Monthly Archives: July 2022

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (2 of 2): Meditations

Dear friend,

I thought it best to break this up a bit. There are a couple of ‘objects’ still to be discussed but this is mostly the commentary part of this letter to you. (Here’s a link for anyone who stumbled here but missed Part 1.)

Ethics, the natural world, social justice, eeek, and AI

Dorothy Woodend in her March 10, 2022 review for The Tyee) suggests some ethical issues in her critique of the ‘bee/AI collaboration’ and she’s not the only one with concerns. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has produced global recommendations for ethical AI (see my March 18, 2022 posting). More recently, there’s “Racist and sexist robots have flawed AI,” a June 23, 2022 posting, where researchers prepared a conference presentation and paper about deeply flawed AI still being used in robots.

Ultimately, the focus is always on humans and Woodend has extended the ethical AI conversation to include insects and the natural world. In short, something less human-centric.

My friend, this reference to the de Young exhibit may seem off topic but I promise it isn’t in more ways than one. The de Young Museum in San Francisco (February 22, 2020 – June 27, 2021) also held and AI and art show called, “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI”), from the exhibitions page,

In today’s AI-driven world, increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, and evaluate our data, the question of what it means to be human [emphasis mine] has shifted. Uncanny Valley is the first major exhibition to unpack this question through a lens of contemporary art and propose new ways of thinking about intelligence, nature, and artifice. [emphasis mine]

Courtesy: de Young Museum [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/exhibitions/uncanny-valley]

As you can see, it hinted (perhaps?) at an attempt to see beyond human-centric AI. (BTW, I featured this ‘Uncanny Valley’ show in my February 25, 2020 posting where I mentioned Stephanie Dinkins [featured below] and other artists.)

Social justice

While the VAG show doesn’t see much past humans and AI, it does touch on social justice. In particular there’s Pod 15 featuring the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL). The group “combine[s] art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of AI” as per their website’s homepage.

In Pod 9, Stephanie Dinkins’ video work with a robot (Bina48), which was also part of the de Young Museum ‘Uncanny Valley’ show, addresses some of the same issues.

Still of Stephanie Dinkins, “Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present. Courtesy of the artist [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/stephanie-dinkins-conversations-bina48-0]

From the the de Young Museum’s Stephanie Dinkins “Conversations with Bina48” April 23, 2020 article by Janna Keegan (Dinkins submitted the same work you see at the VAG show), Note: Links have been removed,

Transdisciplinary artist and educator Stephanie Dinkins is concerned with fostering AI literacy. The central thesis of her social practice is that AI, the internet, and other data-based technologies disproportionately impact people of color, LGBTQ+ people, women, and disabled and economically disadvantaged communities—groups rarely given a voice in tech’s creation. Dinkins strives to forge a more equitable techno-future by generating AI that includes the voices of multiple constituencies …

The artist’s ongoing Conversations with Bina48 takes the form of a series of interactions with the social robot Bina48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture, 48 exaflops per second). The machine is the brainchild of Martine Rothblatt, an entrepreneur in the field of biopharmaceuticals who, with her wife, Bina, cofounded the Terasem Movement, an organization that seeks to extend human life through cybernetic means. In 2007 Martine commissioned Hanson Robotics to create a robot whose appearance and consciousness simulate Bina’s. The robot was released in 2010, and Dinkins began her work with it in 2014.

Part psychoanalytical discourse, part Turing test, Conversations with Bina48 also participates in a larger dialogue regarding bias and representation in technology. Although Bina Rothblatt is a Black woman, Bina48 was not programmed with an understanding of its Black female identity or with knowledge of Black history. Dinkins’s work situates this omission amid the larger tech industry’s lack of diversity, drawing attention to the problems that arise when a roughly homogenous population creates technologies deployed globally. When this occurs, writes art critic Tess Thackara, “the unconscious biases of white developers proliferate on the internet, mapping our social structures and behaviors onto code and repeating imbalances and injustices that exist in the real world.” One of the most appalling and public of these instances occurred when a Google Photos image-recognition algorithm mislabeled the faces of Black people as “gorillas.”

Eeek

You will find as you go through the ‘imitation game’ a pod with a screen showing your movements through the rooms in realtime on a screen. The installation is called “Creepers” (2021-22). The student team from Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (CDM) describes their project this way, from the CDM’s AI-driven Installation Piece for the Vancouver Art Gallery webpage,

Project Description

Kaleidoscope [team name] is designing an installation piece that harnesses AI to collect and visualize exhibit visitor behaviours, and interactions with art, in an impactful and thought-provoking way.

There’s no warning that you’re being tracked and you can see they’ve used facial recognition software to track your movements through the show. It’s claimed on the pod’s signage that they are deleting the data once you’ve left.

‘Creepers’ is an interesting approach to the ethics of AI. The name suggests that even the student designers were aware it was problematic.

For the curious, there’s a description of the other VAG ‘imitation game’ installations provided by CDM students on the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage.

In recovery from an existential crisis (meditations)

There’s something greatly ambitious about “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” and walking up the VAG’s grand staircase affirms that ambition. Bravo to the two curators, Grenville and Entis for an exhibition.that presents a survey (or overview) of artificial intelligence, and its use in and impact on creative visual culture.

I’ve already enthused over the history (specifically Turing, Lovelace, Ovid), admitted to being mesmerized by Scott Eaton’s sculpture/AI videos, and confessed to a fascination (and mild repulsion) regarding Oxman’s honeycombs.

It’s hard to remember all of the ‘objects’ as the curators have offered a jumble of work, almost all of them on screens. Already noted, there’s Norbert Wiener’s The Moth (1949) and there are also a number of other computer-based artworks from the 1960s and 1970s. Plus, you’ll find works utilizing a GAN (generative adversarial network), an AI agent that is explained in the exhibit.

It’s worth going more than once to the show as there is so much to experience.

Why did they do that?

Dear friend, I’ve already commented on the poor flow through the show and It’s hard to tell if the curators intended the experience to be disorienting but this is to the point of chaos, especially when the exhibition is crowded.

I’ve seen Grenville’s shows before. In particular there was “MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture, a massive survey documenting the emergence of a mode of creativity that materialized in the late 1800s and has grown to become the dominant model of cultural production in the 21st century” and there was “KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games + Art.” As you can see from the description, he pulls together disparate works and ideas into a show for you to ‘make sense’ of them.

One of the differences between those shows and the “imitation Game: …” is that most of us have some familiarity, whether we like it or not, with modern art/culture and anime/manga/etc. and can try to ‘make sense’ of it.

By contrast, artificial intelligence (which even experts have difficulty defining) occupies an entirely different set of categories; all of them associated with science/technology. This makes for a different kind of show so the curators cannot rely on the audience’s understanding of basics. It’s effectively an art/sci or art/tech show and, I believe, the first of its kind at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Unfortunately, the curators don’t seem to have changed their approach to accommodate that difference.

AI is also at the centre of a current panic over job loss, loss of personal agency, automated racism and sexism, etc. which makes the experience of viewing the show a little tense. In this context, their decision to commission and use ‘Creepers’ seems odd.

Where were Ai-Da and Dall-E-2 and the others?

Oh friend, I was hoping for a robot. Those roomba paintbots didn’t do much for me. All they did was lie there on the floor

To be blunt I wanted some fun and perhaps a bit of wonder and maybe a little vitality. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Ai-Da, an artisitic robot, but something three dimensional and fun in this very flat, screen-oriented show would have been nice.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-asset.jpeg
Ai-Da was at the Glastonbury Festival in the U from 23-26th June 2022. Here’s Ai-Da and her Billie Eilish (one of the Glastonbury 2022 headliners) portrait. [downloaded from https://www.ai-darobot.com/exhibition]

Ai-Da was first featured here in a December 17, 2021 posting about performing poetry that she had written in honour of the 700th anniversary of poet Dante Alighieri’s death.

Named in honour of Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da visited the 2022 Venice Biennale as Leah Henrickson and Simone Natale describe in their May 12, 2022 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Ai-Da sits behind a desk, paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing for her, and then back down as she dabs another blob of paint onto the canvas. A lifelike portrait is taking shape. If you didn’t know a robot produced it, this portrait could pass as the work of a human artist.

Ai-Da is touted as the “first robot to paint like an artist,” and an exhibition of her work, called Leaping into the Metaverse, opened at the Venice Biennale.

Ai-Da produces portraits of sitting subjects using a robotic hand attached to her lifelike feminine figure. She’s also able to talk, giving detailed answers to questions about her artistic process and attitudes toward technology. She even gave a TEDx talk about “The Intersection of Art and AI” in Oxford a few years ago. While the words she speaks are programmed, Ai-Da’s creators have also been experimenting with having her write and perform her own poetry.

She has her own website.

If not Ai-Da, what about Dall-E-2? Aaron Hertzmann’s June 20, 2022 commentary, “Give this AI a few words of description and it produces a stunning image – but is it art?” investigates for Salon (Note: Links have been removed),

DALL-E 2 is a new neural network [AI] algorithm that creates a picture from a short phrase or sentence that you provide. The program, which was announced by the artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI in April 2022, hasn’t been released to the public. But a small and growing number of people – myself included – have been given access to experiment with it.

As a researcher studying the nexus of technology and art, I was keen to see how well the program worked. After hours of experimentation, it’s clear that DALL-E – while not without shortcomings – is leaps and bounds ahead of existing image generation technology. It raises immediate questions about how these technologies will change how art is made and consumed. It also raises questions about what it means to be creative when DALL-E 2 seems to automate so much of the creative process itself.

A July 4, 2022 article “DALL-E, Make Me Another Picasso, Please” by Laura Lane for The New Yorker has a rebuttal to Ada Lovelace’s contention that creativity is uniquely human (Note: A link has been removed),

“There was this belief that creativity is this deeply special, only-human thing,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s C.E.O., explained the other day. Maybe not so true anymore, he said. Altman, who wore a gray sweater and had tousled brown hair, was videoconferencing from the company’s headquarters, in San Francisco. DALL-E is still in a testing phase. So far, OpenAI has granted access to a select group of people—researchers, artists, developers—who have used it to produce a wide array of images: photorealistic animals, bizarre mashups, punny collages. Asked by a user to generate “a plate of various alien fruits from another planet photograph,” DALL-E returned something kind of like rambutans. “The rest of mona lisa” is, according to DALL-E, mostly just one big cliff. Altman described DALL-E as “an extension of your own creativity.”

There are other AI artists, in my August 16, 2019 posting, I had this,

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

That posting also included AI artist, AICAN. Both artist-AI agents (Obvious and AICAN) are based on GANs (generative adversarial networks) for learning and eventual output. Both artist-AI agents work independently or with human collaborators on art works that are available for purchase.

As might be expected not everyone is excited about AI and visual art. Sonja Drimmer, Professor of Medieval Art, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, provides another perspective on AI, visual art, and, her specialty, art history in her November 1, 2021 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past year alone, I’ve come across articles highlighting how artificial intelligence recovered a “secret” painting of a “lost lover” of Italian painter Modigliani, “brought to life” a “hidden Picasso nude”, “resurrected” Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s destroyed works and “restored” portions of Rembrandt’s 1642 painting “The Night Watch.” The list goes on.

As an art historian, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the coverage and circulation of these projects.

They have not, in actuality, revealed one secret or solved a single mystery.

What they have done is generate feel-good stories about AI.

Take the reports about the Modigliani and Picasso paintings.

These were projects executed by the same company, Oxia Palus, which was founded not by art historians but by doctoral students in machine learning.

In both cases, Oxia Palus relied upon traditional X-rays, X-ray fluorescence and infrared imaging that had already been carried out and published years prior – work that had revealed preliminary paintings beneath the visible layer on the artists’ canvases.

The company edited these X-rays and reconstituted them as new works of art by applying a technique called “neural style transfer.” This is a sophisticated-sounding term for a program that breaks works of art down into extremely small units, extrapolates a style from them and then promises to recreate images of other content in that same style.

As you can ‘see’ my friend, the topic of AI and visual art is a juicy one. In fact, I have another example in my June 27, 2022 posting, which is titled, “Art appraised by algorithm.” So, Grenville’s and Entis’ decision to focus on AI and its impact on visual culture is quite timely.

