Category Archives: innovation

Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) Appoints Expert Panel on International Science and Technology Partnerships

Now the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) has announced its expert panel for the “International Science and Technology Partnership Opportunities” project, I offer my usual guess analysis of the connections between the members of the panle.

This project first was mentioned in my March 2, 2022 posting, scroll down to the “Council of Canadian Academies launches four projects” subhead. One comment before launching into the expert panel, the word innovation, which you’ll see in the announcement, is almost always code for commercialization, business and/or entrepreneurship.

A May 9, 2022 CCA news release (received via email) announced the members of expert panel,

CCA Appoints Expert Panel on International Science and Technology Partnerships

May 9, 2022 – Ottawa, ON

Canada has numerous opportunities to pursue beneficial international partnerships focused on science, technology, and innovation (STI), but finite resources to support them. At the request of Global Affairs Canada, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) has formed an Expert Panel to examine best practices and identify key elements of a rigorous, data-enabled approach to selecting international STI partnership opportunities. Monica Gattinger, Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, will serve as Chair of the Expert Panel.

“International STI partnerships can be crucial to advancing Canada’s interests, from economic growth to public health, sustainability, and security,” said Dr. Gattinger. “I look forward to leading this important assessment and working with panel members to develop clear, comprehensive and coherent approaches for evaluating partnership opportunities.”

As Chair, Dr. Gattinger will lead a multidisciplinary group with expertise in science diplomacy, global security, economics and trade, international research collaboration, and program evaluation. The Panel will answer the following question:

In a post-COVID world, how can Canadian public, private and academic organizations evaluate and prioritize STI partnership opportunities with foreign countries to achieve key national objectives, using indicators supported by objective data where possible?

“I’m delighted that an expert of Dr. Gattinger’s experience and knowledge has agreed to chair this panel,” said Eric M. Meslin, PhD, FRSC, FCAHS, President and CEO of the CCA. “I look forward to the report’s findings for informing the use of international partnerships in science, technology, and innovation.”

More information can be found here.

The Expert Panel on International Science and Technology Partnerships:

Monica Gattinger (Chair), Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa

David Audretsch, Distinguished Professor; Ameritech Chair of Economic Development; Director, Institute for Development Strategies, Indiana University

Stewart Beck, Distinguished Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

Paul Arthur Berkman, Faculty Associate, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School, and Associate Director, Science Diplomacy Centre, Harvard-MIT Public Disputes Program, Harvard University; Associated Fellow, United Nations Institute for Training and Research

Karen Croteau, Partner, Goss Gilroy

Paul Dufour, Principal, PaulicyWorks

Meredith Lilly, Associate Professor, Simon Reisman Chair in International Economic Policy, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University [located in Ottawa]

David Perry, President, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

Peggy Van de Plassche, Managing Partner, Roar Growth

Caroline S. Wagner, Professor, John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University

Jennifer M. Welsh, Professor; Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security; Director, Centre for International Peace and Security Studies, McGill University

Given the discussion of pronouns and identification, I note that the panel of 11 experts includes six names commonly associated with women and five names commonly associated with men, which suggests some of the gender imbalance (male/female) I’ve noticed in the past is not present in the makeup of this panel.

There are three ‘international’ members and all are from the US. Based on past panels, international members tend to be from the US or the UK or, occasionally, from Australia or Europe.

Geographically, we have extraordinarily high representation (Monica Gattinger, David Perry, Meredith Lilly, Paul Dufour, and Karen Croteau) from people who are linked to Ottawa, Ontario, either educated or working at the University of Ottawa or Carleton University. (Thank goodness; it’s not as if the nation’s capital dominates almost every discussion about Canada. Ottawa, represent!)

As usual, there is no Canadian representing the North. This seems a bit odd given the very high international interest in the Arctic regions.

Ottawa connections

Here are some of the links (that I’ve been able to find) to Ottawa,

Monica Gattinger (from her Institute of Governance profile page),

Dr. Gattinger is an award-winning researcher and highly sought-after speaker, adviser and media commentator in the energy and arts/cultural [emphasis mine] policy sectors….

Gattinger is Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, … She holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Carleton University. [emphases mine]

You’ll note David Perry is president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and Meredith Lilly is currently at Carleton University.

Perry is a professor at the University of Calgary where the Canadian Global Affairs Institute is headquartered (and it has offices in Ottawa). Here’s more from Perry’s institute profile page,

… He received his PhD in political science from Carleton University [emphasis mine] where his dissertation examined the link between defence budgeting and defence procurement. He is an adjunct professor at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and a research fellow of the Centre for the Study of Security and Development at Dalhousie University. …

Paul Dufour also has an Ottawa connection, from his 2017 CCA profile page,

Paul Dufour is a Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy in the University of Ottawa [emphasis mine] and science policy Principal with PaulicyWorks in Gatineau, Québec. He is on the Board of Directors of the graduate student led Science Policy Exchange based in Montréal [emphasis mine], and is [a] member of the Investment Committee for Grand Challenges Canada.

Paul Dufour has been senior advisor in science policy with several Canadian agencies and organizations over the course of the past 30 years. Among these: Senior Program Specialist with the International Development Research Centre, and interim Executive Director at the former Office of the National Science Advisor to the Canadian Government advising on international S&T matters and broad questions of R&D policy directions for the country.

Born in Montréal, Mr. Dufour was educated at McGill University [emphasis mine], the Université de Montréal, and Concordia University in the history of science and science policy, …

Role: Steering Committee Member

Report: Science Policy: Considerations for Subnational Governments (April 2017)

Finally, there’s Karen Croteau a partner at Goss Gilroy. Here’s more from her LinkedIn profile page,

A seasoned management consultant professional and Credentialed Evaluator with more than 18 years experience in a variety of areas including: program evaluation, performance measurement, organizational/ resource review, benefit/cost analysis, reviews of regulatory management programs, organizational benchmarking, business case development, business process improvement, risk management, change management and project/ program management.

Experience

Partner

Goss Gilroy Inc

Jul 2019 – Present 2 years 11 months

Ottawa, Ontario [emphasis mine]

Education

Carleton University [emphasis mine]

Carleton University [emphasis mine]
Master’s Diploma Public Policy and Program Evaluation

The east coast

I think of Toronto, Ottawa, and Montréal as a kind of East Coast triangle.

Interestingly, Jennifer M. Welsh is at McGill University in Montréal where Paul Dufour was educated.

Representing the third point, Toronto, is Peggy Van de Plassche (judging by her accent in her YouTube videos, she’s from France), from her LinkedIn profile page,

I am a financial services and technology expert, corporate director, business advisor, investor, entrepreneur, and public speaker, fluent in French and English.

Prior to starting Roar Growth, I led innovation for CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce], allocated several billions of capital to technology projects on behalf of CGI and BMO [Bank of Montreal], managed a European family office, and started 2 Fintechs.

Education

Harvard Business School [emphasis mine]

Executive Education – Investment

IÉSEG School of Management [France]

Master of Science (MSc) – Business Administration and Management, General

IÉSEG School of Management

Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) – Accounting and Finance

I didn’t find any connections to the Ottawa or Montréal panel members but I was mildly interested to see that one of the US members Paul Arthur Berkman is from Harvard University. Otherwise, Van de Plassche stands mostly alone.

The last of my geographical comments

David Perry manages to connect Alberta via his adjunct professorship at the University of Calgary, Ottawa (as noted previously) and Nova Scotia via his fellowship at Dalhousie University.

In addition to Montréal and the ever important Québec connection, Jennifer M. Welsh could be said to connect another prairie province while adding a little more international flair to this panel (from her McGill University profile page,

Professor Jennifer M. Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University (Montreal, Canada). She was previously Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) [emphasis mine] and Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford, [emphasis mine] where she co-founded the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. From 2013-2016, she served as the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on the Responsibility to Protect.

… She has a BA from the University of Saskatchewan (Canada),[emphasis mine] and a Masters and Doctorate from the University of Oxford (where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar).

Stewart Beck seems to be located in Vancouver, Canada which gives the panel one West Coast connection, here’s more from his LinkedIn profile page,

As a diplomat, a trade commissioner, and a policy expert, I’ve spent the last 40 years as one of the foremost advocates of Canada’s interests in the U.S. and Asia. From 2014 to 2021 (August), I was the President and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada [APF] [emphasis mine], Canada’s leading research institution on Asia. Under my leadership, the organization added stakeholder value through applied research and as a principal convener on Asia topics, a builder of enviable networks of public and private sector stakeholders, and a leader of conversations on crucial regional issues. Before joining APF Canada, I led a distinguished 30+ year career with Canada’s diplomatic corps. With postings in the U.S. and Asia, culminating with an assignment as Canada’s High Commissioner to India (Ambassador) [emphasis mine], I gained the knowledge and experience to be one of Canada’s recognized experts on Asia and innovation policy. Along the way, I also served in many senior foreign policy and trade positions, including as Canada’s most senior trade and investment development official, Consul General to Shanghai [emphasis mine]and Consul General to San Francisco. Today, Asia is vitally critical to Canada’s economic security, both financially and technologically. Applying my understanding and navigating the challenging geopolitical, economic, and trade environment is the value I bring to strategic conversations on the region. An established network of senior private and public sector officials in Canada and Asia complements the experience I’ve gained over the many years living and working in Asia.

He completed undergraduate and graduate degrees at Queen’s University in Ontario and, given his career in diplomacy, I expect there are many Ottawa connections.

David Audretsch and Caroline S. Wagner of Indiana University and Ohio State University, respectively, are a little unusual. Most of the time, US members are from the East Coast or the West Coast not from one of the Midwest states.

One last comment about Paul Arthur Berkman, his profile page on the Harvard University website reveals unexpected polar connections,

Fulbright Arctic Chair [emphasis mine] 2021-2022, United States Department of State and Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Paul Arthur Berkman is science diplomat, polar explorer and global thought leader applying international, interdisciplinary and inclusive processes with informed decisionmaking to balance national interests and common interests for the benefit of all on Earth across generations. Paul wintered in Antarctica [emphasis mine] when he was twenty-two, SCUBA diving throughout the year under the ice, and then taught a course on science into policy as a Visiting Professor at the University of California Los Angeles the following year, visiting all seven continents before the age of thirty.

Hidden diversity

While the panel is somewhat Ottawa-centric with a strong bias towards the US and Europe, there are some encouraging signs.

Beck’s experience in Asia and Berkman’s in the polar regions is good to see. Dufour has written the Canada chapter in two (2015 and 2021) UNESCO Science Reports and offers an excellent overview of the Canadian situation within a global context in the 2021 edition (I haven’t had the time to view the 2015 report).

Economist Audretsch and FinTech entrepreneur Van de Plassche, offer academic and practical perspectives for ‘innovation’ while Perry and Welsh both offer badly needed (Canada has been especially poor in this area; see below) security perspectives.

The rest of the panel offers what you’d expect, extensive science policy experience. I hope Gattinger’s experience with arts/cultural policy will enhance this project.

This CCA project comes at a time when Canada is looking at establishing closer links to the European Union’s science programmes as per my May 11, 2022 posting: Canada’s exploratory talks about joining the European Union’s science funding programme (Horizon Europe).

This project also comes at about the same time the Canadian federal government announced in its 2022 federal budget (covered in my April 19, 2022 posting, scroll down about 25% of the way; you’ll recognize the subhead) a new Canadian investment and Innovation Agency.

Notes on security

Canada has stumbled more than once in this area.The current war waged by Russia in Ukraine offers one of the latest examples of how state actors can wage damage not just in the obvious physical sense but also with cyberattacks. The US suffered a notable attack in May 2021 which forced the shutdown of a major gas pipeline (May 9, 2021 NBC news report).

As for Canada, there is a July 9, 2014 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news report about a cyberattack on the National Research Council (NRC),

A “highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor” recently managed to hack into the computer systems at Canada’s National Research Council, according to Canada’s chief information officer, Corinne Charette.

For its part, the NRC says in a statement released Tuesday morning that it is now attempting to rebuild its computer infrastructure and this could take as much a year.

The NRC works with private businesses to advance and develop technological innovations through science and research.

This is not the first time the Canadian government has fallen victim to a cyberattack that seems to have originated in China — but it is the first time the Canadian government has unequivocally blamed China for the attack.

In September 2021 an announcement was made about a new security alliance where Canada was not included (from my September 17, 2021 posting),

Wednesday, September 15, 2021 an announcement of a new alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, the Three Eyes (Australia, UK, and US or AUKUS) was made.

Interestingly all three are part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, and US. Hmmm … Canada and New Zealand both border the Pacific and last I heard, the UK is still in Europe.

I mention other security breaches such as the Cameron Ortis situation and the Winnipeg-based National Microbiology Lab (NML), the only level 4 lab in Canada in the September 17, 2021 posting under the ‘What is public safety?’ subheading.

It seems like there might be some federal movement on the issues assuming funding for “Securing Canada’s Research from Foreign Threats” in the 2022 federal budget actually appears. It’s in my April 19, 2022 posting about 45% of the way down under the subheading Research security.

I wish the panel good luck.

Futures exhibition/festival with fish skin fashion and more at the Smithsonian (Washington, DC), Nov. 20, 2021 to July 6, 2022

Fish leather

Before getting to Futures, here’s a brief excerpt from a June 11, 2021 Smithsonian Magazine exhibition preview article by Gia Yetikyel about one of the contributors, Elisa Palomino-Perez (Note: A link has been removed),

Elisa Palomino-Perez sheepishly admits to believing she was a mermaid as a child. Growing up in Cuenca, Spain in the 1970s and ‘80s, she practiced synchronized swimming and was deeply fascinated with fish. Now, the designer’s love for shiny fish scales and majestic oceans has evolved into an empowering mission, to challenge today’s fashion industry to be more sustainable, by using fish skin as a material.

