Tag Archives: US

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.

Graphene Canada and its second annual conference

An Aug. 31, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now announces Canada’s second graphene-themed conference,

The 2nd edition of Graphene & 2D Materials Canada 2016 International Conference & Exhibition (www.graphenecanadaconf.com) will take place in Montreal (Canada): 18-20 October, 2016.

– An industrial forum with focus on Graphene Commercialization (Abalonyx, Alcereco Inc, AMO GmbH, Avanzare, AzTrong Inc, Bosch GmbH, China Innovation Alliance of the Graphene Industry (CGIA), Durham University & Applied Graphene Materials, Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd., Hanwha Techwin, Haydale, IDTechEx, North Carolina Central University & Chaowei Power Ltd, NTNU&CrayoNano, Phantoms Foundation, Southeast University, The Graphene Council, University of Siegen, University of Sunderland and University of Waterloo)
– Extensive thematic workshops in parallel (Materials & Devices Characterization, Chemistry, Biosensors & Energy and Electronic Devices)
– A significant exhibition (Abalonyx, Go Foundation, Grafoid, Group NanoXplore Inc., Raymor | Nanointegris and Suragus GmbH)

As I noted in my 2015 post about Graphene Canada and its conference, the group is organized in a rather interesting fashion and I see the tradition continues, i.e., the lead organizers seem to be situated in countries other than Canada. From the Aug. 31, 2016 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Organisers: Phantoms Foundation [located in Spain] www.phantomsnet.net
Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – ICN2 (Spain) | CEMES/CNRS (France) | GO Foundation (Canada) | Grafoid Inc (Canada) | Graphene Labs – IIT (Italy) | McGill University (Canada) | Texas Instruments (USA) | Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) | Université de Montreal (Canada)

You can find the conference website here.

Teleporting photons in Calgary (Canada) is a step towards a quantum internet

Scientists at the University of Calgary (Alberta, Canada) have set a distance record for the teleportation of photons and you can see the lead scientist is very pleased.

Wolfgang Tittel, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, and a group of PhD students have developed a new quantum key distribution (QKD) system.

Wolfgang Tittel, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, and a group of PhD students have developed a new quantum key distribution (QKD) system.

A Sept. 21, 2016 news item on phys.org makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

What if you could behave like the crew on the Starship Enterprise and teleport yourself home or anywhere else in the world? As a human, you’re probably not going to realize this any time soon; if you’re a photon, you might want to keep reading.

Through a collaboration between the University of Calgary, The City of Calgary and researchers in the United States, a group of physicists led by Wolfgang Tittel, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary have successfully demonstrated teleportation of a photon (an elementary particle of light) over a straight-line distance of six kilometres using The City of Calgary’s fibre optic cable infrastructure. The project began with an Urban Alliance seed grant in 2014.

This accomplishment, which set a new record for distance of transferring a quantum state by teleportation, has landed the researchers a spot in the prestigious Nature Photonics scientific journal. The finding was published back-to-back with a similar demonstration by a group of Chinese researchers.

A Sept. 20, 2016 article by Robson Fletcher for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting News) online provides a bit more insight from the lead researcher (Note: A link has been removed),

“What is remarkable about this is that this information transfer happens in what we call a disembodied manner,” said physics professor Wolfgang Tittel, whose team’s work was published this week in the journal Nature Photonics.

“Our transfer happens without any need for an object to move between these two particles.”

A Sept. 20, 2016 University of Calgary news release by Drew Scherban, which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

“Such a network will enable secure communication without having to worry about eavesdropping, and allow distant quantum computers to connect,” says Tittel.

Experiment draws on ‘spooky action at a distance’

The experiment is based on the entanglement property of quantum mechanics, also known as “spooky action at a distance” — a property so mysterious that not even Einstein could come to terms with it.

“Being entangled means that the two photons that form an entangled pair have properties that are linked regardless of how far the two are separated,” explains Tittel. “When one of the photons was sent over to City Hall, it remained entangled with the photon that stayed at the University of Calgary.”

Next, the photon whose state was teleported to the university was generated in a third location in Calgary and then also travelled to City Hall where it met the photon that was part of the entangled pair.

“What happened is the instantaneous and disembodied transfer of the photon’s quantum state onto the remaining photon of the entangled pair, which is the one that remained six kilometres away at the university,” says Tittel.

City’s accessible dark fibre makes research possible

The research could not be possible without access to the proper technology. One of the critical pieces of infrastructure that support quantum networking is accessible dark fibre. Dark fibre, so named because of its composition — a single optical cable with no electronics or network equipment on the alignment — doesn’t interfere with quantum technology.

