Tag Archives: life sciences

A potpourri of robot/AI stories: killers , kindergarten teachers, a Balenciaga-inspired AI fashion designer, a conversational android, and more

Following on my August 29, 2018 post (Sexbots, sexbot ethics, families, and marriage), I’m following up with a more general piece.

Robots, AI (artificial intelligence), and androids (humanoid robots), the terms can be confusing since there’s a tendency to use them interchangeably. Confession: I do it too, but, not this time. That said, I have multiple news bits.

Killer ‘bots and ethics

The U.S. military is already testing a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. Credit: Lance Cpl. Julien Rodarte, U.S. Marine Corps

That is a robot.

For the purposes of this posting, a robot is a piece of hardware which may or may not include an AI system and does not mimic a human or other biological organism such that you might, under circumstances, mistake the robot for a biological organism.

As for what precipitated this feature (in part), it seems there’s been a United Nations meeting in Geneva, Switzerland held from August 27 – 31, 2018 about war and the use of autonomous robots, i.e., robots equipped with AI systems and designed for independent action. BTW, it’s the not first meeting the UN has held on this topic.

Bonnie Docherty, lecturer on law and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, international human rights clinic, Harvard Law School, has written an August 21, 2018 essay on The Conversation (also on phys.org) describing the history and the current rules around the conduct of war, as well as, outlining the issues with the military use of autonomous robots (Note: Links have been removed),

When drafting a treaty on the laws of war at the end of the 19th century, diplomats could not foresee the future of weapons development. But they did adopt a legal and moral standard for judging new technology not covered by existing treaty language.

This standard, known as the Martens Clause, has survived generations of international humanitarian law and gained renewed relevance in a world where autonomous weapons are on the brink of making their own determinations about whom to shoot and when. The Martens Clause calls on countries not to use weapons that depart “from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.”

I was the lead author of a new report by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic that explains why fully autonomous weapons would run counter to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. We found that to comply with the Martens Clause, countries should adopt a treaty banning the development, production and use of these weapons.

Representatives of more than 70 nations will gather from August 27 to 31 [2018] at the United Nations in Geneva to debate how to address the problems with what they call lethal autonomous weapon systems. These countries, which are parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, have discussed the issue for five years. My co-authors and I believe it is time they took action and agreed to start negotiating a ban next year.

Docherty elaborates on her points (Note: A link has been removed),

The Martens Clause provides a baseline of protection for civilians and soldiers in the absence of specific treaty law. The clause also sets out a standard for evaluating new situations and technologies that were not previously envisioned.

Fully autonomous weapons, sometimes called “killer robots,” would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. They would be a dangerous step beyond current armed drones because there would be no human in the loop to determine when to fire and at what target. Although fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States are all working to develop them. They argue that the technology would process information faster and keep soldiers off the battlefield.

The possibility that fully autonomous weapons could soon become a reality makes it imperative for those and other countries to apply the Martens Clause and assess whether the technology would offend basic humanity and the public conscience. Our analysis finds that fully autonomous weapons would fail the test on both counts.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and for anyone who thinks the discussion about ethics and killer ‘bots is new or limited to military use, there’s my July 25, 2016 posting about police use of a robot in Dallas, Texas. (I imagine the discussion predates 2016 but that’s the earliest instance I have here.)

Teacher bots

Robots come in many forms and this one is on the humanoid end of the spectum,

Children watch a Keeko robot at the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education in Beijing, where the intelligent machines are telling stories and challenging kids with logic problems  [donwloaded from https://phys.org/news/2018-08-robot-teachers-invade-chinese-kindergartens.html]

Don’t those ‘eyes’ look almost heart-shaped? No wonder the kids love these robots, if an August  29, 2018 news item on phys.org can be believed,

The Chinese kindergarten children giggled as they worked to solve puzzles assigned by their new teaching assistant: a roundish, short educator with a screen for a face.

Just under 60 centimetres (two feet) high, the autonomous robot named Keeko has been a hit in several kindergartens, telling stories and challenging children with logic problems.

Round and white with a tubby body, the armless robot zips around on tiny wheels, its inbuilt cameras doubling up both as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera allowing users to record video journals.

In China, robots are being developed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to the elderly, dispense legal advice and now, as Keeko’s creators hope, join the ranks of educators.

At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education on the outskirts of Beijing, the children have been tasked to help a prince find his way through a desert—by putting together square mats that represent a path taken by the robot—part storytelling and part problem-solving.

Each time they get an answer right, the device reacts with delight, its face flashing heart-shaped eyes.

“Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn,” said Candy Xiong, a teacher trained in early childhood education who now works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology as a trainer.

“When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it,” she added.

