Category Archives: marketing

Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)

This story got me to thinking about what happens when any kind of implant company (pacemaker, deep brain stimulator, etc.) goes bankrupt or is acquired by another company with a different business model.

As I worked on this piece, more issues were raised and the scope expanded to include prosthetics along with implants while the focus narrowed to neuro as in, neural implants and neuroprosthetics. At the same time, I found salient examples for this posting in other medical advances such as gene editing.

In sum, all references to implants and prosthetics are to neural devices and some issues are illustrated with salient examples from other medical advances (specifically, gene editing).

Definitions (for those who find them useful)

The US Food and Drug Administration defines implants and prosthetics,

Medical implants are devices or tissues that are placed inside or on the surface of the body. Many implants are prosthetics, intended to replace missing body parts. Other implants deliver medication, monitor body functions, or provide support to organs and tissues.

As for what constitutes a neural implant/neuroprosthetic, there’s this from Emily Waltz’s January 20, 2020 article (How Do Neural Implants Work? Neural implants are used for deep brain stimulation, vagus nerve stimulation, and mind-controlled prostheses) for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Spectrum magazine,

A neural implant, then, is a device—typically an electrode of some kind—that’s inserted into the body, comes into contact with tissues that contain neurons, and interacts with those neurons in some way.

Now, let’s start with the recent near bankruptcy of a retinal implant company.

The company goes bust (more or less)

From a February 25, 2022 Science Friday (a National Public Radio program) posting/audio file, Note: Links have been removed,

Barbara Campbell was walking through a New York City subway station during rush hour when her world abruptly went dark. For four years, Campbell had been using a high-tech implant in her left eye that gave her a crude kind of bionic vision, partially compensating for the genetic disease that had rendered her completely blind in her 30s. “I remember exactly where I was: I was switching from the 6 train to the F train,” Campbell tells IEEE Spectrum. “I was about to go down the stairs, and all of a sudden I heard a little ‘beep, beep, beep’ sound.’”

It wasn’t her phone battery running out. It was her Argus II retinal implant system powering down. The patches of light and dark that she’d been able to see with the implant’s help vanished.

Terry Byland is the only person to have received this kind of implant in both eyes. He got the first-generation Argus I implant, made by the company Second Sight Medical Products, in his right eye in 2004, and the subsequent Argus II implant in his left 11 years later. He helped the company test the technology, spoke to the press movingly about his experiences, and even met Stevie Wonder at a conference. “[I] went from being just a person that was doing the testing to being a spokesman,” he remembers.

Yet in 2020, Byland had to find out secondhand that the company had abandoned the technology and was on the verge of going bankrupt. While his two-implant system is still working, he doesn’t know how long that will be the case. “As long as nothing goes wrong, I’m fine,” he says. “But if something does go wrong with it, well, I’m screwed. Because there’s no way of getting it fixed.”

Science Friday and the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Spectrum magazine collaborated to produce this story. You’ll find the audio files and the transcript of interviews with the authors and one of the implant patients in this February 25, 2022 Science Friday (a National Public Radio program) posting.

Here’s more from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article by Eliza Strickland and Mark Harris,

Ross Doerr, another Second Sight patient, doesn’t mince words: “It is fantastic technology and a lousy company,” he says. He received an implant in one eye in 2019 and remembers seeing the shining lights of Christmas trees that holiday season. He was thrilled to learn in early 2020 that he was eligible for software upgrades that could further improve his vision. Yet in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he heard troubling rumors about the company and called his Second Sight vision-rehab therapist. “She said, ‘Well, funny you should call. We all just got laid off,’ ” he remembers. She said, ‘By the way, you’re not getting your upgrades.’ ”

These three patients, and more than 350 other blind people around the world with Second Sight’s implants in their eyes, find themselves in a world in which the technology that transformed their lives is just another obsolete gadget. One technical hiccup, one broken wire, and they lose their artificial vision, possibly forever. To add injury to insult: A defunct Argus system in the eye could cause medical complications or interfere with procedures such as MRI scans, and it could be painful or expensive to remove.

The writers included some information about what happened to the business, from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article, Note: Links have been removed,

After Second Sight discontinued its retinal implant in 2019 and nearly went out of business in 2020, a public offering in June 2021 raised US $57.5 million at $5 per share. The company promised to focus on its ongoing clinical trial of a brain implant, called Orion, that also provides artificial vision. But its stock price plunged to around $1.50, and in February 2022, just before this article was published, the company announced a proposed merger with an early-stage biopharmaceutical company called Nano Precision Medical (NPM). None of Second Sight’s executives will be on the leadership team of the new company, which will focus on developing NPM’s novel implant for drug delivery.The company’s current leadership declined to be interviewed for this article but did provide an emailed statement prior to the merger announcement. It said, in part: “We are a recognized global leader in neuromodulation devices for blindness and are committed to developing new technologies to treat the broadest population of sight-impaired individuals.”

It’s unclear what Second Sight’s proposed merger means for Argus patients. The day after the merger was announced, Adam Mendelsohn, CEO of Nano Precision Medical, told Spectrum that he doesn’t yet know what contractual obligations the combined company will have to Argus and Orion patients. But, he says, NPM will try to do what’s “right from an ethical perspective.” The past, he added in an email, is “simply not relevant to the new future.”

There may be some alternatives, from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article (Note: Links have been removed),

Second Sight may have given up on its retinal implant, but other companies still see a need—and a market—for bionic vision without brain surgery. Paris-based Pixium Vision is conducting European and U.S. feasibility trials to see if its Prima system can help patients with age-related macular degeneration, a much more common condition than retinitis pigmentosa.

Daniel Palanker, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University who licensed his technology to Pixium, says the Prima implant is smaller, simpler, and cheaper than the Argus II. But he argues that Prima’s superior image resolution has the potential to make Pixium Vision a success. “If you provide excellent vision, there will be lots of patients,” he tells Spectrum. “If you provide crappy vision, there will be very few.”

Some clinicians involved in the Argus II work are trying to salvage what they can from the technology. Gislin Dagnelie, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has set up a network of clinicians who are still working with Argus II patients. The researchers are experimenting with a thermal camera to help users see faces, a stereo camera to filter out the background, and AI-powered object recognition. These upgrades are unlikely to result in commercial hardware today but could help future vision prostheses.

The writers have carefully balanced this piece so it is not an outright condemnation of the companies (Second Sight and Nano Precision), from the February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article,

Failure is an inevitable part of innovation. The Argus II was an innovative technology, and progress made by Second Sight may pave the way for other companies that are developing bionic vision systems. But for people considering such an implant in the future, the cautionary tale of Argus patients left in the lurch may make a tough decision even tougher. Should they take a chance on a novel technology? If they do get an implant and find that it helps them navigate the world, should they allow themselves to depend upon it?

Abandoning the Argus II technology—and the people who use it—might have made short-term financial sense for Second Sight, but it’s a decision that could come back to bite the merged company if it does decide to commercialize a brain implant, believes Doerr.

For anyone curious about retinal implant technology (specifically the Argus II), I have a description in a June 30, 2015 posting.

Speculations and hopes for neuroprosthetics

The field of neuroprosthetics is very active. Dr Arthur Saniotis and Prof Maciej Henneberg have written an article where they speculate about the possibilities of a neuroprosthetic that may one day merge with neurons in a February 21, 2022 Nanowerk Spotlight article,

For over a generation several types of medical neuroprosthetics have been developed, which have improved the lives of thousands of individuals. For instance, cochlear implants have restored functional hearing in individuals with severe hearing impairment.

Further advances in motor neuroprosthetics are attempting to restore motor functions in tetraplegic, limb loss and brain stem stroke paralysis subjects.

Currently, scientists are working on various kinds of brain/machine interfaces [BMI] in order to restore movement and partial sensory function. One such device is the ‘Ipsihand’ that enables movement of a paralyzed hand. The device works by detecting the recipient’s intention in the form of electrical signals, thereby triggering hand movement.

Another recent development is the 12 month BMI gait neurohabilitation program that uses a visual-tactile feedback system in combination with a physical exoskeleton and EEG operated AI actuators while walking. This program has been tried on eight patients with reported improvements in lower limb movement and somatic sensation.

Surgically placed electrode implants have also reduced tremor symptoms in individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

Although neuroprosthetics have provided various benefits they do have their problems. Firstly, electrode implants to the brain are prone to degradation, necessitating new implants after a few years. Secondly, as in any kind of surgery, implanted electrodes can cause post-operative infection and glial scarring. Furthermore, one study showed that the neurobiological efficacy of an implant is dependent on the rate of speed of its insertion.

But what if humans designed a neuroprosthetic, which could bypass the medical glitches of invasive neuroprosthetics? However, instead of connecting devices to neural networks, this neuroprosthetic would directly merge with neurons – a novel step. Such a neuroprosthetic could radically optimize treatments for neurodegenerative disorders and brain injuries, and possibly cognitive enhancement [emphasis mine].

A team of three international scientists has recently designed a nanobased neuroprosthetic, which was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience (“Integration of Nanobots Into Neural Circuits As a Future Therapy for Treating Neurodegenerative Disorders“). [open access paper published in 2018]

An interesting feature of their nanobot neuroprosthetic is that it has been inspired from nature by way of endomyccorhizae – a type of plant/fungus symbiosis, which is over four hundred million years old. During endomyccorhizae, fungi use numerous threadlike projections called mycelium that penetrate plant roots, forming colossal underground networks with nearby root systems. During this process fungi take up vital nutrients while protecting plant roots from infections – a win-win relationship. Consequently, the nano-neuroprosthetic has been named ‘endomyccorhizae ligand interface’, or ‘ELI’ for short.

The Spotlight article goes on to describe how these nanobots might function. As for the possibility of cognitive enhancement, I wonder if that might come to be described as a form of ‘artificial intelligence’.

(Dr Arthur Saniotis and Prof Maciej Henneberg are both from the Department of Anthropology, Ludwik Hirszfeld Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy, Polish Academy of Sciences; and Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit, Adelaide Medical School, University of Adelaide. Abdul-Rahman Sawalma who’s listed as an author on the 2018 paper is from the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative, Al-Quds University, Beit Hanina, Palestine.)

Saniotis and Henneberg’s Spotlight article presents an optimistic view of neuroprosthetics. It seems telling that they cite cochlear implants as a success story when it is viewed by many as ethically fraught (see the Cochlear implant Wikipedia entry; scroll down to ‘Criticism and controversy’).

Ethics and your implants

This is from an April 6, 2015 article by Luc Henry on technologist.eu,

Technologist: What are the potential consequences of accepting the “augmented human” in society?

Gregor Wolbring: There are many that we might not even envision now. But let me focus on failure and obsolescence [emphasis mine], two issues that are rarely discussed. What happens when the mechanisms fails in the middle of an action? Failure has hazardous consequences, but obsolescence has psychological ones. …. The constant surgical inter­vention needed to update the hardware may not be feasible. A person might feel obsolete if she cohabits with others using a newer version.

T. Are researchers working on prosthetics sometimes disconnected from reality?

G. W. Students engaged in the development of prosthetics have to learn how to think in societal terms and develop a broader perspective. Our education system provides them with a fascination for clever solutions to technological challenges but not with tools aiming at understanding the consequences, such as whether their product might increase or decrease social justice.

Wolbring is a professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (profile page) who writes on social issues to do with human enhancement/ augmentation. As well,

Some of his areas of engagement are: ability studies including governance of ability expectations, disability studies, governance of emerging and existing sciences and technologies (e.g. nanoscale science and technology, molecular manufacturing, aging, longevity and immortality, cognitive sciences, neuromorphic engineering, genetics, synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, automatization, brain machine interfaces, sensors), impact of science and technology on marginalized populations, especially people with disabilities he governance of bodily enhancement, sustainability issues, EcoHealth, resilience, ethics issues, health policy issues, human rights and sport.

He also maintains his own website here.

Not just startups

I’d classify Second Sight as a tech startup company and they have a high rate of failure, which may not have been clear to the patients who had the implants. Clinical trials can present problems too as this excerpt from my September 17, 2020 posting notes,

This October 31, 2017 article by Emily Underwood for Science was revelatory,

“In 2003, neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University in Atlanta began to test a bold, experimental treatment for people with severe depression, which involved implanting metal electrodes deep in the brain in a region called area 25 [emphases mine]. The initial data were promising; eventually, they convinced a device company, St. Jude Medical in Saint Paul, to sponsor a 200-person clinical trial dubbed BROADEN.

This month [October 2017], however, Lancet Psychiatry reported the first published data on the trial’s failure. The study stopped recruiting participants in 2012, after a 6-month study in 90 people failed to show statistically significant improvements between those receiving active stimulation and a control group, in which the device was implanted but switched off.

… a tricky dilemma for companies and research teams involved in deep brain stimulation (DBS) research: If trial participants want to keep their implants [emphases mine], who will take responsibility—and pay—for their ongoing care? And participants in last week’s meeting said it underscores the need for the growing corps of DBS researchers to think long-term about their planned studies.”

Symbiosis can be another consequence, as mentioned in my September 17, 2020 posting,

From a July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain,

“It becomes part of you,” Patient 6 said, describing the technology that enabled her, after 45 years of severe epilepsy, to halt her disabling seizures. Electrodes had been implanted on the surface of her brain that would send a signal to a hand-held device when they detected signs of impending epileptic activity. On hearing a warning from the device, Patient 6 knew to take a dose of medication to halt the coming seizure.

“You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist who studies brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. “It became me,” she said. [emphasis mine]

Symbiosis is a term, borrowed from ecology, that means an intimate co-existence of two species for mutual advantage. As technologists work towards directly connecting the human brain to computers, it is increasingly being used to describe humans’ potential relationship with artificial intelligence. [emphasis mine]

It’s complicated

For a lot of people these devices are or could be life-changing. At the same time, there are a number of different issues related to implants/prosthetics; the following is not an exhaustive list. As Wolbring notes, issues that we can’t begin to imagine now are likely to emerge as these medical advances become more ubiquitous.

Ability/disability?

Assistive technologies are almost always portrayed as helpful. For example, a cochlear implant gives people without hearing the ability to hear. The assumption is that this is always a good thing—unless you’re a deaf person who wants to define the problem a little differently. Who gets to decide what is good and ‘normal’ and what is desirable?

While the cochlear implant is the most extreme example I can think of, there are variations of these questions throughout the ‘disability’ communities.

Also, as Wolbring notes in his interview with the Technologist.eu, the education system tends to favour technological solutions which don’t take social issues into account. Wolbring cites social justice issues when he mentions failure and obsolescence.

Technical failures and obsolescence

The story, excerpted earlier in this posting, opened with a striking example of a technical failure at an awkward moment; a blind woman depending on her retinal implant loses all sight as she maneuvers through a subway station in New York City.

Aside from being an awful way to find out the company supplying and supporting your implant is in serious financial trouble and can’t offer assistance or repair, the failure offers a preview of what could happen as implants and prosthetics become more commonly used.

Keeping up/fomo (fear of missing out)/obsolescence

It used to be called ‘keeping up with the Joneses, it’s the practice of comparing yourself and your worldly goods to someone else(‘s) and then trying to equal what they have or do better. Usually, people want to have more and better than the mythical Joneses.

These days, the phenomenon (which has been expanded to include social networking) is better known as ‘fomo’ or fear of missing out (see the Fear of missing out Wikipedia entry).

Whatever you want to call it, humanity’s competitive nature can be seen where technology is concerned. When I worked in technology companies, I noticed that hardware and software were sometimes purchased for features that were effectively useless to us. But, not upgrading to a newer version was unthinkable.

Call it fomo or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, it’s a powerful force and when people (and even companies) miss out or can’t keep up, it can lead to a sense of inferiority in the same way that having an obsolete implant or prosthetic could.

Social consequences

Could there be a neural implant/neuroprosthetic divide? There is already a digital divide (from its Wikipedia entry),

The digital divide is a gap between those who have access to new technology and those who do not … people without access to the Internet and other ICTs [information and communication technologies] are at a socio-economic disadvantage because they are unable or less able to find and apply for jobs, shop and sell online, participate democratically, or research and learn.

After reading Wolbring’s comments, it’s not hard to imagine a neural implant/neuroprosthetic divide with its attendant psychological and social consequences.

What kind of human am I?

There are other issues as noted in my September 17, 2020 posting. I’ve already mentioned ‘patient 6’, the woman who developed a symbiotic relationship with her brain/computer interface. This is how the relationship ended,

… He [Frederic Gilbert, ethicist] is now preparing a follow-up report on Patient 6. The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.

… Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. … “I lost myself,” she said.