The City of Calgary is building and provisioning dark fibre to enable next-generation municipal services today and for the future.

“By opening The City’s dark fibre infrastructure to the private and public sector, non-profit companies, and academia, we help enable the development of projects like quantum encryption and create opportunities for further research, innovation and economic growth in Calgary,” said Tyler Andruschak, project manager with Innovation and Collaboration at The City of Calgary.

“The university receives secure access to a small portion of our fibre optic infrastructure and The City may benefit in the future by leveraging the secure encryption keys generated out of the lab’s research to protect our critical infrastructure,” said Andruschak. In order to deliver next-generation services to Calgarians, The City has been increasing its fibre optic footprint, connecting all City buildings, facilities and assets.

Timed to within one millionth of one millionth of a second

As if teleporting a photon wasn’t challenging enough, Tittel and his team encountered a number of other roadblocks along the way.

Due to changes in the outdoor temperature, the transmission time of photons from their creation point to City Hall varied over the course of a day — the time it took the researchers to gather sufficient data to support their claim. This change meant that the two photons would not meet at City Hall.

“The challenge was to keep the photons’ arrival time synchronized to within 10 pico-seconds,” says Tittel. “That is one trillionth, or one millionth of one millionth of a second.”

Secondly, parts of their lab had to be moved to two locations in the city, which as Tittel explains was particularly tricky for the measurement station at City Hall which included state-of-the-art superconducting single-photon detectors developed by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Since these detectors only work at temperatures less than one degree above absolute zero the equipment also included a compact cryostat,” said Tittel.

Milestone towards a global quantum Internet

This demonstration is arguably one of the most striking manifestations of a puzzling prediction of quantum mechanics, but it also opens the path to building a future quantum internet, the long-term goal of the Tittel group.

The Urban Alliance is a strategic research partnership between The City of Calgary and University of Calgary, created in 2007 to encourage and co-ordinate the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between the university and The City of Calgary for the benefit of all our communities. The Urban Alliance is a prime example and vehicle for one of the three foundational commitments of the University of Calgary’s Eyes High vision to fully integrate the university with the community. The City sees the Alliance as playing a key role in realizing its long-term priorities and the imagineCALGARY vision.

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

Quantum teleportation across a metropolitan fibre network by Raju Valivarthi, Marcel.li Grimau Puigibert, Qiang Zhou, Gabriel H. Aguilar, Varun B. Verma, Francesco Marsili, Matthew D. Shaw, Sae Woo Nam, Daniel Oblak, & Wolfgang Tittel. Nature Photonics (2016)  doi:10.1038/nphoton.2016.180 Published online 19 September 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I’m 99% certain this is the paper from the Chinese researchers (referred to in the University of Calgary news release),

Quantum teleportation with independent sources and prior entanglement distribution over a network by Qi-Chao Sun, Ya-Li Mao, Si-Jing Chen, Wei Zhang, Yang-Fan Jiang, Yan-Bao Zhang, Wei-Jun Zhang, Shigehito Miki, Taro Yamashita, Hirotaka Terai, Xiao Jiang, Teng-Yun Chen, Li-Xing You, Xian-Feng Chen, Zhen Wang, Jing-Yun Fan, Qiang Zhang & Jian-Wei Pan. Nature Photonics (2016)  doi:10.1038/nphoton.2016.179 Published online 19 September 2016

This too is behind a paywall.

Harvard University announced new Center on Nano-safety Research

The nano safety center at Harvard University (Massachusetts, US) is a joint center with the US National Institute of Environmental Health  Sciences according to an Aug. 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs)—which are less than 100 nanometers (one millionth of a millimeter) in diameter—can make the colors in digital printer inks pop and help sunscreens better protect against radiation, among many other applications in industry and science. They may even help prevent infectious diseases. But as the technology becomes more widespread, questions remain about the potential risks that ENMs may pose to health and the environment.

Researchers at the new Harvard-NIEHS [US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences] Nanosafety Research Center at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are working to understand the unique properties of ENMs—both beneficial and harmful—and to ultimately establish safety standards for the field.

An Aug. 16, 2016 Harvard University press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

“We want to help nanotechnology develop as a scientific and economic force while maintaining safeguards for public health,” said Center Director Philip Demokritou, associate professor of aerosol physics at Harvard Chan School. “If you understand the rules of nanobiology, you can design safer nanomaterials.”

