelling and story are used  in the service of advertising and marketing but to replace those words, i.e., it’s no longer about advertising; it’s about telling your story or possibly it’s about mind control. From the July 21, 2011 posting on the B-Reel website,

From B-Reel’s secret laboratory comes a brain-bending experimental project utilising a number of cutting edge tech tools. B-Reel’s UK creative director Riccardo Giraldi led the development of the project, and you can view the explanatory video here, as well as some of the creative musings in a write up below.

The idea is quite simple.

What if you could run a slot car race using your brain?

We did a bit of research on this and it didn’t take long to realise we already have all we need to make these ideas come to life; we just needed to connect the dots and find an easier way to integrate different disciplines to make the magic happen.

These are the steps B-Reel went through:

- researched components and library we could have used

- procured a device that reads mind signals, a Scalextric, Arduino, some tools and electric components

- designed a small electronic circuit to connect Arduino to Scalextric

- wrote the Arduino script to control the Scalextric

- wrote a small Processing application to control the car with the computer mouse

- connected the brain reader device signal to the Scalextric

There are few commercial devices that claim to safely read your brain signals. We ended up choosing the Mindwave headset from Neurosky for this experiment because of its unobtrusive design and its affordable price.

Then we got a basic version Scalextric and started to play around with it. Slot cars are awesome. Digital is already the past – tangible is the future. The principle is straightforward: there are two cars on separate tracks that you can control with a handset. The more current you let pass through the handset, the faster the cars go.

Here’s the ‘mind control’ video,

B-Reel Performs Mind Tricks from B-Reel & B-Reel Films on Vimeo.

I wrote about rats with robotic brains and monkeys (at Duke University in the US) that control robots  in Japan with their thoughts in my Oct. 4, 2011 posting.  I find the resemblance between these projects disconcertingly close and I have to admit I would not have considered advertising applications at this stage of the technology development.

If you are interested in more about mind control projects, Ed Yong at his Not Exactly Rocket Science blog (on the Discover blog network) has written an Oct. 5, 2011 posting titled, Monkeys grab and feel virtual objects with thoughs alone (and what this means for the World Cup). Excerpted from the posting,

This is where we are now: at Duke University, a monkey controls a virtual arm using only its thoughts. Miguel Nicolelis had fitted the animal with a headset of electrodes that translates its brain activity into movements. It can grab virtual objects without using its arms. It can also feel the objects without its hands, because the headset stimulates its brain to create the sense of different textures. Monkey think, monkey do, monkey feel – all without moving a muscle.
And this is where  Nicolelis wants to be in three years: a young quadriplegic Brazilian man strolls confidently into a massive stadium. He controls his four prosthetic limbs with his thoughts, and they in turn send tactile information straight to his brain. The technology melds so fluidly with his mind that he confidently runs up and delivers the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup.

This sounds like a far-fetched dream, but Nicolelis – a big soccer fan – is talking to the Brazilian government to make it a reality. He has created an international consortium called the Walk Again Project, consisting of non-profit research institutions in the United States, Brazil, Germany and Switzerland. Their goal is to create a “high performance brain-controlled prosthetic device that enables patients to finally leave the wheelchair behind.”

I’m not sure what the* intention was in 1999 when the company name, B-Reel, was chosen but today the wordplay has a haunting quality. Especially when you consider that mind control doesn’t necessarily mean people are in control. After all there’s my Sept. 28, 2011 posting about full size vehicles titled Cars that read minds? If you notice, the researcher at B-Reel has to shift his brain function in order to exert control so who’s in charge the researcher or the model car? Extending that question, will you have to change your mind so the car can read it?

* ‘the’ added May 15, 2014.

