Category Archives: nanotechnology

Swiss researchers, memristors, perovskite crystals, and neuromorphic (brainlike) computing

A May 18, 2022 news item on Nanowerk highlights research into making memristors more ‘flexible’, (Note: There’s an almost identical May 18, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily but the issuing agency is listed as ETH Zurich rather than Empa as listed on Nanowerk),

Compared with computers, the human brain is incredibly energy-efficient. Scientists are therefore drawing on how the brain and its interconnected neurons function for inspiration in designing innovative computing technologies. They foresee that these brain-inspired computing systems, will be more energy-efficient than conventional ones, as well as better at performing machine-learning tasks.

Much like neurons, which are responsible for both data storage and data processing in the brain, scientists want to combine storage and processing in a single type of electronic component, known as a memristor. Their hope is that this will help to achieve greater efficiency because moving data between the processor and the storage, as conventional computers do, is the main reason for the high energy consumption in machine-learning applications.

Researchers at ETH Zurich, Empa and the University of Zurich have now developed an innovative concept for a memristor that can be used in a far wider range of applications than existing memristors.

“There are different operation modes for memristors, and it is advantageous to be able to use all these modes depending on an artificial neural network’s architecture,” explains ETH Zurich postdoc Rohit John. “But previous conventional memristors had to be configured for one of these modes in advance.”

The new memristors can now easily switch between two operation modes while in use: a mode in which the signal grows weaker over time and dies (volatile mode), and one in which the signal remains constant (non-volatile mode).

Once you get past the first two paragraphs in the Nanowerk news item, you find the ETH Zurich and Empa May 18, 2022 press releases by Fabio Begamin, in both cases, are identical (ETH is listed as the authoring agency on EurekAlert), (Note: A link has been removed in the following),

Just like in the brain

“These two operation modes are also found in the human brain,” John says. On the one hand, stimuli at the synapses are transmitted from neuron to neuron with biochemical neurotransmitters. These stimuli start out strong and then gradually become weaker. On the other hand, new synaptic connections to other neurons form in the brain while we learn. These connections are longer-​lasting.

John, who is a postdoc in the group headed by ETH Professor Maksym Kovalenko, was awarded an ETH fellowship for outstanding postdoctoral researchers in 2020. John conducted this research together with Yiğit Demirağ, a doctoral student in Professor Giacomo Indiveri’s group at the Institute for Neuroinformatics of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich.

Semiconductor known from solar cells

The memristors the researchers have developed are made of halide perovskite nanocrystals, a semiconductor material known primarily from its use in photovoltaic cells. “The ‘nerve conduction’ in these new memristors is mediated by temporarily or permanently stringing together silver ions from an electrode to form a nanofilament penetrating the perovskite structure through which current can flow,” explains Kovalenko.

This process can be regulated to make the silver-​ion filament either thin, so that it gradually breaks back down into individual silver ions (volatile mode), or thick and permanent (non-​volatile mode). This is controlled by the intensity of the current conducted on the memristor: applying a weak current activates the volatile mode, while a strong current activates the non-​volatile mode.

New toolkit for neuroinformaticians

“To our knowledge, this is the first memristor that can be reliably switched between volatile and non-​volatile modes on demand,” Demirağ says. This means that in the future, computer chips can be manufactured with memristors that enable both modes. This is a significance advance because it is usually not possible to combine several different types of memristors on one chip.

Within the scope of the study, which they published in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers tested 25 of these new memristors and carried out 20,000 measurements with them. In this way, they were able to simulate a computational problem on a complex network. The problem involved classifying a number of different neuron spikes as one of four predefined patterns.

Before these memristors can be used in computer technology, they will need to undergo further optimisation.  However, such components are also important for research in neuroinformatics, as Indiveri points out: “These components come closer to real neurons than previous ones. As a result, they help researchers to better test hypotheses in neuroinformatics and hopefully gain a better understanding of the computing principles of real neuronal circuits in humans and animals.”

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

Reconfigurable halide perovskite nanocrystal memristors for neuromorphic computing by Rohit Abraham John, Yiğit Demirağ, Yevhen Shynkarenko, Yuliia Berezovska, Natacha Ohannessian, Melika Payvand, Peng Zeng, Maryna I. Bodnarchuk, Frank Krumeich, Gökhan Kara, Ivan Shorubalko, Manu V. Nair, Graham A. Cooke, Thomas Lippert, Giacomo Indiveri & Maksym V. Kovalenko. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 2074 (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-29727-1 Published: 19 April 2022

This paper is open access.

Tunable metasurfaces and reshaping the future of light

Thinner, meaning smaller and less bulky, is a prized quality in technologies such as phones, batteries, and, in this case, lenses. From a May 16, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

The technological advancement of optical lenses has long been a significant marker of human scientific achievement. Eyeglasses, telescopes, cameras, and microscopes have all literally and figuratively allowed us to see the world in a new light. Lenses are also a fundamental component of manufacturing nanoelectronics by the semiconductor industry.

One of the most impactful breakthroughs of lens technology in recent history has been the development of photonic metasurfaces — artificially engineered nano-scale materials with remarkable optical properties. Georgia Tech [Georgia Institute of Technology] researchers at the forefront of this technology have recently demonstrated the first-ever electrically tunable photonic metasurface platform in a recent study published by Nature Communications.

