Tag Archives: University of Cambridge

Nanotechnology at the movies: Transcendence opens April 18, 2014 in the US & Canada

Screenwriter Jack Paglen has an intriguing interpretation of nanotechnology, one he (along with the director) shares in an April 13, 2014 article by Larry Getlen for the NY Post and in his movie, Transcendence. which is opening in the US and Canada on April 18, 2014. First, here are a few of the more general ideas underlying his screenplay,

In “Transcendence” — out Friday [April 18, 2014] and directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight”) — Johnny Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher who has spent his career trying to design a sentient computer that can hold, and even exceed, the world’s collective intelligence.

After he’s shot by antitechnology activists, his consciousness is uploaded to a computer network just before his body dies.

“The theories associated with the film say that when a strong artificial intelligence wakes up, it will quickly become more intelligent than a human being,” screenwriter Jack Paglen says, referring to a concept known as “the singularity.”

It should be noted that there are anti-technology terrorists. I don’t think I’ve covered that topic in a while so an Aug. 31, 2012 posting is the most recent and, despite the title, “In depth and one year later—the nanotechnology bombings in Mexico” provides an overview of sorts. For a more up-to-date view, you can read Eric Markowitz’s April 9, 2014 article for Vocative.com. I do have one observation about the article where Markowitz has linked some recent protests in San Francisco to the bombings in Mexico. Those protests in San Francisco seem more like a ‘poor vs. the rich’ situation where the rich happen to come from the technology sector.

Getting back to “Transcendence” and singularity, there’s a good Wikipedia entry describing the ideas and some of the thinkers behind the notion of a singularity or technological singularity, as it’s sometimes called (Note: Links have been removed),

The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature.[1] Because the capabilities of such an intelligence may be difficult for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is often seen as an occurrence (akin to a gravitational singularity) beyond which the future course of human history is unpredictable or even unfathomable.

The first use of the term “singularity” in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. In 1958, regarding a summary of a conversation with von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam described “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”.[2] The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity.[3] Futurist Ray Kurzweil cited von Neumann’s use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann’s classic The Computer and the Brain.

Proponents of the singularity typically postulate an “intelligence explosion”,[4][5] where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, that might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent’s cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.

Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045[6] whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030.[7] At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong did a study of artificial generalized intelligence (AGI) predictions by experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040. His own prediction on reviewing the data is that there is an 80% probability that the singularity will occur between 2017 and 2112.[8]

The ‘technological singularity’ is controversial and contested (from the Wikipedia entry).

In addition to general criticisms of the singularity concept, several critics have raised issues with Kurzweil’s iconic chart. One line of criticism is that a log-log chart of this nature is inherently biased toward a straight-line result. Others identify selection bias in the points that Kurzweil chooses to use. For example, biologist PZ Myers points out that many of the early evolutionary “events” were picked arbitrarily.[104] Kurzweil has rebutted this by charting evolutionary events from 15 neutral sources, and showing that they fit a straight line on a log-log chart. The Economist mocked the concept with a graph extrapolating that the number of blades on a razor, which has increased over the years from one to as many as five, will increase ever-faster to infinity.[105]

By the way, this movie is mentioned briefly in the pop culture portion of the Wikipedia entry.

Getting back to Paglen and his screenplay, here’s more from Getlen’s article,

… as Will’s powers grow, he begins to pull off fantastic achievements, including giving a blind man sight, regenerating his own body and spreading his power to the water and the air.

This conjecture was influenced by nanotechnology, the field of manipulating matter at the scale of a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter. (By comparison, a human hair is around 70,000-100,000 nanometers wide.)

“In some circles, nanotechnology is the holy grail,” says Paglen, “where we could have microscopic, networked machines [emphasis mine] that would be capable of miracles.”

The potential uses of, and implications for, nanotechnology are vast and widely debated, but many believe the effects could be life-changing.

“When I visited MIT,” says Pfister, “I visited a cancer research institute. They’re talking about the ability of nanotechnology to be injected inside a human body, travel immediately to a cancer cell, and deliver a payload of medicine directly to that cell, eliminating [the need to] poison the whole body with chemo.”

“Nanotechnology could help us live longer, move faster and be stronger. It can possibly cure cancer, and help with all human ailments.”

I find the ‘golly gee wizness’ of Paglen’s and Pfister’s take on nanotechnology disconcerting but they can’t be dismissed. There are projects where people are testing retinal implants which allow them to see again. There is a lot of work in the field of medicine designed to make therapeutic procedures that are gentler on the body by making their actions specific to diseased tissue while ignoring healthy tissue (sadly, this is still not possible). As for human enhancement, I have so many pieces that it has its own category on this blog. I first wrote about it in a four-part series starting with this one: Nanotechnology enables robots and human enhancement: part 1, (You can read the series by scrolling past the end of the posting and clicking on the next part or search the category and pick through the more recent pieces.)

I’m not sure if this error is Paglen’s or Getlen’s but nanotechnology is not “microscopic, networked machines” as Paglen’s quote strongly suggests. Some nanoscale devices could be described as machines (often called nanobots) but there are also nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanowires, and more that cannot be described as machines or devices, for that matter. More importantly, it seems Paglen’s main concern is this,

“One of [science-fiction author] Arthur C. Clarke’s laws is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That very quickly would become the case if this happened, because this artificial intelligence would be evolving technologies that we do not understand, and it would be capable of miracles by that definition,” says Paglen. [emphasis mine]

This notion of “evolving technologies that we do not understand” brings to mind a  project that was announced at the University of Cambridge (from my Nov. 26, 2012 posting),

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

While I do have some reservations about how Paglen and Pfister describe the science, I appreciate their interest in communicating the scientific ideas, particularly those underlying Paglen’s screenplay.

For anyone who may be concerned about the likelihood of emulating  a human brain and uploading it to a computer, there’s an April 13, 2014 article by Luke Muehlhauser and Stuart Armstrong for Slate discussing that very possibility (Note 1: Links have been removed; Note 2: Armstrong is mentioned in this posting’s excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on Technological Singularity),

Today scientists can’t even emulate the brain of a tiny worm called C. elegans, which has 302 neurons, compared with the human brain’s 86 billion neurons. Using models of expected technological progress on the three key problems, we’d estimate that we wouldn’t be able to emulate human brains until at least 2070 (though this estimate is very uncertain).

But would an emulation of your brain be you, and would it be conscious? Such questions quickly get us into thorny philosophical territory, so we’ll sidestep them for now. For many purposes—estimating the economic impact of brain emulations, for instance—it suffices to know that the brain emulations would have humanlike functionality, regardless of whether the brain emulation would also be conscious.

Paglen/Pfister seem to be equating intelligence (brain power) with consciousness while Muehlhauser/Armstrong simply sidestep the issue. As they (Muehlhauser/Armstrong) note, it’s “thorny.”

If you consider thinkers like David Chalmers who suggest everything has consciousness, then it follows that computers/robots/etc. may not appreciate having a human brain emulation which takes us back into Battlestar Galactica territory. From my March 19, 2014 posting (one of the postings where I recounted various TED 2014 talks in Vancouver), here’s more about David Chalmers,

Finally, I wasn’t expecting to write about David Chalmers so my notes aren’t very good. A philosopher, here’s an excerpt from Chalmers’ TED biography,

In his work, David Chalmers explores the “hard problem of consciousness” — the idea that science can’t ever explain our subjective experience.