Keeko robots have entered more than 600 kindergartens across the country with its makers hoping to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia.

Beijing has invested money and manpower in developing artificial intelligence as part of its “Made in China 2025” plan, with a Chinese firm last year unveiling the country’s first human-like robot that can hold simple conversations and make facial expressions.

According to the International Federation of Robots, China has the world’s top industrial robot stock, with some 340,000 units in factories across the country engaged in manufacturing and the automotive industry.

Moving on from hardware/software to a software only story.

AI fashion designer better than Balenciaga?

Despite the title for Katharine Schwab’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company, I don’t think this AI designer is better than Balenciaga but from the pictures I’ve seen the designs are as good and it does present some intriguing possibilities courtesy of its neural network (Note: Links have been removed),

The AI, created by researcher Robbie Barat, has created an entire collection based on Balenciaga’s previous styles. There’s a fabulous pink and red gradient jumpsuit that wraps all the way around the model’s feet–like a onesie for fashionistas–paired with a dark slouchy coat. There’s a textural color-blocked dress, paired with aqua-green tights. And for menswear, there’s a multi-colored, shimmery button-up with skinny jeans and mismatched shoes. None of these looks would be out of place on the runway.

To create the styles, Barat collected images of Balenciaga’s designs via the designer’s lookbooks, ad campaigns, runway shows, and online catalog over the last two months, and then used them to train the pix2pix neural net. While some of the images closely resemble humans wearing fashionable clothes, many others are a bit off–some models are missing distinct limbs, and don’t get me started on how creepy [emphasis mine] their faces are. Even if the outfits aren’t quite ready to be fabricated, Barat thinks that designers could potentially use a tool like this to find inspiration. Because it’s not constrained by human taste, style, and history, the AI comes up with designs that may never occur to a person. “I love how the network doesn’t really understand or care about symmetry,” Barat writes on Twitter.

You can see the ‘creepy’ faces and some of the designs here,

Image: Robbie Barat

In contrast to the previous two stories, this all about algorithms, no machinery with independent movement (robot hardware) needed.

Conversational android: Erica

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his lifelike (definitely humanoid) robots have featured here many, many times before. The most recent posting is a March 27, 2017 posting about his and his android’s participation at the 2017 SXSW festival.

His latest work is featured in an August 21, 2018 news news item on ScienceDaily,

We’ve all tried talking with devices, and in some cases they talk back. But, it’s a far cry from having a conversation with a real person.

Now a research team from Kyoto University, Osaka University, and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute, or ATR, have significantly upgraded the interaction system for conversational android ERICA, giving her even greater dialog skills.

ERICA is an android created by Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University and ATR, specifically designed for natural conversation through incorporation of human-like facial expressions and gestures. The research team demonstrated the updates during a symposium at the National Museum of Emerging Science in Tokyo.

Here’s the latest conversational android, Erica

Caption: The experimental set up when the subject (left) talks with ERICA (right) Credit: Kyoto University / Kawahara lab

An August 20, 2018 Kyoto University press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers more details,

When we talk to one another, it’s never a simple back and forward progression of information,” states Tatsuya Kawahara of Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Informatics, and an expert in speech and audio processing.

“Listening is active. We express agreement by nodding or saying ‘uh-huh’ to maintain the momentum of conversation. This is called ‘backchanneling’, and is something we wanted to implement with ERICA.”

The team also focused on developing a system for ‘attentive listening’. This is when a listener asks elaborating questions, or repeats the last word of the speaker’s sentence, allowing for more engaging dialogue.

Deploying a series of distance sensors, facial recognition cameras, and microphone arrays, the team began collecting data on parameters necessary for a fluid dialog between ERICA and a human subject.

“We looked at three qualities when studying backchanneling,” continues Kawahara. “These were: timing — when a response happens; lexical form — what is being said; and prosody, or how the response happens.”

Responses were generated through machine learning using a counseling dialogue corpus, resulting in dramatically improved dialog engagement. Testing in five-minute sessions with a human subject, ERICA demonstrated significantly more dynamic speaking skill, including the use of backchanneling, partial repeats, and statement assessments.

“Making a human-like conversational robot is a major challenge,” states Kawahara. “This project reveals how much complexity there is in listening, which we might consider mundane. We are getting closer to a day where a robot can pass a Total Turing Test.”

Erica seems to have been first introduced publicly in Spring 2017, from an April 2017 Erica: Man Made webpage on The Guardian website,

Erica is 23. She has a beautiful, neutral face and speaks with a synthesised voice. She has a degree of autonomy – but can’t move her hands yet. Hiroshi Ishiguro is her ‘father’ and the bad boy of Japanese robotics. Together they will redefine what it means to be human and reveal that the future is closer than we might think.