“Metasurfaces can make the optical systems very thin, and as they become easier to control and tune, you’ll soon find them in cell phone cameras and similar electronic imaging systems,” said Ali Adibi, professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology [Georgia Tech; US].

A May 10, 2022 Georgia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert but published May 16, 2022), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The pronounced tuning measures achieved through the new platform represent a critical advancement towards the development of miniaturized reconfigurable metasurfaces. The results of the study have shown a record eleven-fold change in the reflective properties, a large range of spectral tuning for operation, and much faster tuning speed.

Heating Up Metasurfaces

Metasurfaces are a class of nanophotonic materials in which a large range of miniaturized elements are engineered to affect the transmission and reflection of light at different frequencies in a controlled way.

“When viewing under very strong microscopes, metasurfaces look like a periodic array of posts,” said Adibi. “The best analogy would be to think of a LEGO pattern formed by connecting many similar LEGO bricks next to each other.”

Since their inception, metasurfaces have been used to demonstrate that very thin optical devices can affect light propagation with metalenses (the formation of thin lenses) being the most developed application.

Despite impressive progress, most demonstrated metasurfaces are passive, meaning their performance cannot be changed (or tuned) after fabrication. The work presented by Adibi and his team, led by Ph.D. candidate Sajjad Abdollahramezani, applies electrical heat to a special class of nanophotonic materials to create a platform that can enable reconfigurable metasurfaces to be easily manufactured with high levels of optical modulation.

PCMs Provide the Answer

A wide range of materials may be used to form metasurfaces including metals, oxides, and semiconductors, but Abdollahramezani and Adibi’s research focuses on phase-change materials (PCMs) because they can form the most effective structures with the smallest feature sizes. PCMs are substances that absorb and release heat during the process of heating and cooling. They are called “phase-change” materials because they go from one crystallization state to another during the thermal cycling process. Water changing from a liquid to a solid or gas is the most common example.

The Georgia Tech team’s experiments are substantially more complicated than heating and freezing water. Knowing that the optical properties of PCMs can be altered by local heating, they have harnessed the full potential of the PCM alloy Ge2Sb2Te5 (GST), which is a compound of germanium, antimony, and tellurium.

By combining the optical design with a miniaturized electrical microheater underneath, the team can change the crystalline phase of the GST to make active tuning of the metasurface device possible. The fabricated metasurfaces were developed at Georgia Tech’s Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN) and tested in characterization labs by illuminating the reconfigurable metasurfaces with laser light at different frequencies and measuring the properties of the reflected light in real time.

What Tunable Metasurfaces Mean for the Future

Driven by device miniaturization and system integration, as well as their ability to selectively reflect different colors of light, metasurfaces are rapidly replacing bulky optical assemblies of the past. Immediate impact on technologies like LiDAR systems for autonomous cars, imaging, spectroscopy, and sensing is expected.

With further development, more aggressive applications like computing, augmented reality, photonic chips for artificial intelligence, and biohazard detection can also be envisioned, according to Abdollahramezani and Adibi.

“As the platform continues to develop, reconfigurable metasurfaces will be found everywhere,” said Adibi. “They will even empower smaller endoscopes to go deep inside the body for better imaging and help medical sensors detect different biomarkers in blood.”

Funding: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grant No. 1837021. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. The work was primarily funded by Office of Naval Research (ONR) (N00014-18-1-2055, Dr. B. Bennett) and by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] (D19AC00001, Dr. R. Chandrasekar). W.C. acknowledges support from ONR (N00014-17-1-2555) and National Science Foundation (NSF) (DMR-2004749). A. Alù acknowledges support from Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Simons Foundation. M.W. acknowledges support by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SFB 917). M.E.S. acknowledges financial support of NSF-CHE (1608801). This work was performed in part at the Georgia Tech Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN), a member of the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), which is supported by NSF (ECCS1542174).

Caption: Georgia Tech professor Ali Adibi [on the right] with Ph.D. candidate Sajjad Abdollahramezani [on th eleft holding an unidentified object] in Ali’s Photonics Research Group lab where the characterization of the tunable metasurfaces takes place. Credit: Georgia Tech

I am charmed by this image. Neither of these two are professionals at posing for photographers. Nonetheless, they look pleased and happy to help the publicity team spread the word about their research, they also seem like they’re looking forward to getting back to work.

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

Electrically driven reprogrammable phase-change metasurface reaching 80% efficiency by Sajjad Abdollahramezani, Omid Hemmatyar, Mohammad Taghinejad, Hossein Taghinejad, Alex Krasnok, Ali A. Eftekhar, Christian Teichrib, Sanchit Deshmukh, Mostafa A. El-Sayed, Eric Pop, Matthias Wuttig, Andrea Alù, Wenshan Cai & Ali Adibi. Nature Communications volume 13, Article number: 1696 (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-29374-6 Published: 30 March 2022

This paper is open access.

Replace plastic with Choetsu which waterproofs paper and degrades safely

It’s good to see research into practical ways of replacing plastic. From a May 13, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

For our sake and the environment, there is a considerable amount of research into the reduction of plastic for many and various applications. For the first time, researchers have found a way to imbue relatively sustainable paper materials with some of the useful properties of plastic. This can be done easily, cost effectively, and efficiently. A coating called Choetsu not only waterproofs paper, but also maintains its flexibility and degrades safely as well.