ENMs can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact, and toxicological studies have shown that some can penetrate cells and tissues and potentially cause biochemical damage. Because the field of nanoparticle science is relatively new, no standards currently exist for assessing the health risks of exposure to ENMs—or even for how studies of nano-biological interactions should be conducted.

Much of the work of the new Center will focus on building a fundamental understanding of why some ENMs are potentially more harmful than others. The team will also establish a “reference library” of ENMs, each with slightly varied properties, which will be utilized in nanotoxicology research across the country to assess safety. This will allow researchers to pinpoint exactly what aspect of an ENM’s properties may impact health. The researchers will also work to develop standardized methods for nanotoxicology studies evaluating the safety of nanomaterials.

The Center was established with a $4 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) last month, and is the only nanosafety research center to receive NIEHS funding for the next five years. It will also play a coordinating role with existing and future NIEHS nanotoxicology research projects nantionwide. Scientists from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), MIT, University of Maine, and University of Florida will collaborate on the new effort.

The Center builds on the existing Center for Nanotechnology and Nanotoxicology at Harvard Chan School, established by Demokritou and Joseph Brain, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, in the School’s Department of Environmental Health in 2010.

A July 5, 2016 Harvard University press release announcing the $4M grant provides more information about which ENMs are to be studied,

The main focus of the new HSPH-NIEHS Center is to bring together  scientists from across disciplines- material science, chemistry, exposure assessment, risk assessment, nanotoxicology and nanobiology- to assess the potential  environmental Health and safety (EHS) implications of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).

The $4 million dollar HSPH based Center  which is the only Nanosafety Research  Center to be funded by NIEHS this funding cycle, … The new HSPH-NIEHS Nanosafety Center builds upon the nano-related infrastructure in [the] collaborating Universities, developed over the past 10 years, which includes an inter-disciplinary research group of faculty, research staff and students, as well as state-of-the-art platforms for high throughput synthesis of ENMs, including metal and metal oxides, cutting edge 2D/3D ENMs such as CNTs [carbon nanotubes] and graphene, nanocellulose, and advanced nanocomposites, [emphasis mine] coupled with innovative tools to assess the fate and transport of ENMs in biological systems, statistical and exposure assessment tools, and novel in vitro and in vivo platforms for nanotoxicology research.

“Our mission is to integrate material/exposure/chemical sciences and nanotoxicology-nanobiology   to facilitate assessment of potential risks from emerging nanomaterials.  In doing so, we are bringing together the material synthesis/applications and nanotoxicology communities and other stakeholders including industry,   policy makers and the general public to maximize innovation and growth and minimize environmental and public health risks from nanotechnology”, quoted by  Dr Philip Demokritou, …

This effort certainly falls in line with the current emphasis on interdisciplinary research and creating standards and protocols for researching the toxicology of engineered nanomaterials.

Water turns ice-like at room temperature

The peculiar property of turning ice-like at room temperatures occurs with water at the nanscale according to an Aug. 29, 2016 news item on phys.org,

New research by scientists at The University of Akron (UA) [Ohio, US] shows that a nanometer-thin layer of water between two charged surfaces exhibits ice-like tendencies that allow it to withstand pressures of hundreds of atmospheres. The discovery could lead to better ways to minimize friction in a variety of settings.

An Aug. 29, 2016 University of Akron news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, elaborates on the theme,

Why water between two surfaces does not always simply squeeze out when placed under severe pressure had never been fully understood. The UA researchers discovered that naturally-occurring charges between two surfaces under intense pressure traps the water, and gives it ice-like qualities. It is this ice-like layer of water–occurring at room temperature–that then lessens the friction between the two surfaces.

“For the first time we have a basic understanding of what happens to water under these conditions and why it keeps two surfaces apart,” says Professor Ali Dhinojwala. “We had suspected something was happening at the molecular level, and now we have proof.”

“This discovery could lead to improved designs where low friction surfaces are critically important, such as in biomedical knee implants,” says UA graduate student Nishad Dhopatkar.

Graduate student Adrian Defante, who was also part of the research team, says “the newfound properties of water might contribute to the development of more effective antimicrobial coatings, as a thin layer of water could prevent bacterial adhesion.”

Dhinojwala adds that the research conversely offers insight into how water might be kept away from two surfaces, which could lead to better adhesives in watery environments.

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

Ice-like water supports hydration forces and eases sliding friction by Nishad Dhopatkar, Adrian P. Defante, and Ali Dhinojwala. Science Advances  26 Aug 2016: Vol. 2, no. 8, e1600763 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1600763 Published 03 August 2016

This paper is open access.

