Category Archives: military

Implantable living pharmacy

I stumbled across a very interesting US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project (from an August 30, 2021 posting on Northwestern University’s Rivnay Lab [a laboratory for organic bioelectronics] blog),

Our lab has received a cooperative agreement with DARPA to develop a wireless, fully implantable ‘living pharmacy’ device that could help regulate human sleep patterns. The project is through DARPA’s BTO (biotechnology office)’s Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER) program, meant to address physical challenges of travel, such as jetlag and fatigue.

The device, called NTRAIN (Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks), would control the body’s circadian clock, reducing the time it takes for a person to recover from disrupted sleep/wake cycles by as much as half the usual time.

The project spans 5 institutions including Northwestern, Rice University, Carnegie Mellon, University of Minnesota, and Blackrock Neurotech.

Prior to the Aug. 30, 2021 posting, Amanda Morris wrote a May 13, 2021 article for Northwestern NOW (university magazine), which provides more details about the project, Note: A link has been removed,

The first phase of the highly interdisciplinary program will focus on developing the implant. The second phase, contingent on the first, will validate the device. If that milestone is met, then researchers will test the device in human trials, as part of the third phase. The full funding corresponds to $33 million over four-and-a-half years. 

Nicknamed the “living pharmacy,” the device could be a powerful tool for military personnel, who frequently travel across multiple time zones, and shift workers including first responders, who vacillate between overnight and daytime shifts.

Combining synthetic biology with bioelectronics, the team will engineer cells to produce the same peptides that the body makes to regulate sleep cycles, precisely adjusting timing and dose with bioelectronic controls. When the engineered cells are exposed to light, they will generate precisely dosed peptide therapies. 

“This control system allows us to deliver a peptide of interest on demand, directly into the bloodstream,” said Northwestern’s Jonathan Rivnay, principal investigator of the project. “No need to carry drugs, no need to inject therapeutics and — depending on how long we can make the device last — no need to refill the device. It’s like an implantable pharmacy on a chip that never runs out.” 

Beyond controlling circadian rhythms, the researchers believe this technology could be modified to release other types of therapies with precise timing and dosing for potentially treating pain and disease. The DARPA program also will help researchers better understand sleep/wake cycles, in general.

“The experiments carried out in these studies will enable new insights into how internal circadian organization is maintained,” said Turek [Fred W. Turek], who co-leads the sleep team with Vitaterna [Martha Hotz Vitaterna]. “These insights will lead to new therapeutic approaches for sleep disorders as well as many other physiological and mental disorders, including those associated with aging where there is often a spontaneous breakdown in temporal organization.” 

For those who like to dig even deeper, Dieynaba Young’s June 17, 2021 article for Smithsonian Magazine (GetPocket.com link to article) provides greater context and greater satisfaction, Note: Links have been removed,

In 1926, Fritz Kahn completed Man as Industrial Palace, the preeminent lithograph in his five-volume publication The Life of Man. The illustration shows a human body bustling with tiny factory workers. They cheerily operate a brain filled with switchboards, circuits and manometers. Below their feet, an ingenious network of pipes, chutes and conveyer belts make up the blood circulatory system. The image epitomizes a central motif in Kahn’s oeuvre: the parallel between human physiology and manufacturing, or the human body as a marvel of engineering.

An apparatus in the embryonic stage of development at the time of this writing in June of 2021—the so-called “implantable living pharmacy”—could have easily originated in Kahn’s fervid imagination. The concept is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in conjunction with several universities, notably Northwestern and Rice. Researchers envision a miniaturized factory, tucked inside a microchip, that will manufacture pharmaceuticals from inside the body. The drugs will then be delivered to precise targets at the command of a mobile application. …

The implantable living pharmacy, which is still in the “proof of concept” stage of development, is actually envisioned as two separate devices—a microchip implant and an armband. The implant will contain a layer of living synthetic cells, along with a sensor that measures temperature, a short-range wireless transmitter and a photo detector. The cells are sourced from a human donor and reengineered to perform specific functions. They’ll be mass produced in the lab, and slathered onto a layer of tiny LED lights.

The microchip will be set with a unique identification number and encryption key, then implanted under the skin in an outpatient procedure. The chip will be controlled by a battery-powered hub attached to an armband. That hub will receive signals transmitted from a mobile app.

If a soldier wishes to reset their internal clock, they’ll simply grab their phone, log onto the app and enter their upcoming itinerary—say, a flight departing at 5:30 a.m. from Arlington, Virginia, and arriving 16 hours later at Fort Buckner in Okinawa, Japan. Using short-range wireless communications, the hub will receive the signal and activate the LED lights inside the chip. The lights will shine on the synthetic cells, stimulating them to generate two compounds that are naturally produced in the body. The compounds will be released directly into the bloodstream, heading towards targeted locations, such as a tiny, centrally-located structure in the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that serves as master pacemaker of the circadian rhythm. Whatever the target location, the flow of biomolecules will alter the natural clock. When the solider arrives in Okinawa, their body will be perfectly in tune with local time.

The synthetic cells will be kept isolated from the host’s immune system by a membrane constructed of novel biomaterials, allowing only nutrients and oxygen in and only the compounds out. Should anything go wrong, they would swallow a pill that would kill the cells inside the chip only, leaving the rest of their body unaffected.

If you have the time, I recommend reading Young’s June 17, 2021 Smithsonian Magazine article (GetPocket.com link to article) in its entirety. Young goes on to discuss, hacking, malware, and ethical/societal issues and more.

There is an animation of Kahn’s original poster in a June 23, 2011 posting on openculture.com (also found on Vimeo; Der Mensch als Industriepalast [Man as Industrial Palace])

Credits: Idea & Animation: Henning M. Lederer / led-r-r.net; Sound-Design: David Indge; and original poster art: Fritz Kahn.

Five 2023 events: SCWIST (Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology) and SFU’s (Simon Fraser University) Café Scientifique

I have one January 2023 event for the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) and four Simon Fraser University (SFU) Café Scientifique events, one each month, for January through April 2023.

SCWIST and Canada’s Department of National Defence

From a January 2023 SCWIST newsletter (received via email),

Defense [sic] is a Place for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] Women

Have you always wondered about where STEM fits within the area of defense? Or are you curious about where a STEM career can lead you within defense?

SCWIST and the Department of National Defense [sic] have partnered to bring you an exciting panel presentation and discussion on these questions and more. Join our speakers as they highlight the challenges and accomplishments of being STEM women in the area of National Defense [sic]. Online seats available [emphasis mine]

Based on that last phrase, I believe this is a hybrid event.

Here is logistical and biographical information for the event and its speakers and moderators from the Event registration page, Note 1: The event is being held on one of the city of Vancouver campuses (and possibly online), Note 2: I have made some changes to the formatting.

Date and time

Tue, 24 January 2023, 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM PST

Location

SFU VentureLabs 555 West Hastings Street #Suite #1200 Vancouver, BC V6B 4N6

SPEAKERS

Captain Kalina Yurick joined the military in 2011 and attended the Royal Military College of Canada to earn her degree in Aeronautical Engineering. Throughout her time at school, Kalina fenced for the RMC varsity team. Some highlights included captaining for her last two years and representing Canada at the World Military games in South Korea.

