Tag Archives: artificial intelligence (AI)

Comedy club performances show how robots and humans connect via humor

Caption: Naomi Fitter and Jon the Robot. Credit: Johanna Carson, OSU College of Engineering

Robot comedian is not my first thought on seeing that image; ventriloquist’s dummy is what came to mind. However, it’s not the first time I’ve been wrong about something. A May 19, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily reveals the truth about Jon, a comedian in robot form,

Standup comedian Jon the Robot likes to tell his audiences that he does lots of auditions but has a hard time getting bookings.

“They always think I’m too robotic,” he deadpans.

If raucous laughter follows, he comes back with, “Please tell the booking agents how funny that joke was.”

If it doesn’t, he follows up with, “Sorry about that. I think I got caught in a loop. Please tell the booking agents that you like me … that you like me … that you like me … that you like me.”

Jon the Robot, with assistance from Oregon State University researcher Naomi Fitter, recently wrapped up a 32-show tour of comedy clubs in greater Los Angeles and in Oregon, generating guffaws and more importantly data that scientists and engineers can use to help robots and people relate more effectively with one another via humor.

A May 18, 2020 Oregon State University (OSU) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves furthers into this intriguing research,

“Social robots and autonomous social agents are becoming more and more ingrained in our everyday lives,” said Fitter, assistant professor of robotics in the OSU College of Engineering. “Lots of them tell jokes to engage users – most people understand that humor, especially nuanced humor, is essential to relationship building. But it’s challenging to develop entertaining jokes for robots that are funny beyond the novelty level.”

Live comedy performances are a way for robots to learn “in the wild” which jokes and which deliveries work and which ones don’t, Fitter said, just like human comedians do.

Two studies comprised the comedy tour, which included assistance from a team of Southern California comedians in coming up with material true to, and appropriate for, a robot comedian.

The first study, consisting of 22 performances in the Los Angeles area, demonstrated that audiences found a robot comic with good timing – giving the audience the right amounts of time to react, etc. – to be significantly more funny than one without good timing.

The second study, based on 10 routines in Oregon, determined that an “adaptive performance” – delivering post-joke “tags” that acknowledge an audience’s reaction to the joke – wasn’t necessarily funnier overall, but the adaptations almost always improved the audience’s perception of individual jokes. In the second study, all performances featured appropriate timing.

“In bad-timing mode, the robot always waited a full five seconds after each joke, regardless of audience response,” Fitter said. “In appropriate-timing mode, the robot used timing strategies to pause for laughter and continue when it subsided, just like an effective human comedian would. Overall, joke response ratings were higher when the jokes were delivered with appropriate timing.”

The number of performances, given to audiences of 10 to 20, provide enough data to identify significant differences between distinct modes of robot comedy performance, and the research helped to answer key questions about comedic social interaction, Fitter said.

“Audience size, social context, cultural context, the microphone-holding human presence and the novelty of a robot comedian may have influenced crowd responses,” Fitter said. “The current software does not account for differences in laughter profiles, but future work can account for these differences using a baseline response measurement. The only sensing we used to evaluate joke success was audio readings. Future work might benefit from incorporating additional types of sensing.”

Still, the studies have key implications for artificial intelligence efforts to understand group responses to dynamic, entertaining social robots in real-world environments, she said.

“Also, possible advances in comedy from this work could include improved techniques for isolating and studying the effects of comedic techniques and better strategies to help comedians assess the success of a joke or routine,” she said. “The findings will guide our next steps toward giving autonomous social agents improved humor capabilities.”

The studies were published by the Association for Computing Machinery [ACM]/Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering’s [IEEE] International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction [HRI].

Here’s another link to the two studies published in a single paper, which were first presented at the 2020 International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction [HRI]. along with a citation for the title of the published presentation,

Comedians in Cafes Getting Data: Evaluating Timing and Adaptivity in Real-World Robot Comedy Performance by John Vilk and Naomi T Fitter. HRI ’20: Proceedings of the 2020 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot InteractionMarch 2020 Pages 223–231 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3319502.3374780

The paper is open access and the researchers have embedded an mp4 file which includes parts of the performances. Enjoy!