Visual culture: seeing into the future

The VAG Imitation Game webpage lists these categories of visual culture “animation, architecture, art, fashion, graphic design, urban design and video games …” as being represented in the show. Movies and visual art, not mentioned in the write up, are represented while theatre and other performing arts are not mentioned or represented. That’ s not a surprise.

In addition to an area of science/technology that’s not well understood even by experts, the curators took on the truly amorphous (and overwhelming) topic of visual culture. Given that even writing this commentary has been a challenge, I imagine pulling the show together was quite the task.

Grenville often grounds his shows in a history of the subject and, this time, it seems especially striking. You’re in a building that is effectively a 19th century construct and in galleries that reflect a 20th century ‘white cube’ aesthetic, while looking for clues into the 21st century future of visual culture employing technology that has its roots in the 19th century and, to some extent, began to flower in the mid-20th century.

Chung’s collaboration is one of the only ‘optimistic’ notes about the future and, as noted earlier, it bears a resemblance to Wiener’s 1949 ‘Moth’

Overall, it seems we are being cautioned about the future. For example, Oxman’s work seems bleak (bees with no flowers to pollinate and living in an eternal spring). Adding in ‘Creepers’ and surveillance along with issues of bias and social injustice reflects hesitation and concern about what we will see, who sees it, and how it will be represented visually.

Learning about robots, automatons, artificial intelligence, and more

I wish the Vancouver Art Gallery (and Vancouver’s other art galleries) would invest a little more in audience education. A couple of tours, by someone who may or may not know what they’re talking, about during the week do not suffice. The extra material about Stephanie Dinkins and her work (“Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present) came from the de Young Museum’s website. In my July 26, 2021 commentary on North Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery 2021 show “Interior Infinite,” I found background information for artist Zanele Muholi on the Tate Modern’s website. There is nothing on the VAG website that helps you to gain some perspective on the artists’ works.

It seems to me that if the VAG wants to be considered world class, it should conduct itself accordingly and beefing up its website with background information about their current shows would be a good place to start.

Robots, automata, and artificial intelligence

Prior to 1921, robots were known exclusively as automatons. These days, the word ‘automaton’ (or ‘automata’ in the plural) seems to be used to describe purely mechanical representations of humans from over 100 years ago whereas the word ‘robot’ can be either ‘humanlike’ or purely machine, e.g. a mechanical arm that performs the same function over and over. I have a good February 24, 2017 essay on automatons by Miguel Barral for OpenMind BBVA*, which provides some insight into the matter,

The concept of robot is relatively recent. The idea was introduced in 1921 by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his work R.U.R to designate a machine that performs tasks in place of man. But their predecessors, the automatons (from the Greek automata, or “mechanical device that works by itself”), have been the object of desire and fascination since antiquity. Some of the greatest inventors in history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, have contributed to our fascination with these fabulous creations:

The Al-Jazari automatons

The earliest examples of known automatons appeared in the Islamic world in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1206, the Arab polymath Al-Jazari, whose creations were known for their sophistication, described some of his most notable automatons: an automatic wine dispenser, a soap and towels dispenser and an orchestra-automaton that operated by the force of water. This latter invention was meant to liven up parties and banquets with music while floating on a pond, lake or fountain.

As the water flowed, it started a rotating drum with pegs that, in turn, moved levers whose movement produced different sounds and movements. As the pegs responsible for the musical notes could be exchanged for different ones in order to interpret another melody, it is considered one of the first programmable machines in history.

If you’re curious about automata, my friend, I found this Sept. 26, 2016 ABC news radio news item about singer Roger Daltrey’s and his wife, Heather’s auction of their collection of 19th century French automata (there’s an embedded video showcasing these extraordinary works of art). For more about automata, robots, and androids, there’s an excellent May 4, 2022 article by James Vincent, ‘A visit to the human factory; How to build the world’s most realistic robot‘ for The Verge; Vincent’s article is about Engineered Arts, the UK-based company that built Ai-Da.

AI is often used interchangeably with ‘robot’ but they aren’t the same. Not all robots have AI integrated into their processes. At its simplest AI is an algorithm or set of algorithms, which may ‘live’ in a CPU and be effectively invisible or ‘live’ in or make use of some kind of machine and/or humanlike body. As the experts have noted, the concept of artificial intelligence is a slippery concept.

*OpenMind BBVA is a Spanish multinational financial services company, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), which runs the non-profit project, OpenMind (About us page) to disseminate information on robotics and so much more.*

You can’t always get what you want

My friend,

I expect many of the show’s shortcomings (as perceived by me) are due to money and/or scheduling issues. For example, Ai-Da was at the Venice Biennale and if there was a choice between the VAG and Biennale, I know where I’d be.

Even with those caveats in mind, It is a bit surprising that there were no examples of wearable technology. For example, Toronto’s Tapestry Opera recently performed R.U.R. A Torrent of Light (based on the word ‘robot’ from Karel Čapek’s play, R.U.R., ‘Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti’), from my May 24, 2022 posting,

I have more about tickets prices, dates, and location later in this post but first, here’s more about the opera and the people who’ve created it from the Tapestry Opera’s ‘R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’ performance webpage,

“This stunning new opera combines dance, beautiful multimedia design, a chamber orchestra including 100 instruments creating a unique electronica-classical sound, and wearable technology [emphasis mine] created with OCAD University’s Social Body Lab, to create an immersive and unforgettable science-fiction experience.”

And, from later in my posting,

“Despite current stereotypes, opera was historically a launchpad for all kinds of applied design technologies. [emphasis mine] Having the opportunity to collaborate with OCAD U faculty is an invigorating way to reconnect to that tradition and foster connections between art, music and design, [emphasis mine]” comments the production’s Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, who is also Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director. 

That last quote brings me back to the my comment about theatre and performing arts not being part of the show. Of course, the curators couldn’t do it all but a website with my hoped for background and additional information could have helped to solve the problem.

The absence of the theatrical and performing arts in the VAG’s ‘Imitation Game’ is a bit surprising as the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) in their third assessment, “Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada” released in 2018 noted this (from my April 12, 2018 posting),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphasis mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world research in these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

US-centric

My friend,

I was a little surprised that the show was so centered on work from the US given that Grenville has curated ate least one show where there was significant input from artists based in Asia. Both Japan and Korea are very active with regard to artificial intelligence and it’s hard to believe that their artists haven’t kept pace. (I’m not as familiar with China and its AI efforts, other than in the field of facial recognition, but it’s hard to believe their artists aren’t experimenting.)

The Americans, of course, are very important developers in the field of AI but they are not alone and it would have been nice to have seen something from Asia and/or Africa and/or something from one of the other Americas. In fact, anything which takes us out of the same old, same old. (Luba Elliott wrote this (2019/2020/2021?) essay, “Artificial Intelligence Art from Africa and Black Communities Worldwide” on Aya Data if you want to get a sense of some of the activity on the African continent. Elliott does seem to conflate Africa and Black Communities, for some clarity you may want to check out the Wikipedia entry on Africanfuturism, which contrasts with this August 12, 2020 essay by Donald Maloba, “What is Afrofuturism? A Beginner’s Guide.” Maloba also conflates the two.)

As it turns out, Luba Elliott presented at the 2019 Montréal Digital Spring event, which brings me to Canada’s artificial intelligence and arts scene.

I promise I haven’t turned into a flag waving zealot, my friend. It’s just odd there isn’t a bit more given that machine learning was pioneered at the University of Toronto. Here’s more about that (from Wikipedia entry for Geoffrey Hinston),

Geoffrey Everest HintonCCFRSFRSC[11] (born 6 December 1947) is a British-Canadian cognitive psychologist and computer scientist, most noted for his work on artificial neural networks.

Hinton received the 2018 Turing Award, together with Yoshua Bengio [Canadian scientist] and Yann LeCun, for their work on deep learning.[24] They are sometimes referred to as the “Godfathers of AI” and “Godfathers of Deep Learning“,[25][26] and have continued to give public talks together.[27][28]

Some of Hinton’s work was started in the US but since 1987, he has pursued his interests at the University of Toronto. He wasn’t proven right until 2012. Katrina Onstad’s February 29, 2018 article (Mr. Robot) for Toronto Life is a gripping read about Hinton and his work on neural networks. BTW, Yoshua Bengio (co-Godfather) is a Canadian scientist at the Université de Montréal and Yann LeCun (co-Godfather) is a French scientist at New York University.

Then, there’s another contribution, our government was the first in the world to develop a national artificial intelligence strategy. Adding those developments to the CCA ‘State of Science’ report findings about visual arts and performing arts, is there another word besides ‘odd’ to describe the lack of Canadian voices?

You’re going to point out the installation by Ben Bogart (a member of Simon Fraser University’s Metacreation Lab for Creative AI and instructor at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECU)) but it’s based on the iconic US scifi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As for the other Canadian, Sougwen Chung, she left Canada pretty quickly to get her undergraduate degree in the US and has since moved to the UK. (You could describe hers as the quintessential success story, i.e., moving from Canada only to get noticed here after success elsewhere.)

Of course, there are the CDM student projects but the projects seem less like an exploration of visual culture than an exploration of technology and industry requirements, from the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage, Note: A link has been removed,

In 2019, Bruce Grenville, Senior Curator at Vancouver Art Gallery, approached [the] Centre for Digital Media to collaborate on several industry projects for the forthcoming exhibition. Four student teams tackled the project briefs over the course of the next two years and produced award-winning installations that are on display until October 23 [2022].

Basically, my friend, it would have been nice to see other voices or, at the least, an attempt at representing other voices and visual cultures informed by AI. As for Canadian contributions, maybe put something on the VAG website?

Playing well with others

it’s always a mystery to me why the Vancouver cultural scene seems comprised of a set of silos or closely guarded kingdoms. Reaching out to the public library and other institutions such as Science World might have cost time but could have enhanced the show

For example, one of the branches of the New York Public Library ran a programme called, “We are AI” in March 2022 (see my March 23, 2022 posting about the five-week course, which was run as a learning circle). The course materials are available for free (We are AI webpage) and I imagine that adding a ‘visual culture module’ wouldn’t be that difficult.

There is one (rare) example of some Vancouver cultural institutions getting together to offer an art/science programme and that was in 2017 when the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery (at the University of British Columbia; UBC) hosted an exhibition of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s work (see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting about the gallery show) along with that show was an ancillary event held by the folks at Café Scientifique at Science World and featuring a panel of professionals from UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and Dept. of Psychology, discussing Cajal’s work.

In fact, where were the science and technology communities for this show?

On a related note, the 2022 ACM SIGGRAPH conference (August 7 – 11, 2022) is being held in Vancouver. (ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery; SIGGRAPH is for Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.) SIGGRAPH has been holding conferences in Vancouver every few years since at least 2011.

At this year’s conference, they have at least two sessions that indicate interests similar to the VAG’s. First, there’s Immersive Visualization for Research, Science and Art which includes AI and machine learning along with other related topics. There’s also, Frontiers Talk: Art in the Age of AI: Can Computers Create Art?

This is both an international conference and an exhibition (of art) and the whole thing seems to have kicked off on July 25, 2022. If you’re interested, the programme can be found here and registration here.

Last time SIGGRAPH was here the organizers seemed interested in outreach and they offered some free events.

In the end

it was good to see the show. The curators brought together some exciting material. As is always the case, there were some missed opportunities and a few blind spots. But all is not lost.

July 27, 2022, the VAG held a virtual event with an artist,

Gwenyth Chao to learn more about what happened to the honeybees and hives in Oxman’s Synthetic Apiary project. As a transdisciplinary artist herself, Chao will also discuss the relationship between art, science, technology and design. She will then guide participants to create a space (of any scale, from insect to human) inspired by patterns found in nature.

Hopefully there will be more more events inspired by specific ‘objects’. Meanwhile, August 12, 2022, the VAG is hosting,

… in partnership with the Canadian Music Centre BC, New Music at the Gallery is a live concert series hosted by the Vancouver Art Gallery that features an array of musicians and composers who draw on contemporary art themes.

Highlighting a selection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music compositions, this second concert, inspired by the exhibition The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, will spotlight The Iliac Suite (1957), the first piece ever written using only a computer, and Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria (2006), which is in a large part dependent on a computer-generated musical process.

