Tag Archives: University of Washington

Big data in the Cascadia region: a University of British Columbia (Canada) and University of Washington (US state) collaboration

Before moving onto the news and for anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the Cascadia region, it is an informally proposed political region or a bioregion, depending on your perspective. Adding to the lack of clarity, the region generally includes the province of British Columbia in Canada and the two US states, Washington and Oregon but Alaska (another US state) and the Yukon (a Canadian territory) may also be included, as well as, parts of California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. (You can read more about the Cascadia bioregion here and the proposed political region here.)  While it sounds as if more of the US is part of the ‘Cascadia region’, British Columbia and the Yukon cover considerably more territory than all of the mentioned states combined, if you’re taking a landmass perspective.

Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative

There was some big news about the smallest version of the Cascadia region on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 when the University of British Columbia (UBC) , the University of Washington (state; UW), and Microsoft announced the launch of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative. From the joint Feb. 23, 2017 news release (read on the UBC website or read on the UW website),

In an expansion of regional cooperation, the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington today announced the establishment of the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative to use data to help cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness. The largest industry-funded research partnership between UBC and the UW, the collaborative will bring faculty, students and community stakeholders together to solve problems, and is made possible thanks to a $1-million gift from Microsoft.

“Thanks to this generous gift from Microsoft, our two universities are poised to help transform the Cascadia region into a technological hub comparable to Silicon Valley and Boston,” said Professor Santa J. Ono, President of the University of British Columbia. “This new partnership transcends borders and strives to unleash our collective brain power, to bring about economic growth that enriches the lives of Canadians and Americans as well as urban communities throughout the world.”

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to use data to help our communities make decisions, and as a result improve people’s lives and well-being. That commitment to the public good is at the core of the mission of our two universities, and we’re grateful to Microsoft for making a community-minded contribution that will spark a range of collaborations,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

Today’s announcement follows last September’s [2016] Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in Vancouver, B.C. The forum brought together regional leaders for the first time to identify concrete opportunities for partnerships in education, transportation, university research, human capital and other areas.

A Boston Consulting Group study unveiled at the conference showed the region between Seattle and Vancouver has “high potential to cultivate an innovation corridor” that competes on an international scale, but only if regional leaders work together. The study says that could be possible through sustained collaboration aided by an educated and skilled workforce, a vibrant network of research universities and a dynamic policy environment.

Microsoft President Brad Smith, who helped convene the conference, said, “We believe that joint research based on data science can help unlock new solutions for some of the most pressing issues in both Vancouver and Seattle. But our goal is bigger than this one-time gift. We hope this investment will serve as a catalyst for broader and more sustainable efforts between these two institutions.”

As part of the Emerging Cascadia conference, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a formal agreement that committed the two governments to work closely together to “enhance meaningful and results-driven innovation and collaboration.”  The agreement outlined steps the two governments will take to collaborate in several key areas including research and education.

“Increasingly, tech is not just another standalone sector of the economy, but fully integrated into everything from transportation to social work,” said Premier Clark. “That’s why we’ve invested in B.C.’s thriving tech sector, but committed to working with our neighbours in Washington – and we’re already seeing the results.”

“This data-driven collaboration among some of our smartest and most creative thought-leaders will help us tackle a host of urgent issues,” Gov. Inslee said. “I’m encouraged to see our partnership with British Columbia spurring such interesting cross-border dialogue and excited to see what our students and researchers come up with.”

The Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative will revolve around four main programs:

  • The Cascadia Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) Summer Program, which builds on the success of the DSSG program at the UW eScience Institute. The cooperative will coordinate a joint summer program for students across UW and UBC campuses where they work with faculty to create and incubate data-intensive research projects that have concrete benefits for urban communities. One past DSSG project analyzed data from Seattle’s regional transportation system – ORCA – to improve its effectiveness, particularly for low-income transit riders. Another project sought to improve food safety by text mining product reviews to identify unsafe products.
  • Cascadia Data Science for Social Good Scholar Symposium, which will foster innovation and collaboration by bringing together scholars from UBC and the UW involved in projects utilizing technology to advance the social good. The first symposium will be hosted at UW in 2017.
  • Sustained Research Partnerships designed to establish the Pacific Northwest as a center of expertise and activity in urban analytics. The cooperative will support sustained research partnerships between UW and UBC researchers, providing technical expertise, stakeholder engagement and seed funding.
  • Responsible Data Management Systems and Services to ensure data integrity, security and usability. The cooperative will develop new software, systems and services to facilitate data management and analysis, as well as ensure projects adhere to best practices in fairness, accountability and transparency.

At UW, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Collaborative will be overseen by Urbanalytics (urbanalytics.uw.edu), a new research unit in the Information School focused on responsible urban data science. The Collaborative builds on previous investments in data-intensive science through the UW eScience Institute (escience.washington.edu) and investments in urban scholarship through Urban@UW (urban.uw.edu), and also aligns with the UW’s Population Health Initiative (uw.edu/populationhealth) that is addressing the most persistent and emerging challenges in human health, environmental resiliency and social and economic equity. The gift counts toward the UW’s Be Boundless – For Washington, For the World campaign (uw.edu/boundless).

The Collaborative also aligns with the UBC Sustainability Initiative (sustain.ubc.ca) that fosters partnerships beyond traditional boundaries of disciplines, sectors and geographies to address critical issues of our time, as well as the UBC Data Science Institute (dsi.ubc.ca), which aims to advance data science research to address complex problems across domains, including health, science and arts.

Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft, wrote about the joint centre in a Feb. 23, 2017 posting on the Microsoft on the Issues blog (Note:,

The cities of Vancouver and Seattle share many strengths: a long history of innovation, world-class universities and a region rich in cultural and ethnic diversity. While both cities have achieved great success on their own, leaders from both sides of the border realize that tighter partnership and collaboration, through the creation of a Cascadia Innovation Corridor, will expand economic opportunity and prosperity well beyond what each community can achieve separately.

Microsoft supports this vision and today is making a $1 million investment in the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative (CUAC), which is a new joint effort by the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Washington (UW).  It will use data to help local cities and communities address challenges from traffic to homelessness and will be the region’s single largest university-based, industry-funded joint research project. While we recognize the crucial role that universities play in building great companies in the Pacific Northwest, whether it be in computing, life sciences, aerospace or interactive entertainment, we also know research, particularly data science, holds the key to solving some of Vancouver and Seattle’s most pressing issues. This grant will advance this work.

An Oct. 21, 2016 article by Hana Golightly for the Ubyssey newspaper provides a little more detail about the province/state agreement mentioned in the joint UBC/UW news release,

An agreement between BC Premier Christy Clark and Washington Governor Jay Inslee means UBC will be collaborating with the University of Washington (UW) more in the future.

At last month’s [Sept. 2016] Cascadia Conference, Clark and Inslee signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the goal of fostering the growth of the technology sector in both regions. Officially referred to as the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, this partnership aims to reduce boundaries across the region — economic and otherwise.

While the memorandum provides broad goals and is not legally binding, it sets a precedent of collaboration between businesses, governments and universities, encouraging projects that span both jurisdictions. Aiming to capitalize on the cultural commonalities of regional centres Seattle and Vancouver, the agreement prioritizes development in life sciences, clean technology, data analytics and high tech.

Metropolitan centres like Seattle and Vancouver have experienced a surge in growth that sees planners envisioning them as the next Silicon Valleys. Premier Clark and Governor Inslee want to strengthen the ability of their jurisdictions to compete in innovation on a global scale. Accordingly, the memorandum encourages the exploration of “opportunities to advance research programs in key areas of innovation and future technologies among the region’s major universities and institutes.”

A few more questions about the Cooperative

I had a few more questions about the Feb. 23, 2017 announcement, for which (from UBC) Gail C. Murphy, PhD, FRSC, Associate Vice President Research pro tem, Professor, Computer Science of UBC and (from UW) Bill Howe, Associate Professor, Information School, Adjunct Associate Professor, Computer Science & Engineering, Associate Director and Senior Data Science Fellow,, UW eScience Institute Program Director and Faculty Chair, UW Data Science Masters Degree have kindly provided answers (Gail Murphy’s replies are prefaced with [GM] and one indent and Bill Howe’s replies are prefaced with [BH] and two indents),

  • Do you have any projects currently underway? e.g. I see a summer programme is planned. Will there be one in summer 2017? What focus will it have?

[GM] UW and UBC will each be running the Data Science for Social Good program in the summer of 2017. UBC’s announcement of the program is available at: http://dsi.ubc.ca/data-science-social-good-dssg-fellowships

  • Is the $1M from Microsoft going to be given in cash or as ‘in kind goods’ or some combination?