Artificial intelligence (AI) consumes a lot of energy but tree-like memory may help conserve it

A simulation of a quantum material’s properties reveals its ability to learn numbers, a test of artificial intelligence. (Purdue University image/Shakti Wadekar)

A May 7, 2020 Purdue University news release (also on EurekAlert) describes a new approach for energy-efficient hardware in support of artificial intelligence (AI) systems,

To just solve a puzzle or play a game, artificial intelligence can require software running on thousands of computers. That could be the energy that three nuclear plants produce in one hour.

A team of engineers has created hardware that can learn skills using a type of AI that currently runs on software platforms. Sharing intelligence features between hardware and software would offset the energy needed for using AI in more advanced applications such as self-driving cars or discovering drugs.

“Software is taking on most of the challenges in AI. If you could incorporate intelligence into the circuit components in addition to what is happening in software, you could do things that simply cannot be done today,” said Shriram Ramanathan, a professor of materials engineering at Purdue University.

AI hardware development is still in early research stages. Researchers have demonstrated AI in pieces of potential hardware, but haven’t yet addressed AI’s large energy demand.

As AI penetrates more of daily life, a heavy reliance on software with massive energy needs is not sustainable, Ramanathan said. If hardware and software could share intelligence features, an area of silicon might be able to achieve more with a given input of energy.

Ramanathan’s team is the first to demonstrate artificial “tree-like” memory in a piece of potential hardware at room temperature. Researchers in the past have only been able to observe this kind of memory in hardware at temperatures that are too low for electronic devices.

The results of this study are published in the journal Nature Communications.

The hardware that Ramanathan’s team developed is made of a so-called quantum material. These materials are known for having properties that cannot be explained by classical physics. Ramanathan’s lab has been working to better understand these materials and how they might be used to solve problems in electronics.

Software uses tree-like memory to organize information into various “branches,” making that information easier to retrieve when learning new skills or tasks.

The strategy is inspired by how the human brain categorizes information and makes decisions.

“Humans memorize things in a tree structure of categories. We memorize ‘apple’ under the category of ‘fruit’ and ‘elephant’ under the category of ‘animal,’ for example,” said Hai-Tian Zhang, a Lillian Gilbreth postdoctoral fellow in Purdue’s College of Engineering. “Mimicking these features in hardware is potentially interesting for brain-inspired computing.”

The team introduced a proton to a quantum material called neodymium nickel oxide. They discovered that applying an electric pulse to the material moves around the proton. Each new position of the proton creates a different resistance state, which creates an information storage site called a memory state. Multiple electric pulses create a branch made up of memory states.

“We can build up many thousands of memory states in the material by taking advantage of quantum mechanical effects. The material stays the same. We are simply shuffling around protons,” Ramanathan said.

Through simulations of the properties discovered in this material, the team showed that the material is capable of learning the numbers 0 through 9. The ability to learn numbers is a baseline test of artificial intelligence.

The demonstration of these trees at room temperature in a material is a step toward showing that hardware could offload tasks from software.

“This discovery opens up new frontiers for AI that have been largely ignored because implementing this kind of intelligence into electronic hardware didn’t exist,” Ramanathan said.

The material might also help create a way for humans to more naturally communicate with AI.

“Protons also are natural information transporters in human beings. A device enabled by proton transport may be a key component for eventually achieving direct communication with organisms, such as through a brain implant,” Zhang said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the published study,

Perovskite neural trees by Hai-Tian Zhang, Tae Joon Park, Shriram Ramanathan. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 2245 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16105-y Published: 07 May 2020

This paper is open access.

Brain-inspired electronics with organic memristors for wearable computing

I went down a rabbit hole while trying to figure out the difference between ‘organic’ memristors and standard memristors. I have put the results of my investigation at the end of this post. First, there’s the news.

An April 21, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily explains why researchers are so focused on memristors and brainlike computing,

The advent of artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things is expected to change modern electronics and bring forth the fourth Industrial Revolution. The pressing question for many researchers is how to handle this technological revolution.

“It is important for us to understand that the computing platforms of today will not be able to sustain at-scale implementations of AI algorithms on massive datasets,” said Thirumalai Venkatesan, one of the authors of a paper published in Applied Physics Reviews, from AIP Publishing.

“Today’s computing is way too energy-intensive to handle big data. We need to rethink our approaches to computation on all levels: materials, devices and architecture that can enable ultralow energy computing.”

