Tag Archives: University of Cambridge

Flexible, graphene-based display: first ever?

It seems like there’s been a lot of discussion about flexible displays, graphene or not, over the years so the announcement of the first graphene-based flexible display might seem a little anticlimactic. That’s one of the problems with the technology and science communities. Sometimes there’s so much talk about an idea or concept that by the time it becomes reality people think it’s already been done and is not news.

So, kudos to the folks at the University of Cambridge who have been working on this development for a long time. From a Sept. 10, 2014 news release on EurekAlert,

The partnership between the two organisations combines the graphene expertise of the Cambridge Graphene Centre (CGC), with the transistor and display processing steps that Plastic Logic has already developed for flexible electronics. This prototype is a first example of how the partnership will accelerate the commercial development of graphene, and is a first step towards the wider implementation of graphene and graphene-like materials into flexible electronics.

The new prototype is an active matrix electrophoretic display, similar to the screens used in today’s e-readers, except it is made of flexible plastic instead of glass. In contrast to conventional displays, the pixel electronics, or backplane, of this display includes a solution-processed graphene electrode, which replaces the sputtered metal electrode layer within Plastic Logic’s conventional devices, bringing product and process benefits.

Graphene is more flexible than conventional ceramic alternatives like indium-tin oxide (ITO) and more transparent than metal films. The ultra-flexible graphene layer may enable a wide range of products, including foldable electronics. Graphene can also be processed from solution bringing inherent benefits of using more efficient printed and roll-to-roll manufacturing approaches.

The new 150 pixel per inch (150 ppi) backplane was made at low temperatures (less than 100°C) using Plastic Logic’s Organic Thin Film Transistor (OTFT) technology. The graphene electrode was deposited from solution and subsequently patterned with micron-scale features to complete the backplane.

For this prototype, the backplane was combined with an electrophoretic imaging film to create an ultra-low power and durable display. Future demonstrations may incorporate liquid crystal (LCD) and organic light emitting diodes (OLED) technology to achieve full colour and video functionality. Lightweight flexible active-matrix backplanes may also be used for sensors, with novel digital medical imaging and gesture recognition applications already in development.

“We are happy to see our collaboration with Plastic Logic resulting in the first graphene-based electrophoretic display exploiting graphene in its pixels’ electronics,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “This is a significant step forward to enable fully wearable and flexible devices. This cements the Cambridge graphene-technology cluster and shows how an effective academic-industrial partnership is key to help move graphene from the lab to the factory floor.”

As an example of how long this development has been in the works, I have a Nov. 7, 2011 posting about a University of Cambridge stretchable, electronic skin produced by what was then the university’s Nokia Research Centre. That ‘skin’ was a big step forward to achieving a phone/device/flexible display (the Morph), wrappable around your wrist, first publicized in 2008 as I noted in a March 30, 2010 posting.

According to the news release, there should be some more news soon,

This joint effort between Plastic Logic and the CGC was also recently boosted by a grant from the UK Technology Strategy Board, within the ‘realising the graphene revolution’ initiative. This will target the realisation of an advanced, full colour, OELD based display within the next 12 months.

My colleague Dexter Johnson has offered some business-oriented insight into this development at Cambridge in his Sept. 9, 2014 posting on the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) website (Note: Links have been removed),

In the UK’s concerted efforts to become a hub for graphene commercialization, one of the key partnerships between academic research and industry has been the one between the Cambridge Graphene Centre located at the University of Cambridge and a number of companies, including Nokia, Dyson, BaE systems, Philips and Plastic Logic. The last on this list, Plastic Logic, was spun out originally from the University of Cambridge in 2000. However, since its beginnings it has required a $200 million investment from RusNano to keep itself afloat back in 2011 for a time called Mountain View, California, home.

The post is well worth reading for anyone interested in the twists and turns of graphene commercialization in the UK.

Tibetan Buddhist singing bowls inspire more efficient solar cells

There’s no mention as to whether or not Dr Niraj Lal practices any form of meditation or how he came across Tibetan Buddhist singing bowls but somehow he was inspired by them when studying for his PhD at Cambridge University (UK). From a Sept. 8, 2014 news item by Niall Byrne for physorg.com,

The shape of a centuries-old Buddhist singing bowl has inspired a Canberra scientist to re-think the way that solar cells are designed to maximize their efficiency.

Dr Niraj Lal, of the Australian National University,  found during his PhD at the University of Cambridge, that small nano-sized versions of Buddhist singing bowls resonate with light in the same way as they do with sound, and he’s applied this shape to solar cells to increase their ability to capture more light and convert it into electricity.

A Sept. ?, 2014 news release from Australian science communication company, Science in Public, fills in a few more details without any mention of Lal’s meditation practices, should he have any,

“Current standard solar panels lose a large amount of light-energy as it hits the surface, making the panels’ generation of electricity inefficient,” says Niraj. “But if the cells are singing bowl-shaped, then the light bounces around inside the cell for longer”.

