This is a bioinspired story with a bit of a twist. From a March 30, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),
Humans have been inspired by nature since the beginning of time. We mimic nature to develop new technologies, with examples ranging from machinery to pharmaceuticals to new materials. Planes are modelled on birds and many drugs have their origins in plants. Researchers at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering [ETH Zurich; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] have taken it a step further: in order to develop an extremely sensitive temperature sensor they took a close look at temperature-sensitive plants. However, they did not mimic the properties of the plants; instead, they developed a hybrid material that contains, in addition to synthetic components, the plant cells themselves (“Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+”). [emphasis mine] “We let nature do the job for us,” explains Chiara Daraio, Professor of Mechanics and Materials.
The scientists were able to develop by far the most sensitive temperature sensor: an electronic module that changes its conductivity as a function of temperature. “No other sensor can respond to such small temperature fluctuations with such large changes in conductivity. Our sensor reacts with a responsivity at least 100 times higher compared to the best existing sensors,” says Raffaele Di Giacomo, a post-doc in Daraio’s group.
The scientists have provided an illustration of their concept using a tobacco leaf as the backdrop,
ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)
It has been known for decades that plants have the extraordinary ability to register extremely fine temperature differences and respond to them through changes in the conductivity of their cells. In doing so, plants are better than any man-made sensor so far.
Di Giacomo experimented with tobacco cells in a cell culture. “We asked ourselves how we might transfer these cells into a lifeless, dry material in such a way that their temperature-sensitive properties are preserved,” he recounts. The scientists achieved their objective by growing the cells in a medium containing tiny tubes of carbon. These electrically conductive carbon nanotubes formed a network between the tobacco cells and were also able to penetrate the cell walls. When Di Giacomo dried the nanotube-cultivated cells, he discovered a woody, firm material that he calls ‘cyberwood’. In contrast to wood, this material is electrically conductive thanks to the nanotubes, and interestingly the conductivity is temperature-dependent and extremely sensitive, just like in living tobacco cells.
The scientists considered the new material’s (cyberwood) properties and possible future applications (from the news release),
As demonstrated by experiments, the cyberwood sensor can identify warm bodies even at distance; for example, a hand approaching the sensor from a distance of a few dozen centimetres. The sensor’s conductivity depends directly on the hand’s distance from the sensor.
According to the scientists, cyberwood could be used in a wide range of applications; for instance, in the development of a ‘touchless touchscreen’ that reacts to gestures, with the gestures recorded by multiple sensors. Equally conceivable might be heat-sensitive cameras or night-vision devices.
The Swiss researchers along with a collaborator at the University of Salerno (Italy) did further research into the origins of the material’s behaviour (from the news release),
The ETH scientists, together with a collaborator at the University of Salerno, Italy, not only subjected their new material’s properties to a detailed examination, they also analysed the origins of their extraordinary behaviour. They discovered that pectins and charged atoms (ions) play a key role in the temperature sensitivity of both living plant cells and the dry cyberwood. Pectins are sugar molecules found in plant cell walls that can be cross-linked, depending on temperature, to form a gel. Calcium and magnesium ions are both present in this gel. “As the temperature rises, the links of the pectin break apart, the gel becomes softer, and the ions can move about more freely,” explains Di Giacomo. As a result, the material conducts electricity better when temperature increases.
The news release goes on to mention a patent and future plans,
The scientists submitted a patent application for their sensor. In ongoing work, they are now further developing it such that it functions without plant cells, essentially with only pectin and ions. Their goal is to create a flexible, transparent and even biocompatible sensor with the same ultrahigh temperature sensitivity. Such a sensor could be moulded into arbitrary shapes and produced at extremely low cost. This will open the door to new applications for thermal sensors in biomedical devices, consumer products and low cost thermal cameras.
I have two items about implants and brains and an item about being able to exert remote control of the brain, all of which hint at a cyborg future for at least a few of us.
e-Dura, the spinal column, and the brain
The first item concerns some research, at the École Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) which features flexible electronics. From a March 24, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, have developed the e-Dura—a tiny skinlike device that attaches directly to damaged spinal cords. By sending out small electrical pulses, it stimulates the cord as if it were receiving signals from the brain, thus allowing movement.
“The purpose of the neuro-prosthesis is to excite the neurons that are on the spinal cord below the site of the injury and activate them, just like if they were receiving information from the brain,” says Stéphanie Lacour, a professor at the institute.
EPFL scientists have managed to get rats walking on their own again using a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation. But applying this method to humans would require multifunctional implants that could be installed for long periods of time on the spinal cord without causing any tissue damage. This is precisely what the teams of professors Stéphanie Lacour and Grégoire Courtine have developed. Their e-Dura implant is designed specifically for implantation on the surface of the brain or spinal cord. The small device closely imitates the mechanical properties of living tissue, and can simultaneously deliver electric impulses and pharmacological substances. The risks of rejection and/or damage to the spinal cord have been drastically reduced. An article about the implant will appear in early January  in Science Magazine.
So-called “surface implants” have reached a roadblock; they cannot be applied long term to the spinal cord or brain, beneath the nervous system’s protective envelope, otherwise known as the “dura mater,” because when nerve tissues move or stretch, they rub against these rigid devices. After a while, this repeated friction causes inflammation, scar tissue buildup, and rejection.
