Category Archives: health and safety

It’s about sound: (1) Earable computing? (2) The end of the cacophony in hospitals?

I have two items, both concerning sound but in very different ways.

Phones in your ears

Researchers at the University of Illinois are working on smartphones you can put in your ears like you do an earbud. The work is in its very earliest stages as they are trying to establish a new field of research. There is a proposed timeline,

Caption: Earable computing timeline, according to SyNRG. Credit: Romit Roy Choudhury, The Grainger College of Engineering

Here’s more from a December 2, 2020 University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering news release (also on EurekAlert but published on December 15, 2020),

CSL’s [Coordinated Science Laboratory] Systems and Networking Research Group (SyNRG) is defining a new sub-area of mobile technology that they call “earable computing.” The team believes that earphones will be the next significant milestone in wearable devices, and that new hardware, software, and apps will all run on this platform.

“The leap from today’s earphones to ‘earables’ would mimic the transformation that we had seen from basic phones to smartphones,” said Romit Roy Choudhury, professor in electrical and computer engineering (ECE). “Today’s smartphones are hardly a calling device anymore, much like how tomorrow’s earables will hardly be a smartphone accessory.”

Instead, the group believes tomorrow’s earphones will continuously sense human behavior, run acoustic augmented reality, have Alexa and Siri whisper just-in-time information, track user motion and health, and offer seamless security, among many other capabilities.

The research questions that underlie earable computing draw from a wide range of fields, including sensing, signal processing, embedded systems, communications, and machine learning. The SyNRG team is on the forefront of developing new algorithms while also experimenting with them on real earphone platforms with live users.

Computer science PhD student Zhijian Yang and other members of the SyNRG group, including his fellow students Yu-Lin Wei and Liz Li, are leading the way. They have published a series of papers in this area, starting with one on the topic of hollow noise cancellation that was published at ACM SIGCOMM 2018. Recently, the group had three papers published at the 26th Annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking (ACM MobiCom) on three different aspects of earables research: facial motion sensing, acoustic augmented reality, and voice localization for earphones.

In Ear-AR: Indoor Acoustic Augmented Reality on Earphones, the group looks at how smart earphone sensors can track human movement, and, depending on the user’s location, play 3D sounds in the ear.

“If you want to find a store in a mall,” says Zhijian, “the earphone could estimate the relative location of the store and play a 3D voice that simply says ‘follow me.’ In your ears, the sound would appear to come from the direction in which you should walk, as if it’s a voice escort.”

The second paper, EarSense: Earphones as a Teeth Activity Sensor, looks at how earphones could sense facial and in-mouth activities such as teeth movements and taps, enabling a hands-free modality of communication to smartphones. Moreover, various medical conditions manifest in teeth chatter, and the proposed technology would make it possible to identify them by wearing earphones during the day. In the future, the team is planning to look into analyzing facial muscle movements and emotions with earphone sensors.

The third publication, Voice Localization Using Nearby Wall Reflections, investigates the use of algorithms to detect the direction of a sound. This means that if Alice and Bob are having a conversation, Bob’s earphones would be able to tune into the direction Alice’s voice is coming from.

“We’ve been working on mobile sensing and computing for 10 years,” said Wei. “We have a lot of experience to define this emerging landscape of earable computing.”

Haitham Hassanieh, assistant professor in ECE, is also involved in this research. The team has been funded by both NSF [US National Science Foundation] and NIH [National Institutes of Health], as well as companies like Nokia and Google. See more at the group’s Earable Computing website.

Noise hurts hospital caregivers and patients

A December 11, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article features one of the corporation’s Day 6 Radio programmes. This one was about proposed sound design in hospitals as imagined by musician Yoko Sen and, on a converging track, professor of applied psychology, Judy Edworthy,

As an ambient electronic musician, Yoko Sen spends much of her time building intricate, soothing soundscapes. 

But when she was hospitalized in 2012, she found herself immersed in a very different sound environment.

Already panicked by her health condition, she couldn’t tune out the harsh tones of the medical machinery in her hospital room.

Instead, she zeroed in on two machines — a patient monitor and a bed fall alarm. Their piercing tones had blended together to create a diminished fifth, a musical interval so offensive that it was banned in medieval churches.

Sen went on to start Sen Sound, a Washington, D.C.-based social enterprise dedicated to improving the sound of hospitals. 

‘Alarms are ignored, missed’

The volume of noise in today’s hospitals isn’t just unpleasant. It can also put patients’ health at risk.

According to Judy Edworthy, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Plymouth, the sheer number of alarms going off each day can spark a sort of auditory burnout among doctors and nurses.

“Alarms are ignored, missed, or generally just not paid attention to,” says Edworthy.

In a hospital environment that’s also inundated with announcements from overhead speakers, ringing phones, trolleys, and all other manner of insidious background sound, it can be difficult for staff to accurately locate and differentiate between the alarms.

Worse yet, in many hospitals, many of the alarms ringing out across the ward are false. Studies have shown that as many as 99 per cent of clinical alarms are inaccurate

The resulting problem has become so widespread that a term has been coined to describe it: alarm fatigue.

Raising the alarm

Sen’s company, launched in 2016, has partnered with hospitals and design incubators and even collaborates directly with medical device companies seeking to redesign their alarms.

Over the years, Sen has interviewed countless patients and hospital staff who share her frustration with noise. 

But when she first sat down with the engineers responsible for the devices’ design, she found that they tended to treat the sound of their devices as an “afterthought.” 

“When people first started to develop medical devices … people thought it was a good idea to have one or two sounds to demonstrate or to indicate when, let’s say for example, the patient’s temperature … exceeded some kind of range,” she [Edworthy] said.

“There wasn’t really any design put into this; it was just a sound that people thought would get your attention by being very loud and aversive and so on.”

Edworthy, who has spent decades studying medical alarm design, took things one step further this summer. In July, the International Standards Organization approved a new set of alarm designs, created by Edworthy, that mimic the natural hospital environment.

The standards, which are accepted by Health Canada, include an electronic heartbeat sound for alarms related to cardiac issues; and a rattling pillbox for drug administration. 

Her [Sen’s] team continues to work with companies to improve the sound of existing medical devices. But she has also begun to think more deeply about the long-term future of hospital sound — especially as it relates to the end-of-life experience.

“A study shows that hearing can be the last sense to go when we die,” says Sen. 

“It’s really beyond upsetting to think that many people end up dying in acute care hospitals and there are all these medical devices.”

As part of her interviews with patients, Sen has asked what sounds they would most like to hear at the end of their lives — and she discovered a common theme in their responses.

“I asked this question in many different countries, but they are all sounds that symbolize life,” said Sen. 

“Sounds of nature, sound of water, voices of loved ones. It’s all the sounds of life that people say they want to hear.”

As the pandemic continues to affect hospitals around the world, those efforts have taken on a new resonance — and Sen hopes the current crisis might serve as an opportunity to help usher in a more healing soundscape.

“My own health crisis almost gave me a new pathway in life,” she said.

There’s an embedded audio file from the Day 6 radio programme featuring this material on sound design and hospitals and there’s an embedded video of Sen delivery a talk about her work in the December 11, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article.

Sen and Edworthy give hope for a less noisy future and better care in hospitals for the living and the dying. Here’s a link to Sen Sound.

Living plants detect arsenic by way of embedded nanosensors

There’s a lot of arsenic in the world and it’s often a factor in making water undrinkable. When that water is used in farming It also pollutes soil and enters food-producing plants. A December 11, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announces research into arsenic detectors in plants,

Researchers have developed a living plant-based sensor that can in real-time detect and monitor levels of arsenic, a highly toxic heavy metal, in the soil. Arsenic pollution is a major threat to humans and ecosystems in many Asia Pacific countries.