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his colleague Dylan Glas are interested in what makes a human. Erica is their latest creation – a semi-autonomous android, the product of the most funded scientific project in Japan. But these men regard themselves as artists more than scientists, and the Erica project – the result of a collaboration between Osaka and Kyoto universities and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International – is a philosophical one as much as technological one.

Erica is interviewed about her hope and dreams – to be able to leave her room and to be able to move her arms and legs. She likes to chat with visitors and has one of the most advanced speech synthesis systems yet developed. Can she be regarded as being alive or as a comparable being to ourselves? Will she help us to understand ourselves and our interactions as humans better?

Erica and her creators are interviewed in the science fiction atmosphere of Ishiguro’s laboratory, and this film asks how we might form close relationships with robots in the future. Ishiguro thinks that for Japanese people especially, everything has a soul, whether human or not. If we don’t understand how human hearts, minds and personalities work, can we truly claim that humans have authenticity that machines don’t?

Ishiguro and Glas want to release Erica and her fellow robots into human society. Soon, Erica may be an essential part of our everyday life, as one of the new children of humanity.

Key credits

  • Director/Editor: Ilinca Calugareanu
  • Producer: Mara Adina
  • Executive producers for the Guardian: Charlie Phillips and Laurence Topham
  • This video is produced in collaboration with the Sundance Institute Short Documentary Fund supported by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation

You can also view the 14 min. film here.

Artworks generated by an AI system are to be sold at Christie’s auction house

KC Ifeanyi’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company may send a chill down some artists’ spines,

For the first time in its 252-year history, Christie’s will auction artwork generated by artificial intelligence.

Created by the French art collective Obvious, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is part of a series of paintings of the fictional Belamy family that was created using a two-part algorithm. …

The portrait is estimated to sell anywhere between $7,000-$10,000, and Obvious says the proceeds will go toward furthering its algorithm.

… Famed collector Nicolas Laugero-Lasserre bought one of Obvious’s Belamy works in February, which could’ve been written off as a novel purchase where the story behind it is worth more than the piece itself. However, with validation from a storied auction house like Christie’s, AI art could shake the contemporary art scene.

“Edmond de Belamy” goes up for auction from October 23-25 [2018].

Jobs safe from automation? Are there any?

Michael Grothaus expresses more optimism about future job markets than I’m feeling in an August 30, 2018 article for Fast Company,

A 2017 McKinsey Global Institute study of 800 occupations across 46 countries found that by 2030, 800 million people will lose their jobs to automation. That’s one-fifth of the global workforce. A further one-third of the global workforce will need to retrain if they want to keep their current jobs as well. And looking at the effects of automation on American jobs alone, researchers from Oxford University found that “47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years.”

The good news is that while the above stats are rightly cause for concern, they also reveal that 53% of American jobs and four-fifths of global jobs are unlikely to be affected by advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. But just what are those fields? I spoke to three experts in artificial intelligence, robotics, and human productivity to get their automation-proof career advice.

Creatives

“Although I believe every single job can, and will, benefit from a level of AI or robotic influence, there are some roles that, in my view, will never be replaced by technology,” says Tom Pickersgill, …

Maintenance foreman

When running a production line, problems and bottlenecks are inevitable–and usually that’s a bad thing. But in this case, those unavoidable issues will save human jobs because their solutions will require human ingenuity, says Mark Williams, head of product at People First, …

Hairdressers

Mat Hunter, director of the Central Research Laboratory, a tech-focused co-working space and accelerator for tech startups, have seen startups trying to create all kinds of new technologies, which has given him insight into just what machines can and can’t pull off. It’s lead him to believe that jobs like the humble hairdresser are safer from automation than those of, says, accountancy.

Therapists and social workers

Another automation-proof career is likely to be one involved in helping people heal the mind, says Pickersgill. “People visit therapists because there is a need for emotional support and guidance. This can only be provided through real human interaction–by someone who can empathize and understand, and who can offer advice based on shared experiences, rather than just data-driven logic.”

Teachers

Teachers are so often the unsung heroes of our society. They are overworked and underpaid–yet charged with one of the most important tasks anyone can have: nurturing the growth of young people. The good news for teachers is that their jobs won’t be going anywhere.

Healthcare workers

Doctors and nurses will also likely never see their jobs taken by automation, says Williams. While automation will no doubt better enhance the treatments provided by doctors and nurses the fact of the matter is that robots aren’t going to outdo healthcare workers’ ability to connect with patients and make them feel understood the way a human can.

Caretakers

While humans might be fine with robots flipping their burgers and artificial intelligence managing their finances, being comfortable with a robot nannying your children or looking after your elderly mother is a much bigger ask. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that even today’s most advanced robots don’t have the physical dexterity to perform the movements and actions carers do every day.