After school Kalina began her flight training in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. She completed her Phase 3 training on the CT-140 Harvard II and transitioned to Qualified Flight Instructor at the school for her first posting. Kalina earned her Masters of Science in Aeronautics education throughout her instructor tour.

Kalina’s current posting is with 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron in Comox, British Columbia. She currently flies the CP-140 Aurora, which is a platform used for anti-submarine warfare and surveillance.

Kalina’s husband is also a pilot at 407 Squadron, where they are fortunate to work and fly together. They tackle the challenges of maintaining a healthy work-life balance as a team while progressing through their careers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Melissa Reyes has served over thirty-three years as a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) officer, and is now specializing in space-related capabilities and tasks for the CAF. Her various military experiences, around the world and Canada, have given her a sound knowledge of satellites and space systems, operations, and management.

Among her many assignments, Melissa has worked at the Canadian Space Agency, 12th Space Warning Squadron Greenland, North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Headquarters, and Kandahar Air Field (Afghanistan). She is presently employed as the Section Head for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Space Systems, within the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Melissa received her Master of Sciences Degree, specializing in Remote Sensing, from the University of Colorado (2008), and completed the International Space University / Space Studies Program (2012). Melissa has been involved in various Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives and employment equity groups throughout her career and is honoured to be part of this event for the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology.

Lieutenant Commander Calley Gray has served 18 years in the Royal Canadian Navy as a Marine Systems Engineer. She has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada and a double masters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture.

LCdr Gray spent 4 years serving onboard various Canadian Patrol Frigates culminating in her appointment as Head of the Marine Systems Engineering Department on HMCS WINNIPEG. She deployed with the Canadian Navy to South America and South-East Asia, participating in detection and monitoring operations to facilitate the interdiction of illicit drug trafficking. Her naval deployments also included conducting training, exercises and engagements with foreign navies and other international security partners, and providing security for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

As a strong advocate for women in engineering, she championed institutional change within the naval engineering occupation by helping to remove barriers for women’s career progression. In December 2020, she deployed to Iraq as the Gender Advisor for NATO Mission Iraq. During her 9 month deployment, she contributed to advancements in Iraq’s Second National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security by working with international experts and the Iraqi Ministry of Defence to open various educational and professional development opportunities to women.

Now back in Canada, LCdr Gray is the Gender Advisor for Chief Professional Conduct and Culture which has been stood up to lead a fundamental transformation in the way in which system misconduct (sexual misconduct, hateful conduct, systemic barriers, harassment, violence, discrimination, employment inequity, unconscious biases, and abuse of power in the workplace) is understood and addressed in the Canadian Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.

CO-MODERATORS

Dr. Poh Tan, SCWIST President (co-moderator) is an entrepreneur, stem cell scientist, educator, 2x TEDx speaker, and mother of two boys. With a Ph.D in stem cell biology, Poh is currently completing a second PhD with a focus in science education. She is the founder and CEO of STEMedge Academy where she creates programs to support high school students develop research capacity in STEM. She returns to the Board of Directors as SCWIST’s President.

Ms. Avneet Sandhu (co-moderator) works as a communications officer for the Department of National Defence and is responsible for assisting with diversity and inclusion files. She supports the Advisory Council on Diversity to Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy Maritime Forces Pacific Formation (MARPAC) and Joint Task Force Pacific (JTFP), and the Advisory Group on Intersectionality to the Commander of Military Personnel Generation.

Avneet also supports announcements and engagements for senior officers and connects women-led organizations, university faculty, and students with the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. Avneet graduated from Simon Fraser University in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies and a minor in Education. Avneet is an incoming JD candidate and is the co-founder, vice-president, and director of external relations for She Connects – a nationwide mentorship program for girls in high school.

Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Café Scientifique January – April 2023 events

I received (via email) a January 12, 2023 notice from Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Café Scientifique about their Winter/Spring 2023 events, Note: I have made some changes to the formatting by adding descriptive text from the event pages,

Welcome to a brand new year of SFU Cafe Scientifique discussions.  We have put together an amazing line-up of speakers and topics for January-April 2023.  Below are some details and registrations links.  Zoom invites will be sent to those who register.  We look forward to engaging with you then.

All sessions are on Tuesdays 5:00-6:30pm PST over Zoom

January 31, 2023

So you think you can forge? with Dr. Nabyl Merbouh, SFU Chemistry

[Join Dr. Nabyl Merbouh as he discusses how to spot art forgeries using electron microscopy and X-ray spectroscopy tools and techniques.

Forgeries are often only discernible by the keen eye of a trained expert. Sometimes, even a keen eye cannot be adequate. Join Dr. Nabyl Merbouh as he discusses how electron microscopy-based and X-ray spectroscopy-based tools and techniques are being used for identifying microscopic to atomic-scale differences in samples to identify real vs. fake art.]

*ETA January 30, 2023: Dr. Byron Gates, Associate Chair, Department of Chemistry
Canada Research Chair, Tier II in Surface Chemistry (2005-2014) will be co-presenting.*

February 21, 2023

Watermelon Snow: Science, Art and a lone polar bear with Dr. Lynne Quarmby, SFU Molecular Biology and Biochemistry

[Dr. Lynne Quarmby speaks on her personal journey and concerns about climate change that led to her interest in watermelon snow.

Watermelon-red snow is a tell-tale sign of springtime blooms of microscopic algae on alpine and arctic snow. Under the microscope, the algae are stunningly beautiful, but still, why study them? Dr. Lynne Quarmby will take us on a journey from molecular biology to the high Arctic and home again, illuminating the science of cells, of the climate, and of snow algae, while offering a reminder that much about the human experience is beyond reason. In this talk, we will hear about one scientist’s search for what it means to live a good life at a time of increasing desperation about the future.]

March 28, 2023

What should we know about Quantum Technologies? with Dr. Kero Lau, SFU Physics

[Join Dr. Kero Lau as he explains how quantum technologies work and how we use them in our daily lives

About two decades ago scientists realized that using the quantum properties of fundamental particles has the potential to dramatically improve the performance of our technology. Since then, significant progress has been made towards using quantum systems, and we are now very close to realizing practical quantum devices. In this talk, Dr. Kero Lau will give us a scientific overview of the principle behind quantum technologies, and how they could impact our day-to-day life.]

April 25, 2023

The Pathways from our DNA to our Brain with Dr. Lloyd Elliott, SFU Statistics and Actuarial Science

[Dr. Lloyd Elliott explains how our DNA affects brain function and neurodegenerative diseases.]

Quite a start to 2023!

China and nanotechnology

it’s been quite a while since I’ve come across any material about Nanopolis, a scientific complex in China devoted to nanotechnology (as described in my September 26, 2014 posting titled, More on Nanopolis in China’s Suzhou Industrial Park). Note: The most recent , prior to now, information about the complex is in my June 1, 2017 posting, which mentions China’s Nanopolis and Nano-X endeavours.