Here’s what the implant looks like,
The press release describes how the implant is placed (Note: A link has been removed),
Flexible and stretchy, the implant developed at EPFL is placed beneath the dura mater, directly onto the spinal cord. Its elasticity and its potential for deformation are almost identical to the living tissue surrounding it. This reduces friction and inflammation to a minimum. When implanted into rats, the e-Dura prototype caused neither damage nor rejection, even after two months. More rigid traditional implants would have caused significant nerve tissue damage during this period of time.
The researchers tested the device prototype by applying their rehabilitation protocol — which combines electrical and chemical stimulation – to paralyzed rats. Not only did the implant prove its biocompatibility, but it also did its job perfectly, allowing the rats to regain the ability to walk on their own again after a few weeks of training.
“Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or the cortex, precisely because it has the same mechanical properties as the dura mater itself. This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralyzed following spinal cord injury,” explains Lacour, co-author of the paper, and holder of EPFL’s Bertarelli Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology.
The press release goes on to describe the engineering achievements,
Developing the e-Dura implant was quite a feat of engineering. As flexible and stretchable as living tissue, it nonetheless includes electronic elements that stimulate the spinal cord at the point of injury. The silicon substrate is covered with cracked gold electric conducting tracks that can be pulled and stretched. The electrodes are made of an innovative composite of silicon and platinum microbeads. They can be deformed in any direction, while still ensuring optimal electrical conductivity. Finally, a fluidic microchannel enables the delivery of pharmacological substances – neurotransmitters in this case – that will reanimate the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue.
The implant can also be used to monitor electrical impulses from the brain in real time. When they did this, the scientists were able to extract with precision the animal’s motor intention before it was translated into movement.
“It’s the first neuronal surface implant designed from the start for long-term application. In order to build it, we had to combine expertise from a considerable number of areas,” explains Courtine, co-author and holder of EPFL’s IRP Chair in Spinal Cord Repair. “These include materials science, electronics, neuroscience, medicine, and algorithm programming. I don’t think there are many places in the world where one finds the level of interdisciplinary cooperation that exists in our Center for Neuroprosthetics.”
For the time being, the e-Dura implant has been primarily tested in cases of spinal cord injury in paralyzed rats. But the potential for applying these surface implants is huge – for example in epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and pain management. The scientists are planning to move towards clinical trials in humans, and to develop their prototype in preparation for commercialization.
EPFL has provided a video of researcher Stéphanie Lacour describing e-Dura and expressing hopes for its commercialization,
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Electronic dura mater for long-term multimodal neural interfaces by Ivan R. Minev, Pavel Musienko, Arthur Hirsch, Quentin Barraud, Nikolaus Wenger, Eduardo Martin Moraud, Jérôme Gandar, Marco Capogrosso, Tomislav Milekovic, Léonie Asboth, Rafael Fajardo Torres, Nicolas Vachicouras, Qihan Liu, Natalia Pavlova, Simone Duis, Alexandre Larmagnac, Janos Vörös, Silvestro Micera, Zhigang Suo, Grégoire Courtine, Stéphanie P. Lacour. Science 9 January 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6218 pp. 159-163 DOI: 10.1126/science.1260318
This paper is behind a paywall.
Carbon nanotube fibres could connect to the brain
Researchers at Rice University (Texas, US) are excited about the possibilities that carbon nanotube fibres offer in the field of implantable electronics for the brain. From a March 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,
Carbon nanotube fibers invented at Rice University may provide the best way to communicate directly with the brain.
The fibers have proven superior to metal electrodes for deep brain stimulation and to read signals from a neuronal network. Because they provide a two-way connection, they show promise for treating patients with neurological disorders while monitoring the real-time response of neural circuits in areas that control movement, mood and bodily functions.
New experiments at Rice demonstrated the biocompatible fibers are ideal candidates for small, safe electrodes that interact with the brain’s neuronal system, according to the researchers. They could replace much larger electrodes currently used in devices for deep brain stimulation therapies in Parkinson’s disease patients.
They may also advance technologies to restore sensory or motor functions and brain-machine interfaces as well as deep brain stimulation therapies for other neurological disorders, including dystonia and depression, the researchers wrote.
The fibers created by the Rice lab of chemist and chemical engineer Matteo Pasquali consist of bundles of long nanotubes originally intended for aerospace applications where strength, weight and conductivity are paramount.
The individual nanotubes measure only a few nanometers across, but when millions are bundled in a process called wet spinning, they become thread-like fibers about a quarter the width of a human hair.
“We developed these fibers as high-strength, high-conductivity materials,” Pasquali said. “Yet, once we had them in our hand, we realized that they had an unexpected property: They are really soft, much like a thread of silk. Their unique combination of strength, conductivity and softness makes them ideal for interfacing with the electrical function of the human body.”
The simultaneous arrival in 2012 of Caleb Kemere, a Rice assistant professor who brought expertise in animal models of Parkinson’s disease, and lead author Flavia Vitale, a research scientist in Pasquali’s lab with degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering, prompted the investigation.
“The brain is basically the consistency of pudding and doesn’t interact well with stiff metal electrodes,” Kemere said. “The dream is to have electrodes with the same consistency, and that’s why we’re really excited about these flexible carbon nanotube fibers and their long-term biocompatibility.”
Weeks-long tests on cells and then in rats with Parkinson’s symptoms proved the fibers are stable and as efficient as commercial platinum electrodes at only a fraction of the size. The soft fibers caused little inflammation, which helped maintain strong electrical connections to neurons by preventing the body’s defenses from scarring and encapsulating the site of the injury.
The highly conductive carbon nanotube fibers also show much more favorable impedance – the quality of the electrical connection — than state-of-the-art metal electrodes, making for better contact at lower voltages over long periods, Kemere said.