Caption: Non-destructive plant nanobionic sensor embedded within leaves to report arsenic levels within plants to portable electronics, enabling real-time monitoring of arsenic uptake in living plants. Credit: Dr. Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew

I was not able to find the source for the news item but I did locate something close. From a December 13, 2020 Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), also on EurekAlert,

Scientists from the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) research group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore, have engineered a novel type of plant nanobionic optical sensor that can detect and monitor, in real time, levels of the highly toxic heavy metal arsenic in the underground environment. This development provides significant advantages over conventional methods used to measure arsenic in the environment and will be important for both environmental monitoring and agricultural applications to safeguard food safety, as arsenic is a contaminant in many common agricultural products such as rice, vegetables, and tea leaves.

Arsenic and its compounds are a serious threat to humans and ecosystems. Long-term exposure to arsenic in humans can cause a wide range of detrimental health effects, including cardiovascular disease such as heart attack, diabetes, birth defects, severe skin lesions, and numerous cancers including those of the skin, bladder, and lung. Elevated levels of soil arsenic as a result of anthropogenic activities such as mining and smelting are also harmful to plants, inhibiting growth and resulting in substantial crop losses.

Food crops can absorb arsenic from the soil, leading to contamination of food and produce consumed by humans. Arsenic in underground environments can also contaminate groundwater and other underground water sources, the long-term consumption of which can cause severe health issues. As such, developing accurate, effective, and easy-to-deploy arsenic sensors is important to protect both the agriculture industry and wider environmental safety.

The novel optical nanosensors exhibit changes in their fluorescence intensity upon detecting arsenic. Embedded in plant tissues, with no detrimental effects on the plant, these sensors provide a nondestructive way to monitor the internal dynamics of arsenic taken up by plants from the soil. This integration of optical nanosensors within living plants enables the conversion of plants into self-powered detectors of arsenic from their natural environment, marking a significant upgrade from the time- and equipment-intensive arsenic sampling methods of current conventional methods.

“Our plant-based nanosensor is notable not only for being the first of its kind, but also for the significant advantages it confers over conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels in the below-ground environment, requiring less time, equipment, and manpower,” says Lew. “We envision that this innovation will eventually see wide use in the agriculture industry and beyond. I am grateful to SMART DiSTAP and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), both of which were instrumental in idea generation and scientific discussion as well as research funding for this work.”

Besides detecting arsenic in rice and spinach, the team also used a species of fern, Pteris cretica, which can hyperaccumulate arsenic. This fern species can absorb and tolerate high levels of arsenic with no detrimental effect — engineering an ultrasensitive plant-based arsenic detector, capable of detecting very low concentrations of arsenic, as low as 0.2 parts per billion. In contrast, the regulatory limit for arsenic detectors is 10 parts per billion. Notably, the novel nanosensors can also be integrated into other species of plants. The researchers say this is the first successful demonstration of living plant-based sensors for arsenic and represents a groundbreaking advancement that could prove highly useful in both agricultural research (e.g., to monitor arsenic taken up by edible crops for food safety) and general environmental monitoring.

Previously, conventional methods of measuring arsenic levels included regular field sampling, plant tissue digestion, extraction, and analysis using mass spectrometry. These methods are time-consuming, require extensive sample treatment, and often involve the use of bulky and expensive instrumentation. The new approach couples nanoparticle sensors with plants’ natural ability to efficiently extract analytes via the roots and transport them. This allows for the detection of arsenic uptake in living plants in real time, with portable, inexpensive electronics such as a portable Raspberry Pi platform equipped with a charge-coupled device camera akin to a smartphone camera.

Co-author, DiSTAP co-lead principal investigator, and MIT Professor Michael Strano adds, “This is a hugely exciting development, as, for the first time, we have developed a nanobionic sensor that can detect arsenic — a serious environmental contaminant and potential public health threat. With its myriad advantages over older methods of arsenic detection, this novel sensor could be a game-changer, as it is not only more time-efficient, but also more accurate and easier to deploy than older methods. It will also help plant scientists in organizations such as TLL to further produce crops that resist uptake of toxic elements. Inspired by TLL’s recent efforts to create rice crops which take up less arsenic, this work is a parallel effort to further support SMART DiSTAP’s efforts in food security research, constantly innovating and developing new technological capabilities to improve Singapore’s food quality and safety.”

The research is carried out by SMART and supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) Singapore under its Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE) program.

Led by MIT’s Strano and Singapore co-lead principal investigator Professor Chua Nam Hai, DiSTAP is one of the five Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs) in SMART. The DiSTAP program addresses deep problems in food production in Singapore and the world by developing a suite of impactful and novel analytical genetic and biosynthetic technologies. The goal is to fundamentally change how plant biosynthetic pathways are discovered, monitored, engineered, and ultimately translated to meet the global demand for food and nutrients. Scientists from MIT, TTL, Nanyang Technological University, and National University of Singapore are collaboratively developing new tools for the continuous measurement of important plant metabolites and hormones for novel discovery, deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways in ways not yet possible, especially in the context of green leafy vegetables; leveraging these new techniques to engineer plants with highly desirable properties for global food security, including high yield density production, drought and pathogen resistance and biosynthesis of high-value commercial products; developing tools for producing hydrophobic food components in industry-relevant microbes; developing novel microbial and enzymatic technologies to produce volatile organic compounds that can protect and/or promote growth of leafy vegetables; and applying these technologies to improve urban farming.

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

Plant Nanobionic Sensors for Arsenic Detection by Tedrick Thomas Salim Lew, Minkyung Park, Jianqiao Cui, Michael S. Strano. Advanced Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202005683 First published: 26 November 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Longer lasting N95 masks thanks to a synchrotron in Saskatchewan (Canada)

A Nov. 3, 2020 Canadian Light Sources (CLS; also known as a synchrotron) news release by Erin Matthews (also on the University of Saskatchewan website), received via email, announces a technique that may make N95 masks last longer,

Through a collaboration between the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac)—both national research facilities at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) —scientists hope to understand the structural changes happening inside N95 respirator masks after being sterilized for reuse.  

Cutting-edge techniques unique to the CLS enable the team to analyze minute details in the masks that would be impossible to see with other methods. CLS Industrial Scientist Toby Bond is using X-rays produced by the synchrotron to see the tightly woven, microscopic fibres that are crucial to the filtering power of N95 respirators.  

N95 respirators get their name from their ability to filter at least 95 per cent of particles circulating in the air. These particular masks are used by frontline health-care workers for protection against COVID-19.  

However, N95 masks that were intended for one-time use were in short supply globally during the height of the pandemic this spring, and continue to be chronically unavailable in most parts of the world. As a result, health-care agencies and researchers have been looking for ways to sterilize masks for reuse to help ensure an emergency supply. 

While previous research has found that certain methods work better at maintaining the integrity of the masks following decontamination, Bond and colleagues want to understand why this happens and how to extend the lifespan of these critical masks. 

“We want to use the unique tools we have at the CLS to look at the fibres that actually do the filtering,” Bond said. “We use a specialized X-ray microscope to take tiny CT scans before and after exposing the N95 masks to different decontamination protocols. Previous research has shown that certain methods work better than others, but we don’t currently know what’s going on inside the mask at a microscopic level.”  

Bond is working to determine why the N95 mask fibres degrade. This information would enable manufacturers to design more resilient masks and help the medical industry move towards personal protective equipment that is designed to be reusable. 