Elsevier and Google; scientific publishing

Due to my interest in communication,  I have from time to time commented or drawn attention to developments in publishing (scientific and otherwise) and ebooks. Earlier this month, Google announced the launch of its ebook store and now Elsevier, a major publisher of scientific, technical, and medical information, has announced that it will be using Google’s ebook store as a new distribution channel. From the Dec. 10, 2010 news item on Nanowerk,

Elsevier, the world-leading publisher of scientific, technical and medical information products and services, announced today that it is participating in the recently launched Google eBooks store by including a large selection of Elsevier’s eBook titles. Elsevier regards Google eBooks as a valuable new distribution channel to increase reach and accessibility of its scientific and professional ebook content in the United States.

“Selling a substantial part of our Science & Technology ebooks through Google eBooks will significantly add to the reach and accessibility of our content,” said Suzanne BeDell, Managing Director of Science & Technology Books at Elsevier. “The platform contains one of the largest ebook collections in the world and is compatible with a wide range of devices such as laptops, smartphones, e-readers and tablets. We are therefore confident that our partnership with Google will prove an important step in reaching our objective to provide universal access to scientific content.”

Presumably ‘adding accessibility’ as BeDell puts it means that the books will be significantly cheaper. (I still remember the shock I experienced at discovering the costs of academic texts. Years later, I am still recovering.)

I’m not sure that buyers will own the ebooks. It is possible for an ebook to be removed without notice if you buy from Amazon as I noted in my Sept. 10, 2010 posting, part 2 of a 3 part series on e-readers.)

If you’re interested in the Google part of the story, here’s an article by E. B. Boyd for Fast Company,

If you stroll on over to your corner bookstore this week and ask the person behind the counter about Google’s new ebookstore, which launches today, you probably won’t be greeted with the kind of teeth-gnashing that has accompanied other digital developments, like Amazon’s online bookstore or the advent of proprietary e-readers. Instead, you might actually be greeted with some excitement and delight. That’s because Google is taking a different approach to selling e-books than Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Rather than create a closed system that leaves others out in the cold, Google is actually partnering with independent bookstores to sell its wares–and share the profits.

There are a few reasons Google is going a different way. The ebookstore emerged from the Google Books program, which didn’t start out as a potential revenue stream. Instead, the company’s book-scanning project was simply a program to help the company fulfill its mission to make all of the world’s information accessible. Since so much information is contained in books, the company wanted to make sure that if you were using Google Search to look for a particular topic, it would be able to point you to books containing information about that topic, in addition to relevant web pages. Then, as Google Books began partnering with publishers and contemplating a program to sell books in addition to just making them searchable, it made a philosophical decision that brick-and-mortar bookstores are critical to the literary ecosystem. “A huge amount of books are bought because people go into a physical bookstore and say, ‘Hey, I want this, I want that,’” Google Books engineering director Dan Clancy told an audience at the Computer History Museum last year.

Here’s a response from some of the bookstore owners (from the article),

Bookstores seem to be cautiously optimistic about the Google program. A person who answered the phone at St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York said, “We’re looking forward to it,” before referring Fast Company to the ABA. “We’re really pleased,” said Mark LaFramboise, a buyer at Washington D.C.’s Politics and Prose. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Darin Sennett, director of strategic partnerships at the famous Powell’s book shop in Portland, Oregon, is particularly excited about Google’s technological model. The Kindle, the Nook, and the Sony eReader all use the traditional approach to e-books: They sell DRM-protected files that customers download to devices and which must be read with specific e-reading software. Google, however, is using the cloud. Its e-books will be stored on Google servers, and readers who’ve purchased them will access their books via a browser. [emphasis mine] Unlike in the Kindle system, where Kindle e-books can only be read on Kindle devices, Google e-books will be able to be read on any device that has a browser. Until now, independent bookstores have been effectively shut out of devices like the iPad and smartphones (which are emerging as many customers’ reading platforms of choice) because the e-books available from other distributors were either not compatible with those devices or the formatting was so clunky as to make them effectively unreadable.

Certainly, this sounds a lot better from the bookseller’s and reader’s perspectives. I’m glad to see that people at one of my favourite bookstores (Powell’s) is so enthusiastic but I do note that the books are stored on Google’s servers, which means they can be removed or even altered quite easily. On the plus side, the books can be downloaded in either PDF or ePub format. All in all, bravo!