An April 21, 2020 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the authors’ approach to the problems with organic memristors,

Brain-inspired electronics with organic memristors could offer a functionally promising and cost- effective platform, according to Venkatesan. Memristive devices are electronic devices with an inherent memory that are capable of both storing data and performing computation. Since memristors are functionally analogous to the operation of neurons, the computing units in the brain, they are optimal candidates for brain-inspired computing platforms.

Until now, oxides have been the leading candidate as the optimum material for memristors. Different material systems have been proposed but none have been successful so far.

“Over the last 20 years, there have been several attempts to come up with organic memristors, but none of those have shown any promise,” said Sreetosh Goswami, lead author on the paper. “The primary reason behind this failure is their lack of stability, reproducibility and ambiguity in mechanistic understanding. At a device level, we are now able to solve most of these problems,”

This new generation of organic memristors is developed based on metal azo complex devices, which are the brainchild of Sreebata Goswami, a professor at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science in Kolkata and another author on the paper.

“In thin films, the molecules are so robust and stable that these devices can eventually be the right choice for many wearable and implantable technologies or a body net, because these could be bendable and stretchable,” said Sreebata Goswami. A body net is a series of wireless sensors that stick to the skin and track health.

The next challenge will be to produce these organic memristors at scale, said Venkatesan.

“Now we are making individual devices in the laboratory. We need to make circuits for large-scale functional implementation of these devices.”

Caption: The device structure at a molecular level. The gold nanoparticles on the bottom electrode enhance the field enabling an ultra-low energy operation of the molecular device. Credit Sreetosh Goswami, Sreebrata Goswami and Thirumalai Venky Venkatesan

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

An organic approach to low energy memory and brain inspired electronics by Sreetosh Goswami, Sreebrata Goswami, and T. Venkatesan. Applied Physics Reviews 7, 021303 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5124155

This paper is open access.

Basics about memristors and organic memristors

This undated article on Nanowerk provides a relatively complete and technical description of memristors in general (Note: A link has been removed),

A memristor (named as a portmanteau of memory and resistor) is a non-volatile electronic memory device that was first theorized by Leon Ong Chua in 1971 as the fourth fundamental two-terminal circuit element following the resistor, the capacitor, and the inductor (IEEE Transactions on Circuit Theory, “Memristor-The missing circuit element”).

Its special property is that its resistance can be programmed (resistor function) and subsequently remains stored (memory function). Unlike other memories that exist today in modern electronics, memristors are stable and remember their state even if the device loses power.

However, it was only almost 40 years later that the first practical device was fabricated. This was in 2008, when a group led by Stanley Williams at HP Research Labs realized that switching of the resistance between a conducting and less conducting state in metal-oxide thin-film devices was showing Leon Chua’s memristor behavior. …

The article on Nanowerk includes an embedded video presentation on memristors given by Stanley Williams (also known as R. Stanley Williams).

Mention of an ‘organic’memristor can be found in an October 31, 2017 article by Ryan Whitwam,

The memristor is composed of the transition metal ruthenium complexed with “azo-aromatic ligands.” [emphasis mine] The theoretical work enabling this material was performed at Yale, and the organic molecules were synthesized at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Sciences. …

I highlighted ‘ligands’ because that appears to be the difference. However, there is more than one type of ligand on Wikipedia.

First, there’s the Ligand (biochemistry) entry (Note: Links have been removed),

In biochemistry and pharmacology, a ligand is a substance that forms a complex with a biomolecule to serve a biological purpose. …

Then, there’s the Ligand entry,

In coordination chemistry, a ligand[help 1] is an ion or molecule (functional group) that binds to a central metal atom to form a coordination complex …

Finally, there’s the Ligand (disambiguation) entry (Note: Links have been removed),

  • Ligand, an atom, ion, or functional group that donates one or more of its electrons through a coordinate covalent bond to one or more central atoms or ions
  • Ligand (biochemistry), a substance that binds to a protein
  • a ‘guest’ in host–guest chemistry

I did take a look at the paper and did not see any references to proteins or other biomolecules that I could recognize as such. I’m not sure why the researchers are describing their device as an ‘organic’ memristor but this may reflect a shortcoming in the definitions I have found or shortcomings in my reading of the paper rather than an error on their parts.

Hopefully, more research will be forthcoming and it will be possible to better understand the terminology.

Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on charity organizations

Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf’s February 21, 2020 article (Technology and innovation: How the Fourth Industrial Revolution is impacting the charitable sector) for Charity Village has an ebullient approach to adoption of new and emerging technologies in the charitable sector (Note: A link has been removed),

Almost daily, new technologies are being developed to help innovate the way people give or the way organizations offer opportunities to advance their causes. There is no going back.