“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”

Above human

The possibility that implants will not merely restore or endow someone with ‘standard’ sight or hearing or motion or … but will augment or improve on nature was broached in this May 2, 2013 posting, More than human—a bionic ear that extends hearing beyond the usual frequencies and is one of many in the ‘Human Enhancement’ category on this blog.

More recently, Hugh Herr, an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), leader of the Biomechatronics research group at MIT’s Media Lab, a double amputee, and prosthetic enthusiast, starred in the recent (February 23, 2022) broadcast of ‘Augmented‘ on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) science programme, Nova.

I found ‘Augmented’ a little offputting as it gave every indication of being an advertisement for Herr’s work in the form of a hero’s journey. I was not able to watch more than 10 mins. This preview gives you a pretty good idea of what it was like although the part in ‘Augmented, where he says he’d like to be a cyborg hasn’t been included,

At a guess, there were a few talking heads (taking up from 10%-20% of the running time) who provided some cautionary words to counterbalance the enthusiasm in the rest of the programme. It’s a standard approach designed to give the impression that both sides of a question are being recognized. The cautionary material is usually inserted past the 1/2 way mark while leaving several minutes at the end for returning to the more optimistic material.

In a February 2, 2010 posting I have excerpts from an article featuring quotes from Herr that I still find startling,

Written by Paul Hochman for Fast Company, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses [ETA March 23, 2022: an updated version of the article is now on Genius.com] delves further into the world where people may be willing to trade a healthy limb for a prosthetic. From the article,

There are many advantages to having your leg amputated.

Pedicure costs drop 50% overnight. A pair of socks lasts twice as long. But Hugh Herr, the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, goes a step further. “It’s actually unfair,” Herr says about amputees’ advantages over the able-bodied. “As tech advancements in prosthetics come along, amputees can exploit those improvements. They can get upgrades. A person with a natural body can’t.”

Herr is not the only one who favours prosthetics (also from the Hochman article),

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.”

But Bailey is most surprised by his own reaction. “When I’m wearing it, I do feel different: I feel stronger. As weird as that sounds, having a piece of machinery incorporated into your body, as a part of you, well, it makes you feel above human.[emphasis mine] It’s a very powerful thing.”

My September 17, 2020 posting touches on more ethical and social issues including some of those surrounding consumer neurotechnologies or brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Unfortunately, I don’t have space for these issues here.

As for Paul Hochman’s article, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses, now on Genius.com, it has been updated.

Money makes the world go around

Money and business practices have been indirectly referenced (for the most part) up to now in this posting. The February 15, 2022 IEEE Spectrum article and Hochman’s article, Bionic Legs, iLimbs, and Other Super-Human Prostheses, cover two aspects of the money angle.

In the IEEE Spectrum article, a tech start-up company, Second Sight, ran into financial trouble and is acquired by a company that has no plans to develop Second Sight’s core technology. The people implanted with the Argus II technology have been stranded as were ‘patient 6’ and others participating in the clinical trial described in the July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain mentioned earlier in this posting.

I don’t know anything about the business bankruptcy mentioned in the Drew article but one of the business problems described in the IEEE Spectrum article suggests that Second Sight was founded before answering a basic question, “What is the market size for this product?”

On 18 July 2019, Second Sight sent Argus patients a letter saying it would be phasing out the retinal implant technology to clear the way for the development of its next-generation brain implant for blindness, Orion, which had begun a clinical trial with six patients the previous year. …

“The leadership at the time didn’t believe they could make [the Argus retinal implant] part of the business profitable,” Greenberg [Robert Greenberg, Second Sight co-founder] says. “I understood the decision, because I think the size of the market turned out to be smaller than we had thought.”

….

The question of whether a medical procedure or medicine can be profitable (or should the question be sufficiently profitable?) was referenced in my April 26, 2019 posting in the context of gene editing and personalized medicine

Edward Abrahams, president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition (US-based), advocates for personalized medicine while noting in passing, market forces as represented by Goldman Sachs in his May 23, 2018 piece for statnews.com (Note: A link has been removed),

Goldman Sachs, for example, issued a report titled “The Genome Revolution.” It argues that while “genome medicine” offers “tremendous value for patients and society,” curing patients may not be “a sustainable business model.” [emphasis mine] The analysis underlines that the health system is not set up to reap the benefits of new scientific discoveries and technologies. Just as we are on the precipice of an era in which gene therapies, gene-editing, and immunotherapies promise to address the root causes of disease, Goldman Sachs says that these therapies have a “very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies.”

The ‘Glybera’ story in my July 4, 2019 posting (scroll down about 40% of the way) highlights the issue with “recurring revenue versus chronic therapies,”

Kelly Crowe in a November 17, 2018 article for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news writes about Glybera,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

“The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

Here’s my summary (from the July 4, 2019 posting),

It cost $1M for a single treatment and that single treatment is good for at least 10 years.

Pharmaceutical companies make their money from repeated use of their medicaments and Glybera required only one treatment so the company priced it according to how much they would have gotten for repeated use, $100,000 per year over a 10 year period. The company was not able to persuade governments and/or individuals to pay the cost

In the end, 31 people got the treatment, most of them received it for free through clinical trials.

For rich people only?

Megan Devlin’s March 8, 2022 article for the Daily Hive announces a major research investment into medical research (Note: A link has been removed),

Vancouver [Canada] billionaire Chip Wilson revealed Tuesday [March 8, 2022] that he has a rare genetic condition that causes his muscles to waste away, and announced he’s spending $100 million on research to find a cure.

His condition is called facio-scapulo-humeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD for short. It progresses rapidly in some people and more slowly in others, but is characterized by progressive muscle weakness starting the the face, the neck, shoulders, and later the lower body.

“I’m out for survival of my own life,” Wilson said.

“I also have the resources to do something about this which affects so many people in the world.”

Wilson hopes the $100 million will produce a cure or muscle-regenerating treatment by 2027.

“This could be one of the biggest discoveries of all time, for humankind,” Wilson said. “Most people lose muscle, they fall, and they die. If we can keep muscle as we age this can be a longevity drug like we’ve never seen before.”

According to rarediseases.org, FSHD affects between four and 10 people out of every 100,000 [emphasis mine], Right now, therapies are limited to exercise and pain management. There is no way to stall or reverse the disease’s course.

Wilson is best known for founding athleisure clothing company Lululemon. He also owns the most expensive home in British Columbia, a $73 million mansion in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood.

Let’s see what the numbers add up to,

4 – 10 people out of 100,000

40 – 100 people out of 1M

1200 – 3,000 people out of 30M (let’s say this is Canada’s population)\

12,000 – 30,000 people out of 300M (let’s say this is the US’s population)

42,000 – 105,000 out of 1.115B (let’s say this is China’s population)

The rough total comes to 55,200 to 138,000 people between three countries with a combined population total of 1.445B. Given how business currently operates, it seems unlikely that any company will want to offer Wilson’s hoped for medical therapy although he and possibly others may benefit from a clinical trial.

Should profit or wealth be considerations?

The stories about the patients with the implants and the patients who need Glybera are heartbreaking and point to a question not often asked when medical therapies and medications are developed. Is the profit model the best choice and, if so, how much profit?

I have no answer to that question but I wish it was asked by medical researchers and policy makers.

As for wealthy people dictating the direction for medical research, I don’t have answers there either. I hope the research will yield applications and/or valuable information for more than Wilson’s disease.

It’s his money after all

Wilson calls his new venture, SolveFSHD. It doesn’t seem to be affiliated with any university or biomedical science organization and it’s not clear how the money will be awarded (no programmes, no application procedure, no panel of experts). There are three people on the team, Eva R. Chin, scientist and executive director, Chip Wilson, SolveFSHD founder/funder, and FSHD patient, and Neil Camarta, engineer, executive (fossil fuels and clean energy), and FSHD patient. There’s also a Twitter feed (presumably for the latest updates): https://twitter.com/SOLVEFSHD.

Perhaps unrelated but intriguing is news about a proposed new building in Kenneth Chan’s March 31, 2022 article for the Daily Hive,

Low Tide Properties, the real estate arm of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson [emphasis mine], has submitted a new development permit application to build a 148-ft-tall, eight-storey, mixed-use commercial building in the False Creek Flats of Vancouver.

The proposal, designed by local architectural firm Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership, calls for 236,000 sq ft of total floor area, including 105,000 sq ft of general office space, 102,000 sq ft of laboratory space [emphasis mine], and 5,000 sq ft of ground-level retail space. An outdoor amenity space for building workers will be provided on the rooftop.

[next door] The 2001-built, five-storey building at 1618 Station Street immediately to the west of the development site is also owned by Low Tide Properties [emphasis mine]. The Ferguson, the name of the existing building, contains about 79,000 sq ft of total floor area, including 47,000 sq ft of laboratory space and 32,000 sq ft of general office space. Biotechnology company Stemcell technologies [STEMCELL] Technologies] is the anchor tenant [emphasis mine].

I wonder if this proposed new building will house SolveFSHD and perhaps other FSHD-focused enterprises. The proximity of STEMCELL Technologies could be quite convenient. In any event, $100M will buy a lot (pun intended).

The end

Issues I’ve described here in the context of neural implants/neuroprosthetics and cutting edge medical advances are standard problems not specific to these technologies/treatments:

  • What happens when the technology fails (hopefully not at a critical moment)?
  • What happens when your supplier goes out of business or discontinues the products you purchase from them?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Who can afford the treatment/product? Will it only be for rich people?
  • Will this technology/procedure/etc. exacerbate or create new social tensions between social classes, cultural groups, religious groups, races, etc.?

Of course, having your neural implant fail suddenly in the middle of a New York City subway station seems a substantively different experience than having your car break down on the road.

There are, of course, there are the issues we can’t yet envision (as Wolbring notes) and there are issues such as symbiotic relationships with our implants and/or feeling that you are “above human.” Whether symbiosis and ‘implant/prosthetic superiority’ will affect more than a small number of people or become major issues is still to be determined.

There’s a lot to be optimistic about where new medical research and advances are concerned but I would like to see more thoughtful coverage in the media (e.g., news programmes and documentaries like ‘Augmented’) and more thoughtful comments from medical researchers.

Of course, the biggest issue I’ve raised here is about the current business models for health care products where profit is valued over people’s health and well-being. it’s a big question and I don’t see any definitive answers but the question put me in mind of this quote (from a September 22, 2020 obituary for US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irene Monroe for Curve),

Ginsburg’s advocacy for justice was unwavering and showed it, especially with each oral dissent. In another oral dissent, Ginsburg quoted a familiar Martin Luther King Jr. line, adding her coda:” ‘The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” but only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” …

Martin Luther King Jr. popularized and paraphrased the quote (from a January 18, 2018 article by Mychal Denzel Smith for Huffington Post),

His use of the quote is best understood by considering his source material. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is King’s clever paraphrasing of a portion of a sermon delivered in 1853 by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker. Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810, Parker studied at Harvard Divinity School and eventually became an influential transcendentalist and minister in the Unitarian church. In that sermon, Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

I choose to keep faith that people will get the healthcare products they need and that all of us need to keep working at making access more fair.

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.

True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read)

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) science television series,The Nature of Things, which has been broadcast since November 1960, explored the world of emotional, empathic and creative artificial intelligence (AI) in a Friday, November 19, 2021 telecast titled, The Machine That Feels,

The Machine That Feels explores how artificial intelligence (AI) is catching up to us in ways once thought to be uniquely human: empathy, emotional intelligence and creativity.

As AI moves closer to replicating humans, it has the potential to reshape every aspect of our world – but most of us are unaware of what looms on the horizon.

Scientists see AI technology as an opportunity to address inequities and make a better, more connected world. But it also has the capacity to do the opposite: to stoke division and inequality and disconnect us from fellow humans. The Machine That Feels, from The Nature of Things, shows viewers what they need to know about a field that is advancing at a dizzying pace, often away from the public eye.

What does it mean when AI makes art? Can AI interpret and understand human emotions? How is it possible that AI creates sophisticated neural networks that mimic the human brain? The Machine That Feels investigates these questions, and more.

In Vienna, composer Walter Werzowa has — with the help of AI — completed Beethoven’s previously unfinished 10th symphony. By feeding data about Beethoven, his music, his style and the original scribbles on the 10th symphony into an algorithm, AI has created an entirely new piece of art.

In Atlanta, Dr. Ayanna Howard and her robotics lab at Georgia Tech are teaching robots how to interpret human emotions. Where others see problems, Howard sees opportunity: how AI can help fill gaps in education and health care systems. She believes we need a fundamental shift in how we perceive robots: let’s get humans and robots to work together to help others.

At Tufts University in Boston, a new type of biological robot has been created: the xenobot. The size of a grain of sand, xenobots are grown from frog heart and skin cells, and combined with the “mind” of a computer. Programmed with a specific task, they can move together to complete it. In the future, they could be used for environmental cleanup, digesting microplastics and targeted drug delivery (like releasing chemotherapy compounds directly into tumours).

The film includes interviews with global leaders, commentators and innovators from the AI field, including Geoff Hinton, Yoshua Bengio, Ray Kurzweil and Douglas Coupland, who highlight some of the innovative and cutting-edge AI technologies that are changing our world.

The Machine That Feels focuses on one central question: in the flourishing age of artificial intelligence, what does it mean to be human?

I’ll get back to that last bit, “… what does it mean to be human?” later.

There’s a lot to appreciate in this 44 min. programme. As you’d expect, there was a significant chunk of time devoted to research being done in the US but Poland and Japan also featured and Canadian content was substantive. A number of tricky topics were covered and transitions from one topic to the next were smooth.

In the end credits, I counted over 40 source materials from Getty Images, Google Canada, Gatebox, amongst others. It would have been interesting to find out which segments were produced by CBC.

David Suzuki’s (programme host) script was well written and his narration was enjoyable, engaging, and non-intrusive. That last quality is not always true of CBC hosts who can fall into the trap of overdramatizing the text.

Drilling down

I have followed artificial intelligence stories in a passive way (i.e., I don’t seek them out) for many years. Even so, there was a lot of material in the programme that was new to me.

For example, there was this love story (from the ‘I love her and see her as a real woman.’ Meet a man who ‘married’ an artificial intelligence hologram webpage on the CBC),

In the The Machine That Feels, a documentary from The Nature of Things, we meet Kondo Akihiko, a Tokyo resident who “married” a hologram of virtual pop singer Hatsune Miku using a certificate issued by Gatebox (the marriage isn’t recognized by the state, and Gatebox acknowledges the union goes “beyond dimensions”).

I found Akihiko to be quite moving when he described his relationship, which is not unique. It seems some 4,000 men have ‘wed’ their digital companions, you can read about that and more on the ‘I love her and see her as a real woman.’ Meet a man who ‘married’ an artificial intelligence hologram webpage.

What does it mean to be human?

Overall, this Nature of Things episode embraces certainty, which means the question of what it means to human is referenced rather than seriously discussed. An unanswerable philosophical question, the programme is ill-equipped to address it, especially since none of the commentators are philosophers or seem inclined to philosophize.

The programme presents AI as a juggernaut. Briefly mentioned is the notion that we need to make some decisions about how our juggernaut is developed and utilized. No one discusses how we go about making changes to systems that are already making critical decisions for us. (For more about AI and decision-making, see my February 28, 2017 posting and scroll down to the ‘Algorithms and big data’ subhead for Cathy O’Neil’s description of how important decisions that affect us are being made by AI systems. She is the author of the 2016 book, ‘Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy’; still a timely read.)

In fact, the programme’s tone is mostly one of breathless excitement. A few misgivings are expressed, e.g,, one woman who has an artificial ‘texting friend’ (Replika; a chatbot app) noted that it can ‘get into your head’ when she had a chat where her ‘friend’ told her that all of a woman’s worth is based on her body; she pushed back but intimated that someone more vulnerable could find that messaging difficult to deal with.

The sequence featuring Akihiko and his hologram ‘wife’ is followed by one suggesting that people might become more isolated and emotionally stunted as they interact with artificial friends. It should be noted, Akihiko’s wife is described as ‘perfect’. I gather perfection means that you are always understanding and have no needs of your own. She also seems to be about 18″ high.

Akihiko has obviously been asked about his ‘wife’ before as his answers are ready. They boil down to “there are many types of relationships” and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an intriguing thought which is not explored.

Also unexplored, these relationships could be said to resemble slavery. After all, you pay for these friends over which you have control. But perhaps that’s alright since AI friends don’t have consciousness. Or do they? In addition to not being able to answer the question, “what is it to be human?” we still can’t answer the question, “what is consciousness?”