Grothaus does offer a proviso in his conclusion: certain types of jobs are relatively safe until developers learn to replicate qualities such as empathy in robots/AI.

It’s very confusing

There’s so much news about robots, artificial intelligence, androids, and cyborgs that it’s hard to keep up with it let alone attempt to get a feeling for where all this might be headed. When you add the fact that the term robots/artificial inteligence are often used interchangeably and that the distinction between robots/androids/cyborgs is not always clear any attempts to peer into the future become even more challenging.

At this point I content myself with tracking the situation and finding definitions so I can better understand what I’m tracking. Carmen Wong’s August 23, 2018 posting on the Signals blog published by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) offers some useful definitions in the context of an article about the use of artificial intelligence in the life sciences, particularly in Canada (Note: Links have been removed),

Artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning. To most people, these are just buzzwords and synonymous. Whether or not we fully understand what both are, they are slowly integrating into our everyday lives. Virtual assistants such as Siri? AI is at work. The personalized ads you see when you are browsing on the web or movie recommendations provided on Netflix? Thank AI for that too.

AI is defined as machines having intelligence that imitates human behaviour such as learning, planning and problem solving. A process used to achieve AI is called machine learning, where a computer uses lots of data to “train” or “teach” itself, without human intervention, to accomplish a pre-determined task. Essentially, the computer keeps on modifying its algorithm based on the information provided to get to the desired goal.

Another term you may have heard of is deep learning. Deep learning is a particular type of machine learning where algorithms are set up like the structure and function of human brains. It is similar to a network of brain cells interconnecting with each other.

Toronto has seen its fair share of media-worthy AI activity. The Government of Canada, Government of Ontario, industry and multiple universities came together in March 2018 to launch the Vector Institute, with the goal of using AI to promote economic growth and improve the lives of Canadians. In May, Samsung opened its AI Centre in the MaRS Discovery District, joining a network of Samsung centres located in California, United Kingdom and Russia.

There has been a boom in AI companies over the past few years, which span a variety of industries. This year’s ranking of the top 100 most promising private AI companies covers 25 fields with cybersecurity, enterprise and robotics being the hot focus areas.

Wong goes on to explore AI deployment in the life sciences and concludes that human scientists and doctors will still be needed although she does note this in closing (Note: A link has been removed),

More importantly, empathy and support from a fellow human being could never be fully replaced by a machine (could it?), but maybe this will change in the future. We will just have to wait and see.

Artificial empathy is the term used in Lisa Morgan’s April 25, 2018 article for Information Week which unfortunately does not include any links to actual projects or researchers working on artificial empathy. Instead, the article is focused on how business interests and marketers would like to see it employed. FWIW, I have found a few references: (1) Artificial empathy Wikipedia essay (look for the references at the end of the essay for more) and (2) this open access article: Towards Artificial Empathy; How Can Artificial Empathy Follow the Developmental Pathway of Natural Empathy? by Minoru Asada.

Please let me know in the comments if you should have an insights on the matter in the comments section of this blog.

CRISPR/Cas9 as a tool for artists (Art/sci Salon January 2018 events in Toronto, Canada) and an event in Winnipeg, Canada

The Art/Sci Salon in Toronto, Canada is offering a workshop and a panel discussion (I think) on the topic of CRISPR( (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)/Cas9.

CRISPR Cas9 Workshop with Marta De Menezes

From its Art/Sci Salon event page (on Eventbrite),

This is a two day intensive workshop on

Jan. 24 5:00-9:00 pm
and
Jan. 25 5:00-9:00 pm

This workshop will address issues pertaining to the uses, ethics, and representations of CRISPR-cas9 genome editing system; and the evolution of bioart as a cultural phenomenon . The workshop will focus on:

1. Scientific strategies and ethical issues related to the modification of organisms through the most advanced technology;

2. Techniques and biological materials to develop and express complex concepts into art objects.

This workshop will introduce knowledge, methods and living material from the life sciences to the participants. The class will apply that novel information to the creation of art. Finally, the key concepts, processes and knowledge from the arts will be discussed and related to scientific research. The studio-­‐lab portion of the course will focus on the mastering and understanding of the CRISPR – Cas9 technology and its revolutionary applications. The unparalleled potential of CRISPR ‐ Cas9 for genome editing will be directly assessed as the participants will use the method to make artworks and generate meaning through such a technique. The participants will be expected to complete one small project by the end of the course. In developing and completing these projects, participants will be asked to present their ideas/work to the instructors and fellow participants. As part of the course, participants are expected to document their work/methodology/process by keeping a record of processes, outcomes, and explorations.

This is a free event. Go here to register.