Luxury fashion is no stranger to the artist, who has worked with designers like Christian Dior, John Galliano and Moschino in her 30-year career. For five seasons in the early 2000s, Palomino-Perez had her own fashion brand, inspired by Asian culture and full of color and embroidery. It was while heading a studio for Galliano in 2002 that she first encountered fish leather: a material made when the skin of tuna, cod, carp, catfish, salmon, sturgeon, tilapia or pirarucu gets stretched, dried and tanned.

The history of using fish leather in fashion is a bit murky. The material does not preserve well in the archeological record, and it’s been often overlooked as a “poor person’s” material due to the abundance of fish as a resource. But Indigenous groups living on coasts and rivers from Alaska to Scandinavia to Asia have used fish leather for centuries. Icelandic fishing traditions can even be traced back to the ninth century. While assimilation policies, like banning native fishing rights, forced Indigenous groups to change their lifestyle, the use of fish skin is seeing a resurgence. Its rise in popularity in the world of sustainable fashion has led to an overdue reclamation of tradition for Indigenous peoples.

In 2017, Palomino-Perez embarked on a PhD in Indigenous Arctic fish skin heritage at London College of Fashion, which is a part of the University of the Arts in London (UAL), where she received her Masters of Arts in 1992. She now teaches at Central Saint Martins at UAL, while researching different ways of crafting with fish skin and working with Indigenous communities to carry on the honored tradition.

Yetikyel’s article is fascinating (apparently Nike has used fish leather in one of its sports shoes) and I encourage you to read her June 11, 2021 article, which also covers the history of fish leather use amongst indigenous peoples of the world.

I did some digging and found a few more stories about fish leather. The earlier one is a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) November 16, 2017 online news article by Jane Adey,

Designer Arndis Johannsdottir holds up a stunning purse, decorated with shiny strips of gold and silver leather at Kirsuberjatred, an art and design store in downtown Reykjavik, Iceland.

The purse is one of many in a colourful window display that’s drawing in buyers.

Johannsdottir says customers’ eyes often widen when they discover the metallic material is fish skin. 

Johannsdottir, a fish-skin designing pioneer, first came across the product 35 years ago.

She was working as a saddle smith when a woman came into her shop with samples of fish skin her husband had tanned after the war. Hundreds of pieces had been lying in a warehouse for 40 years.

“Nobody wanted it because plastic came on the market and everybody was fond of plastic,” she said.

“After 40 years, it was still very, very strong and the colours were beautiful and … I fell in love with it immediately.”

Johannsdottir bought all the skins the woman had to offer, gave up saddle making and concentrated on fashionable fish skin.

Adey’s November 16, 2017 article goes on to mention another Icelandic fish leather business looking to make fish leather a fashion staple.

Chloe Williams’s April 28, 2020 article for Hakkai Magazine explores the process of making fish leather and the new interest in making it,

Tracy Williams slaps a plastic cutting board onto the dining room table in her home in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Her friend, Janey Chang, has already laid out the materials we will need: spoons, seashells, a stone, and snack-sized ziplock bags filled with semi-frozen fish. Williams says something in Squamish and then translates for me: “You are ready to make fish skin.”

Chang peels a folded salmon skin from one of the bags and flattens it on the table. “You can really have at her,” she says, demonstrating how to use the edge of the stone to rub away every fiber of flesh. The scales on the other side of the skin will have to go, too. On a sockeye skin, they come off easily if scraped from tail to head, she adds, “like rubbing a cat backwards.” The skin must be clean, otherwise it will rot or fail to absorb tannins that will help transform it into leather.

Williams and Chang are two of a scant but growing number of people who are rediscovering the craft of making fish skin leather, and they’ve agreed to teach me their methods. The two artists have spent the past five or six years learning about the craft and tying it back to their distinct cultural perspectives. Williams, a member of the Squamish Nation—her ancestral name is Sesemiya—is exploring the craft through her Indigenous heritage. Chang, an ancestral skills teacher at a Squamish Nation school, who has also begun teaching fish skin tanning in other BC communities, is linking the craft to her Chinese ancestry.

Before the rise of manufactured fabrics, Indigenous peoples from coastal and riverine regions around the world tanned or dried fish skins and sewed them into clothing. The material is strong and water-resistant, and it was essential to survival. In Japan, the Ainu crafted salmon skin into boots, which they strapped to their feet with rope. Along the Amur River in northeastern China and Siberia, Hezhen and Nivkh peoples turned the material into coats and thread. In northern Canada, the Inuit made clothing, and in Alaska, several peoples including the Alutiiq, Athabascan, and Yup’ik used fish skins to fashion boots, mittens, containers, and parkas. In the winter, Yup’ik men never left home without qasperrluk—loose-fitting, hooded fish skin parkas—which could double as shelter in an emergency. The men would prop up the hood with an ice pick and pin down the edges to make a tent-like structure.

On a Saturday morning, I visit Aurora Skala in Saanich on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, to learn about the step after scraping and tanning: softening. Skala, an anthropologist working in language revitalization, has taken an interest in making fish skin leather in her spare time. When I arrive at her house, a salmon skin that she has tanned in an acorn infusion—a cloudy, brown liquid now resting in a jar—is stretched out on the kitchen counter, ready to be worked.

Skala dips her fingers in a jar of sunflower oil and rubs it on her hands before massaging it into the skin. The skin smells only faintly of fish; the scent reminds me of salt and smoke, though the skin has been neither salted nor smoked. “Once you start this process, you can’t stop,” she says. If the skin isn’t worked consistently, it will stiffen as it dries.

Softening the leather with oil takes about four hours, Skala says. She stretches the skin between clenched hands, pulling it in every direction to loosen the fibers while working in small amounts of oil at a time. She’ll also work her skins across other surfaces for extra softening; later, she’ll take this piece outside and rub it back and forth along a metal cable attached to a telephone pole. Her pace is steady, unhurried, soothing. Back in the day, people likely made fish skin leather alongside other chores related to gathering and processing food or fibers, she says. The skin will be done when it’s soft and no longer absorbs oil.

Onto the exhibition.

Futures (November 20, 2021 to July 6, 2022 at the Smithsonian)

A February 24, 2021 Smithsonian Magazine article by Meilan Solly serves as an announcement for the Futures exhibition/festival (Note: Links have been removed),

When the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building (AIB) opened to the public in 1881, observers were quick to dub the venue—then known as the National Museum—America’s “Palace of Wonders.” It was a fitting nickname: Over the next century, the site would go on to showcase such pioneering innovations as the incandescent light bulb, the steam locomotive, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and space-age rockets.

“Futures,” an ambitious, immersive experience set to open at AIB this November, will act as a “continuation of what the [space] has been meant to do” from its earliest days, says consulting curator Glenn Adamson. “It’s always been this launchpad for the Smithsonian itself,” he adds, paving the way for later museums as “a nexus between all of the different branches of the [Institution].” …

Part exhibition and part festival, “Futures”—timed to coincide with the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary—takes its cue from the world’s fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries, which introduced attendees to the latest technological and scientific developments in awe-inspiring celebrations of human ingenuity. Sweeping in scale (the building-wide exploration spans a total of 32,000 square feet) and scope, the show is set to feature historic artifacts loaned from numerous Smithsonian museums and other institutions, large-scale installations, artworks, interactive displays and speculative designs. It will “invite all visitors to discover, debate and delight in the many possibilities for our shared future,” explains AIB director Rachel Goslins in a statement.

“Futures” is split into four thematic halls, each with its own unique approach to the coming centuries. “Futures Past” presents visions of the future imagined by prior generations, as told through objects including Alexander Graham Bell’s experimental telephone, an early android and a full-scale Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. “In hindsight, sometimes [a prediction is] amazing,” says Adamson, who curated the history-centric section. “Sometimes it’s sort of funny. Sometimes it’s a little dismaying.”

Futures That Work” continues to explore the theme of technological advancement, but with a focus on problem-solving rather than the lessons of the past. Climate change is at the fore of this section, with highlighted solutions ranging from Capsula Mundi’s biodegradable burial urns to sustainable bricks made out of mushrooms and purely molecular artificial spices that cut down on food waste while preserving natural resources.

Futures That Inspire,” meanwhile, mimics AIB’s original role as a place of wonder and imagination. “If I were bringing a 7-year-old, this is probably where I would take them first,” says Adamson. “This is where you’re going to be encountering things that maybe look a bit more like science fiction”—for instance, flying cars, self-sustaining floating cities and Afrofuturist artworks.

The final exhibition hall, “Futures That Unite,” emphasizes human relationships, discussing how connections between people can produce a more equitable society. Among others, the list of featured projects includes (Im)possible Baby, a speculative design endeavor that imagines what same-sex couples’ children might look like if they shared both parents’ DNA, and Not The Only One (N’TOO), an A.I.-assisted oral history project. [all emphases mine]

I haven’t done justice to Solly’s February 24, 2021 article, which features embedded images and offers a more hopeful view of the future than is currently the fashion.

Futures asks: Would you like to plan the future?

Nate Berg’s November 22, 2021 article for Fast Company features an interactive urban planning game that’s part of the Futures exhibition/festival,

The Smithsonian Institution wants you to imagine the almost ideal city block of the future. Not the perfect block, not utopia, but the kind of urban place where you get most of what you want, and so does everybody else.

Call it urban design by compromise. With a new interactive multiplayer game, the museum is hoping to show that the urban spaces of the future can achieve mutual goals only by being flexible and open to the needs of other stakeholders.

The game is designed for three players, each in the role of either the city’s mayor, a real estate developer or an ecologist. The roles each have their own primary goals – the mayor wants a well-served populace, the developer wants to build successful projects, and the ecologist wants the urban environment to coexist with the natural environment. Each role takes turns adding to the block, either in discrete projects or by amending what another player has contributed. Options are varied, but include everything from traditional office buildings and parks to community centers and algae farms. The players each try to achieve their own goals on the block, while facing the reality that other players may push the design in unexpected directions. These tradeoffs and their impact on the block are explained by scores on four basic metrics: daylight, carbon footprint, urban density, and access to services. How each player builds onto the block can bring scores up or down.

To create the game, the Smithsonian teamed up with Autodesk, the maker of architectural design tools like AutoCAD, an industry standard. Autodesk developed a tool for AI-based generative design that offers up options for a city block’s design, using computing power to make suggestions on what could go where and how aiming to achieve one goal, like boosting residential density, might detract from or improve another set of goals, like creating open space. “Sometimes you’ll do something that you think is good but it doesn’t really help the overall score,” says Brian Pene, director of emerging technology at Autodesk. “So that’s really showing people to take these tradeoffs and try attributes other than what achieves their own goals.” The tool is meant to show not how AI can generate the perfect design, but how the differing needs of various stakeholders inevitably require some tradeoffs and compromises.

Futures online and in person

Here are links to Futures online and information about visiting in person,

For its 175th anniversary, the Smithsonian is looking forward.

What do you think of when you think of the future? FUTURES is the first building-wide exploration of the future on the National Mall. Designed by the award-winning Rockwell Group, FUTURES spans 32,000 square feet inside the Arts + Industries Building. Now on view until July 6, 2022, FUTURES is your guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter. You are, after all, only the latest in a long line of future makers.

Smell a molecule. Clean your clothes in a wetland. Meditate with an AI robot. Travel through space and time. Watch water being harvested from air. Become an emoji. The FUTURES is yours to decide, debate, delight. We invite you to dream big, and imagine not just one future, but many possible futures on the horizon—playful, sustainable, inclusive. In moments of great change, we dare to be hopeful. How will you create the future you want to live in?

Happy New Year!

Reading (1 of 2): an artificial intelligence story in British Columbia (Canada)

Every once in a while I decide to dive further into a story and highlight some of the ways in which we all get fooled into thinking that the technology industry is going to leave British Columbia with use of a survey (Reading [1 of 2]) or that we can somehow make ourselves healthier (Reading [2 of 2)) with the use ‘scientifically’ derived data.

Setting the scene

The last time I encountered Miro Cernetig was when he was a member of a panel of political pundits (he was a reporter for the Vancouver Sun at that time in 2009). It seems he’s moved on into the realm of ‘storymaking’ and public relations. He popped up in Nick Eagland’s October 5, 2019 article (Artificial intelligence firms in B.C. seek more support from federal government),

Handol Kim, vice-chair of Network [Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C (AInBC)] said federal funding and support don’t measure up to the size and pace of B.C.’s AI sector, and should be earmarked for research.

In 2017, the federal budget included $125 million in funding for AI research at institutes in Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal. [emphasis mine] Kim said those centres boast AI “super star” and “rock star” researchers with international name recognition. B.C.’s sector hasn’t been able to market itself that way but has plenty to offer, Kim said.

“The tech industry doesn’t automatically assume the government is going to help,” he said. “But where government does have a role to play is in research and funding research, especially when we have a tenuous lead and a good position, and we’re getting outspent.”

CityAge is partnering with the Artificial Intelligence Network for CrossOver: AI, a conference in Vancouver on Dec. 9 [2019], which will help draw national attention to B.C.’s sector, said CityAge co-founder Miro Cernetig.[emphasis mine]

Cernetig, owner of branding agency Catalytico, said B.C.’s sector is strong at commercializing its technology — getting it to market for a profit. But he worries that Canada is too often recognized only for its natural resources, when it has plenty of “human capital” to give it an edge in the development of AI, particularly in B.C.