David Chalmers is a philosopher at the Australian National University and New York University. He works in philosophy of mind and in related areas of philosophy and cognitive science. While he’s especially known for his theories on consciousness, he’s also interested (and has extensively published) in all sorts of other issues in the foundations of cognitive science, the philosophy of language, metaphysics and epistemology.

Chalmers provided an interesting bookend to a session started with a brain researcher (Nancy Kanwisher) who breaks the brain down into various processing regions (vastly oversimplified but the easiest way to summarize her work in this context). Chalmers reviewed the ‘science of consciousness’ and noted that current work in science tends to be reductionist, i.e., examining parts of things such as brains and that same reductionism has been brought to the question of consciousness.

Rather than trying to prove consciousness, Chalmers proposes that we consider it a fundamental in the same way that we consider time, space, and mass to be fundamental. He noted that there’s precedence for additions and gave the example of James Clerk Maxwell and his proposal to consider electricity and magnetism as fundamental.

Chalmers next suggestion is a little more outré and based on some thinking (sorry I didn’t catch the theorist’s name) that suggests everything, including photons, has a type of consciousness (but not intelligence).

Have a great time at the movie!

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 2014 international nanotechnology conference in Toronto, Canada

August 18 – 21, 2014 are the dates for the IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 14th International Conference on Nanotechnology.  The deadline for submitting abstracts is March 15, 2014. Here’s a bit more about the conference, from the homepage,

IEEE Nano is one of the largest Nanotechnology conferences in the world, bringing together the brightest engineers and scientists through collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

IEEE Nano 2014 will provide researchers and others in the Nanotechnology field the ability to interact and advance their work through various speakers and workshop sessions.

Possible Topics for Papers

Environmental Health and Safety of Nanotechnology
Micro-to-nano-scale bridging
Modeling and Simulation
Nanobiology:
•Nanobiomedicine
•Nanobiosystems
•Applications of Biopolymer Nanoparticles for Drug Delivery
Nanoelectronics:
•Non-Carbon Based
•Carbon Based
•Circuits and Architecture
Nanofabrication and Nanoassemblies
Nanofluidics:
•Modeling and Theory
•Applications
Nanomagnetics
Nanomanufacturing
Nanomaterials:
•2-D Materials beyond Graphene
•Synthesis and Characterization
•Applications and Enabled Systems
Nanometrology and Nanocharacterization
Nanopackaging
Nano-optics, Nano-optoelectronics and Nano-photonics:
•Novel fabrication and integration approaches
•Optical Nano-devices
Nanorobotics and Nanomanipulation
Nanoscale Communication and Networks
Nanosensors and Actuators
Nanotechnology Enabled Energy
NEMS
NEMS/Applications

There is a conference Call For Papers webpage where you can get more information.

Invited speakers include,

John Polanyi
Professor
University of Toronto, Canada

John Polanyi, educated at Manchester University, England, was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University and at the National Research Council of Canada. He is a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (P.C.), and a Companion of the Order of Canada (C.C.). His awards include the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He has written extensively on science policy, the control of armaments, peacekeeping and human rights.

Charles Lieber
Professor Charles M. Lieber
Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Harvard University

Charles M. Lieber is regarded as a leading chemist worldwide and recognized as a pioneer in the nanoscience and nanotechnology fields. He completed his doctoral studies at Stanford University and currently holds a joint appointment in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, as the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Lieber is widely known for his contributions to the synthesis, understanding and assembly of nanoscale materials, as well as the founding of two nanotechnology companies: Nanosys and Vista Therapeutics.

Lieber’s achievements have been recognized by a large number of awards, including the Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology (2002), World Technology award in Materials (2003 and 2004) and the Wolf Prize in Chemistry (2012). He has published more than 350 papers in peer-reviewed journals and is the primary inventor on over 35 patents.

Arthur Carty
Professor & Executive Director [Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology]
University of Waterloo, Canada

Arthur Carty has a PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is currently the Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology and research professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Waterloo.

Previously, Dr. Carty served in Canada as the National Science Advisor to the Prime Minister and President of the National Research Council (Canada). He was awarded the Order of Canada and holds 14 honorary doctorates.

His research interests are focused on organometallic chemistry and new materials. [Dr. Carty is chair of The Expert Panel on the State of Canada’s Science Culture; an assessment being conducted by the Canadian Council of Academies as per my Feb. 22, 2013 posting and Dr. Carty is giving a Keynote lecture titled: 'Small World, Large Impact: Driving a Materials Revolution Through Nanotechnology' at the 2014 TAPPI (Technical Association for the Pulp, Paper, Packaging and Converting Industries) nanotechnology conference, June 23-26, 2014 in Vancouver, Canada as per my Nov. 14, 2013 posting.]

William Milne
Professor
University of Cambridge, UK

Bill Milne FREng,FIET,FIMMM has been Head of Electrical Engineering at Cambridge University since 1999 and Director of the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE) since 2005. In 1996 he was appointed to the ‘‘1944 Chair in Electrical Engineering’’. He obtained his BSc from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1970 and then went on to read for a PhD in Electronic Materials at Imperial College London. He was awarded his PhD and DIC in 1973 and, in 2003, a D.Eng (Honoris Causa) from University of Waterloo, Canada. He was elected a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering in 2006. He was awarded the J.J. Thomson medal from the IET in 2008 and the NANOSMAT prize in 2010 for excellence in nanotechnology. His research interests include large area Si and carbon based electronics, graphene, carbon nanotubes and thin film materials. Most recently he has been investigating MEMS, SAW and FBAR devices and SOI based micro heaters for ( bio) sensing applications. He has published/presented ~ 800 papers in these areas, of which ~ 150 were invited. He co-founded Cambridge Nanoinstruments with 3 colleagues from the Department and this was bought out by Aixtron in 2008 and in 2009 co-founded Cambridge CMOS Sensors with Julian Gardner from Warwick Univ. and Florin Udrea from Cambridge Univ.

Shuit-Tong Lee
Institute of Functional Nano & Soft Materials (FUNSOM)
Collaboration Innovation Center of Suzhou Nano Science and Technology
College of Nano Science and Technology (CNST)
Soochow University, China
Email: [email protected]

Prof. Lee is the member (academician) of Chinese Academy of Sciences and the fellow of TWAS (the academy of sciences for the developing world). He is a distinguished scientist in material science and engineering. Prof. Lee is the Founding Director of Functional Nano & Soft Materials Laboratory (FUNSOM) and Director of the College of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Soochow University. He is also a Chair Professor of Materials Science and Founding Director of the Center of Super-Diamond and Advanced Films (COSDAF) at City University of Hong Kong and the Founding Director of Nano-Organic Photoelectronic Laboratory at the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry, CAS. He was the Senior Research Scientist and Project Manager at the Research Laboratories of Eastman Kodak Company in the US before he joined City University of Hong Kong in 1994. He won the Humboldt Senior Research Award (Germany) in 2001 and a Croucher Senior Research Fellowship from the Croucher Foundation (HK) in 2002 for the studies of “Nucleation and growth of diamond and new carbon based materials” and “Oxide assisted growth and applications of semiconducting nanowires”, respectively. He also won the National Natural Science Award of PRC (second class) in 2003 and 2005 for the above research achievements. Recently, he was awarded the 2008 Prize for Scientific and Technological Progress of Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation. Prof. Lee’s research work has resulted in more than 650 peer-reviewed publications in prestigious chemistry, physics and materials science journals, 6 book chapters and over 20 US patents, among them 5 papers were published in Science and Nature (London) and some others were selected as cover papers. His papers have more than 10,000 citations by others, which is ranked within world top 25 in the materials science field according to ESI and ISI citation database.