Caption: A classic origami crane made from paper and coated with Choetsu (left) and uncoated (right). When submerged in water, the coated paper crane keeps its shape while the uncoated one quickly saturates with water and starts to disintegrate. Credit: ©2022 Hiroi et al.

A May 13, 2022 University of Tokyo press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

It’s hard to escape the fact that plastic materials are by and large detrimental to the environment. You’ve probably seen images of plastic pollution washing up on beaches, spoiling rivers and killing countless animals. Yet the problem often seems completely out of our hands given the ubiquity of plastic materials in everyday life. Professor Zenji Hiroi from the Institute for Solid State Physics at the University of Tokyo and his team explore ways materials science can help, and their recent discovery aims to replace some uses of plastic with something more sustainable: Paper.

“The main problem with plastic materials as I see it is their inability to degrade quickly and safely,” said Hiroi. “There are materials that can degrade safely, such as paper, but obviously paper cannot fulfill the vast range of uses plastic can. However, we’ve found a way to give paper some of the nice properties of plastic, but with none of the detriments. We call it Choetsu, a low-cost biodegradable coating that adds waterproofing and strength to simple paper.”

Choetsu is a combination of materials which, when applied to paper, spontaneously generate a strong and waterproof film when it makes contact with moisture in the air. The coating consists of safe and low-cost chemicals, mostly methyltrimethoxysilane, some isopropyl alcohol, and a small amount of tetraisopropyl titanate. Paper structures, for example food containers, are sprayed with or dipped into this liquid mixture and are dried at room temperature. Once dry, a thin layer of silica containing methyl, a type of alcohol, forms on the cellulose making up the paper, providing the strong and waterproof properties.

Furthermore, reactions that take place during the coating procedure automatically creates a layer of titanium dioxide nanoparticles. These give rise to a dirt- and bacterial-repellent property known as photocatalytic activity, which protects the coated item for an extended period of time. All of the chemicals involved in the coating break down over time into harmless things such as carbon, water and sandlike silicon.

“The technical challenge is complete, and some applications could be realized soon, such as items for consuming, packaging or storing food,” said Hiroi. “We now hope to use this approach on other kinds of materials as well. The liquid composition can be tuned for other materials, and we can create a dirt- and mold-resistant coating that could form onto glass, ceramics and even other plastics to extend their usefulness. Alongside researcher Yoko Iwamiya, who has been working in this field for some time now, and the rest of my team, I hope we can do something truly beneficial for the world.”

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

Photocatalytic Silica–Resin Coating for Environmental Protection of Paper as a Plastic Substitute by Yoko Iwamiya, Daisuke Nishio-Hamane, Kazuhiro Akutsu-Suyama, Hiroshi Arima-Osonoi, Mitsuhiro Shibayama, and Zenji Hiroi. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2022, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.iecr.2c00784 Publication Date: May 13, 2022 © 2022 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence launched at Harvard University and University of Manchester pushes the boundaries of smart robotics and AI

Before getting to the two news items, it might be a good idea to note that ‘artificial intelligence (AI)’ and ‘robot’ are not synonyms although they are often used that way, even by people who should know better. (sigh … I do it too)

A robot may or may not be animated with artificial intelligence while artificial intelligence algorithms may be installed on a variety of devices such as a phone or a computer or a thermostat or a … .

It’s something to bear in mind when reading about the two new institutions being launched. Now, on to Harvard University.

Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence

A September 23, 2022 Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) news release (also on EurekAlert) announces a symposium to launch a new institute close to Mark Zuckerberg’s heart,

On Thursday [September 22, 2022], leadership from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and Harvard University celebrated the launch of the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence at Harvard University with a symposium on Harvard’s campus. Speakers included CZI Head of Science Stephen Quake, President of Harvard University Lawrence Bacow, Provost of Harvard University Alan Garber, and Kempner Institute co-directors Bernardo Sabatini and Sham Kakade. The event also included remarks and panels from industry leaders in science, technology, and artificial intelligence, including Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt, Andy Jassy, Daniel Huttenlocher, Sam Altman, Joelle Pineau, Sangeeta Bhatia, and Yann LeCun, among many others.

The Kempner Institute will seek to better understand the basis of intelligence in natural and artificial systems. Its bold premise is that the two fields are intimately interconnected; the next generation of AI will require the same principles that our brains use for fast, flexible natural reasoning, and understanding how our brains compute and reason requires theories developed for AI. The Kempner Institute will study AI systems, including artificial neural networks, to develop both principled theories [emphasis mine] and a practical understanding of how these systems operate and learn. It will also focus on research topics such as learning and memory, perception and sensation, brain function, and metaplasticity. The Institute will recruit and train future generations of researchers from undergraduates and graduate students to post-docs and faculty — actively recruiting from underrepresented groups at every stage of the pipeline — to study intelligence from biological, cognitive, engineering, and computational perspectives.

CZI Co-Founder and Co-CEO Mark Zuckerberg [chairman and chief executive officer of Meta/Facebook] said: “The Kempner Institute will be a one-of-a-kind institute for studying intelligence and hopefully one that helps us discover what intelligent systems really are, how they work, how they break and how to repair them. There’s a lot of exciting implications because once you understand how something is supposed to work and how to repair it once it breaks, you can apply that to the broader mission the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has to empower scientists to help cure, prevent or manage all diseases.”