It would be lovely if they could include an Ada Lovelace Day event. This is an international celebration held on October 11, 2022.

Do go. Do enjoy, my friend.

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (1 of 2): The Objects

To my imaginary AI friend

Dear friend,

I thought you might be amused by these Roomba-like* paintbots at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s (VAG) latest exhibition, “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” (March 5, 2022 – October 23, 2022).

Sougwen Chung, Omnia per Omnia, 2018, video (excerpt), Courtesy of the Artist

*A Roomba is a robot vacuum cleaner produced and sold by iRobot.

As far as I know, this is the Vancouver Art Gallery’s first art/science or art/technology exhibit and it is an alternately fascinating, exciting, and frustrating take on artificial intelligence and its impact on the visual arts. Curated by Bruce Grenville, VAG Senior Curator, and Glenn Entis, Guest Curator, the show features 20 ‘objects’ designed to both introduce viewers to the ‘imitation game’ and to challenge them. From the VAG Imitation Game webpage,

The Imitation Game surveys the extraordinary uses (and abuses) of artificial intelligence (AI) in the production of modern and contemporary visual culture around the world. The exhibition follows a chronological narrative that first examines the development of artificial intelligence, from the 1950s to the present [emphasis mine], through a precise historical lens. Building on this foundation, it emphasizes the explosive growth of AI across disciplines, including animation, architecture, art, fashion, graphic design, urban design and video games, over the past decade. Revolving around the important roles of machine learning and computer vision in AI research and experimentation, The Imitation Game reveals the complex nature of this new tool and demonstrates its importance for cultural production.

And now …

As you’ve probably guessed, my friend, you’ll find a combination of both background information and commentary on the show.

I’ve initially focused on two people (a scientist and a mathematician) who were seminal thinkers about machines, intelligence, creativity, and humanity. I’ve also provided some information about the curators, which hopefully gives you some insight into the show.

As for the show itself, you’ll find a few of the ‘objects’ highlighted with one of them being investigated at more length. The curators devoted some of the show to ethical and social justice issues, accordingly, the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted the University of British Columbia’s “Speculative Futures: Artificial Intelligence Symposium” on April 7, 2022,

Presented in conjunction with the exhibition The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, the Speculative Futures Symposium examines artificial intelligence and the specific uses of technology in its multifarious dimensions. Across four different panel conversations, leading thinkers of today will explore the ethical implications of technology and discuss how they are working to address these issues in cultural production.”

So, you’ll find more on these topics here too.

And for anyone else reading this (not you, my friend who is ‘strong’ AI and not similar to the ‘weak’ AI found in this show), there is a description of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ AI on the avtsim.com/weak-ai-strong-ai webpage, Note: A link has been removed,

There are two types of AI: weak AI and strong AI.

Weak, sometimes called narrow, AI is less intelligent as it cannot work without human interaction and focuses on a more narrow, specific, or niched purpose. …

Strong AI on the other hand is in fact comparable to the fictitious AIs we see in media like the terminator. The theoretical Strong AI would be equivalent or greater to human intelligence.

….

My dear friend, I hope you will enjoy.

The Imitation Game and ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’

In some circles, it’s better known as ‘The Turing Test;” the Vancouver Art Gallery’s ‘Imitation Game’ hosts a copy of Alan Turing’s foundational paper for establishing whether artificial intelligence is possible (I thought this was pretty exciting).

Here’s more from The Turing Test essay by Graham Oppy and David Dowe for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

The phrase “The Turing Test” is most properly used to refer to a proposal made by Turing (1950) as a way of dealing with the question whether machines can think. According to Turing, the question whether machines can think is itself “too meaningless” to deserve discussion (442). However, if we consider the more precise—and somehow related—question whether a digital computer can do well in a certain kind of game that Turing describes (“The Imitation Game”), then—at least in Turing’s eyes—we do have a question that admits of precise discussion. Moreover, as we shall see, Turing himself thought that it would not be too long before we did have digital computers that could “do well” in the Imitation Game.

The phrase “The Turing Test” is sometimes used more generally to refer to some kinds of behavioural tests for the presence of mind, or thought, or intelligence in putatively minded entities. …

Next to the display holding Turing’s paper, is another display with an excerpt of an explanation from Turing about how he believed Ada Lovelace would have responded to the idea that machines could think based on a copy of some of her writing (also on display). She proposed that creativity, not thinking, is what set people apart from machines. (See the April 17, 2020 article “Thinking Machines? Has the Lovelace Test Been Passed?’ on mindmatters.ai.)

It’s like a dialogue between two seminal thinkers who lived about 100 years apart; Lovelace, born in 1815 and dead in 1852, and Turing, born in 1912 and dead in 1954. Both have fascinating back stories (more about those later) and both played roles in how computers and artificial intelligence are viewed.

Adding some interest to this walk down memory lane is a 3rd display, an illustration of the ‘Mechanical Turk‘, a chess playing machine that made the rounds in Europe from 1770 until it was destroyed in 1854. A hoax that fooled people for quite a while it is a reminder that we’ve been interested in intelligent machines for centuries. (Friend, Turing and Lovelace and the Mechanical Turk are found in Pod 1.)

Back story: Turing and the apple

Turing is credited with being instrumental in breaking the German ENIGMA code during World War II and helping to end the war. I find it odd that he ended up at the University of Manchester in the post-war years. One would expect him to have been at Oxford or Cambridge. At any rate, he died in 1954 of cyanide poisoning two years after he was arrested for being homosexual and convicted of indecency. Given the choice of incarceration or chemical castration, he chose the latter. There is, to this day, debate about whether or not it was suicide. Here’s how his death is described in this Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

On 8 June 1954, at his house at 43 Adlington Road, Wilmslow,[150] Turing’s housekeeper found him dead. He had died the previous day at the age of 41. Cyanide poisoning was established as the cause of death.[151] When his body was discovered, an apple lay half-eaten beside his bed, and although the apple was not tested for cyanide,[152] it was speculated that this was the means by which Turing had consumed a fatal dose. An inquest determined that he had committed suicide. Andrew Hodges and another biographer, David Leavitt, have both speculated that Turing was re-enacting a scene from the Walt Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), his favourite fairy tale. Both men noted that (in Leavitt’s words) he took “an especially keen pleasure in the scene where the Wicked Queen immerses her apple in the poisonous brew”.[153] Turing’s remains were cremated at Woking Crematorium on 12 June 1954,[154] and his ashes were scattered in the gardens of the crematorium, just as his father’s had been.[155]

Philosopher Jack Copeland has questioned various aspects of the coroner’s historical verdict. He suggested an alternative explanation for the cause of Turing’s death: the accidental inhalation of cyanide fumes from an apparatus used to electroplate gold onto spoons. The potassium cyanide was used to dissolve the gold. Turing had such an apparatus set up in his tiny spare room. Copeland noted that the autopsy findings were more consistent with inhalation than with ingestion of the poison. Turing also habitually ate an apple before going to bed, and it was not unusual for the apple to be discarded half-eaten.[156] Furthermore, Turing had reportedly borne his legal setbacks and hormone treatment (which had been discontinued a year previously) “with good humour” and had shown no sign of despondency prior to his death. He even set down a list of tasks that he intended to complete upon returning to his office after the holiday weekend.[156] Turing’s mother believed that the ingestion was accidental, resulting from her son’s careless storage of laboratory chemicals.[157] Biographer Andrew Hodges theorised that Turing arranged the delivery of the equipment to deliberately allow his mother plausible deniability with regard to any suicide claims.[158]

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also has an entry for Alan Turing dated April 10, 2015 it’s titled, The Enigma of Alan Turing.

Back story: Ada Byron Lovelace, the 2nd generation of ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’

A mathematician and genius in her own right, Ada Lovelace’s father George Gordon Byron, better known as the poet Lord Byron, was notoriously described as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’.

Lovelace too could have been been ‘mad, bad, …’ but she is described less memorably as “… manipulative and aggressive, a drug addict, a gambler and an adulteress, …” as mentioned in my October 13, 20215 posting. It marked the 200th anniversary of her birth, which was celebrated with a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary and an exhibit at the Science Museum in London, UK.

She belongs in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s show along with Alan Turing due to her prediction that computers could be made to create music. She also published the first computer program. Her feat is astonishing when you know only one working model {1/7th of the proposed final size) of a computer was ever produced. (The machine invented by Charles Babbage was known as a difference engine. You can find out more about the Difference engine on Wikipedia and about Babbage’s proposed second invention, the Analytical engine.)

(Byron had almost nothing to do with his daughter although his reputation seems to have dogged her. You can find out more about Lord Byron here.)

AI and visual culture at the VAG: the curators

As mentioned earlier, the VAG’s “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” show runs from March 5, 2022 – October 23, 2022. Twice now, I have been to this weirdly exciting and frustrating show.

Bruce Grenville, VAG Chief/Senior Curator, seems to specialize in pulling together diverse materials to illustrate ‘big’ topics. His profile for Emily Carr University of Art + Design (where Grenville teaches) mentions these shows ,

… He has organized many thematic group exhibitions including, MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture [emphasis mine], a massive survey documenting the emergence of a mode of creativity that materialized in the late 1800s and has grown to become the dominant model of cultural production in the 21st century; KRAZY! The Delirious World [emphasis mine] of Anime + Manga + Video Games + Art, a timely and important survey of modern and contemporary visual culture from around the world; Home and Away: Crossing Cultures on the Pacific Rim [emphasis mine] a look at the work of six artists from Vancouver, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul and Los Angeles, who share a history of emigration and diaspora. …

Glenn Entis, Guest Curator and founding faculty member of Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (CDM) is Grenville’s co-curator, from Entis’ CDM profile,

“… an Academy Award-winning animation pioneer and games industry veteran. The former CEO of Dreamworks Interactive, Glenn worked with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg on a number of video games …,”

Steve Newton in his March 4, 2022 preview does a good job of describing the show although I strongly disagree with the title of his article which proclaims “The Vancouver Art Gallery takes a deep dive into artificial intelligence with The Imitation Game.” I think it’s more of a shallow dive meant to cover more distance than depth,

… The exhibition kicks off with an interactive introduction inviting visitors to actively identify diverse areas of cultural production influenced by AI.

“That was actually one of the pieces that we produced in collaboration with the Centre for Digital Media,” Grenville notes, “so we worked with some graduate-student teams that had actually helped us to design that software. It was the beginning of COVID when we started to design this, so we actually wanted a no-touch interactive. So, really, the idea was to say, ‘Okay, this is the very entrance to the exhibition, and artificial intelligence, this is something I’ve heard about, but I’m not really sure how it’s utilized in ways. But maybe I know something about architecture; maybe I know something about video games; maybe I know something about the history of film.

“So you point to these 10 categories of visual culture [emphasis mine]–video games, architecture, fashion design, graphic design, industrial design, urban design–so you point to one of those, and you might point to ‘film’, and then when you point at it that opens up into five different examples of what’s in the show, so it could be 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Bladerunner, or World on a Wire.”

After the exhibition’s introduction—which Grenville equates to “opening the door to your curiosity” about artificial intelligence–visitors encounter one of its main categories, Objects of Wonder, which speaks to the history of AI and the critical advances the technology has made over the years.

“So there are 20 Objects of Wonder [emphasis mine],” Grenville says, “which go from 1949 to 2022, and they kind of plot out the history of artificial intelligence over that period of time, focusing on a specific object. Like [mathematician and philosopher] Norbert Wiener made this cybernetic creature, he called it a ‘Moth’, in 1949. So there’s a section that looks at this idea of kind of using animals–well, machine animals–and thinking about cybernetics, this idea of communication as feedback, early thinking around neuroscience and how neuroscience starts to imagine this idea of a thinking machine.

And there’s this from Newton’s March 4, 2022 preview,

“It’s interesting,” Grenville ponders, “artificial intelligence is virtually unregulated. [emphasis mine] You know, if you think about the regulatory bodies that govern TV or radio or all the types of telecommunications, there’s no equivalent for artificial intelligence, which really doesn’t make any sense. And so what happens is, sometimes with the best intentions [emphasis mine]—sometimes not with the best intentions—choices are made about how artificial intelligence develops. So one of the big ones is facial-recognition software [emphasis mine], and any body-detection software that’s being utilized.