[GM] The $1-million donation is in cash. Microsoft organized the Emerging Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference in September 2017. It was at the conference that the idea for the partnership was hatched. Through this initiative, UBC and UW will continue to engage with Microsoft to further shared goals in promoting evidence-based innovation to improve life for people in the Cascadia region and beyond.

  • How will the money or goods be disbursed? e.g. Will each institution get 1/2 or is there some sort of joint account?

[GM] The institutions are sharing the funds but will be separately administering the funds they receive.

  • Is data going to be crossing borders? e.g. You mentioned some health care projects. In that case, will data from BC residents be accessed and subject to US rules and regulations? Will BC residents know that there data is being accessed by a 3rd party? What level of consent is required?

[GM] As you point out, there are many issues involved with transferring data across the border. Any projects involving private data will adhere to local laws and ethical frameworks set out by the institutions.

  • Privacy rules vary greatly between the US and Canada. How is that being addressed in this proposed new research?

[No Reply]

  • Will new software and other products be created and who will own them?

[GM] It is too soon for us to comment on whether new software or other products will be created. Any creation of software or other products within the institutions will be governed by institutional policy.

  • Will the research be made freely available?

[GM] UBC researchers must be able to publish the results of research as set out by UBC policy.

[BH] Research output at UW will be made available according to UW policy, but I’ll point out that Microsoft has long been a fantastic partner in advancing our efforts in open and reproducible science, open source software, and open access publishing. 

 UW’s discussion on open access policies is available online.


  • What percentage of public funds will be used to enable this project? Will the province of BC and the state of Washington be splitting the costs evenly?

[GM] It is too soon for us to report on specific percentages. At UBC, we will be looking to partner with appropriate funding agencies to support more research with this donation. Applications to funding agencies will involve review of any proposals as per the rules of the funding agency.

  • Will there be any social science and/or ethics component to this collaboration? The press conference referenced data science only.

[GM] We expect, but cannot yet confirm, that some of the projects will involve collaborations with faculty from a broad range of research areas at UBC.

[BH] We are indeed placing a strong emphasis on the intersection between data science, the social sciences, and data ethics.  As examples of activities in this space around UW:

* The Information School at UW (my home school) is actively recruiting a new faculty candidate in data ethics this year

* The Education Working Group at the eScience Institute has created a new campus-wide Data & Society seminar course.

* The Center for Statistics in the Social Sciences (CSSS), which represents the marriage of data science and the social sciences, has been a long-term partner in our activities.

More specifically for this collaboration, we are collecting requirements for new software that emphasizes responsible data science: properly managing sensitive data, combating algorithmic bias, protecting privacy, and more.

Microsoft has been a key partner in this work through their Civic Technology group, for which the Seattle arm is led by Graham Thompson.

  • What impact do you see the new US federal government’s current concerns over borders and immigrants hav[ing] on this project? e.g. Are people whose origins are in Iran, Syria, Yemen, etc. and who are residents of Canada going to be able to participate?

[GM] Students and others eligible to participate in research projects in Canada will be welcomed into the UBC projects. Our hope is that faculty and students working on the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative will be able to exchange ideas freely and move freely back and forth across the border.

  • How will seed funding for Sustained Research Partnerships’ be disbursed? Will there be a joint committee making these decisions?

[GM] We are in the process of elaborating this part of the program. At UBC, we are already experiencing, enjoying and benefitting from increased interaction with the University of Washington and look forward to elaborating more aspects of the program together as the year unfolds.

I had to make a few formatting changes when transferring the answers from emails to this posting: my numbered questions (1-11) became bulleted points and ‘have’ in what was question 10 was changed to ‘having’. The content for the answers has been untouched.

I’m surprised no one answered the privacy question but perhaps they thought the other answers sufficed. Despite an answer to my question, I don’t understand how the universities are sharing the funds but that may just mean I’m having a bad day. (Or perhaps the folks at UBC are being overly careful after the scandals rocking the Vancouver campus over the last 18 months to two years (see Sophie Sutcliffe’s Dec. 3, 2015 opinion piece for the Ubyssey for details about the scandals).

Bill Howe’s response about open access (where you can read the journal articles for free) and open source (where you have free access to the software code) was interesting to me as I once worked for a company where the developers complained loud and long about Microsoft’s failure to embrace open source code. Howe’s response is particularly interesting given that Microsoft’s president is also the Chief Legal Officer whose portfolio of responsibilities (I imagine) includes patents.

Matt Day in a Feb. 23, 2017 article for the The Seattle Times provides additional perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Microsoft’s effort to nudge Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., a bit closer together got an endorsement Thursday [Feb. 23, 2017] from the leading university in each city.

The University of Washington and the University of British Columbia announced the establishment of a joint data-science research unit, called the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative, funded by a $1 million grant from Microsoft.

The collaboration will support study of shared urban issues, from health to transit to homelessness, drawing on faculty and student input from both universities.

The partnership has its roots in a September [2016] conference in Vancouver organized by Microsoft’s public affairs and lobbying unit [emphasis mine.] That gathering was aimed at tying business, government and educational institutions in Microsoft’s home region in the Seattle area closer to its Canadian neighbor.

Microsoft last year opened an expanded office in downtown Vancouver with space for 750 employees, an outpost partly designed to draw to the Northwest more engineers than the company can get through the U.S. guest worker system [emphasis mine].

There’s nothing wrong with a business offering to contribute to the social good but it does well to remember that a business’s primary agenda is not the social good.  So in this case, it seems that public affairs and lobbying is really governmental affairs and that Microsoft has anticipated, for some time, greater difficulties with getting workers from all sorts of countries across the US border to work in Washington state making an outpost in British Columbia and closer relations between the constituencies quite advantageous. I wonder what else is on their agenda.

Getting back to UBC and UW, thank you to both Gail Murphy (in particular) and Bill Howe for taking the time to answer my questions. I very much appreciate it as answering 10 questions is a lot of work.

There were one area of interest (cities) that I did not broach with the either academic but will mention here.

Cities and their increasing political heft

Clearly Microsoft is focused on urban issues and that would seem to be the ‘flavour du jour’. There’s a May 31, 2016 piece on the TED website by Robert Muggah and Benjamin Fowler titled: ‘Why cities rule the world‘ (there are video talks embedded in the piece),

Cities are the the 21st century’s dominant form of civilization — and they’re where humanity’s struggle for survival will take place. Robert Muggah and Benjamin Barber spell out the possibilities.

Half the planet’s population lives in cities. They are the world’s engines, generating four-fifths of the global GDP. There are over 2,100 cities with populations of 250,000 people or more, including a growing number of mega-cities and sprawling, networked-city areas — conurbations, they’re called — with at least 10 million residents. As the economist Ed Glaeser puts it, “we are an urban species.”

But what makes cities so incredibly important is not just population or economics stats. Cities are humanity’s most realistic hope for future democracy to thrive, from the grassroots to the global. This makes them a stark contrast to so many of today’s nations, increasingly paralyzed by polarization, corruption and scandal.

In a less hyperbolic vein, Parag Khanna’s April 20,2016 piece for Quartz describes why he (and others) believe that megacities are where the future lies (Note: A link has been removed),

Cities are mankind’s most enduring and stable mode of social organization, outlasting all empires and nations over which they have presided. Today cities have become the world’s dominant demographic and economic clusters.

As the sociologist Christopher Chase-Dunn has pointed out, it is not population or territorial size that drives world-city status, but economic weight, proximity to zones of growth, political stability, and attractiveness for foreign capital. In other words, connectivity matters more than size. Cities thus deserve more nuanced treatment on our maps than simply as homogeneous black dots.

Within many emerging markets such as Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and Indonesia, the leading commercial hub or financial center accounts for at least one-third or more of national GDP. In the UK, London accounts for almost half Britain’s GDP. And in America, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor and greater Los Angeles together combine for about one-third of America’s GDP.

By 2025, there will be at least 40 such megacities. The population of the greater Mexico City region is larger than that of Australia, as is that of Chongqing, a collection of connected urban enclaves in China spanning an area the size of Austria. Cities that were once hundreds of kilometers apart have now effectively fused into massive urban archipelagos, the largest of which is Japan’s Taiheiyo Belt that encompasses two-thirds of Japan’s population in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka megalopolis.

Great and connected cities, Saskia Sassen argues, belong as much to global networks as to the country of their political geography. Today the world’s top 20 richest cities have forged a super-circuit driven by capital, talent, and services: they are home to more than 75% of the largest companies, which in turn invest in expanding across those cities and adding more to expand the intercity network. Indeed, global cities have forged a league of their own, in many ways as denationalized as Formula One racing teams, drawing talent from around the world and amassing capital to spend on themselves while they compete on the same circuit.