Dr. Mahbube K. Siddiki’s March 12, 2022 article about China’s nanotechnology work in the Small Wars Journal provides a situation overview and an update along with a tidbit about Nanopolis, Note: Footnotes for the article have not been included here,

The Nanotechnology industry in China is moving forward, with substantially high levels of funding, a growing talent pool, and robust international collaborations. The strong state commitment to support this field of science and technology is a key advantage for China to compete with leading forces like US, EU, Japan, and Russia. The Chinese government focuses on increasing competitiveness in nanotechnology by its inclusion as strategic industry in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, reconfirming state funding, legislative and regulatory support. Research and development (R&D) in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology is a key component of the ambitious ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative aimed at turning China into a high-tech manufacturing powerhouse [1].

A bright example of Chinese nanotech success is the world’s largest nanotech industrial zone called ‘Nanopolis’, located in the eastern city of Suzhou. This futuristic city houses several private multinationals and new Chinese startups across different fields of nanotechnology and nanoscience. Needless to say, China leads the world’s nanotech startups. Involvement of private sector opens new and unique pools of funding and talent, focusing on applied research. Thus, private sector is leading in R&D in China, where state-sponsored institutions still dominate in all other sectors of rapid industrialization and modernization. From cloning to cancer research, from sea to space exploration, this massive and highly populated nation is using nanoscience and nanotechnology innovation to drive some of the world’s biggest breakthroughs, which is raising concerns in many other competing countries [3].

China has established numerous nanotech research institutions throughout the country over the years. Prominent universities like Peking University, City University of Hong Kong, Nanjing University, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Soochow University, University of Science and Technology of China are the leading institutions that house state of art nanotech research labs to foster study and research of nanoscience and nanotechnology [5]. Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST) and Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics (SINANO) are top among the state sponsored specialized nanoscience and nanotechnology research centers, which have numerous labs and prominent researchers to conduct cutting edge research in the area of nanotechnology. Public-Private collaboration along with the above mentioned research institutes gave birth to many nanotechnology companies, most notable of them are Array Nano, Times Nano, Haizisi Nano Technology, Nano Medtech, Sun Nanotech, XP nano etc. [6]. These companies are thriving on the research breakthroughs China achieved recently in this sector. 

Here are some of the notable achievements in this sector by China. In June 2020, an international team of researchers led by Chinese scientists developed a new form of synthetic and  biodegradable nanoparticle [7]. This modifiable lipid nanoparticle is capable of targeting, penetrating, and altering cells by delivering the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool into a cell. This novel nanoparticle can be used in the treatment of some gene related disorders, as well as other diseases including some forms of cancer in the brain, liver, and lungs. At the State Key Laboratory of Robotics in the northeast city of Shenyang, researchers have developed a laser that produces a tiny gas bubble[8]. This bubble can be used as a tiny “robot” to manipulate and move materials on a nanoscale with microscopic precision. The technology termed as “Bubble bot” promises new possibilities in the field of artificial tissue creation and cloning [9].

In another report [13] it was shown that China surpassed the U.S. in chemistry in 2018 and now leading the later with a significant gap, which might take years to overcome. In the meantime, the country is approaching the US in Earth & Environmental sciences as well as physical sciences. According to the trend China may take five years or less to surpass US. On the contrary, in life science research China is lagging the US quite significantly, which might be attributed to both countries’ priority of sponsorship, in terms of funding. In fact, in the time of CORONA pandemic, US can use this gap for her strategic gain over China.

Outstanding economic growth and rapid technological advances of China over the last three decades have given her an unprecedented opportunity to play a leading role in contemporary geopolitical competition. The United States, and many of her partners and allies in the west as well as in Asia, have a range of concerns about how the authoritarian leadership in Beijing maneuver [sic] its recently gained power and position on the world stage. They are warily observing this regime’s deployment of sophisticated technology like “Nano” in ways that challenge many of their core interests and values all across the world. Though the U.S. is considered the only superpower in the world and has maintained its position as the dominant power of technological innovation for decades, China has made massive investments and swiftly implemented policies that have contributed significantly to its technological innovation, economic growth, military capability, and global influence. In some areas, China has eclipsed, or is on the verge of eclipsing, the United States — particularly in the rapid deployment of certain technologies, and nanoscience and nanotechnology appears to be the leading one. …

[About Dr. Siddiki]

Dr. Siddiki is an instructor of Robotic and Autonomous System in the Department of Multi-Domain Operations at the [US] Army Management Staff College where he teaches and does research in that area. He was Assistant Teaching Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering in the School of Computing and Engineering at University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC). In UMKC, Dr. Siddiki designed, developed and taught undergraduate and graduate level courses, and supervised research works of Ph.D., Master and undergraduate students. Dr. Siddiki’s research interests lie in the area of nano and quantum tech, Robotic and Autonomous System, Green Energy & Power, and their implications in geopolitics.

As you can see in the article, there are anxieties over China’s rising dominance with regard to scientific research and technology; these anxieties have become more visible since I started this blog in 2008.

I was piqued to see that Dr. Siddiki’s article is in the Small Wars Journal and not in a journal focused on science, research, technology, and/or economics. I found this explanation for the term, ‘small wars’ on the journal’s About page (Note: A link has been removed),

Small Wars” is an imperfect term used to describe a broad spectrum of spirited continuation of politics by other means, falling somewhere in the middle bit of the continuum between feisty diplomatic words and global thermonuclear war.  The Small Wars Journal embraces that imperfection.

Just as friendly fire isn’t, there isn’t necessarily anything small about a Small War.

The term “Small War” either encompasses or overlaps with a number of familiar terms such as counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, support and stability operations, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and many flavors of intervention.  Operations such as noncombatant evacuation, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance will often either be a part of a Small War, or have a Small Wars feel to them.  Small Wars involve a wide spectrum of specialized tactical, technical, social, and cultural skills and expertise, requiring great ingenuity from their practitioners.  The Small Wars Manual (a wonderful resource, unfortunately more often referred to than read) notes that:

Small Wars demand the highest type of leadership directed by intelligence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity. Small Wars are conceived in uncertainty, are conducted often with precarious responsibility and doubtful authority, under indeterminate orders lacking specific instructions.

The “three block war” construct employed by General Krulak is exceptionally useful in describing the tactical and operational challenges of a Small War and of many urban operations.  Its only shortcoming is that is so useful that it is often mistaken as a definition or as a type of operation.

Who Are Those Guys?

Small Wars Journal is NOT a government, official, or big corporate site. It is run by Small Wars Foundation, a non-profit corporation, for the benefit of the Small Wars community of interest. The site principals are Dave Dilegge (Editor-in-Chief) and Bill Nagle (Publisher), and it would not be possible without the support of myriad volunteers as well as authors who care about this field and contribute their original works to the community. We do this in our spare time, because we want to.  McDonald’s pays more.  But we’d rather work to advance our noble profession than watch TV, try to super-size your order, or interest you in a delicious hot apple pie.  If and when you’re not flipping burgers, please join us.