In addition to it being the best overview of the show I’ve seen so far, this is the only one where you get a little insight into what the curators were thinking when they were developing it.

A deep dive into AI?

it was only while searching for a little information before the show that I realized I don’t have any definitions for artificial intelligence! What is AI? Sadly, there are no definitions of AI in the exhibit.

It seems even experts don’t have a good definition. Take a look at this,

The definition of AI is fluid [emphasis mine] and reflects a constantly shifting landscape marked by technological advancements and growing areas of application. Indeed, it has frequently been observed that once AI becomes capable of solving a particular problem or accomplishing a certain task, it is often no longer considered to be “real” intelligence [emphasis mine] (Haenlein & Kaplan, 2019). A firm definition was not applied for this report [emphasis mine], given the variety of implementations described above. However, for the purposes of deliberation, the Panel chose to interpret AI as a collection of statistical and software techniques, as well as the associated data and the social context in which they evolve — this allows for a broader and more inclusive interpretation of AI technologies and forms of agency. The Panel uses the term AI interchangeably to describe various implementations of machine-assisted design and discovery, including those based on machine learning, deep learning, and reinforcement learning, except for specific examples where the choice of implementation is salient. [p. 6 print version; p. 34 PDF version]

The above is from the Leaps and Boundaries report released May 10, 2022 by the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on Artificial Intelligence for Science and Engineering.

Sometimes a show will take you in an unexpected direction. I feel a lot better ‘not knowing’. Still, I wish the curators had acknowledged somewhere in the show that artificial intelligence is a slippery concept. Especially when you add in robots and automatons. (more about them later)

21st century technology in a 19th/20th century building

Void stairs inside the building. Completed in 1906, the building was later designated as a National Historic Site in 1980 [downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vancouver_Art_Gallery#cite_note-canen-7]

Just barely making it into the 20th century, the building where the Vancouver Art Gallery currently resides was for many years the provincial courthouse (1911 – 1978). In some ways, it’s a disconcerting setting for this show.

They’ve done their best to make the upstairs where the exhibit is displayed look like today’s galleries with their ‘white cube aesthetic’ and strong resemblance to the scientific laboratories seen in movies.

(For more about the dominance, since the 1930s, of the ‘white cube aesthetic’ in art galleries around the world, see my July 26, 2021 posting; scroll down about 50% of the way.)

It makes for an interesting tension, the contrast between the grand staircase, the cupola, and other architectural elements and the sterile, ‘laboratory’ environment of the modern art gallery.

20 Objects of Wonder and the flow of the show

It was flummoxing. Where are the 20 objects? Why does it feel like a maze in a laboratory? Loved the bees, but why? Eeeek Creepers! What is visual culture anyway? Where am I?

The objects of the show

It turns out that the curators have a more refined concept for ‘object’ than I do. There weren’t 20 material objects, there were 20 numbered ‘pods’ with perhaps a screen or a couple of screens or a screen and a material object or two illustrating the pod’s topic.

Looking up a definition for the word (accessed from a June 9, 2022 duckduckgo.com search). yielded this, (the second one seems à propos),

objectŏb′jĭkt, -jĕkt″

noun

1. Something perceptible by one or more of the senses, especially by vision or touch; a material thing.

2. A focus of attention, feeling, thought, or action.

3. A limiting factor that must be considered.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

Each pod = a focus of attention.

The show’s flow is a maze. Am I a rat?

The pods are defined by a number and by temporary walls. So if you look up, you’ll see a number and a space partly enclosed by a temporary wall or two.

It’s a very choppy experience. For example, one minute you can be in pod 1 and, when you turn the corner, you’re in pod 4 or 5 or ? There are pods I’ve not seen, despite my two visits, because I kept losing my way. This led to an existential crisis on my second visit. “Had I missed the greater meaning of this show? Was there some sort of logic to how it was organized? Was there meaning to my life? Was I a rat being nudged around in a maze?” I didn’t know.

Thankfully, I have since recovered. But, I will return to my existential crisis later, with a special mention for “Creepers.”

The fascinating

My friend, you know I appreciated the history and in addition to Alan Turing, Ada Lovelace and the Mechanical Turk, at the beginning of the show, they included a reference to Ovid (or Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō), a Roman poet who lived from 43 BCE – 17/18 CE in one of the double digit (17? or 10? or …) in one of the pods featuring a robot on screen. As to why Ovid might be included, this excerpt from a February 12, 2018 posting on the cosmolocal.org website provides a clue (Note. Links have been removed),

The University of King’s College [Halifax, Nova Scotia] presents Automatons! From Ovid to AI, a nine-lecture series examining the history, issues and relationships between humans, robots, and artificial intelligence [emphasis mine]. The series runs from January 10 to April 4 [2018], and features leading scholars, performers and critics from Canada, the US and Britain.

“Drawing from theatre, literature, art, science and philosophy, our 2018 King’s College Lecture Series features leading international authorities exploring our intimate relationships with machines,” says Dr. Gordon McOuat, professor in the King’s History of Science and Technology (HOST) and Contemporary Studies Programs.

“From the myths of Ovid [emphasis mine] and the automatons [emphasis mine] of the early modern period to the rise of robots, cyborgs, AI and artificial living things in the modern world, the 2018 King’s College Lecture Series examines the historical, cultural, scientific and philosophical place of automatons in our lives—and our future,” adds McOuat.

I loved the way the curators managed to integrate the historical roots for artificial intelligence and, by extension, the world of automatons, robots, cyborgs, and androids. Yes, starting the show with Alan Turing and Ada Lovelace could be expected but Norbert Wiener’s Moth (1949) acts as a sort of preview for Sougwen Chung’s “Omnia per Omnia, 2018” (GIF seen at the beginning of this post). Take a look for yourself (from the cyberneticzoo.com September 19, 2009 posting by cyberne1. Do you see the similarity or am I the only one?

[sourced from Google images, Source:life) & downloaded from https://cyberneticzoo.com/cyberneticanimals/1949-wieners-moth-wiener-wiesner-singleton/]

Sculpture

This is the first time I’ve come across an AI/sculpture project. The VAG show features Scott Eaton’s sculptures on screens in a room devoted to his work.

Scott Eaton: Entangled II, 2019 4k video (still) Courtesy of the Artist [downloaded from https://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/exhibitions/the-imitation-game]

This looks like an image of a piece of ginger root and It’s fascinating to watch the process as the AI agent ‘evolves’ Eaton’s drawings into onscreen sculptures. It would have enhanced the experience if at least one of Eaton’s ‘evolved’ and physically realized sculptures had been present in the room but perhaps there were financial and/or logistical reasons for the absence.

Both Chung and Eaton are collaborating with an AI agent. In Chung’s case the AI is integrated into the paintbots with which she interacts and paints alongside and in Eaton’s case, it’s via a computer screen. In both cases, the work is mildly hypnotizing in a way that reminds me of lava lamps.

One last note about Chung and her work. She was one of the artists invited to present new work at an invite-only April 22, 2022 Embodied Futures workshop at the “What will life become?” event held by the Berrgruen Institute and the University of Southern California (USC),

Embodied Futures invites participants to imagine novel forms of life, mind, and being through artistic and intellectual provocations on April 22 [2022].

Beginning at 1 p.m., together we will experience the launch of five artworks commissioned by the Berggruen Institute. We asked these artists: How does your work inflect how we think about “the human” in relation to alternative “embodiments” such as machines, AIs, plants, animals, the planet, and possible alien life forms in the cosmos? [emphases mine]  Later in the afternoon, we will take provocations generated by the morning’s panels and the art premieres in small breakout groups that will sketch futures worlds, and lively entities that might dwell there, in 2049.

This leads to (and my friend, while I too am taking a shallow dive, for this bit I’m going a little deeper):

Bees and architecture

Neri Oxman’s contribution (Golden Bee Cube, Synthetic Apiary II [2020]) is an exhibit featuring three honeycomb structures and a video featuring the bees in her synthetic apiary.

Neri Oxman and the MIT Mediated Matter Group, Golden Bee Cube, Synthetic Apiary II, 2020, beeswax, acrylic, gold particles, gold powder Courtesy of Neri Oxman and the MIT Mediated Matter Group

Neri Oxman (then a faculty member of the Mediated Matter Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) described the basis for the first and all other iterations of her synthetic apiary in Patrick Lynch’s October 5, 2016 article for ‘ArchDaily; Broadcasting Architecture Worldwide’, Note: Links have been removed,

Designer and architect Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter group have announced their latest design project: the Synthetic Apiary. Aimed at combating the massive bee colony losses that have occurred in recent years, the Synthetic Apiary explores the possibility of constructing controlled, indoor environments that would allow honeybee populations to thrive year-round.

“It is time that the inclusion of apiaries—natural or synthetic—for this “keystone species” be considered a basic requirement of any sustainability program,” says Oxman.

In developing the Synthetic Apiary, Mediated Matter studied the habits and needs of honeybees, determining the precise amounts of light, humidity and temperature required to simulate a perpetual spring environment. [emphasis mine] They then engineered an undisturbed space where bees are provided with synthetic pollen and sugared water and could be evaluated regularly for health.

In the initial experiment, the honeybees’ natural cycle proved to adapt to the new environment, as the Queen was able to successfully lay eggs in the apiary. The bees showed the ability to function normally in the environment, suggesting that natural cultivation in artificial spaces may be possible across scales, “from organism- to building-scale.”

“At the core of this project is the creation of an entirely synthetic environment enabling controlled, large-scale investigations of hives,” explain the designers.

Mediated Matter chose to research into honeybees not just because of their recent loss of habitat, but also because of their ability to work together to create their own architecture, [emphasis mine] a topic the group has explored in their ongoing research on biologically augmented digital fabrication, including employing silkworms to create objects and environments at product, architectural, and possibly urban, scales.

“The Synthetic Apiary bridges the organism- and building-scale by exploring a “keystone species”: bees. Many insect communities present collective behavior known as “swarming,” prioritizing group over individual survival, while constantly working to achieve common goals. Often, groups of these eusocial organisms leverage collaborative behavior for relatively large-scale construction. For example, ants create extremely complex networks by tunneling, wasps generate intricate paper nests with materials sourced from local areas, and bees deposit wax to build intricate hive structures.”

This January 19, 2022 article by Crown Honey for its eponymous blog updates Oxman’s work (Note 1: All emphases are mine; Note 2: A link has been removed),

Synthetic Apiary II investigates co-fabrication between humans and honey bees through the use of designed environments in which Apis mellifera colonies construct comb. These designed environments serve as a means by which to convey information to the colony. The comb that the bees construct within these environments comprises their response to the input information, enabling a form of communication through which we can begin to understand the hive’s collective actions from their perspective.

Some environments are embedded with chemical cues created through a novel pheromone 3D-printing process, while others generate magnetic fields of varying strength and direction. Others still contain geometries of varying complexity or designs that alter their form over time.

When offered wax augmented with synthetic biomarkers, bees appear to readily incorporate it into their construction process, likely due to the high energy cost of producing fresh wax. This suggests that comb construction is a responsive and dynamic process involving complex adaptations to perturbations from environmental stimuli, not merely a set of predefined behaviors building toward specific constructed forms. Each environment therefore acts as a signal that can be sent to the colony to initiate a process of co-fabrication.

Characterization of constructed comb morphology generally involves visual observation and physical measurements of structural features—methods which are limited in scale of analysis and blind to internal architecture. In contrast, the wax structures built by the colonies in Synthetic Apiary II are analyzed through high-throughput X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans that enable a more holistic digital reconstruction of the hive’s structure.

Geometric analysis of these forms provides information about the hive’s design process, preferences, and limitations when tied to the inputs, and thereby yields insights into the invisible mediations between bees and their environment.
Developing computational tools to learn from bees can facilitate the very beginnings of a dialogue with them. Refined by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, their comb-building behaviors and social organizations may reveal new forms and methods of formation that can be applied across our human endeavors in architecture, design, engineering, and culture.

Further, with a basic understanding and language established, methods of co-fabrication together with bees may be developed, enabling the use of new biocompatible materials and the creation of more efficient structural geometries that modern technology alone cannot achieve.