CZI Co-Founder and Co-CEO Priscilla Chan said: “Just attending this school meant the world to me. But to stand on this stage and to be able to give something back is truly a dream come true … All of this progress starts with building one fundamental thing: a Kempner community that’s diverse, multi-disciplinary and multi-generational, because incredible ideas can come from anyone. If you bring together people from all different disciplines to look at a problem and give them permission to articulate their perspective, you might start seeing insights or solutions in a whole different light. And those new perspectives lead to new insights and discoveries and generate new questions that can lead an entire field to blossom. So often, that momentum is what breaks the dam and tears down old orthodoxies, unleashing new floods of new ideas that allow us to progress together as a society.”

CZI Head of Science Stephen Quake said: “It’s an honor to partner with Harvard in building this extraordinary new resource for students and science. This is a once-in-a-generation moment for life sciences and medicine. We are living in such an extraordinary and exciting time for science. Many breakthrough discoveries are going to happen not only broadly but right here on this campus and at this institute.”

CZI’s 10-year vision is to advance research and develop technologies to observe, measure, and analyze any biological process within the human body — across spatial scales and in real time. CZI’s goal is to accelerate scientific progress by funding scientific research to advance entire fields; working closely with scientists and engineers at partner institutions like the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub and Chan Zuckerberg Institute for Advanced Biological Imaging to do the research that can’t be done in conventional environments; and building and democratizing next-generation software and hardware tools to drive biological insights and generate more accurate and biologically important sources of data.

President of Harvard University Lawrence Bacow said: “Here we are with this incredible opportunity that Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg have given us to imagine taking what we know about the brain, neuroscience and how to model intelligence and putting them together in ways that can inform both, and can truly advance our understanding of intelligence from multiple perspectives.”

Kempner Institute Co-Director and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and of Statistics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Sham Kakade said: “Now we begin assembling a world-leading research and educational program at Harvard that collectively tries to understand the fundamental mechanisms of intelligence and seeks to apply these new technologies for the benefit of humanity … We hope to create a vibrant environment for all of us to engage in broader research questions … We want to train the next generation of leaders because those leaders will go on to do the next set of great things.”

Kempner Institute Co-Director and the Alice and Rodman W. Moorhead III Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School Bernardo Sabatini said: “We’re blending research, education and computation to nurture, raise up and enable any scientist who is interested in unraveling the mysteries of the brain. This field is a nascent and interdisciplinary one, so we’re going to have to teach neuroscience to computational biologists, who are going to have to teach machine learning to cognitive scientists and math to biologists. We’re going to do whatever is necessary to help each individual thrive and push the field forward … Success means we develop mathematical theories that explain how our brains compute and learn, and these theories should be specific enough to be testable and useful enough to start to explain diseases like schizophrenia, dyslexia or autism.”

About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was founded in 2015 to help solve some of society’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease and improving education, to addressing the needs of our communities. Through collaboration, providing resources and building technology, our mission is to help build a more inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit chanzuckerberg.com.

Principled theories, eh. I don’t see a single mention of ethicists or anyone in the social sciences or the humanities or the arts. How are scientists and engineers who have no training in or education in or, even, an introduction to ethics or social impacts or psychology going to manage this?

Mark Zuckerberg’s approach to these issues was something along the lines of “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” I understand there have been changes but it took far too long to recognize the damage let alone attempt to address it.

If you want to gain a little more insight into the Kempner Institute, there’s a December 7, 2021 article by Alvin Powell announcing the institute for the Harvard Gazette,

The institute will be funded by a $500 million gift from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, which was announced Tuesday [December 7, 2021] by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The gift will support 10 new faculty appointments, significant new computing infrastructure, and resources to allow students to flow between labs in pursuit of ideas and knowledge. The institute’s name honors Zuckerberg’s mother, Karen Kempner Zuckerberg, and her parents — Zuckerberg’s grandparents — Sidney and Gertrude Kempner. Chan and Zuckerberg have given generously to Harvard in the past, supporting students, faculty, and researchers in a range of areas, including around public service, literacy, and cures.

“The Kempner Institute at Harvard represents a remarkable opportunity to bring together approaches and expertise in biological and cognitive science with machine learning, statistics, and computer science to make real progress in understanding how the human brain works to improve how we address disease, create new therapies, and advance our understanding of the human body and the world more broadly,” said President Larry Bacow.

Q&A

Bernardo Sabatini and Sham Kakade [Institute co-directors]

GAZETTE: Tell me about the new institute. What is its main reason for being?

SABATINI: The institute is designed to take from two fields and bring them together, hopefully to create something that’s essentially new, though it’s been tried in a couple of places. Imagine that you have over here cognitive scientists and neurobiologists who study the human brain, including the basic biological mechanisms of intelligence and decision-making. And then over there, you have people from computer science, from mathematics and statistics, who study artificial intelligence systems. Those groups don’t talk to each other very much.

We want to recruit from both populations to fill in the middle and to create a new population, through education, through graduate programs, through funding programs — to grow from academic infancy — those equally versed in neuroscience and in AI systems, who can be leaders for the next generation.