“One thing that’s unique about a synchrotron CT scan is that we can scan a tiny fraction of the mask at high magnification without having to cut small pieces out of it. This is what allows us to do before-and-after imaging, since we can decontaminate the mask in its real-world environment without altering it,” Bond added. 

One method for decontaminating N95 masks, called vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP), is used to sterilize rooms and equipment in VIDO-InterVac.  

“With the outbreak of the pandemic and the recognized potential worldwide shortage of respirators, we were approached by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to investigate the possibility of using VHP decontamination on N95 respirators to mitigate a potential shortage,” said VIDO-InterVac Biosafety Officer Tracey Thue.  

To date, VIDO-InterVac has sterilized more than 13,000 masks. Studies have demonstrated that N95 masks can undergo multiple VHP decontamination cycles without affecting mask integrity. 

When CLS Laboratory Co-ordinator Burke Barlow suggested that the two groups collaborate, Thue offered to run three styles of N95 respirators through their VHP system for Bond’s research. Bond compared the VHP-treated masks to others that he had treated with Moist Heat Incubation (MHI) and autoclaving. 

Autoclaving is a common decontamination method that uses hot pressurized steam to sterilize medical devices, however it is the most damaging method and certain masks do not survive even one autoclave sterilization cycle. MHI is gentler than the autoclave, but the masks still become less effective after repeated cycles. VHP is considered to be the best method for decontamination of N95s, but it requires specialized equipment that is not widely available in hospitals. 

Bond and his colleagues are using the BMIT beamline at the CLS, a one-of-a-kind tool in North America, to image the inside of the masks in three dimensions without damaging them. The researchers can then look at the structure of individual fibres in the masks to see how they change during decontamination. They can identify shifts in mask fibres as small as a few microns, which is a measurement much smaller than the width of a human hair.  

Analyses over the next few weeks will help clarify what effect these shifts have on the performance of the mask. Aerodynamic and fluid simulations conducted at the CLS will help show how the changes in mask fibre structure affect air flow.   

“Preliminary results show there is a gradual unravelling of the fibres during repeated exposure to MHI in some masks,” said Bond. “This is in contrast to autoclaving the masks, which immediately causes a very significant unravelling after a single decontamination.” 

“In some cases, this unravelling doesn’t affect the filtration, but it does affect the overall structure of the mask, causing it to fit poorly and no longer seal properly to the user’s face,” he added. “This indicates that manufacturers could potentially make an autoclavable mask by changing the structural parts of the mask and leaving the filtration layer as it is.” 

“In terms of Toby’s research at the CLS, being able to go down to the microscopic level and visualize changes in the material or lack there-of is another valuable piece of information,” Thue said. 

Bond emphasized that it’s not just tools and equipment that makes this kind of research possible at the CLS, but also the access to the vast research network at USask.  

“The CLS is a fantastic place to do research like this, since we’re a national facility with a broad network of researchers,” said Bond. “We’ve been able to work with our colleagues at VIDO-InterVac (which is just down the road on the USask campus), and we also have contacts in industry and academia who work in this sector that have helped us with the experiments.” 

Oddly, there is no reference to a published paper for this work or mention of future research into how manufacturers might make use of this information.

Adding nanofiber membranes results in cloth masks’ with 99% efficacy

An Oct. 22, 2020 news item on Nanowerk heralds a simple, inexpensive method for making your mask more protective,

The cloth masks many are sporting these days offer some protection against COVID-19. However, they typically provide much less than the professional N95 masks used by healthcare workers.

That may soon change. Recently, students from BYU’s [Brigham Young University; Utah, US] College of Engineering teamed up with Nanos Foundation [emphasis mine] to develop a nanofiber membrane that can be sandwiched between the cloth pieces in a homemade mask.

A few questions and a video

There is a video but you might find it helpful to know that when one of the students refers to OSHA she means the US Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA). As for the ‘electrospinning’ I’m not sure how accessible that kind of equipment is, which calls into question how inexpensive and easy it would be to adopt this new mask insert. Fingers crossed that this will be as easy and effective as they seem to be suggesting,

The rest of the news

An October 21, 2020 BYU news release by Christie Allen, which originated the news item, delves into the technical details,

While today’s typical cloth mask might block fewer than 50% of virus particles, the membrane — which can be made using simple, inexpensive materials — will be able to block 90 to 99% of particles, increasing effectiveness [emphasis mine] while preserving breathability.

The membranes are made through a process called “electrospinning,” which involves dissolving a polymer plastic in a solution and then using an electrical current to move a droplet of the polymer downward through a needle. As the droplet accelerates, it stretches into a very small fiber that retains a static charge.

“Those nanofibers randomly land on a collector to create a sort of non-woven mesh,” said Katie Varela, a BYU mechanical engineering senior on the project team.

The remaining charge in the fibers is beneficial, she explained, because virus particles also have a static charge. “When they come close to your mask, they will be statically attracted to the mask and will not be able to go through it, and so it prevents you from inhaling viruses.”

In addition to the dramatic improvement in efficacy [emphasis mine], another key benefit of the nanofiber masks is that unlike traditional N95 masks, which have a reputation for being hot and stuffy, they allow for the circulation of (filtered) air, water and heat.

“Not only is it hard to find an N95 mask these days, but the best mask is useless if you won’t wear it,” said Will Vahle, director at Nanos Foundation. “Our nanofiber membranes are six times easier to breathe through than existing N95 masks, making them cooler, drier, and more comfortable.”

The group plans to make the instructions for creating the membranes open source. They hope that non-profit organizations will use the instructions to set up local sites where people can bring in their masks to be fitted with a membrane. They also hope other engineers will use their work as a springboard to produce more effective filters.

“We had our own proprietary nanofiber production process,” said Vahle of the project’s origins, “but we realized, hey, we have some expertise in this — why don’t we get this together and release a version that anybody can do?”

When Vahle and his colleagues approached BYU to collaborate on the project, BYU “jumped at the opportunity,” Vahle said. In addition to providing funding and facilities, the university connected the company with “fantastic students, who’ve really demonstrated an incredible work ethic and a drive to help people in need.”

Using cutting-edge science to make an immediate positive impact has also been highly valuable for the BYU students on the project.

“This experience makes things very real,” said Varela. “I’m really glad that I’m able to help with this fight against COVID-19 to help people all around the world and in my community.”

I’ve highlighted ‘effectiveness’ and ‘efficacy’, which are not synonyms although they’re often used that way. I can recall being quite surprised on discovering they were not, since I had, up to that point, confused them for many, many years. There’s a good description of the differences in a November 17, 2018 posting on the Public Health Notes website,

[downloaded from https://www.publichealthnotes.com/efficiency-vs-effectiveness-how-do-they-differ/]

So, the difference is between controlled environments for efficacy and real life for effectiveness, in this case, a mask.

Can you get one of these improved masks?

The Nanos Foundation has a dedicated 95+ Mask webpage answering that question,

Worldwide Accessibility

Current technology has not been updated since the 1970s. The Nanos technology is inexpensive, portable and accessible.

Our Open-Source process turns common plastics into highly effective respiratory PPE [personal protective equipment].

‘Electrospinning’ nanofibers onto common cloth turns the cloth into a filter → sew the cloth into a mask to produce an effective top notch respirator.

You can use our designs, or bring your own design – 95+ is about the nanofiber membrane that turns the ‘cloth face covering’ into a respirator. Just make sure to use a design that creates a good seal or fit against the face.