The working end of the fiber is the exposed tip, which is about the width of a neuron. The rest is encased with a three-micron layer of a flexible, biocompatible polymer with excellent insulating properties.
The challenge is in placing the tips. “That’s really just a matter of having a brain atlas, and during the experiment adjusting the electrodes very delicately and putting them into the right place,” said Kemere, whose lab studies ways to connect signal-processing systems and the brain’s memory and cognitive centers.
Doctors who implant deep brain stimulation devices start with a recording probe able to “listen” to neurons that emit characteristic signals depending on their functions, Kemere said. Once a surgeon finds the right spot, the probe is removed and the stimulating electrode gently inserted. Rice carbon nanotube fibers that send and receive signals would simplify implantation, Vitale said.
The fibers could lead to self-regulating therapeutic devices for Parkinson’s and other patients. Current devices include an implant that sends electrical signals to the brain to calm the tremors that afflict Parkinson’s patients.
“But our technology enables the ability to record while stimulating,” Vitale said. “Current electrodes can only stimulate tissue. They’re too big to detect any spiking activity, so basically the clinical devices send continuous pulses regardless of the response of the brain.”
Kemere foresees a closed-loop system that can read neuronal signals and adapt stimulation therapy in real time. He anticipates building a device with many electrodes that can be addressed individually to gain fine control over stimulation and monitoring from a small, implantable device.
“Interestingly, conductivity is not the most important electrical property of the nanotube fibers,” Pasquali said. “These fibers are intrinsically porous and extremely stable, which are both great advantages over metal electrodes for sensing electrochemical signals and maintaining performance over long periods of time.”
The paper is open access provided you register on the website.
Remote control for stimulation of the brain
Mo Costandi, neuroscientist and freelance science writer, has written a March 24, 2015 post for the Guardian science blog network focusing on neuronal remote control,
Two teams of scientists have developed new ways of stimulating neurons with nanoparticles, allowing them to activate brain cells remotely using light or magnetic fields. The new methods are quicker and far less invasive than other hi-tech methods available, so could be more suitable for potential new treatments for human diseases.
Researchers have various methods for manipulating brain cell activity, arguably the most powerful being optogenetics, which enables them to switch specific brain cells on or off with unprecedented precision, and simultaneously record their behaviour, using pulses of light.
This is very useful for probing neural circuits and behaviour, but involves first creating genetically engineered mice with light-sensitive neurons, and then inserting the optical fibres that deliver light into the brain, so there are major technical and ethical barriers to its use in humans.
Nanomedicine could get around this. Francisco Bezanilla of the University of Chicago and his colleagues knew that gold nanoparticles can absorb light and convert it into heat, and several years ago they discovered that infrared light can make neurons fire nervous impulses by heating up their cell membranes.
Polina Anikeeva’s team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopted a slightly different approach, using spherical iron oxide particles that give off heat when exposed to an alternating magnetic field.
Although still in the experimental stages, research like this may eventually allow for wireless and minimally invasive deep brain stimulation of the human brain. Bezanilla’s group aim to apply their method to develop treatments for macular degeneration and other conditions that kill off light-sensitive cells in the retina. This would involve injecting nanoparticles into the eye so that they bind to other retinal cells, allowing natural light to excite them into firing impulses to the optic nerve.
Costandi’s article is intended for an audience that either understands the science or can deal with the uncertainty of not understanding absolutely everything. Provided you fall into either of those categories, the article is well written and it provides links and citations to the papers for both research teams being featured.
Taken together, the research at EPFL, Rice University, University of Chicago, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides a clue as to how much money and intellectual power is being directed at the brain.
Researchers at Switzerland’s University of Geneva/Université de Genève (UNIGE) have revealed the mechanisms (note the plural) by which chameleons change their colour. From a March 10, 2015 news item on phys.org,
Many chameleons have the remarkable ability to exhibit complex and rapid color changes during social interactions. A collaboration of scientists within the Sections of Biology and Physics of the Faculty of Science from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, unveils the mechanisms that regulate this phenomenon.
In a study published in Nature Communications [March 10, 2015], the team led by professors Michel Milinkovitch and Dirk van der Marel demonstrates that the changes take place via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals present in a superficial layer of dermal cells called iridophores. The researchers also reveal the existence of a deeper population of iridophores with larger and less ordered crystals that reflect the infrared light. The organisation of iridophores into two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty and it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.
Male chameleons are popular for their ability to change colorful adornments depending on their behaviour. If the mechanisms responsible for a transformation towards a darker skin are known, those that regulate the transition from a lively color to another vivid hue remained mysterious. Some species, such as the panther chameleon, are able to carry out such a change within one or two minutes to court a female or face a competing male.
Besides brown, red and yellow pigments, chameleons and other reptiles display so-called structural colors. «These colors are generated without pigments, via a physical phenomenon of optical interference. They result from interactions between certain wavelengths and nanoscopic structures, such as tiny crystals present in the skin of the reptiles», says Michel Milinkovitch, professor at the Department of Genetics and Evolution at UNIGE. These nanocrystals are arranged in layers that alternate with cytoplasm, within cells called iridophores. The structure thus formed allows a selective reflection of certain wavelengths, which contributes to the vivid colors of numerous reptiles.