Over the millions of years that vertebrates have been evolving, the human brain has developed specializations that are fundamental for learning and intelligence. We need to know what those are to understand their benefits and to ask whether they can make AI systems better. At the same time, as people who study AI and machine learning (ML) develop mathematical theories as to how those systems work and can say that a network of the following structure with the following properties learns by calculating the following function, then we can take those theories and ask, “Is that actually how the human brain works?”

KAKADE: There’s a question of why now? In the technological space, the advancements are remarkable even to me, as a researcher who knows how these things are being made. I think there’s a long way to go, but many of us feel that this is the right time to study intelligence more broadly. You might also ask: Why is this mission unique and why is this institute different from what’s being done in academia and in industry? Academia is good at putting out ideas. Industry is good at turning ideas into reality. We’re in a bit of a sweet spot. We have the scale to study approaches at a very different level: It’s not going to be just individual labs pursuing their own ideas. We may not be as big as the biggest companies, but we can work on the types of problems that they work on, such as having the compute resources to work on large language models. Industry has exciting research, but the spectrum of ideas produced is very different, because they have different objectives.

For the die-hards, there’s a September 23, 2022 article by Clea Simon in Harvard Gazette, which updates the 2021 story,

Next, Manchester, England.

Manchester Centre for Robotics and AI

Robotots take a break at a lab at The University of Manchester – picture courtesy of Marketing Manchester [downloaded from https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/manchester-ai-summit-aims-to-attract-experts-in-advanced-engineering-and-robotics/]

A November 22, 2022 University of Manchester press release (also on EurekAlert) announces both a meeting and a new centre, Note: Links to the Centre have been retained; all others have been removed,

How humans and super smart robots will live and work together in the future will be among the key issues being scrutinised by experts at a new centre of excellence for AI and autonomous machines based at The University of Manchester.

The Manchester Centre for Robotics and AI will be a new specialist multi-disciplinary centre to explore developments in smart robotics through the lens of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous machinery.

The University of Manchester has built a modern reputation of excellence in AI and robotics, partly based on the legacy of pioneering thought leadership begun in this field in Manchester by legendary codebreaker Alan Turing.

Manchester’s new multi-disciplinary centre is home to world-leading research from across the academic disciplines – and this group will hold its first conference on Wednesday, Nov 23, at the University’s new engineering and materials facilities.

A  highlight will be a joint talk by robotics expert Dr Andy Weightman and theologian Dr Scott Midson which is expected to put a spotlight on ‘posthumanism’, a future world where humans won’t be the only highly intelligent decision-makers.

Dr Weightman, who researches home-based rehabilitation robotics for people with neurological impairment, and Dr Midson, who researches theological and philosophical critiques of posthumanism, will discuss how interdisciplinary research can help with the special challenges of rehabilitation robotics – and, ultimately, what it means to be human “in the face of the promises and challenges of human enhancement through robotic and autonomous machines”.

Other topics that the centre will have a focus on will include applications of robotics in extreme environments.

For the past decade, a specialist Manchester team led by Professor Barry Lennox has designed robots to work safely in nuclear decommissioning sites in the UK. A ground-breaking robot called Lyra that has been developed by Professor Lennox’s team – and recently deployed at the Dounreay site in Scotland, the “world’s deepest nuclear clean up site” – has been listed in Time Magazine’s Top 200 innovations of 2022.

Angelo Cangelosi, Professor of Machine Learning and Robotics at Manchester, said the University offers a world-leading position in the field of autonomous systems – a technology that will be an integral part of our future world. 

Professor Cangelosi, co-Director of Manchester’s Centre for Robotics and AI, said: “We are delighted to host our inaugural conference which will provide a special showcase for our diverse academic expertise to design robotics for a variety of real world applications.

“Our research and innovation team are at the interface between robotics, autonomy and AI – and their knowledge is drawn from across the University’s disciplines, including biological and medical sciences – as well the humanities and even theology. [emphases mine]

“This rich diversity offers Manchester a distinctive approach to designing robots and autonomous systems for real world applications, especially when combined with our novel use of AI-based knowledge.”

Delegates will have a chance to observe a series of robots and autonomous machines being demoed at the new conference.

The University of Manchester’s Centre for Robotics and AI will aim to: 

  • design control systems with a focus on bio-inspired solutions to mechatronics, eg the use of biomimetic sensors, actuators and robot platforms; 
  • develop new software engineering and AI methodologies for verification in autonomous systems, with the aim to design trustworthy autonomous systems; 
  • research human-robot interaction, with a pioneering focus on the use of brain-inspired approaches [emphasis mine] to robot control, learning and interaction; and 
  • research the ethics and human-centred robotics issues, for the understanding of the impact of the use of robots and autonomous systems with individuals and society. 

In some ways, the Kempner Institute and the Manchester Centre for Robotics and AI have very similar interests, especially where the brain is concerned. What fascinates me is the Manchester Centre’s inclusion of theologian Dr Scott Midson and the discussion (at the meeting) of ‘posthumanism’. The difference is between actual engagement at the symposium (the centre) and mere mention in a news release (the institute).

I wish the best for both institutions.

US and Nano4EARTH

After such a long time (a couple of years at least), it was nice to come across this update on the US government’s national nanotechnology efforts. From a October 7, 2022 (US) White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) news release (h/t JD Supra October 17, 2022 legal news update),

Today [October 7, 2022], to mark National Nanotechnology Day, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) are making key announcements that aim to advance the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to leverage the promise of science and technology to benefit all Americans. They also complement the Administration’s ongoing CHIPS and Science Act implementation efforts that will ensure the United States remains a world leader in the industries of tomorrow.