Here’s an image the researchers are using to illustrate their work

Caption: Researchers at The University of Akron have discovered that a thin layer of water (blue molecules ) between two charged surfaces composed of surfactants (green molecules) --becomes ice-like, lessening the friction between the two surfaces. Credit: The University of Akron

Caption: Researchers at The University of Akron have discovered that a thin layer of water (blue molecules ) between two charged surfaces composed of surfactants (green molecules) –becomes ice-like, lessening the friction between the two surfaces. Credit: The University of Akron

Nanoavalanches in glass

An Aug. 24, 2016 news item on Nanowerk takes a rather roundabout way to describe some new findings about glass (Note: A link has been removed),

The main purpose of McLaren’s exchange study in Marburg was to learn more about a complex process involving transformations in glass that occur under intense electrical and thermal conditions. New understanding of these mechanisms could lead the way to more energy-efficient glass manufacturing, and even glass supercapacitors that leapfrog the performance of batteries now used for electric cars and solar energy.

“This technology is relevant to companies seeking the next wave of portable, reliable energy,” said Himanshu Jain, McLaren’s advisor and the T. L. Diamond Distinguished Chair in Materials Science and Engineering at Lehigh and director of its International Materials Institute for New Functionality in Glass. “A breakthrough in the use of glass for power storage could unleash a torrent of innovation in the transportation and energy sectors, and even support efforts to curb global warming.”

As part of his doctoral research, McLaren discovered that applying a direct current field across glass reduced its melting temperature. In their experiments, they placed a block of glass between a cathode and anode, and then exerted steady pressure on the glass while gradually heating it. McLaren and Jain, together with colleagues at the University of Colorado, published their discovery in Applied Physics Letters (“Electric field-induced softening of alkali silicate glasses”).

The implications for the finding were intriguing. In addition to making glass formulation viable at lower temperatures and reducing energy needs, designers using electrical current in glass manufacturing would have a tool to make precise manipulations not possible with heat alone.

“You could make a mask for the glass, for example, and apply an electrical field on a micron scale,” said Jain. “This would allow you to deform the glass with high precision, and soften it in a far more selective way than you could with heat, which gets distributed throughout the glass.”

Though McLaren and Jain had isolated the phenomenon and determined how to dial up the variables for optimal results, they did not yet fully understand the mechanisms behind it. McLaren and Jain had been following the work of Dr. Bernard Roling at the University of Marburg, who had discovered some remarkable characteristics of glass using electro-thermal poling, a technique that employs both temperature manipulation and electrical current to create a charge in normally inert glass. The process imparts useful optical and even bioactive qualities to glass.

Roling invited McLaren to spend a semester at Marburg to analyze the behavior of glass under electro-thermal poling, to see if it would reveal more about the fundamental science underlying what McLaren and Jain had observed in their Lehigh lab.

An Aug. 22, 2016 Lehigh University news release by Chris Quirk, which originated the news item, describes the latest work,

McLaren’s work in Marburg revealed a two-step process in which a thin sliver of the glass nearest the anode, called a depletion layer, becomes much more resistant to electrical current than the rest of the glass as alkali ions in the glass migrate away. This is followed by a catastrophic change in the layer, known as dielectric breakdown, which dramatically increases its conductivity. McLaren likens the process of dielectric breakdown to a high-speed avalanche, and uses spectroscopic analysis with electro-thermal poling as a way to see what is happening in slow motion.

“The results in Germany gave us a very good model for what is going on in the electric field-induced softening that we did here. It told us about the start conditions for where dielectric breakdown can begin,” said McLaren.

“Charlie’s work in Marburg has helped us see the kinetics of the process,” Jain said. “We could see it happening abruptly in our experiments here at Lehigh, but we now have a way to separate out what occurs specifically with the depletion layer.”

“The Marburg trip was incredibly useful professionally and enlightening personally,” said McLaren. “Scientifically, it’s always good to see your work from another vantage point, and see how other research groups interpret data or perform experiments. The group in Marburg was extremely hard-working, which I loved, and they were very supportive of each other. If someone submitted a paper, the whole group would have a barbecue to celebrate, and they always gave each other feedback on their work. Sometimes it was brutally honest––they didn’t hold back––but they were things you needed to hear.”

“Working in Marburg also showed me how to interact with a completely different group of people. “You see differences in your own culture best when you have the chance to see other cultures close up. It’s always a fresh perspective.”