Sergej Fatikow
Full Professor, Dr.-Ing. habil.
Head, Division for Microrobotics & Control Engineering (AMiR)
University of Oldenburg, Germany

Professor Sergej Fatikow studied electrical engineering and computer science at the Ufa Aviation Technical University in Russia, where he received his doctoral degree in 1988 with work on fuzzy control of complex non-linear systems. After that he worked until 1990 as a lecturer at the same university. During his work in Russia he published over 30 papers and successfully applied for over 50 patents in intelligent control and mechatronics. In 1990 he moved to the Institute for Process Control and Robotics at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, where he worked as a postdoctoral scientific researcher and since 1994 as Head of the research group “Microrobotics and Micromechatronics”. He became an assistant professor in 1996 and qualified for a full faculty position by habilitation at the University of Karlsruhe in 1999. In 2000 he accepted a faculty position at the University of Kassel, Germany. A year later, he was invited to establish a new Division for Microrobotics and Control Engineering (AMiR) at the University of Oldenburg, Germany. Since 2001 he is a full professor in the Department of Computing Science and Head of AMiR. His research interests include micro- and nanorobotics, automated robot-based nanohandling in SEM, AFM-based nanohandling, sensor feedback at nanoscale, and neuro-fuzzy robot control. He is author of three books on microsystem technology, microrobotics and microassembly, robot-based nanohandling, and automation at nanoscale, published by Springer in 1997, Teubner in 2000, and Springer in 2008. Since 1990 he published over 100 book chapters and journal papers and over 200 conference papers. Prof. Fatikow is Founding Chair of the International Conference on Manipulation, Manufacturing and Measurement on the Nanoscale (3M-NANO) and Europe- Chair of IEEE-RAS Technical Committee on Micro/Nano Robotics and Automation.

Seiji Samukawa
Distinguished Professor
Innovative Energy Research Center, Institute of Fluid Science, Tohoku University
World Premier International Center Initiative, Advanced Institute for Materials Research, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan

Dr. Seiji Samukawa received a BSc in 1981 from the Faculty of Technology of Keio University and joined NEC Corporation the same year. At NEC Microelectronics Research Laboratories, he was the lead researcher of a group performing fundamental research on advanced plasma etching processes for technology under 0.1 μm. While there, he received the Ishiguro Award—given by NEC’s R&D Group and Semiconductor Business Group— for his work in applying a damage-free plasma etching process to a mass-production line. After spending several years in the business world, however, he returned to Keio University, obtaining a PhD in engineering in 1992. Since 2000, he has served as professor at the Institute of Fluid Science at Tohoku University and developed ultra-low-damage microfabrication techniques that tap into the essential nature of nanomaterials and developed innovative nanodevices. He is also carrying out pioneering, creative research on bio-template technologies, which are based on a completely new concept of treating the super-molecules of living organisms. His motto when conducting research is to “always aim toward eventual practical realization.”

In recognition of his excellent achievements outlined above, he has been elected as a Distinguished Professor of Tohoku University and has been a Fellow of the Japan Society of Applied Physics since 2008 and a Fellow of the American Vacuum Society since 2009. His significant scientific achievements earned him the Outstanding Paper Award at the International Conference on Micro and Nanotechnology (1997), Best Review Paper Award (2001), Japanese Journal of Applied Physics (JJAP) Editorial Contribution Award (2003), Plasma Electronics Award (2004), Fellow Award (2008), JJAP Paper Award (2008) from the Japan Society of Applied Physics, Distinguished Graduate Award (2005) from Keio University, Ichimura Award (2008) from the New Technology Development Foundation, Commendation for Science and Technology from the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2009), Fellow Award of American Vacuum Society (2009), Plasma Electronics Award from the Japan Society of Applied Physics (2010), Best Paper Award from the Japan Society of Applied Physics (2010), and Plasma Prize from the Plasma Science and Technology Division of American Vacuum Society (2010).

Haixia (Alice) Zhang
Professor
Institute of Microelectronics
Peking University, China

Haixia(Alice) Zhang, Professor, Institute of Microelectronics, Peking Universituy. She was served on the general chair of IEEE NEMS 2013 Conference, the organizing chair of Transducers’11. As the founder of the International Contest of Applications in Network of things (iCAN), she organized this world-wide event since 2007. She was elected the director of Integrated Micro/Nano System Engineering Center in 2006, the deputy secretary-general of Chinese Society of Micro-Nano Technology in 2005, the Co-chair of Chinese International NEMS Network (CINN) and serves as the chair of IEEE NTC Beijing Chapter. At 2006, Dr. Zhang won National Invention Award of Science & Technology. Her research fields include MEMS Design and Fabrication Technology, SiC MEMS and Micro Energy Technology.

Alice’s Wonderlab: http://www.ime.pku.edu.cn/alice

I wonder if the organizers will be including an Open Forum as they did at the 13th IEEE nanotechnology conference in China. It sounds a little more dynamic and fun than any of the sessions currently listed for the Toronto conference but these things are sometimes best organized in a relatively spontaneous fashion rather than as one of the more formal conference events (from the 13th conference Open Forum),

This Open Forum will be run like a Rump Session to have a lively discussion of various topics of interest to the IEEE Nanotechnology Community. The key to the success of this Forum is participation from the audience with their own opinions and comments on any Nanotechnology subject or issue they can think of. We expect the session to be lively, interesting, controversial, opinionated and more. Here are some topics or issues to think about:

  1. When are we ever going to have a large scale impact of nanotechnology ? Shouldn’t we be afraid that the stakeholders (Tax payers, Politicians) are going to run out of patience ?
  2. Is there a killer app or apps on the horizon ?
  3. Is there a future for carbon nanotubes in electronics ? It has been 15 years + now….
  4. Is there a future for graphene in electronics ?
  5. Is there a future for graphene in anything ? Or will it just run its course on every application people did previously for carbon nanotubes ?
  6. As engineers, are we doing anything different from the physicists/chemists ? Looks like we are also chasing the same old : trying to publish in Nature, Science, and other similar journals with huge impact factor ? Are we prepared adequately to play in someone else’s game ? Should we even be doing it ?
  7. As engineers, aren’t we supposed to come up with working widgets closer to manufacturing ?
  8. As engineers, are we going to take responsibility for the commercial future of nanotechnology as has been done in all previous success stories ?

This list is by no means exhaustive. Please come up with your own questions/issues and speak up at the session.

Good luck with your abstract.

Almost Human (tv series), smartphones, and anxieties about life/nonlife

The US-based Fox Broadcasting Company is set to premiere a new futuristic television series, Almost Human, over two nights, Nov. 17, and 18, 2013 for US and Canadian viewers. Here’s a description of the premise from its Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

The series is set thirty-five years in the future when humans in the Los Angeles Police Department are paired up with lifelike androids; a detective who has a dislike for robots partners with an android capable of emotion.

One of the showrunners, Naren Shankar, seems to have also been functioning both as a science consultant and as a crime writing consultant,in addition to his other duties. From a Sept. 4, 2013 article by Lisa Tsering for Indiawest.com,

FOX is the latest television network to utilize the formidable talents of Naren Shankar, an Indian American writer and producer best known to fans for his work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as well as “Farscape,” the recently cancelled ABC series “Zero Hour” and “The Outer Limits.”