“National Nanotechnology Day is an opportunity to celebrate the NNCO’s – and Biden-Harris Administration’s – efforts to advance research breakthroughs on the nanoscale that impact nearly every scientific discipline and lay the foundation for emerging fields and technologies,” said newly announced National Nanotechnology Coordination Office Director Dr. Branden Brough. “As evidenced by this week’s Nobel Prize announcements highlighting work in quantum information science and click chemistry, the nanotechnology community is leveraging the Nation’s investments in research at the level of atoms and molecules to find solutions to address today’s most pressing challenges, including climate change, pandemic preparedness, and domestic microelectronics manufacturing.”

Biden-⁠Harris Administration’s National Nanotechnology Challenge, Nano4EARTH

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office is announcing the inaugural National Nanotechnology Challenge, Nano4EARTH. Nano4EARTH will leverage recent investments in understanding and controlling matter at the nanoscale to develop technologies and industries that address climate change. Nano4EARTH recognizes the role nanotechnology plays in: Evaluating, monitoring, and detecting climate change status and trends; Averting future greenhouse gas emissions; Removing existing greenhouse gasses; Training and educating a highly skilled workforce to harness nanotechnology solutions; and developing Higher resilience to – and mitigation of – climate change-induced pressures for improved societal/economic resilience.

The NNCO supports the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a White House-led initiative that coordinates the nanotechnology R&D activities of 20 federal government agencies. Identified in the 2021 NNI Strategic Plan, National Nanotechnology Challenges are a new mechanism to mobilize and connect the NNI community so it can help to address global societal challenges.

Members of the NNI community – the scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and government leaders developing solutions at the nanoscale – are invited to participate in Nano4EARTH! By doing so, they can support the United States’ goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and inspire and build the STEM workforce capacity that will help develop and implement climate change mitigation and resilience solutions. Links to relevant agency programs, information about the public kick-off workshop, and a link to join a mailing list to get involved can be found on the Nano4EARTH webpage. The Nano4EARTH kick-off workshop (to be held in early 2023) will serve as an information-gathering exercise to identify key feasible outputs of the challenge and effective ways to measure success.

National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) Leadership

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office are announcing Dr. Branden Brough as the new Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) and Dr. Quinn Spadola as its Deputy Director.

Dr. Brough joins the NNCO from the Molecular Foundry, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded nanoscale science research center that provides users from around the world with access to cutting-edge expertise and instrumentation. He will also serve as OSTP’s Assistant Director for Nanotechnology. As the Molecular Foundry’s Deputy Director, Dr. Brough was responsible for helping guide the organization’s scientific plans and initiatives, while also managing the center’s operations. Before joining the Molecular Foundry, Dr. Brough worked at the NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, where he led strategic policy and planning activities, as well as Congressional and public outreach efforts. Dr. Brough received his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering – focusing on the integration of synthetic motor molecules and natural self-assembling proteins into micro/nanotechnologies – from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Dr. Spadola was the Associate Director of Education for the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), a network of open nanotechnology laboratory user facilities supported by the National Science Foundation, and the Director of Education and Outreach for the Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor NNCI site at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Prior to joining the Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Spadola was the Education and Outreach Coordinator and a Technical Advisor to the Director at NNCO. She received her Ph.D. in physics from Arizona State University and her MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking from Montana State University.

Once again, the Climate Change National Nanotechnology Challenge (Nano4EARTH) webpage is here and apparently they aren’t quite ready yet but,

The NNI is planning a Nano4EARTH kick-off workshop! Join our mailing list to get all future updates!

Nanobiotics and a new machine learning model

A May 16, 2022 news item on phys.org announces work on a new machine learning model that could be useful in the research into engineered nanoparticles for medical purposes (Note: Links have been removed),

With antibiotic-resistant infections on the rise and a continually morphing pandemic virus, it’s easy to see why researchers want to be able to design engineered nanoparticles that can shut down these infections.

A new machine learning model that predicts interactions between nanoparticles and proteins, developed at the University of Michigan, brings us a step closer to that reality.

A May 16, 2022 University of Michigan news release by Kate McAlpine, which originated the news item, delves further into the work (Note: Links have been removed),

“We have reimagined nanoparticles to be more than mere drug delivery vehicles. We consider them to be active drugs in and of themselves,” said J. Scott VanEpps, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and an author of the study in Nature Computational Science.

Discovering drugs is a slow and unpredictable process, which is why so many antibiotics are variations on a previous drug. Drug developers would like to design medicines that can attack bacteria and viruses in ways that they choose, taking advantage of the “lock-and-key” mechanisms that dominate interactions between biological molecules. But it was unclear how to transition from the abstract idea of using nanoparticles to disrupt infections to practical implementation of the concept. 

“By applying mathematical methods to protein-protein interactions, we have streamlined the design of nanoparticles that mimic one of the proteins in these pairs,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Irving Langmuir Distinguished University Professor of Chemical Sciences and Engineering and corresponding author of the study. 

“Nanoparticles are more stable than biomolecules and can lead to entirely new classes of antibacterial and antiviral agents.”