In this way, we also move our built environment toward a more synergistic embodiment, able to be more seamlessly integrated into natural environments through material and form, even providing habitats of benefit to both humans and nonhumans. It is essential to our mutual survival for us to not only protect but moreover to empower these critical pollinators – whose intrinsic behaviors and ecosystems we have altered through our industrial processes and practices of human-centric design – to thrive without human intervention once again.

In order to design our way out of the environmental crisis that we ourselves created, we must first learn to speak nature’s language. …

The three (natural, gold nanoparticle, and silver nanoparticle) honeycombs in the exhibit are among the few physical objects (the others being the historical documents and the paintbots with their canvasses) in the show and it’s almost a relief after the parade of screens. It’s the accompanying video that’s eerie. Everything is in white, as befits a science laboratory, in this synthetic apiary where bees are fed sugar water and fooled into a spring that is eternal.

Courtesy: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Copyright: Mediated Matter [downloaded from https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/synthetic-apiary/overview/]

(You may want to check out Lynch’s October 5, 2016 article or Crown Honey’s January 19, 2022 article as both have embedded images and the Lynch article includes a Synthetic Apiary video. The image above is a still from the video.)

As I asked a friend, where are the flowers? Ron Miksha, a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary, details some of the problems with Oxman’s Synthetic Apiary this way in his October 7, 2016 posting on his Bad Beekeeping Blog,

In a practical sense, the synthetic apiary fails on many fronts: Bees will survive a few months on concoctions of sugar syrup and substitute pollen, but they need a natural variety of amino acids and minerals to actually thrive. They need propolis and floral pollen. They need a ceiling 100 metres high and a 2-kilometre hallway if drone and queen will mate, or they’ll die after the old queen dies. They need an artificial sun that travels across the sky, otherwise, the bees will be attracted to artificial lights and won’t return to their hive. They need flowery meadows, fresh water, open skies. [emphasis mine] They need a better holodeck.

Dorothy Woodend’s March 10, 2022 review of the VAG show for The Tyee poses other issues with the bees and the honeycombs,

When AI messes about with other species, there is something even more unsettling about the process. American-Israeli artist Neri Oxman’s Golden Bee Cube, Synthetic Apiary II, 2020 uses real bees who are proffered silver and gold [nanoparticles] to create their comb structures. While the resulting hives are indeed beautiful, rendered in shades of burnished metal, there is a quality of unease imbued in them. Is the piece akin to apiary torture chambers? I wonder how the bees feel about this collaboration and whether they’d like to renegotiate the deal.

There’s no question the honeycombs are fascinating and disturbing but I don’t understand how artificial intelligence was a key factor in either version of Oxman’s synthetic apiary. In the 2022 article by Crown Honey, there’s this “Developing computational tools to learn from bees can facilitate the very beginnings of a dialogue with them [honeybees].” It’s probable that the computational tools being referenced include AI and the Crown Honey article seems to suggest those computational tools are being used to analyze the bees behaviour after the fact.

Yes, I can imagine a future where ‘strong’ AI (such as you, my friend) is in ‘dialogue’ with the bees and making suggestions and running the experiments but it’s not clear that this is the case currently. The Oxman exhibit contribution would seem to be about the future and its possibilities whereas many of the other ‘objects’ concern the past and/or the present.

Friend, let’s take a break, shall we? Part 2 is coming up.

Quantum Mechanics & Gravity conference (August 15 – 19, 2022) launches Vancouver (Canada)-based Quantum Gravity Institute and more

I received (via email) a July 21, 2022 news release about the launch of a quantum science initiative in Vancouver (BTW, I have more about the Canadian quantum scene later in this post),

World’s top physicists unite to tackle one of Science’s greatest
mysteries


Vancouver-based Quantum Gravity Society leads international quest to
discover Theory of Quantum Gravity

Vancouver, B.C. (July 21, 2022): More than two dozen of the world’s
top physicists, including three Nobel Prize winners, will gather in
Vancouver this August for a Quantum Gravity Conference that will host
the launch a Vancouver-based Quantum Gravity Institute (QGI) and a
new global research collaboration that could significantly advance our
understanding of physics and gravity and profoundly change the world as
we know it.

For roughly 100 years, the world’s understanding of physics has been
based on Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (GR), which
explored the theory of space, time and gravity, and quantum mechanics
(QM), which focuses on the behaviour of matter and light on the atomic
and subatomic scale. GR has given us a deep understanding of the cosmos,
leading to space travel and technology like atomic clocks, which govern
global GPS systems. QM is responsible for most of the equipment that
runs our world today, including the electronics, lasers, computers, cell
phones, plastics, and other technologies that support modern
transportation, communications, medicine, agriculture, energy systems
and more.

While each theory has led to countless scientific breakthroughs, in many
cases, they are incompatible and seemingly contradictory. Discovering a
unifying connection between these two fundamental theories, the elusive
Theory of Quantum Gravity, could provide the world with a deeper
understanding of time, gravity and matter and how to potentially control
them. It could also lead to new technologies that would affect most
aspects of daily life, including how we communicate, grow food, deliver
health care, transport people and goods, and produce energy.

“Discovering the Theory of Quantum Gravity could lead to the
possibility of time travel, new quantum devices, or even massive new
energy resources that produce clean energy and help us address climate
change,” said Philip Stamp, Professor, Department of Physics and
Astronomy, University of British Columbia, and Visiting Associate in
Theoretical Astrophysics at Caltech [California Institute of Technology]. “The potential long-term ramifications of this discovery are so incredible that life on earth 100
years from now could look as miraculous to us now as today’s
technology would have seemed to people living 100 years ago.”

The new Quantum Gravity Institute and the conference were founded by the
Quantum Gravity Society, which was created in 2022 by a group of
Canadian technology, business and community leaders, and leading
physicists. Among its goals are to advance the science of physics and
facilitate research on the Theory of Quantum Gravity through initiatives
such as the conference and assembling the world’s leading archive of
scientific papers and lectures associated with the attempts to reconcile
these two theories over the past century.

Attending the Quantum Gravity Conference in Vancouver (August 15-19 [2022])
will be two dozen of the world’s top physicists, including Nobel
Laureates Kip Thorne, Jim Peebles and Sir Roger Penrose, as well as
physicists Baron Martin Rees, Markus Aspelmeyer, Viatcheslav Mukhanov
and Paul Steinhardt. On Wednesday, August 17, the conference will be
open to the public, providing them with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
to attend keynote addresses from the world’s pre-eminent physicists.
… A noon-hour discussion on the importance of the
research will be delivered by Kip Thorne, the former Feynman Professor
of physics at Caltech. Thorne is well known for his popular books, and
for developing the original idea for the 2014 film “Interstellar.” He
was also crucial to the development of the book “Contact” by Carl Sagan,
which was also made into a motion picture.

“We look forward to welcoming many of the world’s brightest minds to
Vancouver for our first Quantum Gravity Conference,” said Frank
Giustra, CEO Fiore Group and Co-Founder, Quantum Gravity Society. “One
of the goals of our Society will be to establish Vancouver as a
supportive home base for research and facilitate the scientific
collaboration that will be required to unlock this mystery that has
eluded some of the world’s most brilliant physicists for so long.”

“The format is key,” explains Terry Hui, UC Berkley Physics alumnus
and Co-Founder, Quantum Gravity Society [and CEO of Concord Pacific].
“Like the Solvay Conference nearly 100 years ago, the Quantum Gravity
Conference will bring top scientists together in salon-style gatherings. The
relaxed evening format following the conference will reduce barriers and
allow these great minds to freely exchange ideas. I hope this will help accelerate
the solution of this hundred-year bottleneck between theories relatively
soon.”

“As amazing as our journey of scientific discovery has been over the
past century, we still have so much to learn about how the universe
works on a macro, atomic and subatomic level,” added Paul Lee,
Managing Partner, Vanedge Capital, and Co-Founder, Quantum Gravity
Society. “New experiments and observations capable of advancing work
on this scientific challenge are becoming increasingly possible in
today’s physics labs and using new astronomical tools. The Quantum
Gravity Society looks forward to leveraging that growing technical
capacity with joint theory and experimental work that harnesses the
collective expertise of the world’s great physicists.”

About Quantum Gravity Society

Quantum Gravity Society was founded in Vancouver, Canada in 2020 by a
group of Canadian business, technology and community leaders, and
leading international physicists. The Society’s founding members
include Frank Giustra (Fiore Group), Terry Hui (Concord Pacific), Paul
Lee and Moe Kermani (Vanedge Capital) and Markus Frind (Frind Estate
Winery), along with renowned physicists Abhay Ashtekar, Sir Roger
Penrose, Philip Stamp, Bill Unruh and Birgitta Whaley. For more
information, visit Quantum Gravity Society.

About the Quantum Gravity Conference (Vancouver 2022)


The inaugural Quantum Gravity Conference (August 15-19 [2022]) is presented by
Quantum Gravity Society, Fiore Group, Vanedge Capital, Concord Pacific,
The Westin Bayshore, Vancouver and Frind Estate Winery. For conference
information, visit conference.quantumgravityinstitute.ca. To
register to attend the conference, visit Eventbrite.com.

The front page on the Quantum Gravity Society website is identical to the front page for the Quantum Mechanics & Gravity: Marrying Theory & Experiment conference website. It’s probable that will change with time.

This seems to be an in-person event only.

The site for the conference is in an exceptionally pretty location in Coal Harbour and it’s close to Stanley Park (a major tourist attraction),

The Westin Bayshore, Vancouver
1601 Bayshore Drive
Vancouver, BC V6G 2V4
View map

Assuming that most of my readers will be interested in the ‘public’ day, here’s more from the Wednesday, August 17, 2022 registration page on Eventbrite,

Tickets:

  • Corporate Table of 8 all day access – includes VIP Luncheon: $1,100
  • Ticket per person all day access – includes VIP Luncheon: $129
  • Ticket per person all day access (no VIP luncheon): $59
  • Student / Academia Ticket – all day access (no VIP luncheon): $30

Date:

Wednesday, August 17, 2022 @ 9:00 a.m. – 5:15 p.m. (PT)

Schedule:

  • Registration Opens: 8:00 a.m.
  • Morning Program: 9:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
  • VIP Lunch: 12:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
  • Afternoon Program: 2:30 p.m. – 4:20 p.m.
  • Public Discussion / Debate: 4:20 p.m. – 5:15 p.m.

Program:

9:00 a.m. Session 1: Beginning of the Universe

  • Viatcheslav Mukhanov – Theoretical Physicist and Cosmologist, University of Munich
  • Paul Steinhardt – Theoretical Physicist, Princeton University

Session 2: History of the Universe

  • Jim Peebles, 2019 Nobel Laureate, Princeton University
  • Baron Martin Rees – Cosmologist and Astrophysicist, University of Cambridge
  • Sir Roger Penrose, 2020 Nobel Laureate, University of Oxford (via zoom)

12:30 p.m. VIP Lunch Session: Quantum Gravity — Why Should We Care?

  • Kip Thorne – 2017 Nobel Laureate, Executive Producer of blockbuster film “Interstellar”

2:30 p.m. Session 3: What do Experiments Say?

  • Markus Aspelmeyer – Experimental Physicist, Quantum Optics and Optomechanics Leader, University of Vienna
  • Sir Roger Penrose – 2020 Nobel Laureate (via zoom)

Session 4: Time Travel

  • Kip Thorne – 2017 Nobel Laureate, Executive Producer of blockbuster film “Interstellar”

Event Partners

  • Quantum Gravity Society
  • Westin Bayshore
  • Fiore Group
  • Concord Pacific
  • VanEdge Capital
  • Frind Estate Winery

Marketing Partners

  • BC Business Council
  • Greater Vancouver Board of Trade

Please note that Sir Roger Penrose will be present via Zoom but all the others will be there in the room with you.

Given that Kip Thorne won his 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics (with Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish) for work on gravitational waves, it’s surprising there’s no mention of this in the publicity for a conference on quantum gravity. Finding gravitational waves in 2016 was a very big deal (see Josh Fischman’s and Steve Mirsky’s February 11, 2016 interview with Kip Thorne for Scientific American).

Some thoughts on this conference and the Canadian quantum scene

This conference has a fascinating collection of players. Even I recognized some of the names, e.g., Penrose, Rees, Thorne.