Set 35 years in the future, “Almost Human” stars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy as a crimefighting duo of a cop who is part-machine and a robot who is part-human. [emphasis mine]

“We are extrapolating the things we see today into the near future,” he explained. For example, the show will comment on the pervasiveness of location software, he said. “There will also be issues of technology such as medical ethics, or privacy; or how technology enables the rich but not the poor, who can’t afford it.”

Speaking at Comic-Con July 20 [2013], Shankar told media there, “Joel [J.H. Wyman] was looking for a collaboration with someone who had come from the crime world, and I had worked on ‘CSI’ for eight years.

“This is like coming back to my first love, since for many years I had done science fiction. It’s a great opportunity to get away from dismembered corpses and autopsy scenes.”

There’s plenty of drama — in the new series, the year is 2048, and police officer John Kennex (Karl Urban, “Dr. Bones” from the new “Star Trek” films) is trying to bounce back from one of the most catastrophic attacks ever made against the police department. Kennex wakes up from a 17-month coma and can’t remember much, except that his partner was killed; his girlfriend left him and one of his legs has been amputated and is now outfitted with a high-tech synthetic appendage. According to police department policy, every cop must partner with a robot, so Kennex is paired with Dorian (Ealy), an android with an unusual glitch that makes it have human emotions.

Shankar took an unusual path into television. He started college at age 16 and attended Cornell University, where he earned a B. Sc., an M.S. and a Ph.D. in engineering physics and electrical engineering, and was a member of the elite Kappa Alpha Society, he decided he didn’t want to work as a scientist and moved to Los Angeles to try to become a writer.

Shankar is eager to move in a new direction with “Almost Human,” which he says comes at the right time. “People are so technologically sophisticated now that maybe the audience is ready for a show like this,” he told India-West.

I am particularly intrigued by the ‘man who’s part machine and the machine that’s part human’ concept (something I’ve called machine/flesh in previous postings such as this May 9, 2012 posting titled ‘Everything becomes part machine’) and was looking forward to seeing how they would be integrating this concept along with some of the more recent scientific work being done on prosthetics and robots, given they had an engineer as part of the team (albeit with lots of crime writing experience), into the stories. Sadly, only days after Tserling’s article was published, Shankar parted ways with Almost Human according to the Sept. 10, 2013 posting on the Almost Human blog,

So this was supposed to be the week that I posted a profile of Naren Shankar, for whom I have developed a full-on crush–I mean, he has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Cornell, he was hired by Gene Roddenberry to be science consultant on TNG, he was saying all sorts of great things about how he wanted to present the future in AH…aaaand he quit as co-showrunner yesterday, citing “creative differences.” That leaves Wyman as sole showrunner, with no plans to replace Shankar.

I’d like to base some of my comments on the previews, unfortunately, Fox Broadcasting,, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to block Canadians from watching Almost Human previews online. (Could someone please explain why? I mean, Canadians will be tuning in to watch or record for future viewing  the series premiere on the 17th & 18th of November 2013 just like our US neighbours, so, why can’t we watch the previews online?)

Getting back to machine/flesh (human with prosthetic)s and life/nonlife (android with feelings), it seems that Almost Human (as did the latest version of Battlestar Galactica, from 2004-2009) may be giving a popular culture voice to some contemporary anxieties being felt about the boundary or lack thereof between humans and machines and life/nonlife. I’ve touched on this topic many times both within and without the popular culture context. Probably one of my more comprehensive essays on machine/flesh is Eye, arm, & leg prostheses, cyborgs, eyeborgs, Deus Ex, and ableism from August 30, 2011, which includes this quote from a still earlier posting on this topic,

Here’s an excerpt from my Feb. 2, 2010 posting which reinforces what Gregor [Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary] is saying,

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.” [originally excerpted from Paul Hochman's Feb. 1, 2010 article, Bionic Legs, i-Limbs, and Other Super Human Prostheses You'll Envy for Fast Company]

Here’s something else from the Hochman article,

But Bailey is most surprised by his own reaction. “When I’m wearing it, I do feel different: I feel stronger. As weird as that sounds, having a piece of machinery incorporated into your body, as a part of you, well, it makes you feel above human. [semphasis mine] It’s a very powerful thing.”

Bailey isn’t  almost human’, he’s ‘above human’. As Hochman points out. repeatedly throughout his article, this sentiment is not confined to Bailey. My guess is that Kennex (Karl Urban’s character) in Almost Human doesn’t echo Bailey’s sentiments and, instead feels he’s not quite human while the android, Dorian, (Michael Ealy’s character) struggles with his feelings in a human way that clashes with Kennex’s perspective on what is human and what is not (or what we might be called the boundary between life and nonlife).

Into this mix, one could add the rising anxiety around ‘intelligent’ machines present in real life, as well as, fiction as per this November 12 (?), 2013 article by Ian Barker for Beta News,

The rise of intelligent machines has long been fertile ground for science fiction writers, but a new report by technology research specialists Gartner suggests that the future is closer than we think.

“Smartphones are becoming smarter, and will be smarter than you by 2017,” says Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner. “If there is heavy traffic, it will wake you up early for a meeting with your boss, or simply send an apology if it is a meeting with your colleague. The smartphone will gather contextual information from its calendar, its sensors, the user’s location and personal data”.

Your smartphone will be able to predict your next move or your next purchase based on what it knows about you. This will be made possible by gathering data using a technique called “cognizant computing”.

Gartner analysts will be discussing the future of smart devices at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2013 in Barcelona from November 10-14 [2013].

The Gartner Symposium/Txpo in Barcelona is ending today (Nov. 14, 2013) but should you be curious about it, you can go here to learn more.

This notion that machines might (or will) get smarter or more powerful than humans (or wizards) is explored by Will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas) and, futurist, Brian David Johnson in their upcoming comic book, Wizards and Robots (mentioned in my Oct. 6, 2013 posting),. This notion of machines or technology overtaking human life is also being discussed at the University of Cambridge where there’s talk of founding a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (from my Nov. 26, 2012 posting)

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Our emerging technologies give rise to questions abut what constitutes life and where human might fit in. For example,

  • are sufficiently advanced machines a new form of life,?
  • what does it mean when human bodies are partially integrated at the neural level with machinery?
  • what happens when machines have feelings?
  • etc.

While this doesn’t exactly fit into my theme of life/nonlife or machine/flesh, this does highlight how some popular culture efforts are attempting to integrate real science into the storytelling. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Cosima Herter, the science consultant and namesake/model for one of the characters on Orphan Black (from the March 29, 2013 posting on the space.ca blog),

Cosima Herter is Orphan Black’s Science Consultant, and the inspiration for her namesake character in the series. In real-life, Real Cosima is a PhD. student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota, working on the History and Philosophy of Biology. Hive interns Billi Knight & Peter Rowley spoke with her about her role on the show and the science behind it…

Q: Describe your role in the making of Orphan Black.

A: I’m a resource for the biology, particularly insofar as evolutionary biology is concerned. I study the history and the philosophy of biology, so I do offer some suggestions and some creative ideas, but also help correct some of the misconceptions about science.  I offer different angles and alternatives to look at the way biological science is represented, so (it’s) not reduced to your stereotypical tropes about evolutionary biology and cloning, but also to provide some accuracy for the scripts.