Here are links and citations for both the papers mentioned. The first link is for the most recent paper and second link is for the earlier work,

Depletion Layer Formation in Alkali Silicate Glasses by
Electro-Thermal Poling by C. McLaren, M. Balabajew, M. Gellert, B. Roling, and H. Jain. Journal of The Electrochemical Society, 163 (9) H809-H817 (2016) H809 DOI: 10.1149/2.0881609jes Published July 19, 2016

Electric field-induced softening of alkali silicate glasses by C. McLaren, W. Heffner, R. Tessarollo, R. Raj, and H. Jain. Appl. Phys. Lett. 107, 184101 (2015); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4934945 Published online 03 November 2015

The most recent paper (first link) appears to be open access; the earlier paper (second link) is behind a paywall.

Making magnetic rust behave like gold and the nanoscale

Researchers at the University of Georgia (US) have found a way to combine gold nanoparticles with magnetic rust nanoparticles for a hybrid structure that behaves with the properties of both types of nanoparticles. From a Sept. 15, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers from the University of Georgia are giving new meaning to the phrase “turning rust into gold”—and making the use of gold in research settings and industrial applications far more affordable.

The research is akin to a type of modern-day alchemy, said Simona Hunyadi Murph, adjunct professor in the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of physics and astronomy. Researchers combine small amounts of gold nanoparticles with magnetic rust nanoparticles to create a hybrid nanostructure that retains both the properties of gold and rust.

A Sept. 15, 2016 University of Georgia news release by Jessica Luton, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Medieval alchemists tried to create gold from other metals,” she said. “That’s kind of what we did with our research. It’s not real alchemy, in the medieval sense, but it is a sort of 21st century version.”

Gold has long been a valuable resource for industry, medicine, dentistry, computers, electronics and aerospace, among others, due to unique physical and chemical properties that make it inert and resistant to oxidation. But because of its high cost and limited supply, large scale projects using gold can be prohibitive. At the nanoscale, however, using a very small amount of gold is far more affordable.

In the new study published this summer in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C, the researchers used solution chemistry to reduce gold ions into a metallic gold structure using sodium citrate. In this process, if other ingredients-rust in this case-are present in the reaction pot during the transformation process, the metallic gold structures nucleate and grow on these “ingredients,” otherwise known as supports.

“We are really excited to share our new discoveries. When researchers are looking at gold as a potential material for research, we talk about how expensive gold is. For the first time ever, we’ve been able to create a new class of cheaper, highly efficient, nontoxic, magnetically reusable hybrid nanomaterials that contain a far more abundant material-rust-than the typical noble metal gold,” said Murph, who is also a principal scientist in the National Security Directorate at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina.

When materials are broken down in size to reach nanometer scale dimensions-1-100 nanometers, which is approximately 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of human hair-these substances can take on new properties. For example, bulk gold does not display catalytic properties; however, at the nanoscale, gold is an efficient catalyst, accelerating chemical change for many reactions including oxidation, hydrogen production or reduction of aromatic nitro compounds.

Gold nanoparticles of different sizes and shapes display different colors when impinged by light because they absorb and scatter light at specific wavelengths, known as plasmonic resonances. These plasmonic resonances are of particular interest for biological applications. If someone shines light on the gold nanoparticles, the absorbed light can be converted to heat in the surrounding media, and if bacteria or cancerous cells are in the vicinity of such gold nanoparticles, they can be destroyed by using light of appropriate wavelength. This phenomenon is known as photothermal therapy.

By replacing some of the nano-gold with magnetic nano-rust, researchers show that the hybrid gold and rust nanostructures are able to photothermally heat the surrounding media as efficiently as pure gold nanoparticles, even with a significantly smaller concentration of gold.

“In a way, we’ve done a little better than alchemy,” said George Larsen, co-investigator and postdoctoral researcher in the Group for Innovation and Advancements in Nano-Technology Sciences at the Savannah River National Laboratory, “because these new hybrid nanoparticles not only behave better than gold in some cases, but also have magnetic functionality.”

Murph and her team looked at three different shapes of hybrid nanoparticles in this research-spheres, rings and tubes.

“A differently shaped nanoparticle means that the atoms are arranged differently-into cubes, hexagons or triangles, for example,” she said. “A different atom arrangement means different packing densities, spacing between atoms, defects, surface area and surface energies. Different shapes lead to an increased atom area that is exposed to catalyze a chemical reaction. Scientifically speaking, different shape means different crystallographic facets and surface energy that could lead to higher catalytic activity and different catalytic products.