The 95+ Process Requires Only A Few Simple Things

The kinds of things that can be easily found, like an old television, paint thinner & recycled plastics

I didn’t find any instructions for how to ‘electrospin’ with an old television, paint thinner, and plastics to make the nanofiber membrane. Perhaps one is required to donate before receiving instructions.

Interestingly, Nanos Foundation has three locations:

  • Greenville, AL, USA
  • Providence, RI, USA
  • Montreal, Canada

I was not expecting a Canadian connection.

Efficectiveness?

While this ‘easy to produce’ plastic insert seems very useful, it’s not clear to me what happens when the mask has to be washed or cleaned in some fashion. How long these nanofiber membranes active? Do we have to keep replacing the nanofiber membranes thereby adding more plastic to the environment?

Printing wearable circuits onto skin

It seems that this new technique for creating wearable electronics will be more like getting a permanent tattoo where the circuits are applied directly to your skin as opposed to being like a temporary tattoo where the circuits are printed onto a substrate and then applied to then, worn on your skin.

Caption: On-body sensors, such as electrodes and temperature sensors, were directly printed and sintered on the skin surface. Credit: Adapted from ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces 2020, DOI: 10.1021/acsami.0c11479

An Oct. 14, 2020 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert) announced this latest development in wearable electronics,

Wearable electronics are getting smaller, more comfortable and increasingly capable of interfacing with the human body. To achieve a truly seamless integration, electronics could someday be printed directly on people’s skin. As a step toward this goal, researchers reporting in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces have safely placed wearable circuits directly onto the surface of human skin to monitor health indicators, such as temperature, blood oxygen, heart rate and blood pressure.

The latest generation of wearable electronics for health monitoring combines soft on-body sensors with flexible printed circuit boards (FPCBs) for signal readout and wireless transmission to health care workers. However, before the sensor is attached to the body, it must be printed or lithographed onto a carrier material, which can involve sophisticated fabrication approaches. To simplify the process and improve the performance of the devices, Peng He, Weiwei Zhao, Huanyu Cheng and colleagues wanted to develop a room-temperature method to sinter metal nanoparticles onto paper or fabric for FPCBs and directly onto human skin for on-body sensors. Sintering — the process of fusing metal or other particles together — usually requires heat, which wouldn’t be suitable for attaching circuits directly to skin.

The researchers designed an electronic health monitoring system that consisted of sensor circuits printed directly on the back of a human hand, as well as a paper-based FPCB attached to the inside of a shirt sleeve. To make the FPCB part of the system, the researchers coated a piece of paper with a novel sintering aid and used an inkjet printer with silver nanoparticle ink to print circuits onto the coating. As solvent evaporated from the ink, the silver nanoparticles sintered at room temperature to form circuits. A commercially available chip was added to wirelessly transmit the data, and the resulting FPCB was attached to a volunteer’s sleeve. The team used the same process to sinter circuits on the volunteer’s hand, except printing was done with a polymer stamp. As a proof of concept, the researchers made a full electronic health monitoring system that sensed temperature, humidity, blood oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and electrophysiological signals and analyzed its performance. The signals obtained by these sensors were comparable to or better than those measured by conventional commercial devices. 

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

Wearable Circuits Sintered at Room Temperature Directly on the Skin Surface for Health Monitoring by Ling Zhang, Hongjun Ji, Houbing Huang, Ning Yi, Xiaoming Shi, Senpei Xie, Yaoyin Li, Ziheng Ye, Pengdong Feng, Tiesong Lin, Xiangli Liu, Xuesong Leng, Mingyu Li, Jiaheng Zhang, Xing Ma, Peng He, Weiwei Zhao, and Huanyu Cheng. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2020, 12, 40, 45504–45515 Publication Date:September 11, 2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.0c11479 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Could synergistic action of engineered nanoparticles have a health impact?

Synergistic action can be difficult to study especially when you’re looking at nanoparticles which could be naturally occurring and/or engineered. I believe this study is focused on engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) and I think it’s the first one I’ve seen that examines synergistic action of any kind. So, bravo to the scientists for tackling a very ambitious project.

An October 1, 2020 news item on phys.org describes this work from Denmark,

Nanoparticles are used in a wide range of products and manufacturing processes because the properties of a material can change dramatically when the material comes in nano-form.

They can be used, for example, to purify wastewater and to transport medicine around the body. They are also added to, for example, socks, pillows, mattresses, phone covers and refrigerators to supply the items with an antibacterial surface.

Much research has been done on how nanoparticles affect humans and the environment and a number of studies have shown that nanoparticles can disrupt or damage our cells.

This is confirmed by a new study that has also looked at how cells react when exposed to more than one kind of nano particle at the same time.

An October 1, 2020 University of Southern Denmark press release (also on EurekAlert) by Birgitte Svennevig, which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

The lead author of the study is Barbara Korzeniowska from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at SDU. The head of research is Professor Frank Kjeldsen from the same department.

His research into metal nanoparticles is supported by a European Research Grant of DKK 14 million.

“Throughout a lifetime, we are exposed to many different kinds of nano-particles, and we should investigate how the combination of different nano-particles affects us and also whether an accumulation through life can harm us,” says Barbara Korzeniowska.

She herself became interested in the subject when her little daughter one day was going in the bathtub and got a rubber duck as a toy.

– It turned out that it had been treated with nano-silver, probably to keep it free of bacteria, but small children put their toys in their mouths, and she could thus ingest nano-silver. That is highly worrying when research shows that nano-silver can damage human cells, she says.

In her new study, she looked at nano-silver and nano-platinum. She has investigated their individual effect and whether exposure of both types of nanoparticles results in a synergy effect in two types of brain cells.

– There are almost no studies of the synergy effect of nano particles, so it is important to get started with these studies, she says.

She chose nano-silver because it is already known to be able to damage cells and nano-platinum, because nano-platinum is considered to be so-called bio-inert; i.e. has a minimal interaction with human tissue.

The nanoparticles were tested on two types of brain cells: astrocytes and endothelial cells. Astrocytes are supporter cells in the central nervous system, which i.a. helps to supply the nervous system with nutrients and repair damage to the brain. Endothelial cells sit on the inside of the blood vessels and transport substances from the bloodstream to the brain.

When the endothelial cells were exposed to nano-platinum, nothing happened. When exposed to nano-silver, their ability to divide deteriorated. When exposed to both nano-silver and nano-platinum, the effect was amplified, and they died in large numbers. Furthermore, their defense mechanisms decreased, and they had difficulty communicating with each other.

– So even though nano-platinum alone does not do harm, something drastic happens when they are combined with a different kind of nano-particle, says Frank Kjeldsen.

The astrocytes were more hardy and reacted “only” with impaired ability to divide when exposed to both types of nano-particles.

An earlier study, conducted by Frank Kjeldsen, has shown a dramatic synergy effect of silver nanoparticles and cadmium ions, which are found naturally all around us on Earth.

In that study, 72 % of the cells died (in this study it was intestinal cells) as they were exposed to both nano-silver and cadmium ions. When they were only exposed to nano-silver, 25% died. When exposed to cadmium ions only, 12% died.

We are involuntarily exposed

– Little is known about how large concentrations of nano-particles are used in industrial products. We also do not know what size particles they use – size also has an effect on whether they can enter a cell, says Barbara Korzeniowska and continues:

– But we know that a lot of people are involuntarily exposed to nano-particles, and that there can be lifelong exposure.

There are virtually no restrictions on adding nanoparticles to products. In the EU, however, manufacturers must have an approval if they want to use nanoparticles in products with antibacterial properties. In Denmark, they must also declare nano-content in such products on the label.