To determine how the transition from one flashy color to another one is carried out in the panther chameleon, the researchers of two laboratories at UNIGE worked hand in hand, combining their expertise in both quantum physics and in evolutionary biology. «We discovered that the animal changes its colors via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals. When the chameleon is calm, the latter are organised into a dense network and reflect the blue wavelengths. In contrast, when excited, it loosens its lattice of nanocrystals, which allows the reflection of other colors, such as yellows or reds», explain the physicist Jérémie Teyssier and the biologist Suzanne Saenko, co-first authors of the article. This constitutes a unique example of an auto-organised intracellular optical system controlled by the chameleon.
The press release goes on to note that the iridophores have another function,
The scientists also demonstrated the existence of a second deeper layer of iridophores. «These cells, which contain larger and less ordered crystals, reflect a substantial proportion of the infrared wavelengths», states Michel Milinkovitch. This forms an excellent protection against the thermal effects of high exposure to sun radiations in low-latitude regions.
The organisation of iridophores in two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty: it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.
In their future research, the scientists will explore the mechanisms that explain the development of an ordered nanocrystals lattice within iridophores, as well as the molecular and cellular mechanisms that allow chameleons to control the geometry of this lattice.
On returning to school to get a bachelor’s degree, I registered in a communications course and my first paper was about science, light, and communication. The particle/wave situation still fascinates me (and I imagine many others).
A March 2, 2015 news item on phys.org describes the first successful photography of light as both particle and wave,
Light behaves both as a particle and as a wave. Since the days of Einstein, scientists have been trying to directly observe both of these aspects of light at the same time. Now, scientists at EPFL [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland] have succeeded in capturing the first-ever snapshot of this dual behavior.
Quantum mechanics tells us that light can behave simultaneously as a particle or a wave. However, there has never been an experiment able to capture both natures of light at the same time; the closest we have come is seeing either wave or particle, but always at different times. Taking a radically different experimental approach, EPFL scientists have now been able to take the first ever snapshot of light behaving both as a wave and as a particle. The breakthrough work is published in Nature Communications.
When UV light hits a metal surface, it causes an emission of electrons. Albert Einstein explained this “photoelectric” effect by proposing that light – thought to only be a wave – is also a stream of particles. Even though a variety of experiments have successfully observed both the particle- and wave-like behaviors of light, they have never been able to observe both at the same time.
A research team led by Fabrizio Carbone at EPFL has now carried out an experiment with a clever twist: using electrons to image light. The researchers have captured, for the first time ever, a single snapshot of light behaving simultaneously as both a wave and a stream of particles particle.
The experiment is set up like this: A pulse of laser light is fired at a tiny metallic nanowire. The laser adds energy to the charged particles in the nanowire, causing them to vibrate. Light travels along this tiny wire in two possible directions, like cars on a highway. When waves traveling in opposite directions meet each other they form a new wave that looks like it is standing in place. Here, this standing wave becomes the source of light for the experiment, radiating around the nanowire.
This is where the experiment’s trick comes in: The scientists shot a stream of electrons close to the nanowire, using them to image the standing wave of light. As the electrons interacted with the confined light on the nanowire, they either sped up or slowed down. Using the ultrafast microscope to image the position where this change in speed occurred, Carbone’s team could now visualize the standing wave, which acts as a fingerprint of the wave-nature of light.
While this phenomenon shows the wave-like nature of light, it simultaneously demonstrated its particle aspect as well. As the electrons pass close to the standing wave of light, they “hit” the light’s particles, the photons. As mentioned above, this affects their speed, making them move faster or slower. This change in speed appears as an exchange of energy “packets” (quanta) between electrons and photons. The very occurrence of these energy packets shows that the light on the nanowire behaves as a particle.
“This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics – and its paradoxical nature – directly,” says Fabrizio Carbone. In addition, the importance of this pioneering work can extend beyond fundamental science and to future technologies. As Carbone explains: “Being able to image and control quantum phenomena at the nanometer scale like this opens up a new route towards quantum computing.”
This work represents a collaboration between the Laboratory for Ultrafast Microscopy and Electron Scattering of EPFL, the Department of Physics of Trinity College (US) and the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The imaging was carried out EPFL’s ultrafast energy-filtered transmission electron microscope – one of the two in the world.
For anyone who prefers videos, the EPFL researchers have prepared a brief description (loaded with some amusing images) of their work,
Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,
The “Nanorama Laboratory”, an interactive online tool on the safe handling of nanomaterials, is now available in English on nano.dguv.de/nanorama/bgrci/en/. The tool, developed in close collaboration with the German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the raw materials and chemical industry (BG RCI), was devised by the Innovation Society, St. Gallen. It is part of the nano-platform “Safe Handling of Nanomaterials” of the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV).
The “Nanorama Laboratory“ http://nano.dguv.de/nanorama/bgrci/en/ is one of three interactive educational tools available on the Nano-Platform “Safe Handling of Nanomaterials“ (http://nano.dguv.de; to date, the platform and the remaining “Nanoramas” are available in German). The “Nanorama Laboratory” was developed by the Innovation Society, St. Gallen, in close collaboration with the German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the raw materials and chemical industry (BG RCI). It offers insights into the safe handling of nanomaterials and installations used to manufacture or process nanomaterials in laboratories. Complementary to hazard evaluation assessments, it enables users to assess the occupational exposure to nanomaterials and to identify necessary protective measures when handling said materials in laboratories.
The Innovation Society offers an image from the latest Nanorama made available in English,
Having just attended a talk on Robotics and Rehabilitation which included a segment on Robo Ethics, news of an art project where an autonomous bot (robot) is set loose on the darknet to purchase goods (not all of them illegal) was fascinating in itself (it was part of an art exhibition which also displayed the proceeds of the darknet activity). But things got more interesting when the exhibit attracted legal scrutiny in the UK and occasioned legal action in Switzerland.