“It’s important that Vancouver and British Columbia be fully integrated into the national data strategy, which includes AI,” he said.

“Because the only way we’ll be able to compete globally is if we take all of the best pieces and nodes of excellent across the country and bring them together into a true Canadian approach.”

This seems like a standard ploy. “Our industry is not getting enough support, please give us more federal money or lower taxes, etc.” Looking backwards from our latest federal election on Oct. 22, 2019, the timing for this plea seems odd. Unless it’s a misdirect and the real audience is the provincial government (British Columbia). So, what is the story?

Storymaking, surveys, and the tech sector in BC

Cernetig bills himself as a ‘storymaker’ on his LinkedIn profile,

Miro Cernetig
Storymaker and seasoned strategist who is founder of Catalytico ~ ideas in motion & Co-Founder of CityAge.

As noted earlier, Cernetig was a journalist (which gives him credentials when placing a story with former colleagues in the media). He also seems to have been quite successful (from his Huffington Post biography),

Globe and Mail‘s bureau chief in Beijing, New York, Vancouver, Edmonton and the Arctic. He was also the Quebec bureau chief for the Toronto Star. During his 25-year career Miro has worked in film, print and digital mediums for the Globe and Mail, the CBC, the Toronto Star and most recently as a staff columnist at the Vancouver Sun.

Miro’s writing — on business, culture, politics and public policy — has also appeared in ROB Magazine [Report on Business; a Globe and Mail publication], the New York Times, the Economist, the International Herald Tribune and People Magazine.

..

Lies, damn lies and statistics

I can’t find anything that suggests Cernetig has a background in any type of science. Presumably his employees at CityAge have some skills in polling and/or social sciences (from Eagland’s October 5, 2019 article (Artificial intelligence firms in B.C. seek more support from federal government),

A new survey found that more than half of B.C’s. artificial intelligence companies believe the federal government is not doing enough to boost the sector, and half have considered leaving the province. [emphasis mine]

The non-profit industry association, Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C., [AInBC] says there are more than 150 AI-related firms in B.C. and more than 65 submitted responses to its survey, which was conducted by CityAge and released this week. [emphases mine]

More than 56 per cent of respondents said the federal government needs to do more to help the local AI sector grow, with 31 per cent saying its efforts were lacking and 24 per cent saying they needed major attention.

Half of respondents said they have considered moving their companies out of B.C. They main reasons they gave were a desire to connect to bigger markets (35 per cent) and to operate in a better taxation and regulatory environment (11 per cent).

The firms said their most significant impediments to growth were lack of capital (30 per cent) and an inability to access the right talent (27 per cent).

But they also showed hope for the future, with 47 per cent saying they are “very confident” they will grow over the next three to five years, and 33 per cent saying they are “solid” but could be doing better.

A survey, eh? I guarantee that I could devise one where a majority of the respondents agree that I should receive $1M or more from the government, tax free, and for no particular reason.

It’s funny. We know surveys are highly dependent on who is surveyed and how and in what order the questions are asked and yet we forget when we see ‘survey facts’ published somewhere.

Does anyone think that members of the Artificial Intelligence Network of B.C would say no to more financial support? What was the point of the survey? The whole thing reminds me of an old saying, “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” (Note: Links in the excerpt have been removed)

Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent’s point.

The phrase was popularized in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” However, the phrase is not found in any of Disraeli’s works and the earliest known appearances were years after his death. Several other people have been listed as originators of the quote, and it is often erroneously attributed to Twain himself.[1]

By the way, I haven’t been able to find the survey or a report about the survey available online, which means that the methodology can’t be examined.

What’s the story? Answer: confusing

Eagland’s article looks like part of a campaign to get the federal government to spread their AI largesse in BC’s direction. (Am I the only one who thinks that British Columbia’s AI companies and educational institutions are smarting because they weren’t included in the federal government’s 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy? They budgeted $125M for AI communities in Edmonton, Montréal, and Toronto.) Or, it’s possible AInBC is signaling the provincial government that there are problems which they (the provincial government) could solve with funding

In Eagland’s relatively short article there’s a second message; it’s about an upcoming AI conference, CrossOver: AI on December 9, 2019. At that point, the articles start to look like an advertisement for an event organized by CityAge’s (Miro Cernetig’s company). I found this on the conference website’s About page,

Artificial Intelligence, and the technologies around it, will determine the builders of our future economy.

British Columbia has — and is building — that crucial AI ecosystem. Through it, we will have the local and global reach to build the future.

Organized by CityAge and the Artificial Intelligence network of British Columbia, CrossOver: AI will connect and catalyze an essential network of leaders in British Columbia and Canada’s emerging AI ecosystem. To take BC’s strengths in this transformative technology to the national and global stage.

CrossOver AI will:

Establish British Columbia as a national and global leader in AI/ML.

Showcase BC’s AI/ML start-up ecosystem to global investors and corporations for investment and partnerships.

Attract global corporations to invest in establishing AI/ML R&D in BC.

Demonstrate to BC and Canada’s business, government and academic leadership that we have a strong, growing AI network.

Gather and connect all of the members of BC’s AI network to each other.

CrossOver AI’s program will be structured to provide an engaging combination of high-quality content and practical business information.

The morning of the event will be a mix of panel discussions and 20-minute TED-style presentations.

The afternoon will be organized as an interactive mix of pitch sessions that profile the opportunities in global AI and BC’s capabilities.

About AInBC

The Artificial Intelligence network of British Columbia (AInBC) was established by business and academic leaders to unify, organize and catalyze the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) communities in British Columbia (BC) to establish BC as a national and global leader in AI by 2022.

AInBC believes that AI/ML is of strategic importance to the economic and social well-being of everyone in BC, and is dedicated to ensuring that BC leads rather than follows.

We define the AI community in BC as:
Academic Institutions
AI/ML companies/start-ups
Corporations with AI/ML initiatives
Entrepreneurs
Investment Community
Students
Government (Provincial and Municipal)
Foreign/Non-BC based Corporations seeking AI/ML talent in BC

AInBC recognizes that all members of this community must be served in order to create a vigorous and high-growth ecosystem that benefits all members and the province overall. AInBC is a not-for-profit Society.

About CityAge
CityAge was founded on the idea that a neutral, focused set of high-powered conversations will help us develop and implement big ideas that build the future. 

CityAge has held over 50 conferences on a variety of topics in major urban markets across North America, Europe and Asia, ranging in size from 150 to 500 leaders. 

More than 7,000 leaders have attended CityAge and are part of the CityAge network.

I also found themes,

Which Businesses AI is Disrupting Now: How your organization can use this essential new tool for business, managing natural resources, and discovering innovations. AI isn’t just for Silicon Valley; it’s available to everyone.

Unicorn AI: BC’s AI companies have the potential to be global players. We’ll look at how we can help them get there.

Attracting Global AI Investment: What do BC and Canada need to do to attract human and financial capital to the emerging AI cluster? How do we get the news out to the world that we are taking a leading role in the AI revolution?

AI for a Better World:  AI will allow us new ways to look at social challenges we’ve been trying to solve. How will AI, with the human component and thoughtful policy, help us build a stronger economy and society?

AI and The Data Effect: BC and Canada can responsibly gather and use the data that AI needs. We will look at what competitors are doing, what our strategic advantages are, and how to use them to build our AI cluster.

Ethical AI: How to control the risks, enroll the public, and use AI to build the economy and improve lives.

It’s nice to see that they’ve tucked in ‘ethics’ and ‘making the world a better place’ along with the business-oriented themes.

As for what constitutes this story, it seems a little confused. First, we want money from the federal government 9we might leave if we don’t get it) and, second, we’ve got a conference where we want to attract business people and investors.

Analyzing the confusion

It would have been good to find out more about the artificial intelligence community in BC. Unfortunately, I don’t think Nick Eagland has enough experience to get that story. (BTW, A lot of reporters don’t have enough experience to ask the right questions, especially in science and technology. They don’t have the time to adequately research the topic and they can’t draw on past experience because they don’t spend enough time focused on one subject area long enough to learn about it.)

As for the branding or storymaking strategy on display, I don’t think it was a good idea to bundle the two messages together but then I’m not a member of any target audiences (e.g., business investor, venture capitalist, policy maker, etc.). As well, I’m not the client who may have been driving this message or, in this case, incompatible messages and there’s not a lot the PR flack can do in that case.

An example of ‘good’ storymaking

As for the standard tech community complaints, here’s one of the latest examples and it’s a good example of how to do this. From an Oct. 7, 2019 news item on Daily Hive,

Over 110 Canadian tech CEOs have signed an open letter urging political parties to take action to strengthen the country’s innovative economy, and avoid falling further behind international peers.

So far, major parties have put forward pledges in areas like affordability, first-time home buyers, and climate change, but the campaigns have offered few promises designed to drive economic growth in the digital age.

The letter was drafted by the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group representing some of the country’s fastest-growing companies. Combined, its signatories run domestic firms that employed more than 35,000 people last year and generated more than $6 billion for the Canadian economy.

Ian Rae, CEO of Montreal big-data firm CloudOps, said his engineers receive unsolicited job offers, usually with big salaries and mostly from US tech firms.

“We need to be thinking in Canada about the future economy and the fact that the globe seems to be in this enormous shift towards the globalized digital economy,” said Rae.

He said deep-pocketed foreign investors have also had their eyes on Canadian firms with potential. The risk, he said, is that these companies are bought out before they can grow and generate wealth and employment returns in Canada.

“A lot of these US companies are cherry-picking Canadian scale-ups before they scale up, so that the ultimate net benefit tends to flow outside of the Canadian economy,” Rae said.

Tech CEOs have said the Liberal government’s efforts in recent years to support high growth firms have offered little for emerging scale-up companies that have already outgrown the start-up phase.

David Ross, CEO of Ross Video, said a recent study by the University of Toronto found that Canada was an international laggard when it came to scaling up private firms to the billion dollar mark, companies also known as unicorns. [emphasis mine]

“The situation is so bad that even if we were to create four times as many unicorns, we would still be in last place,” said the study from the university’s Impact Centre.

Ross, whose Ottawa information and communications technology company has 650 employees, said the performance “should be a bit of a crisis for our politicians.”

“Canada should be more than rocks, trees, and oil,” Ross said.


This story was tightly focused on science and technology innovation and party platforms prior to the October 21, 2019 election. It was timely and it was an appeal to make Canada “… more than rocks, …” tying in very nicely with an iconic slam poetry presentation (We Are More) at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver by Shane Koyczan.

Should you be interested in more information about Mr. Cenetig’s companies, you can find out more about Catalytico here and CityAge here.

S.NET (Society for the Study of New and Emerging Technologies) 2019 conference in Quito, Ecuador: call for abstracts

Why isn’t the S.NET abbreviation SSNET? That’s what it should be, given the organization’s full name: Society for the Study of New and Emerging Technologies. S.NET smacks of a compromise or consensus decision of some kind. Also, the ‘New’ in its name was ‘Nanoscience’ at one time (see my Oct. 22, 2013 posting).

Now onto 2019 and the conference, which, for the first time ever, is being held in Latin America. Here’s more from a February 4, 2019 S.Net email about the call for abstracts,

2019 Annual S.NET Meeting
Contrasting Visions of Technological Change

The 11th Annual S.NET meeting will take place November 18-20, 2019, at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Quito, Ecuador.

This year’s meeting will provide rich opportunities to reflect on technological change by establishing a dialogue between contrasting visions on how technology becomes closely intertwined with social orders.  We aim to open the black box of technological change by exploring the sociotechnical agreements that help to explain why societies follow certain technological trajectories. Contributors are invited to explore the ramifications of technological change, reflect on the policy process of technology, and debate whether or why technological innovation is a matter for democracy.

Following the transnational nature of S.NET, the meeting will highlight the diverse geographical and cultural approaches to technological innovation, the forces driving sociotechnical change, and social innovation.  It is of paramount importance to question the role of technology in the shaping of society and the outcomes of these configurations.  What happens when these arrangements come into being, are transformed or fall apart?  Does technology create contestation?  Why and how should we engage with contested visions of technology change?

This is the first time that the S.NET Meeting will take place in Latin America and we encourage panels and presentations with contrasting voices from both the Global North and the Global South. 

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

Sociotechnical imaginaries of innovation
The role of technology on shaping nationhood and nation identities
Decision-making processes on science and technology public policies
Co-creation approaches to promote public innovation
Grassroots innovation, sustainability and democracy
Visions and cultural imaginaries
Role of social sciences and humanities in processes technological change
In addition, we welcome contributions on:
Research dynamics and organization Innovation and use
Governance and regulation
Politics and ethics
Roles of publics and stakeholders

Keynote Speakers
TBA (check the conference website for updates!)

Deadlines & Submission Instructions
The program committee invites contributions from scholars, technology developers and practitioners, and welcome presentations from a range of disciplines spanning the humanities, social and natural sciences.  We invite individual paper submissions, open panel and closed session proposals, student posters, and special format sessions, including events that are innovative in form and content. 

The deadline for abstract submissions is *April 18, 2019* [extended to May 12, 2019].  Abstracts should be approximately 250 words in length, emailed in PDF format to 2019snet@gmail.com.  Notifications of acceptance can be expected by May 30, 2019.

Junior scholars and those with limited resources are strongly encouraged to apply, as the organizing committee is actively investigating potential sources of financial support.