- See more at: http://www.space.ca/article/Orphan-Black-science-consultant#sthash.7P36bbPa.dpuf

For anyone not familiar with the series, from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series starring Tatiana Maslany as several identical women who are revealed to be clones.

University of Cambridge makes waves with graphene piano

The news about the graphene piano (and anti-fraud lasers, etc.) is contained in a report from the University of Cambridge’s Cambridge Innovation and Knowledge Centre (CIKC), according to a Nov. 5, 2013 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

Two prototypes – a detection device which users lasers to fight fraud, and a piano which demonstrates the potential of printed electronics – have been unveiled by Cambridge researchers.

A detection device which uses printed lasers to identify counterfeit goods has been developed by researchers, who say that it could help to make products more resistant to fraud.

The detector is one of a number of innovations covered in a new report by the Cambridge Innovation and Knowledge Centre (CIKC), which has been developing advanced manufacturing technologies for photonics and electronics.

The same document also outlines a new method for printing graphene, showing how the one atom-thick material could be used to make cheap, printed electronics. Using a graphene-based ink, researchers have demonstrated this by creating a transparent, flexible piano.

Here’s a video about the transparent piano produced at Cambridge,

The Nov. 5, 2013 University of Cambridge news release, which originated the news item, offers details about the piano and the graphene inks used to produce it,

The printed piano meanwhile demonstrates the potential of using graphene in real applications where printed electronics might be needed – such as heart monitors and other sensors.

The research team behind it, Drs Tawfique Hasan, Felice Torrisi and Prof Andrea Ferrari, at the Cambridge Graphene Centre, have developed a graphene-based ink. Like the material itself, this has a number of interesting properties, including flexibility, optical transparency, and electrical conductivity.

Other conductive inks are made from precious metals such as silver, which makes them very expensive to produce and process, whereas graphene is both cheap, environmentally stable, and does not require much processing after printing. Graphene ink is also superior to conductive polymers in terms of cost, stability and performance.

The piano, designed in collaboration with Novalia Limited, shows off the graphene ink’s potential. The keys of the transparent piano are made from graphene-based inks, which have been printed on to a plastic film. These keys, working as electrodes, are connected to a simple electronic circuit-board, a battery and speaker. When a person touches a graphene electrode, the amount of electrical charge held in the key changes. This is then detected and redirected by the circuit to the speaker, creating the musical note.

The same research team, in collaboration with Printed Electronics Limited, has developed a flexible prototype digital display. This display uses conventional printable materials, but with a transparent, electrically conductive graphene layer on top. The graphene layer is not only a flexible but also more conductive and transparent than the conventional polymer it replaces. These simple displays can be used in a wide range of smart packaging applications such as toys, labelling and board games.

“Both of these devices show how graphene could be printed on to a whole range of surfaces, which makes it ideal for printed electronics,” Dr Hasan, the lead researcher behind the prototypes, said. For example, it might eventually be possible to print electronics on to clothing and to make wearable patches to monitor people with health conditions, such as a heart problem.”

Another potential application is cheap, printable sensors, which could be used to track luggage around an airport to ensure it is loaded on to the correct plane, or to follow products across a production and supply chain.

For anyone who’d like to see the report and get information on the other projects discussed in it just click on the title: Advanced Manufacturing Technologies for Photonics and Electronics – Exploiting Molecular and Macromolecular Materials: Final Report.

*’Unviersity in headline changed to University 11:11 am PDT Nov. 7, 2013.

Cambridge University wants to take its flexible opals to market

Structural colour due to nanoscale structures such as those found on Morpho butterfly wings, jewel beetles, opals, and elsewhere is fascinating to me (Feb. 7, 2013 posting). It would seem many scientists share my fascination  including these groups at the UK’s University of Cambridge and Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, from the May 30, 2013 University of Cambridge news release (also on EurekAlert),

Instead of through pigments, these ‘polymer opals’ get their colour from their internal structure alone, resulting in pure colour which does not run or fade. The materials could be used to replace the toxic dyes used in the textile industry, or as a security application, making banknotes harder to forge. Additionally, the thin, flexible material changes colour when force is exerted on it, which could have potential use in sensing applications by indicating the amount of strain placed on the material.

The most intense colours in nature – such as those in butterfly wings, peacock feathers and opals – result from structural colour. While most of nature gets its colour through pigments, items displaying structural colour reflect light very strongly at certain wavelengths, resulting in colours which do not fade over time.

In collaboration with the DKI (now Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability) in Germany, researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a synthetic material which has the same intensity of colour as a hard opal, but in a thin, flexible film.

Here’s what the researchers’ synthetic opal looks like,

Polymer Opals Credit: Nick Saffel [downloaded from http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/flexible-opals]

Polymer Opals Credit: Nick Saffel [downloaded from http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/flexible-opals]

The news release provides a brief description of naturally occurring opals and contrasts them with the researchers’ polymer opals,

Naturally-occurring opals are formed of silica spheres suspended in water. As the water evaporates, the spheres settle into layers, resulting in a hard, shiny stone. The polymer opals are formed using a similar principle, but instead of silica, they are constructed of spherical nanoparticles bonded to a rubber-like outer shell. When the nanoparticles are bent around a curve, they are pushed into the correct position to make structural colour possible. The shell material forms an elastic matrix and the hard spheres become ordered into a durable, impact-resistant photonic crystal.

“Unlike natural opals, which appear multi-coloured as a result of silica spheres not settling in identical layers, the polymer opals consist of one preferred layer structure and so have a uniform colour,” said Professor Jeremy Baumberg of the Nanophotonics Group at the University’s Cavendish Laboratory, who is leading the development of the material.

Like natural opals, the internal structure of polymer opals causes diffraction of light, resulting in strong structural colour. The exact colour of the material is determined by the size of the spheres. And since the material has a rubbery consistency, when it is twisted and stretched, the spacing between spheres changes, changing the colour of the material. When stretched, the material shifts into the blue range of the spectrum, and when compressed, the colour shifts towards red. When released, the material will return to its original colour.

I find the potential for use in the textile industry a little more interesting than the anti-counterfeiting application. (There’s a Canadian company, Nanotech Security Corp., a spinoff from Simon Fraser University, which capitalizes on the Blue Morpho butterfly wing’s nanoscale structures for an anti-counterfeiting application as per my first posting about the company on Jan. 17, 2011.) There has been at least one other attempt to create a textile that exploits structural colour. Unfortunately Teijin Fibres has stopped production of its morphotex, as per my April 12, 2012 posting.

Here’s what the news release has to say about textiles and the potential importance of structural colour,

The technology could also have important uses in the textile industry. “The World Bank estimates that between 17 and 20 per cent of industrial waste water comes from the textile industry, which uses highly toxic chemicals to produce colour,” said Professor Baumberg. “So other avenues to make colour is something worth exploring.” The polymer opals can be bonded to a polyurethane layer and then onto any fabric. The material can be cut, laminated, welded, stitched, etched, embossed and perforated.

The researchers have recently developed a new method of constructing the material, which offers localised control and potentially different colours in the same material by creating the structure only over defined areas. In the new work, electric fields in a print head are used to line the nanoparticles up forming the opal, and are fixed in position with UV light. The researchers have shown that different colours can be printed from a single ink by changing this electric field strength to change the lattice spacing.