The new machine learning algorithm compares nanoparticles to proteins using three different ways to describe them. While the first was a conventional chemical description, the two that concerned structure turned out to be most important for making predictions about whether a nanoparticle would be a lock-and-key match with a specific protein.

Between them, these two structural descriptions captured the protein’s complex surface and how it might reconfigure itself to enable lock-and-key fits. This includes pockets that a nanoparticle could fit into, along with the size such a nanoparticle would need to be. The descriptions also included chirality, a clockwise or counterclockwise twist that is important for predicting how a protein and nanoparticle will lock in.

“There are many proteins outside and inside bacteria that we can target. We can use this model as a first screening to discover which nanoparticles will bind with which proteins,” said Emine Sumeyra Turali Emre, a postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering and co-first author of the paper, along with Minjeong Cha, a PhD student in materials science and engineering.

Emre and Cha explained that researchers could follow up on matches identified by their algorithm with more detailed simulations and experiments. One such match could stop the spread of MRSA, a common antibiotic-resistant strain, using zinc oxide nanopyramids that block metabolic enzymes in the bacteria.  

“Machine learning algorithms like ours will provide a design tool for nanoparticles that can be used in many biological processes. Inhibition of the virus that causes COVID-19 is one good example,” said Cha. “We can use this algorithm to efficiently design nanoparticles that have broad-spectrum antiviral activity against all variants.”

This breakthrough was enabled by the Blue Sky Initiative at the University of Michigan College of Engineering. It provided $1.5 million to support the interdisciplinary team carrying out the fundamental exploration of whether a machine learning approach could be effective when data on the biological activity of nanoparticles is so sparse.

“The core of the Blue Sky idea is exactly what this work covers: finding a way to represent proteins and nanoparticles in a unified approach to understand and design new classes of drugs that have multiple ways of working against bacteria,” said Angela Violi, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, a professor of mechanical engineering and leader of the nanobiotics Blue Sky project.

Emre led the building of a database of interactions between proteins that could help to predict nanoparticle and protein interaction. Cha then identified structural descriptors that would serve equally well for nanoparticles and proteins, working with collaborators at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles to develop a machine learning algorithm that combed through the database and used the patterns it found to predict how proteins and nanoparticles would interact with one another. Finally, the team compared these predictions for lock-and-key matches with the results from experiments and detailed simulations, finding that they closely matched.

Additional collaborators on the project include Ji-Young Kim, a postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering at U-M, who helped calculate chirality in the proteins and nanoparticles. Paul Bogdan and Xiongye Xiao, a professor and PhD student, respectively, in electrical and computer engineering at USC [University of Southern California] contributed to the graph theory descriptors. Cha then worked with them to design and train the neural network, comparing different machine learning models. All authors helped analyze the data.

Here are links to and a citation for the research briefing and paper, respectively,

Universal descriptors to predict interactions of inorganic nanoparticles with proteins. Nature Computational Science (2022) [Research briefing] DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43588-022-00230-3 Published: 28 April 2022

This paper is behind a paywall.

Unifying structural descriptors for biological and bioinspired nanoscale complexes by Minjeong Cha, Emine Sumeyra Turali Emre, Xiongye Xiao, Ji-Young Kim, Paul Bogdan, J. Scott VanEpps, Angela Violi & Nicholas A. Kotov. Nature Computational Science volume 2, pages 243–252 (2022) Issue Date: April 2022 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43588-022-00229-w Published: 28 April 2022

This paper appears to be open access.

Smart City tech brief: facial recognition, cybersecurity; privacy protection; and transparency

This May 10, 2022 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) announcement (received via email) has an eye-catching head,

Should Smart Cities Adopt Facial Recognition, Remote Monitoring Software+Social Media to Police [verb] Info?

The Association for Computing Machinery, the largest and most prestigious computer science society worldwide (100,000 members) has released a report, ACM TechBrief: Smart Cities, for smart city planners to address 1) cybersecurity; 2) privacy protections; 3) fairness and transparency; and 4) sustainability when planning and designing systems, including climate impact. 

There’s a May 3, 2022 ACM news release about the latest technical brief,

The Association for Computing Machinery’s global Technology Policy Council (ACM TPC) just released, “ACM TechBrief: Smart Cities,” which highlights the challenges involved in deploying information and communication technology to create smart cities and calls for policy leaders planning such projects to do so without compromising security, privacy, fairness and sustainability. The TechBrief includes a primer on smart cities, key statistics about the growth and use of these technologies, and a short list of important policy implications.

“Smart cities” are municipalities that use a network of physical devices and computer technologies to make the delivery of public services more efficient and/or more environmentally friendly. Examples of smart city applications include using sensors to turn off streetlights when no one is present, monitoring traffic patterns to reduce roadway congestion and air pollution, or keeping track of home-bound medical patients in order to dispatch emergency responders when needed. Smart cities are an outgrowth of the Internet of Things (IoT), the rapidly growing infrastructure of literally billions of physical devices embedded with sensors that are connected to computers and the Internet.

The deployment of smart city technology is growing across the world, and these technologies offer significant benefits. For example, the TechBrief notes that “investing in smart cities could contribute significantly to achieving greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets,” and that “smart cities use digital innovation to make urban service delivery more efficient.”