“The results of our research showed that the ring- and tube-shaped hybrid nanoparticles proved to be better catalytic materials than the sphere-shaped nanoparticles because of the way the atoms are arranged in the structure at this nanoscale. More importantly, the hybrid nanoparticles of gold and rust are better catalysts than gold nanoparticles alone, even with a significantly smaller amount of gold.

When these different shaped hybrid nanoparticles were exposed to light of specific wavelength, the spheres heated the solution up to slightly higher temperatures than the ring- or tube-shaped nanoparticles.

“This could have a variety of biological applications such as tracking, drug delivery or imaging inside the body,” Murph said. “If you feed these gold nanoparticles to bacteria and shine the light on them, you could destroy these by just using light.”

The hybrid structures could also be used for new application [sic], such as sensing, hyperthermia treatment, environmental cleaning and protection medical imaging applications including magnetic resonance imaging contrast agents, product detection and manipulation.

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

Multifunctional Hybrid Fe2O3-Au Nanoparticles for Efficient Plasmonic Heating by Simona E. Hunyadi Murph, George K. Larsen, Robert J. Lascola. Journal of Visualized Experiments, 2016; (108) DOI: 10.3791/53598

This paper/video appears to be open access.

Doing math in a test tube using analog DNA

Basically, scientists at Duke University (US) have created an analog computer at the nanoscale, which can perform basic arithmetic. From an Aug. 23, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Often described as the blueprint of life, DNA contains the instructions for making every living thing from a human to a house fly.

But in recent decades, some researchers have been putting the letters of the genetic code to a different use: making tiny nanoscale computers.

In a new study, a Duke University team led by professor John Reif created strands of synthetic DNA that, when mixed together in a test tube in the right concentrations, form an analog circuit that can add, subtract and multiply as they form and break bonds.

Rather than voltage, DNA circuits use the concentrations of specific DNA strands as signals.

An Aug. 23, 2016 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes how most DNA-based circuits operate and what makes the one from Duke different,

Other teams have designed DNA-based circuits that can solve problems ranging from calculating square roots to playing tic-tac-toe. But most DNA circuits are digital, where information is encoded as a sequence of zeroes and ones.

Instead, the new Duke device performs calculations in an analog fashion by measuring the varying concentrations of specific DNA molecules directly, without requiring special circuitry to convert them to zeroes and ones first.

Unlike the silicon-based circuits used in most modern day electronics, commercial applications of DNA circuits are still a long way off, Reif said.

For one, the test tube calculations are slow. It can take hours to get an answer.

“We can do some limited computing, but we can’t even begin to think of competing with modern-day PCs or other conventional computing devices,” Reif said.

But DNA circuits can be far tinier than those made of silicon. And unlike electronic circuits, DNA circuits work in wet environments, which might make them useful for computing inside the bloodstream or the soupy, cramped quarters of the cell.

The technology takes advantage of DNA’s natural ability to zip and unzip to perform computations. Just like Velcro and magnets have complementary hooks or poles, the nucleotide bases of DNA pair up and bind in a predictable way.

The researchers first create short pieces of synthetic DNA, some single-stranded and some double-stranded with single-stranded ends, and mix them in a test tube.

When a single strand encounters a perfect match at the end of one of the partially double-stranded ones, it latches on and binds, displacing the previously bound strand and causing it to detach, like someone cutting in on a dancing couple.

The newly released strand can in turn pair up with other complementary DNA molecules downstream in the circuit, creating a domino effect.

The researchers solve math problems by measuring the concentrations of specific outgoing strands as the reaction reaches equilibrium.

To see how their circuit would perform over time as the reactions proceeded, Reif and Duke graduate student Tianqi Song used computer software to simulate the reactions over a range of input concentrations. They have also been testing the circuit experimentally in the lab.

Besides addition, subtraction and multiplication, the researchers are also designing more sophisticated analog DNA circuits that can do a wider range of calculations, such as logarithms and exponentials.

Conventional computers went digital decades ago. But for DNA computing, the analog approach has its advantages, the researchers say. For one, analog DNA circuits require fewer strands of DNA than digital ones, Song said.

Analog circuits are also better suited for sensing signals that don’t lend themselves to simple on-off, all-or-none values, such as vital signs and other physiological measurements involved in diagnosing and treating disease.

The hope is that, in the distant future, such devices could be programmed to sense whether particular blood chemicals lie inside or outside the range of values considered normal, and release a specific DNA or RNA — DNA’s chemical cousin — that has a drug-like effect.

Reif’s lab is also beginning to work on DNA-based devices that could detect molecular signatures of particular types of cancer cells, and release substances that spur the immune system to fight back.