The rise of emerging market megacities as magnets for regional wealth and talent has been the most significant contributor to shifting the world’s focal point of economic activity. McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that from now until 2025, one-third of world growth will come from the key Western capitals and emerging market megacities, one-third from the heavily populous middle-weight cities of emerging markets, and one-third from small cities and rural areas in developing countries.

Khanna’s megacities all exist within one country. If Vancouver and Seattle (and perhaps Portland?) were to become a become a megacity it would be one of the only or few to cross national borders.

Khanna has been mentioned here before in a Jan. 27, 2016 posting about cities and technology and a public engagement exercise with the National Research of Council of Canada (scroll down to the subsection titled: Cities rising in important as political entities).

Muggah/Fowler’s and Khanna’s 2016 pieces are well worth reading if you have the time.

For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree that cities will be and are increasing in political  importance along with this area of development:

Algorithms and big data

Concerns are being raised about how big data is being utilized so I was happy to see specific initiatives to address ethics issues in Howe’s response. For anyone not familiar with the concerns, here’s an excerpt from Cathy O’Neal’s Oct. 18, 2016 article for Wired magazine,

The age of Big Data has generated new tools and ideas on an enormous scale, with applications spreading from marketing to Wall Street, human resources, college admissions, and insurance. At the same time, Big Data has opened opportunities for a whole new class of professional gamers and manipulators, who take advantage of people using the power of statistics.

I should know. I was one of them.

Information is power, and in the age of corporate surveillance, profiles on every active American consumer means that the system is slanted in favor of those with the data. This data helps build tailor-made profiles that can be used for or against someone in a given situation. Insurance companies, which historically sold car insurance based on driving records, have more recently started using such data-driven profiling methods. A Florida insurance company has been found to charge people with low credit scores and good driving records more than people with high credit scores and a drunk driving conviction. It’s become standard practice for insurance companies to charge people not what they represent as a risk, but what they can get away with. The victims, of course, are those least likely to be able to afford the extra cost, but who need a car to get to work.

Big data profiling techniques are exploding in the world of politics. It’s estimated that over $1 billion will be spent on digital political ads in this election cycle, almost 50 times as much as was spent in 2008; this field is a growing part of the budget for presidential as well as down-ticket races. Political campaigns build scoring systems on potential voters—your likelihood of voting for a given party, your stance on a given issue, and the extent to which you are persuadable on that issue. It’s the ultimate example of asymmetric information, and the politicians can use what they know to manipulate your vote or your donation.

I highly recommend reading O’Neal’s article and, if you have the time, her book ‘Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy’.


I look forward to hearing more about the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative and the Cascadia Innovation Corridor as they develop. This has the potential to be very exciting although I do have some concerns such as MIcrosoft and its agendas, both stated and unstated. After all, the Sept. 2016 meeting was convened by Microsoft and its public affairs/lobbying group and the topic was innovation, which is code for business and as hinted earlier, business is not synonymous with social good. Having said that I’m not about to demonize business either. I just think a healthy dose of skepticism is called for. Good things can happen but we need to ensure they do.

Thankfully, my concerns regarding algorithms and big data seem to be shared in some quarters, unfortunately none of these quarters appear to be located at the University of British Columbia. I hope that’s over caution with regard to communication rather than a failure to recognize any pitfalls.

ETA Mar. 1, 2017: Interestingly, the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology announced an inquiry into the use of algorithms in public and business decision-making on Feb. 28, 2017. As this posting as much too big already, I’ve posted about the UK inquire separately in a Mar. 1, 2017 posting.

How might artificial intelligence affect urban life in 2030? A study

Peering into the future is always a chancy business as anyone who’s seen those film shorts from the 1950’s and 60’s which speculate exuberantly as to what the future will bring knows.

A sober approach (appropriate to our times) has been taken in a study about the impact that artificial intelligence might have by 2030. From a Sept. 1, 2016 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Tom Abate (Note: Links have been removed),

A panel of academic and industrial thinkers has looked ahead to 2030 to forecast how advances in artificial intelligence (AI) might affect life in a typical North American city – in areas as diverse as transportation, health care and education ­– and to spur discussion about how to ensure the safe, fair and beneficial development of these rapidly emerging technologies.

Titled “Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030,” this year-long investigation is the first product of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100), an ongoing project hosted by Stanford to inform societal deliberation and provide guidance on the ethical development of smart software, sensors and machines.

“We believe specialized AI applications will become both increasingly common and more useful by 2030, improving our economy and quality of life,” said Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the 17-member panel of international experts. “But this technology will also create profound challenges, affecting jobs and incomes and other issues that we should begin addressing now to ensure that the benefits of AI are broadly shared.”

The new report traces its roots to a 2009 study that brought AI scientists together in a process of introspection that became ongoing in 2014, when Eric and Mary Horvitz created the AI100 endowment through Stanford. AI100 formed a standing committee of scientists and charged this body with commissioning periodic reports on different aspects of AI over the ensuing century.

“This process will be a marathon, not a sprint, but today we’ve made a good start,” said Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering and the Stanford faculty director of AI100. “Stanford is excited to host this process of introspection. This work makes practical contribution to the public debate on the roles and implications of artificial intelligence.”

The AI100 standing committee first met in 2015, led by chairwoman and Harvard computer scientist Barbara Grosz. It sought to convene a panel of scientists with diverse professional and personal backgrounds and enlist their expertise to assess the technological, economic and policy implications of potential AI applications in a societally relevant setting.

“AI technologies can be reliable and broadly beneficial,” Grosz said. “Being transparent about their design and deployment challenges will build trust and avert unjustified fear and suspicion.”

The report investigates eight domains of human activity in which AI technologies are beginning to affect urban life in ways that will become increasingly pervasive and profound by 2030.

The 28,000-word report includes a glossary to help nontechnical readers understand how AI applications such as computer vision might help screen tissue samples for cancers or how natural language processing will allow computerized systems to grasp not simply the literal definitions, but the connotations and intent, behind words.

The report is broken into eight sections focusing on applications of AI. Five examine application arenas such as transportation where there is already buzz about self-driving cars. Three other sections treat technological impacts, like the section on employment and workplace trends which touches on the likelihood of rapid changes in jobs and incomes.

“It is not too soon for social debate on how the fruits of an AI-dominated economy should be shared,” the researchers write in the report, noting also the need for public discourse.

“Currently in the United States, at least sixteen separate agencies govern sectors of the economy related to AI technologies,” the researchers write, highlighting issues raised by AI applications: “Who is responsible when a self-driven car crashes or an intelligent medical device fails? How can AI applications be prevented from [being used for] racial discrimination or financial cheating?”

The eight sections discuss:

Transportation: Autonomous cars, trucks and, possibly, aerial delivery vehicles may alter how we commute, work and shop and create new patterns of life and leisure in cities.

Home/service robots: Like the robotic vacuum cleaners already in some homes, specialized robots will clean and provide security in live/work spaces that will be equipped with sensors and remote controls.

Health care: Devices to monitor personal health and robot-assisted surgery are hints of things to come if AI is developed in ways that gain the trust of doctors, nurses, patients and regulators.

Education: Interactive tutoring systems already help students learn languages, math and other skills. More is possible if technologies like natural language processing platforms develop to augment instruction by humans.

Entertainment: The conjunction of content creation tools, social networks and AI will lead to new ways to gather, organize and deliver media in engaging, personalized and interactive ways.

Low-resource communities: Investments in uplifting technologies like predictive models to prevent lead poisoning or improve food distributions could spread AI benefits to the underserved.

Public safety and security: Cameras, drones and software to analyze crime patterns should use AI in ways that reduce human bias and enhance safety without loss of liberty or dignity.

Employment and workplace: Work should start now on how to help people adapt as the economy undergoes rapid changes as many existing jobs are lost and new ones are created.

“Until now, most of what is known about AI comes from science fiction books and movies,” Stone said. “This study provides a realistic foundation to discuss how AI technologies are likely to affect society.”

Grosz said she hopes the AI 100 report “initiates a century-long conversation about ways AI-enhanced technologies might be shaped to improve life and societies.”

You can find the A100 website here, and the group’s first paper: “Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030” here. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to read the report but I hope to do so soon.

The AI100 website’s About page offered a surprise,

This effort, called the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, is the brainchild of computer scientist and Stanford alumnus Eric Horvitz who, among other credits, is a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

In that capacity Horvitz convened a conference in 2009 at which top researchers considered advances in artificial intelligence and its influences on people and society, a discussion that illuminated the need for continuing study of AI’s long-term implications.

Now, together with Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering and computer science at Stanford, Horvitz has formed a committee that will select a panel to begin a series of periodic studies on how AI will affect automation, national security, psychology, ethics, law, privacy, democracy and other issues.