As for wanting to take this research to market, from the news release,

Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm, is currently looking for a manufacturing partner to further develop the technology and take polymer opal films to market.

For more information, please contact [email protected].

The reference to opals reminded me of yet another Canadian company exploring the uses of structural colour, Opalux, as per my Jan. 31, 2011 posting.

Structure of color

AGELESS BRILLIANCE: Although the pigment-derived leaf color of this decades-old specimen of the African perennial Pollia condensata has faded, the fruit still maintains its intense metallic-blue iridescence.COURTESY OF P.J. RUDALL [downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34200/title/Color-from-Structure/]

AGELESS BRILLIANCE: Although the pigment-derived leaf color of this decades-old specimen of the African perennial Pollia condensata has faded, the fruit still maintains its intense metallic-blue iridescence.COURTESY OF P.J. RUDALL [downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34200/title/Color-from-Structure/]

Hard to believe those berries were collected more than four decades ago, according to Cristina Luiggi in her Feb. 1, 2013 article, Color from Structure, for The Scientist magazine. Her focus is on biological nanostructures and it is a fascinating article which I urge you to read in its entirety if you have the time and this kind of thing interests you. As you can see, the pictures are great.

Here are a few excerpts from the piece,

Colors may be evolution’s most beautiful accident. Spontaneous mutations that perturbed the arrangement of structural components, such as cellulose, collagen, chitin, and keratin, inadvertently created nanoscale landscapes that catch light in the most vibrantly diverse ways—producing iridescent greens, fiery reds, brilliant blues, opalescent whites, glossy silvers, and ebony blacks.

Structural colors, in contrast to those produced by pigments or dyes, arise from the physical interaction of light with biological nanostructures. These color-creating structures likely developed as an important phenotype during the Cambrian explosion more than 500 million years ago, when organisms developed the first eyes and the ability to detect light, color, shade, and contrast. “As soon as you had visual predators, there were organisms that were either trying to distract, avoid, or communicate with those predators using structural coloration,” says Yale University evolutionary ornithologist Richard Prum.

Ever since, structural coloration has evolved multiple times across the tree of life, as a wide range of organisms developed ways to fine-tune the geometry of some of the most abundant (and often colorless) biomaterials on Earth, engineering grooves, pockets, and films that scatter light waves and cause them to interfere with each other in ways we humans happen to find aesthetically pleasing.

Here’s why color derived from structure doesn’t fade, from Luiggi’s article,

Pigments and dyes are molecules that produce colors by the selective absorption and reflection of specific wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Structural colors, on the other hand, rely exclusively on the shape of the material and not its chemical properties. While pigments and dyes degrade and their colors fade over time, some types of structural coloration, which rely on the same materials that make up tree bark, insect exoskeletons, and claws or nails, can persist hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years after the death of the organism.

Structural color can be found in a lot of plant life,

Although there are only a handful of known examples of structural colors in fruits, there are plenty to be found in the leaves and petals of plants. Within every family of flowering plants, there is at least one species that displays structural colors.

“The presence of structural colors, especially in flowers, is likely used by pollinators to spot the position of the flower and to recognize it better,” Vignolini [Silvia Vignolini, a physics postdoc at the University of Cambridge] explains. But in some plants, the evolutionary purpose of structural coloration is harder to pin down. The leaves of the low-lying tropical spikemoss Selaginella willdenowii, for example, produce blue-green iridescence when young and growing in the shade, and tend to lose the structural coloration with age and when exposed to high levels of light. The iridescence is achieved by cells in the leaves’ upper epidermis, which contain a few layers of cellulose microfibrils packed with different amounts of water. This ultrastructure is often absent in the leaves of the same species growing in direct sunlight. Researchers hypothesize that the spikemoss turns off its iridescence by changing the water content of the leaves’ cell walls, says Heather Whitney, a research fellow at the University of Bristol who studies iridescence in plants.

This capability is not limited to plants. Insects (jewel beetles and the morpho butterfly are often cited) and fish also have evolved to include structural color as protective or attractive devices, from Luiggi’s article,

The brightest living tissues on the planet are found in fish. Under ideal conditions, for example, the silvery scales of the European sardine and the Atlantic herring can act like near-perfect mirrors—reflecting up to 90 percent of incoming light. It is an irony of nature that these shiniest of structures are not meant to be flaunted, but are intended as camouflage.

“When you’re out in the open water, if you drop down below 10 to 30 meters, in any direction you look, the intensity of light is the same,” explains Nicholas Roberts, a physicist at the University of Bristol who specializes in bio-optics. At that depth, a perfect reflector, or mirror, would seem invisible, because light is equally reflected from all sides and angles.

It will be interesting to see if there’s any future discussion of the giant squid in the context of structural color since, according to very recent research (as per my Feb. 1, 2013 posting), it appears to be covered in gold leaf when observed in its habitat.

Luiggi’s article starts with an ornithologist and circles back in a discussion about the difficulty of creating nanostructures, soft matter condensed physics, and birds,

To create structural colors, organisms must master architecture at the nanoscale—the size of visible-light wavelengths. “But it turns out that biology doesn’t do a good job of creating nanostructures,” Prum says.

Instead, organisms create the initial conditions that allow those nanostructures to grow using self-organizing physical processes. Thus, organisms exploit what’s known as soft condensed matter physics, or “the physics of squishy stuff,” as Prum likes to call it. This relatively new field of physics deals with materials that are right at the boundaries of hard solids, liquids, and gases.

“There’ve been huge advances in this field in the last 30 years which have created rich theories of how structure can arise at the nanoscale,” Prum says. “It has been very applicable to the understanding of how structural colors grow.”

Soft condensed matter physics has been particularly useful in understanding the production of the amorphous nanostructures that imbue the feathers of certain bird species with intensely vibrant hues. The blue color of the male Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), for example, is produced by the selective scattering of blue light from a complex nanostructure of b-keratin channels and air pockets in the hairlike branches called feather barbs that give the quill its lift. The size of the air pockets determines the wavelengths that are selectively amplified.

While there’s better understanding of the mechanisms involved in structural color, scientists are a long way from replicating the processes, from the article,

“The three-dimensional nature of the structures themselves is just so complex,” says Vukusic. [physicist Peter Vukusic, a professor of natural photonics at the University of Exeter, UK] “Were it to be a simple periodic system with a regular geometry, you could easily put that into a computer model and run simulations all day. But the problem is that they are never perfectly periodic.”

This article is open access so, as I noted earlier, all you need is the time. As of my Feb. 6, 2013 posting, there was some new research announced about scientists making observations about the structural color in peacock feathers and applying some of those ideas to develop better resolution in e-readers.

3D microchip: “… we can actually see the data climbing this nano-staircase step by step”

A Jan. 30, 2013 news release about a 3D microchip developed from a spintronic chip is available on EurekAlert here or at the University of Cambridge here and provides background about why a 3D microchip would be developed,

Scientists from the University of Cambridge have created, for the first time, a new type of microchip which allows information to travel in three dimensions. Currently, microchips can only pass digital information in a very limited way – from either left to right or front to back. …

Dr Reinoud Lavrijsen, an author on the paper from the University of Cambridge, said: “Today’s chips are like bungalows – everything happens on the same floor. We’ve created the stairways allowing information to pass between floors.”

Here are some of the technical details,

For the research, the Cambridge scientists used a special type of microchip called a spintronic chip which exploits the electron’s tiny magnetic moment or ‘spin’ (unlike the majority of today’s chips which use charge-based electronic technology). Spintronic chips are increasingly being used in computers, and it is widely believed that within the next few years they will become the standard memory chip.