AI and creativity

The Nature of Things team works fast. ‘Beethoven X – The AI Project’ had its first performance on October 9, 2021. (See my October 1, 2021 post ‘Finishing Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony’ for more information from Ahmed Elgammal’s (Director of the Art & AI Lab at Rutgers University) technical perspective on the project.

Briefly, Beethoven died before completing his 10th symphony and a number of computer scientists, musicologists, AI, and musicians collaborated to finish the symphony.)

The one listener (Felix Mayer, music professor at the Technical University Munich) in the hall during a performance doesn’t consider the work to be a piece of music. He does have a point. Beethoven left some notes but this ’10th’ is at least partly mathematical guesswork. A set of probabilities where an algorithm chooses which note comes next based on probability.

There was another artist also represented in the programme. Puzzlingly, it was the still living Douglas Coupland. In my opinion, he’s better known as a visual artist than a writer (his Wikipedia entry lists him as a novelist first) but he has succeeded greatly in both fields.

What makes his inclusion in the Nature of Things ‘The Machine That Feels’ programme puzzling, is that it’s not clear how he worked with artificial intelligence in a collaborative fashion. Here’s a description of Coupland’s ‘AI’ project from a June 29, 2021 posting by Chris Henry on the Google Outreach blog (Note: Links have been removed),

… when the opportunity presented itself to explore how artificial intelligence (AI) inspires artistic expression — with the help of internationally renowned Canadian artist Douglas Coupland — the Google Research team jumped on it. This collaboration, with the support of Google Arts & Culture, culminated in a project called Slogans for the Class of 2030, which spotlights the experiences of the first generation of young people whose lives are fully intertwined with the existence of AI. 

This collaboration was brought to life by first introducing Coupland’s written work to a machine learning language model. Machine learning is a form of AI that provides computer systems the ability to automatically learn from data. In this case, Google research scientists tuned a machine learning algorithm with Coupland’s 30-year body of written work — more than a million words — so it would familiarize itself with the author’s unique style of writing. From there, curated general-public social media posts on selected topics were added to teach the algorithm how to craft short-form, topical statements. [emphases mine]

Once the algorithm was trained, the next step was to process and reassemble suggestions of text for Coupland to use as inspiration to create twenty-five Slogans for the Class of 2030. [emphasis mine]

I would comb through ‘data dumps’ where characters from one novel were speaking with those in other novels in ways that they might actually do. It felt like I was encountering a parallel universe Doug,” Coupland says. “And from these outputs, the statements you see here in this project appeared like gems. Did I write them? Yes. No. Could they have existed without me? No.” [emphases mine]

So, the algorithms crunched through Coupland’s word and social media texts to produce slogans, which Coupland then ‘combed through’ to pick out 25 slogans for the ‘Slogans For The Class of 2030’ project. (Note: In the programme, he says that he started a sentence and then the AI system completed that sentence with material gleaned from his own writings, which brings to Exquisite Corpse, a collaborative game for writers originated by the Surrealists, possibly as early as 1918.)

The ‘slogans’ project also reminds me of William S. Burroughs and the cut-up technique used in his work. From the William S. Burroughs Cut-up technique webpage on the Language is a Virus website (Thank you to Lake Rain Vajra for a very interesting website),

The cutup is a mechanical method of juxtaposition in which Burroughs literally cuts up passages of prose by himself and other writers and then pastes them back together at random. This literary version of the collage technique is also supplemented by literary use of other media. Burroughs transcribes taped cutups (several tapes spliced into each other), film cutups (montage), and mixed media experiments (results of combining tapes with television, movies, or actual events). Thus Burroughs’s use of cutups develops his juxtaposition technique to its logical conclusion as an experimental prose method, and he also makes use of all contemporary media, expanding his use of popular culture.

[Burroughs says] “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else? Use of scissors renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation. Clear classical prose can be composed entirely of rearranged cut-ups. Cutting and rearranging a page of written words introduces a new dimension into writing enabling the writer to turn images in cinematic variation. Images shift sense under the scissors smell images to sound sight to sound to kinesthetic. This is where Rimbaud was going with his color of vowels. And his “systematic derangement of the senses.” The place of mescaline hallucination: seeing colors tasting sounds smelling forms.

“The cut-ups can be applied to other fields than writing. Dr Neumann [emphasis mine] in his Theory of Games and Economic behavior introduces the cut-up method of random action into game and military strategy: assume that the worst has happened and act accordingly. … The cut-up method could be used to advantage in processing scientific data. [emphasis mine] How many discoveries have been made by accident? We cannot produce accidents to order. The cut-ups could add new dimension to films. Cut gambling scene in with a thousand gambling scenes all times and places. Cut back. Cut streets of the world. Cut and rearrange the word and image in films. There is no reason to accept a second-rate product when you can have the best. And the best is there for all. Poetry is for everyone . . .”

First, John von Neumann (1902 – 57) is a very important figure in the history of computing. From a February 25, 2017 John von Neumann and Modern Computer Architecture essay on the ncLab website, “… he invented the computer architecture that we use today.”

Here’s Burroughs on the history of writers and cutups (thank you to QUEDEAR for posting this clip),

You can hear Burroughs talk about the technique and how he started using it in 1959.

There is no explanation from Coupland as to how his project differs substantively from Burroughs’ cut-ups or a session of Exquisite Corpse. The use of a computer programme to crunch through data and give output doesn’t seem all that exciting. *(More about computers and chatbots at end of posting).* It’s hard to know if this was an interview situation where he wasn’t asked the question or if the editors decided against including it.

Kazuo Ishiguro?

Given that Ishiguro’s 2021 book (Klara and the Sun) is focused on an artificial friend and raises the question of ‘what does it mean to be human’, as well as the related question, ‘what is the nature of consciousness’, it would have been interesting to hear from him. He spent a fair amount of time looking into research on machine learning in preparation for his book. Maybe he was too busy?

AI and emotions

The work being done by Georgia Tech’s Dr. Ayanna Howard and her robotics lab is fascinating. They are teaching robots how to interpret human emotions. The segment which features researchers teaching and interacting with robots, Pepper and Salt, also touches on AI and bias.

Watching two African American researchers talk about the ways in which AI is unable to read emotions on ‘black’ faces as accurately as ‘white’ faces is quite compelling. It also reinforces the uneasiness you might feel after the ‘Replika’ segment where an artificial friend informs a woman that her only worth is her body.

(Interestingly, Pepper and Salt are produced by Softbank Robotics, part of Softbank, a multinational Japanese conglomerate, [see a June 28, 2021 article by Ian Carlos Campbell for The Verge] whose entire management team is male according to their About page.)

While Howard is very hopeful about the possibilities of a machine that can read emotions, she doesn’t explore (on camera) any means for pushing back against bias other than training AI by using more black faces to help them learn. Perhaps more representative management and coding teams in technology companies?

While the programme largely focused on AI as an algorithm on a computer, robots can be enabled by AI (as can be seen in the segment with Dr. Howard).

My February 14, 2019 posting features research with a completely different approach to emotions and machines,

“I’ve always felt that robots shouldn’t just be modeled after humans [emphasis mine] or be copies of humans,” he [Guy Hoffman, assistant professor at Cornell University)] said. “We have a lot of interesting relationships with other species. Robots could be thought of as one of those ‘other species,’ not trying to copy what we do but interacting with us with their own language, tapping into our own instincts.”

[from a July 16, 2018 Cornell University news release on EurekAlert]

This brings the question back to, what is consciousness?

What scientists aren’t taught

Dr. Howard notes that scientists are not taught to consider the implications of their work. Her comment reminded me of a question I was asked many years ago after a presentation, it concerned whether or not science had any morality. (I said, no.)

My reply angered an audience member (a visual artist who was working with scientists at the time) as she took it personally and started defending scientists as good people who care and have morals and values. She failed to understand that the way in which we teach science conforms to a notion that somewhere there are scientific facts which are neutral and objective. Society and its values are irrelevant in the face of the larger ‘scientific truth’ and, as a consequence, you don’t need to teach or discuss how your values or morals affect that truth or what the social implications of your work might be.

Science is practiced without much if any thought to values. By contrast, there is the medical injunction, “Do no harm,” which suggests to me that someone recognized competing values. E.g., If your important and worthwhile research is harming people, you should ‘do no harm’.

The experts, the connections, and the Canadian content

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Ray Kurzweil mentioned but he seems to be getting more attention these days. (See this November 16, 2021 posting by Jonny Thomson titled, “The Singularity: When will we all become super-humans? Are we really only a moment away from “The Singularity,” a technological epoch that will usher in a new era in human evolution?” on The Big Think for more). Note: I will have a little more about evolution later in this post.

Interestingly, Kurzweil is employed by Google these days (see his Wikipedia entry, the column to the right). So is Geoffrey Hinton, another one of the experts in the programme (see Hinton’s Wikipedia entry, the column to the right, under Institutions).

I’m not sure about Yoshu Bengio’s relationship with Google but he’s a professor at the Université de Montréal, and he’s the Scientific Director for Mila ((Quebec’s Artificial Intelligence research institute)) & IVADO (Institut de valorisation des données), Note: IVADO is not particularly relevant to what’s being discussed in this post.

As for Mila, the Canada Google blog in a November 21, 2016 posting notes a $4.5M grant to the institution,

Google invests $4.5 Million in Montreal AI Research

A new grant from Google for the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) will fund seven faculty across a number of Montreal institutions and will help tackle some of the biggest challenges in machine learning and AI, including applications in the realm of systems that can understand and generate natural language. In other words, better understand a fan’s enthusiasm for Les Canadien [sic].

Google is expanding its academic support of deep learning at MILA, renewing Yoshua Bengio’s Focused Research Award and offering Focused Research Awards to MILA faculty at University of Montreal and McGill University:

Google reaffirmed their commitment to Mila in 2020 with a grant worth almost $4M (from a November 13, 2020 posting on the Mila website, Note: A link has been removed),

Google Canada announced today [November 13, 2020] that it will be renewing its funding of Mila – Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, with a generous pledge of nearly $4M over a three-year period. Google previously invested $4.5M US in 2016, enabling Mila to grow from 25 to 519 researchers.

In a piece written for Google’s Official Canada Blog, Yoshua Bengio, Mila Scientific Director, says that this year marked a “watershed moment for the Canadian AI community,” as the COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges that demanded rapid innovation and increased interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers in Canada and around the world.

COVID-19 has changed the world forever and many industries, from healthcare to retail, will need to adapt to thrive in our ‘new normal.’ As we look to the future and how priorities will shift, it is clear that AI is no longer an emerging technology but a useful tool that can serve to solve world problems. Google Canada recognizes not only this opportunity but the important task at hand and I’m thrilled they have reconfirmed their support of Mila with an additional $3,95 million funding grant until 22.

– Yoshua Bengio, for Google’s Official Canada Blog

Interesting, eh? Of course, Douglas Coupland is working with Google, presumably for money, and that would connect over 50% of the Canadian content (Douglas Coupland, Yoshua Bengio, and Geoffrey Hinton; Kurzweil is an American) in the programme to Google.

My hat’s off to Google’s marketing communications and public relations teams.

Anthony Morgan of Science Everywhere also provided some Canadian content. His LinkedIn profile indicates that he’s working on a PhD in molecular science, which is described this way, “My work explores the characteristics of learning environments, that support critical thinking and the relationship between critical thinking and wisdom.”

Morgan is also the founder and creative director of Science Everywhere, from his LinkedIn profile, “An events & media company supporting knowledge mobilization, community engagement, entrepreneurship and critical thinking. We build social tools for better thinking.”

There is this from his LinkedIn profile,

I develop, create and host engaging live experiences & media to foster critical thinking.

I’ve spent my 15+ years studying and working in psychology and science communication, thinking deeply about the most common individual and societal barriers to critical thinking. As an entrepreneur, I lead a team to create, develop and deploy cultural tools designed to address those barriers. As a researcher I study what we can do to reduce polarization around science.

There’s a lot more to Morgan (do look him up; he has connections to the CBC and other media outlets). The difficulty is: why was he chosen to talk about artificial intelligence and emotions and creativity when he doesn’t seem to know much about the topic? He does mention GPT-3, an AI programming language. He seems to be acting as an advocate for AI although he offers this bit of almost cautionary wisdom, “… algorithms are sets of instructions.” (You can can find out more about it in my April 27, 2021 posting. There’s also this November 26, 2021 posting [The Inherent Limitations of GPT-3] by Andrey Kurenkov, a PhD student with the Stanford [University] Vision and Learning Lab.)

Most of the cautionary commentary comes from Luke Stark, assistant professor at Western [Ontario] University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies. He’s the one who mentions stunted emotional growth.

Before moving on, there is another set of connections through the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, a Canadian government science funding initiative announced in the 2017 federal budget. The funds allocated to the strategy are administered by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). Yoshua Bengio through Mila is associated with the strategy and CIFAR, as is Geoffrey Hinton through his position as Chief Scientific Advisor for the Vector Institute.

Evolution

Getting back to “The Singularity: When will we all become super-humans? Are we really only a moment away from “The Singularity,” a technological epoch that will usher in a new era in human evolution?” Xenobots point in a disconcerting (for some of us) evolutionary direction.

I featured the work, which is being done at Tufts University in the US, in my June 21, 2021 posting, which includes an embedded video,

From a March 31, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily,

Last year, a team of biologists and computer scientists from Tufts University and the University of Vermont (UVM) created novel, tiny self-healing biological machines from frog cells called “Xenobots” that could move around, push a payload, and even exhibit collective behavior in the presence of a swarm of other Xenobots.

Get ready for Xenobots 2.0.

Also from an excerpt in the posting, the team has “created life forms that self-assemble a body from single cells, do not require muscle cells to move, and even demonstrate the capability of recordable memory.”

Memory is key to intelligence and this work introduces the notion of ‘living’ robots which leads to questioning what constitutes life. ‘The Machine That Feels’ is already grappling with far too many questions to address this development but introducing the research here might have laid the groundwork for the next episode, The New Human, telecast on November 26, 2021,

While no one can be certain what will happen, evolutionary biologists and statisticians are observing trends that could mean our future feet only have four toes (so long, pinky toe) or our faces may have new combinations of features. The new humans might be much taller than their parents or grandparents, or have darker hair and eyes.

And while evolution takes a lot of time, we might not have to wait too long for a new version of ourselves.

Technology is redesigning the way we look and function — at a much faster pace than evolution. We are merging with technology more than ever before: our bodies may now have implanted chips, smart limbs, exoskeletons and 3D-printed organs. A revolutionary gene editing technique has given us the power to take evolution into our own hands and alter our own DNA. How long will it be before we are designing our children?

As the story about the xenobots doesn’t say, we could also take the evolution of another species into our hands.

David Suzuki, where are you?

Our programme host, David Suzuki surprised me. I thought that as an environmentalist he’d point out that the huge amounts of computing power needed for artificial intelligence as mentioned in the programme, constitutes an environmental issue. I also would have expected a geneticist like Suzuki might have some concerns with regard to xenobots but perhaps that’s being saved for the next episode (The New Human) of the Nature of Things.

Artificial stupidity

Thanks to Will Knight for introducing me to the term ‘artificial stupidity’. Knight, a senior writer covers artificial intelligence for WIRED magazine. According to its Wikipedia entry,

Artificial stupidity is commonly used as a humorous opposite of the term artificial intelligence (AI), often as a derogatory reference to the inability of AI technology to adequately perform its tasks.[1] However, within the field of computer science, artificial stupidity is also used to refer to a technique of “dumbing down” computer programs in order to deliberately introduce errors in their responses.

Knight was using the term in its humorous, derogatory form.

Finally

The episode certainly got me thinking if not quite in the way producers might have hoped. ‘The Machine That Feels’ is a glossy, pretty well researched piece of infotainment.

To be blunt, I like and have no problems with infotainment but it can be seductive. I found it easier to remember the artificial friends, wife, xenobots, and symphony than the critiques and concerns.

Hopefully, ‘The Machine That Feels’ stimulates more interest in some very important topics. If you missed the telecast, you can catch the episode here.

For anyone curious about predictive policing, which was mentioned in the Ayanna Howard segment, see my November 23, 2017 posting about Vancouver’s plunge into AI and car theft.

*ETA December 6, 2021: One of the first ‘chatterbots’ was ELIZA, a computer programme developed from1964 to 1966. The most famous ELIZA script was DOCTOR, where the programme simulated a therapist. Many early users believed ELIZA understood and could respond as a human would despite Joseph Weizenbaum’s (creator of the programme) insistence otherwise.