… some London-based Swiss artists, !Mediengruppe Bitnik [(Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo)], presented an exhibition in Zurich of The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland. Specifically, they had programmed a bot with some Bitcoin to randomly buy $100 worth of things each week via a darknet market, like Silk Road (in this case, it was actually Agora). The artists’ focus was more about the nature of dark markets, and whether or not it makes sense to make them illegal:
The pair see parallels between copyright law and drug laws: “You can enforce laws, but what does that mean for society? Trading is something people have always done without regulation, but today it is regulated,” says ays [sic] Weiskopff.
“There have always been darkmarkets in cities, online or offline. These questions need to be explored. But what systems do we have to explore them in? Post Snowden, space for free-thinking online has become limited, and offline is not a lot better.”
Interestingly the bot got excellent service as Mike Power wrote in his Dec. 5, 2014 review of the show. Power also highlights some of the legal, ethical, and moral implications,
The gallery is next door to a police station, but the artists say they are not afraid of legal repercussions of their bot buying illegal goods.
“We are the legal owner of the drugs [the bot purchased 10 ecstasy pills along with a baseball cap, a pair of sneaker/runners/trainers among other items] – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code, says Smoljo. “But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free.”
The project also aims to explore the ways that trust is built between anonymous participants in a commercial transaction for possibly illegal goods. Perhaps most surprisingly, not one of the 12 deals the robot has made has ended in a scam.
“The markets copied procedures from Amazon and eBay – their rating and feedback system is so interesting,” adds Smojlo. “With such simple tools you can gain trust. The service level was impressive – we had 12 items and everything arrived.”
“There has been no scam, no rip-off, nothing,” says Weiskopff. “One guy could not deliver a handbag the bot ordered, but he then returned the bitcoins to us.”
The exhibition scheduled from Oct. 18, 2014 – Jan. 11, 2015 enjoyed an uninterrupted run but there were concerns in the UK (from the Power article),
A spokesman for the National Crime Agency, which incorporates the National Cyber Crime Unit, was less philosophical, acknowledging that the question of criminal culpability in the case of a randomised software agent making a purchase of an illegal drug was “very unusual”.
“If the purchase is made in Switzerland, then it’s of course potentially subject to Swiss law, on which we couldn’t comment,” said the NCA. “In the UK, it’s obviously illegal to purchase a prohibited drug (such as ecstasy), but any criminal liability would need to assessed on a case-by-case basis.”
Masnick describes the followup,
Apparently, that [case-by[case] assessment has concluded in this case, because right after the exhibit closed in Switzerland, law enforcement showed up to seize stuff …
«Can a robot, or a piece of software, be jailed if it commits a crime? Where does legal culpability lie if code is criminal by design or default? What if a robot buys drugs, weapons, or hacking equipment and has them sent to you, and police intercept the package?» These are some of the questions Mike Power asked when he reviewed the work «Random Darknet Shopper» in The Guardian. The work was part of the exhibition «The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration» in the Kunst Halle St. Gallen, which closed on Sunday, January 11, 2015. For the duration of the exhibition, !Mediengruppe Bitnik sent a software bot on a shopping spree in the Deepweb. Random Darknet Shopper had a budget of $100 in Bitcoins weekly, which it spent on a randomly chosen item from the deepweb shop Agora. The work and the exhibition received wide attention from the public and the press. The exhibition was well-attended and was discussed in a wide range of local and international press from Saiten to Vice, Arte, Libération, CNN, Forbes. «There’s just one problem», The Washington Post wrote in January about the work, «recently, it bought 10 ecstasy pills».
What does it mean for a society, when there are robots which act autonomously? Who is liable, when a robot breaks the law on its own initiative? These were some of the main questions the work Random Darknet Shopper posed. Global questions, which will now be negotiated locally.
On the morning of January 12, the day after the three-month exhibition was closed, the public prosecutor’s office of St. Gallen seized and sealed our work. It seems, the purpose of the confiscation is to impede an endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited by destroying them. This is what we know at present. We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art. We’d also like to thank Kunst Halle St. Gallen for their ongoing support and the wonderful collaboration. Furthermore, we are convinced, that it is an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions.
This project brings to mind Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics and a question (from the Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),
The Three Laws of Robotics (often shortened to The Three Laws or Three Laws, also known as Asimov’s Laws) are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws are:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Here’s my question, how do you programme a robot to know what would injure a human being? For example, if a human ingests an ecstasy pill the bot purchased, would that be covered in the first law?
Getting back to the robot ethics talk I recently attended, it was given by Ajung Moon (Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia [Vancouver, Canada] studying Human-Robot Interaction and Roboethics. Mechatronics engineer with a sprinkle of Philosophy background). She has a blog, Roboethic info DataBase where you can read more on robots and ethics.
I strongly recommend reading both Masnick’s post (he positions this action in a larger context) and Power’s article (more details and images from the exhibit).
A Dec. 17, 2014 news item on Nanotechnology Now describes research into the phenomenon of bioluminescence and fireflies,
Fireflies used rapid light flashes to communicate. This “bioluminescence” is an intriguing phenomenon that has many potential applications, from drug testing and monitoring water contamination, and even lighting up streets using glow-in-dark trees and plants. Fireflies emit light when a compound called luciferin breaks down. We know that this reaction needs oxygen, but what we don’t know is how fireflies actually supply oxygen to their light-emitting cells. Using state-of-the-art imaging techniques, scientists from Switzerland and Taiwan have determined how fireflies control oxygen distribution to light up their cells. The work is published in Physical Review Letters.