“Artificial intelligence is one of the most profound undertakings in science, and one that will affect every aspect of human life,” said Stanford President John Hennessy, who helped initiate the project. “Given’s Stanford’s pioneering role in AI and our interdisciplinary mindset, we feel obliged and qualified to host a conversation about how artificial intelligence will affect our children and our children’s children.”

Five leading academicians with diverse interests will join Horvitz and Altman in launching this effort. They are:

  • Barbara Grosz, the Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at HarvardUniversity and an expert on multi-agent collaborative systems;
  • Deirdre K. Mulligan, a lawyer and a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, who collaborates with technologists to advance privacy and other democratic values through technical design and policy;

    This effort, called the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, is the brainchild of computer scientist and Stanford alumnus Eric Horvitz who, among other credits, is a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

    In that capacity Horvitz convened a conference in 2009 at which top researchers considered advances in artificial intelligence and its influences on people and society, a discussion that illuminated the need for continuing study of AI’s long-term implications.

    Now, together with Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering and computer science at Stanford, Horvitz has formed a committee that will select a panel to begin a series of periodic studies on how AI will affect automation, national security, psychology, ethics, law, privacy, democracy and other issues.

    “Artificial intelligence is one of the most profound undertakings in science, and one that will affect every aspect of human life,” said Stanford President John Hennessy, who helped initiate the project. “Given’s Stanford’s pioneering role in AI and our interdisciplinary mindset, we feel obliged and qualified to host a conversation about how artificial intelligence will affect our children and our children’s children.”

    Five leading academicians with diverse interests will join Horvitz and Altman in launching this effort. They are:

    • Barbara Grosz, the Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at HarvardUniversity and an expert on multi-agent collaborative systems;
    • Deirdre K. Mulligan, a lawyer and a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, who collaborates with technologists to advance privacy and other democratic values through technical design and policy;
    • Yoav Shoham, a professor of computer science at Stanford, who seeks to incorporate common sense into AI;
    • Tom Mitchell, the E. Fredkin University Professor and chair of the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, whose studies include how computers might learn to read the Web;
    • and Alan Mackworth, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia [emphases mine] and the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence, who built the world’s first soccer-playing robot.

    I wasn’t expecting to see a Canadian listed as a member of the AI100 standing committee and then I got another surprise (from the AI100 People webpage),

    Study Panels

    Study Panels are planned to convene every 5 years to examine some aspect of AI and its influences on society and the world. The first study panel was convened in late 2015 to study the likely impacts of AI on urban life by the year 2030, with a focus on typical North American cities.

    2015 Study Panel Members

    • Peter Stone, UT Austin, Chair
    • Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics
    • Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT
    • Ryan Calo, University of Washington
    • Oren Etzioni, Allen Institute for AI
    • Greg Hager, Johns Hopkins University
    • Julia Hirschberg, Columbia University
    • Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, IIT Bombay
    • Ece Kamar, Microsoft
    • Sarit Kraus, Bar Ilan University
    • Kevin Leyton-Brown, [emphasis mine] UBC [University of British Columbia]
    • David Parkes, Harvard
    • Bill Press, UT Austin
    • AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian, Berkeley
    • Julie Shah, MIT
    • Milind Tambe, USC
    • Astro Teller, Google[X]
  • [emphases mine] and the Canada Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence, who built the world’s first soccer-playing robot.

I wasn’t expecting to see a Canadian listed as a member of the AI100 standing committee and then I got another surprise (from the AI100 People webpage),

Study Panels

Study Panels are planned to convene every 5 years to examine some aspect of AI and its influences on society and the world. The first study panel was convened in late 2015 to study the likely impacts of AI on urban life by the year 2030, with a focus on typical North American cities.

2015 Study Panel Members

  • Peter Stone, UT Austin, Chair
  • Rodney Brooks, Rethink Robotics
  • Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT
  • Ryan Calo, University of Washington
  • Oren Etzioni, Allen Institute for AI
  • Greg Hager, Johns Hopkins University
  • Julia Hirschberg, Columbia University
  • Shivaram Kalyanakrishnan, IIT Bombay
  • Ece Kamar, Microsoft
  • Sarit Kraus, Bar Ilan University
  • Kevin Leyton-Brown, [emphasis mine] UBC [University of British Columbia]
  • David Parkes, Harvard
  • Bill Press, UT Austin
  • AnnaLee (Anno) Saxenian, Berkeley
  • Julie Shah, MIT
  • Milind Tambe, USC
  • Astro Teller, Google[X]

I see they have representation from Israel, India, and the private sector as well. Refreshingly, there’s more than one woman on the standing committee and in this first study group. It’s good to see these efforts at inclusiveness and I’m particularly delighted with the inclusion of an organization from Asia. All too often inclusiveness means Europe, especially the UK. So, it’s good (and I think important) to see a different range of representation.

As for the content of report, should anyone have opinions about it, please do let me know your thoughts in the blog comments.

Music videos for teaching science and a Baba Brinkman update

I have two news bits concerning science and music.

Music videos and science education

Researchers in the US and New Zealand have published a study on how effective music videos are for teaching science. Hint: there are advantages but don’t expect perfection. From a May 25, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Does “edutainment” such as content-rich music videos have any place in the rapidly changing landscape of science education? A new study indicates that students can indeed learn serious science content from such videos.

The study, titled ‘Leveraging the power of music to improve science education’ and published by International Journal of Science Education, examined over 1,000 students in a three-part experiment, comparing learners’ understanding and engagement in response to 24 musical and non-musical science videos.

A May 25, 2016 Taylor & Francis (publishers) press release, which originated the news item, quickly gets to the point,

The central findings were that (1) across ages and genders, K-16 students who viewed music videos improved their scores on quizzes about content covered in the videos, and (2) students preferred music videos to non-musical videos covering equivalent content.  Additionally, the results hinted that videos with music might lead to superior long-term retention of the content.

“We tested most of these students outside of their normal classrooms,” commented lead author Greg Crowther, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of Washington.  “The students were not forced by their teachers to watch these videos, and they didn’t have the spectre of a low course grade hanging over their heads.  Yet they clearly absorbed important information, which highlights the great potential of music to deliver key content in an appealing package.”

The study was inspired by the classroom experiences of Crowther and co-author Tom McFadden [emphasis mine], who teaches science at the Nueva School in California.  “Tom and I, along with many others, write songs for and with our students, and we’ve had a lot of fun doing that,” said Crowther.  “But rather than just assuming that this works, we wanted to see whether we could document learning gains in an objective way.”

The findings of this study have implications for teacher practitioners, policy-makers and researchers who are looking for innovative ways to improve science education.  “Music will always be a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, more traditional forms of teaching,” said Crowther.  “But teachers who want to connect with their students through music now have some additional data on their side.”

The paper is quite interesting (two of the studies were run in the US and one in New Zealand) and I notice that Don McFadden of the Science Rap Academy is one of the authors (more about him later); here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Leveraging the power of music to improve science education by Gregory J. Crowther, Tom McFadden, Jean S. Fleming, & Katie Davis.  International Journal of Science Education
Volume 38, Issue 1, 2016 pages 73-95. DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2015.1126001 Published online: 18 Jan 2016

This paper is open access. As I noted earlier, the research is promising but science music videos are not the answer to all science education woes.

One of my more recent pieces featuring Tom McFadden and his Science Rap Academy is this April 21, 2015 posting. The 2016 edition of the academy started in January 2016 according to David Bruggeman’s Jan. 27, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog. You can find the Science Rap Academy’s YouTube channel here and the playlist here.

Canadian science rappers and musicians

I promised the latest about Baba Brinkman and here it is (from a May 14, 2016 notice received via email,

Not many people know this, but Dylan Thomas [legendary Welsh poet] was one of my early influences as a poet and one of the reasons I was inspired to pursue versification as a career. Well now Literature Wales has commissioned me to write and record a new rap/poem in celebration of Dylan Day 2016 (today [May 14, 20160) which I dutifully did. You can watch the video here to check out what a hip-hop flow and a Thomas poem have in common.

In other news, I’ll be performing a couple of one-off show over the next few weeks. Rap Guide to Religion is on at NECSS in New York on May 15 (tomorrow) [Note: Link removed as the event date has now been passed] and Rap Guide to Evolution is at the Reason Rally in DC June 2nd [2016]. I’m also continuing with the off-Broadway run of Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, recording the climate chaos album and looking to my next round of writing and touring, so if you have ideas about venues I could play please send me a note.

You can find out more about Baba Brinkman (a Canadian rapper who has written and  performed many science raps and lives in New York) here.