Who’s running the life science companies’ public relations campaign in British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada)?

I started writing this in the aftermath of the 2021 Canadian federal budget when most of the action (so far) occurred but if you keep going to the end of this post you’ll find updates for Precision Nanosystems and AcCellera and a few extra bits. Also, you may want to check out my August 20, 2021 posting (Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story) about Ian MacLachlan and some of the ‘rough and tumble’ of the biotechnology scene in BC/Canada. Now, onto my analysis of the life sciences public relations campaign in British Columbia.

Gordon Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article (also in print on May 8, 2021) about the British Columbia (mostly in Vancouver) biotechnology scene in the Vancouver Sun is the starting point for this story.

His entry (whether the reporter realizes it or not) into a communications (or public relations) campaign spanning federal, provincial, and municipal jurisdictions is well written and quite informative. While it’s tempting to attribute the whole thing to a single evil genius or mastermind in answer to the question posed in the head, the ‘campaign’ is likely a targeted effort by one or more groups and individuals enhanced with a little luck.

Federal and provincial money for life sciences and technology

The Business Council of British Columbia’s April 22, 2021 Federal & B.C. Budgets 2021 Analysis (PDF), notes this in its Highlights section,

•Another priority reflected in both budgets is boosting innovation and accelerating the growth of technology-producing companies. The federal budget [April 19, 2021] is spending billions more to support the life sciences and bio-manufacturing industry, clean technologies, the development of electric vehicles, the aerospace sector, quantum computing, AI, genomics, and digital technologies, among others.

•B.C.’s budget [April 20, 2021] also provides funding to spur innovation, support the technology sector and grow locally-based companies. In this area the main item is the new InBC Investment Corporation [emphasis mine], first announced last summer. Endowed with $500 million financed via an agency loan, the Corporation will establish a fund to invest in growing and “anchoring” high-growth [emphasis mine] B.C. businesses.

Their in-depth analysis does not provide more detail about the life sciences investments in the 2021 Canadian federal budget or the 2021 BC provincial budget.

My May 4, 2021 posting details many of the Canadian federal investments in life sciences and other technology areas of interest. The 2021 BC budget announcement is so vague, it didn’t merit much more than this mention until now.

InBC Investment Corporation (BC’s contribution)

InBC Investment Corporation was set up on or about April 27, 2021 as three news ‘references’ (brief summaries with a link) suggest: InBC Investment Corp. Act, InBC Announcement, $500-million investment fund paves way for StrongerBC.

While the corporation does not have a specific mandate to fund the biotechnology sector, given the current enthusiasm, it’s easy to believe they might be more inclined to fund them than not, regardless of any expertise they or may not have specifically in that field.

Of most interest to me was InBC’s Board of Directors, which I tracked down to a BC Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation May 6, 2021 news release,

InBC Investment Corp. now has a full board of directors with backgrounds in finance, economics, impact investing and business to provide strategic guidance and accountability for the new Crown corporation.

InBC will support startups [emphasis mine], help promising companies scale up and work with a “triple bottom line” mandate that considers people, the planet and profits, to position British Columbia as a front-runner in the post-pandemic economy.

Christine Bergeron, president and chief executive officer of Vancity, will serve as the new board chair of InBC Investment Corp. The nine-member board of directors is made up of both public and private sector members who are responsible for oversight of the corporation, including its mission, policies and goals.

The InBC board members were selected through a comprehensive process, guided by the principles of the Crown Agencies and Board Resourcing Office. Candidates with a variety of relevant backgrounds were considered to form a strong board consisting of seven women and two men. The members appointed represent diversity as well as appropriate areas of expertise.

The following people were selected as members on the board of directors:

  • Christine Bergeron, president and CEO, Vancity
  • Kevin Campbell, managing director of investment banking, board of directors, Haywood Securities
  • Ingrid Leong, VP finance for JH Investments and chief investment officer, Houssian Foundation
  • Glen Lougheed, serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor
  • Suzanne Trottier, vice-president of Indigenous trust services, First Nations Bank Trust
  • Carole James, former minister of finance and deputy premier, Government of British Columbia
  • Iglika Ivanova, senior economist, public interest researcher, BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
  • Bobbi Plecas, deputy minister, B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation
  • Heather Wood, deputy minister, B.C.’s Ministry of Finance

Legislation to provide the governance framework for InBC was introduced by the legislative assembly on April 27, 2021.

Board experience at growing a startup?

This group of people doesn’t seem to have a shred of experience with startups. Glen Lougheed’s “serial tech entrepreneur and angel investor” description means nothing to me and the description he provides in his LinkedIn profile doesn’t clear up matters,

I am a product and business development professional with an entrepreneurial attitude and strong technical skills. I have been building companies both mine and others since I was a teenager.

Having looked up the two companies for which he is currently acting as Chief Executive Officer, Lougheed’s interest appears to be focused on the use of ‘big data’ in marketing and communications campaigns.

Perhaps startup experience isn’t necessary since the board has been appointed to do this (from the BC Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation May 6, 2021 news release; click on the Backgrounder),

Responsibilities of the InBC Investment Corp. board of directors

The board of directors will be responsible for oversight of the management of the affairs of the corporation. This includes:

  • selecting and approving the chief executive officer and chief innovation officer and monitoring performance and accountabilities;
  • reviewing and approving annual corporate financial statements;
  • oversight of policies that relate to InBC’s mandate and holding the executive to account for its accountabilities with respect to InBC’s mandate;
  • oversight of InBC’s operations; and
  • selection and appointment of InBC’s auditor.

Relationships

So, we have two government civil servants, Wood (Deputy Minister of B.C.’s Ministry of Finance) and Plecas (Deputy Minister of B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation), and James, a BC Minister of Finance, who left the job several months ago. Then we have Lougheed, recently resigned (May 2021) as special advisor on innovation and technology to the BC Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation.

It would seem almost half of this new board is or has been affiliated with the government and, likely, know each other.

I expect there are more relationships to be found but my interest is in the overall picture as it pertains to the biotechnology scene. This board (except possibly for Lougheed) does not seem to have any experience in the biotechnology sector or growing any sort of startup business in any technology field.

Presumably, the new chief executive officer (CEO) and new chief innovation officer (CIO) will have some of the necessary experience. Still, biotechnology isn’t the same as digital technology, an area where the BC technology community is quite strong. (The Canadian federal government’s Digital Technology Supercluster is headquartered in BC.)

I imagine the politics around who gets hired as CEO and as CIO will be quite interesting.

See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for more mention of this ‘secretive’ government corporation.

The BC biotech gorillas

AbCellera was BC’s biggest biotech story in 2020/21 (see my Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist post from December 30, 2020 for more. Do check out the subsection titled “Avo Media …” for a look at an unexpectedly interlaced relationship). Note: The AbCellera COVID-19 treatment is not a vaccine or a vaccine delivery system.

It was a bit surprising that Acuitas Therapeutics didn’t get more attention although Hoekstra seems to have addressed that shortcoming in his May 7, 2021 article by using Thomas Madden and Acuitas as the hook for the story,

By early 2020, concern was mounting about a new, deadly coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China.

The World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency just days before. There had been more than 400 deaths and more than 20,000 cases, most of those in China.

But the virus was spreading around the world. Deaths had occurred in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and the virus had been detected in the U.S. and Canada.

By early January of 2020, scientists in China had already sequenced the virus’s genome and made it public, allowing scientists to begin the research for a vaccine.

Scientists expected that could take years.

But, as a second case was confirmed in B.C. in early February, Thomas Madden, a world-renowned expert in nanotechnology who heads Vancouver-based biotech company Acuitas Therapeutics, flew to Germany. [emphases mine]

Acuitas was in the business of creating lipid nanoparticles, microscopic biological vehicles that could deliver drugs [emphasis mine] — for example, to specifically target cancers in the body.

Scientists are already beginning to say it’s likely that a booster vaccine will be needed [emphasis mine] next year to deal with the virus variants.

Madden, the head of Acuitas, says it makes absolute sense to use the new biotechnology, for example, the use of messenger RNA vaccines, to prepare and fight future pandemics.

Says Madden [emphasis mine]: “The technology in terms of what it’s able to do is absolutely phenomenal. It’s just taken us 40 years to get here.”

So, Hoekstra reminds us of the international nature and urgency of the crisis, then, introduces Acuitas as a vital and local player in solutions deployed internationally, and, finally, brings us back to Acuitas after providing an overview of the BC biotech scene and the federal and provincial government’s latest moves,

AbCellera Biologics is more of a supporting player, along with a number of other companies, in Hoekstra’s story,

Sandwiched in the middle, you’ll find what I think is the point of the story,

LifeSciences BC and the provincial government’s commitments

From Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article,

The importance of the biotech sector in providing protection against pandemics has caught the attention of the federal and B.C. governments. It has also been noticed by the private markets.

In its budget [April 19, 2021] earlier this month [sic], the federal government promised more than $2 billion in the next seven years to support “promising” life sciences and bio-manufacturing firms, research, training, education and vaccine candidates.

Some companies, including Precision NanoSystems, have already got federal funding. The Vancouver company received $18.2 million last year to help develop its self-replicating mRNA vaccine and another $25 million in early 2021 to assist building a $50-million facility to produce the vaccine.

Last fall, Symvivo received $2.8 million from the National Research Council to help develop its oral COVID-19 vaccine.

AbCellera has also received a pledge of $175.6 million to help build an accredited manufacturing facility in Vancouver [emphasis mine] to produce antibody treatments.

AbCellera expects to double its 230-person workforce over the next two years as it expands its Vancouver campus.

When AbCellera became a publicly traded company late last year, it raised more than $500 million and had a recent market capitalization, the value of its stock, of about $8.5 billion.

When the B.C. government delivered its throne speech recently, the contribution of the province’s life sciences sector in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic was highlighted, with Precision NanoSystems, AbCellera and StarFish Medical getting mentions. “Their work will not only help bring us out of the pandemic, it will position our province for success in the years ahead,” said B.C.’s Lt. Gov. Jane Austen in delivering the throne speech.

When the budget was released the following week [April 20, 2021], B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson said a new three-year, $500-million strategic investment fund would help support and scale up tech firms.

Despite their successes, B.C. biotech firms have faced challenges.

SaNOtize had to go to the U.K. to get support for clinical trials and AbCellera has been disappointed that despite Health Canada emergency approval of its COVID-19 treatment, provinces have been reluctant to use Bamlanivimab.

Hansen, AbCellera’s CEO and a former University of B.C. professor with a PhD in applied physics and biotechnology, said he believes that biotech is the most important frontier of technology.

In the past, while great science was launched from B.C.’s universities, not as great a job was done on turning that science into innovation, jobs [emphasis mine] and the capacity to bring new products to market, possibly because of a lack of entrepreneurship and polices to make it more attractive to companies to grow and thrive here and move here, notes Hansen.

Hurlburt [Wendy Hurlburt], the LifeSciences B.C. CEO, says that policies, including tax structure and patenting [emphasis mine], that encourages innovation companies are needed to support the biotech sector.

But, adds Hansen: “Here in Vancouver, I feel like we’re turning the corner. There’s probably never been a time when Vancouver’s biotech sector [emphasis mine] was stronger. And the future looks very good.”

Not only is the province involved but so is the City of Vancouver (more about that in a bit).

It’s not all about the cash

Hoekstra’s May 7, 2021 article helped answer a question I had in the title of another posting, January 22, 2021: Why is Precision Nanosystems Inc. in the local (Vancouver, Canada) newspaper? (See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for more to the answer.)

This campaign has been building for a while. In the “Is it magic or how does the federal budget get developed? subsection of my May 4, 2021 posting on the 2021 Canadian federal budget I speculated a little bit,

I believe most of the priorities are set by power players behind the scenes. We glimpsed some of the dynamics courtesy of the WE Charity scandal 2020/21 and the SNC-Lavalin scandal in 2019.

Access to special meetings and encounters are not likely to be given to any member of the ‘great unwashed’ but we do get to see the briefs that are submitted in anticipation of a new budget. These briefs and meetings with witnesses are available on the Parliament of Canada website (Standing Committee on Finance (FINA) webpage for pre-budget consultations.

AbCellera submitted a brief dated August 7, 2020 (PDF) detailing how they would like to see the Income Tax Act amended. It’s not always about getting cash, although that’s very important. In this brief, the company wants “… improved access to the enhanced Scientific Research & Experimental Development tax credit.”

There are many aspects to these campaigns including the federal Income Tax Act and, in this case, municipal involvement.

Vancouver (city government) and the biotech sector

About five weeks prior to the 2021 Canadian federal budget and BC provincial budget announcements, there was some news from the City of Vancouver (from a March 10, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan for dailyhive.com), Note: Links have been removed,

Major expansion plans are abound for AbCellera over the next few years to the extent that the Vancouver-based biotechnology company is now looking to build a massive purpose-built office and medical laboratory campus in Mount Pleasant (Vancouver neighbourhood).

It would be a redevelopment of the entire city block …

… earlier today, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a rezoning enquiry allowing city staff to work with the proponent and accept a formal application for review.

This special additional pre-application step is required due to the temporary ban [emphasis mine] on most types of rezonings within the Broadway Plan’s planning area, until the plan is finalized at the end of 2021.

But city staff are willing to make this a rare exception due to the economic opportunity [emphasis mine] presented by the proposal and the healthcare-related aspects.

“The reasons for advancing this quickly are they are rapidly growing and would like to stay in Vancouver, and we would like them to… We’re very glad to have this company in Vancouver and want to provide them with a permanent home, but in order to scale up, the timeframe to produce their therapy [for viruses] is really time sensitive,” Gil Kelley, the chief urban planner of the City of Vancouver, told city council during today’s [March 10, 2021] meeting.

….

Roughly 10 days after the 2021 budgets are announced, there’s this from Kenneth Chan’s April 29,2021 article on dailyhive.com,

Plans for AbCellera Biologics’ major footprint expansion in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant Industrial Area are moving forward quickly.

Based on the application submitted this week, the Vancouver-based biotechnology company is proposing to redevelop 110 West 4th Avenue …

It will be designated as the rapidly growing company’s global headquarters.

… city staff are providing AbCellera with the highly rare, expedited stream of combining the rezoning and development application processes into one.

By the middle of this decade, AbCellera will have four locations in the area, including its current 21,000 sq ft office at 2215 Yukon Street and a new 44,000 sq ft office nearing completion at 2131 Manitoba Street, just south of its future main hub.

“We’re building state-of-the-art facilities in Vancouver to accelerate the development of new antibody therapies with biotech and pharma partners from around the world,” said Carl Hansen, CEO and president of AbCellera, in a statement.

AbCellera has gained significant international attention over the past year after it co-developed the first authorized COVID-19 antibody therapy for emergency use in high-risk patients in Canada and the United States.

In late 2020, the company closed a successful initial public offering, bringing in $556 million after selling nearly 28 million shares, far exceeding its original goal of raising $250 million. It was the largest-ever IPO [initial public offering] by a Canadian biotech company.

“We see this new site as a creative hub for engineers, software developers, data scientists, biologists and bioinformaticians to collaborate, innovate, and push the frontiers of technology.” [said Veronique Lecault, the COO of AbCellera]

Additionally, AbCellera is also planning to build a clinical-grade, antibody manufacturing facility in Metro Vancouver, funded in part by the $176-million investment it received from the federal government in Spring 2020 [see May 3, 2020 AbCellera news release].

Not cash but AbCellera did get an expedited process for rezoning and I imagine there will be more special treatment as this progresses. (See the ‘Updates and extras’ at the end of this posting for news about the expedited process.)

It’s likely there are other companies in the BC’s life science sector that are eyeing this development with great interest and high hopes for themselves.

What it takes

COVID-19 seems to have galvanized interest and support almost everywhere in the world for life sciences.

I don’t believe that anyone in the life sciences planned for or rejoiced at news of this pandemic. However, the Canadian biotech sector has been working for decades to establish itself as an important economic resource. and, sadly, COVID-19 has been a timely development.

All those years of lobbying, also known as, government relations, marketing, investor relations, public relations and more served as preparation for what looks like a concerted effort and it has paid off in BC at the federal level, provincial level, and municipal level (at least one).

The campaigns continue. Here’s Wendy Hurlburt, president and CEO of LifeSciences BC in a May 14, 2021 Conversations That Matter Vancouver Sun podcast with Stuart McNish. Note: Hurlburt makes an odd comment at about the 7 min. 30 secs. mark regarding insulin and patents.