To create the microchip, the researchers used an experimental technique called ‘sputtering’. They effectively made a club-sandwich on a silicon chip of cobalt, platinum and ruthenium atoms. The cobalt and platinum atoms store the digital information in a similar way to how a hard disk drive stores data. The ruthenium atoms act as messengers, communicating that information between neighbouring layers of cobalt and platinum. Each of the layers is only a few atoms thick.

They then used a laser technique called MOKE to probe the data content of the different layers. As they switched a magnetic field on and off they saw in the MOKE signal the data climbing layer by layer from the bottom of the chip to the top. They then confirmed the results using a different measurement method.

Here’s the source for the quote used in the headline,

Professor Russell Cowburn, lead researcher of the study from the Cavendish Laboratory, the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics, said: “Each step on our spintronic staircase is only a few atoms high. I find it amazing that by using nanotechnology not only can we build structures with such precision in the lab but also using advanced laser instruments we can actually see the data climbing this nano-staircase step by step.

An artistic representation of the microchip and the data,

3D microchip, courtesy of the University of Cambridge. Credit LindenArtWork www.lindenartwork.com.

3D microchip, courtesy of the University of Cambridge. Credit LindenArtWork www.lindenartwork.com

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

Magnetic ratchet for three-dimensional spintronic memory and logic by Reinoud Lavrijsen, Ji-Hyun Lee, Amalio Fernández-Pacheco,Dorothée C. M. C. Petit, Rhodri Mansell, & Russell P. Cowburn.  Nature, 493, 647–650 (31 January 2013) doi:10.1038/nature11733 (Published online 30 January 2013)

The paper is behind a paywall.

Another day, another graphene centre in the UK as the Graphene flagship consortium’s countdown begins

The University of Cambridge has announced a Cambridge Graphene Centre due to open by the end of 2013 according to a Jan. 24, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

The Cambridge Graphene Centre will start its activities on February 1st 2013, with a dedicated facility due to open at the end of the year. Its objective is to take graphene to the next level, bridging the gap between academia and industry. It will also be a shared research facility with state-of-the-art equipment, which any scientist researching graphene will have the opportunity to use.

The University of Cambridge Jan. 24, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, describes the plans for graphene research and commercialization,

The first job for those working in the Cambridge Graphene Centre will be to find ways of manufacturing and optimising graphene films, dispersions and inks so that it can be used to good effect.

Professor Andrea Ferrari, who will be the Centre’s Director, said: “We are now in the second phase of graphene research, following the award of the Nobel Prize to Geim and Novoselov. That means we are targeting applications and manufacturing processes, and broadening research to other two-dimensional materials and hybrid systems. The integration of these new materials could bring a new dimension to future technologies, creating faster, thinner, stronger, more flexible broadband devices.”

One such project, led by Dr Stephan Hofmann, a Reader and specialist in nanotechnology, will look specifically at the manufacturability of graphene and other, layered, 2D materials. At the moment, sheets of graphene that are just one atom thick are difficult to grow in a controllable manner, manipulate, or connect with other materials.

Dr Hofmann’s research team will focus on a growth method called chemical vapour deposition (CVD), which has already opened up other materials, such as diamond, carbon nanotubes and gallium nitride, to industrial scale production.

“The process technology will open up new horizons for nanomaterials, built layer by layer, which means that it could lead to an amazing range of future devices and applications,” Dr Hofmann said.

The Government funding for the Centre is complemented by strong industrial support, worth an additional £13 million, from over 20 partners, including Nokia, Dyson, Plastic Logic, Philips and BaE systems. A further £11M of European Research Council funding will support activities with the Graphene Institute in Manchester, and Lancaster University. [emphasis mine]

Its work will focus on taking graphene from a state of raw potential to a point where it can revolutionise flexible, wearable and transparent electronics. The Centre will target the manufacture of graphene on an industrial scale, and applications in the areas of flexible electronics, energy, connectivity and optoelectronics.

Professor Yang Hao, of Queen Mary, University of London, will lead Centre activities targeting connectivity, so that graphene can be integrated into networked devices, with the ultimate vision of creating an “internet of things”.

Professor Clare Grey, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, will lead the activities targeting the use of graphene in super-capacitors and batteries for energy storage. The research could, ultimately, provide a more effective energy storage for electric vehicles, storage on the grid, as well as boosting the energy storage possibilities of personal devices such as MP3 players and mobile phones.

The announcement of a National Graphene Institute in Manchester was mentioned in my Jan. 14, 2013 posting and both the University of Manchester and the Lancaster University are part of the Graphene Flagship consortium along with the University of Cambridge and Sweden’s Chalmers University, which is the lead institution, and others competing against three other Flagship projects for one of two 1B Euro prizes.

These two announcements (Cambridge Graphene Centre and National Graphene Institute come at an interesting time, the decision as to which two projects will receive 1B Euros for research is being announced Jan. 28, 2013 in Brussels, Belgium. The Jan. 15, 2013 article by Frank Jordans on the R&D website provides a few more details,

Teams of scientists from across the continent [Europe] are vying for a funding bonanza that could see two of them receive up to €1 billion ($1.33 billion) over 10 years to keep Europe at the cutting edge of technology.

The contest began with 26 proposals that were whittled down to six last year. Just four have made it to the final round.

They include a plan to develop digital guardian angels that would keep people safe from harm; a massive data-crunching machine to simulate social, economic and technological change on our planet; an effort to craft the most accurate computer model of the human brain to date; and a team working to find better ways to produce and employ graphene—an ultra-thin material that could revolutionize manufacturing of everything from airplanes to computer chips.

Jordans’ article goes on to further explain the reasoning for this extraordinary contest. All four groups must be highly focused on Monday’s (Jan. 28, 2013) announcement from EU (European Union) officials, after all, two prizes and four competitors means that the odds of winning are 50/50. Good luck!

Policy visualization tool

Thanks to David Bruggeman and his Dec. 2, 2012 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog for this information about a very intriguing project, a policy visualization tool,  (Note: I have removed links),

ProjectPolicy.org is a startup effort established by a team of Cambridge researchers working to make it easier to access policy-relevant data.  …

They are looking for help, and are advertising for Policy Fellows and a Technology Associate. The Policy Fellows would work remotely, gathering and curating data for a particular geographic region.

I found more information about ProjectPolicy in a Nov. 23, 2012 University of Cambridge news release,

The winning project of the SVC2UK Cambridge Startup weekend, which took place at Cambridge Judge Business School between 9 and 11 November 2012, has gone on to win the Grand Finale in London.

ProjectPolicy.org is an online, intuitive tool to help make sense of policy information by aggregating data from different sources. Following a pitch by Nathan Boublil and Agastya Muthanna, the team behind ProjectPolicy was formed during the SVC2UK Cambridge Startup Weekend and together the five team members developed and presented the initiative as a viable business opportunity to a panel of judges.

This project is currently one of 15 semi-finalists in the Global Startup Battle which hosted 138 teams battling for a spot in the semi-finals. The online battle was waged from Nov. 9 – 19, 2012 (over two weekends) with 10,000+ participants in 100+ cities around the world. Here’s some information about the panelists currently judging the semi-finalists’ project in a Nov. (?), 2012 posting on the SW blog (Note: I have removed links),

TONY HSIEH 

In 1999, at the age of 24, Tony Hsieh sold LinkExchange, the company he co-founded, to Microsoft for   $265 million.