There’s another Canadian who produces musical science videos, Tim Blais (physicist and Montréaler) who was most recently featured here in a Feb. 12, 2016 posting. You can find a selection of Blais’ videos on his A Capella Science channel on YouTube.

Light-captured energetics (harvesting light for optoelectronics)

Comparing graphene to a tiger is unusual but that’s what researcher Sanfeng Wu does—eventually—in a May 13, 2016 University of Washington news release (also on EurekAlert) about his work,

In the quest to harvest light for electronics, the focal point is the moment when photons — light particles — encounter electrons, those negatively-charged subatomic particles that form the basis of our modern electronic lives. If conditions are right when electrons and photons meet, an exchange of energy can occur. Maximizing that transfer of energy is the key to making efficient light-captured energetics possible.

“This is the ideal, but finding high efficiency is very difficult,” said University of Washington physics doctoral student Sanfeng Wu. “Researchers have been looking for materials that will let them do this — one way is to make each absorbed photon transfer all of its energy to many electrons, instead of just one electron in traditional devices.”

In traditional light-harvesting methods, energy from one photon only excites one electron or none depending on the absorber’s energy gap, transferring just a small portion of light energy into electricity. The remaining energy is lost as heat. But in a paper released May 13 in Science Advances, Wu, UW associate professor Xiaodong Xu and colleagues at four other institutions describe one promising approach to coax photons into stimulating multiple electrons. Their method exploits some surprising quantum-level interactions to give one photon multiple potential electron partners. Wu and Xu, who has appointments in the UW’s Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the Department of Physics, made this surprising discovery using graphene.

There has been intense research on graphene’s electrical properties but the researchers’ discovery adds a new property to be investigated (from the news release),

“Graphene is a substance with many exciting properties,” said Wu, the paper’s lead author. “For our purposes, it shows a very efficient interaction with light.”

Graphene is a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms bonded to one another, and electrons are able to move easily within graphene. The researchers took a single layer of graphene — just one sheet of carbon atoms thick — and sandwiched it between two thin layers of a material called boron-nitride.

Boron-nitride is a material that has excited a great deal of interest in the last 12 to 18 months (from the news release),

“Boron-nitride has a lattice structure that is very similar to graphene, but has very different chemical properties,” said Wu. “Electrons do not flow easily within boron-nitride; it essentially acts as an insulator.”

Xu and Wu discovered that when the graphene layer’s lattice is aligned with the layers of boron-nitride, a type of “superlattice” is created with properties allowing efficient optoelectronics that researchers had sought. These properties rely on quantum mechanics, the occasionally baffling rules that govern interactions between all known particles of matter. Wu and Xu detected unique quantum regions within the superlattice known as Van Hove singularities.

Here’s an animated .gif illustrating the superlattice in action,

The Moire superlattice they created by aligning graphene and boron-nitride. Credit: Sanfeng Wu.

The Moire superlattice they created by aligning graphene and boron-nitride. Credit: Sanfeng Wu.

The news release goes on to describe the Van Hove singularities within the superlattice and to mention the ‘tiger’,

“These are regions of huge electron density of states, and they were not accessed in either the graphene or boron-nitride alone,” said Wu. “We only created these high electron density regions in an accessible way when both layers were aligned together.”

When Xu and Wu directed energetic photons toward the superlattice, they discovered that those Van Hove singularities were sites where one energized photon could transfer its energy to multiple electrons that are subsequently collected by electrodes— not just one electron or none with the remaining energy lost as heat. By a conservative estimate, Xu and Wu report that within this superlattice one photon could “kick” as many as five electrons to flow as current.

With the discovery of collecting multiple electrons upon the absorption of one photon, researchers may be able to create highly efficient devices that could harvest light with a large energy profit. Future work would need to uncover how to organize the excited electrons into electrical current for optimizing the energy-converting efficiency and remove some of the more cumbersome properties of their superlattice, such as the need for a magnetic field. But they believe this efficient process between photons and electrons represents major progress.

“Graphene is a tiger with great potential for optoelectronics, but locked in a cage,” said Wu. “The singularities in this superlattice are a key to unlocking that cage and releasing graphene’s potential for light harvesting application.”

H/t to a May 13, 2016 news item on phys.org.

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

Multiple hot-carrier collection in photo-excited graphene Moiré superlattices by Sanfeng Wu, Lei Wang, You Lai, Wen-Yu Shan, Grant Aivazian, Xian Zhang, Takashi Taniguchi, Kenji Watanabe, Di Xiao, Cory Dean, James Hone, Zhiqiang Li, and Xiaodong Xu. Science Advances 13 May 2016: Vol. 2, no. 5, e1600002 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600002

This paper is open access.

Performances Tom Hanks never gave

The answer to the question, “What makes Tom Hanks look like Tom  Hanks?” leads to machine learning and algorithms according to a Dec. 7, 2015 University of Washington University news release (also on EurekAlert) Note: Link have been removed,

Tom Hanks has appeared in many acting roles over the years, playing young and old, smart and simple. Yet we always recognize him as Tom Hanks.

Why? Is it his appearance? His mannerisms? The way he moves?

University of Washington researchers have demonstrated that it’s possible for machine learning algorithms to capture the “persona” and create a digital model of a well-photographed person like Tom Hanks from the vast number of images of them available on the Internet.

With enough visual data to mine, the algorithms can also animate the digital model of Tom Hanks to deliver speeches that the real actor never performed.

“One answer to what makes Tom Hanks look like Tom Hanks can be demonstrated with a computer system that imitates what Tom Hanks will do,” said lead author Supasorn Suwajanakorn, a UW graduate student in computer science and engineering.

As for the performances Tom Hanks never gave, the news release offers more detail,

The technology relies on advances in 3-D face reconstruction, tracking, alignment, multi-texture modeling and puppeteering that have been developed over the last five years by a research group led by UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman. The new results will be presented in a paper at the International Conference on Computer Vision in Chile on Dec. 16.

The team’s latest advances include the ability to transfer expressions and the way a particular person speaks onto the face of someone else — for instance, mapping former president George W. Bush’s mannerisms onto the faces of other politicians and celebrities.

Here’s a video demonstrating how former President Bush’s speech and mannerisms have mapped onto other famous faces including Hanks’s,

The research team has future plans for this technology (from the news release)

It’s one step toward a grand goal shared by the UW computer vision researchers: creating fully interactive, three-dimensional digital personas from family photo albums and videos, historic collections or other existing visuals.

As virtual and augmented reality technologies develop, they envision using family photographs and videos to create an interactive model of a relative living overseas or a far-away grandparent, rather than simply Skyping in two dimensions.

“You might one day be able to put on a pair of augmented reality glasses and there is a 3-D model of your mother on the couch,” said senior author Kemelmacher-Shlizerman. “Such technology doesn’t exist yet — the display technology is moving forward really fast — but how do you actually re-create your mother in three dimensions?”

One day the reconstruction technology could be taken a step further, researchers say.

“Imagine being able to have a conversation with anyone you can’t actually get to meet in person — LeBron James, Barack Obama, Charlie Chaplin — and interact with them,” said co-author Steve Seitz, UW professor of computer science and engineering. “We’re trying to get there through a series of research steps. One of the true tests is can you have them say things that they didn’t say but it still feels like them? This paper is demonstrating that ability.”

Existing technologies to create detailed three-dimensional holograms or digital movie characters like Benjamin Button often rely on bringing a person into an elaborate studio. They painstakingly capture every angle of the person and the way they move — something that can’t be done in a living room.

Other approaches still require a person to be scanned by a camera to create basic avatars for video games or other virtual environments. But the UW computer vision experts wanted to digitally reconstruct a person based solely on a random collection of existing images.

To reconstruct celebrities like Tom Hanks, Barack Obama and Daniel Craig, the machine learning algorithms mined a minimum of 200 Internet images taken over time in various scenarios and poses — a process known as learning ‘in the wild.’

“We asked, ‘Can you take Internet photos or your personal photo collection and animate a model without having that person interact with a camera?'” said Kemelmacher-Shlizerman. “Over the years we created algorithms that work with this kind of unconstrained data, which is a big deal.”

Suwajanakorn more recently developed techniques to capture expression-dependent textures — small differences that occur when a person smiles or looks puzzled or moves his or her mouth, for example.

By manipulating the lighting conditions across different photographs, he developed a new approach to densely map the differences from one person’s features and expressions onto another person’s face. That breakthrough enables the team to ‘control’ the digital model with a video of another person, and could potentially enable a host of new animation and virtual reality applications.

“How do you map one person’s performance onto someone else’s face without losing their identity?” said Seitz. “That’s one of the more interesting aspects of this work. We’ve shown you can have George Bush’s expressions and mouth and movements, but it still looks like George Clooney.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper presented at the conference in Chile,

What Makes Tom Hanks Look Like Tom Hanks by Supasorn Suwajanakorn, Steven M. Seitz, Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman for the 2015 ICCV conference, Dec. 13 – 15, 2015 in Chile.