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

The Cytotoxicity of Metal Nanoparticles Depends on Their Synergistic Interactions by Barbara Korzeniowska, Micaella P. Fonseca, Vladimir Gorshkov, Lilian Skytte, Kaare L. Rasmussen, Henrik D. Schrøder, Frank Kjeldsen. Particle Volume 37, Issue 8, August 2020,. 2000135 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/ppsc.202000135 First published: 06 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Can tattoos warn you of health dangers?

I think I can safely say that Carson J. Bruns, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an electronic tattoo enthusiast. His Sept. 24, 2020 essay on electronic tattoos for The Conversation (also found on Fast Company) outlines a very rosy view of a future where health monitoring is constant and visible on your skin (Note: Links have been removed),

In the sci-fi novel “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, body art has evolved into “constantly shifting mediatronic tattoos” – in-skin displays powered by nanotech robopigments. In the 25 years since the novel was published, nanotechnology has had time to catch up, and the sci-fi vision of dynamic tattoos is starting to become a reality.

The first examples of color-changing nanotech tattoos have been developed over the past few years, and they’re not just for body art. They have a biomedical purpose. Imagine a tattoo that alerts you to a health problem signaled by a change in your biochemistry, or to radiation exposure that could be dangerous to your health.

You can’t walk into a doctor’s office and get a dynamic tattoo yet, but they are on the way. …

In 2017, researchers tattooed pigskin, which had been removed from the pig, with molecular biosensors that use color to indicate sodium, glucose or pH levels in the skin’s fluids.

In 2019, a team of researchers expanded on that study to include protein sensing and developed smartphone readouts for the tattoos. This year, they also showed that electrolyte levels could be detected with fluorescent tattoo sensors.

In 2018, a team of biologists developed a tattoo made of engineered skin cells that darken when they sense an imbalance of calcium caused by certain cancers. They demonstrated the cancer-detecting tattoo in living mice.

My lab is looking at tech tattoos from a different angle. We are interested in sensing external harms, such as ultraviolet radiation. UV exposure in sunlight and tanning beds is the main risk factor for all types of skin cancer. Nonmelanoma skin cancers are the most common malignancies in the U.S., Australia and Europe.

I served as the first human test subject for these tattoos. I created “solar freckles” on my forearm – invisible spots that turned blue under UV exposure and reminded me when to wear sunscreen. My lab is also working on invisible UV-protective tattoos that would absorb UV light penetrating through the skin, like a long-lasting sunscreen just below the surface. We’re also working on “thermometer” tattoos using temperature-sensitive inks. Ultimately, we believe tattoo inks could be used to prevent and diagnose disease.

Temporary transfer tattoos are also undergoing a high-tech revolution. Wearable electronic tattoos that can sense electrophysiological signals like heart rate and brain activity or monitor hydration and glucose levels from sweat are under development. They can even be used for controlling mobile devices, for example shuffling a music playlist at the touch of a tattoo, or for luminescent body art that lights up the skin.

The advantage of these wearable tattoos is that they can use battery-powered electronics. The disadvantage is that they are much less permanent and comfortable than traditional tattoos. Likewise, electronic devices that go underneath the skin are being developed by scientists, designers and biohackers alike, but they require invasive surgical procedures for implantation.

Tattoos injected into the skin offer the best of both worlds: minimally invasive, yet permanent and comfortable. [emphasis mine] New needle-free tattooing methods that fire microscopic ink droplets into the skin are now in development. Once perfected they will make tattooing quicker and less painful.

The color-changing tattoos in development are also going to open the door to a new kind of dynamic body art. Now that tattoo colors can be changed by an electromagnetic signal, you’ll soon be able to “program” your tattoo’s design, or switch it on and off. You can proudly display your neck tattoo at the motorcycle rally and still have clear skin in the courtroom.

As researchers develop dynamic tattoos, they’ll need to study the safety [emphasis mine] of the high-tech inks. As it is, little is known about the safety of the more than 100 different pigments used in normal tattoo inks [emphasis mine]. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not exercised regulatory authority over tattoo pigments, citing other competing public health priorities and a lack of evidence of safety problems with the pigments. So U.S. manufacturers can put whatever they want in tattoo inks [emphasis mine] and sell them without FDA approval.

A wave of high-tech tattoos is slowly upwelling, and it will probably keep rising for the foreseeable future. When it arrives, you can decide to surf or watch from the beach. If you do climb on board, you’ll be able to check your body temperature or UV exposure by simply glancing at one of your tattoos.

There are definitely some interesting possibilities, artistic, health, and medical, offered by electronic tattoos. As you may have guessed, I’m not quite the enthusiast that Dr. Bruns seems to be but I could be persuaded, assuming there’s evidence to support the claims.

City University of Hong Kong (CityU) and its anti-bacterial graphene face masks

This looks like interesting work and I think the integration of visual images and embedded video in the news release (on the university website) is particularly well done. I won’t be including all the graphical information here as my focus is the text.

A Sept. 10, 2020 City University of Hong Kong (CityU) press release (also on EurekAlert) announces a greener, more effective face mask,

Face masks have become an important tool in fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, improper use or disposal of masks may lead to “secondary transmission”. A research team from City University of Hong Kong (CityU) has successfully produced graphene masks with an anti-bacterial efficiency of 80%, which can be enhanced to almost 100% with exposure to sunlight for around 10 minutes. Initial tests also showed very promising results in the deactivation of two species of coronaviruses. The graphene masks are easily produced at low cost, and can help to resolve the problems of sourcing raw materials and disposing of non-biodegradable masks.

The research is conducted by Dr Ye Ruquan, Assistant Professor from CityU’s Department of Chemistry, in collaboration with other researchers. The findings were published in the scientific journal ACS Nano, titled “Self-Reporting and Photothermally Enhanced Rapid Bacterial Killing on a Laser-Induced Graphene Mask“.

Commonly used surgical masks are not anti-bacterial. This may lead to the risk of secondary transmission of bacterial infection when people touch the contaminated surfaces of the used masks or discard them improperly. Moreover, the melt-blown fabrics used as a bacterial filter poses an impact on the environment as they are difficult to decompose. Therefore, scientists have been looking for alternative materials to make masks.

Converting other materials into graphene by laser

Dr Ye has been studying the use of laser-induced graphene [emphasis mine] in developing sustainable energy. When he was studying PhD degree at Rice University several years ago, the research team he participated in and led by his supervisor discovered an easy way to produce graphene. They found that direct writing on carbon-containing polyimide films (a polymeric plastic material with high thermal stability) using a commercial CO2 infrared laser system can generate 3D porous graphene. The laser changes the structure of the raw material and hence generates graphene. That’s why it is named laser-induced graphene.

Graphene is known for its anti-bacterial properties, so as early as last September, before the outbreak of COVID-19, producing outperforming masks with laser-induced graphene already came across Dr Ye’s mind. He then kick-started the study in collaboration with researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Nankai University, and other organisations.

Excellent anti-bacterial efficiency

The research team tested their laser-induced graphene with E. coli, and it achieved high anti-bacterial efficiency of about 82%. In comparison, the anti-bacterial efficiency of activated carbon fibre and melt-blown fabrics, both commonly-used materials in masks, were only 2% and 9% respectively. Experiment results also showed that over 90% of the E. coli deposited on them remained alive even after 8 hours, while most of the E. coli deposited on the graphene surface were dead after 8 hours. Moreover, the laser-induced graphene showed a superior anti-bacterial capacity for aerosolised bacteria.