Details on the conference can be found here: https://www.flacso.edu.ec/snet2019/

Local Organizing Committee
María Belén Albornoz, Isarelis Pérez, Javier Jiménez, Mónica Bustamante, Jorge Núñez, Maka Suárez.

Venue
FLACSO Ecuador is located in the heart of Quito.  Most hotels, museums, shopping centers and other cultural hotspots in the city are located near the campus and are easily accessible by public or private transportation.  Due to its proximity and easy access, Meeting participants would be able to enjoy Quito’s rich cultural life during their stay.  

About S.NET
S.NET is an international association that promotes intellectual exchange and critical inquiry about the advancement of new and emerging technologies in society.  The aim of the association is to advance critical reflection from various perspectives on developments in a broad range of new and emerging fields, including, but not limited to, nanoscale science and engineering, biotechnology, synthetic biology, cognitive science, ICT and Big Data, and geo-engineering.  Current S.NET board members are: Michael Bennett (President), Maria Belen Albornoz, Claire Shelley-Egan, Ana Delgado, Ana Viseu, Nora Vaage, Chris Toumey, Poonam Pandey, Sylvester Johnson, Lotte Krabbenborg, and Maria Joao Ferreira Maia.

Don’t forget, the deadline for your abstract is *April 18, 2019* [extended to May 12, 2019].

For anyone curious about what Quito might look like, there’s this from Quito’s Wikipedia entry,

Clockwise from top: Calle La Ronda, Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, El Panecillo as seen from Northern Quito, Carondelet Palace, Central-Northern Quito, Parque La Carolina and Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco. Credit: various authors – montage of various important landmarks of the City of Quito, Ecuador taken from files found in Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0 File:Montaje Quito.png Created: 24 December 2012

Good luck to all everyone submitting an abstract.

*Date for abstract submissions changed from April 18, 2019 to May 12, 2019 on April 24, 2019

Artificial intelligence (AI) brings together International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and World Health Organization (WHO) and AI outperforms animal testing

Following on my May 11, 2018 posting about the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit in mid- May, there’s an announcement. My other bit of AI news concerns animal testing.

Leveraging the power of AI for health

A July 24, 2018 ITU press release (a shorter version was received via email) announces a joint initiative focused on improving health,

Two United Nations specialized agencies are joining forces to expand the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the health sector to a global scale, and to leverage the power of AI to advance health for all worldwide. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will work together through the newly established ITU Focus Group on AI for Health to develop an international “AI for health” standards framework and to identify use cases of AI in the health sector that can be scaled-up for global impact. The group is open to all interested parties.

“AI could help patients to assess their symptoms, enable medical professionals in underserved areas to focus on critical cases, and save great numbers of lives in emergencies by delivering medical diagnoses to hospitals before patients arrive to be treated,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “ITU and WHO plan to ensure that such capabilities are available worldwide for the benefit of everyone, everywhere.”

The demand for such a platform was first identified by participants of the second AI for Good Global Summit held in Geneva, 15-17 May 2018. During the summit, AI and the health sector were recognized as a very promising combination, and it was announced that AI-powered technologies such as skin disease recognition and diagnostic applications based on symptom questions could be deployed on six billion smartphones by 2021.

The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health is coordinated through ITU’s Telecommunications Standardization Sector – which works with ITU’s 193 Member States and more than 800 industry and academic members to establish global standards for emerging ICT innovations. It will lead an intensive two-year analysis of international standardization opportunities towards delivery of a benchmarking framework of international standards and recommendations by ITU and WHO for the use of AI in the health sector.

“I believe the subject of AI for health is both important and useful for advancing health for all,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The ITU Focus Group on AI for Health will also engage researchers, engineers, practitioners, entrepreneurs and policy makers to develop guidance documents for national administrations, to steer the creation of policies that ensure the safe, appropriate use of AI in the health sector.

“1.3 billion people have a mobile phone and we can use this technology to provide AI-powered health data analytics to people with limited or no access to medical care. AI can enhance health by improving medical diagnostics and associated health intervention decisions on a global scale,” said Thomas Wiegand, ITU Focus Group on AI for Health Chairman, and Executive Director of the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, as well as professor at TU Berlin.

He added, “The health sector is in many countries among the largest economic sectors or one of the fastest-growing, signalling a particularly timely need for international standardization of the convergence of AI and health.”

Data analytics are certain to form a large part of the ITU focus group’s work. AI systems are proving increasingly adept at interpreting laboratory results and medical imagery and extracting diagnostically relevant information from text or complex sensor streams.

As part of this, the ITU Focus Group for AI for Health will also produce an assessment framework to standardize the evaluation and validation of AI algorithms — including the identification of structured and normalized data to train AI algorithms. It will develop open benchmarks with the aim of these becoming international standards.

The ITU Focus Group for AI for Health will report to the ITU standardization expert group for multimedia, Study Group 16.

I got curious about Study Group 16 (from the Study Group 16 at a glance webpage),

Study Group 16 leads ITU’s standardization work on multimedia coding, systems and applications, including the coordination of related studies across the various ITU-T SGs. It is also the lead study group on ubiquitous and Internet of Things (IoT) applications; telecommunication/ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities; intelligent transport system (ITS) communications; e-health; and Internet Protocol television (IPTV).

Multimedia is at the core of the most recent advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) – especially when we consider that most innovation today is agnostic of the transport and network layers, focusing rather on the higher OSI model layers.

SG16 is active in all aspects of multimedia standardization, including terminals, architecture, protocols, security, mobility, interworking and quality of service (QoS). It focuses its studies on telepresence and conferencing systems; IPTV; digital signage; speech, audio and visual coding; network signal processing; PSTN modems and interfaces; facsimile terminals; and ICT accessibility.

I wonder which group deals with artificial intelligence and, possibly, robots.

Chemical testing without animals

Thomas Hartung, professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University (US), describes in his July 25, 2018 essay (written for The Conversation) on phys.org the situation where chemical testing is concerned,

Most consumers would be dismayed with how little we know about the majority of chemicals. Only 3 percent of industrial chemicals – mostly drugs and pesticides – are comprehensively tested. Most of the 80,000 to 140,000 chemicals in consumer products have not been tested at all or just examined superficially to see what harm they may do locally, at the site of contact and at extremely high doses.

I am a physician and former head of the European Center for the Validation of Alternative Methods of the European Commission (2002-2008), and I am dedicated to finding faster, cheaper and more accurate methods of testing the safety of chemicals. To that end, I now lead a new program at Johns Hopkins University to revamp the safety sciences.

As part of this effort, we have now developed a computer method of testing chemicals that could save more than a US$1 billion annually and more than 2 million animals. Especially in times where the government is rolling back regulations on the chemical industry, new methods to identify dangerous substances are critical for human and environmental health.

Having written on the topic of alternatives to animal testing on a number of occasions (my December 26, 2014 posting provides an overview of sorts), I was particularly interested to see this in Hartung’s July 25, 2018 essay on The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Following the vision of Toxicology for the 21st Century, a movement led by U.S. agencies to revamp safety testing, important work was carried out by my Ph.D. student Tom Luechtefeld at the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing. Teaming up with Underwriters Laboratories, we have now leveraged an expanded database and machine learning to predict toxic properties. As we report in the journal Toxicological Sciences, we developed a novel algorithm and database for analyzing chemicals and determining their toxicity – what we call read-across structure activity relationship, RASAR.

This graphic reveals a small part of the chemical universe. Each dot represents a different chemical. Chemicals that are close together have similar structures and often properties. Thomas Hartung, CC BY-SA

To do this, we first created an enormous database with 10 million chemical structures by adding more public databases filled with chemical data, which, if you crunch the numbers, represent 50 trillion pairs of chemicals. A supercomputer then created a map of the chemical universe, in which chemicals are positioned close together if they share many structures in common and far where they don’t. Most of the time, any molecule close to a toxic molecule is also dangerous. Even more likely if many toxic substances are close, harmless substances are far. Any substance can now be analyzed by placing it into this map.

If this sounds simple, it’s not. It requires half a billion mathematical calculations per chemical to see where it fits. The chemical neighborhood focuses on 74 characteristics which are used to predict the properties of a substance. Using the properties of the neighboring chemicals, we can predict whether an untested chemical is hazardous. For example, for predicting whether a chemical will cause eye irritation, our computer program not only uses information from similar chemicals, which were tested on rabbit eyes, but also information for skin irritation. This is because what typically irritates the skin also harms the eye.

How well does the computer identify toxic chemicals?

This method will be used for new untested substances. However, if you do this for chemicals for which you actually have data, and compare prediction with reality, you can test how well this prediction works. We did this for 48,000 chemicals that were well characterized for at least one aspect of toxicity, and we found the toxic substances in 89 percent of cases.

This is clearly more accurate that the corresponding animal tests which only yield the correct answer 70 percent of the time. The RASAR shall now be formally validated by an interagency committee of 16 U.S. agencies, including the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration], that will challenge our computer program with chemicals for which the outcome is unknown. This is a prerequisite for acceptance and use in many countries and industries.

The potential is enormous: The RASAR approach is in essence based on chemical data that was registered for the 2010 and 2013 REACH [Registration, Evaluation, Authorizations and Restriction of Chemicals] deadlines [in Europe]. If our estimates are correct and chemical producers would have not registered chemicals after 2013, and instead used our RASAR program, we would have saved 2.8 million animals and $490 million in testing costs – and received more reliable data. We have to admit that this is a very theoretical calculation, but it shows how valuable this approach could be for other regulatory programs and safety assessments.

In the future, a chemist could check RASAR before even synthesizing their next chemical to check whether the new structure will have problems. Or a product developer can pick alternatives to toxic substances to use in their products. This is a powerful technology, which is only starting to show all its potential.

It’s been my experience that these claims having led a movement (Toxicology for the 21st Century) are often contested with many others competing for the title of ‘leader’ or ‘first’. That said, this RASAR approach seems very exciting, especially in light of the skepticism about limiting and/or making animal testing unnecessary noted in my December 26, 2014 posting.it was from someone I thought knew better.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper mentioned in Hartung’s essay,

Machine learning of toxicological big data enables read-across structure activity relationships (RASAR) outperforming animal test reproducibility by Thomas Luechtefeld, Dan Marsh, Craig Rowlands, Thomas Hartung. Toxicological Sciences, kfy152, https://doi.org/10.1093/toxsci/kfy152 Published: 11 July 2018

This paper is open access.

I found it at the movies: a commentary on/review of “Films from the Future”

Kudos to anyone who recognized the reference to Pauline Kael (she changed film criticism forever) and her book “I Lost it at the Movies.” Of course, her book title was a bit of sexual innuendo, quite risqué for an important film critic in 1965 but appropriate for a period (the 1960s) associated with a sexual revolution. (There’s more about the 1960’s sexual revolution in the US along with mention of a prior sexual revolution in the 1920s in this Wikipedia entry.)

The title for this commentary is based on an anecdote from Dr. Andrew Maynard’s (director of the Arizona State University [ASU] Risk Innovation Lab) popular science and technology book, “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.”

The ‘title-inspiring’ anecdote concerns Maynard’s first viewing of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey, when as a rather “bratty” 16-year-old who preferred to read science fiction, he discovered new ways of seeing and imaging the world. Maynard isn’t explicit about when he became a ‘techno nerd’ or how movies gave him an experience books couldn’t but presumably at 16 he was already gearing up for a career in the sciences. That ‘movie’ revelation received in front of a black and white television on January 1,1982 eventually led him to write, “Films from the Future.” (He has a PhD in physics which he is now applying to the field of risk innovation. For a more detailed description of Dr. Maynard and his work, there’s his ASU profile webpage and, of course, the introduction to his book.)

The book is quite timely. I don’t know how many people have noticed but science and scientific innovation is being covered more frequently in the media than it has been in many years. Science fairs and festivals are being founded on what seems to be a daily basis and you can now find science in art galleries. (Not to mention the movies and television where science topics are covered in comic book adaptations, in comedy, and in standard science fiction style.) Much of this activity is centered on what’s called ’emerging technologies’. These technologies are why people argue for what’s known as ‘blue sky’ or ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ science for without that science there would be no emerging technology.