The charitable sector – along with society at large – is now fully in the midst of what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a term first brought to prominence among CEOs, thought leaders and policy makers at the 2016 World Economic Forum. And if you haven’t heard the phrase yet, get ready to hear it tons more as economies around the world embrace it.

To be clear, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the newest disruption in the way our world works. When you hear someone talk about it, what they’re describing is the massive technological shift in our business and personal ecosystems that now rely heavily on things like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, 3D printing and the general “Internet of things.”

Still, now more than ever, charitable business is getting done and being advanced by sector pioneers who aren’t afraid to make use of new technologies on offer to help civil society.

It seems like everywhere one turns, the topic of artificial intelligence (A.I.) is increasingly becoming subject of choice.

This is no different in the charitable sector, and particularly so for a new company called Fundraise Wisely (aka Wisely). Its co-founder and CEO, Artiom Komarov, explains a bit about what exactly his tech is doing for the sector.

“We help accelerate fundraising, with A.I. At a product level, we connect to your CRM (content relationship management system) and predict the next gift and next gift date for every donor. We then use that information to help you populate and prioritize donor portfolios,” Komarov states.

He notes that his company is seeing increased demand for innovative technologies from charities over the last while.

“What we’re hearing is that… A.I. tech is compelling because at the end of the day it’s meant to move the bottom line, helping nonprofits grow their revenue. We’ve also found that internally [at a charitable organization] there’s always a champion that sees the potential impact of technology; and that’s a great place to start with change,” Komarov says. “If it’s done right, tech can be an enabler of better work for organizations. From both research and experience, we know that tech adoption usually fails because of culture rather than the underlying technology. We’re here to work with the client closely to help that transition.”

I would like to have seen some numbers. For example, Komarov says that AI is having a positive impact on a charity’s bottom line. So, how much money did one of these charities raise? Was it more money than they would have made without AI? Assuming they did manage to raise greater funds, could another technology been more cost effective?

For another perspective (equally positive) on technology and charity, there’s a November 29, 2012 posting (Why technology and innovation are key to increasing charity donations) on the Guardian blogs by Henna Butt and Renita Shah (Note: Links have been removed),

At the beginning of this year the [UK] Cabinet Office and Nesta [formerly National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts {NESTA}] announced a £10m fund to invest in innovation in giving. The first tranche of this money has already been invested in promising initiatives such as Timto which allows you to create a gift list that includes a charity donation and Pennies, whose electronic money box allows customers to donate when paying for something in a shop using a credit card. Small and sizeable organisations alike are now using web and mobile technologies to make giving more convenient, more social and more compelling.

Butt’s and Shah’s focus was on mobile technologies and social networks. Like Levy-Ajzenkopf’s article, there’s no discussion of any possible downside to these technologies, e.g., privacy issues. As well, the inevitability of this move toward more technology for charity is explicitly stated by Levy-Ajzenkopf “There is no going back” and noted less starkly by Butt and Shah “… innovation is becoming increasingly important for the success of charities.” To rephrase my concern, are we utilizing technology in our work or are we serving the needs of our technology?

Finally, for anyone who’s curious about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I have a December 3, 2015 posting about it.

MIT Media Lab releases new educational site for kids K-12: it’s all about artificial intelligence (AI)

Mark Wilson announces a timely new online programme from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in his April 9, 2020 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed).

Not every child will grow up to attend MIT, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get a jump start on its curriculum. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced millions of students to learn from home, MIT Media Lab associate professor Cynthia Breazeal has released [April 7, 2020] a website for K-12 students to learn about one of the most important topics in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]: artificial intelligence.

The site provides 60 activities, lesson plans, and links to interactive AI experiments that MIT and companies like Google have developed in the past. Projects include coding robots to doodle, developing an image classifier (a tool that can identify images), writing speculative fiction to tackle the murky ethics of AI, and developing a chatbot (your grade schooler cannot possibly be worse at that task than I was). Everything is free, but schools are supposed to license lesson plans from MIT before adopting them.