Her dismay over lost opportunities regarding the insulin patent is right in line with Canada’s current patent mania. See my May 13, 2021 posting, Not a pretty picture: Canada and a patent rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. As far as I’m aware, Canada’s stance has not changed. Interestingly, Hoekstra’s article doesn’t mention COVID-19 patent waivers.

By contrast, here’s what Frederick Banting (one of the discoverers) had to say about his patent, (from the Banting House Insulin Patents webpage),

About the sale of the patent of insulin for $1 Banting reportedly said, “Insulin belongs to the world, not to me.”

… On January 23rd, 1923 Banting, [Charles] Best, and [James] Collip were awarded the American patents for insulin which they sold to the University of Toronto for $1.00 each.

Hurlburt goes on to express dismay over taxes and notes that some companies may leave for other jurisdictions, which means we will lose ‘innovation’. This is a very common ploy coming from any of the technology sectors and can be dated back at least 30 years.

Unmentioned is the dream/business model that so many Canadian tech entrepreneurs have: grow the company, sell it for a lot of money, and retire, preferably before the age of 40.

Getting back to my point, the current situation is not attributable to one individual or to one company’s efforts or to one life science nonprofit or to one federal Network Centre for Excellence (NanoMedicines Innovation Network [NMIN] located at the University of British Columbia).

Note: I have more about the NMIN and Acuitas Therapeutics in a November 12, 2021 posting and there’s more about NMIN’s 7th annual conference and a very high profile guest in a September 11, 2020 posting.

Strategy at the federal, provincial, and local governments, with an eye to the international scene, has been augmented by luck and opportunism.

Updates and extras

Where updates are concerned I have one for Precision Nanosystems and one for AbCellera. I have extras with regard to Moderna and Canada and, BC’s special fund, inBC Investment Corporation. For anyone who’s curious about Banting and the high cost of insulin, I have a couple of links to further reading.

Precision Nanosystems

From an August 11, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan (Note: Links have been removed),

A homegrown pharmaceutical company has announced plans to significantly scale its operations with the opening of a new production facility in Vancouver’s False Creek Flats.

The new Evolution Block building will contain PNI’s new global headquarters and a new genetic medicine Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) biomanufacturing centre, which would allow the company to expand its capabilities to include the clinical manufacturing of RNA vaccines and therapeutics.

Federal funding totalling $25.1 million for PNI was first announced in February 2021 towards covering part of the development costs of such a facility, as part of the federal government’s new strategy to better ensure Canada has the domestic capacity to secure its own COVID-19 vaccines and prepare the country for future pandemics. It is estimated the vaccine production capacity of the new facility will be 240 million doses annually.

PNI’s location in the False Creek Flats is strategic, given the close proximity to the new St. Paul’s Hospital campus and the growing concentration of tech and healthcare-based industrial businesses.

AbCellera

From a June 22, 2021 article by Kenneth Chan (Note: Links have been removed),

The rapidly growing Vancouver-based biotechnology company announced this morning their 130,000 sq ft Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) facility will be located on a two-acre site at the 900 block of Evans Avenue, replacing the Urban Beach volleyball courts just next to the City of Vancouver’s Evans maintenance centre and the Regional Recycling Vancouver Bottle Depot.

GMP is partially funded by the $175 million in federal funding received by the company last year to support research into coronavirus treatment.

GMP adds to AbCellera’s major plans to build a new headquarters in close proximity at 110-150 West 4th Avenue in the Mount Pleasant Industrial Area — a city block-sized campus with a total of 380,000 sq ft of laboratory and office space for research and corporate uses.

Both campus buildings are being reviewed under the City of Vancouver’s rare streamlined, expedited process [emphasis mine] of combining the rezoning and development permit applications. AbCellera formally announced its campus plans in April 2021.

AbCellera gained significant international attention last year when it developed the world’s first monoclonal antibody therapy for COVID-19 to be authorized for emergency use in high-risk patients in Canada and the United States. According to the company, over 400,000 doses of its bamlanivimab drug have been administered around the world, and it is estimated to have kept more than 22,000 people out of hospital — saving at least 11,000 lives.

In late 2020, the company closed a successful initial public offering, bringing in $556 million after selling nearly 28 million shares, far exceeding its original goal of raising $250 million. It was the largest-ever IPO by a Canadian biotech company.

Moderna and Canada

It seems like yesterday that Derek Rossi (co-founder of Moderna) was talking about Canada’s need for a biotechnology hub. (see this June 17, 2021 article by Barbara Shecter for the Financial Post). Interestingly, there’s been an announcement of a memorandum of understanding (these things are announced all the time and don’t necessarily result in anything) between Moderna and the government of Canada according to an August 10, 2021 item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news website,

Massachusetts-based drug maker Moderna will build an mRNA vaccine manufacturing plant in Canada within the next two years, CEO Stephane Bancel said Tuesday [August 10, 2021; Note the timing, the writ for the next federal election was dropped on August 15, 2021].

The company has signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government that will result in Canada becoming the home of Moderna’s first foreign operation. It’s not clear yet how much money Canada has offered to Moderna [emphasis mine] for the project.

Canada, whose life sciences industry has been decimated over the last three decades, wants in on the action. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to rebuild the industry, and the recent budget included a $2.2 billion, seven-year investment to grow the life science and biotech sectors.

Almost half of that targets companies that want to expand or set up vaccine and drug production in Canada. None of the COVID-19 vaccines to date have been made in Canada, leaving the country entirely reliant on imports to fill vaccine orders. As a result, Canada was slower out of the gate on immunizations than some of its counterparts with domestic production, and likely had to pay more per dose for some vaccines as well.

The location of the new facility hasn’t been finalized, but Bancel said the availability of an educated workforce will be the main deciding factor. He said the design is done and they’ll need to start hiring very soon so training can begin.

it’s not exactly a hub but who knows what the future will bring? I imagine there’s going to be some serious wrangling behind the scenes as the provinces battle to be the location for the facility. Note that Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne who made the announcement with Bancel in Montréal represents a federal riding in Québec. (BTW, Bancel is from France and seems to have spent much of his adult life in the US.) Of course anything can happen and I’m sure the BC contingent will make themselves felt but it would seem that Quebec is the front runner for now, assuming this memorandum of understanding leads to a facility. Given that we are in the midst of a federal election, it seems more probable than it might otherwise.

inBC Investment Corporation

Bob Mackin’s August 13, 2021 article for theBreaker.news sheds some light on how that corporation was formed so very quickly and more,

The B.C. NDP government rejigged the B.C. Immigrant Investor Fund last year, but refused to release the business case when it was rebranded as inBC Investment Corp. in late April [2021].

theBreaker.news requested the business case for the $500 million fund, which is overseen by a board of NDP patronage appointees, on May 6 [2021].

The 123-page document below is heavily censored — meaning the NDP cabinet is refusing to tell British Columbians the projected operating costs (including board expenses, salary and benefits, office space, operating and administration), full-time equivalents, and cash flows for the newest Crown corporation. inBC bills itself as a triple-bottom line organization, meaning it intends to invest on the basis of social, environmental and economic values.

When its enabling legislation was tabled, the NDP took steps to exempt inBC from the freedom of information law.

Thank you, Mr. Mackin.

More on Banting, insulin and patents

Caitlyn McClure’s 2016 article (Insulin’s Inventor Sold the Patent for $1. Then Drug Companies Got Hold of It.) for other98.com is a brief and pithy explanation for why insulin costs so much. Alanna Mitchell’s August 13, 2019 article for Maclean’s magazine investigates ‘insulin tourism’ and offers more detail as to how this situation has come about.

One last reminder, my August 20, 2021 posting (Getting erased from the mRNA/COVID-19 story) about Ian MacLachlan provides insight into how competitive and rough the bitotechnology scene can be here in BC/Canada.

Graphene increases its market penetration in 2025?

It seems that I’m not the only one wondering if the European Union’s gamble (1B Euros paid out over 10 years through a research initiative known as the Graphene Flagship) will pay off. A January 25, 2021 news item on Nanowerk announced a study on that topic (Note: A link has been removed),

What happened to the promised applications of graphene and related materials? Thanks to initiatives like the European Union’s Graphene Flagship and heavy investments by leading industries, graphene manufacturing is mature enough to produce prototypes and some real-life niche applications. Now, researchers at Graphene Flagship partner The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Karlsruhe, Germany, have published two papers that roadmap the expected future mass introduction of graphene and related materials in the market.

The January 25, 2021 Graphene Flagship press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, suggests the gamble will pay off,

Back in 2004, graphene was made by peeling off atomically thin layers from a graphite block. Now, thanks to the advances pioneered by the Graphene Flagship, among others, we can produce high quantities of graphene with a reliable and reproducible quality. Furthermore, the Graphene Flagship has driven the discovery of thousands of layered materials, complementary to graphene in properties and applications, and has spearheaded efforts to standardise the fabrication of graphene to ensure consistency and trustworthiness.

The new publications by Graphene Flagship researchers at Fraunhofer ISI, just issued by IOP Publishing’s journal 2D Materials, review the latest outcomes of the Technology and Innovation Roadmap, a process that explores the different pathways towards industrialisation and commercialisation of graphene and related materials. In particular, these articles summarise the impact that graphene and related materials will have transforming the manufacturing process and triggering the emergence of new value chains.

“Our final goal is seeing graphene and related materials fully integrated in day-to-day products and manufacturing,” says Henning Döscher from Graphene Flagship partner Fraunhofer ISI, who leads the Graphene Flagship Roadmap Team. “We are continuously analysing scientific and technological advances in the field as well as their capacity to fulfil future industrial needs. Our first Graphene Roadmap Brief articles summarise some of the most exciting results,” he adds. “Graphene and related materials add value throughout the value chain, from enhancing and enabling new materials to improving individual components and, eventually, end products.” The most immediate applications of graphene, such as composites, inks and coatings are already commercially available, as highlighted by the Graphene Flagship product gallery. The industry will soon be ready to absorb and implement the latest innovations and start manufacturing batteries, solar panels, electronics, photonic and communication devices and medical technologies.

“The market demand for graphene has almost quadrupled in the last two years,” explains Thomas Reiss from Graphene Flagship partner Fraunhofer ISI, and co-leader of the roadmap endeavour. “By strengthening standards and creating tailored high-quality materials, we expect to go beyond niche products and applications to broad market penetration by 2025,” he adds. “Then, graphene could be incorporated in ubiquitous commodities such as tyres, batteries and electronics.”

The dawning decade seems decisive in the road to market of graphene and related materials. “By 2030 we will see if graphene is really as disruptive as silicon or steel,” says Döscher. “The Graphene Flagship has already shown that graphene is useful for numerous applications,” he adds. “Now, we need to ensure that Europe stays a leader in the field, to ensure we benefit from the economic and societal impact of developing such an innovation.”

Alexander Tzalenchuk, Graphene Flagship Leader for Industrialisation, says: “The publication of the Graphene Flagship Roadmap Briefs is a timely and welcome development for industries innovating with graphene and related materials. Improving trust and confidence in graphene-enabled products is a key prerequisite for industrial uptake. Informed by the market analysis and technology assessment of the Graphene Flagship Roadmap, this further contributes to our agenda providing expert validation of the characteristics of graphene and related materials, graphene-enhanced components, devices and systems, by developing consensus-based and accepted international standards.”

Kari Hjelt, Head of Innovation of the Graphene Flagship, adds: “We see a strong increased interest in graphene by several branches of industry as witnessed by the eleven Spearhead Projects of the Graphene Flagship, all led by industry partners. The first mass applications pave the way to emerging high value-added areas in electronics and biomedical applications. In the near future, we will start to witness the transformative power of graphene in many industries. The updates from the Technology and Innovation Roadmap team sheds light on the road ahead for both research and industrial communities alike.”

It’s hard not to notice that those with the most to gain (Graphene Flagship) are claiming success. That said, the two roadmap briefs are being made freely available and I imagine knowledgeable parties will be happy to offer critiques,

Graphene Roadmap Briefs (No. 1): Innovation interfaces of the Graphene Flagship by Henning Döscher and Thomas Reiß. 2D Materials, Volume 8 DOI: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2053-1583/abddcc Accepted Manuscript online 20 January 2021 • © 2020 IOP Publishing Ltd

Graphene Roadmap Briefs (No. 2): Industrialization status and prospects 2020 by Henning Döscher, Thomas Schmaltz, Christoph Neef, Axel Thielmann, and Thomas Reiß. 2D Materials, Volume 8; DOI: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2053-1583/abddcd Accepted Manuscript online 20 January 2021 • © 2020 IOP Publishing Ltd

Both of these papers are open access.

Searchable database for hazardous nanomaterials and a Graphene Verification Programme

I have two relatively recent news bits about nanomaterials, the second being entirely focused on graphene.

Searchable database

A July 9, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces a means of finding out what hazards may be associated with 300 different nanomaterials (Note: A Link has been removed),

A new search tool for nanomaterials has been published on the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials (EUON) website. It will enable regulators to form a better view of available data and give consumers access to chemicals safety information.

The tool combines data submitted by companies in their REACH registrations [Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) ], data collected about nanomaterials used as ingredients in cosmetic products under the Cosmetics Regulation and data from the public national nanomaterial inventories of Belgium and France.

A July 3, 2019 EUON press release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more detail,

The EUON’s search brings data from these sources together in one place, allowing users to easily search for nanomaterials that are currently on the EU market. The results are linked to ECHA’s [European Chemicals Agency] database of chemicals registered in the EU and, for the first time, summarised information about the substances, their properties as well as detailed safety and characterisation data can be easily found.

Background

While there are over 300 nanomaterials on the EU market, 37 are currently covered by an existing registration under REACH. The information requirements for REACH were revised last year with explicit obligations for nanomaterials manufactured in or imported to the EU. The new requirements enter into force in January 2020 and will result in more publicly available information.

The EUON aims to increase the transparency of information available to the public on the safety and markets of nanomaterials in the EU. A key aim of the observatory is to create a one-stop shop for information, where EU citizens and stakeholders including NGOs, industry, and regulators can all easily find accessible and relevant safety information on nanomaterials on the EU market.

Here’s the searchable database.

Graphene verification

There was a bit of a scandal about fake graphene in the Fall of 2018 (my May 28, 2019 posting gives details). Dexter Johnson provides additional insight and information about the launch of a new graphene verification programme and news of a slightly older graphene verification programme in his July 9, 2019 article for the Nanoclast blog on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) website (Note: Links have been removed),

Last year [2018], the graphene community was rocked by a series of critical articles that appeared in some high-profile journals. First there was an Advanced Material’s article with the rather innocuously title: “The Worldwide Graphene Flake Production”. It was perhaps the follow-up article that appeared in the journal Nature that really shook things up with its incendiary title: “The war on fake graphene”.

In these two articles it was revealed that material that had been claimed to be high-quality (and high-priced) graphene was little more than graphite powder. Boosted by their appearance in high-impact journals, these articles threatened the foundations of the graphene marketplace.

But while these articles triggered a lot of hand wringing among the buyers and sellers of graphene, it’s not clear that their impact extended much beyond the supply chain of graphene. Whether or not graphene has aggregated back to being graphite is one question. An even bigger one is whether or not consumers are actually being sold a better product on the basis that it incorporates graphene.

Dexter details some of the issues from the consumer’s perspective (Note: Links have been removed),

Consumer products featuring graphene today include everything from headphones to light bulbs. Consequently, there is already confusion among buyers about the tangible benefits graphene is supposed to provide. And of course the situation becomes even worse if the graphene sold to make products may not even be graphene: how are consumers supposed to determine whether graphene infuses their products with anything other than a buzzword?

Another source of confusion arises because when graphene is incorporated into a product it is effectively a different animal from graphene in isolation. There is ample scientific evidence that graphene when included in a material matrix, like a polymer or even paper, can impart new properties to the materials. “You can transfer some very useful properties of graphene into other materials by adding graphene, but just because the resultant material contains graphene it does not mean it will behave like free-standing graphene, explains Tom Eldridge, of UK-based Fullerex, a consultancy that provides companies with information on how to include graphene in a material matrix

The rest of Dexter’s posting goes on to mention two new graphene verification progammes (producer and product) available through The Graphene Council. As for what the council is, there’s this from council’s About webpage,

The Graphene Council was founded in 2013 with a mission to serve the global community of graphene professionals. Today, The Graphene Council is the largest community in the world for graphene researchers, academics, producers, developers, investors, nanotechnologists, regulatory agencies, research institutes, material science specialists and even the general public. We reach more than 50,000 people with an interest in this amazing material. 

Interestingly the council’s offices are located in the US state of North Carolina. (I would have guessed that its headquarters would be in the UK, given the ‘ownership’ the UK has been attempting to establish over graphene Let me clarify, by ownership I mean the Brits want to be recognized as dominant or preeminent in graphene research and commercialization.)