Normally used in meditation, music, and relaxation, Buddhist singing bowls make a continuous harmonic ringing sound when the rim of the metal bowl is vibrated with a wooden or other utensil.

During his PhD, Niraj discovered that his ‘nanobowls’ manipulated light by creating a ‘plasmonic’ resonance, which quadrupled the laboratory solar cell’s efficiency compared to a similarly made flat solar cell.

Now, Niraj and his team aim to change all that by applying his singing-bowl discovery to tandem solar cells: a technology that has previously been limited to aerospace applications.

In research which will be published in the November issue of IEEE Journal of Photonics, Niraj and his colleagues have shown that by layering two different types of solar panels on top of each other in tandem, the efficiency of flat rooftop solar panels can achieve 30 per cent—currently, laboratory silicon solar panels convert only 25 per cent of light into electricity, while commercial varieties convert closer to 20 per cent.

The tandem cell design works by absorbing a sunlight more effectively —each cell is made from a different material so that it can ‘see’ a different light wavelength.

“To a silicon solar cell, a rainbow just looks like a big bit of red in the sky—they don’t ‘see’ the blue, green or UV light—they convert all light to electricity as if it was red ,” says Niraj. “But when we put a second cell on top, which ‘sees’ the blue part of light, but allows the red to pass through to the ‘red-seeing’ cell below, we can reach a combined efficiency of more than 30 percent.”

Niraj and a team at ANU are now looking at ways to super-charge the tandem cell design by applying the Buddhist singing bowl shape to further increase efficiency.

“If we can make a solar cell that ‘sees’ more colours and  keeps the right light in the right layers, then we could increase efficiency even further,” says Niraj.

“Every extra percent in efficiency saves you thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the panel,” says Niraj. “Current roof-top solar panels have been steadily increasing in efficiency, which has been a big driver of the fourfold drop in the price for these panels over the last five years.”

More importantly, says Niraj, greater efficiency will allow solar technology to compete with fossil fuels and meet the challenges of climate change and access.

“Electricity is also one of the most enabling technologies we have ever seen, and linking people in rural areas around the world to electricity is one of the most powerful things we can do.”

At the end of the Science in Public news release there’s mention of a science communication competition,

Niraj was a 2014 national finalist of FameLab Australia. FameLab is a global science communication competition for early-career scientists. His work is supported by the Australian Research Council and ARENA – the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

About FameLab

In 2014, the British Council and Fresh Science have joined forces to bring FameLab to Australia.

FameLab Australia will offer specialist science media training and, ultimately, the chance for early-career researchers to pitch their research at the FameLab International Grand Final in the UK at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival from 3 to 5 June 2014.

FameLab is an international communication competition for scientists, including engineers and mathematicians. Designed to inspire and motivate young researchers to actively engage with the public and with potential stakeholders, FameLab is all about finding the best new voices of science and engineering across the world.

Founded in 2005 by The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, FameLab, working in partnership with the British Council, has already seen more than 5,000 young scientists and engineers participate in over 23 different countries — from Hong Kong to South Africa, USA to Egypt.

Now, FameLab comes to Australia in a landmark collaboration with the British Council and Fresh Science — Australia’s very own science communication competition.

For more information about FameLab Australia, head to www.famelab.org.au

You can find out more about Australia’s Fresh Science here.

Getting back to Dr. Lal, here’s a video he made about his work and where he demonstrates a Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl (this is a very low tech video and the sound quality isn’t great),

Here’s a link to and a citation for Lal’s most recent paper,

Optics and Light Trapping for Tandem Solar Cells on Silicon by Lal, N.N.; White, T.P. ; and Catchpole, K.R. Photovoltaics, IEEE Journal of  (Volume:PP ,  Issue: 99) Page(s): 1 – 7 ISSN : 2156-3381 DOI: 10.1109/JPHOTOV.2014.2342491 Published online 19 August 2014

The paper is behind a paywall but there is open access to Lal’s 2012 University of Cambridge PhD thesis on his approach,

Enhancing solar cells with plasmonic nanovoids by Lal, Niraj Narsey
URI: http://www.dspace.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/243864 Date:2012-07-03

Hap;y reading!

White beetles and complex photonic nanostructures

At least one species of white beetles which have excited scientists with their complex nanostructures are native to Southeast Asia according to an Aug. 15, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

The physical properties of the ultra-white scales on certain species of beetle could be used to make whiter paper, plastics and paints, while using far less material than is used in current manufacturing methods.