Films from the Future

Isn’t reading the Table of Contents (ToC) the best way to approach a book? (From Films from the Future; Note: The formatting has been altered),

Table of Contents
Chapter One
In the Beginning 14
Beginnings 14
Welcome to the Future 16
The Power of Convergence 18
Socially Responsible Innovation 21
A Common Point of Focus 25
Spoiler Alert 26
Chapter Two
Jurassic Park: The Rise of Resurrection Biology 27
When Dinosaurs Ruled the World 27
De-Extinction 31
Could We, Should We? 36
The Butterfly Effect 39
Visions of Power 43
Chapter Three
Never Let Me Go: A Cautionary Tale of Human Cloning 46
Sins of Futures Past 46
Cloning 51
Genuinely Human? 56
Too Valuable to Fail? 62
Chapter Four
Minority Report: Predicting Criminal Intent 64
Criminal Intent 64
The “Science” of Predicting Bad Behavior 69
Criminal Brain Scans 74
Machine Learning-Based Precognition 77
Big Brother, Meet Big Data 79
Chapter Five
Limitless: Pharmaceutically-enhanced Intelligence 86
A Pill for Everything 86
The Seduction of Self-Enhancement 89
Nootropics 91
If You Could, Would You? 97
Privileged Technology 101
Our Obsession with Intelligence 105
Chapter Six
Elysium: Social Inequity in an Age of Technological
Extremes 110
The Poor Shall Inherit the Earth 110
Bioprinting Our Future Bodies 115
The Disposable Workforce 119
Living in an Automated Future 124
Chapter Seven
Ghost in the Shell: Being Human in an
Augmented Future 129
Through a Glass Darkly 129
Body Hacking 135
More than “Human”? 137
Plugged In, Hacked Out 142
Your Corporate Body 147
Chapter Eight
Ex Machina: AI and the Art of Manipulation 154
Plato’s Cave 154
The Lure of Permissionless Innovation 160
Technologies of Hubris 164
Superintelligence 169
Defining Artificial Intelligence 172
Artificial Manipulation 175
Chapter Nine
Transcendence: Welcome to the Singularity 180
Visions of the Future 180
Technological Convergence 184
Enter the Neo-Luddites 190
Techno-Terrorism 194
Exponential Extrapolation 200
Make-Believe in the Age of the Singularity 203
Chapter Ten
The Man in the White Suit: Living in a Material World 208
There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom 208
Mastering the Material World 213
Myopically Benevolent Science 220
Never Underestimate the Status Quo 224
It’s Good to Talk 227
Chapter Eleven
Inferno: Immoral Logic in an Age of
Genetic Manipulation 231
Decoding Make-Believe 231
Weaponizing the Genome 234
Immoral Logic? 238
The Honest Broker 242
Dictating the Future 248
Chapter Twelve
The Day After Tomorrow: Riding the Wave of
Climate Change 251
Our Changing Climate 251
Fragile States 255
A Planetary “Microbiome” 258
The Rise of the Anthropocene 260
Building Resiliency 262
Geoengineering the Future 266
Chapter Thirteen
Contact: Living by More than Science Alone 272
An Awful Waste of Space 272
More than Science Alone 277
Occam’s Razor 280
What If We’re Not Alone? 283
Chapter Fourteen
Looking to the Future 288
Acknowledgments 293

The ToC gives the reader a pretty clue as to where the author is going with their book and Maynard explains how he chose his movies in his introductory chapter (from Films from the Future),

“There are some quite wonderful science fiction movies that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overarching narrative (Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049, for instance, and the first of the Matrix trilogy). There are also movies that bombed with the critics, but were included because they ably fill a gap in the bigger story around emerging and converging technologies. Ultimately, the movies that made the cut were chosen because, together, they create an overarching narrative around emerging trends in biotechnologies, cybertechnologies, and materials-based technologies, and they illuminate a broader landscape around our evolving relationship with science and technology. And, to be honest, they are all movies that I get a kick out of watching.” (p. 17)

Jurassic Park (Chapter Two)

Dinosaurs do not interest me—they never have. Despite my profound indifference I did see the movie, Jurassic Park, when it was first released (someone talked me into going). And, I am still profoundly indifferent. Thankfully, Dr. Maynard finds meaning and a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

Jurassic Park is unabashedly a movie about dinosaurs. But it’s also a movie about greed, ambition, genetic engineering, and human folly—all rich pickings for thinking about the future, and what could possibly go wrong. (p. 28)

What really stands out with Jurassic Park, over twenty-five years later, is how it reveals a very human side of science and technology. This comes out in questions around when we should tinker with technology and when we should leave well enough alone. But there is also a narrative here that appears time and time again with the movies in this book, and that is how we get our heads around the sometimes oversized roles mega-entrepreneurs play in dictating how new tech is used, and possibly abused. These are all issues that are just as relevant now as they were in 1993, and are front and center of ensuring that the technologyenabled future we’re building is one where we want to live, and not one where we’re constantly fighting for our lives.  (pp. 30-1)

He also describes a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

De-Extinction

In a far corner of Siberia, two Russians—Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita—are attempting to recreate the Ice Age. More precisely, their vision is to reconstruct the landscape and ecosystem of northern Siberia in the Pleistocene, a period in Earth’s history that stretches from around two and a half million years ago to eleven thousand years ago. This was a time when the environment was much colder than now, with huge glaciers and ice sheets flowing over much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It was also a time when humans
coexisted with animals that are long extinct, including saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and woolly mammoths.

The Zimovs’ ambitions are an extreme example of “Pleistocene rewilding,” a movement to reintroduce relatively recently extinct large animals, or their close modern-day equivalents, to regions where they were once common. In the case of the Zimovs, the
father-and-son team believe that, by reconstructing the Pleistocene ecosystem in the Siberian steppes and elsewhere, they can slow down the impacts of climate change on these regions. These areas are dominated by permafrost, ground that never thaws through
the year. Permafrost ecosystems have developed and survived over millennia, but a warming global climate (a theme we’ll come back to in chapter twelve and the movie The Day After Tomorrow) threatens to catastrophically disrupt them, and as this happens, the impacts
on biodiversity could be devastating. But what gets climate scientists even more worried is potentially massive releases of trapped methane as the permafrost disappears.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—some eighty times more effective at exacerbating global warming than carbon dioxide— and large-scale releases from warming permafrost could trigger catastrophic changes in climate. As a result, finding ways to keep it in the ground is important. And here the Zimovs came up with a rather unusual idea: maintaining the stability of the environment by reintroducing long-extinct species that could help prevent its destruction, even in a warmer world. It’s a wild idea, but one that has some merit.8 As a proof of concept, though, the Zimovs needed somewhere to start. And so they set out to create a park for deextinct Siberian animals: Pleistocene Park.9

Pleistocene Park is by no stretch of the imagination a modern-day Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs in Hammond’s park date back to the Mesozoic period, from around 250 million years ago to sixty-five million years ago. By comparison, the Pleistocene is relatively modern history, ending a mere eleven and a half thousand years ago. And the vision behind Pleistocene Park is not thrills, spills, and profit, but the serious use of science and technology to stabilize an increasingly unstable environment. Yet there is one thread that ties them together, and that’s using genetic engineering to reintroduce extinct species. In this case, the species in question is warm-blooded and furry: the woolly mammoth.

The idea of de-extinction, or bringing back species from extinction (it’s even called “resurrection biology” in some circles), has been around for a while. It’s a controversial idea, and it raises a lot of tough ethical questions. But proponents of de-extinction argue
that we’re losing species and ecosystems at such a rate that we can’t afford not to explore technological interventions to help stem the flow.

Early approaches to bringing species back from the dead have involved selective breeding. The idea was simple—if you have modern ancestors of a recently extinct species, selectively breeding specimens that have a higher genetic similarity to their forebears can potentially help reconstruct their genome in living animals. This approach is being used in attempts to bring back the aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle.10 But it’s slow, and it depends on
the fragmented genome of the extinct species still surviving in its modern-day equivalents.

An alternative to selective breeding is cloning. This involves finding a viable cell, or cell nucleus, in an extinct but well-preserved animal and growing a new living clone from it. It’s definitely a more appealing route for impatient resurrection biologists, but it does mean getting your hands on intact cells from long-dead animals and devising ways to “resurrect” these, which is no mean feat. Cloning has potential when it comes to recently extinct species whose cells have been well preserved—for instance, where the whole animal has become frozen in ice. But it’s still a slow and extremely limited option.

Which is where advances in genetic engineering come in.

The technological premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists can reconstruct the genome of long-dead animals from preserved DNA fragments. It’s a compelling idea, if you think of DNA as a massively long and complex instruction set that tells a group of biological molecules how to build an animal. In principle, if we could reconstruct the genome of an extinct species, we would have the basic instruction set—the biological software—to reconstruct
individual members of it.

The bad news is that DNA-reconstruction-based de-extinction is far more complex than this. First you need intact fragments of DNA, which is not easy, as DNA degrades easily (and is pretty much impossible to obtain, as far as we know, for dinosaurs). Then you
need to be able to stitch all of your fragments together, which is akin to completing a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture looks like. This is a Herculean task, although with breakthroughs in data manipulation and machine learning,
scientists are getting better at it. But even when you have your reconstructed genome, you need the biological “wetware”—all the stuff that’s needed to create, incubate, and nurture a new living thing, like eggs, nutrients, a safe space to grow and mature, and so on. Within all this complexity, it turns out that getting your DNA sequence right is just the beginning of translating that genetic code into a living, breathing entity. But in some cases, it might be possible.

In 2013, Sergey Zimov was introduced to the geneticist George Church at a conference on de-extinction. Church is an accomplished scientist in the field of DNA analysis and reconstruction, and a thought leader in the field of synthetic biology (which we’ll come
back to in chapter nine). It was a match made in resurrection biology heaven. Zimov wanted to populate his Pleistocene Park with mammoths, and Church thought he could see a way of
achieving this.

What resulted was an ambitious project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth. Church and others who are working on this have faced plenty of hurdles. But the technology has been advancing so fast that, as of 2017, scientists were predicting they would be able to reproduce the woolly mammoth within the next two years.

One of those hurdles was the lack of solid DNA sequences to work from. Frustratingly, although there are many instances of well preserved woolly mammoths, their DNA rarely survives being frozen for tens of thousands of years. To overcome this, Church and others
have taken a different tack: Take a modern, living relative of the mammoth, and engineer into it traits that would allow it to live on the Siberian tundra, just like its woolly ancestors.

Church’s team’s starting point has been the Asian elephant. This is their source of base DNA for their “woolly mammoth 2.0”—their starting source code, if you like. So far, they’ve identified fifty plus gene sequences they think they can play with to give their modern-day woolly mammoth the traits it would need to thrive in Pleistocene Park, including a coat of hair, smaller ears, and a constitution adapted to cold.

The next hurdle they face is how to translate the code embedded in their new woolly mammoth genome into a living, breathing animal. The most obvious route would be to impregnate a female Asian elephant with a fertilized egg containing the new code. But Asian elephants are endangered, and no one’s likely to allow such cutting edge experimentation on the precious few that are still around, so scientists are working on an artificial womb for their reinvented woolly mammoth. They’re making progress with mice and hope to crack the motherless mammoth challenge relatively soon.

It’s perhaps a stretch to call this creative approach to recreating a species (or “reanimation” as Church refers to it) “de-extinction,” as what is being formed is a new species. … (pp. 31-4)

This selection illustrates what Maynard does so very well throughout the book where he uses each film as a launching pad for a clear, readable description of relevant bits of science so you understand why the premise was likely, unlikely, or pure fantasy while linking it to contemporary practices, efforts, and issues. In the context of Jurassic Park, Maynard goes on to raise some fascinating questions such as: Should we revive animals rendered extinct (due to obsolescence or inability to adapt to new conditions) when we could develop new animals?

General thoughts

‘Films for the Future’ offers readable (to non-scientific types) science, lively writing, and the occasional ‘memorish’ anecdote. As well, Dr. Maynard raises the curtain on aspects of the scientific enterprise that most of us do not get to see.  For example, the meeting  between Sergey Zimov and George Church and how it led to new ‘de-extinction’ work’. He also describes the problems that the scientists encountered and are encountering. This is in direct contrast to how scientific work is usually presented in the news media as one glorious breakthrough after the next.

Maynard does discuss the issues of social inequality and power and ownership. For example, who owns your transplant or data? Puzzlingly, he doesn’t touch on the current environment where scientists in the US and elsewhere are encouraged/pressured to start up companies commercializing their work.

Nor is there any mention of how universities are participating in this grand business experiment often called ‘innovation’. (My March 15, 2017 posting describes an outcome for the CRISPR [gene editing system] patent fight taking place between Harvard University’s & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley and my Sept. 11, 2018 posting about an art/science exhibit in Vancouver [Canada] provides an update for round 2 of the Broad Institute vs. UC Berkeley patent fight [scroll down about 65% of the way.) *To read about how my ‘cultural blindness’ shows up here scroll down to the single asterisk at the end.*

There’s a foray through machine-learning and big data as applied to predictive policing in Maynard’s ‘Minority Report’ chapter (my November 23, 2017 posting describes Vancouver’s predictive policing initiative [no psychics involved], the first such in Canada). There’s no mention of surveillance technology, which if I recall properly was part of the future environment, both by the state and by corporations. (Mia Armstrong’s November 15, 2018 article for Slate on Chinese surveillance being exported to Venezuela provides interesting insight.)

The gaps are interesting and various. This of course points to a problem all science writers have when attempting an overview of science. (Carl Zimmer’s latest, ‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity’] a doorstopping 574 pages, also has some gaps despite his focus on heredity,)

Maynard has worked hard to give an comprehensive overview in a remarkably compact 279 pages while developing his theme about science and the human element. In other words, science is not monolithic; it’s created by human beings and subject to all the flaws and benefits that humanity’s efforts are always subject to—scientists are people too.

The readership for ‘Films from the Future’ spans from the mildly interested science reader to someone like me who’s been writing/blogging about these topics (more or less) for about 10 years. I learned a lot reading this book.

Next time, I’m hopeful there’ll be a next time, Maynard might want to describe the parameters he’s set for his book in more detail that is possible in his chapter headings. He could have mentioned that he’s not a cinéaste so his descriptions of the movies are very much focused on the story as conveyed through words. He doesn’t mention colour palates, camera angles, or, even, cultural lenses.

Take for example, his chapter on ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Focused on the Japanese animation film and not the live action Hollywood version he talks about human enhancement and cyborgs. The Japanese have a different take on robots, inanimate objects, and, I assume, cyborgs than is found in Canada or the US or Great Britain, for that matter (according to a colleague of mine, an Englishwoman who lived in Japan for ten or more years). There’s also the chapter on the Ealing comedy, The Man in The White Suit, an English film from the 1950’s. That too has a cultural (as well as, historical) flavour but since Maynard is from England, he may take that cultural flavour for granted. ‘Never let me go’ in Chapter Two was also a UK production, albeit far more recent than the Ealing comedy and it’s interesting to consider how a UK production about cloning might differ from a US or Chinese or … production on the topic. I am hearkening back to Maynard’s anecdote about movies giving him new ways of seeing and imagining the world.