The council’s first verified graphene producer is a company based in the UK as can be seen in an April 1, 2019 posting by council director Terrance Barkan on the council’s blog,

The Graphene Council is pleased to announce that Versarien plc is the first graphene company in the world to successfully complete the Verified Graphene Producer™ program, an independent, third party verification system that involves a physical inspection of the production facilities, a review of the entire production process, a random sample of product material and rigorous characterization and testing by a first class, international materials laboratory.

The Verified Graphene Producer™ program is an important step to bring transparency and clarity to a rapidly changing and opaque market for graphene materials, providing graphene customers with a level of confidence that has not existed before.

“We are pleased to have worked with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK, regarded as one of the absolute top facilities for metrology and graphene characterization in the world.
 
They have provided outstanding analytical expertise for the materials testing portion of the program including Raman Spectroscopy, XPS, AFM and SEM testing services.” stated Terrance Barkan CAE, Executive Director of The Graphene Council.
 
Andrew Pollard, Science Area Leader of the Surface Technology Group, National Physical Laboratory, said: “In order to develop real-world products that can benefit from the ‘wonder material’, graphene, we first need to fully understand its properties, reliably and reproducibly.
 
“Whilst international measurement standards are currently being developed, it is critical that material characterisation is performed to the highest possible level.
 
As the UK’s National Measurement Institute (NMI) with a focus on developing the metrology of graphene and related 2D materials, we aim to be an independent third party in the testing of graphene material for companies and associations around the world, such as The Graphene Council.” 
 
Neill Ricketts, CEO of Versarien said: “We are delighted that Versarien is the first graphene producer in the world to successfully complete the Graphene Council’s Verified Graphene Producer™ programme.”
 
“This is a huge validation of our technology and will enable our partners and potential customers to have confidence that the graphene we produce meets globally accepted standards.”
 
“There are many companies that claim to be graphene producers, but to enjoy the benefits that this material can deliver requires high quality, consistent product to be supplied.  The Verified Producer programme is designed to verify that our production facilities, processes and tested material meet the stringent requirements laid down by The Graphene Council.”

“I am proud that Versarien has been independently acclaimed as a Verified Graphene Producer™ and look forward to making further progress with our collaboration partners and numerous other parties that we are in discussions with.”

James Baker CEng FIET, the CEO of Graphene@Manchester (which includes coordinating the efforts of the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre [GEIC]) stated: “We applaud The Graphene Council for promoting independent third party verification for graphene producers that is supported by world class metrology and characterization services.”

“This is an important contribution to the commercialization of graphene as an industrial material and are proud to have The Graphene Council as an Affiliate Member of the Graphene Engineering and Innovation Centre (GEIC) here in Manchester ”.

Successful commercialization of graphene materials requires not only the ability to produce graphene to a declared specification but to be able to do so at a commercial scale.
It is nearly impossible for a graphene customer to verify the type of material they are receiving without going through an expensive and time consuming process of having sample materials fully characterized by a laboratory that has the equipment and expertise to test graphene.

The Verified Graphene Producer™ program developed by The Graphene Councilprovides a level of independent inspection and verification that is not available anywhere else.

As for the “Verified Graphene Product” programme mentioned in Dexter’s article (it’s not included in the excerpts here), I can’t find any sign of it ion the council’s website.

Science events and an exhibition concerning wind in the Vancouver (Canada) area for July 2019 and beyond

it’s not quite the bumper crop of science events that took place in May 2019, which may be a good thing if you’re eager to attend everything. First, here are the events and then, the exhibition.

Nerd Nite at the Movies

On July 10, 2019, a new series is being launched at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) Centre. Here’s the description from the Nerd Nite Vancouver SciFact vs SciFi: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies event page,

SciFact vs SciFiction: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies v1. Animal

This summer we’re trying something a little different. Our new summer series of talks – a collaboration between Nerd Nite and VIFF – examines the pseudo-science propagated by Hollywood, and seeks to sift real insights from fake facts, in a fun, playful but peer-approved format. Each show will feature clips from a variety of movies on a science theme with a featured scientist on hand all done Nerd Nite style with drinks! We begin with biology, and our first presenter is Dr Carin Bondar.

Dr Bondar has been the host of Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science, and she’s the author of several books including “Wild Moms: The Science Behind Mating in the Animal Kingdom”. Tonight she’ll join Kaylee [Byers] and Michael [Unger] from Nerd Nite to discuss the sci-facts in a variety of clips from cinema. We’ll be discussing the science in Planet of the ApesThe BirdsArachnophobiaSnakes on a Plane, and more!

When: July 10 [2019]
Where: Vancouver International Film Centre
When: 7:30 – 8:30 – This talk will be followed by a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds (9pm). Double bill price: $20
Tickets: Here!

The VIFF Centre’s SciFact vs SciFi: Animals According to Hollywood event page has much the same information plus this,

SciFact vs SciFi: Nerd Nite Goes to the Movies continues:

July 31 [2019] – Dr. Douglas Scott: The Universe According to Hollywood
Aug 14 [2019] – Mika McKinnon: Disaster According to Hollywood
Aug 28 [2019] – Greg Bole: Evolution According to Hollywood

This series put me in mind what was then the New York-based, ‘Science Goes to the Movies’. I first mentioned this series in a March 10, 2016 posting and it seems that since then, the series has lost a host and been embraced by public television (in the US). You can find the latest incarnation of Science Goes To The Movies here.

Getting back to Vancouver, no word as to which movies will accompany these future talks. If I had a vote, I’d love to see Gattaca accompany any talk on genetics.

That last sentence is both true and provides a neat segue to the next event.

Genetics at the Vancouver Public Library (VPL)

Coming up on July 23, 2019, a couple of graduate students at the University of British Columbia will be sharing some of the latest information on genetics. From the VPL events page,

Curiosities of the Natural World: Genetics – the Future of Medicine

Tuesday, July 23, 2019 (7:00 pm – 8:30 pm)
Central Library
Description

Since their discovery over a century ago, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s have seemed like diseases without a cure. The advent of genetic treatments and biomarkers are changing the outcomes and treatments of these once impossible-to-treat conditions.

UBC researchers, Adam Ramzy and Maria-Elizabeth Baeva discuss the potential of genetic therapies for diabetes, and new biomarkers and therapeutics for Alzheimer ’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

This program is part of the Curiosities of the Natural World series in partnership with UBC Let’s Talk Science, the UBC Faculty of Science, and the UBC Public Scholars Initiative

Suitable for: Adults
Seniors

Additional Details:
Alma VanDusen and Peter Kaye Rooms, Lower Level

It’s hard to know how to respond to this as I loathe anything that has ‘future of medicine’ in it. Isn’t there always going to ***be*** ‘a’ future with medicine in it?

Also, there is at least one cautionary tale about this new era of ‘genetic medicine’: Glybera is a gene therapy that worked for people with a rare genetic disease. It is a **treatment**, the only one, and it is no longer available.

Kelly Crowe in a November 17, 2018 article for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news writes about Glybera,

It is one of this country’s great scientific achievements.

The first drug ever approved that can fix a faulty gene.

It’s called Glybera, and it can treat a painful and potentially deadly genetic disorder with a single dose — a genuine made-in-Canada medical breakthrough.

But most Canadians have never heard of it.

A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia spent decades developing the treatment for people born with a genetic mutation that causes lipoprotein lipase disorder (LPLD).

LPLD affects communities in the Saguenay region of northeastern Quebec at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.

Glybera was never sold in North America and was available in Europe for just two years, beginning in 2015. During that time, only one patient received the drug. Then it was abandoned by the company that held its European licensing rights.

The problem was the price.

The world’s first gene therapy, a remarkable discovery by a dedicated team of scientists who came together in a Vancouver lab, had earned a second, more dubious distinction:

The world’s most expensive drug.

It cost $1M for a single treatment and that single treatment is good for at least 10 years.

Pharmaceutical companies make their money from repeated use of their medicaments and Glybera required only one treatment so the company priced it according to how much they would have gotten for repeated use, $100,000 per year over a 10 year period. The company was not able to persuade governments and/or individuals to pay the cost.

In the end, 31 people got the treatment, most of them received it for free through clinical trials.

Crowe has written an exceptionally good story (November 17, 2018 article) about Glybera and I encourage you to read in its entirety. I warn you it’s heartbreaking.

I wrote about money and genetics in an April 26, 2019 posting (Gene editing and personalized medicine: Canada). Scroll down to the subsection titled ‘Cost/benefit analysis’ for a mention of Goldman Sachs, an American global investment banking, securities and investment management firm, and its conclusion that personalized medicine is not a viable business model. I wonder if part of their analysis included the Glybera experience.

Getting back to the July 23, 2019 talk at the VPL’s central branch, I have no doubt the researchers will be discussing some exciting work but the future might not be as rosy as one might hope.

I wasn’t able to find much information about either Adan Ramzy or Maria-Elizabeth Baeva. There’s this for Ramzy (scroll down to Class of 2021) and this for Baeva (scroll down to Scholarships).

WINDS from June 22 to September 29, 2019

This show or exhibition is taking place in New Westminster (part of the Metro Vancouver area) at the Anvil Centre’s New Media Gallery. From the Anvil Centre’s WINDS event page,

WINDS
New Media Gallery Exhibition
June 22  – September 29
Opening Reception + Artist Talk  is on June 21st at 6:30pm
 
Chris Welsby (UK)
Spencer Finch (UK)
David Bowen (USA)
Nathalie Miebach (Germany/USA)
 
Our summer exhibition features four exciting, multi-media installations by four international artists from UK and USA.  Each artist connects with the representation, recreation and manifestation of wind through physical space and time.  Each suggests how our perception and understanding of wind can be created through pressure, sound, data, pattern, music and motion and then further appreciated in poetic or metaphoric ways that might connect us with how the wind influences language, imagination or our understanding of historic events.
 
All the artists use sound as a key element ; to emphasize or recreate the sonic experience of different winds and their effects, to trigger memory or emotion, or to heighten certain effects that might prompt the viewer to consider significant philosophical questions. Common objects are used in all the works; discarded objects, household or readymade objects and everyday materials; organic, synthetic, natural and manmade. The viewer will find connections with past winds and events both recent and distant.  There is an attempt to capture or allude to a moment in time which brings with it suggestions of mortality,  thereby transforming the works into poignant memento-mori.

Dates
June 22 – September 29, 2019

Price
Complimentary

Location
777 Columbia Street. New Media Gallery.

The New Media Gallery’s home page features ‘winds’ (yes, it’s all in lower case),

Landscape and weather have long shared an intimate connection with the arts.  Each of the works here is a landscape: captured, interpreted and presented through a range of technologies. The four artists in this exhibition have taken, as their material process, the movement of wind through physical space & time. They explore how our perception and understanding of landscape can be interpreted through technology. 

These works have been created by what might be understood as a sort of scientific method or process that involves collecting data, acute observation, controlled experiments and the incorporation of measurements and technologies that control or collect motion, pressure, sound, pattern and the like. The artists then take us in other directions; allowing technology or situations to render visible that which is invisible, creating and focussing on peculiar or resonant qualities of sound, light or movement in ways that seem to influence emotion or memory, dwelling on iconic places and events, or revealing in subtle ways, the subjective nature of time.  Each of these works suggest questions related to the nature of illusive experience and how or if it can be captured, bringing inevitable connections to authorship, loss, memory and memento mori

David Bowen
tele-present wind
Image
Biography
Credits

Spencer Finch (USA)
2 hours, 2 minutes, 2 seconds (Wind at Walden Pond, March 12, 2007)
Image
Biography
Credits

Nathalie Miebach (USA)
Hurricane Noel III
Image
Biography
Credits

Chris Welsby (UK)
Wind Vane
Image
Biography
Credits

Hours
10:00am – 5:00pm Tuesday – Sunday
10:00am – 8:00pm Thursdays
Closed Monday

Address
New Media Gallery
3rd Floor Anvil Centre
777 Columbia Street
New Westminster, BC V3M 1B6

If you want to see the images and biographies for the artists participating in ‘winds’, please go here..

So there you have it, science events and an exhibition in the Vancouver* area for July 2019.

*July 23, 2019 Correction: The word ‘and’ was removed from the final sentence for grammatical correctness.

**July 23, 2019 Correction: I changed the word ‘cure’ to ‘treatment’ so as to be more accurate. The word ‘cure’ suggests permanence and Glybera is supposed to be effective for 10 years or longer but no one really knows.

***Added the word ‘be’ for grammatical correctness on Nov. 30, 2020.

It’s a very ‘carbony’ time: graphene jacket, graphene-skinned airplane, and schwarzite

In August 2018, I been stumbled across several stories about graphene-based products and a new form of carbon.

Graphene jacket

The company producing this jacket has as its goal “… creating bionic clothing that is both bulletproof and intelligent.” Well, ‘bionic‘ means biologically-inspired engineering and ‘intelligent‘ usually means there’s some kind of computing capability in the product. This jacket, which is the first step towards the company’s goal, is not bionic, bulletproof, or intelligent. Nonetheless, it represents a very interesting science experiment in which you, the consumer, are part of step two in the company’s R&D (research and development).

Onto Vollebak’s graphene jacket,

Courtesy: Vollebak

From an August 14, 2018 article by Jesus Diaz for Fast Company,

Graphene is the thinnest possible form of graphite, which you can find in your everyday pencil. It’s purely bi-dimensional, a single layer of carbon atoms that has unbelievable properties that have long threatened to revolutionize everything from aerospace engineering to medicine. …

Despite its immense promise, graphene still hasn’t found much use in consumer products, thanks to the fact that it’s hard to manipulate and manufacture in industrial quantities. The process of developing Vollebak’s jacket, according to the company’s cofounders, brothers Steve and Nick Tidball, took years of intensive research, during which the company worked with the same material scientists who built Michael Phelps’ 2008 Olympic Speedo swimsuit (which was famously banned for shattering records at the event).

The jacket is made out of a two-sided material, which the company invented during the extensive R&D process. The graphene side looks gunmetal gray, while the flipside appears matte black. To create it, the scientists turned raw graphite into something called graphene “nanoplatelets,” which are stacks of graphene that were then blended with polyurethane to create a membrane. That, in turn, is bonded to nylon to form the other side of the material, which Vollebak says alters the properties of the nylon itself. “Adding graphene to the nylon fundamentally changes its mechanical and chemical properties–a nylon fabric that couldn’t naturally conduct heat or energy, for instance, now can,” the company claims.

The company says that it’s reversible so you can enjoy graphene’s properties in different ways as the material interacts with either your skin or the world around you. “As physicists at the Max Planck Institute revealed, graphene challenges the fundamental laws of heat conduction, which means your jacket will not only conduct the heat from your body around itself to equalize your skin temperature and increase it, but the jacket can also theoretically store an unlimited amount of heat, which means it can work like a radiator,” Tidball explains.

He means it literally. You can leave the jacket out in the sun, or on another source of warmth, as it absorbs heat. Then, the company explains on its website, “If you then turn it inside out and wear the graphene next to your skin, it acts like a radiator, retaining its heat and spreading it around your body. The effect can be visibly demonstrated by placing your hand on the fabric, taking it away and then shooting the jacket with a thermal imaging camera. The heat of the handprint stays long after the hand has left.”

There’s a lot more to the article although it does feature some hype and I’m not sure I believe Diaz’s claim (August 14, 2018 article) that ‘graphene-based’ hair dye is perfectly safe ( Note: A link has been removed),

Graphene is the thinnest possible form of graphite, which you can find in your everyday pencil. It’s purely bi-dimensional, a single layer of carbon atoms that has unbelievable properties that will one day revolutionize everything from aerospace engineering to medicine. Its diverse uses are seemingly endless: It can stop a bullet if you add enough layers. It can change the color of your hair with no adverse effects. [emphasis mine] It can turn the walls of your home into a giant fire detector. “It’s so strong and so stretchy that the fibers of a spider web coated in graphene could catch a falling plane,” as Vollebak puts it in its marketing materials.

Not unless things have changed greatly since March 2018. My August 2, 2018 posting featured the graphene-based hair dye announcement from March 2018 and a cautionary note from Dr. Andrew Maynard (scroll down ab out 50% of the way for a longer excerpt of Maynard’s comments),

Northwestern University’s press release proudly announced, “Graphene finds new application as nontoxic, anti-static hair dye.” The announcement spawned headlines like “Enough with the toxic hair dyes. We could use graphene instead,” and “’Miracle material’ graphene used to create the ultimate hair dye.”