The academics were to be expected and every presenter is an academic, often with their own Wikipedia page. Weirdly, there’s no one from the Perimeter Institute Institute for Theoretical Physics or TRIUMF (a national physics laboratory and centre for particle acceleration) or from anywhere else in Canada, which may be due to their academic specialty rather than an attempt to freeze out Canadian physicists. In any event, the conference academics are largely from the US (a lot of them from CalTech and Stanford) and from the UK.

The business people are a bit of a surprise. The BC Business Council and the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade? Frank Giustra who first made his money with gold mines, then with Lionsgate Entertainment, and who continues to make a great deal of money with his equity investment company, Fiore Group? Terry Hui, Chief Executive Office of Concord Pacific, a real estate development company? VanEdge Capital, an early stage venture capital fund? A winery? Missing from this list is D-Wave Systems, Canada’s quantum calling card and local company. While their area of expertise is quantum computing, I’d still expect to see them present as sponsors.

The academics? These people are not cheap dates (flights, speaker’s fees, a room at the Bayshore, meals). This is a very expensive conference and $129 for lunch and a daypass is likely a heavily subsidized ticket.

Another surprise? No government money/sponsorship. I don’t recall seeing another academic conference held in Canada without any government participation.

Canadian quantum scene

A National Quantum Strategy was first announced in the 2021 Canadian federal budget and reannounced in the 2022 federal budget (see my April 19, 2022 posting for a few more budget details).. Or, you may find this National Quantum Strategy Consultations: What We Heard Report more informative. There’s also a webpage for general information about the National Quantum Strategy.

As evidence of action, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced new grant programmes made possible by the National Quantum Strategy in a March 15, 2022 news release,

Quantum science and innovation are giving rise to promising advances in communications, computing, materials, sensing, health care, navigation and other key areas. The Government of Canada is committed to helping shape the future of quantum technology by supporting Canada’s quantum sector and establishing leadership in this emerging and transformative domain.

Today [March 15, 2022], the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, is announcing an investment of $137.9 million through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) grants and Alliance grants. These grants are an important next step in advancing the National Quantum Strategy and will reinforce Canada’s research strengths in quantum science while also helping to develop a talent pipeline to support the growth of a strong quantum community.

Quick facts

Budget 2021 committed $360 million to build the foundation for a National Quantum Strategy, enabling the Government of Canada to build on previous investments in the sector to advance the emerging field of quantum technologies. The quantum sector is key to fuelling Canada’s economy, long-term resilience and growth, especially as technologies mature and more sectors harness quantum capabilities.

Development of quantum technologies offers job opportunities in research and science, software and hardware engineering and development, manufacturing, technical support, sales and marketing, business operations and other fields.

The Government of Canada also invested more than $1 billion in quantum research and science from 2009 to 2020—mainly through competitive granting agency programs, including Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada programs and the Canada First Research Excellence Fund—to help establish Canada as a global leader in quantum science.

In addition, the government has invested in bringing new quantum technologies to market, including investments through Canada’s regional development agencies, the Strategic Innovation Fund and the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program.

Bank of Canada, cryptocurrency, and quantum computing

My July 25, 2022 posting features a special project, Note: All emphases are mine,

… (from an April 14, 2022 HKA Marketing Communications news release on EurekAlert),

Multiverse Computing, a global leader in quantum computing solutions for the financial industry and beyond with offices in Toronto and Spain, today announced it has completed a proof-of-concept project with the Bank of Canada through which the parties used quantum computing to simulate the adoption of cryptocurrency as a method of payment by non-financial firms.

“We are proud to be a trusted partner of the first G7 central bank to explore modelling of complex networks and cryptocurrencies through the use of quantum computing,” said Sam Mugel, CTO [Chief Technical Officer] at Multiverse Computing. “The results of the simulation are very intriguing and insightful as stakeholders consider further research in the domain. Thanks to the algorithm we developed together with our partners at the Bank of Canada, we have been able to model a complex system reliably and accurately given the current state of quantum computing capabilities.”

Multiverse Computing conducted its innovative work related to applying quantum computing for modelling complex economic interactions in a research project with the Bank of Canada. The project explored quantum computing technology as a way to simulate complex economic behaviour that is otherwise very difficult to simulate using traditional computational techniques.

By implementing this solution using D-Wave’s annealing quantum computer, the simulation was able to tackle financial networks as large as 8-10 players, with up to 2^90 possible network configurations. Note that classical computing approaches cannot solve large networks of practical relevance as a 15-player network requires as many resources as there are atoms in the universe.

Quantum Technologies and the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA)

In a May 26, 2022 blog posting the CCA announced its Expert Panel on Quantum Technologies (they will be issuing a Quantum Technologies report),

The emergence of quantum technologies will impact all sectors of the Canadian economy, presenting significant opportunities but also risks. At the request of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) has formed an Expert Panel to examine the impacts, opportunities, and challenges quantum technologies present for Canadian industry, governments, and Canadians. Raymond Laflamme, O.C., FRSC, Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information and Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo, will serve as Chair of the Expert Panel.

“Quantum technologies have the potential to transform computing, sensing, communications, healthcare, navigation and many other areas,” said Dr. Laflamme. “But a close examination of the risks and vulnerabilities of these technologies is critical, and I look forward to undertaking this crucial work with the panel.”

As Chair, Dr. Laflamme will lead a multidisciplinary group with expertise in quantum technologies, economics, innovation, ethics, and legal and regulatory frameworks. The Panel will answer the following question:

In light of current trends affecting the evolution of quantum technologies, what impacts, opportunities and challenges do these present for Canadian industry, governments and Canadians more broadly?

The Expert Panel on Quantum Technologies:

Raymond Laflamme, O.C., FRSC (Chair), Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information; the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis John von Neumann Chair in Quantum Information; Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Waterloo

Sally Daub, Founder and Managing Partner, Pool Global Partners

Shohini Ghose, Professor, Physics and Computer Science, Wilfrid Laurier University; NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering

Paul Gulyas, Senior Innovation Executive, IBM Canada

Mark W. Johnson, Senior Vice-President, Quantum Technologies and Systems Products, D-Wave Systems

Elham Kashefi, Professor of Quantum Computing, School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh; Directeur de recherche au CNRS, LIP6 Sorbonne Université

Mauritz Kop, Fellow and Visiting Scholar, Stanford Law School, Stanford University

Dominic Martin, Professor, Département d’organisation et de ressources humaines, École des sciences de la gestion, Université du Québec à Montréal

Darius Ornston, Associate Professor, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto

Barry Sanders, FRSC, Director, Institute for Quantum Science and Technology, University of Calgary

Eric Santor, Advisor to the Governor, Bank of Canada

Christian Sarra-Bournet, Quantum Strategy Director and Executive Director, Institut quantique, Université de Sherbrooke

Stephanie Simmons, Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair in Quantum Nanoelectronics, and CIFAR Quantum Information Science Fellow, Department of Physics, Simon Fraser University

Jacqueline Walsh, Instructor; Director, initio Technology & Innovation Law Clinic, Dalhousie University

You’ll note that both the Bank of Canada and D-Wave Systems are represented on this expert panel.

The CCA Quantum Technologies report (in progress) page can be found here.

Does it mean anything?

Since I only skim the top layer of information (disparagingly described as ‘high level’ by the technology types I used to work with), all I can say is there’s a remarkable level of interest from various groups who are self-organizing. (The interest is international as well. I found the International Society for Quantum Gravity [ISQG], which had its first meeting in 2021.)

I don’t know what the purpose is other than it seems the Canadian focus seems to be on money. The board of trade and business council have no interest in primary research and the federal government’s national quantum strategy is part of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada’s mandate. You’ll notice ‘science’ is sandwiched between ‘innovation’, which is often code for business, and economic development.

The Bank of Canada’s monetary interests are quite obvious.

The Perimeter Institute mentioned earlier was founded by Mike Lazaridis (from his Wikipedia entry) Note: Links have been removed,

… a Canadian businessman [emphasis mine], investor in quantum computing technologies, and founder of BlackBerry, which created and manufactured the BlackBerry wireless handheld device. With an estimated net worth of US$800 million (as of June 2011), Lazaridis was ranked by Forbes as the 17th wealthiest Canadian and 651st in the world.[4]

In 2000, Lazaridis founded and donated more than $170 million to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.[11][12] He and his wife Ophelia founded and donated more than $100 million to the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in 2002.[8]

That Institute for Quantum Computing? There’s an interesting connection. Raymond Laflamme, the chair for the CCA expert panel, was its director for a number of years and he’s closely affiliated with the Perimeter Institute. (I’m not suggesting anything nefarious or dodgy. It’s a small community in Canada and relationships tend to be tightly interlaced.) I’m surprised he’s not part of the quantum mechanics and gravity conference but that could have something to do with scheduling.

One last interesting bit about Laflamme, from his Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed)

As Stephen Hawking’s PhD student, he first became famous for convincing Hawking that time does not reverse in a contracting universe, along with Don Page. Hawking told the story of how this happened in his famous book A Brief History of Time in the chapter The Arrow of Time.[3] Later on Laflamme made a name for himself in quantum computing and quantum information theory, which is what he is famous for today.

Getting back to the Quantum Mechanics & Gravity: Marrying Theory & Experiment, the public day looks pretty interesting and when is the next time you’ll have a chance to hobnob with all those Nobel Laureates?

Bank of Canada and Multiverse Computing model complex networks & cryptocurrencies with quantum computing

Given all the concern over rising inflation (McGill University press room, February 23, 2022 “Experts: Canadian inflation hits a new three-decade high” and Bank of Canada rates (Pete Evans in an April 13, 2022 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s online news), this news release was a little unexpected both for timing (one week after the 2022 Canadian federal budget was delivered) and content (from an April 14, 2022 HKA Marketing Communications news release on EurekAlert),

Multiverse Computing, a global leader in quantum computing solutions for the financial industry and beyond with offices in Toronto and Spain, today announced it has completed a proof-of-concept project with the Bank of Canada through which the parties used quantum computing to simulate the adoption of cryptocurrency as a method of payment by non-financial firms.

“We are proud to be a trusted partner of the first G7 central bank to explore modelling of complex networks and cryptocurrencies through the use of quantum computing,” said Sam Mugel, CTO [Chief Technical Officer] at Multiverse Computing. “The results of the simulation are very intriguing and insightful as stakeholders consider further research in the domain. Thanks to the algorithm we developed together with our partners at the Bank of Canada, we have been able to model a complex system reliably and accurately given the current state of quantum computing capabilities.”

Companies may adopt various forms of payments. So, it’s important to develop a deep understanding of interactions that can take place in payments networks.

Multiverse Computing conducted its innovative work related to applying quantum computing for modelling complex economic interactions in a research project with the Bank of Canada. The project explored quantum computing technology as a way to simulate complex economic behaviour that is otherwise very difficult to simulate using traditional computational techniques.

By implementing this solution using D-Wave’s annealing quantum computer, the simulation was able to tackle financial networks as large as 8-10 players, with up to 2^90 possible network configurations. Note that classical computing approaches cannot solve large networks of practical relevance as a 15-player network requires as many resources as there are atoms in the universe.

“We wanted to test the power of quantum computing on a research case that is hard to solve using classical computing techniques,” said Maryam Haghighi, Director, Data Science at the Bank of Canada. “This collaboration helped us learn more about how quantum computing can provide new insights into economic problems by carrying out complex simulations on quantum hardware.”

Motivated by the empirical observations about the cooperative nature of adoption of cryptocurrency payments, this theoretical study found that for some industries, these digital assets would share the payments market with traditional bank transfers and cash-like instruments. The market share for each would depend on how the financial institutions respond to the cryptocurrency adoptions, and on the economic costs associated with such trades.

The quantum simulations helped generate examples that illustrate how similar firms may end up adopting different levels of cryptocurrency use.

About Multiverse Computing

Multiverse Computing is a leading quantum software company that applies quantum and quantum-inspired solutions to tackle complex problems in finance to deliver value today and enable a more resilient and prosperous economy. The company’s expertise in quantum control and computational methods as well as finance means it can secure maximum results from current quantum devices. Its flagship product, Singularity, allows financial professionals to leverage quantum computing with common software tools.  The company is targeting additional verticals as well, including mobility, energy, the life sciences and industry 4.0.