The firefly’s light-producing organ is called the “lantern”, and it is located in the insect’s abdomen. It looks like a series of tubes progressing into smaller ones and so one, like a tree’s branches growing into twigs. The function of these tubes, called, is to supply oxygen to the cells of the lantern, which contain luciferase and can produce light. However, the complexity of the firefly’s lantern has made it difficult to study this mechanism in depth, and reproduce it for technological applications.
Giorgio Margaritondo at EPFL, Yeukuang Hwu at the Academia Sinica and their colleagues at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan have successfully used two sophisticated imaging techniques to overcome the complexity of the firefly lantern and map out how oxygen is supplied to light-emitting cells. The techniques are called synchrotron phase contrast microtomography and transmission x-ray microscopy. They can scan down to the level of a single cell, even allowing researchers to look inside it.
By applying these techniques on live fireflies, the scientists were able to see the entire structure of the lantern for the first time, and to also make quantitative evaluations of oxygen distribution.
The imaging showed that the firefly diverts oxygen from other cellular functions and puts it into the reaction that breaks up luciferin. Specifically, the researchers found that oxygen consumption in the cell decreased, slowing down energy production. At the same time, oxygen supply switched to light-emission.
The study is the first to ever show the firefly’s lantern in such detail, while also providing clear evidence that it is optimized for light emission thanks to the state-of-the-art techniques used by the scientists. But Margaritondo points out another innovation: “The techniques we used have an advantage over, say, conventional x-ray techniques, which cannot easily distinguish between soft tissues. By using an approach based on changes in light intensity (phase-contrast) as opposed to light absorption (x-rays), we were able to achieve high-resolution imaging of the delicate firefly lantern.”
Here’s an image illustrating the work,
Tomographic Reconstruction of Part of the Firefly Lantern; This detailed microimage shows larger channels branching into smaller ones, supplying oxygen for the firefly’s light emission. The smallest channels are ten thousand times smaller than a millimeter and therefore invisible to other experimental probes: this has prevented scientists so far to unlock the mystery of firefly light flashes. Credit: Giorgio Margaritondo/EPFL
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Firefly Light Flashing: Oxygen Supply Mechanism by Yueh-Lin Tsai, Chia-Wei Li, Tzay-Ming Hong, Jen-Zon Ho, En-Cheng Yang, Wen-Yen Wu, G. Margaritondo, Su-Ting Hsu, Edwin B. L. Ong, and Y. Hwu. Phys. Rev. Lett. 113, 258103 – Published 17 December 2014 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.113.258103
Michael Berger has written a Dec. 15, 2014 Nanowerk Spotlight about a study examining perceptions of nanotechnology risks amongst members of the insurance industry,
Insurance companies are major stakeholders capable of contributing to the safer and more sustainable development of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials. This is owed to the fact that the insurance industry is one of the bearers of potential losses that can arise from the production and use of nanomaterials and nanotechnology applications.
Researchers at the University of Limerick in Ireland have examined how the insurance market perception of nanotechnology can influence the sustainability of technological advances and insurers’ concern for nanotechnology risks. They claim that, despite its role in sustaining technology development in modern society, insurers’ perception on nanomaterials has been largely overlooked by researchers and regulators alike.
I encourage you to read Berger’s piece in its entirety as it includes nuggets such as this,
… Over 64 per cent of surveyed insurers said they were vaguely familiar with nanotechnology and nanomaterial terms, and over 25 per cent said they had a moderate working knowledge and were able to define the terms. The interview data, however, suggests that this knowledge is at a basic level and there is a need for more information in order to allow this group to differentiate between distinct nanomaterial risks.
In the editorial of the Risk Management newsletter of May 2013, I was looking back at 25 years of Risk Management Research of The Geneva Association. Today, this editorial and newsletter will look at some specific risks of the next 25 years.
If we first look back 25 years, to 1988, the PC had just been invented, Internet was still an internal network at the site of its invention the CERN [European Particle Physics Laboratory] in Geneva, cars were driven by people and mobile phones weighed five kilos and cost $5000, to give but a few technical examples. Dying forests, air pollution and retreating glaciers were the main environmental topics in the news, unemployment and sovereign debt were high on the agenda of politicians—some topics change, others remain.
Looking forward to 2039, the impacts of climate change will have amplified: invasive species—both plants such as ambrosia and animals such as the tiger mosquito—will have advanced further northward in Europe, while intensive agriculture in Scotland and Scandinavia will have become the norm—the European Union (EU) expects a 75 per cent increase in agricultural yields in these regions.
Other topics, such as bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics, represent a formidable challenge both as an opportunity for science and a risk to society. The European Commission estimates that today, 25,000 people die annually as a result of an infection with multi-drug-resistant bacteria.
The ageing population is another major opportunity and risk in the hands of policymakers, a topic which The Geneva Association started analysing more than 25 years ago. Yet the multiple benefits of continued activity by the elderly—such as lower health costs—are only starting to be recognised by politicians. And most companies, organisations and administrations are still extremely hesitant to keep able employees beyond the legal age of retirement.
No easy predictions can be made on the outcome of societal changes. Trends such as a shift from science-based policymaking to policy-based science, from evidence-based advocacy to advocacy-based evidence and from fault-based liability to need-based compensation could lead society onto down the wrong path, which may be irreversible.
The last paragraph from the excerpt is the most interesting to me as its puts some of the current machinations within Canadian public life into context within the European (and I suspect the international) political scene.