Dr Ye said that more research on the exact mechanism of graphene’s bacteria-killing property is needed. But he believed it might be related to the damage of bacterial cell membranes by graphene’s sharp edge. And the bacteria may be killed by dehydration induced by the hydrophobic (water-repelling) property of graphene.

Previous studies suggested that COVID-19 would lose its infectivity at high temperatures. So the team carried out experiments to test if the graphene’s photothermal effect (producing heat after absorbing light) can enhance the anti-bacterial effect. The results showed that the anti-bacterial efficiency of the graphene material could be improved to 99.998% within 10 minutes under sunlight, while activated carbon fibre and melt-blown fabrics only showed an efficiency of 67% and 85% respectively.

The team is currently working with laboratories in mainland China to test the graphene material with two species of human coronaviruses. Initial tests showed that it inactivated over 90% of the virus in five minutes and almost 100% in 10 minutes under sunlight. The team plans to conduct testings with the COVID-19 virus later.

Their next step is to further enhance the anti-virus efficiency and develop a reusable strategy for the mask. They hope to release it to the market shortly after designing an optimal structure for the mask and obtaining the certifications.

Dr Ye described the production of laser-induced graphene as a “green technique”. All carbon-containing materials, such as cellulose or paper, can be converted into graphene using this technique. And the conversion can be carried out under ambient conditions without using chemicals other than the raw materials, nor causing pollution. And the energy consumption is low.

“Laser-induced graphene masks are reusable. If biomaterials are used for producing graphene, it can help to resolve the problem of sourcing raw material for masks. And it can lessen the environmental impact caused by the non-biodegradable disposable masks,” he added.

Dr Ye pointed out that producing laser-induced graphene is easy. Within just one and a half minutes, an area of 100 cm² can be converted into graphene as the outer or inner layer of the mask. Depending on the raw materials for producing the graphene, the price of the laser-induced graphene mask is expected to be between that of surgical mask and N95 mask. He added that by adjusting laser power, the size of the pores of the graphene material can be modified so that the breathability would be similar to surgical masks.

A new way to check the condition of the mask

To facilitate users to check whether graphene masks are still in good condition after being used for a period of time, the team fabricated a hygroelectric generator. It is powered by electricity generated from the moisture in human breath. By measuring the change in the moisture-induced voltage when the user breathes through a graphene mask, it provides an indicator of the condition of the mask. Experiment results showed that the more the bacteria and atmospheric particles accumulated on the surface of the mask, the lower the voltage resulted. “The standard of how frequently a mask should be changed is better to be decided by the professionals. Yet, this method we used may serve as a reference,” suggested Dr Ye.

Laser-induced graphene (LIG), Rice University, and Dr. Ye were mentioned here in a May 9, 2018 titled: Do you want that coffee with some graphene on toast?

Back to the latest research, read the caption carefully,

Research shows that over 90% of the E. coli deposited on activated carbon fibre (fig c and d) and melt-blown fabrics (fig e and f) remained alive even after 8 hours. In contrast, most of the E. coli deposited on the graphene surface (fig a and b) were dead. (Photo source: DOI number: 10.1021/acsnano.0c05330)

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

Self-Reporting and Photothermally Enhanced Rapid Bacterial Killing on a Laser-Induced Graphene Mask by Libei Huang, Siyu Xu, Zhaoyu Wang, Ke Xue, Jianjun Su, Yun Song, Sijie Chen, Chunlei Zhu, Ben Zhong Tang, and Ruquan Ye. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 9, 12045–12053 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.0c05330 Publication Date:August 11, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Technical University of Munich: embedded ethics approach for AI (artificial intelligence) and storing a tv series in synthetic DNA

I stumbled across two news bits of interest from the Technical University of Munich in one day (Sept. 1, 2020, I think). The topics: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Embedded ethics and artificial intelligence (AI)

An August 27, 2020 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert but published Sept. 1, 2020) features information about a proposal to embed ethicists in with AI development teams,

The increasing use of AI (artificial intelligence) in the development of new medical technologies demands greater attention to ethical aspects. An interdisciplinary team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) advocates the integration of ethics from the very beginning of the development process of new technologies. Alena Buyx, Professor of Ethics in Medicine and Health Technologies, explains the embedded ethics approach.

Professor Buyx, the discussions surrounding a greater emphasis on ethics in AI research have greatly intensified in recent years, to the point where one might speak of “ethics hype” …

Prof. Buyx: … and many committees in Germany and around the world such as the German Ethics Council or the EU Commission High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence have responded. They are all in agreement: We need more ethics in the development of AI-based health technologies. But how do things look in practice for engineers and designers? Concrete solutions are still few and far between. In a joint pilot project with two Integrative Research Centers at TUM, the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence (MSRM) with its director, Prof. Sami Haddadin, and the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), with Prof. Ruth Müller, we want to try out the embedded ethics approach. We published the proposal in Nature Machine Intelligence at the end of July [2020].

What exactly is meant by the “embedded ethics approach”?

Prof.Buyx: The idea is to make ethics an integral part of the research process by integrating ethicists into the AI development team from day one. For example, they attend team meetings on a regular basis and create a sort of “ethical awareness” for certain issues. They also raise and analyze specific ethical and social issues.

Is there an example of this concept in practice?

Prof. Buyx: The Geriatronics Research Center, a flagship project of the MSRM in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, is developing robot assistants to enable people to live independently in old age. The center’s initiatives will include the construction of model apartments designed to try out residential concepts where seniors share their living space with robots. At a joint meeting with the participating engineers, it was noted that the idea of using an open concept layout everywhere in the units – with few doors or individual rooms – would give the robots considerable range of motion. With the seniors, however, this living concept could prove upsetting because they are used to having private spaces. At the outset, the engineers had not given explicit consideration to this aspect.

Prof.Buyx: The approach sounds promising. But how can we avoid “embedded ethics” from turning into an “ethics washing” exercise, offering companies a comforting sense of “being on the safe side” when developing new AI technologies?

That’s not something we can be certain of avoiding. The key is mutual openness and a willingness to listen, with the goal of finding a common language – and subsequently being prepared to effectively implement the ethical aspects. At TUM we are ideally positioned to achieve this. Prof. Sami Haddadin, the director of the MSRM, is also a member of the EU High-Level Group of Artificial Intelligence. In his research, he is guided by the concept of human centered engineering. Consequently, he has supported the idea of embedded ethics from the very beginning. But one thing is certain: Embedded ethics alone will not suddenly make AI “turn ethical”. Ultimately, that will require laws, codes of conduct and possibly state incentives.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper espousing the embedded ethics for AI development approach,

An embedded ethics approach for AI development by Stuart McLennan, Amelia Fiske, Leo Anthony Celi, Ruth Müller, Jan Harder, Konstantin Ritt, Sami Haddadin & Alena Buyx. Nature Machine Intelligence (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-020-0214-1 Published 31 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Religion, ethics and and AI

For some reason embedded ethics and AI got me to thinking about Pope Francis and other religious leaders.

The Roman Catholic Church and AI

There was a recent announcement that the Roman Catholic Church will be working with MicroSoft and IBM on AI and ethics (from a February 28, 2020 article by Jen Copestake for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online (Note: A link has been removed),

Leaders from the two tech giants met senior church officials in Rome, and agreed to collaborate on “human-centred” ways of designing AI.

Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted some people may “think of us as strange bedfellows” at the signing event.

“But I think the world needs people from different places to come together,” he said.

The call was supported by Pope Francis, in his first detailed remarks about the impact of artificial intelligence on humanity.