You can find out more about the conference here.

$81M for US National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI)

Academics, small business, and industry researchers are the big winners in a US National Science Foundation bonanza according to a Sept. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

To advance research in nanoscale science, engineering and technology, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide a total of $81 million over five years to support 16 sites and a coordinating office as part of a new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

The NNCI sites will provide researchers from academia, government, and companies large and small with access to university user facilities with leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools, instrumentation, and expertise within all disciplines of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

A Sept. 16, 2015 NSF news release provides a brief history of US nanotechnology infrastructures and describes this latest effort in slightly more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The NNCI framework builds on the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which enabled major discoveries, innovations, and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years.

“NSF’s long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available,” said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director for engineering. “NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits.”

The awards are up to five years and range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each per year. Nine of the sites have at least one regional partner institution. These 16 sites are located in 15 states and involve 27 universities across the nation.

Through a fiscal year 2016 competition, one of the newly awarded sites will be chosen to coordinate the facilities. This coordinating office will enhance the sites’ impact as a national nanotechnology infrastructure and establish a web portal to link the individual facilities’ websites to provide a unified entry point to the user community of overall capabilities, tools and instrumentation. The office will also help to coordinate and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs across sites.

New NNCI awards:

Mid-Atlantic Nanotechnology Hub for Research, Education and Innovation, University of Pennsylvania with partner Community College of Philadelphia, principal investigator (PI): Mark Allen
Texas Nanofabrication Facility, University of Texas at Austin, PI: Sanjay Banerjee

Northwest Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of Washington with partner Oregon State University, PI: Karl Bohringer

Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor, Georgia Institute of Technology with partners North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina-Greensboro, PI: Oliver Brand

Midwest Nano Infrastructure Corridor, University of  Minnesota Twin Cities with partner North Dakota State University, PI: Stephen Campbell

Montana Nanotechnology Facility, Montana State University with partner Carlton College, PI: David Dickensheets
Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental Resource,

Northwestern University with partner University of Chicago, PI: Vinayak Dravid

The Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, PI: Michael Hochella

North Carolina Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network, North Carolina State University with partners Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, PI: Jacob Jones

San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of California, San Diego, PI: Yu-Hwa Lo

Stanford Site, Stanford University, PI: Kathryn Moler

Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, Cornell University, PI: Daniel Ralph

Nebraska Nanoscale Facility, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PI: David Sellmyer

Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, Arizona State University with partners Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona, PI: Trevor Thornton

The Kentucky Multi-scale Manufacturing and Nano Integration Node, University of Louisville with partner University of Kentucky, PI: Kevin Walsh

The Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, Harvard University, PI: Robert Westervelt

The universities are trumpeting this latest nanotechnology funding,

NSF-funded network set to help businesses, educators pursue nanotechnology innovation (North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Nanotech expertise earns Virginia Tech a spot in National Science Foundation network

ASU [Arizona State University] chosen to lead national nanotechnology site

UChicago, Northwestern awarded $5 million nanotechnology infrastructure grant

That is a lot of excitement.

Saharan silver ants: the nano of it all (science and technology)

Researchers at Columbia University (US) are on quite a publishing binge lately. The latest is a biomimicry story where researchers (from Columbia amongst other universities and including Brookhaven National Laboratory, which has issued its own news release) have taken a very close look at Saharan silver ants to determine how they stay cool in one of the hottest climates in the world. From a June 18, 2015 Columbia University news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

Nanfang Yu, assistant professor of applied physics at Columbia Engineering, and colleagues from the University of Zürich and the University of Washington, have discovered two key strategies that enable Saharan silver ants to stay cool in one of the hottest terrestrial environments on Earth. Yu’s team is the first to demonstrate that the ants use a coat of uniquely shaped hairs to control electromagnetic waves over an extremely broad range from the solar spectrum (visible and near-infrared) to the thermal radiation spectrum (mid-infrared), and that different physical mechanisms are used in different spectral bands to realize the same biological function of reducing body temperature. Their research, “Saharan silver ants keep cool by combining enhanced optical reflection and radiative heat dissipation,” is published June 18 [2015] in Science magazine.

The Columbia University news release expands on the theme,

“This is a telling example of how evolution has triggered the adaptation of physical attributes to accomplish a physiological task and ensure survival, in this case to prevent Saharan silver ants from getting overheated,” Yu says. “While there have been many studies of the physical optics of living systems in the ultraviolet and visible range of the spectrum, our understanding of the role of infrared light in their lives is much less advanced. Our study shows that light invisible to the human eye does not necessarily mean that it does not play a crucial role for living organisms.”

The project was initially triggered by wondering whether the ants’ conspicuous silvery coats were important in keeping them cool in blistering heat. Yu’s team found that the answer to this question was much broader once they realized the important role of infrared light. Their discovery that there is a biological solution to a thermoregulatory problem could lead to the development of novel flat optical components that exhibit optimal cooling properties.

“Such biologically inspired cooling surfaces will have high reflectivity in the solar spectrum and high radiative efficiency in the thermal radiation spectrum,” Yu explains. “So this may generate useful applications such as a cooling surface for vehicles, buildings, instruments, and even clothing.”

Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) forage in the Saharan Desert in the full midday sun when surface temperatures reach up to 70°C (158°F), and they must keep their body temperature below their critical thermal maximum of 53.6°C (128.48°F) most of the time. In their wide-ranging foraging journeys, the ants search for corpses of insects and other arthropods that have succumbed to the thermally harsh desert conditions, which they are able to endure more successfully. Being most active during the hottest moment of the day also allows these ants to avoid predatory desert lizards. Researchers have long wondered how these tiny insects (about 10 mm, or 3/8” long) can survive under such thermally extreme and stressful conditions.

Using electron microscopy and ion beam milling, Yu’s group discovered that the ants are covered on the top and sides of their bodies with a coating of uniquely shaped hairs with triangular cross-sections that keep them cool in two ways. These hairs are highly reflective under the visible and near-infrared light, i.e., in the region of maximal solar radiation (the ants run at a speed of up to 0.7 meters per second and look like droplets of mercury on the desert surface). The hairs are also highly emissive in the mid-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, where they serve as an antireflection layer that enhances the ants’ ability to offload excess heat via thermal radiation, which is emitted from the hot body of the ants to the cold sky. This passive cooling effect works under the full sun whenever the insects are exposed to the clear sky.

“To appreciate the effect of thermal radiation, think of the chilly feeling when you get out of bed in the morning,” says Yu. “Half of the energy loss at that moment is due to thermal radiation since your skin temperature is temporarily much higher than that of the surrounding environment.”

The researchers found that the enhanced reflectivity in the solar spectrum and enhanced thermal radiative efficiency have comparable contributions to reducing the body temperature of silver ants by 5 to 10 degrees compared to if the ants were without the hair cover. “The fact that these silver ants can manipulate electromagnetic waves over such a broad range of spectrum shows us just how complex the function of these seemingly simple biological organs of an insect can be,” observes Norman Nan Shi, lead author of the study and PhD student who works with Yu at Columbia Engineering.

Yu and Shi collaborated on the project with Rüdiger Wehner, professor at the Brain Research Institute, University of Zürich, Switzerland, and Gary Bernard, electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, who are renowned experts in the study of insect physiology and ecology. The Columbia Engineering team designed and conducted all experimental work, including optical and infrared microscopy and spectroscopy experiments, thermodynamic experiments, and computer simulation and modeling. They are currently working on adapting the engineering lessons learned from the study of Saharan silver ants to create flat optical components, or “metasurfaces,” that consist of a planar array of nanophotonic elements and provide designer optical and thermal radiative properties.

Yu and his team plan next to extend their research to other animals and organisms living in extreme environments, trying to learn the strategies these creatures have developed to cope with harsh environmental conditions.

“Animals have evolved diverse strategies to perceive and utilize electromagnetic waves: deep sea fish have eyes that enable them to maneuver and prey in dark waters, butterflies create colors from nanostructures in their wings, honey bees can see and respond to ultraviolet signals, and fireflies use flash communication systems,” Yu adds. “Organs evolved for perceiving or controlling electromagnetic waves often surpass analogous man-made devices in both sophistication and efficiency. Understanding and harnessing natural design concepts deepens our knowledge of complex biological systems and inspires ideas for creating novel technologies.”