The overview and analysis provided by Dr. Siddiki is very interesting to me and absent any conflicting data, I’m assuming it’s solid work. As for the anxiety that permeates the article, this is standard. All countries are anxious about who’s winning the science and technology race. If memory serves, you can find an example of the anxiety in C.P. Snow’s classic lecture and book, Two Cultures (the book is “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”) given/published in 1959. The British scientific establishment was very concerned that it was being eclipsed by the US and by the Russians.

3D-printed ‘smart helmets’ for the military

Caption: The Rice University-designed smart helmet is intended to modernize standard-issue military helmets by 3D-printing a nanomaterial-enhanced exoskeleton with embedded sensors to actively protect the brain against kinetic or directed-energy effects. Credit: Rice University

Hopefully this will limit the number of head injuries suffered by soldiers.

Some years ago I was at dinner with friends when one of them, a doctor at the local hospital, told me that the Canadian military, which was in Afghanistan at the time, was dealing with a high number of head injury cases, in part due to the soldiers’ own protective gear.

For example, the protective helmet meant you were less likely to receive a catastrophic injury to your cranium (e.g., metal cracking through bone) but your head would be shaken and that isn’t good for anyone’s brain.

It would seem this project at Rice University (Texas, US) is designed to limit the problem of your own protective gear causing injury, from a November 10, 2021 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

Rice University researchers have received $1.3 million from the Office of Naval Research through the Defense Research University Instrumentation Program to create the world’s first printable military “smart helmet” using industrial-grade 3D printers. 

Led by principal investigator Paul Cherukuri, executive director of Rice’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, the Smart Helmet program aims to modernize standard-issue military helmets by 3D-printing a nanomaterial-enhanced exoskeleton with embedded sensors to actively protect the brain against kinetic or directed-energy effects. 

Rice will utilize Carbon Inc.’s L1 printer to develop a strong-but-light military-grade helmet that incorporates advances in materials, image processing, artificial intelligence, haptic feedback and energy storage. The printer enables rapid prototyping that in turn simplifies the process of incorporating the sensors, cameras, batteries and wiring harnesses the program requires, Cherukuri said. 

“Current helmets have evolved little since the last century and are still heavy, bulky, passive devices,” he said. “Because of advances in sensors and additive manufacturing, we’re now reimagining the helmet as a 3D-printed, AI-enabled, ‘always-on’ wearable that detects threats near or far and is capable of launching countermeasures to protect soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Essentially, we’re building J.A.R.V.I.S.”

The Smart Helmet program will use technology drawn from projects like the FlatCam, a system developed by co-investigator and electrical and computer engineer Ashok Veeraraghavan and his colleagues that incorporates sophisticated image processing to eliminate the need for bulky lenses, as well as Cherukuri’s Teslaphoresis, a kind of tractor beam for nanomaterials that could help create physical and electromagnetic shields inside the helmets. 

“A smart helmet task force has been assembled from some of the finest minds at Rice to tackle the challenge of creating a self-contained, intelligent system that protects the warfighter at all times,” Cherukuri said. The task force includes the labs of materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan, civil and environmental engineer and Rice Provost Reginald DesRoches, mechanical engineer Marcia O’Malley, chemist James Tour and Veeraraghavan.

While the location of the L1 has yet to be determined, a Carbon M2 printer will be located at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), where it will be available for projects other than the helmet. Rice undergraduates who design and build their mandated capstone projects at the OEDK are taking part in the helmet project, working alongside graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to develop the heads-up display.   

“We’ve got a lot of innovative tech in university labs that has never seen the light of day,” Cherukuri said. “We’re simply developing that technology into a device that gives the men and women protecting our country a real chance at coming home safe and sound. This is for them.”

The Storywrangler, tool exploring billions of social media messages, could predict political & financial turmoil

Being able to analyze Twitter messages (tweets) in real-time is amazing given what I wrote in this January 16, 2013 posting titled: “Researching tweets (the Twitter kind)” about the US Library of Congress and its attempts to access tweets for scholars,”

At least one of the reasons no one has received access to the tweets is that a single search of the archived (2006- 2010) tweets alone would take 24 hours, [emphases mine] …

So, bravo to the researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM). A July 16, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily makes the announcement,

For thousands of years, people looked into the night sky with their naked eyes — and told stories about the few visible stars. Then we invented telescopes. In 1840, the philosopher Thomas Carlyle claimed that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Then we started posting on Twitter.

Now scientists have invented an instrument to peer deeply into the billions and billions of posts made on Twitter since 2008 — and have begun to uncover the vast galaxy of stories that they contain.

Caption: UVM scientists have invented a new tool: the Storywrangler. It visualizes the use of billions of words, hashtags and emoji posted on Twitter. In this example from the tool’s online viewer, three global events from 2020 are highlighted: the death of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani; the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The new research was published in the journal Science Advances. Credit: UVM

A July 15, 2021 UVM news release (also on EurekAlert but published on July 16, 2021) by Joshua Brown, which originated the news item, provides more detail abut the work,

“We call it the Storywrangler,” says Thayer Alshaabi, a doctoral student at the University of Vermont who co-led the new research. “It’s like a telescope to look — in real time — at all this data that people share on social media. We hope people will use it themselves, in the same way you might look up at the stars and ask your own questions.”

The new tool can give an unprecedented, minute-by-minute view of popularity, from rising political movements to box office flops; from the staggering success of K-pop to signals of emerging new diseases.

The story of the Storywrangler — a curation and analysis of over 150 billion tweets–and some of its key findings were published on July 16 [2021] in the journal Science Advances.

EXPRESSIONS OF THE MANY

The team of eight scientists who invented Storywrangler — from the University of Vermont, Charles River Analytics, and MassMutual Data Science [emphasis mine]– gather about ten percent of all the tweets made every day, around the globe. For each day, they break these tweets into single bits, as well as pairs and triplets, generating frequencies from more than a trillion words, hashtags, handles, symbols and emoji, like “Super Bowl,” “Black Lives Matter,” “gravitational waves,” “#metoo,” “coronavirus,” and “keto diet.”

“This is the first visualization tool that allows you to look at one-, two-, and three-word phrases, across 150 different languages [emphasis mine], from the inception of Twitter to the present,” says Jane Adams, a co-author on the new study who recently finished a three-year position as a data-visualization artist-in-residence at UVM’s Complex Systems Center.

The online tool, powered by UVM’s supercomputer at the Vermont Advanced Computing Core, provides a powerful lens for viewing and analyzing the rise and fall of words, ideas, and stories each day among people around the world. “It’s important because it shows major discourses as they’re happening,” Adams says. “It’s quantifying collective attention.” Though Twitter does not represent the whole of humanity, it is used by a very large and diverse group of people, which means that it “encodes popularity and spreading,” the scientists write, giving a novel view of discourse not just of famous people, like political figures and celebrities, but also the daily “expressions of the many,” the team notes.

In one striking test of the vast dataset on the Storywrangler, the team showed that it could be used to potentially predict political and financial turmoil. They examined the percent change in the use of the words “rebellion” and “crackdown” in various regions of the world. They found that the rise and fall of these terms was significantly associated with change in a well-established index of geopolitical risk for those same places.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The global story now being written on social media brings billions of voices — commenting and sharing, complaining and attacking — and, in all cases, recording — about world wars, weird cats, political movements, new music, what’s for dinner, deadly diseases, favorite soccer stars, religious hopes and dirty jokes.