Various associated MIT groups are covering a wide range of topics including the already mentioned AI ethics, as well as, cyber security and privacy issues, creativity, and more. Here’s a little something from a programme for the Girl Scouts of America, which focused on data privacy and tech policy,

The Girl Scouts awarded the Brownie (7-9) and Junior (9-11) troops with Cybersecurity badges at the end of the full event. 
Credit: Daniella DiPaola [downloaded from https://www.media.mit.edu/posts/data-privacy-policy-to-practice-with-the-girl-scouts/]

You can find MIT’s AI education website here. While the focus is largely on children, it seems they are inviting adults to participate as well. At least that’s what I infer from what one of the groups associated with this AI education website, the LifeLong Kindergarten group states on their webpage,

The Lifelong Kindergarten group develops new technologies and activities that, in the spirit of the blocks and finger paint of kindergarten, engage people in creative learning experiences. Our ultimate goal is to foster a world full of playfully creative people, who are constantly inventing new possibilities for themselves and their communities.

The website is a little challenging with regard to navigation but perhaps these links to the Research Projects page will help you get started quickly or, for those who like to investigate a little further before jumping in, this News page (which is a blog) might prove helpful.

That’s it for today. I wish everyone a peaceful long weekend while we all observe as joyfully and carefully as possible our various religious and seasonal traditions. From my tradition to yours, Joyeuses Pâques!

Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI (artificial intelligence) at the de Young museum (San Francisco, US) February 22 – October 25, 2020

So we’re still stuck in 20th century concepts about artificial intelligence (AI), eh? Sean Captain’s February 21, 2020 article (for Fast Company) about the new AI exhibit in San Francisco suggests that artists can help us revise our ideas (Note: Links have been removed),

Though we’re well into the age of machine learning, popular culture is stuck with a 20th century notion of artificial intelligence. While algorithms are shaping our lives in real ways—playing on our desires, insecurities, and suspicions in social media, for instance—Hollywood is still feeding us clichéd images of sexy, deadly robots in shows like Westworld and Star Trek Picard.

The old-school humanlike sentient robot “is an important trope that has defined the visual vocabulary around this human-machine relationship for a very long period of time,” says Claudia Schmuckli, curator of contemporary art and programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It’s also a naïve and outdated metaphor, one she is challenging with a new exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, called Uncanny Valley, that opens on February 22 [2020].

The show’s name [Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI] is a kind of double entendre referencing both the dated and emerging conceptions of AI. Coined in the 1970s, the term “uncanny valley” describes the rise and then sudden drop off of empathy we feel toward a machine as its resemblance to a human increases. Putting a set of cartoony eyes on a robot may make it endearing. But fitting it with anatomically accurate eyes, lips, and facial gestures gets creepy. As the gap between the synthetic and organic narrows, the inability to completely close that gap becomes all the more unsettling.

But the artists in this exhibit are also looking to another valley—Silicon Valley, and the uncanny nature of the real AI the region is building. “One of the positions of this exhibition is that it may be time to rethink the coordinates of the Uncanny Valley and propose a different visual vocabulary,” says Schmuckli.

Artist Stephanie Dinkins faces off with robot Bina48, a bot on display at the de Young Museum’s Uncanny Valley show. [Photo: courtesy of the artist; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

From Captain’s February 21, 2020 article,

… the resemblance to humans is only synthetic-skin deep. Bina48 can string together a long series of sentences in response to provocative questions from Dinkins, such as, “Do you know racism?” But the answers are sometimes barely intelligible, or at least lack the depth and nuance of a conversation with a real human. The robot’s jerky attempts at humanlike motion also stand in stark contrast to Dinkins’s calm bearing and fluid movement. Advanced as she is by today’s standards, Bina48 is tragically far from the sci-fi concept of artificial life. Her glaring shortcomings hammer home why the humanoid metaphor is not the right framework for understanding at least today’s level of artificial intelligence.

For anybody who has more curiosity about the ‘uncanny valley’, there’s this Wikipedia entry.

For more details about the’ Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI’ exhibition there’s this September 26, 2019 de Young museum news release,

What are the invisible mechanisms of current forms of artificial intelligence (AI)? How is AI impacting our personal lives and socioeconomic spheres? How do we define intelligence? How do we envision the future of humanity?

SAN FRANCISCO (September 26, 2019) — As technological innovation continues to shape our identities and societies, the question of what it means to be, or remain human has become the subject of fervent debate. Taking advantage of the de Young museum’s proximity to Silicon Valley, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI arrives as the first major exhibition in the US to explore the relationship between humans and intelligent machines through an artistic lens. Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, with San Francisco as its sole venue, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI will be on view from February 22 to October 25, 2020.