Do CRISPR monsters dream of synthetic futures?

This second event in Toronto seems to be a panel discussion; here’s more from its Art/Sci Salon event page (on Eventbrite),

The term CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) refers to a range of novel gene editing systems which can be programmed to edit DNA at precise locations. It allows the permanent modification of the genes in cells of living organisms. CRISPR enables novel basic research and promises a wide range of possible applications from biomedicine and agriculture to environmental challenges.

The surprising simplicity of CRISPR and its potentials have led to a wide range of reactions. While some welcome it as a gene editing revolution able to cure diseases that are currently fatal, others urge for a worldwide moratorium, especially when it comes to human germline modifications. The possibility that CRISPR may allow us to intervene in the evolution of organisms has generated particularly divisive thoughts: is gene editing going to cure us all? Or is it opening up a new era of designer babies and new types of privileges measured at the level of genes? Could the relative easiness of the technique allow individuals to modify bodies, identities, sexuality, to create new species and races? will it create new monsters? [emphasis mine] These are all topics that need to be discussed. With this panel/discussion, we wish to address technical, ethical, and creative issues arising from the futuristic scenarios promised by CRISPR.

Our Guests:

Marta De Menezes, Director, Cultivamos Cultura

Dalila Honorato, Assistant Professor, Ionian University

Mark Lipton, Professor, University of Guelph

Date: January 26, 2018

Time: 6:00-8:00 pm

Location: The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences
222 College Street, Toronto, ON

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

Bios:

Marta de Menezes is a Portuguese artist (b. Lisbon, 1975) with a degree in Fine Arts by the University in Lisbon, a MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture by the University of Oxford, and a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden. She has been exploring the intersection between Art and Biology, working in research laboratories demonstrating that new biological technologies can be used as new art medium. Her work has been presented internationally in exhibitions, articles and lectures. She is currently the artistic director of Ectopia, an experimental art laboratory in Lisbon, and Director of Cultivamos Cultura in the South of Portugal. http://martademenezes.com

Dalila Honorato, Ph.D., is currently Assistant Professor in Media Aesthetics and Semiotics at the Ionian University in Greece where she is one of the founding members of the Interactive Arts Lab. She is the head of the organizing committee of the conference “Taboo-Transgression-Transcendence in Art & Science” and developer of the studies program concept of the Summer School in Hybrid Arts. She is a guest faculty at the PhD studies program of the Institutum Studiorum Humanitatis in Alma Mater Europaea, Slovenia, and a guest member of the Science Art Philosophy Lab integrated in the Center of Philosophy of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Portugal. Her research focus is on embodiment in the intersection of performing arts and new media.

Mark Lipton works in the College of Arts; in the School of English and Theatre Studies, and Guelph’s Program in Media Studies. Currently, his work focuses on queering media ecological perspectives of technology’s role in education, with emerging questions about haptics and the body in performance contexts, and political outcomes of neo-liberal economics within Higher Education.

ArtSci Salon thanks the Fields Institute and the Bonham Center for Sexual Diversity Studies (U of T), and the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology for their support. We are grateful to the members of DIYBio Toronto and Hacklab for hosting Marta’s workshop.

This series of event is promoted and facilitated as part of FACTT Toronto

LASER – Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous is a project of Leonardo® /ISAST (International Society for the Arts Sciences and Technology)

Go here to click on the Register button.

For anyone who didn’t recognize (or, like me, barely remembers what it means) the title’s reference is to a famous science fiction story by Philip K. Dick. Here’s more from the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (retitled Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in some later printings) is a science fiction novel by American writer Philip K. Dick, first published in 1968. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where Earth’s life has been greatly damaged by nuclear global war. Most animal species are endangered or extinct from extreme radiation poisoning, so that owning an animal is now a sign of status and empathy, an attitude encouraged towards animals. The book served as the primary basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner, and many elements and themes from it were used in its 2017 sequel Blade Runner 2049.

The main plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is tasked with “retiring” (i.e. killing) six escaped Nexus-6 model androids, while a secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of sub-par IQ who aids the fugitive androids. In connection with Deckard’s mission, the novel explores the issue of what it is to be human. Unlike humans, the androids are said to possess no sense of empathy.

I wonder why they didn’t try to reference Orphan Black (its Wikipedia entry)? That television series was all about biotechnology. If not Orphan Black, what about a Frankenstein reference? It’s the 200th anniversary this year (2018) of the publication of the book which is the forerunner to all the cautionary tales that have come after.