Contacts:

Multiverse Computing
www.multiversecomputing.com
contact@multiversecomputing.com
+346 60 94 11 54

I wish there was a little more information about the contents of the report (although it is nice to know they have one).

D-Wave Systems, for those who don’t know, is a Vancouver-area company that supplies hardware (here’s more from their Wikipedia entry), Note: Links have been removed,

D-Wave Systems Inc. is a Canadian quantum computing company, based in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. D-Wave was the world’s first company to sell computers to exploit quantum effects in their operation.[2] D-Wave’s early customers include Lockheed Martin, University of Southern California, Google/NASA and Los Alamos National Lab.

The company has to this point specialized in quantum annealing. This is a specific type of quantum computing best used to solve the kind of problem (analyzing a multi-player situation) that the Bank of Canada was trying to solve.

I checked out ‘Multiverse’ in Toronto and they claim this, “World leaders in quantum computing for the financial industry,” on their homepage.

As for the company that produced the news release, HKA Marketing Communications, based in Southern California, they claim this “Specialists in Quantum Tech PR: #1 agency in this space” on their homepage.

I checked out the Bank of Canada website and didn’t find anything about this project.

An emotional android child

Caption: The six emotional expressions assessed in the second experiment. See if you can identify them! Note: this is a video made by filming Nikola’s head as it sat on a desk – it is not a computer animated graphic. Credit: RIKEN

This work comes from Japan according to a February 16, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers from the RIKEN Guardian Robot Project in Japan have made an android child named Nikola that successfully conveys six basic emotions. The new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, tested how well people could identify six facial expressions — happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust — which were generated by moving “muscles” in Nikola’s face. This is the first time that the quality of android-expressed emotion has been tested and verified for these six emotions.

A February 11, 2022 RIKEN press release (also on EurekAlert but published February 15, 2022), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the work,

Rosie the robot maid was considered science fiction when she debuted on the Jetson’s cartoon over 50 years ago. Although the reality of the helpful robot is currently more science and less fiction, there are still many challenges that need to be met, including being able to detect and express emotions. The recent study led by Wataru Sato from the RIKEN Guardian Robot Project focused on building a humanoid robot, or android, that can use its face to express a variety of emotions. The result is Nikola, an android head that looks like a hairless boy.

Inside Nikola’s face are 29 pneumatic actuators that control the movements of artificial muscles. Another 6 actuators control head and eyeball movements. Pneumatic actuators are controlled by air pressure, which makes the movements silent and smooth. The team placed the actuators based on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which has been used extensively to study facial expressions. Past research has identified numerous facial action units—such as ‘cheek raiser’ and ‘lip pucker’—that comprise typical emotions such as happiness or disgust, and the researchers incorporated these action units in Nikola’s design.

Typically, studies of emotions, particularly how people react to emotions, have a problem. It is difficult to do a properly controlled experiment with live people interacting, but at the same time, looking at photos or videos of people is less natural, and reactions aren’t the same. “The hope is that with androids like Nikola, we can have our cake and eat it too,” says Sato. “We can control every aspect of Nikola’s behavior, and at the same time study live interactions.” The first step was to see if Nikola’s facial expressions were understandable.

A person certified in FACS [Facial Action Coding System] scoring was able to identify each facial action unit, indicating that Nikola’s facial movements accurately resemble those of a real human. A second test showed that everyday people could recognize the six prototypical emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust—in Nikola’s face, albeit to varying accuracies. This is because Nikola’s silicone skin is less elastic than real human skin and cannot form wrinkles very well. Thus, emotions like disgust were harder to identify because the action unit for nose wrinkling could not be included.

“In the short term, androids like Nikola can be important research tools for social psychology or even social neuroscience,” says Sato. “Compared with human confederates, androids are good at controlling behaviors and can facilitate rigorous empirical investigation of human social interactions.” As an example, the researchers asked people to rate the naturalness of Nikola’s emotions as the speed of his facial movements was systematically controlled. They researchers found that the most natural speed was slower for some emotions like sadness than it was for others like surprise.

While Nikola still lacks a body, the ultimate goal of the Guardian Robot Project is to build an android that can assist people, particularly those which physical needs who might live alone. “Androids that can emotionally communicate with us will be useful in a wide range of real-life situations, such as caring for older people, and can promote human wellbeing,” says Sato.

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

An Android for Emotional Interaction: Spatiotemporal Validation of Its Facial Expressions by Wataru Sato, Shushi Namba, Dongsheng Yang, Shin’ya Nishida, Carlos Ishi, and Takashi Minato. Front. Psychol., 04 February 2022 DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.800657

This paper is open access.

For anyone who’d like to investigate the worlds of robots, artificial intelligence, and emotions, I have my December 3, 2021 posting “True love with AI (artificial intelligence): The Nature of Things explores emotional and creative AI (long read)” and there’s also Hiroshi Ishiguro’s work, which I’ve mentioned a number of times here, most recently in a March 27, 2017 posting “Ishiguro’s robots and Swiss scientist question artificial intelligence at SXSW (South by Southwest) 2017.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers achieve highest fraction of CNCs in a composite to date

Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), always of interest to me, are featured in research announced in a February 11, 2022 news item on Nanowerk,

The strongest part of a tree lies not in its trunk or its sprawling roots, but in the walls of its microscopic cells.

A single wood cell wall is constructed from fibers of cellulose — nature’s most abundant polymer, and the main structural component of all plants and algae. Within each fiber are reinforcing cellulose nanocrystals, or CNCs, which are chains of organic polymers arranged in nearly perfect crystal patterns. At the nanoscale, CNCs are stronger and stiffer than Kevlar. If the crystals could be worked into materials in significant fractions, CNCs could be a route to stronger, more sustainable, naturally derived plastics.

Now, an MIT team has engineered a composite made mostly from cellulose nanocrystals mixed with a bit of synthetic polymer. The organic crystals take up about 60 to 90 percent of the material — the highest fraction of CNCs achieved in a composite to date.

A February 10, 2022 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research (Note: A link has been removed),

The researchers found the cellulose-based composite is stronger and tougher than some types of bone, and harder than typical aluminum alloys. The material has a brick-and-mortar microstructure that resembles nacre, the hard inner shell lining of some molluscs.

The team hit on a recipe for the CNC-based composite that they could fabricate using both 3D printing and conventional casting. They printed and cast the composite into penny-sized pieces of film that they used to test the material’s strength and hardness. They also machined the composite into the shape of a tooth to show that the material might one day be used to make cellulose-based dental implants — and for that matter, any plastic products — that are stronger, tougher, and more sustainable.

“By creating composites with CNCs at high loading, we can give polymer-based materials mechanical properties they never had before,” says A. John Hart, professor of mechanical engineering. “If we can replace some petroleum-based plastic with naturally-derived cellulose, that’s arguably better for the planet as well.”

Hart and his team, including Abhinav Rao PhD ’18, Thibaut Divoux, and Crystal Owens SM ’17, have published their results today in the journal Cellulose.

Gel bonds

Each year, more than 10 billion tons of cellulose is synthesized from the bark, wood, or leaves of plants. Most of this cellulose is used to manufacture paper and textiles, while a portion of it is processed into powder for use in food thickeners and cosmetics.

In recent years, scientists have explored uses for cellulose nanocrystals, which can be extracted from cellulose fibers via acid hydrolysis. The exceptionally strong crystals could be used as natural reinforcements in polymer-based materials. But researchers have only been able to incorporate low fractions of CNCs, as the crystals have tended to clump and only weakly bond with polymer molecules.

Hart and his colleagues looked to develop a composite with a high fraction of CNCs, that they could shape into strong, durable forms. They started by mixing a solution of synthetic polymer with commercially available CNC powder. The team determined the ratio of CNC and polymer that would turn the solution into a gel, with a consistency that could either be fed through the nozzle of a 3-D printer or poured into a mold to be cast. They used an ultrasonic probe to break up any clumps of cellulose in the gel, making it more likely for the dispersed cellulose to form strong bonds with polymer molecules.

They fed some of the gel through a 3-D printer and poured the rest into a mold to be cast. They then let the printed samples dry. In the process, the material shrank, leaving behind a solid composite composed mainly of cellulose nanocrystals.

“We basically deconstructed wood, and reconstructed it,” Rao says. “We took the best components of wood, which is cellulose nanocrystals, and reconstructed them to achieve a new composite material.”

Tough cracks

Interestingly, when the team examined the composite’s structure under a microscope, they observed that grains of cellulose settled into a brick-and-mortar pattern, similar to the architecture of nacre. In nacre, this zig-zagging microstructure stops a crack from running straight through the material. The researchers found this to also be the case with their new cellulose composite.

They tested the material’s resistance to cracks, using tools to initiate first nano- and then micro-scale cracks. They found that, across multiple scales, the composite’s arrangement of cellulose grains prevented the cracks from splitting the material. This resistance to plastic deformation gives the composite a hardness and stiffness at the boundary between conventional plastics and metals.

Going forward, the team is looking for ways to minimize the shrinkage of gels as they dry. While shrinkage isn’t much of a problem when printing small objects, anything bigger could buckle or crack as the composite dries.

“If you could avoid shrinkage, you could keep scaling up, maybe to the meter scale,” Rao says. “Then, if we were to dream big, we could replace a significant fraction of plastics,with cellulose composites.”

This research was supported, in part, by the Proctor and Gamble Corporation, and by the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.

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

Printable, castable, nanocrystalline cellulose-epoxy composites exhibiting hierarchical nacre-like toughening by Abhinav Rao, Thibaut Divoux, Crystal E. Owens & A. John Hart. Cellulose (2022) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10570-021-04384-7 Published: 10 February 2022

This paper is behind a paywall.

Drag artists making science more accessible

I can remember kids describing science (and mathematics too) as a drag never imagining this, “Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible,” a 17 – 20 min. segment on the Science Friday (SciFri ) radio programme (broadcast on US National Public Radio).

Luckily, there’s a webpage devoted to the segment where you’ll find all kinds of interesting tidbits like this (Note: Links have been removed),

Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] drag stars.

These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience.

Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira [SciFri host Ira Flatow] to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past.

You’ll find images similar to this one of Pattie Gonia in the SciFri article,

This dress is trash—in a good way. With the help of recycling, one queen’s trash is Pattie Gonia’s treasure. Credit: Pattie Gonia [downloaded from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/science-friday/segments/science-advisor-resigns-covid-drug-treatments-science-drag-artists-feb-11-2022-part-1]

You can listen to the segment, read transcripts, watch videos, and find more information on the “Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible” webpage.

A robot that morphs from a ground vehicle to an air vehicle using liquid metal

This video starts slow but the part where the robot morphs is pretty good stuff,

A February 9, 2022 news item on ScienceDaily announces a new approach to shape-changing materials,

Imagine a small autonomous vehicle that could drive over land, stop, and flatten itself into a quadcopter. The rotors start spinning, and the vehicle flies away. Looking at it more closely, what do you think you would see? What mechanisms have caused it to morph from a land vehicle into a flying quadcopter? You might imagine gears and belts, perhaps a series of tiny servo motors that pulled all its pieces into place.

If this mechanism was designed by a team at Virginia Tech led by Michael Bartlett, assistant professor in mechanical engineering, you would see a new approach for shape changing at the material level. These researchers use rubber, metal, and temperature to morph materials and fix them into place with no motors or pulleys. The team’s work has been published in Science Robotics. Co-authors of the paper include graduate students Dohgyu Hwang and Edward J. Barron III and postdoctoral researcher A. B. M. Tahidul Haque.

A February 9, 2022 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert) by Alex Parrish, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Getting into shape

Nature is rich with organisms that change shape to perform different functions. The octopus dramatically reshapes to move, eat, and interact with its environment; humans flex muscles to support loads and hold shape; and plants move to capture sunlight throughout the day. How do you create a material that achieves these functions to enable new types of multifunctional, morphing robots?

“When we started the project, we wanted a material that could do three things: change shape, hold that shape, and then return to the original configuration, and to do this over many cycles,” said Bartlett. “One of the challenges was to create a material that was soft enough to dramatically change shape, yet rigid enough to create adaptable machines that can perform different functions.”

To create a structure that could be morphed, the team turned to kirigami, the Japanese art of making shapes out of paper by cutting. (This  method differs from origami, which uses folding.) By observing the strength of those kirigami patterns in rubbers and composites, the team was able to create a material architecture of a repeating geometric pattern.