“Technology is changing our world, with artificial intelligence both a new frontier of possibility but also a development fraught with anxiety,” says Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI brings artistic exploration of this tension to the ground zero of emerging technology, raising challenging questions about the future interface of human and machine.”

The exhibition, which extends through the first floor of the de Young and into the museum’s sculpture garden, explores the current juncture through philosophical, political, and poetic questions and problems raised by AI. New and recent works by an intergenerational, international group of artists and activist collectives—including Zach Blas, Ian Cheng, Simon Denny, Stephanie Dinkins, Forensic Architecture, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Pierre Huyghe, Christopher Kulendran Thomas in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, Agnieszka Kurant, Lawrence Lek, Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, Martine Syms, and the Zairja Collective—will be presented.

The Uncanny Valley

In 1970 Japanese engineer Masahiro Mori introduced the concept of the “uncanny valley” as a terrain of existential uncertainty that humans experience when confronted with autonomous machines that mimic their physical and mental properties. An enduring metaphor for the uneasy relationship between human beings and lifelike robots or thinking machines, the uncanny valley and its edges have captured the popular imagination ever since. Over time, the rapid growth and affordability of computers, cloud infrastructure, online search engines, and data sets have fueled developments in machine learning that fundamentally alter our modes of existence, giving rise to a newly expanded uncanny valley.

“As our lives are increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, evaluate, and monetize our data, the uncanny valley has grown to encompass the invisible mechanisms of behavioral engineering and automation,” says Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “By paying close attention to the imminent and nuanced realities of AI’s possibilities and pitfalls, the artists in the exhibition seek to thicken the discourse around AI. Although fables like HBO’s sci-fi drama Westworld, or Spike Jonze’s feature film Her still populate the collective imagination with dystopian visions of a mechanized future, the artists in this exhibition treat such fictions as relics of a humanist tradition that has little relevance today.”

In Detail

Ian Cheng’s digitally simulated AI creature BOB (Bag of Beliefs) reflects on the interdependency of carbon and silicon forms of intelligence. An algorithmic Tamagotchi, it is capable of evolution, but its growth, behavior, and personality are molded by online interaction with visitors who assume collective responsibility for its wellbeing.

In A.A.I. (artificial artificial intelligence), an installation of multiple termite mounds of colored sand, gold, glitter and crystals, Agnieszka Kurant offers a vibrant critique of new AI economies, with their online crowdsourcing marketplace platforms employing invisible armies of human labor at sub-minimum wages.

Simon Denny ‘s Amazon worker cage patent drawing as virtual King Island Brown Thornbill cage (US 9,280,157 B2: “System and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace”, 2016) (2019) also examines the intersection of labor, resources, and automation. He presents 3-D prints and a cage-like sculpture based on an unrealized machine patent filed by Amazon to contain human workers. Inside the cage an augmented reality application triggers the appearance of a King Island Brown Thornbill — a bird on the verge of extinction; casting human labor as the proverbial canary in the mine. The humanitarian and ecological costs of today’s data economy also informs a group of works by the Zairja Collective that reflect on the extractive dynamics of algorithmic data mining. 

Hito Steyerl addresses the political risks of introducing machine learning into the social sphere. Her installation The City of Broken Windows presents a collision between commercial applications of AI in urban planning along with communal and artistic acts of resistance against neighborhood tipping: one of its short films depicts a group of technicians purposefully smashing windows to teach an algorithm how to recognize the sound of breaking glass, and another follows a group of activists through a Camden, NJ neighborhood as they work to keep decay at bay by replacing broken windows in abandoned homes with paintings. 

Addressing the perpetuation of societal biases and discrimination within AI, Trevor Paglen’s They Took the Faces from the Accused and the Dead…(SD18), presents a large gridded installation of more than three thousand mugshots from the archives of the American National Standards Institute. The institute’s collections of such images were used to train ealry facial-recognition technologies — without the consent of those pictured. Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new installation Shadow Stalker critiques the problematic reliance on algorithmic systems, such as the military forecasting tool Predpol now widely used for policing, that categorize individuals into preexisting and often false “embodied metrics.”