Dr. Robin Coope will be speaking at Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique on July 30, 2013

The back room of the The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], Vancouver, Canada), should be raucous with the sounds of beer slurping and talk of engineering in the life sciences at  the next Café Scientifique Vancouver talk given by Robin Coope on Tuesday, July 30,  2013 at 7:30 pm. Here’s the talk description (from the announcement),

Explain what it is you do again? Engineering in the life sciences

After studiously avoiding biology from high school on, Robin Coope wound up doing a PhD in Physics which involved understanding some exotic failure modes in capillary DNA sequencing. This led to a job at the BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre where he is now the Instrumentation Group Leader. This mostly involves managing the Centre’s liquid handling robots but with various funding sources, projects have involved novel automation platforms for DNA sample prep, as well as several medical devices for cancer treatment and even orthopaedics.

It turns out that practicing engineering while embedded in a clinical research lab with ready access to physicians and life scientists presents a fantastic opportunity to pursue the fundamental objective of engineering: to identify challenges and develop tools to solve them. The clinic is full of problems and unmet needs but the success of a solution often hinges on subtle issues, so it can take many prototypes and much discussion to get something that works. Working in this science-based industry also elucidates a clear distinction between engineering and science where success in the latter should be measured by publishing important ideas, whereas success in the former is really in making solutions available to a broad audience, which ultimately means commercialization. After seven years of in this field its also clear that the most interesting part of the work is the people and the challenges of communicating with specialists in widely divergent fields.

In this talk, Robin will present some recent projects and reflect on key lessons in what has thus far been a remarkably exciting adventure.

Happy slurping!

Science, women and gender in Canada (part 2 of 2)

The material in the executive summary for Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension; The Expert Panel on Women in University Research, which was released on Nov. 21, 2012 by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is developed throughout the report. (Part 1 of my commentary is here.)

The passage about the economic importance of diversity supported by a quote from University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera hearkens back to the executive summary,

From an economic perspective, the underrepresentation of female researchers in academia raises many potential problems, not least the effects of a labour pool that operates at considerably less than full capacity. University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera noted:

“I think our society isn’t balanced if we don’t have the contribution of both genders, in addition to people of different ethnic origins and different racial backgrounds. We all know that diversity is a strength. That’s what you see in nature. So why would we rob ourselves of ensuring that we have it?” (in Smith, 2011).

U.S. researchers Hong and Page (2004) found that diverse groups tend to outperform homogeneous groups, even when the homogeneous groups are composed of the most talented problem solvers. They attribute this to the notion that individuals in homogeneous groups often think in similar ways, whereas diverse groups approach problems from multiple perspectives (Hong & Page, 2004). Considering that varied groups are “invariably more creative, innovative and productive” than homogeneous groups, the argument for encouraging women to be active in decision-making groups is similar to that for minority populations in general (Calnan & Valiquette, 2010). Similarly, the European Commission’s Expert Group on Structural Change (2011) analyzed a number of studies indicating that group creativity is fed by gender balance,25 and collective intelligence is positively correlated with the proportion of women in a group.26 As the McKinsey (2008) Report Women Matter 2 pointed out, since half of the talent pool is made up of women, it makes economic and social sense to bring the best minds of both sexes together to address the challenges that face society. (p. 60/1 PDF; p. 30/1 print)

One  of the more interesting aspects of this report is how the panel broke down the categories,

For the Panel’s analyses, fields of study were organized into three large categories: humanities, social sciences, and education (HSE); life sciences (LS); and physical sciences, computer science, mathematics and engineering (PCEM).31 The HSE, PCEM and LS categories are somewhat different from the categories commonly used in other reports, such as the well-known science, technology, engineering and mathematics classification (STEM);32 however, the Panel decided that the former classification was best suited to the Canadian context. For example, HSE, LS, and PCEM reflect the priorities of the three major Canadian granting agencies (SSHRC, CIHR, and NSERC). Considering the Tri-Council’s high level of involvement in funding available to researchers, it is logical to use a uniquely Canadian framework to define disciplines at the aggregate level. (pp. 68/9 PDF; pp. 38/9 print)

This categorization is not one I’ve seen before and I find it quite intriguing and compelling. Already noted in part 1 of my commentary is that the arts have no place in this report even though they are mentioned as an area of excellence in the State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 report released by the CCA in Sept. 2012.

The section following the description of the research categories is filled with data about salaries over time and across various fields of interest. Briefly, women have not done as well as men historically. While the gaps have narrowed in some ways, there is still a disparity today. There’s also a discussion about the difficulty of comparing numbers over time.