Next, they needed a material that would hold shape but allow for that shape to be erased on demand. Here they introduced an endoskeleton made of a low melting point alloy (LMPA) embedded inside a rubber skin. Normally, when a metal is stretched too far, the metal becomes permanently bent, cracked, or stretched into a fixed, unusable shape. However, with this special metal embedded in rubber, the researchers turned this typical failure mechanism into a strength. When stretched, this composite would now hold a desired shape rapidly, perfect for soft morphing materials that can become instantly load bearing.

Finally, the material had to return the structure back to its original shape. Here, the team incorporated soft, tendril-like heaters next to the LMPA mesh. The heaters cause the metal to be converted to a liquid at 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), or 10 percent of the melting temperature of aluminum. The elastomer skin keeps the melted metal contained and in place, and then pulls the material back into the original shape, reversing the stretching, giving the composite what the researchers call “reversible plasticity.” After the metal cools, it again contributes to holding the structure’s shape.

“These composites have a metal endoskeleton embedded into a rubber with soft heaters, where the kirigami-inspired cuts define an array of metal beams. These cuts combined with the unique properties of the materials were really important to morph, fix into shape rapidly, then return to the original shape,” Hwang said.

The researchers found that this kirigami-inspired composite design could create complex shapes, from cylinders to balls to the bumpy shape of the bottom of a pepper. Shape change could also be achieved quickly: After impact with a ball, the shape changed and fixed into place in less than 1/10 of a second. Also, if the material broke, it could be healed multiple times by melting and reforming the metal endoskeleton.

One drone for land and air, one for sea

The applications for this technology are only starting to unfold. By combining this material with onboard power, control, and motors, the team created a functional drone that autonomously morphs from a ground to air vehicle. The team also created a small, deployable submarine, using the morphing and returning of the material to retrieve objects from an aquarium by scraping the belly of the sub along the bottom.

“We’re excited about the opportunities this material presents for multifunctional robots. These composites are strong enough to withstand the forces from motors or propulsion systems, yet can readily shape morph, which allows machines to adapt to their environment,” said Barron.

Looking forward, the researchers envision the morphing composites playing a role in the emerging field of soft robotics to create machines that can perform diverse functions, self-heal after being damaged to increase resilience, and spur different ideas in human-machine interfaces and wearable devices.

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

Shape morphing mechanical metamaterials through reversible plasticity by Dohgyu Hwang, Edward J. Barron III, A. B. M. Tahidul Haque and Michael D. Bartlett. Science Robotics • 9 Feb 2022 • Vol 7, Issue 63 • DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abg2171

This paper is behind a paywall.

Nanoplastics in the air we breathe

Most of the research I’ve seen about polluting nanoplastics it concerns the ocean; this time it concerns the air. This research dates from November 2021 but I didn’t stumble across it until this February 2, 2022 article by Talib Visram for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

By some estimates, people have discarded 4,900 million tonnes of plastic have into the environment. Once in nature, that plastic starts to degrade, fragmenting into microplastics about the size of a sesame seed, which are inadvertently ingested by humans and animals through eating them in seafood and drinking them in water. Some reports suggest that we all consume five grams a week–about the weight of a bottle cap.

But, we may be taking more plastics into our systems through our respiratory systems. There’s been less investigation of nanoplastics: particles smaller than microplastics, so small that they can move huge distances in the air and be more easily inhaled into the bloodstream. A new study looks at the travel of those lighter particles, finding them abundant in the atmosphere, and carried, via aerosol transmission, even to remote areas. As far as the scientists know, it’s “the most accurate record of air pollution by nanoplastics ever made.”

A February 1, 2022 news item on SciTechDaily.com highlights some of the concerns raised by the research,

In a new study, Empa [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology] researcher Dominik Brunner, together with colleagues from Utrecht University and the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics, is investigating how much plastic is trickling down on us from the atmosphere.

According to the study, some nanoplastics travel over 2000 kilometers through the air. According to the figures from the measurements about 43 trillion miniature plastic particles land in Switzerland every year. Researchers still disagree on the exact number. But according to estimates from the study, it could be as much as 3,000 tonnes of nanoplastics that cover Switzerland every year, from the remote Alps to the urban lowlands. These estimates are very high compared to other studies, and more research is needed to verify these numbers.

….

A January 25, 2022 EMPA [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology] press release by Noé Waldmann, which originated the news item, provides some technical details,

In a large-scale fundraising campaign, popular YouTubers like Mister Beast and Mark Rober are currently trying to rid the oceans of almost 14,000 tonnes of plastic waste. That’s about 0.15 per cent of the amount that ends up in the oceans every year. But it’s not just our waters that are full of plastic. A new study shows that the spread of nanoplastic through the air is a more widespread problem than previously thought.

….

Extreme conditions

The scientists studied a small area at an altitude of 3106 meters at the top of the mountain “Hoher Sonnenblick” in the “Hohe Tauern” National Park in Austria. An observatory of the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics has been located here since 1886. The observatory is run by meteorologist and Arctic researcher Elke Ludewig. Since research began here in the late 19th century, the observatory has only been non-operational on four days. The research station also served as a base for the study on the spread of nanoplastics in remote areas.

Every day, and in all weather conditions, scientists removed a part of the top layer of snow around a marker at 8 AM and carefully stored it. Contamination of the samples by nanoplastics in the air or on the scientists’ clothes was a particular challenge. In the laboratory, the researchers sometimes had to remain motionless when a colleague handled an open sample.

The origin of the tiny particles was traced with the help of European wind and weather data. The researchers could show that the greatest emission of nanoplastics into the atmosphere occurs in densely populated, urban areas. About 30% of the nanoplastic particles measured on the mountain top originate from a radius of 200 kilometers, mainly from cities. However, plastics from the world’s oceans apparently also get into the air via the spray of the waves. Around 10% of the particles measured in the study were blown onto the mountain by wind and weather over 2000 kilometers – some of them from the Atlantic.

Nanoparticles in the bloodstream

It is estimated that more than 8300 million tonnes of plastic have been produced worldwide to date, about 60% of which is now waste. This waste erodes through weathering effects and mechanical abrasion from macro- to micro- and nanoparticles. But discarded plastic is far from the only source. Everyday use of plastic products such as packaging and clothing releases nanoplastics. Particles in this size range are so light that their movement in the air can best be compared to gases.

Besides plastics, there are all kinds of other tiny particles. From Sahara sand to brake pads, the world is buzzing through the air as abrasion. It is as yet unclear whether this kind of air pollution poses a potential health threat to humans. Nanoparticles, unlike microparticles, do not just end up in the stomach. They are sucked deep into the lungs through respiration, where their size may allow them to cross the cell-blood barrier and enter the human bloodstream. Whether this is harmful or even dangerous, however, remains to be researched.

Included here because of its compelling story is Utrecht University’s November 1, 2021 press release conveying the researchers’ excitement, (Note: Links have been removed)

Nanoplastics found in the Alps, transported by air from Frankfurt, Paris and London

A team of researchers have found nanoplastics at the pristine high-altitude Sonnblick Observatory in the Alps. This is the first time that nanoplastics were found in this area. The researchers were originally looking for certain organic particles, but found nanoplastics by chance, discovering a new analysis method for detecting nanoplastics in the process. …

The researchers were looking for organic particles by taking samples of snow or ice, evaporating them, and then burning the residue to detect and analyse the vapours. “Our detection method is a bit like a mechanical nose. And unexpectedly, it smelled burning plastics in our snow samples,” lead researcher Dušan Materić explains. The detector found the smell of several types of plastic, mostly polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

The detected plastic particles turned out to be less than 200 nm in size, about one hundredth the width of a human hair. That is significantly smaller than plastic particles detected in previous studies. “With this detection method, we are the first group to quantify nanoplastics in the environment,” says Materić. “Since the high Alps are a very remote and pristine area, we were quite shocked and surprised to find such a high concentration of nanoplastics there.” The results suggest that in addition to microplastics, there might be as much nanoplastics present in these remote places.

Transported by air

“We were quite gripped by these findings,” Materić continues. “It’s highly unlikely that these nanoplastics originated from local pristine Alpine areas. So where did they come from? We completely turned around our research project to study this further.”

The researchers found a striking correlation between high concentrations of nanoplastics and winds coming from the direction of major European cities, most notably Frankfurt and the industrial Ruhr area (Germany), but also the Netherlands, Paris, and even London.

“Advanced modelling supported the idea that nanoplastics are indeed transported by air from these urban places,” says Materić. “That’s potentially alarming, because that could mean that there are hotspots of nanoplastics in our cities, and indeed in the very air we’re breathing. We are currently studying this in more detail.” Since working on the current publication, Materić has already received an additional NWO [Dutch Research Council] grant of 50,000 Euros to study the size distribution of nanoplastics in indoor, urban and rural air.

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

Nanoplastics transport to the remote, high-altitude Alps by Dušan Materić,
Elke Ludewig, Dominik Brunner, Thomas Röckmann, Rupert Holzinger. Environmental Pollution Volume 288, 1 November 2021, 117697 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2021.117697

This paper is open access.

Leiden, European City of Science 2022, hosts EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2022

The 2022 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) runs from July 13 – 16, 2022 but the 2022 European City of Science programme runs for the entire year and a July 15, 2022 University of Leiden press release (received via email) announces a special anniversary date being celebrated by Europe’s current City of Science [Leiden, Netherlands]*,

The smallest statue in the world: Leiden physicists and sculptor build a
nano-Rembrandt

Researchers from Leiden University together with sculptor Jeroen Spijker
created a 3D-printed statue of Rembrandt van Rijn of 28 micrometers tall
– that’s a third of the thickness of a hair. The sculpture, that
isn’t visible to the naked eye, is on display at Museum De Lakenhal in
Leiden. Leiden is the birth town of the famous painter, and on his
birthday today, everyone can come and ‘see’ the statue for free.

To celebrate Leiden European City of Science 2022, Jeroen Spijker worked
with physicists Daniela Kraft and Rachel Doherty from Leiden University
on a micro-statue of Rembrandt made from polymer with a layer of
platinum. At just 28 micrometres tall, the statue, which was made with a
3D printer, is around a third of the thickness of a human hair. This
makes it the smallest work of art in the world, says Jeroen Spijker.

3D printed as small as possible
The work is based on a bronze sculpture of Rembrandt that Spijker had
previously made. This was scanned and printed as small as possible with
a 3D printer. This isn’t Leiden University’s first miniature work.

In 2020 Kraft and Doherty’s research group used the same 3D printer to
make the smallest boat in the world, which could even sail. At 30
micrometres, this was slightly larger than Rembrandt.

Discover the limits of scientific devices
Not only are such tiny creations fun challenges but they also help
scientific research. Kraft and Doherty are studying microswimmers:
microscopic particles that can move in a fluid environment. They print
these microswimmers themselves with a very accurate 3D printer. ‘The
Rembrandt project is helping us discover the limits of our devices,’
says Doherty. ‘How small can we print something?’

On display next to Rembrandt’s paintings
Visitors will see for themselves how this is invisible to the naked eye.
The statue will be in the same room as paintings by Rembrandt. There is
also a short film about the process. Jeroen Spijker: ‘I wanted to
create a statue that I could still accept as a work of art with my own
signature. Any smaller and there would have been too many
distortions.’

About Leiden2022 European City of Science
The nano-statue of Rembrandt was created as a project where art meets
science, one aspect of Leiden2022 European City of Science. The statue
will be on display at Museum De Lakenhal until 31 July.

Leiden is European City of Science in 2022: for a year Leiden is the
capital of European science. Leiden University is a proud partner of
Leiden2022. For an entire year Leiden2022 will be offering a programme
for anyone with an open and curious mind, a programme packed with
science, knowledge, art and expertise.

Here’s the statue,

A special photo of the Rembrandt, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Courtesy: University of Leident

You can find more about Leiden 2022 European City of Science here. While it’s late for the 2022 EuroScience Open Forum, there’s a preview of the upcoming 2024 European City of Science to be held in Katowice, Poland, which will likely be the site of the 2024 EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) as well.

*[Leiden, Netherlands] added July 15, 2022 at 1325 hours PT.