Because of the meteoric growth and clear benefits of smart city technologies, the TechBrief notes that now is an urgent time to address some of the important public policy concerns that smart city technologies raise. The TechBrief lists four key policy implications that government officials, as well as the private companies that develop these technologies, should consider.

These include:

Cybersecurity risks must be considered at every stage of every smart city technology’s life cycle.

Effective privacy protection mechanisms must be an essential component of any smart city technology deployed.

Such mechanisms should be transparently fair to all city users, not just residents.

The climate impact of smart city infrastructures must be fully understood as they are being designed and regularly assessed after they are deployed

“Smart cities are fast becoming a reality around the world,”explains Chris Hankin, a Professor at Imperial College London and lead author of the ACM TechBrief on Smart Cities. “By 2025, 26% of all internet-connected devices will be used in a smart city application. As technologists, we feel we have a responsibility to raise important questions to ensure that these technologies best serve the public interest. For example, many people are unaware that some smart city technologies involve the collection of personally identifiable data. We developed this TechBrief to familiarize the public and lawmakers with this topic and present some key issues for consideration. Our overarching goal is to guide enlightened public policy in this area.”

“Our new TechBrief series builds on earlier and ongoing work by ACM’s technology policy committees,” added James Hendler, Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Chair of the ACM Technology Policy Council. “Because many smart city applications involve algorithms making decisions which impact people directly, this TechBrief calls for methods to ensure fairness and transparency in how these systems are developed. This reinforces an earlier statement we issued that outlined seven principles for algorithmic transparency and accountability. We also note that smart city infrastructures are especially vulnerable to malicious attacks.”

This TechBrief is the third in a series of short technical bulletins by ACM TPC that present scientifically grounded perspectives on the impact of specific developments or applications of technology. Designed to complement ACM’s activities in the policy arena, TechBriefs aim to inform policymakers, the public, and others about the nature and implications of information technologies. The first ACM TechBrief focused on climate change, while the second addressed facial recognition. Topics under consideration for future issues include quantum computing, election security, and encryption.

About the ACM Technology Policy Council

ACM’s global Technology Policy Council sets the agenda for ACM’s global policy activities and serves as the central convening point for ACM’s interactions with government organizations, the computing community, and the public in all matters of public policy related to computing and information technology. The Council’s members are drawn from ACM’s global membership. It coordinates the activities of ACM’s regional technology policy groups and sets the agenda for global initiatives to address evolving technology policy issues.

About ACM

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. ACM strengthens the computing profession’s collective voice through strong leadership, promotion of the highest standards, and recognition of technical excellence. ACM supports the professional growth of its members by providing opportunities for life-long learning, career development, and professional networking.

This is indeed a brief. I recommend reading it as it provides a very good overview to the topic of ‘smart cities’ and raises a question or two. For example, there’s this passage from the April 2022 Issue 3 Technical Brief on p. 2,

… policy makers should target broad and fair access and application of AI and, in general, ICT [information and communication technologies]. This can be achieved through transparent planning and decision-making processes for smart city infrastructure and application developments, such as open hearings, focus groups, and advisory panels. The goal must be to minimize potential harm while maximizing the benefits that algorithmic decision-making [emphasis mine] can bring

Is this algorithmic decision-making under human supervision? It doesn’t seem to be specified in the brief itself. It’s possible the answer lies elsewhere. After all, this is the third in the series.

Electrical conductivity in bacterial nanowires

I like this art work; it reminds me of squid,

Caption: Bacteria producing nanowires made up of cytochrome OmcS. Credit: Ella Maru Studio

A May 11, 2022 news item on Nanowerk describes the research being illustrated,

The ground beneath our feet and under the ocean floor is an electrically-charged grid, the product of bacteria “exhaling” excess electrons through tiny nanowires in an environment lacking oxygen.

Yale University researchers have been studying ways to enhance this natural electrical conductivity within nanowires 1/100,000th width of a human hair by identifying the mechanism of electron flow.

A May 11, 2022 Yale University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides a little more detail,

In a new study published in Science Advances, a team led by graduate student Peter Dahl with Nikhil Malvankar, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry in the Microbial Sciences Institute, and Victor Batista, Professor of Chemistry, found that nanowires move 10 billion electrons per second without any energy loss. These studies explain the remarkable capacity of these bacteria to send electrons over long distances. The team also found that cooling the environment around the nanowires of Geobacter from room temperature to freezing increases conductivity 300-fold. This is very surprising because cooling typically freezes electrons and slows them down in organic materials. By combining experiments with theory, the researchers found that the colder temperatures restructure hydrogen bonds and flatten heme proteins within nanowires, thus enhancing the flow of electricity. Leveraging this naturally occurring electrical grid might one day lead to the development of living and self-repairing electrical circuits, new sources of electricity and bioremediation strategies.  

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

A 300-fold conductivity increase in microbial cytochrome nanowires due to temperature-induced restructuring of hydrogen bonding networks by Peter J. Dahl, Sophia M. Yi, Yangqi GuAtanu Acharya, Catharine Shipps, Jens Neu, Patrick O’Brien, Uriel N. Morzan, Subhajyoti Chaudhuri, Matthew J. Guberman-Pfeffer, Dennis Vu, Sibel Ebru Yalcin, Victor S. Batista and Nikhil S. Malvankar. Science Advances • 11 May 2022 • Vol 8, Issue 19 • DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm7193

This paper is open access.