“Even very simple DNA computing could still have huge impacts in medicine or science,” Reif said.

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

Analog Computation by DNA Strand Displacement Circuits by Tianqi Song, Sudhanshu Garg, Reem Mokhtar, Hieu Bui, and John Reif. ACS Synth. Biol., 2016, 5 (8), pp 898–912 DOI: 10.1021/acssynbio.6b00144 Publication Date (Web): July 01, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016: hunting for plastic debris

An all woman expedition set sail on Aug. 20, 2016 for a journey across the five Great Lakes in search of plastic debris according to an Aug. 16, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Female scientists from the U.S. and Canada will set sail Aug. 20 [2016] on all five Great Lakes and connecting waterways to sample plastic debris pollution and to raise public awareness about the issue.

Event organizers say eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 will include the largest number of simultaneous samplings for aquatic plastic debris in history. [emphasis mine] The all-female crew members on the seven lead research vessels also aim to inspire young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.

An Aug. 15, 2016 University of Michigan news release, which originated the news item, provides more details,

Teams of researchers will collect plastic debris on the five Great Lakes, as well Lake St. Clair-Detroit River and the Saint Lawrence River. Data collected will contribute to growing open-source databases documenting plastic and toxic pollution and their impacts on biodiversity and waterway health, according to event organizers.

Two University of Michigan faculty members, biologist Melissa Duhaime and Laura Alford of the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, will lead the Lake St. Clair-Detroit River team, aboard a 30-foot sailboat.

The crew of up to eight people will include an Ann Arbor middle school teacher, an artist and student at the Great Lakes Boat Building School, and girls from Detroit-area schools. Onboard activities will include water sampling and trawling for plastic debris using protocols developed by the 5 Gyres Institute.

“There is a place for scientists in this type of public outreach, and it is a complement to the research that we do,” said Duhaime, an assistant research scientist in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“In a single day through an event like this, we can potentially reach orders of magnitude more people than we do when we publish our scientific papers, which are read mainly by other scientists. And greater public awareness about this topic, rooted in rigorously collected and interpreted data, can certainly lead to changed behavior in our relationships with plastics.”

Duhaime’s lab studies the sources of Great Lakes plastics, as well as how they are transported within the lakes and where they end up. The work has involved a summer on three of the Great Lakes, trips to Detroit-area wastewater treatment plants, and the sampling of fish and mussels.

The group’s first Great Lakes project included multiple U-M labs, one of which analyzed the stomach contents of fish and mussels, looking for tiny plastic beads, fibers and fragments. They found no plastic “microbeads”—spheres typically less than 1 millimeter in diameter—but plastic fibers were present in a third of the zebra and quagga mussels and at various levels in all the fish species they checked: 15 percent of emerald shiners and bloaters, 20 percent of round gobies, and 26 percent of rainbow smelt, according to Duhaime.

The stomach-content study, which will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was based on work done in lakes Erie and Huron and was led by Larissa Sano, who is now at U-M’s Sweetland Center for Writing.

For years, plastic microbeads were added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste. But the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 28, bans the manufacture of microbeads beginning next year.

Sources of tiny plastic fibers that make it into the Great Lakes include fleece jackets and other types of synthetic clothing. These microfibers are released during laundering, then slip through wastewater treatment plants and into waterways. Fibers found in common household textiles such as carpets, upholstered furniture and curtains also make their way into the environment and can end up in the lakes.

“Microbeads were just the tip of the iceberg,” Duhaime said. “I think fibers are the future of this research and a much more important issue than microbeads, because of the prevalence and the pervasiveness of these plastic textiles in our lives.”

Researchers like Duhaime are also investigating the possibility that tiny bits of Great Lakes plastics can transfer toxic pollutants from the water into fish and other aquatic organisms. It is unclear what level of human health risk, if any, these microplastics pose to people who eat Great Lakes fish; it is a topic of active research.

On Aug. 20 [2016], the team led by Duhaime and Alford will sail up the Detroit River to Lake St. Clair, sampling water and trawling for plastics along the way. Throughout the day at Detroit’s Belle Isle, members of their team will host a beach cleanup and data collection. In addition, a free public-awareness event will be held throughout the day outside Belle Isle Aquarium, followed by a plastic-free community picnic with live music.

Members of the general public are also encouraged to collect Great Lakes water samples and to participate in shoreline cleanup events on the 20th [Aug. 20, 2016].

The mission leaders for eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 event are two women who met during an all-female voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 2014. Jennifer Pate is a filmmaker, and Elaine McKinnon is a clinical neuropsychologist. Pate plans to use video footage and photographs gathered during the Aug. 20 [2016] event to create a film called “Love Your Greats.”