I do have a comment or two about the research but first here’s a citation for it,
No date is offered for when the research was conducted and there is no indication in the newsletter that it was published prior to its June 2014 publication.
As for the research itself, first, the respondents are self-assessing their knowledge about nanotechnology. That presents an interesting problem for researchers since self-assessment in any area is highly dependent on various attributes such as confidence, perceived intelligence, etc. For example, someone who’s more knowledgeable might self-assess as being less so than someone who has more confidence in themselves. As for this statistic from the report,
… Over 40 per cent of surveyed laypeople heard nothing at all about nanotechnologies and nanomaterials, 47.5 per cent said they were vaguely familiar with the technology and the remaining 11.7 per cent of respondents reported having moderate working knowledge.
Generally, people won’t tell you that they know about nanotechnologies and nanomaterials from a video game (Deux Ex) or a comic book (Iron Man’s Extremis story line) as they may not consider that to be knowledge or are embarrassed. In the case of the video game, the information about nanotechnology is based on reputable scientific research although it is somewhat massaged to fit into the game ethos. Nonetheless, information about emerging technologies is often conveyed through pop culture properties and/or advertising and most researchers don’t take that into account.
One more thing about layperson awareness, the researchers cite a meta-analysis conducted by Terre Satterfield, et. al. (full citation: Satterfield, T., Kandlikar, M., Beaudrie, C.E.H., Conti,J., and Herr Harthorn, B. . Anticipating the perceived risk of nanotechnologies. Nature Nanotechnology, 4: 752–758), which was published in 2009 (mentioned in my Sept. 22, 2009 post; scroll down about 35% of the way). As I recall, the meta-analysis fell a bit short as the researchers didn’t provide in-depth analysis of the research instruments (questionnaires) instead analysing only the results. That said, one can’t ‘reinvent the wheel’ every time one writes a paper or analyses data although I do wish just once I’d stumble across a study where researchers analysed the assumptions posed by the wording of the questions.
A Nov. 3, 2014 news item on Nanowerk features a project researchers hope will improve photovoltaic efficiency and make solar cells competitive with other sources of energy,
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have received a $1.2 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to develop a technique that they believe will significantly improve the efficiencies of photovoltaic materials and help make solar electricity cost-competitive with other sources of energy.
The work builds on Sandia’s recent successes with metal-organic framework (MOF) materials by combining them with dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSC).
“A lot of people are working with DSSCs, but we think our expertise with MOFs gives us a tool that others don’t have,” said Sandia’s Erik Spoerke, a materials scientist with a long history of solar cell exploration at the labs.
Sandia’s project is funded through SunShot’s Next Generation Photovoltaic Technologies III program, which sponsors projects that apply promising basic materials science that has been proven at the materials properties level to demonstrate photovoltaic conversion improvements to address or exceed SunShot goals.
The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation with the aim of making solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
DSSCs provide basis for future advancements in solar electricity production
Dye-sensitized solar cells, invented in the 1980s, use dyes designed to efficiently absorb light in the solar spectrum. The dye is mated with a semiconductor, typically titanium dioxide, that facilitates conversion of the energy in the optically excited dye into usable electrical current.
DSSCs are considered a significant advancement in photovoltaic technology since they separate the various processes of generating current from a solar cell. Michael Grätzel, a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, was awarded the 2010 Millennium Technology Prize for inventing the first high-efficiency DSSC.
“If you don’t have everything in the DSSC dependent on everything else, it’s a lot easier to optimize your photovoltaic device in the most flexible and effective way,” explained Sandia senior scientist Mark Allendorf. DSSCs, for example, can capture more of the sun’s energy than silicon-based solar cells by using varied or multiple dyes and also can use different molecular systems, Allendorf said.
“It becomes almost modular in terms of the cell’s components, all of which contribute to making electricity out of sunlight more efficiently,” said Spoerke.
MOFs’ structure, versatility and porosity help overcome DSSC limitations
Though a source of optimism for the solar research community, DSSCs possess certain challenges that the Sandia research team thinks can be overcome by combining them with MOFs.
Allendorf said researchers hope to use the ordered structure and versatile chemistry of MOFs to help the dyes in DSSCs absorb more solar light, which he says is a fundamental limit on their efficiency.
“Our hypothesis is that we can put a thin layer of MOF on top of the titanium dioxide, thus enabling us to order the dye in exactly the way we want it,” Allendorf explained. That, he said, should avoid the efficiency-decreasing problem of dye aggregation, since the dye would then be locked into the MOF’s crystalline structure.
MOFs are highly-ordered materials that also offer high levels of porosity, said Allendorf, a MOF expert and 29-year veteran of Sandia. He calls the materials “Tinkertoys for chemists” because of the ease with which new structures can be envisioned and assembled. [emphasis mine]
Allendorf said the unique porosity of MOFs will allow researchers to add a second dye, placed into the pores of the MOF, that will cover additional parts of the solar spectrum that weren’t covered with the initial dye. Finally, he and Spoerke are convinced that MOFs can help improve the overall electron charge and flow of the solar cell, which currently faces instability issues.
“Essentially, we believe MOFs can help to more effectively organize the electronic and nano-structure of the molecules in the solar cell,” said Spoerke. “This can go a long way toward improving the efficiency and stability of these assembled devices.”
In addition to the Sandia team, the project includes researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder, particularly Steve George, an expert in a thin film technology known as atomic layer deposition.
The technique, said Spoerke, is important in that it offers a pathway for highly controlled materials chemistry with potentially low-cost manufacturing of the DSSC/MOF process.