There’s a corrective. A couple of sentences in Maynard’s introductory chapter cautioning that in depth exploration of ‘cultural lenses’ was not possible without expanding the book to an unreadable size followed by a sentence in each of the two chapters that there are cultural differences.

One area where I had a significant problem was with regard to being “programmed” and having  “instinctual” behaviour,

As a species, we are embarrassingly programmed to see “different” as “threatening,” and to take instinctive action against it. It’s a trait that’s exploited in many science fiction novels and movies, including those in this book. If we want to see the rise of increasingly augmented individuals, we need to be prepared for some social strife. (p. 136)

These concepts are much debated in the social sciences and there are arguments for and against ‘instincts regarding strangers and their possible differences’. I gather Dr. Maynard hies to the ‘instinct to defend/attack’ school of thought.

One final quandary, there was no sex and I was expecting it in the Ex Machina chapter, especially now that sexbots are about to take over the world (I exaggerate). Certainly, if you’re talking about “social strife,” then sexbots would seem to be fruitful line of inquiry, especially when there’s talk of how they could benefit families (my August 29, 2018 posting). Again, there could have been a sentence explaining why Maynard focused almost exclusively in this chapter on the discussions about artificial intelligence and superintelligence.

Taken in the context of the book, these are trifling issues and shouldn’t stop you from reading Films from the Future. What Maynard has accomplished here is impressive and I hope it’s just the beginning.

Final note

Bravo Andrew! (Note: We’ve been ‘internet acquaintances/friends since the first year I started blogging. When I’m referring to him in his professional capacity, he’s Dr. Maynard and when it’s not strictly in his professional capacity, it’s Andrew. For this commentary/review I wanted to emphasize his professional status.)

If you need to see a few more samples of Andrew’s writing, there’s a Nov. 15, 2018 essay on The Conversation, Sci-fi movies are the secret weapon that could help Silicon Valley grow up and a Nov. 21, 2018 article on slate.com, The True Cost of Stain-Resistant Pants; The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology. Enjoy.

****Added at 1700 hours on Nov. 22, 2018: You can purchase Films from the Future here.

*Nov. 23, 2018: I should have been more specific and said ‘academic scientists’. In Canada, the great percentage of scientists are academic. It’s to the point where the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has noted that amongst industrialized countries, Canada has very few industrial scientists in comparison to the others.

2018 Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov. 7 – 9, 2018) highlights and Council of Canadian Academies: a communications job, a report, and more

This is a going to a science policy heavy posting with both a conference and the latest report from the Canadian Council of Academies (CCA).

2018 Canadian Science Policy Conference

As I noted in my March 1, 2018 posting, this is the fourth year in a row that the conference is being held in Ottawa and the theme for this 10th edition is ‘Building Bridges Between Science, Policy and Society‘.

The dates are November 7 -9, 2018 and as the opening draws closer I’m getting more ‘breathlessly enthusiastic’ announcements. Here are a few highlights from an October 23, 2018 announcement received via email,

CSPC 2018 is honoured to announce that the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, will be delivering the keynote speech of the Gala Dinner on Thursday, November 8 at 7:00 PM. Minister Duncan will also hand out the 4th Science Policy Award of Excellence to the winner of this year’s competition.

CSPC 2018 features 250 speakers, a record number, and above is the breakdown of the positions they hold, over 43% of them being at the executive level and 57% of our speakers being women.

*All information as of October 15, 2018

If you think that you will not meet any new people at CSPC and all of the registrants are the same as last year, think again!

Over 57% of  registrants are attending the conference for the FIRST TIME!

Secure your spot today!

*All information as of October 15, 2018

Here’s more from an October 31, 2018 announcement received via email,

One year after her appointment as Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer will discuss her experience with the community. Don’t miss this opportunity.

[Canadian Science Policy Centre editorials in advance of conference]

Paul Dufour
“Evidence and Science in Parliament–Looking Back at CSPC and Moving Forward”

Dr. Tom Corr
“Commercializing Innovation in Canada: Advancing in the Right Direction”

Joseph S Sparling, PhD
“Reimagining the Canadian Postdoctoral Training System”

Milton Friesen
“Conspiring Together for Good: Institutional Science and Religion”

Joseph Tafese
“Science and the Next Generation : Science and Inclusivity, Going beyond the Slogans”

Eva Greyeyes
“Opinion Editorial for CSPC, November 2018”

Monique Crichlow
Chris Loken

“Policy Considerations Towards Converged HPC-AI Platforms”

Should you be in the Ottawa area November 7 – 9, 2018, it’s still possible to register.

**Update November 6, 2018: The 2018 CSPC is Sold Out!**

Council of Canadian Academies: job and the ‘managing innovation’ report

Let’s start with the job (from the posting),

October 17, 2018

Role Title:      Director of Communications
Deadline:       November 5, 2018
Salary:            $115,000 to $165,000

About the Council of Canadian Academies
The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is a not-for-profit organization that conducts assessments of evidence on scientific topics of public interest to inform decision-making in Canada.

Role Summary
The CCA is seeking an experienced communications professional to join its senior management team as Director of Communications. Reporting to the President and CEO, the Director is responsible for developing and implementing a communications plan for the organization that promotes and highlights the CCA’s work, brand, and overall mission to a variety of potential users and stakeholders; overseeing the publication and dissemination of high-quality hard copy and online products; and providing strategic advice to the President and CCA’s Board, Committees, and Panels. In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Director of Communications is expected to work with a variety of interested groups including the media, the broad policy community, government, and non-governmental organizations.

Key Responsibilities and Accountabilities
Under the direction of the President and CEO, the Director leads a small team of communications and publishing professionals to meet the responsibilities and accountabilities outlined below.

Strategy Development and External Communications
• Develop and execute an overall strategic communications plan for the organization that promotes and highlights the CCA’s work, brand, and overall mission.
• Oversee the CCA’s presence and influence on digital and social platforms including the development and execution of a comprehensive content strategy for linking CCA’s work with the broader science and policy ecosystem with a focus on promoting and disseminating the findings of the CCA’s expert panel reports.
• Provide support, as needed for relevant government relations activities including liaising with communications counterparts, preparing briefing materials, responding to requests to share CCA information, and coordinating any appearances before Parliamentary committees or other bodies.
• Harness opportunities for advancing the uptake and use of CCA assessments, including leveraging the strengths of key partners particularly the founding Academies.

Publication and Creative Services
• Oversee the creative services, quality control, and publication of all CCA’s expert panel reports including translation, layout, quality assurance, graphic design, proofreading, and printing processes.
• Oversee the creative development and publication of all CCA’s corporate materials including the Annual Report and Corporate Plan through content development, editing, layout, translation, graphic design, proofreading, and printing processes.

Advice and Issues Management
• Provide strategic advice and support to the President’s Office, Board of Directors, Committees, and CCA staff about increasing the overall impact of CCA expert panel reports, brand awareness, outreach opportunities, and effective science communication.
• Provide support to the President by anticipating project-based or organizational issues, understanding potential implications, and suggesting strategic management solutions.
• Ensure consistent messages, style, and approaches in the delivery of all internal and external communications across the organization.

Leadership
• Mentor, train, and advise up to five communications and publishing staff on a day-to-day basis and complete annual performance reviews and planning.
• Lead the development and implementation of all CCA-wide policy and procedures relating to all aspects of communications and publishing.
• Represent the issues, needs, and ongoing requirements for the communications and publishing staff as a member of the CCA senior management team.

Knowledge Requirements
The Director of Communications requires:
• Superior knowledge of communications and public relations principles – preferably as it applies in a non-profit or academic setting;
• Extensive experience in communications planning and issues management;
• Knowledge of current research, editorial, and publication production standards and procedures including but not limited to: translation, copy-editing, layout/design, proofreading and publishing;
• Knowledge of evaluating impact of reports and assessments;
• Knowledge in developing content strategy, knowledge mobilization techniques, and creative services and design;
• Knowledge of human resource management techniques and experience managing a team;
• Experience in coordinating, organizing and implementing communications activities including those involving sensitive topics;
• Knowledge of the relationships and major players in Canada’s intramural and extramural science and public policy ecosystem, including awareness of federal science departments and Parliamentary committees, funding bodies, and related research groups;
• Knowledge of Microsoft Office Suite, Adobe Creative Suite, WordPress and other related programs;
• Knowledge of a variety of social media platforms and measurement tools.

Skills Requirements
The Director of Communications must have:
• Superior time and project management skills
• Superior writing skills
• Superior ability to think strategically regarding how best to raise the CCA’s profile and ensure impact of the CCA’s expert panel reports
• Ability to be flexible and adaptable; able to respond quickly to unanticipated demands
• Strong advisory, negotiation, and problem-solving skills
• Strong skills in risk mitigation
• Superior ability to communicate in both written and oral forms, effectively and diplomatically
• Ability to mentor, train, and provide constructive feedback to direct reports

Education and Experience
This knowledge and skillset is typically obtained through the completion of a post-secondary degree in Journalism, Communications, Public Affairs or a related field, and/or a minimum of 10
years of progressive and related experience. Experience in an organization that has addressed topics in public policy would be valuable.

Language Requirements: This position is English Essential. Fluency in French is a strong asset.

To apply to this position please send your CV and cover letter to careers@scienceadvice.ca before November 5, 2018. The cover letter should answer the following questions in 1,000 words or less:

1. How does your background and work experience make you well-suited for the position of Director of Communications at CCA?
2. What trends do you see emerging in the communications field generally, and in science and policy communications more specifically? How might CCA take advantage of these trends and developments?
3. Knowing that CCA is in the business of conducting assessments of evidence on important policy topics, how do you feel communicating this type of science differs from communicating other types of information and knowledge?

Improving Innovation Through Better Management

The Council of Canadian Academies released their ‘Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ report on October 18, 2018..As some of my regular readers (assuming there are some) might have predicted, I have issues.

There’s a distinct disconnection between the described problem and the questions to be answered. From the ‘Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ summary webpage,

While research is world-class and technology start-ups are thriving, few companies grow and mature in Canada. This cycle — invent and sell, invent and sell — allows other countries to capture much of the economic and social benefits of Canadian-invented products, processes, marketing methods, and business models. …

So, the problem is ‘invent and sell’. Leaving aside the questionable conclusion that other countries are reaping the benefits of Canadian innovation (I’ll get back to that shortly), what questions could you ask about how to break the ‘invent and sell, invent and sell’ cycle? Hmm, maybe we should ask, How do we break the ‘invent and sell’ cycle in Canada?

The government presented two questions to deal with the problem and no, how to break the cycle is not one of the questions. From the ‘Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ summary webpage,

… Escaping this cycle may be aided through education and training of innovation managers who can systematically manage ideas for commercial success and motivate others to reimagine innovation in Canada.

To understand how to better support innovation management in Canada, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) asked the CCA two critical questions: What are the key skills required to manage innovation? And, what are the leading practices for teaching these skills in business schools, other academic departments, colleges/polytechnics, and industry?

As lawyers, journalists, scientists, doctors, librarians, and anyone who’s ever received misinformation can tell you, asking the right questions can make a big difference.

As for the conclusion that other countries are reaping the benefits of Canadian innovation, is there any supporting data? We enjoy a very high standard of living and have done so for at least a couple of generations. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a Better Life Index, which ranks well-being on these 11 dimensions (from the OECD Better Life Index entry on Wikipedia), Note: Links have been removed,

  1. Housing: housing conditions and spendings (e.g. real estate pricing)
  2. Income: household income and financial wealth
  3. Jobs: earnings, job security and unemployment
  4. Community: quality of social support network
  5. Education: education and what you get out of it
  6. Environment: quality of environment (e.g. environmental health)
  7. Governance: involvement in democracy
  8. Health
  9. Life Satisfaction: level of happiness
  10. Safety: murder and assault rates
  11. Work-life balance

In 2017, the index ranked Canada as fifth in the world while the US appears to have slipped from a previous ranking of 7th to 8th. (See these Wikipedia entries with relevant subsections for rankings:  OECD Better Life Index; Rankings, 2017 ranking and Standard of living in the United States, Measures, 3rd paragraph.)

This notion that other countries are profiting from Canadian innovation while we lag behind has been repeated so often that it’s become an article of faith and I never questioned it until someone else challenged me. This article of faith is repeated internationally and sometimes seems that every country in the world is worried that someone else will benefit from their national innovation.