He then joined Zappos as an advisor and investor, and eventually became CEO, where he helped the company grow from almost no sales to over $1 billion in gross merchandise sales annually, while simultaneously making Fortune magazines annual Best Companies to Work For list. In November 2009, Zappos.com, Inc. was acquired by Amazon.com in a deal valued at $1.2 billion on the day of closing.

BRAD FELD

Brad is one of the managing directors at Foundry Group, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage software / Internet companies throughout the United States. He is also the co-founder of TechStars, a mentor-driven accelerator, author of several books and blogs, and a marathon runner.

Brad has been an early stage investor and entrepreneur since 1987. Prior to co-founding Foundry Group, he co-founded Mobius Venture Capital and, prior to that, founded Intensity Ventures, a company that helped launch and operate software companies. Brad is also a co-founder of TechStarts.

LEAH BUSQUE

A true visionary, Leah Busque (@labusque) is the founder and chief executive officer of TaskRabbit.com, an online marketplace where you can outsource small jobs and Tasks to others in your own community. TaskRabbit is the pioneer in “service networking” – a concept Leah conceived and has since evangelized. Now an industry-wide concept, service networking describes the productive power of a web-based, social-networked community.

Since its founding in 2008, Leah has grown TaskRabbit to more than 40 employees and has expanded the service to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle with several more markets to come in 2012. Under her leadership, TaskRabbit was named one of the “Next Big Things in Tech” by WSJ Digits, Start up to Watch in 2012” by Inc. Magazine, and a finalist for “Mobile app of the year” in 2011 by both the Crunchies and Mashable Awards.

CHRIS HOLLOD

Chris Hollod lives in LA and works directly with Ashton Kutcher, Guy Oseary, and Ron Burkle to help manage their venture capital fund, A-Grade Investments.

Chris’s responsibilities include evaluating new opportunities, managing deal flow, spearheading the investment process, executing deals, and coordinating with portfolio companies.

Chris also works as an Associate for The Yucaipa Companies, a private equity firm founded by Ron Burkle.  Prior to joining A-Grade Investments and The Yucaipa Companies, Chris worked in Investment Banking.  Chris graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt University with a degree in Economics and minors in Finance and Philosophy.

JESSE DRAPER

Jesse Draper is creator and host of “The Valley Girl Show” through which she’s become a spokesperson for startups and helped pioneer the way of new media content distribution.

Formerly a Nickelodeon star, Draper is now CEO of Valley Girl™ where she runs pre-production through post-production and distribution for the show, runs technology blog Lalawag.com and is a regular featured writer for Mashable, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post and Glam. Draper is also a speaker at business conferences around the world including DLD, SXSW and universities such as Stanford.

Getting back to ProjectPolicy.org, there’s more information in a brief video they’ve produced,

If you are interested in helping this team make its policy visualization tool useful and accessible, here’s more about the positions they are advertising,

As a Technology Associate, you will help the technology team develop the platform.

You will be responsible for helping to develop crucial modules of the product. This

will be a valuable learning opportunity for you to work in product development at a

fast-growing startup. The fellowship can be part-time or full-time, carried out

virtually and alongside studies (Compsci/Engineering undergrad/postgrad or

other activities).

Duration: 3 to 6 months, depending on preference. Expenses reimbursed.

Joining date: ASAP

Requirements:

- Excellent Programming skills

- Knowledge of Web based Software development methodologies

- PHP

- MySQL

- Server side Java including Web Service development

- JavaScript

- Google Maps API

- Google Fusion Tables

- Software Testing

- Ability to learn new technologies

- Willingness to work independently

- Organised.

To apply, please email your CV and a short paragraph explaining your motivations

and why you want to join us to: [email protected]

As a Policy Fellow, you will work remotely to assist the team in developing the first
online platform focused on public policy. Responsible for a geographic area you
will assist in data selection and curation at the local level.
As an Economics/Politics/Public Policy/International relations student or recent
graduate, you must be familiar with researching quantitative and qualitative
information quickly and accurately.
We are currently looking for Policy Fellows to cover the following territories:
- North America;
- Asia (with fluency in relevant languages);
- Continental Europe (with fluency in relevant languages);
- Spain and South America ex Brazil (fluency in Spanish required);
- Portugal and Brazil (Fluency in Portuguese required);
- Sub-saharan Africa (with fluency in relevant languages).
Policy Fellows are expected to work independently and virtually.
Duration: 6 months min.
Joining date: ASAP.
Time commitment: 4-6 hours per week.
To apply, please email your CV and a short paragraph explaining your motivations,
area of interest and why you want to join us to: [email protected]

I wish ProjectPolicy.org good luck in the competition and I hope to be seeing their tools online in the near future.

Existential risk

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Price along with Martin Rees, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, and Jaan Tallinn, Co-Founder of Skype, are the driving forces behind this proposed new centre at Cambridge University. From the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk webpage,

Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. Such dangers have been suggested from progress in AI, from developments in biotechnology and artificial life, from nanotechnology, and from possible extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change. The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake. …

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk — a joint initiative between a philosopher, a scientist, and a software entrepreneur — begins with the conviction that these issues require a great deal more scientific investigation than they presently receive. Our aim is to establish within the University of Cambridge a multidisciplinary research centre dedicated to the study and mitigation of risks of this kind.

Price and Tallinn co-wrote an Aug. 6, 2012 article for the Australia-based, The Conversation website, about their concerns,

We know how to deal with suspicious packages – as carefully as possible! These days, we let robots take the risk. But what if the robots are the risk? Some commentators argue we should be treating AI (artificial intelligence) as a suspicious package, because it might eventually blow up in our faces. Should we be worried?

Asked whether there will ever be computers as smart as people, the US mathematician and sci-fi author Vernor Vinge replied: “Yes, but only briefly”.

He meant that once computers get to this level, there’s nothing to prevent them getting a lot further very rapidly. Vinge christened this sudden explosion of intelligence the “technological singularity”, and thought that it was unlikely to be good news, from a human point of view.

Was Vinge right, and if so what should we do about it? Unlike typical suspicious parcels, after all, what the future of AI holds is up to us, at least to some extent. Are there things we can do now to make sure it’s not a bomb (or a good bomb rather than a bad bomb, perhaps)?

It appears Price, Rees, and Tallinn are not the only concerned parties, from the Nov. 25, 2012 research news piece on the Cambridge University website,

With luminaries in science, policy, law, risk and computing from across the University and beyond signing up to become advisors, the project is, even in its earliest days, gathering momentum. “The basic philosophy is that we should be taking seriously the fact that we are getting to the point where our technologies have the potential to threaten our own existence – in a way that they simply haven’t up to now, in human history,” says Price. “We should be investing a little of our intellectual resources in shifting some probability from bad outcomes to good ones.”

Price acknowledges that some of these ideas can seem far-fetched, the stuff of science fiction, but insists that that’s part of the point.

According to the Huffington Post article by Lui, they expect to launch the centre next year (2013). In the meantime, for anyone who’s looking for more information about the ‘intelligence explosion’ or  ‘singularity’ as it’s also known, there’s a Wikipedia essay on the topic.  Also, you may want to stay tuned to this channel (blog) as I expect to have some news about an artificial intelligence project based at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) and headed by Chris Eliasmith at the university’s Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, later this week.