“The Storywrangler gives us a data-driven way to index what regular people are talking about in everyday conversations, not just what reporters or authors have chosen; it’s not just the educated or the wealthy or cultural elites,” says applied mathematician Chris Danforth, a professor at the University of Vermont who co-led the creation of the StoryWrangler with his colleague Peter Dodds. Together, they run UVM’s Computational Story Lab.

“This is part of the evolution of science,” says Dodds, an expert on complex systems and professor in UVM’s Department of Computer Science. “This tool can enable new approaches in journalism, powerful ways to look at natural language processing, and the development of computational history.”

How much a few powerful people shape the course of events has been debated for centuries. But, certainly, if we knew what every peasant, soldier, shopkeeper, nurse, and teenager was saying during the French Revolution, we’d have a richly different set of stories about the rise and reign of Napoleon. “Here’s the deep question,” says Dodds, “what happened? Like, what actually happened?”

GLOBAL SENSOR

The UVM team, with support from the National Science Foundation [emphasis mine], is using Twitter to demonstrate how chatter on distributed social media can act as a kind of global sensor system — of what happened, how people reacted, and what might come next. But other social media streams, from Reddit to 4chan to Weibo, could, in theory, also be used to feed Storywrangler or similar devices: tracing the reaction to major news events and natural disasters; following the fame and fate of political leaders and sports stars; and opening a view of casual conversation that can provide insights into dynamics ranging from racism to employment, emerging health threats to new memes.

In the new Science Advances study, the team presents a sample from the Storywrangler’s online viewer, with three global events highlighted: the death of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani; the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The Storywrangler dataset records a sudden spike of tweets and retweets using the term “Soleimani” on January 3, 2020, when the United States assassinated the general; the strong rise of “coronavirus” and the virus emoji over the spring of 2020 as the disease spread; and a burst of use of the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” on and after May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd was murdered.

“There’s a hashtag that’s being invented while I’m talking right now,” says UVM’s Chris Danforth. “We didn’t know to look for that yesterday, but it will show up in the data and become part of the story.”

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

Storywrangler: A massive exploratorium for sociolinguistic, cultural, socioeconomic, and and political timelines using Twitter by Thayer Alshaabi, Jane L. Adams, Michael V. Arnold, Joshua R. Minot, David R. Dewhurst, Andrew J. Reagan, Christopher M. Danforth and Peter Sheridan Dodds. Science Advances 16 Jul 2021: Vol. 7, no. 29, eabe6534DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe6534 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe6534

This paper is open access.

A couple of comments

I’m glad to see they are looking at phrases in many different languages. Although I do experience some hesitation when I consider the two companies involved in this research with the University of Vermont.

Charles River Analytics and MassMutual Data Science would not have been my first guess for corporate involvement but on re-examining the subhead and noting this: “potentially predict political and financial turmoil”, they make perfect sense. Charles River Analytics provides “Solutions to serve the warfighter …”, i.e., soldiers/the military, and MassMutual is an insurance company with a dedicated ‘data science space’ (from the MassMutual Explore Careers Data Science webpage),

What are some key projects that the Data Science team works on?

Data science works with stakeholders throughout the enterprise to automate or support decision making when outcomes are unknown. We help determine the prospective clients that MassMutual should market to, the risk associated with life insurance applicants, and which bonds MassMutual should invest in. [emphases mine]

Of course. The military and financial services. Delightfully, this research is at least partially (mostly?) funded on the public dime, the US National Science Foundation.

The coolest paint

It’s the ‘est’ of it all. The coolest, the whitest, the blackest … Scientists and artists are both pursuing the ‘est’. (More about the pursuit later in this posting.)

In this case, scientists have developed the coolest, whitest paint yet. From an April 16, 2021 news item on Nanowerk,

In an effort to curb global warming, Purdue University engineers have created the whitest paint yet. Coating buildings with this paint may one day cool them off enough to reduce the need for air conditioning, the researchers say.

In October [2020], the team created an ultra-white paint that pushed limits on how white paint can be. Now they’ve outdone that. The newer paint not only is whiter but also can keep surfaces cooler than the formulation that the researchers had previously demonstrated.

“If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses,” said Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering.

Caption: Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab’s sample of the whitest paint on record. Credit: Purdue University/Jared Pike

This is nicely done. Researcher Xiulin Ruan is standing close to a structure that could be said to resemble the sun while in shirtsleeves and sunglasses and holding up a sample of his whitest paint in April (not usually a warm month in Indiana).

An April 15, 2021 Purdue University news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work and hints about its commercial applications both civilian and military,

The researchers believe that this white may be the closest equivalent of the blackest black, “Vantablack,” [emphasis mine; see comments later in this post] which absorbs up to 99.9% of visible light. The new whitest paint formulation reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight – compared with the 95.5% of sunlight reflected by the researchers’ previous ultra-white paint – and sends infrared heat away from a surface at the same time.

Typical commercial white paint gets warmer rather than cooler. Paints on the market that are designed to reject heat reflect only 80%-90% of sunlight and can’t make surfaces cooler than their surroundings.

The team’s research paper showing how the paint works publishes Thursday (April 15 [2021]) as the cover of the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

What makes the whitest paint so white

Two features give the paint its extreme whiteness. One is the paint’s very high concentration of a chemical compound called barium sulfate [emphasis mine] which is also used to make photo paper and cosmetics white.

“We looked at various commercial products, basically anything that’s white,” said Xiangyu Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on this project as a Purdue Ph.D. student in Ruan’s lab. “We found that using barium sulfate, you can theoretically make things really, really reflective, which means that they’re really, really white.”

The second feature is that the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes in the paint. How much each particle scatters light depends on its size, so a wider range of particle sizes allows the paint to scatter more of the light spectrum from the sun.

“A high concentration of particles that are also different sizes gives the paint the broadest spectral scattering, which contributes to the highest reflectance,” said Joseph Peoples, a Purdue Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering.

There is a little bit of room to make the paint whiter, but not much without compromising the paint.”Although a higher particle concentration is better for making something white, you can’t increase the concentration too much. The higher the concentration, the easier it is for the paint to break or peel off,” Li said.

How the whitest paint is also the coolest

The paint’s whiteness also means that the paint is the coolest on record. Using high-accuracy temperature reading equipment called thermocouples, the researchers demonstrated outdoors that the paint can keep surfaces 19 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than their ambient surroundings at night. It can also cool surfaces 8 degrees Fahrenheit below their surroundings under strong sunlight during noon hours.

The paint’s solar reflectance is so effective, it even worked in the middle of winter. During an outdoor test with an ambient temperature of 43 degrees Fahrenheit, the paint still managed to lower the sample temperature by 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

This white paint is the result of six years of research building on attempts going back to the 1970s to develop radiative cooling paint as a feasible alternative to traditional air conditioners.

Ruan’s lab had considered over 100 different materials, narrowed them down to 10 and tested about 50 different formulations for each material. Their previous whitest paint was a formulation made of calcium carbonate, an earth-abundant compound commonly found in rocks and seashells.