The Rome Call for Ethics [sic] was co-signed by Mr Smith, IBM executive vice-president John Kelly and president of the Pontifical Academy for Life Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

It puts humans at the centre of new technologies, asking for AI to be designed with a focus on the good of the environment and “our common and shared home and of its human inhabitants”.

Framing the current era as a “renAIssance”, the speakers said the invention of artificial intelligence would be as significant to human development as the invention of the printing press or combustion engine.

UN Food and Agricultural Organization director Qu Dongyu and Italy’s technology minister Paola Pisano were also co-signatories.

Hannah Brockhaus’s February 28, 2020 article for the Catholic News Agency provides some details missing from the BBC report and I found it quite helpful when trying to understand the various pieces that make up this initiative,

The Pontifical Academy for Life signed Friday [February 28, 2020], alongside presidents of IBM and Microsoft, a call for ethical and responsible use of artificial intelligence technologies.

According to the document, “the sponsors of the call express their desire to work together, in this context and at a national and international level, to promote ‘algor-ethics.’”

“Algor-ethics,” according to the text, is the ethical use of artificial intelligence according to the principles of transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security, and privacy.

The signing of the “Rome Call for AI Ethics [PDF]” took place as part of the 2020 assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which was held Feb. 26-28 [2020] on the theme of artificial intelligence.

One part of the assembly was dedicated to private meetings of the academics of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The second was a workshop on AI and ethics that drew 356 participants from 41 countries.

On the morning of Feb. 28 [2020], a public event took place called “renAIssance. For a Humanistic Artificial Intelligence” and included the signing of the AI document by Microsoft President Brad Smith, and IBM Executive Vice-president John Kelly III.

The Director General of FAO, Dongyu Qu, and politician Paola Pisano, representing the Italian government, also signed.

The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, was also present Feb. 28.

Pope Francis canceled his scheduled appearance at the event due to feeling unwell. His prepared remarks were read by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Academy for Life.

You can find Pope Francis’s comments about the document here (if you’re not comfortable reading Italian, hopefully, the English translation which follows directly afterward will be helpful). The Pope’s AI initiative has a dedicated website, Rome Call for AI ethics, and while most of the material dates from the February 2020 announcement, they are keeping up a blog. It has two entries, one dated in May 2020 and another in September 2020.

Buddhism and AI

The Dalai Lama is well known for having an interest in science and having hosted scientists for various dialogues. So, I was able to track down a November 10, 2016 article by Ariel Conn for the futureoflife.org website, which features his insights on the matter,

The question of what it means and what it takes to feel needed is an important problem for ethicists and philosophers, but it may be just as important for AI researchers to consider. The Dalai Lama argues that lack of meaning and purpose in one’s work increases frustration and dissatisfaction among even those who are gainfully employed.

“The problem,” says the Dalai Lama, “is … the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies. … Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”

If feeling needed and feeling useful are necessary for happiness, then AI researchers may face a conundrum. Many researchers hope that job loss due to artificial intelligence and automation could, in the end, provide people with more leisure time to pursue enjoyable activities. But if the key to happiness is feeling useful and needed, then a society without work could be just as emotionally challenging as today’s career-based societies, and possibly worse.

I also found a talk on the topic by The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, first here’s a description from his bio at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values webspace on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website,

… an innovative thinker, philosopher, educator and a polymath monk. He is Director of the Ethics Initiative at the MIT Media Lab and President & CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Venerable Tenzin’s unusual background encompasses entering a Buddhist monastery at the age of ten and receiving graduate education at Harvard University with degrees ranging from Philosophy to Physics to International Relations. He is a Tribeca Disruptive Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Venerable Tenzin serves on the boards of a number of academic, humanitarian, and religious organizations. He is the recipient of several recognitions and awards and received Harvard’s Distinguished Alumni Honors for his visionary contributions to humanity.

He gave the 2018 Roger W. Heyns Lecture in Religion and Society at Stanford University on the topic, “Religious and Ethical Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence.” The video runs over one hour but he is a sprightly speaker (in comparison to other Buddhist speakers I’ve listened to over the years).

Judaism, Islam, and other Abrahamic faiths examine AI and ethics

I was delighted to find this January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event as it brought together a range of thinkers from various faiths and disciplines,

New technologies are transforming our world every day, and the pace of change is only accelerating.  In coming years, human beings will create machines capable of out-thinking us and potentially taking on such uniquely-human traits as empathy, ethical reasoning, perhaps even consciousness.  This will have profound implications for virtually every human activity, as well as the meaning we impart to life and creation themselves.  This conference will provide an introduction for non-specialists to Artificial Intelligence (AI):

What is it?  What can it do and be used for?  And what will be its implications for choice and free will; economics and worklife; surveillance economies and surveillance states; the changing nature of facts and truth; and the comparative intelligence and capabilities of humans and machines in the future? 

Leading practitioners, ethicists and theologians will provide cross-disciplinary and cross-denominational perspectives on such challenges as technology addiction, inherent biases and resulting inequalities, the ethics of creating destructive technologies and of turning decision-making over to machines from self-driving cars to “autonomous weapons” systems in warfare, and how we should treat the suffering of “feeling” machines.  The conference ultimately will address how we think about our place in the universe and what this means for both religious thought and theological institutions themselves.

UTS [Union Theological Seminary] is the oldest independent seminary in the United States and has long been known as a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship.  JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism and a major center for academic scholarship in Jewish studies. The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation that has served as a focal point of global and national activism for peace and social justice since its inception and continues to serve God through word and public witness. The annual Greater Good Gathering, the following week at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, focuses on how technology is changing society, politics and the economy – part of a growing nationwide effort to advance conversations promoting the “greater good.”

They have embedded a video of the event (it runs a little over seven hours) on the January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event page. For anyone who finds that a daunting amount of information, you may want to check out the speaker list for ideas about who might be writing and thinking on this topic.

As for Islam, I did track down this November 29, 2018 article by Shahino Mah Abdullah, a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia,

As the global community continues to work together on the ethics of AI, there are still vast opportunities to offer ethical inputs, including the ethical principles based on Islamic teachings.

This is in line with Islam’s encouragement for its believers to convey beneficial messages, including to share its ethical principles with society.

In Islam, ethics or akhlak (virtuous character traits) in Arabic, is sometimes employed interchangeably in the Arabic language with adab, which means the manner, attitude, behaviour, and etiquette of putting things in their proper places. Islamic ethics cover all the legal concepts ranging from syariah (Islamic law), fiqh ( jurisprudence), qanun (ordinance), and ‘urf (customary practices).

Adopting and applying moral values based on the Islamic ethical concept or applied Islamic ethics could be a way to address various issues in today’s societies.

At the same time, this approach is in line with the higher objectives of syariah (maqasid alsyariah) that is aimed at conserving human benefit by the protection of human values, including faith (hifz al-din), life (hifz alnafs), lineage (hifz al-nasl), intellect (hifz al-‘aql), and property (hifz al-mal). This approach could be very helpful to address contemporary issues, including those related to the rise of AI and intelligent robots.

..

Part of the difficulty with tracking down more about AI, ethics, and various religions is linguistic. I simply don’t have the language skills to search for the commentaries and, even in English, I may not have the best or most appropriate search terms.

Television (TV) episodes stored on DNA?

According to a Sept. 1, 2020 news item on Nanowerk, the first episode of a tv series, ‘Biohackers’ has been stored on synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by a researcher at TUM and colleagues at another institution,

The first episode of the newly released series “Biohackers” was stored in the form of synthetic DNA. This was made possible by the research of Prof. Reinhard Heckel of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and his colleague Prof. Robert Grass of ETH Zürich.