Getting back to the Canadian situation, we’ve decided to approach the problem by not asking questions about our article of faith or how to break the ‘invent and sell’ cycle. Instead of questioning an assumption and producing an open-ended question, we have these questions (1) What are the key skills required to manage innovation? (2) And, what are the leading practices for teaching these skills in business schools, other academic departments, colleges/polytechnics, and industry?

in my world that first question, would be a second tier question, at best. The second question, presupposes the answer: more training in universities and colleges. I took a look at the report’s Expert Panel webpage and found it populated by five individuals who are either academics or have strong ties to academe. They did have a workshop and the list of participants does include people who run businesses, from the Improving Innovation Through Better Management‘ report (Note: Formatting has not been preserved),

Workshop Participants

Max Blouw,
Former President and Vice-Chancellor of
Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, ON)

Richard Boudreault, FCAE,
Chairman, Sigma Energy
Storage (Montréal, QC)

Judy Fairburn, FCAE,
Past Board Chair, Alberta Innovates;
retired EVP Business Innovation & Chief Digital Officer,
Cenovus Energy Inc. (Calgary, AB)

Tom Jenkins, O.C., FCAE,
Chair of the Board, OpenText
(Waterloo, ON)

Sarah Kaplan,
Director of the Institute for Gender and the
Economy and Distinguished Professor, Rotman School of
Management, University of Toronto (Toronto, ON)

Jean-Michel Lemieux,
Senior Vice President of Engineering,
Shopify Inc. (Ottawa, ON)

Elicia Maine,
Academic Director and Professor, i2I, Beedie
School of Business, Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, BC)

Kathy Malas,
Innovation Platform Manager, CHU
Sainte Justine (Montréal, QC)

John L. Mann, FCAE,
Owner, Mann Consulting
(Blenheim, ON)

Jesse Rodgers,
CEO, Volta Labs (Halifax, NS)

Creso Sá,
Professor of Higher Education and Director of
the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International
Higher Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,
University of Toronto (Toronto, ON)

Dhirendra Shukla,
Professor and Chair, J. Herbert Smith
Centre for Technology Management & Entrepreneurship,
Faculty of Engineering, University of New Brunswick
(Fredericton, NB)

Dan Sinai,
Senior Executive, Innovation, IBM Canada
(Toronto, ON)

Valerie Walker,
Executive Director, Business/Higher
Education Roundtable (Ottawa, ON)

J. Mark Weber,
Eyton Director, Conrad School of
Entrepreneurship & Business, University of Waterloo
(Waterloo, ON)

I am a little puzzled by the IBM executive’s presence (Dan Sinai) on this list. Wouldn’t Canadians holding onto their companies be counterproductive to IBM’s interests? As for John L. Mann, I’ve not been able to find him or his consulting company online. it’s unusual not to find any trace of an individual or company online these days.

In all there were nine individuals representing academic or government institutions in this list. The gender balance is 10 males and five females for the workshop participants and three males and two females for the expert panel. There is no representation from the North or from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, or Newfoundland.

If they’re serious about looking at how to use innovation to drive higher standards of living, why aren’t there any people from Asian countries where they have been succeeding at that very project? South Korea and China come to mind.

I’m sure there are some excellent ideas in the report, I just wish they’d taken their topic to heart and actually tried to approach innovation in Canada in an innovative fashion.

Meanwhile, Vancouver gets another technology hub, from an October 30, 2018 article by Kenneth Chan for the Daily Hive (Vancouver [Canada]), Note: Links have been removed,

Vancouver’s rapidly growing virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) tech sectors will greatly benefit from a new VR and AR hub created by Launch Academy.

The technology incubator has opened a VR and AR hub at its existing office at 300-128 West Hastings Street in downtown, in partnership with VR/AR Association Vancouver. Immersive tech companies have access to desk space, mentorship programs, VR/AR equipment rentals, investor relations connected to Silicon Valley [emphasis mine], advisory services, and community events and workshops.

Within the Vancouver tech industry, the immersive sector has grown from 15 companies working in VR and AR in 2015 to 220 organizations today.

Globally, the VR and AR market is expected to hit a value of $108 billion by 2021, with tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft [emphasis mine] investing billions into product development.

In the Vancouver region, the ‘invent and sell’ cycle can be traced back to the 19th century.

One more thing, as I was writing this piece I tripped across this news: “$7.7-billion pact makes Encana more American than Canadian‘ by Geoffrey Morgan. It’s in the Nov. 2, 2018 print edition of the Vancouver Sun’s front page for business. “Encana Corp., the storied Canadian company that had been slowly transitioning away from Canada and natural gas over the past few years under CEO [Chief Executive Officer] Doug Suttles, has pivoted aggressively to US shale basins. … Suttles, formerly as BP Plc. executive, moved from Calgary [Alberta, Canada] to Denver [Colorado, US], though the company said that was for personal reasons and not a precursor to relocation of Encana’s headquarters.”  Yes, that’s quite believable. By the way, Suttles has spent* most of his life in the US (Wikipedia entry).

In any event, it’s not just Canadian emerging technology companies that get sold or somehow shifted out of Canada.

So, should we break the cycle and, if so, how are we going to do it?

*’spend’ corrected to ‘spent’ on November 6, 2018.

Xenotransplantation—organs for transplantation in human patients—it’s a business and a science

The last time (June 18, 2018 post) I mentioned xenotransplantation (transplanting organs from one species into another species; see more here), it was in the context of an art/sci (or sciart) event coming to Vancouver (Canada).,

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

(The show opens on Sept. 14, 2018.)

At the time, I had yet to stumble across Ingfei Chen’s thoughtful dive into the topic in her May 9, 2018 article for Slate.com,

In the United States, the clock is ticking for more than 114,700 adults and children waiting for a donated kidney or other lifesaving organ, and each day, nearly 20 of them die. Researchers are devising a new way to grow human organs inside other animals, but the method raises potentially thorny ethical issues. Other conceivable futuristic techniques sound like dystopian science fiction. As we envision an era of regenerative medicine decades from now, how far is society willing to go to solve the organ shortage crisis?

I found myself pondering this question after a discussion about the promises of stem cell technologies veered from the intriguing into the bizarre. I was interviewing bioengineer Zev Gartner, co-director and research coordinator of the Center for Cellular Construction at the University of California, San Francisco, about so-called organoids, tiny clumps of organlike tissue that can self-assemble from human stem cells in a Petri dish. These tissue bits are lending new insights into how our organs form and diseases take root. Some researchers even hope they can nurture organoids into full-size human kidneys, pancreases, and other organs for transplantation.

Certain organoid experiments have recently set off alarm bells, but when I asked Gartner about it, his radar for moral concerns was focused elsewhere. For him, the “really, really thought-provoking” scenarios involve other emerging stem cell–based techniques for engineering replacement organs for people, he told me. “Like blastocyst complementation,” he said.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Turns out it’s a powerful new genetic engineering trick that researchers hope to use for growing human organs inside pigs or sheep—organs that could be genetically personalized for transplant patients, in theory avoiding immune-system rejection problems. The science still has many years to go, but if it pans out, it could be one solution to the organ shortage crisis. However, the prospect of creating hybrid animals with human parts and killing them to harvest organs has already raised a slew of ethical questions. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on federal funding of this nascent research area while it evaluated and discussed the issues.

As Gartner sees it, the debate over blastocyst complementation research—work that he finds promising—is just one of many conversations that society needs to have about the ethical and social costs and benefits of future technologies for making lifesaving transplant organs. “There’s all these weird ways that we could go about doing this,” he said, with a spectrum of imaginable approaches that includes organoids, interspecies organ farming, and building organs from scratch using 3D bioprinters. But even if it turns out we can produce human organs in these novel ways, the bigger issue, in each technological instance, may be whether we should.

Gartner crystallized things with a downright creepy example: “We know that the best bioreactor for tissues and organs for humans are human beings,” he said. Hypothetically, “the best way to get you a new heart would be to clone you, grow up a copy of yourself, and take the heart out.” [emphasis mine] Scientists could probably produce a cloned person with the technologies we already have, if money and ethics were of no concern. “But we don’t want to go there, right?” he added in the next breath. “The ethics involved in doing it are not compatible with who we want to be as a society.”

This sounds like Gartner may have been reading some science fiction, specifically, Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar series where she often explored the ethics and possibilities of bioengineering. At this point, some of her work seems eerily prescient.

As for Chen’s article, I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time.

Medicine, healing, and big money

At about the same time, there was a May 31, 2018 news item on phys.org offering a perspective from some of the leaders in the science and the business (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past few years, researchers led by George Church have made important strides toward engineering the genomes of pigs to make their cells compatible with the human body. So many think that it’s possible that, with the help of CRISPR technology, a healthy heart for a patient in desperate need might one day come from a pig.

“It’s relatively feasible to change one gene in a pig, but to change many dozens—which is quite clear is the minimum here—benefits from CRISPR,” an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a core faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Xenotransplantation is “one of few” big challenges (along with gene drives and de-extinction, he said) “that really requires the ‘oomph’ of CRISPR.”

To facilitate the development of safe and effective cells, tissues, and organs for future medical transplantation into human patients, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has granted a technology license to the Cambridge biotech startup eGenesis.

Co-founded by Church and former HMS doctoral student Luhan Yang in 2015, eGenesis announced last year that it had raised $38 million to advance its research and development work. At least eight former members of the Church lab—interns, doctoral students, postdocs, and visiting researchers—have continued their scientific careers as employees there.

“The Church Lab is well known for its relentless pursuit of scientific achievements so ambitious they seem improbable—and, indeed, [for] its track record of success,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “George deserves recognition too for his ability to inspire passion and cultivate a strong entrepreneurial drive among his talented research team.”

The license from Harvard OTD covers a powerful set of genome-engineering technologies developed at HMS and the Wyss Institute, including access to foundational intellectual property relating to the Church Lab’s 2012 breakthrough use of CRISPR, led by Yang and Prashant Mali, to edit the genome of human cells. Subsequent innovations that enabled efficient and accurate editing of numerous genes simultaneously are also included. The license is exclusive to eGenesis but limited to the field of xenotransplantation.

A May 30, 2018 Harvard University news release by Caroline Petty, which originated the news item, explores some of the issues associated with incubating humans organs in other species,

The prospect of using living, nonhuman organs, and concerns over the infectiousness of pathogens either present in the tissues or possibly formed in combination with human genetic material, have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue detailed guidance on xenotransplantation research and development since the mid-1990s. In pigs, a primary concern has been that porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), strands of potentially pathogenic DNA in the animals’ genomes, might infect human patients and eventually cause disease. [emphases mine]

That’s where the Church lab’s CRISPR expertise has enabled significant advances. In 2015, the lab published important results in the journal Science, successfully demonstrating the use of genome engineering to eliminate all 62 PERVs in porcine cells. Science later called it “the most widespread CRISPR editing feat to date.”

In 2017, with collaborators at Harvard, other universities, and eGenesis, Church and Yang went further. Publishing again in Science, they first confirmed earlier researchers’ fears: Porcine cells can, in fact, transmit PERVs into human cells, and those human cells can pass them on to other, unexposed human cells. (It is still unknown under what circumstances those PERVs might cause disease.) In the same paper, they corrected the problem, announcing the embryogenesis and birth of 37 PERV-free pigs. [Note: My July 17, 2018 post features research which suggests CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may cause greater genetic damage than had been thought.]

“Taken together, those innovations were stunning,” said Vivian Berlin, director of business development in OTD, who manages the commercialization strategy for much of Harvard’s intellectual property in the life sciences. “That was the foundation they needed, to convince both the scientific community and the investment community that xenotransplantation might become a reality.”

“After hundreds of tests, this was a critical milestone for eGenesis — and the entire field — and represented a key step toward safe organ transplantation from pigs,” said Julie Sunderland, interim CEO of eGenesis. “Building on this study, we hope to continue to advance the science and potential of making xenotransplantation a safe and routine medical procedure.”

Genetic engineering may undercut human diseases, but also could help restore extinct species, researcher says. [Shades of the Jurassic Park movies!]

It’s not, however, the end of the story: An immunological challenge remains, which eGenesis will need to address. The potential for a patient’s body to outright reject transplanted tissue has stymied many previous attempts at xenotransplantation. Church said numerous genetic changes must be achieved to make porcine organs fully compatible with human patients. Among these are edits to several immune functions, coagulation functions, complements, and sugars, as well as the PERVs.

“Trying the straight transplant failed almost immediately, within hours, because there’s a huge mismatch in the carbohydrates on the surface of the cells, in particular alpha-1-3-galactose, and so that was a showstopper,” Church explained. “When you delete that gene, which you can do with conventional methods, you still get pretty fast rejection, because there are a lot of other aspects that are incompatible. You have to take care of each of them, and not all of them are just about removing things — some of them you have to humanize. There’s a great deal of subtlety involved so that you get normal pig embryogenesis but not rejection.

“Putting it all together into one package is challenging,” he concluded.

In short, it’s the next big challenge for CRISPR.

Not unexpectedly, there is no mention of the CRISPR patent fight between Harvard/MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Broad Institute and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). My March 15, 2017 posting featured an outcome where the Broad Institute won the first round of the fight. As I recall, it was a decision based on the principles associated with King Solomon, i.e., the US Patent Office, divided the baby and UCBerkeley got the less important part of the baby. As you might expect the decision has been appealed. In an April 30, 2018 piece, Scientific American reprinted an article about the latest round in the fight written by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

All You Need to Know for Round 2 of the CRISPR Patent Fight

It’s baaaaack, that reputation-shredding, stock-moving fight to the death over key CRISPR patents. On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will hear oral arguments in University of California v. Broad Institute. Questions?

How did we get here? The patent office ruled in February 2017 that the Broad’s 2014 CRISPR patent on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes, based on discoveries by Feng Zhang, did not “interfere” with a patent application by UC based on the work of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna. In plain English, that meant the Broad’s patent, on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes in eukaryotic cells (all animals and plants, but not bacteria), was different from UC’s, which described Doudna’s experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit DNA in a test tube—and it was therefore valid. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board concluded that when Zhang got CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human and mouse cells in 2012, it was not an obvious extension of Doudna’s earlier research, and that he had no “reasonable expectation of success.” UC appealed, and here we are.