The researchers showed in their study that like commercial paint, their barium sulfate-based paint can potentially handle outdoor conditions. The technique that the researchers used to create the paint also is compatible with the commercial paint fabrication process.

Patent applications for this paint formulation have been filed through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. This research was supported by the Cooling Technologies Research Center at Purdue University and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research [emphasis mine] through the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (Grant No.427 FA9550-17-1-0368). The research was performed at Purdue’s FLEX Lab and Ray W. Herrick Laboratories and the Birck Nanotechnology Center of Purdue’s Discovery Park.

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

Ultrawhite BaSO4 Paints and Films for Remarkable Daytime Subambient Radiative Cooling by Xiangyu Li, Joseph Peoples, Peiyan Yao, and Xiulin Ruan. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2021, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.1c02368 Publication Date:April 15, 2021 © 2021 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Vantablack and the ongoing ‘est’ of blackest

Vantablack’s 99.9% light absorption no longer qualifies it for the ‘blackest black’. A newer standard for the ‘blackest black’ was set by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology at 99.99% light absorption with its N.I.S.T. ultra-black in 2019, although that too seems to have been bested.

I have three postings covering the Vantablack and blackest black story,

The third posting (December 2019) provides a brief summary of the story along with what was the latest from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. There’s also a little bit about the ‘The Redemption of Vanity’ an art piece demonstrating the blackest black material from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they state has 99.995% (at least) absorption of light.

From a science perspective, the blackest black would be useful for space exploration.

I am surprised there doesn’t seem to have been an artistic rush to work with the whitest white. That impression may be due to the fact that the feuds get more attention than quiet work.

Dark side to the whitest white?

Andrew Parnell, research fellow in physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield (UK), mentions a downside to obtaining the material needed to produce this cooling white paint in a June 10, 2021 essay on The Conversation (h/t Fast Company), Note: Links have been removed,

… this whiter-than-white paint has a darker side. The energy required to dig up raw barite ore to produce and process the barium sulphite that makes up nearly 60% of the paint means it has a huge carbon footprint. And using the paint widely would mean a dramatic increase in the mining of barium.

Parnell ends his essay with this (Note: Links have been removed),

Barium sulphite-based paint is just one way to improve the reflectivity of buildings. I’ve spent the last few years researching the colour white in the natural world, from white surfaces to white animals. Animal hairs, feathers and butterfly wings provide different examples of how nature regulates temperature within a structure. Mimicking these natural techniques could help to keep our cities cooler with less cost to the environment.

The wings of one intensely white beetle species called Lepidiota stigma appear a strikingly bright white thanks to nanostructures in their scales, which are very good at scattering incoming light. This natural light-scattering property can be used to design even better paints: for example, by using recycled plastic to create white paint containing similar nanostructures with a far lower carbon footprint. When it comes to taking inspiration from nature, the sky’s the limit.

A lobster’s stretch and strength in a hydrogel

An MIT team has fabricated a hydrogel-based material that mimics the structure of the lobster’s underbelly, the toughest known hydrogel found in nature. Credits: Courtesy of the researchers

I love this lobster. In most photos, they’re food. This shows off the lobster as a living entity while showcasing its underbelly, which is what this story is all about. From an April 23, 2021 news item on phys.org (Note: A link has been removed),

A lobster’s underbelly is lined with a thin, translucent membrane that is both stretchy and surprisingly tough. This marine under-armor, as MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] engineers reported in 2019, is made from the toughest known hydrogel in nature, which also happens to be highly flexible. This combination of strength and stretch helps shield a lobster as it scrabbles across the seafloor, while also allowing it to flex back and forth to swim.

Now a separate MIT team has fabricated a hydrogel-based material that mimics the structure of the lobster’s underbelly. The researchers ran the material through a battery of stretch and impact tests, and showed that, similar to the lobster underbelly, the synthetic material is remarkably “fatigue-resistant,” able to withstand repeated stretches and strains without tearing.

If the fabrication process could be significantly scaled up, materials made from nanofibrous hydrogels could be used to make stretchy and strong replacement tissues such as artificial tendons and ligaments.

The team’s results are published in the journal Matter. The paper’s MIT co-authors include postdocs Jiahua Ni and Shaoting Lin; graduate students Xinyue Liu and Yuchen Sun; professor of aeronautics and astronautics Raul Radovitzky; professor of chemistry Keith Nelson; mechanical engineering professor Xuanhe Zhao; and former research scientist David Veysset Ph.D. ’16, now at Stanford University; along with Zhao Qin, assistant professor at Syracuse University, and Alex Hsieh of the Army Research Laboratory.

An April 23, 2021 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jennifer Chu, which originated the news item, offers an overview of the groundwork for this latest research along with technical detail about the latest work,

Nature’s twist

In 2019, Lin and other members of Zhao’s group developed a new kind of fatigue-resistant material made from hydrogel — a gelatin-like class of materials made primarily of water and cross-linked polymers. They fabricated the material from ultrathin fibers of hydrogel, which aligned like many strands of gathered straw when the material was repeatedly stretched. This workout also happened to increase the hydrogel’s fatigue resistance.

“At that moment, we had a feeling nanofibers in hydrogels were important, and hoped to manipulate the fibril structures so that we could optimize fatigue resistance,” says Lin.

In their new study, the researchers combined a number of techniques to create stronger hydrogel nanofibers. The process starts with electrospinning, a fiber production technique that uses electric charges to draw ultrathin threads out of polymer solutions. The team used high-voltage charges to spin nanofibers from a polymer solution, to form a flat film of nanofibers, each measuring about 800 nanometers — a fraction of the diameter of a human hair.

They placed the film in a high-humidity chamber to weld the individual fibers into a sturdy, interconnected network, and then set the film in an incubator to crystallize the individual nanofibers at high temperatures, further strengthening the material.

They tested the film’s fatigue-resistance by placing it in a machine that stretched it repeatedly over tens of thousands of cycles. They also made notches in some films and observed how the cracks propagated as the films were stretched repeatedly. From these tests, they calculated that the nanofibrous films were 50 times more fatigue-resistant than the conventional nanofibrous hydrogels.

Around this time, they read with interest a study by Ming Guo, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who characterized the mechanical properties of a lobster’s underbelly. This protective membrane is made from thin sheets of chitin, a natural, fibrous material that is similar in makeup to the group’s hydrogel nanofibers.

Guo found that a cross-section of the lobster membrane revealed sheets of chitin stacked at 36-degree angles, similar to twisted plywood, or a spiral staircase. This rotating, layered configuration, known as a bouligand structure, enhanced the membrane’s properties of stretch and strength.

“We learned that this bouligand structure in the lobster underbelly has high mechanical performance, which motivated us to see if we could reproduce such structures in synthetic materials,” Lin says.

Angled architecture

Ni, Lin, and members of Zhao’s group teamed up with Nelson’s lab and Radovitzky’s group in MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and Qin’s lab at Syracuse University, to see if they could reproduce the lobster’s bouligand membrane structure using their synthetic, fatigue-resistant films.