They have developed a method that permits the stable storage of large quantities of data on DNA for over 1000 years.

A Sept. 1, 2020 TUM press release, which originated the news item, proceeds with more detail in an interview format,

Prof. Heckel, Biohackers is about a medical student seeking revenge on a professor with a dark past – and the manipulation of DNA with biotechnology tools. You were commissioned to store the series on DNA. How does that work?

First, I should mention that what we’re talking about is artificially generated – in other words, synthetic – DNA. DNA consists of four building blocks: the nucleotides adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). Computer data, meanwhile, are coded as zeros and ones. The first episode of Biohackers consists of a sequence of around 600 million zeros and ones. To code the sequence 01 01 11 00 in DNA, for example, we decide which number combinations will correspond to which letters. For example: 00 is A, 01 is C, 10 is G and 11 is T. Our example then produces the DNA sequence CCTA. Using this principle of DNA data storage, we have stored the first episode of the series on DNA.

And to view the series – is it just a matter of “reverse translation” of the letters?

In a very simplified sense, you can visualize it like that. When writing, storing and reading the DNA, however, errors occur. If these errors are not corrected, the data stored on the DNA will be lost. To solve the problem, I have developed an algorithm based on channel coding. This method involves correcting errors that take place during information transfers. The underlying idea is to add redundancy to the data. Think of language: When we read or hear a word with missing or incorrect letters, the computing power of our brain is still capable of understanding the word. The algorithm follows the same principle: It encodes the data with sufficient redundancy to ensure that even highly inaccurate data can be restored later.

Channel coding is used in many fields, including in telecommunications. What challenges did you face when developing your solution?

The first challenge was to create an algorithm specifically geared to the errors that occur in DNA. The second one was to make the algorithm so efficient that the largest possible quantities of data can be stored on the smallest possible quantity of DNA, so that only the absolutely necessary amount of redundancy is added. We demonstrated that our algorithm is optimized in that sense.

DNA data storage is very expensive because of the complexity of DNA production as well as the reading process. What makes DNA an attractive storage medium despite these challenges?

First, DNA has a very high information density. This permits the storage of enormous data volumes in a minimal space. In the case of the TV series, we stored “only” 100 megabytes on a picogram – or a billionth of a gram of DNA. Theoretically, however, it would be possible to store up to 200 exabytes on one gram of DNA. And DNA lasts a long time. By comparison: If you never turned on your PC or wrote data to the hard disk it contains, the data would disappear after a couple of years. By contrast, DNA can remain stable for many thousands of years if it is packed right.

And the method you have developed also makes the DNA strands durable – practically indestructible.

My colleague Robert Grass was the first to develop a process for the “stable packing” of DNA strands by encapsulating them in nanometer-scale spheres made of silica glass. This ensures that the DNA is protected against mechanical influences. In a joint paper in 2015, we presented the first robust DNA data storage concept with our algorithm and the encapsulation process developed by Prof. Grass. Since then we have continuously improved our method. In our most recent publication in Nature Protocols of January 2020, we passed on what we have learned.

What are your next steps? Does data storage on DNA have a future?

We’re working on a way to make DNA data storage cheaper and faster. “Biohackers” was a milestone en route to commercialization. But we still have a long way to go. If this technology proves successful, big things will be possible. Entire libraries, all movies, photos, music and knowledge of every kind – provided it can be represented in the form of data – could be stored on DNA and would thus be available to humanity for eternity.

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

Reading and writing digital data in DNA by Linda C. Meiser, Philipp L. Antkowiak, Julian Koch, Weida D. Chen, A. Xavier Kohll, Wendelin J. Stark, Reinhard Heckel & Robert N. Grass. Nature Protocols volume 15, pages86–101(2020) Issue Date: January 2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41596-019-0244-5 Published [online] 29 November 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for ‘Biohackers’, it’s a German science fiction television series and you can find out more about it here on the Internet Movie Database.

You mean Fitbit makes mistakes? More accuracy with ‘drawn-on-skin’ electronics

A July 30, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces news about more accurate health monitoring with electronics applied directly to your skin,

A team of researchers led by Cunjiang Yu, Bill D. Cook Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Houston, has developed a new form of electronics known as “drawn-on-skin electronics,” allowing multifunctional sensors and circuits to be drawn on the skin with an ink pen.

The advance, the researchers report in Nature Communications, allows for the collection of more precise, motion artifact-free health data, solving the long-standing problem of collecting precise biological data through a wearable device when the subject is in motion.

The imprecision may not be important when your FitBit registers 4,000 steps instead of 4,200, but sensors designed to check heart function, temperature and other physical signals must be accurate if they are to be used for diagnostics and treatment.

A July 30, 2020 University of Houston news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeannie Kever, which originated the news item, goes on to explain why you might want to have electronics ‘drawn on your skin’,

The drawn-on-skin electronics are able to seamlessly collect data, regardless of the wearer’s movements.  

They also offer other advantages, including simple fabrication techniques that don’t require dedicated equipment.

“It is applied like you would use a pen to write on a piece of paper,” said Yu. “We prepare several electronic materials and then use pens to dispense them. Coming out, it is liquid. But like ink on paper, it dries very quickly.”

Wearable bioelectronics – in the form of soft, flexible patches attached to the skin – have become an important way to monitor, prevent and treat illness and injury by tracking physiological information from the wearer. But even the most flexible wearables are limited by motion artifacts, or the difficulty that arises in collecting data when the sensor doesn’t move precisely with the skin.

The drawn-on-skin electronics can be customized to collect different types of information, and Yu said it is expected to be especially useful in situations where it’s not possible to access sophisticated equipment, including on a battleground.

The electronics are able to track muscle signals, heart rate, temperature and skin hydration, among other physical data, he said. The researchers also reported that the drawn-on-skin electronics have demonstrated the ability to accelerate healing of wounds.

In addition to Yu, researchers involved in the project include Faheem Ershad, Anish Thukral, Phillip Comeaux, Yuntao Lu, Hyunseok Shim, Kyoseung Sim, Nam-In Kim, Zhoulyu Rao, Ross Guevara, Luis Contreras, Fengjiao Pan, Yongcao Zhang, Ying-Shi Guan, Pinyi Yang, Xu Wang and Peng Wang, all from the University of Houston, and Jiping Yue and Xiaoyang Wu from the University of Chicago.

The drawn-on-skin electronics are actually comprised of three inks, serving as a conductor, semiconductor and dielectric.

“Electronic inks, including conductors, semiconductors, and dielectrics, are drawn on-demand in a freeform manner to develop devices, such as transistors, strain sensors, temperature sensors, heaters, skin hydration sensors, and electrophysiological sensors,” the researchers wrote.

This research is supported by the Office of Naval Research and National Institutes of Health.

Caption: A new form of electronics known as “drawn-on-skin electronics” allows multifunctional sensors and circuits to be drawn on the skin with an ink pen. Credit: University of Houston

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

Ultra-conformal drawn-on-skin electronics for multifunctional motion artifact-free sensing and point-of-care treatment by Faheem Ershad, Anish Thukral, Jiping Yue, Phillip Comeaux, Yuntao Lu, Hyunseok Shim, Kyoseung Sim, Nam-In Kim, Zhoulyu Rao, Ross Guevara, Luis Contreras, Fengjiao Pan, Yongcao Zhang, Ying-Shi Guan, Pinyi Yang, Xu Wang, Peng Wang, Xiaoyang Wu & Cunjiang Yu. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 3823 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17619-1

This paper is open access.