From these headlines, you might be forgiven for getting the idea that the safety of graphene-based hair dyes is a done deal. Yet having studied the potential health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials for more years than I care to remember, I find such overly optimistic pronouncements worrying – especially when they’re not backed up by clear evidence.

These studies need to be approached with care, as the precise risks of graphene exposure will depend on how the material is used, how exposure occurs and how much of it is encountered. Yet there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that this substance should be used with caution – especially where there’s a high chance of exposure or that it could be released into the environment.

The full text of Dr. Maynard’s comments about graphene hair dyes and risk can be found here.

Bearing in mind  that graphene-based hair dye is an entirely different class of product from the jacket, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss risks; I would like to know what kind of risk assessment and safety testing has been done. Due to their understandable enthusiasm, the brothers Tidball have focused all their marketing on the benefits and the opportunity for the consumer to test their product (from graphene jacket product webpage),

While it’s completely invisible and only a single atom thick, graphene is the lightest, strongest, most conductive material ever discovered, and has the same potential to change life on Earth as stone, bronze and iron once did. But it remains difficult to work with, extremely expensive to produce at scale, and lives mostly in pioneering research labs. So following in the footsteps of the scientists who discovered it through their own highly speculative experiments, we’re releasing graphene-coated jackets into the world as experimental prototypes. Our aim is to open up our R&D and accelerate discovery by getting graphene out of the lab and into the field so that we can harness the collective power of early adopters as a test group. No-one yet knows the true limits of what graphene can do, so the first edition of the Graphene Jacket is fully reversible with one side coated in graphene and the other side not. If you’d like to take part in the next stage of this supermaterial’s history, the experiment is now open. You can now buy it, test it and tell us about it. [emphasis mine]

How maverick experiments won the Nobel Prize

While graphene’s existence was first theorised in the 1940s, it wasn’t until 2004 that two maverick scientists, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were able to isolate and test it. Through highly speculative and unfunded experimentation known as their ‘Friday night experiments,’ they peeled layer after layer off a shaving of graphite using Scotch tape until they produced a sample of graphene just one atom thick. After similarly leftfield thinking won Geim the 2000 Ig Nobel prize for levitating frogs using magnets, the pair won the Nobel prize in 2010 for the isolation of graphene.

Should you be interested, in beta-testing the jacket, it will cost you $695 (presumably USD); order here. One last thing, Vollebak is based in the UK.

Graphene skinned plane

An August 14, 2018 news item (also published as an August 1, 2018 Haydale press release) by Sue Keighley on Azonano heralds a new technology for airplans,

Haydale, (AIM: HAYD), the global advanced materials group, notes the announcement made yesterday from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) about the recent unveiling of the world’s first graphene skinned plane at the internationally renowned Farnborough air show.

The prepreg material, developed by Haydale, has potential value for fuselage and wing surfaces in larger scale aero and space applications especially for the rapidly expanding drone market and, in the longer term, the commercial aerospace sector. By incorporating functionalised nanoparticles into epoxy resins, the electrical conductivity of fibre-reinforced composites has been significantly improved for lightning-strike protection, thereby achieving substantial weight saving and removing some manufacturing complexities.

Before getting to the photo, here’s a definition for pre-preg from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Pre-preg is “pre-impregnated” composite fibers where a thermoset polymer matrix material, such as epoxy, or a thermoplastic resin is already present. The fibers often take the form of a weave and the matrix is used to bond them together and to other components during manufacture.

Haydale has supplied graphene enhanced prepreg material for Juno, a three-metre wide graphene-enhanced composite skinned aircraft, that was revealed as part of the ‘Futures Day’ at Farnborough Air Show 2018. [downloaded from https://www.azonano.com/news.aspx?newsID=36298]

A July 31, 2018 University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) press release provides a tiny bit more (pun intended) detail,

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has unveiled the world’s first graphene skinned plane at an internationally renowned air show.

Juno, a three-and-a-half-metre wide graphene skinned aircraft, was revealed on the North West Aerospace Alliance (NWAA) stand as part of the ‘Futures Day’ at Farnborough Air Show 2018.

The University’s aerospace engineering team has worked in partnership with the Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the University of Manchester’s National Graphene Institute (NGI), Haydale Graphene Industries (Haydale) and a range of other businesses to develop the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which also includes graphene batteries and 3D printed parts.

Billy Beggs, UCLan’s Engineering Innovation Manager, said: “The industry reaction to Juno at Farnborough was superb with many positive comments about the work we’re doing. Having Juno at one the world’s biggest air shows demonstrates the great strides we’re making in leading a programme to accelerate the uptake of graphene and other nano-materials into industry.

“The programme supports the objectives of the UK Industrial Strategy and the University’s Engineering Innovation Centre (EIC) to increase industry relevant research and applications linked to key local specialisms. Given that Lancashire represents the fourth largest aerospace cluster in the world, there is perhaps no better place to be developing next generation technologies for the UK aerospace industry.”

Previous graphene developments at UCLan have included the world’s first flight of a graphene skinned wing and the launch of a specially designed graphene-enhanced capsule into near space using high altitude balloons.

UCLan engineering students have been involved in the hands-on project, helping build Juno on the Preston Campus.

Haydale supplied much of the material and all the graphene used in the aircraft. Ray Gibbs, Chief Executive Officer, said: “We are delighted to be part of the project team. Juno has highlighted the capability and benefit of using graphene to meet key issues faced by the market, such as reducing weight to increase range and payload, defeating lightning strike and protecting aircraft skins against ice build-up.”

David Bailey Chief Executive of the North West Aerospace Alliance added: “The North West aerospace cluster contributes over £7 billion to the UK economy, accounting for one quarter of the UK aerospace turnover. It is essential that the sector continues to develop next generation technologies so that it can help the UK retain its competitive advantage. It has been a pleasure to support the Engineering Innovation Centre team at the University in developing the world’s first full graphene skinned aircraft.”

The Juno project team represents the latest phase in a long-term strategic partnership between the University and a range of organisations. The partnership is expected to go from strength to strength following the opening of the £32m EIC facility in February 2019.

The next step is to fly Juno and conduct further tests over the next two months.

Next item, a new carbon material.

Schwarzite

I love watching this gif of a schwarzite,

The three-dimensional cage structure of a schwarzite that was formed inside the pores of a zeolite. (Graphics by Yongjin Lee and Efrem Braun)

An August 13, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces the new carbon structure,

The discovery of buckyballs [also known as fullerenes, C60, or buckminsterfullerenes] surprised and delighted chemists in the 1980s, nanotubes jazzed physicists in the 1990s, and graphene charged up materials scientists in the 2000s, but one nanoscale carbon structure – a negatively curved surface called a schwarzite – has eluded everyone. Until now.

University of California, Berkeley [UC Berkeley], chemists have proved that three carbon structures recently created by scientists in South Korea and Japan are in fact the long-sought schwarzites, which researchers predict will have unique electrical and storage properties like those now being discovered in buckminsterfullerenes (buckyballs or fullerenes for short), nanotubes and graphene.

An August 13, 2018 UC Berkeley news release by Robert Sanders, which originated the news item, describes how the Berkeley scientists and the members of their international  collaboration from Germany, Switzerland, Russia, and Italy, have contributed to the current state of schwarzite research,

The new structures were built inside the pores of zeolites, crystalline forms of silicon dioxide – sand – more commonly used as water softeners in laundry detergents and to catalytically crack petroleum into gasoline. Called zeolite-templated carbons (ZTC), the structures were being investigated for possible interesting properties, though the creators were unaware of their identity as schwarzites, which theoretical chemists have worked on for decades.

Based on this theoretical work, chemists predict that schwarzites will have unique electronic, magnetic and optical properties that would make them useful as supercapacitors, battery electrodes and catalysts, and with large internal spaces ideal for gas storage and separation.

UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Efrem Braun and his colleagues identified these ZTC materials as schwarzites based of their negative curvature, and developed a way to predict which zeolites can be used to make schwarzites and which can’t.

“We now have the recipe for how to make these structures, which is important because, if we can make them, we can explore their behavior, which we are working hard to do now,” said Berend Smit, an adjunct professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UC Berkeley and an expert on porous materials such as zeolites and metal-organic frameworks.

Smit, the paper’s corresponding author, Braun and their colleagues in Switzerland, China, Germany, Italy and Russia will report their discovery this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Smit is also a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Playing with carbon

Diamond and graphite are well-known three-dimensional crystalline arrangements of pure carbon, but carbon atoms can also form two-dimensional “crystals” — hexagonal arrangements patterned like chicken wire. Graphene is one such arrangement: a flat sheet of carbon atoms that is not only the strongest material on Earth, but also has a high electrical conductivity that makes it a promising component of electronic devices.

schwarzite carbon cage

The cage structure of a schwarzite that was formed inside the pores of a zeolite. The zeolite is subsequently dissolved to release the new material. (Graphics by Yongjin Lee and Efrem Braun)

Graphene sheets can be wadded up to form soccer ball-shaped fullerenes – spherical carbon cages that can store molecules and are being used today to deliver drugs and genes into the body. Rolling graphene into a cylinder yields fullerenes called nanotubes, which are being explored today as highly conductive wires in electronics and storage vessels for gases like hydrogen and carbon dioxide. All of these are submicroscopic, 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

To date, however, only positively curved fullerenes and graphene, which has zero curvature, have been synthesized, feats rewarded by Nobel Prizes in 1996 and 2010, respectively.

In the 1880s, German physicist Hermann Schwarz investigated negatively curved structures that resemble soap-bubble surfaces, and when theoretical work on carbon cage molecules ramped up in the 1990s, Schwarz’s name became attached to the hypothetical negatively curved carbon sheets.

“The experimental validation of schwarzites thus completes the triumvirate of possible curvatures to graphene; positively curved, flat, and now negatively curved,” Braun added.

Minimize me

Like soap bubbles on wire frames, schwarzites are topologically minimal surfaces. When made inside a zeolite, a vapor of carbon-containing molecules is injected, allowing the carbon to assemble into a two-dimensional graphene-like sheet lining the walls of the pores in the zeolite. The surface is stretched tautly to minimize its area, which makes all the surfaces curve negatively, like a saddle. The zeolite is then dissolved, leaving behind the schwarzite.

soap bubble schwarzite structure

A computer-rendered negatively curved soap bubble that exhibits the geometry of a carbon schwarzite. (Felix Knöppel image)

“These negatively-curved carbons have been very hard to synthesize on their own, but it turns out that you can grow the carbon film catalytically at the surface of a zeolite,” Braun said. “But the schwarzites synthesized to date have been made by choosing zeolite templates through trial and error. We provide very simple instructions you can follow to rationally make schwarzites and we show that, by choosing the right zeolite, you can tune schwarzites to optimize the properties you want.”

Researchers should be able to pack unusually large amounts of electrical charge into schwarzites, which would make them better capacitors than conventional ones used today in electronics. Their large interior volume would also allow storage of atoms and molecules, which is also being explored with fullerenes and nanotubes. And their large surface area, equivalent to the surface areas of the zeolites they’re grown in, could make them as versatile as zeolites for catalyzing reactions in the petroleum and natural gas industries.

Braun modeled ZTC structures computationally using the known structures of zeolites, and worked with topological mathematician Senja Barthel of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Sion, Switzerland, to determine which of the minimal surfaces the structures resembled.

The team determined that, of the approximately 200 zeolites created to date, only 15 can be used as a template to make schwarzites, and only three of them have been used to date to produce schwarzite ZTCs. Over a million zeolite structures have been predicted, however, so there could be many more possible schwarzite carbon structures made using the zeolite-templating method.

Other co-authors of the paper are Yongjin Lee, Seyed Mohamad Moosavi and Barthel of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Rocio Mercado of UC Berkeley, Igor Baburin of the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany and Davide Proserpio of the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy and Samara State Technical University in Russia.

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

Generating carbon schwarzites via zeolite-templating by Efrem Braun, Yongjin Lee, Seyed Mohamad Moosavi, Senja Barthel, Rocio Mercado, Igor A. Baburin, Davide M. Proserpio, and Berend Smit. PNAS August 14, 2018. 201805062; published ahead of print August 14, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805062115

This paper appears to be open access.

A potpourri of robot/AI stories: killers , kindergarten teachers, a Balenciaga-inspired AI fashion designer, a conversational android, and more

Following on my August 29, 2018 post (Sexbots, sexbot ethics, families, and marriage), I’m following up with a more general piece.

Robots, AI (artificial intelligence), and androids (humanoid robots), the terms can be confusing since there’s a tendency to use them interchangeably. Confession: I do it too, but, not this time. That said, I have multiple news bits.

Killer ‘bots and ethics

The U.S. military is already testing a Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. Credit: Lance Cpl. Julien Rodarte, U.S. Marine Corps

That is a robot.

For the purposes of this posting, a robot is a piece of hardware which may or may not include an AI system and does not mimic a human or other biological organism such that you might, under circumstances, mistake the robot for a biological organism.

As for what precipitated this feature (in part), it seems there’s been a United Nations meeting in Geneva, Switzerland held from August 27 – 31, 2018 about war and the use of autonomous robots, i.e., robots equipped with AI systems and designed for independent action. BTW, it’s the not first meeting the UN has held on this topic.

Bonnie Docherty, lecturer on law and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, international human rights clinic, Harvard Law School, has written an August 21, 2018 essay on The Conversation (also on phys.org) describing the history and the current rules around the conduct of war, as well as, outlining the issues with the military use of autonomous robots (Note: Links have been removed),

When drafting a treaty on the laws of war at the end of the 19th century, diplomats could not foresee the future of weapons development. But they did adopt a legal and moral standard for judging new technology not covered by existing treaty language.

This standard, known as the Martens Clause, has survived generations of international humanitarian law and gained renewed relevance in a world where autonomous weapons are on the brink of making their own determinations about whom to shoot and when. The Martens Clause calls on countries not to use weapons that depart “from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.”

I was the lead author of a new report by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic that explains why fully autonomous weapons would run counter to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience. We found that to comply with the Martens Clause, countries should adopt a treaty banning the development, production and use of these weapons.

Representatives of more than 70 nations will gather from August 27 to 31 [2018] at the United Nations in Geneva to debate how to address the problems with what they call lethal autonomous weapon systems. These countries, which are parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, have discussed the issue for five years. My co-authors and I believe it is time they took action and agreed to start negotiating a ban next year.

Docherty elaborates on her points (Note: A link has been removed),

The Martens Clause provides a baseline of protection for civilians and soldiers in the absence of specific treaty law. The clause also sets out a standard for evaluating new situations and technologies that were not previously envisioned.

Fully autonomous weapons, sometimes called “killer robots,” would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. They would be a dangerous step beyond current armed drones because there would be no human in the loop to determine when to fire and at what target. Although fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States are all working to develop them. They argue that the technology would process information faster and keep soldiers off the battlefield.

The possibility that fully autonomous weapons could soon become a reality makes it imperative for those and other countries to apply the Martens Clause and assess whether the technology would offend basic humanity and the public conscience. Our analysis finds that fully autonomous weapons would fail the test on both counts.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and for anyone who thinks the discussion about ethics and killer ‘bots is new or limited to military use, there’s my July 25, 2016 posting about police use of a robot in Dallas, Texas. (I imagine the discussion predates 2016 but that’s the earliest instance I have here.)

Teacher bots

Robots come in many forms and this one is on the humanoid end of the spectum,

Children watch a Keeko robot at the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education in Beijing, where the intelligent machines are telling stories and challenging kids with logic problems  [donwloaded from https://phys.org/news/2018-08-robot-teachers-invade-chinese-kindergartens.html]

Don’t those ‘eyes’ look almost heart-shaped? No wonder the kids love these robots, if an August  29, 2018 news item on phys.org can be believed,

The Chinese kindergarten children giggled as they worked to solve puzzles assigned by their new teaching assistant: a roundish, short educator with a screen for a face.

Just under 60 centimetres (two feet) high, the autonomous robot named Keeko has been a hit in several kindergartens, telling stories and challenging children with logic problems.

Round and white with a tubby body, the armless robot zips around on tiny wheels, its inbuilt cameras doubling up both as navigational sensors and a front-facing camera allowing users to record video journals.

In China, robots are being developed to deliver groceries, provide companionship to the elderly, dispense legal advice and now, as Keeko’s creators hope, join the ranks of educators.

At the Yiswind Institute of Multicultural Education on the outskirts of Beijing, the children have been tasked to help a prince find his way through a desert—by putting together square mats that represent a path taken by the robot—part storytelling and part problem-solving.