“With the combination of MOFs, dye-sensitized solar cells and atomic layer deposition, we think we can figure out how to control all of the key cell interfaces and material elements in a way that’s never been done before,” said Spoerke. “That’s what makes this project exciting.”
Here’s a picture showing an early Tinkertoy set,
Original Tinkertoy, Giant Engineer #155. Questor Education Products Co., c.1950 [downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinkertoy#mediaviewer/File:Tinkertoy_300126232168.JPG]
The Tinkertoy entry on Wikipedia has this,
The Tinkertoy Construction Set is a toy construction set for children. It was created in 1914—six years after the Frank Hornby’s Meccano sets—by Charles H. Pajeau and Robert Pettit and Gordon Tinker in Evanston, Illinois. Pajeau, a stonemason, designed the toy after seeing children play with sticks and empty spools of thread. He and Pettit set out to market a toy that would allow and inspire children to use their imaginations. At first, this did not go well, but after a year or two over a million were sold.
Shrinky Dinks, tinkertoys, Lego have all been mentioned here in conjunction with lab work. I’m always delighted to see scientists working with or using children’s toys as inspiration of one type or another.
Toxicologist Dr. Harald Krug has published a review of several thousand studies on nanomaterials safety exposing problematic research methodologies and conclusions. From an Oct. 29, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),
Empa [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology] toxicologist Harald Krug has lambasted his colleagues in the journal Angewandte Chemie (“Nanosafety Research—Are We on the Right Track?”). He evaluated several thousand studies on the risks associated with nanoparticles and discovered no end of shortcomings: poorly prepared experiments and results that don’t carry any clout. Instead of merely leveling criticism, however, Empa is also developing new standards for such experiments within an international network.
Researching the safety of nanoparticles is all the rage. Thousands of scientists worldwide are conducting research on the topic, examining the question of whether titanium dioxide nanoparticles from sun creams can get through the skin and into the body, whether carbon nanotubes from electronic products are as hazardous for the lungs as asbestos used to be or whether nanoparticles in food can get into the blood via the intestinal flora, for instance. Public interest is great, research funds are flowing – and the number of scientific projects is skyrocketing: between 1980 and 2010, a total of 5,000 projects were published, followed by another 5,000 in just the last three years. However, the amount of new knowledge has only increased marginally. After all, according to Krug the majority of the projects are poorly executed and all but useless for risk assessments.
The press release goes on to describe various pathways into the body and problems with research methodologies,
How do nanoparticles get into the body?
Artificial nanoparticles measuring between one and 100 nanometers in size can theoretically enter the body in three ways: through the skin, via the lungs and via the digestive tract. Almost every study concludes that healthy, undamaged skin is an effective protective barrier against nanoparticles. When it comes to the route through the stomach and gut, however, the research community is at odds. But upon closer inspection the value of many alarmist reports is dubious – such as when nanoparticles made of soluble substances like zinc oxide or silver are being studied. Although the particles disintegrate and the ions drifting into the body are cytotoxic, this effect has nothing to do with the topic of nanoparticles but is merely linked to the toxicity of the (dissolved) substance and the ingested dose.
Laboratory animals die in vain – drastic overdoses and other errors
Krug also discovered that some researchers maltreat their laboratory animals with absurdly high amounts of nanoparticles. Chinese scientists, for instance, fed mice five grams of titanium oxide per kilogram of body weight, without detecting any effects. By way of comparison: half the amount of kitchen salt would already have killed the animals. A sloppy job is also being made of things in the study of lung exposure to nanoparticles: inhalation experiments are expensive and complex because a defined number of particles has to be swirled around in the air. Although it is easier to place the particles directly in the animal’s windpipe (“instillation”), some researchers overdo it to such an extent that the animals suffocate on the sheer mass of nanoparticles.
While others might well make do without animal testing and conduct in vitro experiments on cells, here, too, cell cultures are covered by layers of nanoparticles that are 500 nanometers thick, causing them to die from a lack of nutrients and oxygen alone – not from a real nano-effect. And even the most meticulous experiment is worthless if the particles used have not been characterized rigorously beforehand. Some researchers simply skip this preparatory work and use the particles “straight out of the box”. Such experiments are irreproducible, warns Krug.
As noted in the news item, the scientists at Empa have devised a solution to some to of the problems (from the press release),
The solution: inter-laboratory tests with standard materials Empa is thus collaborating with research groups like EPFL’s Powder Technology Laboratory, with industrial partners and with Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) to find a solution to the problem: on 9 October the “NanoScreen” programme, one of the “CCMX Materials Challenges”, got underway, which is expected to yield a set of pre-validated methods for lab experiments over the next few years. It involves using test materials that have a closely defined particle size distribution, possess well-documented biological and chemical properties and can be altered in certain parameters – such as surface charge. “Thanks to these methods and test substances, international labs will be able to compare, verify and, if need be, improve their experiments,” explains Peter Wick, Head of Empa’s laboratory for Materials-Biology Interactions.
Instead of the all-too-familiar “fumbling around in the dark”, this would provide an opportunity for internationally coordinated research strategies to not only clarify the potential risks of new nanoparticles in retrospect but even be able to predict them. The Swiss scientists therefore coordinate their research activities with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US, the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) and the Korean Institute of Standards and Science (KRISS).
Bravo! and thank you Dr. Krug and Empa for confirming something I’ve suspected due to hints from more informed commentators. Unfortunately my ignorance. about research protocols has not permitted me to undertake a better analysis of the research. ,