“We prepared aligned nanofibers by electrospinning to mimic the chinic fibers existed in the lobster underbelly,” Ni says.

After electrospinning nanofibrous films, the researchers stacked each of five films in successive, 36-degree angles to form a single bouligand structure, which they then welded and crystallized to fortify the material. The final product measured 9 square centimeters and about 30 to 40 microns thick — about the size of a small piece of Scotch tape.

Stretch tests showed that the lobster-inspired material performed similarly to its natural counterpart, able to stretch repeatedly while resisting tears and cracks — a fatigue-resistance Lin attributes to the structure’s angled architecture.

“Intuitively, once a crack in the material propagates through one layer, it’s impeded by adjacent layers, where fibers are aligned at different angles,” Lin explains.

The team also subjected the material to microballistic impact tests with an experiment designed by Nelson’s group. They imaged the material as they shot it with microparticles at high velocity, and measured the particles’ speed before and after tearing through the material. The difference in velocity gave them a direct measurement of the material’s impact resistance, or the amount of energy it can absorb, which turned out to be a surprisingly tough 40 kilojoules per kilogram. This number is measured in the hydrated state.

“That means that a 5-millimeter steel ball launched at 200 meters per second would be arrested by 13 millimeters of the material,” Veysset says. “It is not as resistant as Kevlar, which would require 1 millimeter, but the material beats Kevlar in many other categories.”

It’s no surprise that the new material isn’t as tough as commercial antiballistic materials. It is, however, significantly sturdier than most other nanofibrous hydrogels such as gelatin and synthetic polymers like PVA. The material is also much stretchier than Kevlar. This combination of stretch and strength suggests that, if their fabrication can be sped up, and more films stacked in bouligand structures, nanofibrous hydrogels may serve as flexible and tough artificial tissues.

“For a hydrogel material to be a load-bearing artificial tissue, both strength and deformability are required,” Lin says. “Our material design could achieve these two properties.”

If you have the time and the interest, do check out the April 23, 2021 MIT news release, which features a couple of informative GIFs.

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

Strong fatigue-resistant nanofibrous hydrogels inspired by lobster underbelly by Jiahua Ni, Shaoting Lin, Zhao Qin, David Veysset, Xinyue Liu, Yuchen Sun, Alex J. Hsieh, Raul Radovitzky, Keith A. Nelson, Xuanhe Zhao. Matter, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.matt.2021.03.023 Published April 23, 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

US Army researchers’ vision for artificial intelligence and ethics

The US Army peeks into a near future where humans and some forms of artificial intelligence (AI) work together in battle and elsewhere. From a February 3, 2021 U.S. Army Research Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert but published on February 16, 2021),

The Army of the future will involve humans and autonomous machines working together to accomplish the mission. According to Army researchers, this vision will only succeed if artificial intelligence is perceived to be ethical.

Researchers, based at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, now known as DEVCOM, Army Research Laboratory, Northeastern University and the University of Southern California, expanded existing research to cover moral dilemmas and decision making that has not been pursued elsewhere.

This research, featured in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, tackles the fundamental challenge of developing ethical artificial intelligence, which, according to the researchers, is still mostly understudied.

“Autonomous machines, such as automated vehicles and robots, are poised to become pervasive in the Army,” said DEVCOM ARL researcher Dr. Celso de Melo, who is located at the laboratory’s ARL West regional site in Playa Vista, California. “These machines will inevitably face moral dilemmas where they must make decisions that could very well injure humans.”

For example, de Melo said, imagine that an automated vehicle is driving in a tunnel and suddenly five pedestrians cross the street; the vehicle must decide whether to continue moving forward injuring the pedestrians or swerve towards the wall risking the driver.

What should the automated vehicle do in this situation?

Prior work has framed these dilemmas in starkly simple terms, framing decisions as life and death, de Melo said, neglecting the influence of risk of injury to the involved parties on the outcome.

“By expanding the study of moral dilemmas to consider the risk profile of the situation, we significantly expanded the space of acceptable solutions for these dilemmas,” de Melo said. “In so doing, we contributed to the development of autonomous technology that abides to acceptable moral norms and thus is more likely to be adopted in practice and accepted by the general public.”

The researchers focused on this gap and presented experimental evidence that, in a moral dilemma with automated vehicles, the likelihood of making the utilitarian choice – which minimizes the overall injury risk to humans and, in this case, saves the pedestrians – was moderated by the perceived risk of injury to pedestrians and drivers.

In their study, participants were found more likely to make the utilitarian choice with decreasing risk to the driver and with increasing risk to the pedestrians. However, interestingly, most were willing to risk the driver (i.e., self-sacrifice), even if the risk to the pedestrians was lower than to the driver.

As a second contribution, the researchers also demonstrated that participants’ moral decisions were influenced by what other decision makers do – for instance, participants were less likely to make the utilitarian choice, if others often chose the non-utilitarian choice.

“This research advances the state-of-the-art in the study of moral dilemmas involving autonomous machines by shedding light on the role of risk on moral choices,” de Melo said. “Further, both of these mechanisms introduce opportunities to develop AI that will be perceived to make decisions that meet moral standards, as well as introduce an opportunity to use technology to shape human behavior and promote a more moral society.”

For the Army, this research is particularly relevant to Army modernization, de Melo said.

“As these vehicles become increasingly autonomous and operate in complex and dynamic environments, they are bound to face situations where injury to humans is unavoidable,” de Melo said. “This research informs how to navigate these moral dilemmas and make decisions that will be perceived as optimal given the circumstances; for example, minimizing overall risk to human life.”

Moving in to the future, researchers will study this type of risk-benefit analysis in Army moral dilemmas and articulate the corresponding practical implications for the development of AI systems.

“When deployed at scale, the decisions made by AI systems can be very consequential, in particular for situations involving risk to human life,” de Melo said. “It is critical that AI is able to make decisions that reflect society’s ethical standards to facilitate adoption by the Army and acceptance by the general public. This research contributes to realizing this vision by clarifying some of the key factors shaping these standards. This research is personally important because AI is expected to have considerable impact to the Army of the future; however, what kind of impact will be defined by the values reflected in that AI.”

The last time I had an item on a similar topic from the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) it was in a March 26, 2018 posting; scroll down to the subhead, US Army (about 50% of the way down),

“As machine agents become more sophisticated and independent, it is critical for their human counterparts to understand their intent, behaviors, reasoning process behind those behaviors, and expected outcomes so the humans can properly calibrate their trust [emphasis mine] in the systems and make appropriate decisions,” explained ARL’s Dr. Jessie Chen, senior research psychologist.

This latest work also revolves around the issue of trust according to the last sentence in the 2021 study paper (link and citation to follow),

… Overall, these questions emphasize the importance of the kind of experimental work presented here, as it has the potential to shed light on people’s preferences about moral behavior in machines, inform the design of autonomous machines people are likely to trust and adopt, and, perhaps, even introduce an opportunity to promote a more moral society. [emphases mine]

From trust to adoption to a more moral society—that’s an interesting progression. For another more optimistic view of how robots and AI can have positive impacts there’s my March 29, 2021 posting, Little Lost Robot and humane visions of our technological future

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

Risk of Injury in Moral Dilemmas With Autonomous Vehicles by Celso M. de Melo, Stacy Marsella, and Jonathan Gratch. Front. Robot. AI [Frontiers in Robotics and AI], 20 January 2021 DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/frobt.2020.572529

This paper is in an open access journal.