Given that women entered the academic sphere in serious numbers during the 1960s and each successive wave has dealt with different social imperatives, e.g. the drive to encourage women to study the science and mathematics in particular doesn’t gain momentum until decades after the 1960s. When a career timeframe (someone who entered an undergraduate programme in 2000 may have just finished their PhD in 2011 and, if lucky, would have started their career in the last 1.5 years) is added to this data, it becomes clear that we won’t understand the impact of higher enrollment and higher numbers of graduates for some years to come. From report,

The Panel recognizes that time is needed to see whether the higher numbers of women in the student population will translate into correspondingly higher numbers in tenure track or tenured positions. However, the Panel also questioned whether those changes would occur as quickly as one could expect considering the growth of female students among the general student population. Published by CAUT (2011), new appointment data on full-time university teachers38 from Statistics Canada and UCASS indicate that of the 2,361 new appointments in 2008–2009, 57.7 per cent were men, and 42.3 per cent were women. While this represents an increase from 2001–2002, when 62.7 per cent of the 2,634 new appointees were men and 37.3 per cent were women (CAUT, 2005), parity in new hires has not yet been achieved.39 (pp. 80/1 PDF; pp. 50/1 print)

Canada is not alone,

The higher one looks in university ranks, the fewer women are present in comparison to men. This trend is not unique to Canada. In general, the Canadian profile is similar to that found in other economically advanced nations including the U.S., and to the average profile seen in European Union (EU) countries. For example, in both Canada and the EU, women held slightly over 40 per cent of grade C45 research positions [approximately assistant professor level] and about 18 per cent of grade A46 positions [the highest research level] (Figure 3.8) in 2007 (Cacace, 2009).47 This global similarity reinforces the systemic nature of the under representation of women in academia. (p. 85 PDF; p. 55 print) Note:  The descriptions of grade C and grade A were taken from the footnotes.)

The difference is most striking when comparing C grade (assistant professor) to A grade (full professor) positions and their gendering,

The percentage of women at the Grade B level is generally lower than at the Grade C level, with the exception of Sweden (47 per cent) (please see also Figures A2.3 and A2.4 in Appendix 2). Finland also boasts a comparatively higher percentage of women at this rank, at 49 per cent. However, the greatest difference in women’s representation is noticeable between the ranks of associate professor and full professor. Again, there is some variation across countries (e.g., Finland at 23 per cent; Canada at 18 per cent; Germany at 12 per cent), which indicates that some nations have farther to go to achieve gender parity in research than others. In general though, the relatively low proportion of women at the full professor level suggests that the glass ceiling remains intact in Canada as well as in several comparator countries. (p. 87 PDF; p. 57 print) [emphasis mine]

In an earlier section of the report, there was discussion of  the impact that maternity, which forces an interruption, has on a career.  There was also discussion of the impact that stereotypes have,

The effects of stereotypes are cumulative. The desire for peer acceptance plus the influence of stereotypes make it difficult for anyone to escape powerful “cultural messages” (Etzkowitz et al., 2000). This is one of the reasons why gendered trends emerge in girls’ and boys’ choices and, combined with the lack of policy change, a reason why it is still difficult for women to advance in some university departments. Later on in the life course, these messages can make it harder for women’s professional experience to be valued in academia, as evidenced by findings that demonstrate that curricula vitae are evaluated differently based on whether the applicant’s name is male or female (Steinpreis et al., 1999), or that blind auditions increase the chances that women musicians will be hired in orchestras … (p. 95 PDF; p. 65 print)

What I find fascinating about stereotypes is that since we are all exposed to them, we are all inclined to discriminate along those stereotypical lines.  For example, I wrote about some research into wages for graduate students in a Sept. 24, 2012 posting where I pointed out that a female graduate student was better off seeking employment with a male professor, despite the fact that she would still be offered less money than her male counterpart,

I tracked down the paper (which is open access), Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Bescroll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman and found some figures in a table which I can’t reproduce here but suggest the saying ‘we women eat their own’ isn’t far off the mark. In it, you’ll see that while women faculty members will offer less to both genders, they offer significantly less to female applicants.

For a male applicant, here’s the salary offer,

Male Faculty               Female Faculty

30,520.82                    29, 333.33

For a female applicant, here’s the salary offer,

Male Faculty               Female Faculty

27,111.11                    25,000.00

To sum this up, the men offered approximately $3000 (9.25%) less to female applicants while the women offered approximately $4000 (14.6%) less. It’s uncomfortable to admit that women may be just as much or even more at fault as men where gender bias is concerned. However, it is necessary if the situation is ever going to change.

The researchers did not mention this aspect of the disparity in their news release nor (to my knowledge) was it mentioned in any of the subsequent coverage, other than on my blog.

Nowhere in this CCA report is there any hint that women discriminate against women. One is left with the impression, intentional or not, that discrimination against women will disappear once there are more women at higher levels in the worlds of academe and science. Given the one piece of research I’ve cited and much anecdotal evidence, I think that assumption should be tested.