“In parts of the Great Lakes, we have a higher density of microplastics than in any of the ocean gyres,” Pate said. “So the problem isn’t just out there in the oceans. It’s right here in our backyard, in our lakes and on our dinner plates.

“We are all a part of the problem, but that means we are also all part of the solution. That’s why we are holding this event, to give people an opportunity to change the story and create a healthier future.”

Partners in the eXXpedition Great Lakes 2016 event include Adventurers & Scientists for Conservation, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup in Canada and the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach program in the United States.

What a great idea! I wonder if this might inspire an annual event.

Graphene ribbons in solution bending and twisting like DNA

An Aug. 15, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into graphene nanoribbons and their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)-like properties,

Graphene nanoribbons (GNRs) bend and twist easily in solution, making them adaptable for biological uses like DNA analysis, drug delivery and biomimetic applications, according to scientists at Rice University.

Knowing the details of how GNRs behave in a solution will help make them suitable for wide use in biomimetics, according to Rice physicist Ching-Hwa Kiang, whose lab employed its unique capabilities to probe nanoscale materials like cells and proteins in wet environments. Biomimetic materials are those that imitate the forms and properties of natural materials.

An Aug. 15, 2016 Rice University (Texas, US) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the ribbons and the research in more detail,

Graphene nanoribbons can be thousands of times longer than they are wide. They can be produced in bulk by chemically “unzipping” carbon nanotubes, a process invented by Rice chemist and co-author James Tour and his lab.

Their size means they can operate on the scale of biological components like proteins and DNA, Kiang said. “We study the mechanical properties of all different kinds of materials, from proteins to cells, but a little different from the way other people do,” she said. “We like to see how materials behave in solution, because that’s where biological things are.” Kiang is a pioneer in developing methods to probe the energy states of proteins as they fold and unfold.

She said Tour suggested her lab have a look at the mechanical properties of GNRs. “It’s a little extra work to study these things in solution rather than dry, but that’s our specialty,” she said.

Nanoribbons are known for adding strength but not weight to solid-state composites, like bicycle frames and tennis rackets, and forming an electrically active matrix. A recent Rice project infused them into an efficient de-icer coating for aircraft.

But in a squishier environment, their ability to conform to surfaces, carry current and strengthen composites could also be valuable.

“It turns out that graphene behaves reasonably well, somewhat similar to other biological materials. But the interesting part is that it behaves differently in a solution than it does in air,” she said. The researchers found that like DNA and proteins, nanoribbons in solution naturally form folds and loops, but can also form helicoids, wrinkles and spirals.

Kiang, Wijeratne [Sithara Wijeratne, Rice graduate now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University] and Jingqiang Li, a co-author and student in the Kiang lab, used atomic force microscopy to test their properties. Atomic force microscopy can not only gather high-resolution images but also take sensitive force measurements of nanomaterials by pulling on them. The researchers probed GNRs and their precursors, graphene oxide nanoribbons.

The researchers discovered that all nanoribbons become rigid under stress, but their rigidity increases as oxide molecules are removed to turn graphene oxide nanoribbons into GNRs. They suggested this ability to tune their rigidity should help with the design and fabrication of GNR-biomimetic interfaces.

“Graphene and graphene oxide materials can be functionalized (or modified) to integrate with various biological systems, such as DNA, protein and even cells,” Kiang said. “These have been realized in biological devices, biomolecule detection and molecular medicine. The sensitivity of graphene bio-devices can be improved by using narrow graphene materials like nanoribbons.”

Wijeratne noted graphene nanoribbons are already being tested for use in DNA sequencing, in which strands of DNA are pulled through a nanopore in an electrified material. The base components of DNA affect the electric field, which can be read to identify the bases.

The researchers saw nanoribbons’ biocompatibility as potentially useful for sensors that could travel through the body and report on what they find, not unlike the Tour lab’s nanoreporters that retrieve information from oil wells.

Further studies will focus on the effect of the nanoribbons’ width, which range from 10 to 100 nanometers, on their properties.

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

Detecting the Biopolymer Behavior of Graphene Nanoribbons in Aqueous Solution by Sithara S. Wijeratne, Evgeni S. Penev, Wei Lu, Jingqiang Li, Amanda L. Duque, Boris I. Yakobson, James M. Tour, & Ching-Hwa Kiang. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 31174 (2016)  doi:10.1038/srep31174 Published online: 09 August 2016

This paper is open access.