The Cyphochilus beetle, which is native to South-East Asia, is whiter than paper, thanks to ultra-thin scales which cover its body. A new investigation of the optical properties of these scales has shown that they are able to scatter light more efficiently than any other biological tissue known, which is how they are able to achieve such a bright whiteness.

An Aug. 15, 2014 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the properties needed to create the optical conditions necessary for the colour white to be seen,

Animals produce colours for several purposes, from camouflage to communication, to mating and thermoregulation. Bright colours are usually produced using pigments, which absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, which our eyes then perceive as colour.

To appear as white, however, a tissue needs to reflect all wavelengths of light with the same efficiency. The ultra-white Cyphochilus and L. Stigma beetles produce this colouration by exploiting the geometry of a dense complex network of chitin – a molecule similar in structure to cellulose, which is found throughout nature, including in the shells of molluscs, the exoskeletons of insects and the cell walls of fungi. The chitin filaments are just a few billionths of a metre thick, and on their own are not particularly good at reflecting light.

The research, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the European Laboratory for non-Linear Spectroscopy in Italy has shown that the beetles have optimised their internal structure in order to produce maximum white with minimum material, like a painter who needs to whiten a wall with a very small quantity of paint. This efficiency is particularly important for insects that fly, as it makes them lighter.

Here’s what the Cyphochilus beetle looks like,

Cyphochilus beetle Credit: Lorenzo Cortese and Silvia Vignolini

Cyphochilus beetle Credit: Lorenzo Cortese and Silvia Vignolini Courtesy University of Cambridge

The press release goes on to describe the beetle’s optical properties in greater detail,

Over millions of years of evolution the beetles have developed a compressed network of chitin filaments. This network is directionally-dependent, or anisotropic, which allows high intensities of reflected light for all colours at the same time, resulting in a very intense white with very little material.

“Current technology is not able to produce a coating as white as these beetles can in such a thin layer,” said Dr Silvia Vignolini of the University’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research. “In order to survive, these beetles need to optimise their optical response but this comes with the strong constraint of using as little material as possible in order to save energy and to keep the scales light enough in order to fly. Curiously, these beetles succeed in this task using chitin, which has a relatively low refractive index.”

The secret lies in the beetles’ nanostructures,

Exactly how this could be possible remained unclear up to now. The researchers studied how light propagates in the white scales, quantitatively measuring their scattering strength for the first time and demonstrating that they scatter light more efficiently than any other low-refractive-index material yet known.

“These scales have a structure that is truly complex since it gives rise to something that is more than the sum of its parts,” said co-author Dr Matteo Burresi of the Italian National Institute of Optics in Florence. “Our simulations show that a randomly packed collection of its constituent elements by itself is not sufficient to achieve the degree of brightness that we observe.”

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

Bright-White Beetle Scales Optimise Multiple Scattering of Light by Matteo Burresi, Lorenzo Cortese, Lorenzo Pattelli, Mathias Kolle, Peter Vukusic, Diederik S. Wiersma, Ullrich Steiner, & Silvia Vignolini.  Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 6075 doi:10.1038/srep06075 Published 15 August 2014

This paper is open access.

First ever Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Symposium in English-speaking Caribbean

A July 12, 2014 news item on Nanowerk heralds this new International symposium on nanoscience and nanotechnology,

The ‘International Symposium on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology’ will be hosted at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine [in Trinidad and Tobago], from July 15-17, 2014. The symposium, focused on the frontier areas of science, medicine and technology, is the first of its kind in the English-speaking Caribbean and is organised jointly by CARISCIENCE, The UWI and the University of Trinidad and Tobago. The symposium consists of a Public Lecture on Day 1 and Scientific Sessions over Days 2 and 3.

This international symposium is important and ground-breaking since these are widely viewed as revolutionary fields. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are considered to have huge potential to bring benefits to many areas of research and application and are attracting rapidly increasing investments from governments and businesses in many parts of the world.

Despite developments in nanoscience and nanotechnology, the Caribbean as a region has not been involved to the extent that more advanced countries have. As such, this symposium aims to provide a stronger focus on the impact and implications of developments in nanoscience/nanotechnology for stakeholders within the Caribbean region, including researchers, academics, university students, government and policy makers, industry partners and the wider public. The symposium will explore various topics under the following themes:

Nanotechnology for Sustainable Energy and Industrial Applications
Nanotechnology for Electronic Device and Sensor Applications
Nanotechnology in Biology, Medicine and Pharmaceuticals
Nanoscale Synthesis, Nanofabrication and Characterization

A July 11, 2014 UWI news release, which originated the news item, provides details about the speakers and more,

An impressive line-up of leading, globally recognised experts from world-class international and regional institutes awaits, including the Public Lecture titled “Science and the Elements of Daily Life,” to be delivered by world-renowned scientist, Professor Anthony K. Cheetham FRS, University of Cambridge, Vice President and Treasurer of The Royal Society. Additionally, the Keynote Address at the Opening Ceremony will be delivered by The Right Honourable Keith Mitchell, Prime Minister of Grenada, with responsibility for Science and Technology in CARICOM.