Next, there’s the perspective provided by Brookhaven National Laboratory in a June 18, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: It is very similar to the Columbia University news release but it takes a turn towards the technical challenges as you’ll see if you keep reading),

The paper, published by Columbia Engineering researchers and collaborators—including researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory—describes how the nanoscale structure of the hairs helps increase the reflectivity of the ant’s body in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths, allowing the insects to deflect solar radiation their bodies would otherwise absorb. The hairs also enhance emissivity in the mid-infrared spectrum, allowing heat to dissipate efficiently from the hot body of the ants to the cool, clear sky.

A June 18, 2015 BNL news release by Alasdair Wilkins, which originated the Nanowerk news item, describes the collaboration between the researchers and the special adjustments made to the equipment in service of this project (Note: A link has been removed),

In a typical experiment involving biological material such as nanoscale hairs, it would usually be sufficient to use an electron microscope to create an image of the surface of the specimen. This research, however, required Yu’s group to look inside the ant hairs and produce a cross-section of the structure’s interior. The relatively weak beam of electrons from a standard electron microscope would not be able to penetrate the surface of the sample.

The CFN’s dual beam system solves the problem by combining the imaging of an electron microscope with a much more powerful beam of gallium ions.  With 31 protons and 38 neutrons, each gallium ion is about 125,000 times more massive than an electron, and massive enough to create dents in the nanoscale structure – like throwing a stone against a wall. The researchers used these powerful beams to drill precise cuts into the hairs, revealing the crucial information hidden beneath the surface. Indeed, this particular application, in which the system was used to investigate a biological problem, was new for the team at CFN.

“Conventionally, this tool is used to produce cross-sections of microelectronic circuits,” said Camino. “The focused ion beam is like an etching tool. You can think of it like a milling tool in a machine shop, but at the nanoscale. It can remove material at specific places because you can see these locations with the SEM. So locally you remove material and you look at the under layers, because the cuts give you access to the cross section of whatever you want to look at.”

The ant hair research challenged the CFN team to come up with novel solutions to investigate the internal structures without damaging the more delicate biological samples.

“These hairs are very soft compared to, say, semiconductors or crystalline materials. And there’s a lot of local heat that can damage biological samples. So the parameters have to be carefully tuned not to do much damage to it,” he said. “We had to adapt our technique to find the right conditions.”

Another challenge lay in dealing with the so-called charging effect. When the dual beam system is trained on a non-conducting material, electrons can build up at the point where the beams hit the specimen, distorting the resulting image. The team at CFN was able to solve this problem by placing thin layers of gold over the biological material, making the sample just conductive enough to avoid the charging effect.

Revealing Reflectivity

While Camino’s team focused on helping Yu’s group investigate the structure of the ant hairs, Matthew Sfeir’s work with high-brightness Fourier transform optical spectroscopy helped to reveal how the reflectivity of the hairs helped Saharan silver ants regulate temperature. Sfeir’s spectrometer revealed precisely how much those biological structures reflect light across multiple wavelengths, including both visible and near-infrared light.

“It’s a multiplexed measurement,” Sfeir said, explaining his team’s spectrometer. “Instead of tuning through this wavelength and this wavelength, that wavelength, you do them all in one swoop to get all the spectral information in one shot. It gives you very fast measurements and very good resolution spectrally. Then we optimize it for very small samples. It’s a rather unique capability of CFN.”

Sfeir’s spectroscopy work draws on knowledge gained from his work at another key Brookhaven facility: the original National Synchrotron Light Source, where he did much of his postdoc work. His experience was particularly useful in analyzing the reflectivity of the biological structures across many different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“This technique was developed from my experience working with the infrared synchrotron beamlines,” said Sfeir. “Synchrotron beamlines are optimized for exactly this kind of thing. I thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could develop a similar measurement for the type of solar devices we make at CFN?’ So we built a bench-top version to use here.”

Fascinating, non? At last, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Keeping cool: Enhanced optical reflection and heat dissipation in silver ants by Norman Nan Shi, Cheng-Chia Tsai, Fernando Camino, Gary D. Bernard, Nanfang Yu, and Rüdiger Wehner. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.aab3564 Published online June 18, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Improving battery electrodes and air filters with a ‘transistorized’ carbon nanotube for more precise measurements

Researchers at the University of Washington (state) have been able to use carbon nanotubes to make the most precise measurements yet of the interactions between gas and carbon atoms. From a May 28, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Physicists at the University of Washington have conducted the most precise and controlled measurements yet of the interaction between the atoms and molecules that comprise air and the type of carbon surface used in battery electrodes and air filters — key information for improving those technologies.

A May 28, 2015 University of Washington news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

A team led by David Cobden, UW professor of physics, used a carbon nanotube — a seamless, hollow graphite structure a million times thinner than a drinking straw — acting as a transistor to study what happens when gas atoms come into contact with the nanotube’s surface. …

Cobden said he and co-authors found that when an atom or molecule sticks to the nanotube a tiny fraction of the charge of one electron is transferred to its surface, resulting in a measurable change in electrical resistance.

“This aspect of atoms interacting with surfaces has never been detected unambiguously before,” Cobden said. “When many atoms are stuck to the miniscule tube at the same time, the measurements reveal their collective dances, including big fluctuations that occur on warming analogous to the boiling of water.”

Lithium batteries involve lithium atoms sticking and transferring charges to carbon electrodes, and in activated charcoal filters, molecules stick to the carbon surface to be removed, Cobden explained.

“Various forms of carbon, including nanotubes, are considered for hydrogen or other fuel storage because they have a huge internal surface area for the fuel molecules to stick to. However, these technological situations are extremely complex and difficult to do precise, clear-cut measurements on.”

This work, he said, resulted in the most precise and controlled measurements of these interactions ever made, “and will allow scientists to learn new things about the interplay of atoms and molecules with a carbon surface,” important for improving technologies including batteries, electrodes and air filters.

Here’s an illustration of gas atoms adhering to a carbon nanotube provided by the researchers,

An illustration of atoms sticking to a carbon nanotube, affecting the electrons in its surface.David Cobden and students Courtesy: University of Washington (state)

An illustration of atoms sticking to a carbon nanotube, affecting the electrons in its surface.David Cobden and students Courtesy: University of Washington (state)

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

Surface electron perturbations and the collective behaviour of atoms adsorbed on a cylinder by Boris Dzyubenko, Hao-Chun Lee, Oscar E. Vilches, & David H. Cobden. Nature Physics 11, 398–402 (2015) doi:10.1038/nphys3302 Published online 20 April 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but a free preview is available via ReadCube Access.

Nanopollution of marine life

Concerns are being raised about nanosunscreens and nanotechnology-enabled marine paints and their effect on marine life, specifically, sea urchins. From a May 13, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Nanomaterials commonly used in sunscreens and boat-bottom paints are making sea urchin embryos more vulnerable to toxins, according to a study from the University of California, Davis [UC Davis]. The authors said this could pose a risk to coastal, marine and freshwater environments.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (“Copper Oxide and Zinc Oxide Nanomaterials Act as Inhibitors of Multidrug Resistance Transport in Sea Urchin Embryos: Their Role as Chemosensitizers”), is the first to show that the nanomaterials work as chemosensitizers. In cancer treatments, a chemosensitizer makes tumor cells more sensitive to the effects of chemotherapy.

Similarly, nanozinc and nanocopper made developing sea urchin embryos more sensitive to other chemicals, blocking transporters that would otherwise defend them by pumping toxins out of cells.

A May 12, 2015 UC Davis news release, which originated the news item, includes some cautions,

Nanozinc oxide is used as an additive in cosmetics such as sunscreens, toothpastes and beauty products. Nanocopper oxide is often used for electronics and technology, but also for antifouling paints, which prevent things like barnacles and mussels from attaching to boats.

“At low levels, both of these nanomaterials are nontoxic,” said co-author Gary Cherr, professor and interim director of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, and an affiliate of the UC Davis Coastal Marine Sciences Institute. “However, for sea urchins in sensitive life stages, they disrupt the main defense mechanism that would otherwise protect them from environmental toxins.”

Science for safe design

Nanomaterials are tiny chemical substances measured in nanometers, which are about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Nano-sized particles can enter the body through the skin, ingestion, or inhalation. They are being rapidly introduced across the fields of electronics, medicine and technology, where they are being used to make energy efficient batteries, clean up oil spills, and fight cancer, among many other uses. However, relatively little is known about nanomaterials with respect to the environment and health.

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

Copper Oxide and Zinc Oxide Nanomaterials Act as Inhibitors of Multidrug Resistance Transport in Sea Urchin Embryos: Their Role as Chemosensitizers by Bing Wu, Cristina Torres-Duarte, Bryan J. Cole, and Gary N. Cherr. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (9), pp 5760–5770 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b00345 Publication Date (Web): April 7, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

While this research into nanoparticles as chemosensitizers is, according to UC Davis, the first of its kind, the concern over nanosunscreens and marine waters has been gaining traction over the last few years. For example, there’s  research featured in a June 10, 2013 article by Roberta Kwok for the University of Washington’s ‘Conservation This Week’ magazine,

Sunscreen offers protection from UV rays, reduces the risk of skin cancer, and even slows down signs of aging. Unfortunately, researchers have found that sunscreen also pollutes the ocean.