Each time they get an answer right, the device reacts with delight, its face flashing heart-shaped eyes.

“Education today is no longer a one-way street, where the teacher teaches and students just learn,” said Candy Xiong, a teacher trained in early childhood education who now works with Keeko Robot Xiamen Technology as a trainer.

“When children see Keeko with its round head and body, it looks adorable and children love it. So when they see Keeko, they almost instantly take to it,” she added.

Keeko robots have entered more than 600 kindergartens across the country with its makers hoping to expand into Greater China and Southeast Asia.

Beijing has invested money and manpower in developing artificial intelligence as part of its “Made in China 2025” plan, with a Chinese firm last year unveiling the country’s first human-like robot that can hold simple conversations and make facial expressions.

According to the International Federation of Robots, China has the world’s top industrial robot stock, with some 340,000 units in factories across the country engaged in manufacturing and the automotive industry.

Moving on from hardware/software to a software only story.

AI fashion designer better than Balenciaga?

Despite the title for Katharine Schwab’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company, I don’t think this AI designer is better than Balenciaga but from the pictures I’ve seen the designs are as good and it does present some intriguing possibilities courtesy of its neural network (Note: Links have been removed),

The AI, created by researcher Robbie Barat, has created an entire collection based on Balenciaga’s previous styles. There’s a fabulous pink and red gradient jumpsuit that wraps all the way around the model’s feet–like a onesie for fashionistas–paired with a dark slouchy coat. There’s a textural color-blocked dress, paired with aqua-green tights. And for menswear, there’s a multi-colored, shimmery button-up with skinny jeans and mismatched shoes. None of these looks would be out of place on the runway.

To create the styles, Barat collected images of Balenciaga’s designs via the designer’s lookbooks, ad campaigns, runway shows, and online catalog over the last two months, and then used them to train the pix2pix neural net. While some of the images closely resemble humans wearing fashionable clothes, many others are a bit off–some models are missing distinct limbs, and don’t get me started on how creepy [emphasis mine] their faces are. Even if the outfits aren’t quite ready to be fabricated, Barat thinks that designers could potentially use a tool like this to find inspiration. Because it’s not constrained by human taste, style, and history, the AI comes up with designs that may never occur to a person. “I love how the network doesn’t really understand or care about symmetry,” Barat writes on Twitter.

You can see the ‘creepy’ faces and some of the designs here,

Image: Robbie Barat

In contrast to the previous two stories, this all about algorithms, no machinery with independent movement (robot hardware) needed.

Conversational android: Erica

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his lifelike (definitely humanoid) robots have featured here many, many times before. The most recent posting is a March 27, 2017 posting about his and his android’s participation at the 2017 SXSW festival.

His latest work is featured in an August 21, 2018 news news item on ScienceDaily,

We’ve all tried talking with devices, and in some cases they talk back. But, it’s a far cry from having a conversation with a real person.

Now a research team from Kyoto University, Osaka University, and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute, or ATR, have significantly upgraded the interaction system for conversational android ERICA, giving her even greater dialog skills.

ERICA is an android created by Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University and ATR, specifically designed for natural conversation through incorporation of human-like facial expressions and gestures. The research team demonstrated the updates during a symposium at the National Museum of Emerging Science in Tokyo.

Here’s the latest conversational android, Erica

Caption: The experimental set up when the subject (left) talks with ERICA (right) Credit: Kyoto University / Kawahara lab

An August 20, 2018 Kyoto University press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, offers more details,

When we talk to one another, it’s never a simple back and forward progression of information,” states Tatsuya Kawahara of Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Informatics, and an expert in speech and audio processing.

“Listening is active. We express agreement by nodding or saying ‘uh-huh’ to maintain the momentum of conversation. This is called ‘backchanneling’, and is something we wanted to implement with ERICA.”

The team also focused on developing a system for ‘attentive listening’. This is when a listener asks elaborating questions, or repeats the last word of the speaker’s sentence, allowing for more engaging dialogue.

Deploying a series of distance sensors, facial recognition cameras, and microphone arrays, the team began collecting data on parameters necessary for a fluid dialog between ERICA and a human subject.

“We looked at three qualities when studying backchanneling,” continues Kawahara. “These were: timing — when a response happens; lexical form — what is being said; and prosody, or how the response happens.”

Responses were generated through machine learning using a counseling dialogue corpus, resulting in dramatically improved dialog engagement. Testing in five-minute sessions with a human subject, ERICA demonstrated significantly more dynamic speaking skill, including the use of backchanneling, partial repeats, and statement assessments.

“Making a human-like conversational robot is a major challenge,” states Kawahara. “This project reveals how much complexity there is in listening, which we might consider mundane. We are getting closer to a day where a robot can pass a Total Turing Test.”

Erica seems to have been first introduced publicly in Spring 2017, from an April 2017 Erica: Man Made webpage on The Guardian website,

Erica is 23. She has a beautiful, neutral face and speaks with a synthesised voice. She has a degree of autonomy – but can’t move her hands yet. Hiroshi Ishiguro is her ‘father’ and the bad boy of Japanese robotics. Together they will redefine what it means to be human and reveal that the future is closer than we might think.

Hiroshi Ishiguro and his colleague Dylan Glas are interested in what makes a human. Erica is their latest creation – a semi-autonomous android, the product of the most funded scientific project in Japan. But these men regard themselves as artists more than scientists, and the Erica project – the result of a collaboration between Osaka and Kyoto universities and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International – is a philosophical one as much as technological one.

Erica is interviewed about her hope and dreams – to be able to leave her room and to be able to move her arms and legs. She likes to chat with visitors and has one of the most advanced speech synthesis systems yet developed. Can she be regarded as being alive or as a comparable being to ourselves? Will she help us to understand ourselves and our interactions as humans better?

Erica and her creators are interviewed in the science fiction atmosphere of Ishiguro’s laboratory, and this film asks how we might form close relationships with robots in the future. Ishiguro thinks that for Japanese people especially, everything has a soul, whether human or not. If we don’t understand how human hearts, minds and personalities work, can we truly claim that humans have authenticity that machines don’t?

Ishiguro and Glas want to release Erica and her fellow robots into human society. Soon, Erica may be an essential part of our everyday life, as one of the new children of humanity.

Key credits

  • Director/Editor: Ilinca Calugareanu
  • Producer: Mara Adina
  • Executive producers for the Guardian: Charlie Phillips and Laurence Topham
  • This video is produced in collaboration with the Sundance Institute Short Documentary Fund supported by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation

You can also view the 14 min. film here.

Artworks generated by an AI system are to be sold at Christie’s auction house

KC Ifeanyi’s August 22, 2018 article for Fast Company may send a chill down some artists’ spines,

For the first time in its 252-year history, Christie’s will auction artwork generated by artificial intelligence.

Created by the French art collective Obvious, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy” is part of a series of paintings of the fictional Belamy family that was created using a two-part algorithm. …

The portrait is estimated to sell anywhere between $7,000-$10,000, and Obvious says the proceeds will go toward furthering its algorithm.

… Famed collector Nicolas Laugero-Lasserre bought one of Obvious’s Belamy works in February, which could’ve been written off as a novel purchase where the story behind it is worth more than the piece itself. However, with validation from a storied auction house like Christie’s, AI art could shake the contemporary art scene.

“Edmond de Belamy” goes up for auction from October 23-25 [2018].

Jobs safe from automation? Are there any?

Michael Grothaus expresses more optimism about future job markets than I’m feeling in an August 30, 2018 article for Fast Company,

A 2017 McKinsey Global Institute study of 800 occupations across 46 countries found that by 2030, 800 million people will lose their jobs to automation. That’s one-fifth of the global workforce. A further one-third of the global workforce will need to retrain if they want to keep their current jobs as well. And looking at the effects of automation on American jobs alone, researchers from Oxford University found that “47 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years.”

The good news is that while the above stats are rightly cause for concern, they also reveal that 53% of American jobs and four-fifths of global jobs are unlikely to be affected by advances in artificial intelligence and robotics. But just what are those fields? I spoke to three experts in artificial intelligence, robotics, and human productivity to get their automation-proof career advice.

Creatives

“Although I believe every single job can, and will, benefit from a level of AI or robotic influence, there are some roles that, in my view, will never be replaced by technology,” says Tom Pickersgill, …

Maintenance foreman

When running a production line, problems and bottlenecks are inevitable–and usually that’s a bad thing. But in this case, those unavoidable issues will save human jobs because their solutions will require human ingenuity, says Mark Williams, head of product at People First, …

Hairdressers

Mat Hunter, director of the Central Research Laboratory, a tech-focused co-working space and accelerator for tech startups, have seen startups trying to create all kinds of new technologies, which has given him insight into just what machines can and can’t pull off. It’s lead him to believe that jobs like the humble hairdresser are safer from automation than those of, says, accountancy.

Therapists and social workers

Another automation-proof career is likely to be one involved in helping people heal the mind, says Pickersgill. “People visit therapists because there is a need for emotional support and guidance. This can only be provided through real human interaction–by someone who can empathize and understand, and who can offer advice based on shared experiences, rather than just data-driven logic.”

Teachers

Teachers are so often the unsung heroes of our society. They are overworked and underpaid–yet charged with one of the most important tasks anyone can have: nurturing the growth of young people. The good news for teachers is that their jobs won’t be going anywhere.

Healthcare workers

Doctors and nurses will also likely never see their jobs taken by automation, says Williams. While automation will no doubt better enhance the treatments provided by doctors and nurses the fact of the matter is that robots aren’t going to outdo healthcare workers’ ability to connect with patients and make them feel understood the way a human can.

Caretakers

While humans might be fine with robots flipping their burgers and artificial intelligence managing their finances, being comfortable with a robot nannying your children or looking after your elderly mother is a much bigger ask. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that even today’s most advanced robots don’t have the physical dexterity to perform the movements and actions carers do every day.

Grothaus does offer a proviso in his conclusion: certain types of jobs are relatively safe until developers learn to replicate qualities such as empathy in robots/AI.

It’s very confusing

There’s so much news about robots, artificial intelligence, androids, and cyborgs that it’s hard to keep up with it let alone attempt to get a feeling for where all this might be headed. When you add the fact that the term robots/artificial inteligence are often used interchangeably and that the distinction between robots/androids/cyborgs is not always clear any attempts to peer into the future become even more challenging.

At this point I content myself with tracking the situation and finding definitions so I can better understand what I’m tracking. Carmen Wong’s August 23, 2018 posting on the Signals blog published by Canada’s Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) offers some useful definitions in the context of an article about the use of artificial intelligence in the life sciences, particularly in Canada (Note: Links have been removed),

Artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning. To most people, these are just buzzwords and synonymous. Whether or not we fully understand what both are, they are slowly integrating into our everyday lives. Virtual assistants such as Siri? AI is at work. The personalized ads you see when you are browsing on the web or movie recommendations provided on Netflix? Thank AI for that too.

AI is defined as machines having intelligence that imitates human behaviour such as learning, planning and problem solving. A process used to achieve AI is called machine learning, where a computer uses lots of data to “train” or “teach” itself, without human intervention, to accomplish a pre-determined task. Essentially, the computer keeps on modifying its algorithm based on the information provided to get to the desired goal.

Another term you may have heard of is deep learning. Deep learning is a particular type of machine learning where algorithms are set up like the structure and function of human brains. It is similar to a network of brain cells interconnecting with each other.

Toronto has seen its fair share of media-worthy AI activity. The Government of Canada, Government of Ontario, industry and multiple universities came together in March 2018 to launch the Vector Institute, with the goal of using AI to promote economic growth and improve the lives of Canadians. In May, Samsung opened its AI Centre in the MaRS Discovery District, joining a network of Samsung centres located in California, United Kingdom and Russia.

There has been a boom in AI companies over the past few years, which span a variety of industries. This year’s ranking of the top 100 most promising private AI companies covers 25 fields with cybersecurity, enterprise and robotics being the hot focus areas.

Wong goes on to explore AI deployment in the life sciences and concludes that human scientists and doctors will still be needed although she does note this in closing (Note: A link has been removed),

More importantly, empathy and support from a fellow human being could never be fully replaced by a machine (could it?), but maybe this will change in the future. We will just have to wait and see.

Artificial empathy is the term used in Lisa Morgan’s April 25, 2018 article for Information Week which unfortunately does not include any links to actual projects or researchers working on artificial empathy. Instead, the article is focused on how business interests and marketers would like to see it employed. FWIW, I have found a few references: (1) Artificial empathy Wikipedia essay (look for the references at the end of the essay for more) and (2) this open access article: Towards Artificial Empathy; How Can Artificial Empathy Follow the Developmental Pathway of Natural Empathy? by Minoru Asada.

Please let me know in the comments if you should have an insights on the matter in the comments section of this blog.

When nanoparticles collide

The science of collisions, although it looks more like kissing to me, at the nanoscale could lead to some helpful discoveries according to an April 5, 2018 news item on Nanowerk,

Helmets that do a better job of preventing concussions and other brain injuries. Earphones that protect people from damaging noises. Devices that convert “junk” energy from airport runway vibrations into usable power.

New research on the events that occur when tiny specks of matter called nanoparticles smash into each other could one day inform the development of such technologies.

Before getting to the news release proper, here’s a gif released by the university,

A digital reconstruction shows how individual atoms in two largely spherical nanoparticles react when the nanoparticles collide in a vacuum. In the reconstruction, the atoms turn blue when they are in contact with the opposing nanoparticle. Credit: Yoichi Takato

An April 4, 2018 University at Buffalo news release (also on EurekAlert) by Charlotte Hsu, which originated the news item, fills in some details,

Using supercomputers, scientists led by the University at Buffalo modeled what happens when two nanoparticles collide in a vacuum. The team ran simulations for nanoparticles with three different surface geometries: those that are largely circular (with smooth exteriors); those with crystal facets; and those that possess sharp edges.

“Our goal was to lay out the forces that control energy transport at the nanoscale,” says study co-author Surajit Sen, PhD, professor of physics in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “When you have a tiny particle that’s 10, 20 or 50 atoms across, does it still behave the same way as larger particles, or grains? That’s the guts of the question we asked.”

“The guts of the answer,” Sen adds, “is yes and no.”

“Our research is useful because it builds the foundation for designing materials that either transmit or absorb energy in desired ways,” says first author Yoichi Takato, PhD. Takato, a physicist at AGC Asahi Glass and former postdoctoral scholar at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, completed much of the study as a doctoral candidate in physics at UB. “For example, you could potentially make an ultrathin material that is energy absorbent. You could imagine that this would be practical for use in helmets and head gear that can help to prevent head and combat injuries.”

The study was published on March 21 in Proceedings of the Royal Society A by Takato, Sen and Michael E. Benson, who completed his portion of the work as an undergraduate physics student at UB. The scientists ran their simulations at the Center for Computational Research, UB’s academic supercomputing facility.

What happens when nanoparticles crash

The new research focused on small nanoparticles — those with diameters of 5 to 15 nanometers. The scientists found that in collisions, particles of this size behave differently depending on their shape.

For example, nanoparticles with crystal facets transfer energy well when they crash into each other, making them an ideal component of materials designed to harvest energy. When it comes to energy transport, these particles adhere to scientific norms that govern macroscopic linear systems — including chains of equal-sized masses with springs in between them — that are visible to the naked eye.

In contrast, nanoparticles that are rounder in shape, with amorphous surfaces, adhere to nonlinear force laws. This, in turn, means they may be especially useful for shock mitigation. When two spherical nanoparticles collide, energy dissipates around the initial point of contact on each one instead of propagating all the way through both. The scientists report that at crash velocities of about 30 meters per second, atoms within each particle shift only near the initial point of contact.

Nanoparticles with sharp edges are less predictable: According to the new study, their behavior varies depending on sharpness of the edges when it comes to transporting energy.
Designing a new generation of materials

“From a very broad perspective, the kind of work we’re doing has very exciting prospects,” Sen says. “It gives engineers fundamental information about nanoparticles that they didn’t have before. If you’re designing a new type of nanoparticle, you can now think about doing it in a way that takes into account what happens when you have very small nanoparticles interacting with each other.”

Though many scientists are working with nanotechnology, the way the tiniest of nanoparticles behave when they crash into each other is largely an open question, Takato says.

“When you’re designing a material, what size do you want the nanoparticle to be? How will you lay out the particles within the material? How compact do you want it to be? Our study can inform these decisions,” Takato says.

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

Small nanoparticles, surface geometry and contact forces by Yoichi Takato, Michael E. Benson, Surajit Sen. Proceedings of the Royal Society A (Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences) Published 21 March 2018.DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2017.0723

This paper is behind a paywall.