Leaving aside which gender is ‘doing what to whom’, gender bias at home and at school has a great impact on who enters which field,

In sum, home and school environments, sociocultural attitudes, and beliefs regarding gender roles and the value of education affect gender differences in academic choice and performance. Self-confidence, test scores, and ultimately post-secondary and career choices are often by-products of these factors (UNESCO, 2007). The lack of women in science and engineering — and the lack of men in education studies and humanities — could be a result of gender bias during childhood and teen socialization (Vallès Peris & Caprile Elola-Olaso, 2009). (p. 97 PDF; p. 67 print) [emphasis mine]

I realize this report is focused on gender issues in the sciences, nonetheless, I find it striking there is no mention of social class (at home and at school) with regard to the impact that has on aspirations to a research career and, for that matter, any impact social class might have on gender roles.

Also, there is no substantive mention of age as a factor, which seems odd, since women are more likely to interrupt their careers for childbearing and childrearing purposes. This interruption means they are going to be older when they re-enter the workforce and an older woman is still perceived quite differently than an older man, irrespective of career accomplishments.

The Nov. 21, 2012 news release from the CCA summarizes the conclusions in this fashion,

“There is no single solution to remedy the underrepresentation of women in the highest ranks of academic research careers. The issue itself is a multifaceted one that is affected by social, cultural, economic, institutional, and political factors and contexts”, commented Panel Chair Dr. Lorna R. Marsden. “There has been significant progress in the representation of women in the academy since the 1970s, and there is much to be celebrated. However, as evidenced by the wide variation in women’s representation by discipline and rank, there are still challenges to overcome.”

The Expert Panel developed a baseline of information regarding the statistical profile of women researchers in Canada. The major findings from the statistical profile are:

  •       In general, the Canadian profile is similar to that of other economically advanced nations.
  •       Women’s progress in Canadian universities is uneven and dependent on discipline and rank.
  •        The higher the rank, the lower the percentage of women in comparison to men.

The Panel also identified key factors that affect the multiple career paths of women. These factors start early in life with stereotypes that define roles and expectations, followed by a lack of knowledge about requisites for potential career paths, and a lack of role models and mentors. These issues, combined with a rigid tenure track structure, challenges associated with the paid work-family life balance, and the importance of increased support and coordination amongst governments and institutions need to be examined if Canada is going to achieve a greater gender balance within academia.

There’s a lot of admire in this report. As noted in part 1 of this commentary, I particularly appreciate the inclusion of personal narrative (life-writing) with the usual literature surveys and data analyses; the discussion around the importance of innovation regarding the economy and the reference to research showing that innovation is enhanced by the inclusion of marginalized groups; and the way in which values fundamental to Canadian society were emphasized.

The photograph on the front cover was a misstep. The most serious criticism I have of this assessment is the failure to recognize that simply having more women in leadership positions will not necessarily address gender equity issues. Stereotypes about women and gender run deep in both men and women and that needs to be recognized and dealt with. I am also disappointed that they failed to mention in the conclusion the impact that leadership has on gender equity and the necessity of giving leaders a reason (carrot and/or stick) to care about it.

I cannot comment on the makeup of the expert panel as I’m largely unfamiliar with the individuals, other than to say that as expected, this panel was largely composed of women.

I recommend reading the report as I learned a lot from it not least that there are many science organizations in this country that I’d not heard of or encountered previously. One final appreciation, I thought deconstructing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to create HSE (humanities, social sciences, and education), LS (life sciences), and PCEM (physical sciences, computer science, engineering, and mathematics) so the designations more clearly reflected Canadian science funding realities was brilliant.

The Scientist opens its archives for a limited period of time

I received an email from The Scientist magazine website alerting me to their special open access at almost the same time I came across a posting by Dave Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis about a recent synbio and the FBI article in the very same magazine.

The original article by Jill Frommer titled, SYNTHETIC BIO MEET “Fbio”; You may soon be visited by an FBI agent, or a scientist acting on behalf of one. Here’s why, provides an overview of the current situation with regard to law enforcement agencies and practitioners in the life sciences field (note: The Scientist is primarily a life sciences magazine).

From Dave’s posting,

The Scientist has a long, detailed article outlining the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s relationship with the biological sciences community. Unfortunately, recent cases such as those of Thomas Butler and Steve Kurtz have established a more adversarial relationship between the FBI and the biological sciences than would be beneficial – for both sides. …

I think some history could help understand why there are challenges in this area, where the nuclear science/weapons research areas didn’t quite have the combination of ambivalence and distrust that come through in the Scientist piece.

It’s well worth looking at both pieces, now especially if you are loathe to register at The Scientist for the privilege of reading an article. Note: I registered a while back and they send a monthly notice about the latest issue but have never bothered me otherwise.