Although people have been using these products for decades, “the effect of sunscreens, as a source of introduced chemicals to the coastal marine system, has not yet been addressed,” a research team writes in PLOS ONE. Sunscreens contain chemicals not only for UV protection, but also for coloring, fragrance, and texture. And beaches are becoming ever-more-popular vacation spots; for example, nearly 10 million tourists visited Majorca Island in the Mediterranean Sea in 2010.

Here’s a link to the 2013 PLOS ONE paper,

Sunscreen Products as Emerging Pollutants to Coastal Waters by Antonio Tovar-Sánchez, David Sánchez-Quiles, Gotzon Basterretxea, Juan L. Benedé, Alberto Chisvert, Amparo Salvador, Ignacio Moreno-Garrido, and Julián Blasco. PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065451 Published: June 5, 2013

This is an open access journal.

Little skates, mermaid purses, nature, and writers

GrrlScientist has written a fascinating ;piece about skates (fish), poetry, and Twitter for her Dec. 5, 2013 posting on the Guardian Science Blog network (Note: A link has been removed),

Twitter is a wonderful medium. For example, a couple days ago, I met University of Washington Biology Professor Adam Summers on twitter. It turns out that he is Associate Director of Friday Harbor Labs, where I spent a summer taking an intensive molecular neurobiology course during my graduate training in zoology. …

“Skates are fabulous animals”, Professor Summers writes in email.

“They make up a quarter of the diversity of cartilaginous fishes and every darn one of the 250 species looks pretty much exactly like every other one.”

Thus, studies into the anatomy and development of one species may provide insight into these processes for other, rarer, species.

“The little skate, also called the hedgehog skate, was one of my go-to organisms for many years”, writes Professor Summers in email.

These studies provide the basis for a physical or a mathematical model that may help understand function. This model is of course tested both against its inspiration and as a predictive tool. For example, the skate’s tail is very important, even for the developing embryo.

“I figured out that it can’t survive on the oxygen that diffuses through the capsule. Instead it has to pump water through by vibrating its tail.”

Perhaps this is the reason that the tail muscles differ from what’s considered normal.

“A wonderful muscle physiologist showed that the muscle in the tail is cardiac muscle rather than the striated muscle it should be”, Professor Summers writes.

While colleagues thought Summers’ specimens were good enough to be compared to visual art, his little skate specimens also inspired a poet (from the posting),

“I got chatting with a friend who teaches a poetry class up here [at Friday Harbor]. Sierra Nelson and I had several long conversations about the similarity of the lens that poets and scientists bring to the world.”

“I think the poem does a much better job of engaging the viewer than my dry prose on the critter.”

Little Skate
Leucoraja erinacea

Littlest of little skates, just barely hatched!
You can still see the remnants
of my yellow egg sac.

And my tail’s a little longer
than my whole body
(I’ll grow into it more eventually).


Adam Summers shared one of his images of his ‘stained’ little skate specimens on his twitter feed (pic.twitter.com/UWCKeVMmYB)

Here's an embryo of the little skate, Leucoraja erinacea. pic.twitter.com/UWCKeVMmYB

Here’s an embryo of the little skate, Leucoraja erinacea. pic.twitter.com/UWCKeVMmYB

I recommend reading GrrlScientist’s posting (Inside a mermaid’s purse; A poetic intersection between life and science, art and photography) for the whole story and, for that matter, the whole poem. As for the mermaid purse, this is the name for the little skate’s egg sack when found on the beach.

This all reminded me of Aileen Penner, a writer, poet, and science communications specialist located in Vancouver, Canada and her work in science and creative writing. She wrote a Nov. 19, 2013 posting about the intersection of nature and writing titled: US Forest Service Scientist Says Writers Help Gather “Cultural Data” on our Relationship With the Natural World (Note: Links have been removed),

Who is Fred Swanson you ask? Yes he is a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist and yes he is a Forest Ecology Professor at Oregon State University (OSU), but he is also a key figure in the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word. This is a program I have been following since 2006 and greatly admire for their commitment to bring together “the practical wisdom of the environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative, expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world.”

In April of 2012, I went to OSU to interview the Director of the Spring Creek Project, Charles Goodrich. I wanted to know how to fund such a long-term interdisciplinary project. Charles talked a lot about Fred Swanson and his enthusiasm for having writers as part of the inquiry process and about Swanson’s personal commitment to writing the arts into scientific funding proposals for his work at the H.J. Andrew Experimental Forest.

Penner was inspired by an Andrew C. Gottleib article (About Earth Scientist Fred Swanson) in Terrain’s Fall 2013 issue and quotes from it throughout her own posting. She also notes this (Note: Links have been removed),

Terrain interviewer Andrew Gottlieb will moderate a panel “Artists in the Old-Growth” with Alison Hawthorne Deming, Fred Swanson, Charles Goodrich and Spring Creek Project Founder, Kathleen Dean Moore at the upcoming AWP conference in Seattle on February 27, 2014. If you are in Seattle for this – go see it!

Before investigating the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) 2014 conference and the special session any further, here’s a bit more information about the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word, from the homepage,

Spring Creek Project engages the most daunting and urgent environmental issues of our times while remembering and sharing our perennial sources of joy, wonder, and gratitude. We are a convening organization that sponsors writers’ residencies, readings, lectures, conversations, and symposia on issues and themes of critical importance to the health of humans and nature. We believe sharing insights, inspiration, and methods from many perspectives increases our understanding of the place of humans in nature. Our goal is to include participants and audience members from every discipline and persuasion, from creative writing and the other arts, from the environmental and social sciences, from philosophy and other humanistic disciplines.

The AWP conference seems mainly focused on fiction and literary nonfiction (at least, that’s what the video highlights [on the 2014 conference homepage] of the 2013 conference would suggest). Here’s more from the 2014 AWP conference homepage,

Each year, AWP holds its Annual Conference & Bookfair in a different city to celebrate the authors, teachers, students, writing programs, literary centers, and publishers of that region. More than 12,000 writers and readers attended our 2013 conference, and over 650 exhibitors were represented at our bookfair. AWP’s is now the largest literary conference in North America. We hope you’ll join us in 2014.
2014 AWP Conference & Bookfair

Washington State Convention Center &
Sheraton Seattle Hotel
February 26 – March 1, 2014
Key Dates:

November 8, 2013: deadline for purchasing a conference program ad
November 15, 2013: offsite event schedule opens
January 22, 2014: preregistration rates end
January 23, 2014: will-call registration begins
February 26, 2014: onsite registration begins

Here are some details about the R231 Artists in the Old-Growth: OSU’s Spring Creek Project & the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest
AWP 2014 conference session,

Room 602/603, Washington State Convention Center, Level 6
Thursday, February 27, 2014
3:00 pm to 4:15 pm
How can a residency program empower and generate inquiry and creative responses to our astonishing world? How can a long-term, place-based program affect the way we see our relation to the forest? The world? Join this discussion with the founders and participants of the Oregon State University-based Spring Creek Project that brings writers to a place of old-growth forest and ground-breaking forest science.

Andrew Gottlieb Moderator

Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Book Reviews Editor for Terrain.org, and his writing has appeared in journals like Ecotone, ISLE, Poets & Writers, and Salon.com. He’s the author of a chapbook of poems, Halflives, and he won the 2010 American Fiction Prize.
Fred Swanson

Fred Swanson co-directs the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program based at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascade Range, which has hosted more than forty writers in residence and a variety of humanities-science interactions. He is a retired US Forest Service scientist.
Kathleen Dean Moore

Kathleen Dean Moore is an essayist and environmental ethicist, author of Riverwalking, Holdfast, Pine Island Paradox, and Wild Comfort, and co-editor of the climate ethics book, Moral Ground. She is co-founder and now Senior Fellow of the Spring Creek Project at Oregon State University.
Alison Deming

Alison Hawthorne Deming is author of four poetry books, most recently Rope, and three nonfiction books with Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit forthcoming. She is Director and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona.
Charles Goodrich

Charles Goodrich is the author of three books of poetry, A Scripture of Crows; Going to Seed: Dispatches from the Garden; and Insects of South Corvallis; and a collection of essays, The Practice of Home. He serves as Director for the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word

One last note about nature and writing, I interviewed Sue Thomas, author of Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace, in a Sept. 20,,2013 posting about her book and other projects.