Use kombucha to produce bacterial cellulose

The combination of the US Army, bacterial cellulose, and kombucha seems a little unusual. However, this January 26, 2021 U.S. Army Research Laboratory news release (also on EurekAlert) provides some clues as to how this combination makes sense,

Kombucha tea, a trendy fermented beverage, inspired researchers to develop a new way to generate tough, functional materials using a mixture of bacteria and yeast similar to the kombucha mother used to ferment tea.

With Army funding, using this mixture, also called a SCOBY, or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Imperial College London produced cellulose embedded with enzymes that can perform a variety of functions, such as sensing environmental pollutants and self-healing materials.

The team also showed that they could incorporate yeast directly into the cellulose, creating living materials that could be used to purify water for Soldiers in the field or make smart packaging materials that can detect damage.

“This work provides insights into how synthetic biology approaches can harness the design of biotic-abiotic interfaces with biological organization over multiple length scales,” said Dr. Dawanne Poree, program manager, Army Research Office, an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, now known as DEVCOM, Army Research Laboratory. “This is important to the Army as this can lead to new materials with potential applications in microbial fuel cells, sense and respond systems, and self-reporting and self-repairing materials.”

The research, published in Nature Materials was funded by ARO [Army Research Office] and the Army’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies [ISN] at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The U.S. Army established the ISN in 2002 as an interdisciplinary research center devoted to dramatically improving the protection, survivability, and mission capabilities of the Soldier and Soldier-supporting platforms and systems.

“We foresee a future where diverse materials could be grown at home or in local production facilities, using biology rather than resource-intensive centralized manufacturing,” said Timothy Lu, an MIT associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering.

Researchers produced cellulose embedded with enzymes, creating living materials that could be used to purify water for Soldiers in the field or make smart packaging materials that can detect damage. These fermentation factories, which usually contain one species of bacteria and one or more yeast species, produce ethanol, cellulose, and acetic acid that gives kombucha tea its distinctive flavor.

Most of the wild yeast strains used for fermentation are difficult to genetically modify, so the researchers replaced them with a strain of laboratory yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. They combined the yeast with a type of bacteria called Komagataeibacter rhaeticus that their collaborators at Imperial College London had previously isolated from a kombucha mother. This species can produce large quantities of cellulose.

Because the researchers used a laboratory strain of yeast, they could engineer the cells to do any of the things that lab yeast can do, such as producing enzymes that glow in the dark, or sensing pollutants or pathogens in the environment. The yeast can also be programmed so that they can break down pollutants/pathogens after detecting them, which is highly relevant to Army for chem/bio defense applications.

“Our community believes that living materials could provide the most effective sensing of chem/bio warfare agents, especially those of unknown genetics and chemistry,” said Dr. Jim Burgess ISN program manager for ARO.

The bacteria in the culture produced large-scale quantities of tough cellulose that served as a scaffold. The researchers designed their system so that they can control whether the yeast themselves, or just the enzymes that they produce, are incorporated into the cellulose structure. It takes only a few days to grow the material, and if left long enough, it can thicken to occupy a space as large as a bathtub.

“We think this is a good system that is very cheap and very easy to make in very large quantities,” said MIT graduate student and the paper’s lead author, Tzu-Chieh Tang. To demonstrate the potential of their microbe culture, which they call Syn-SCOBY, the researchers created a material incorporating yeast that senses estradiol, which is sometimes found as an environmental pollutant. In another version, they used a strain of yeast that produces a glowing protein called luciferase when exposed to blue light. These yeasts could be swapped out for other strains that detect other pollutants, metals, or pathogens.

The researchers are now looking into using the Syn-SCOBY system for biomedical or food applications. For example, engineering the yeast cells to produce antimicrobials or proteins that could benefit human health.

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

Living materials with programmable functionalities grown from engineered microbial co-cultures by Charlie Gilbert, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Wolfgang Ott, Brandon A. Dorr, William M. Shaw, George L. Sun, Timothy K. Lu & Tom Ellis. Nature Materials (2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-020-00857-5 Published: 11 January 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Spider web-like electronics with graphene

A spiderweb-inspired fractal design is used for hemispherical 3D photodetection to replicate the vision system of arthropods. (Sena Huh image)

This image is pretty and I’m pretty sure it’s an illustration and not a real photodetection system. Regardless, an Oct. 21, 2020 news item on Nanowerk describes the research into producing a real 3D hemispheric photodetector for biomedical imaging (Note: A link has been removed),

Purdue University innovators are taking cues from nature to develop 3D photodetectors for biomedical imaging.

The researchers used some architectural features from spider webs to develop the technology. Spider webs typically provide excellent mechanical adaptability and damage-tolerance against various mechanical loads such as storms.

“We employed the unique fractal design of a spider web for the development of deformable and reliable electronics that can seamlessly interface with any 3D curvilinear surface,” said Chi Hwan Lee, a Purdue assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. “For example, we demonstrated a hemispherical, or dome-shaped, photodetector array that can detect both direction and intensity of incident light at the same time, like the vision system of arthropods such as insects and crustaceans.”

The Purdue technology uses the structural architecture of a spider web that exhibits a repeating pattern. This work is published in Advanced Materials (“Fractal Web Design of a Hemispherical Photodetector Array with Organic-Dye-Sensitized Graphene Hybrid Composites”).

An Oct. 21, 2020 Purdue University news release by Chris Adam, which originated the news item, delves further into the work,

Lee said this provides unique capabilities to distribute externally induced stress throughout the threads according to the effective ratio of spiral and radial dimensions and provides greater extensibility to better dissipate force under stretching. Lee said it also can tolerate minor cuts of the threads while maintaining overall strength and function of the entire web architecture.

“The resulting 3D optoelectronic architectures are particularly attractive for photodetection systems that require a large field of view and wide-angle antireflection, which will be useful for many biomedical and military imaging purposes,” said Muhammad Ashraful Alam, the Jai N. Gupta Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Alam said the work establishes a platform technology that can integrate a fractal web design with system-level hemispherical electronics and sensors, thereby offering several excellent mechanical adaptability and damage-tolerance against various mechanical loads.

“The assembly technique presented in this work enables deploying 2D deformable electronics in 3D architectures, which may foreshadow new opportunities to better advance the field of 3D electronic and optoelectronic devices,” Lee said.

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

Fractal Web Design of a Hemispherical Photodetector Array with Organic‐Dye‐Sensitized Graphene Hybrid Composites by Eun Kwang Lee, Ratul Kumar Baruah, Jung Woo Leem, Woohyun Park, Bong Hoon Kim, Augustine Urbas, Zahyun Ku, Young L. Kim, Muhammad Ashraful Alam, Chi Hwan Lee. Advanced Materials Volume 32, Issue 46 November 19, 2020 2004456 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202004456 First published online: 12 October 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.