For anyone who may not realize what the stakes are for these institutions, Linda Williams in a March 16, 1999 article for the LA Times had this to say about universities, patents, and money,

The University of Florida made about $2 million last year in royalties on a patent for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, a sports drink that generates some $500 million to $600 million a year in revenue for Quaker Oats Co.

The payments place the university among the top five in the nation in income from patent royalties.

Oh, but if some people on the Gainesville, Fla., campus could just turn back the clock. “If we had done Gatorade right, we would be getting $5 or $6 million (a year),” laments Donald Price, director of the university’s office of corporate programs. “It is a classic example of how not to handle a patent idea,” he added.

Gatorade was developed in 1965 when many universities were ill equipped to judge the commercial potential of ideas emerging from their research labs. Officials blew the university’s chance to control the Gatorade royalties when they declined to develop a professor’s idea.

The Gatorade story does not stop there and, even though it’s almost 20 years old, this article stands the test of time. I strongly encourage you to read it if the business end of patents and academia interest you or if you would like to develop more insight into the Broad Institute/UC Berkeley situation.

Getting back to the science, there is that pesky matter of diseases crossing over from one species to another. While, Harvard and eGenesis claim a victory in this area, it seems more work needs to be done.

Infections from pigs

An August 29, 2018 University of Alabama at Birmingham news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Hansen, describes the latest chapter in the quest to provide more organs for transplantion,

A shortage of organs for transplantation — including kidneys and hearts — means that many patients die while still on waiting lists. So, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and other sites has turned to pig organs as an alternative. [emphasis mine]

Using gene-editing, researchers have modified such organs to prevent rejection, and research with primates shows the modified pig organs are well-tolerated.

An added step is needed to ensure the safety of these inter-species transplants — sensitive, quantitative assays for viruses and other infectious microorganisms in donor pigs that potentially could gain access to humans during transplantation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires such testing, prior to implantation, of tissues used for xenotransplantation from animals to humans. It is possible — though very unlikely — that an infectious agent in transplanted tissues could become an emerging infectious disease in humans.

In a paper published in Xenotransplantation, Mark Prichard, Ph.D., and colleagues at UAB have described the development and testing of 30 quantitative assays for pig infectious agents. These assays had sensitivities similar to clinical lab assays for viral loads in human patients. After validation, the UAB team also used the assays on nine sows and 22 piglets delivered from the sows through caesarian section.

“Going forward, ensuring the safety of these organs is of paramount importance,” Prichard said. “The use of highly sensitive techniques to detect potential pathogens will help to minimize adverse events in xenotransplantation.”

“The assays hold promise as part of the screening program to identify suitable donor animals, validate and release transplantable organs for research purposes, and monitor transplant recipients,” said Prichard, a professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and director of the Department of Pediatrics Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

The UAB researchers developed quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, assays for 28 viruses sometimes found in pigs and two groups of mycoplasmas. They established reproducibility, sensitivity, specificity and lower limit of detection for each assay. All but three showed features of good quantitative assays, and the lower limit of detection values ranged between one and 16 copies of the viral or bacterial genetic material.

Also, the pig virus assays did not give false positives for some closely related human viruses.

As a start to understanding the infectious disease load in normal healthy animals and ensuring the safety of pig tissues used in xenotransplantation research, the researchers then screened blood, nasal swab and stool specimens from nine adult sows and 22 of their piglets delivered by caesarian section.

Mycoplasma species and two distinct herpesviruses were the most commonly detected microorganisms. Yet 14 piglets that were delivered from three sows infected with either or both herpesviruses were not infected with the herpesviruses, showing that transmission of these viruses from sow to the caesarian-delivery piglet was inefficient.

Prichard says the assays promise to enhance the safety of pig tissues for xenotransplantation, and they will also aid evaluation of human specimens after xenotransplantation.

The UAB researchers say they subsequently have evaluated more than 300 additional specimens, and that resulted in the detection of most of the targets. “The detection of these targets in pig specimens provides reassurance that the analytical methods are functioning as designed,” said Prichard, “and there is no a priori reason some targets might be more difficult to detect than others with the methods described here.”

As is my custom, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Xenotransplantation panel for the detection of infectious agents in pigs by Caroll B. Hartline, Ra’Shun L. Conner, Scott H. James, Jennifer Potter, Edward Gray, Jose Estrada, Mathew Tector, A. Joseph Tector, Mark N. Prichard. Xenotransplantaion Volume 25, Issue 4 July/August 2018 e12427 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/xen.12427 First published: 18 August 2018

This paper is open access.

All this leads to questions about chimeras. If a pig is incubating organs with human cells it’s a chimera but then means the human receiving the organ becomes a chimera too. (For an example, see my Dec. 22, 2013 posting where there’s mention of a woman who received a trachea from a pig. Scroll down about 30% of the way.)

What is it to be human?

A question much beloved of philosophers and others, the question seems particularly timely with xenotransplantion and other developments such neuroprosthetics (cyborgs) and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing).

As I’ve noted before, although not recently, popular culture offers a discourse on these issues. Take a look at the superhero movies and the way in which enhanced humans and aliens are presented. For example, X-Men comics and movies present mutants (humans with enhanced abilities) as despised and rejected. Video games (not really my thing but there is the Deus Ex series which has as its hero, a cyborg also offer insight into these issues.

Other than popular culture and in the ‘bleeding edge’ arts community, I can’t recall any public discussion on these matters arising from the extraordinary set of technologies which are being deployed or prepared for deployment in the foreseeable future.

(If you’re in Vancouver (Canada) from September 14 – December 15, 2018, you may want to check out Piccinini’s work. Also, there’s ” NCSU [North Carolina State University] Libraries, NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design have issued a public call for art for the upcoming exhibition Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures.” from my Sept. 6, 2018 posting. Deadline: Oct. 1, 2018.)

At a guess, there will be pushback from people who have no interest in debating what it is to be human as they already know, and will find these developments, when they learn about them, to be horrifying and unnatural.

AI (artificial intelligence) for Good Global Summit from May 15 – 17, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland: details and an interview with Frederic Werner

With all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI), a lot more attention seems to be paid to apocalyptic scenarios: loss of jobs, financial hardship, loss of personal agency and privacy, and more with all of these impacts being described as global. Still, there are some folks who are considering and working on ‘AI for good’.

If you’d asked me, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would not have been my first guess (my choice would have been United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]) as an agency likely to host the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit. But, it turns out the ITU is a UN (United Nations agency) and, according to its Wikipedia entry, it’s an intergovernmental public-private partnership, which may explain the nature of the participants in the upcoming summit.

The news

First, there’s a May 4, 2018 ITU media advisory (received via email or you can find the full media advisory here) about the upcoming summit,

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now widely identified as being able to address the greatest challenges facing humanity – supporting innovation in fields ranging from crisis management and healthcare to smart cities and communications networking.

The second annual ‘AI for Good Global Summit’ will take place 15-17 May [2018] in Geneva, and seeks to leverage AI to accelerate progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately benefit humanity.

WHAT: Global event to advance ‘AI for Good’ with the participation of internationally recognized AI experts. The programme will include interactive high-level panels, while ‘AI Breakthrough Teams’ will propose AI strategies able to create impact in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society – through interactive sessions. The summit will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

A special demo & exhibit track will feature innovative applications of AI designed to: protect women from sexual violence, avoid infant crib deaths, end child abuse, predict oral cancer, and improve mental health treatments for depression – as well as interactive robots including: Alice, a Dutch invention designed to support the aged; iCub, an open-source robot; and Sophia, the humanoid AI robot.

WHEN: 15-17 May 2018, beginning daily at 9 AM

WHERE: ITU Headquarters, 2 Rue de Varembé, Geneva, Switzerland (Please note: entrance to ITU is now limited for all visitors to the Montbrillant building entrance only on rue Varembé).

WHO: Confirmed participants to date include expert representatives from: Association for Computing Machinery, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Consumer Trade Association, Facebook, Fraunhofer, Google, Harvard University, IBM Watson, IEEE, Intellectual Ventures, ITU, Microsoft, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Partnership on AI, Planet Labs, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, University of California at Berkeley, University of Tokyo, XPRIZE Foundation, Yale University – and the participation of “Sophia” the humanoid robot and “iCub” the EU open source robotcub.

The interview

Frederic Werner, Senior Communications Officer at the International Telecommunication Union and** one of the organizers of the AI for Good Global Summit 2018 kindly took the time to speak to me and provide a few more details about the upcoming event.

Werner noted that the 2018 event grew out of a much smaller 2017 ‘workshop’ and first of its kind, about beneficial AI which this year has ballooned in size to 91 countries (about 15 participants are expected from Canada), 32 UN agencies, and substantive representation from the private sector. The 2017 event featured Dr. Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal  (Université de Montréal) was a featured speaker.

“This year, we’re focused on action-oriented projects that will help us reach our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. We’re looking at near-term practical AI applications,” says Werner. “We’re matchmaking problem-owners and solution-owners.”

Academics, industry professionals, government officials, and representatives from UN agencies are gathering  to work on four tracks/themes:

In advance of this meeting, the group launched an AI repository (an action item from the 2017 meeting) on April 25, 2018 inviting people to list their AI projects (from the ITU’s April 25, 2018? AI repository news announcement),

ITU has just launched an AI Repository where anyone working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) can contribute key information about how to leverage AI to help solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

This is the only global repository that identifies AI-related projects, research initiatives, think-tanks and organizations that aim to accelerate progress on the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To submit a project, just press ‘Submit’ on the AI Repository site and fill in the online questionnaire, providing all relevant details of your project. You will also be asked to map your project to the relevant World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) action lines and the SDGs. Approved projects will be officially registered in the repository database.

Benefits of participation on the AI Repository include:

WSIS Prizes recognize individuals, governments, civil society, local, regional and international agencies, research institutions and private-sector companies for outstanding success in implementing development oriented strategies that leverage the power of AI and ICTs.

Creating the AI Repository was one of the action items of last year’s AI for Good Global Summit.

We are looking forward to your submissions.

If you have any questions, please send an email to: ai@itu.int

“Your project won’t be visible immediately as we have to vet the submissions to weed out spam-type material and projects that are not in line with our goals,” says Werner. That said, there are already 29 projects in the repository. As you might expect, the UK, China, and US are in the repository but also represented are Egypt, Uganda, Belarus, Serbia, Peru, Italy, and other countries not commonly cited when discussing AI research.

Werner also pointed out in response to my surprise over the ITU’s role with regard to this AI initiative that the ITU is the only UN agency which has 192* member states (countries), 150 universities, and over 700 industry members as well as other member entities, which gives them tremendous breadth of reach. As well, the organization, founded originally in 1865 as the International Telegraph Convention, has extensive experience with global standardization in the information technology and telecommunications industries. (See more in their Wikipedia entry.)

Finally

There is a bit more about the summit on the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage,

The 2nd edition of the AI for Good Global Summit will be organized by ITU in Geneva on 15-17 May 2018, in partnership with XPRIZE Foundation, the global leader in incentivized prize competitions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and sister United Nations agencies including UNESCO, UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNIDO, Global Pulse, UNICRI, UNODA, UNIDIR, UNODC, WFP, IFAD, UNAIDS, WIPO, ILO, UNITAR, UNOPS, OHCHR, UN UniversityWHO, UNEP, ICAO, UNDP, The World Bank, UN DESA, CTBTOUNISDRUNOG, UNOOSAUNFPAUNECE, UNDPA, and UNHCR.

The AI for Good series is the leading United Nations platform for dialogue on AI. The action​​-oriented 2018 summit will identify practical applications of AI and supporting strategies to improve the quality and sustainability of life on our planet. The summit will continue to formulate strategies to ensure trusted, safe and inclusive development of AI technologies and equitable access to their benefits.

While the 2017 summit sparked the first ever inclusive global dialogue on beneficial AI, the action-oriented 2018 summit will focus on impactful AI solutions able to yield long-term benefits and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. ‘Breakthrough teams’ will demonstrate the potential of AI to map poverty and aid with natural disasters using satellite imagery, how AI could assist the delivery of citizen-centric services in smart cities, and new opportunities for AI to help achieve Universal Health Coverage, and finally to help achieve transparency and explainability in AI algorithms.

Teams will propose impactful AI strategies able to be enacted in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society. Strategies will be evaluated by the mentors according to their feasibility and scalability, potential to address truly global challenges, degree of supporting advocacy, and applicability to market failures beyond the scope of government and industry. The exercise will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

“As the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies, ITU is well placed to guide AI innovation towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development ​Goals. We are providing a neutral close quotation markplatform for international dialogue aimed at ​building a ​common understanding of the capabilities of emerging AI technologies.​​” Houlin Zhao, Secretary General ​of ITU​

Should you be close to Geneva, it seems that registration is still open. Just go to the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage, scroll the page down to ‘Documentation’ and you will find a link to the invitation and a link to online registration. Participation is free but I expect that you are responsible for your travel and accommodation costs.

For anyone unable to attend in person, the summit will be livestreamed (webcast in real time) and you can watch the sessions by following the link below,

https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-T/AI/2018/Pages/webcast.aspx

For those of us on the West Coast of Canada and other parts distant to Geneva, you will want to take the nine hour difference between Geneva (Switzerland) and here into account when viewing the proceedings. If you can’t manage the time difference, the sessions are being recorded and will be posted at a later date.

*’132 member states’ corrected to ‘192 member states’ on May 11, 2018 at 1500 hours PDT.

*Redundant ‘and’ removed on July 19, 2018.