Speakers at the scientific sessions include Professor Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart (Scientific Advisor to the President of the Republic of Cuba and Vice President of The Academy of Science, Cuba); Professor Frank Gu (University of Waterloo, Canada); Professor Christopher Backhouse (former Director of the Waterloo Institute of Nanotechnology, University of Waterloo, Canada); Professor G. U. Kulkarni (JNCASR, India) and Professor Masami Okamoto (Toyota Technology Institute, Japan).

Students, teachers, academics and the wider public, are all invited and encouraged to attend and use this unique opportunity to engage these leading scientists.

The free Public Lecture is scheduled for Tuesday July 15, 2014, from 5pm-7.30pm, at the Daaga Auditorium, The UWI, St. Augustine Campus. [emphasis mine] The Scientific Sessions take place on Wednesday and Thursday July 16 and 17, 2014, from 8.30am-5pm, at Lecture Theatre A1, UWI Teaching and Learning Complex, Circular Road, St. Augustine. There will also be a small Poster Session to highlight some research done in the areas of Nanoscience and nanotechnology in the Caribbean.

All attendees (to the scientific sessions) must complete and send registration forms to the email address [email protected] by Sunday, July 13, 2014. Registration forms may be downloaded at the Campus Events Calendar entry by visiting www.sta.uwi.edu/news/ecalendar.

A registration fee must be paid in cash at the registration desk on Wednesday July 16, 2014, Day 2, at the start of the scientific sessions.

  • Academic and non-academic:  TT$ 600
  • Graduate student: TT$ 150
  • Undergraduate student: no cost

For further information on the symposium, please visit the Campus Events Calendar at www.sta.uwi.edu/news/ecalendar

I wish them all the best. They seem (judging by the institutions represented) to have attracted a stellar roster of speakers.

Nanocellulose and an intensity of structural colour

I love the topic of structural colour (or color, depending on your spelling preferences) and have covered it many times and in many ways. One of the best pieces I’ve encountered about structural colour (an article by Christina Luiggi for The Scientist provided an overview of structural colour as it’s found in plants and animals) was featured in my Feb. 7, 2013 posting. If you go to my posting, you’ll find a link to Luiggi’s article which I recommend reading in its entirety if you have the time.

As for this latest nanocellulose story, a June 13, 2014 news item on Nanowerk describes University of Cambridge (UK) research into films and structural colour,

Brightly-coloured, iridescent films, made from the same wood pulp that is used to make paper, could potentially substitute traditional toxic pigments in the textile and security industries. The films use the same principle as can be seen in some of the most vivid colours in nature, resulting in colours which do not fade, even after a century.

Some of the brightest and most colourful materials in nature – such as peacock feathers, butterfly wings and opals – get their colour not from pigments, but from their internal structure alone.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge have recreated a similar structure in the lab, resulting in brightly-coloured films which could be used for textile or security applications.

A June 13, 2014 University of Cambridge news release, which originated the news item, describe the phenomenon of structural colour as it applies to cellulose materials,

In plants such as Pollia condensata, striking iridescent and metallic colours are the result of cellulose fibres arranged in spiral stacks, which reflect light at specific wavelengths. [emphasis mine]

Cellulose is made up of long chains of sugar molecules, and is the most abundant biomass material in nature. It can be found in the cells of every plant and is the main compound that gives cell walls their strength.

The news release goes on to provide a brief description of the research,

The researchers used wood pulp, the same material that is used for producing paper, as their starting material. Through manipulating the structure of the cellulose contained in the wood pulp, the researchers were able to fabricate iridescent colour films without using pigments.

To make the films, the researchers extracted cellulose nanocrystals from the wood pulp. When suspended in water, the rod-like nanocrystals spontaneously assemble into nanostructured layers that selectively reflect light of a specific colour. The colour reflected depends on the dimensions of the layers. By varying humidity conditions during the film fabrication, the researchers were able to change the reflected colour and capture the different phases of the colour formation.

Cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) are also known as nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC).

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

Controlled, Bio-inspired Self-Assembly of Cellulose-Based Chiral Reflectors by Ahu Gumrah Dumanli, Gen Kamita, Jasper Landman, Hanne van der Kooij, Beverley J. Glover, Jeremy J. Baumberg, Ullrich Steiner, and Silvia Vignolini. Optical Materials Article first published online: 30 MAY 2014 DOI: 10.1002/adom.201400112

© 2014 The Authors. Published by WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

While the researchers have supplied an image of the Pollia condensata, I prefer this one, which is also featured in my Feb. 7, 2013 posting,

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/]

Stunning, non?

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.