Stephanie Dinkins extends the inquiry into how value systems are built into AI and the construction of identity in Conversations with Bina48, examining the social robot’s (and by extension our society’s) coding of technology, race, gender and social equity. In the same territory, Martine Syms posits AI as a “shamespace” for misrepresentation. For Mythiccbeing she has created an avatar of herself that viewers can interact with through text messaging. But unlike service agents such as Siri and Alexa, who readily respond to questions and demands, Syms’s Teeny is a contrarious interlocutor, turning each interaction into an opportunity to voice personal observations and frustrations about racial inequality and social injustice.

Countering the abusive potential of machine learning, Forensic Architecture pioneers an application to the pursuit of social justice. Their proposition of a Model Zoo marks the beginnings of a new research tool for civil society built of military vehicles, missile fragments, and bomb clouds—evidence of human-rights violations by states and militaries around the world. Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s video Being Human, created in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, poses the philosophical question of what it means to be human when machines are able to synthesize human understanding ever more convincingly. Set  in Sri Lanka, it employs AI-generated characters of singer Taylor Swift and artist Oscar Murillo to reflect on issues of individual authenticity, collective sovereignty, and the future of human rights.

Lawrence Lek’s sci-fi-inflected film Aidol, which explores the relationship between algorithmic automation and human creativity, projects this question into the future. It transports the viewer into the computer-generated “sinofuturist” world of the 2065 eSports Olympics: when the popular singer Diva enlists the super-intelligent Geomancer to help her stage her artistic comeback during the game’s halftime show, she unleashes an existential and philosophical battle that explodes the divide between humans and machines.

The Doors, a newly commissioned installation by Zach Blas, by contrast shines the spotlight back onto the present and on the culture and ethos of Silicon Valley — the ground zero for the development of AI. Inspired by the ubiquity of enclosed gardens on tech campuses, he has created an artificial garden framed by a six-channel video projected on glass panes that convey a sense of algorithmic psychedelia aiming to open new “doors of perception.” While luring visitors into AI’s promises, it also asks what might become possible when such glass doors begin to crack. 

Unveiled in late spring Pierre Huyghe‘s Exomind (Deep Water), a sculpture of a crouched female nude with a live beehive as its head will be nestled within the museum’s garden. With its buzzing colony pollinating the surrounding flora, it offers a poignant metaphor for the modeling of neural networks on the biological brain and an understanding of intelligence as grounded in natural forms and processes.

The Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI event page features a link to something unexpected 9scroll down about 40% of the way), a Statement on Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture,

On Thursday, February 13 [2020], Eyal Weizman of Forensic Architecture had his travel authorization to the United States revoked due to an “algorithm” that identified him as a security threat.

He was meant to be in the United States promoting multiple exhibitions including Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, opening on February 22 [2020] at the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Since 2018, Forensic Architecture has used machine learning / AI to aid in humanitarian work, using synthetic images—photorealistic digital renderings based around 3-D models—to train algorithmic classifiers to identify tear gas munitions and chemical bombs deployed against protesters worldwide, including in Hong Kong, Chile, the US, Venezuela, and Sudan.

Their project, Model Zoo, on view in Uncanny Valley represents a growing collection of munitions and weapons used in conflict today and the algorithmic models developed to identify them. It shows a collection of models being used to track and hold accountable human rights violators around the world. The piece joins work by 14 contemporary artists reflecting on the philosophical and political consequences of the application of AI into the social sphere.

We are deeply saddened that Weizman will not be allowed to travel to celebrate the opening of the exhibition. We stand with him and Forensic Architecture’s partner communities who continue to resist violent states and corporate practices, and who are increasingly exposed to the regime of “security algorithms.”

—Claudia Schmuckli, Curator-in-Charge, Contemporary Art & Programming, & Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

There is a February 20, 2020 article (for Fast Company) by Eyal Weizman chronicling his experience with being denied entry by an algorithm. Do read it in its entirety (the Fast Company is itself an excerpt from Weizman’s essay) if you have the time, if not, here’s the description of how he tried to gain entry after being denied the first time,

The following day I went to the U.S. Embassy in London to apply for a visa. In my interview, the officer informed me that my authorization to travel had been revoked because the “algorithm” had identified a security threat. He said he did not know what had triggered the algorithm but suggested that it could be something I was involved in, people I am or was in contact with, places to which I had traveled (had I recently been in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia or met their nationals?), hotels at which I stayed, or a certain pattern of relations among these things. I was asked to supply the Embassy with additional information, including 15 years of travel history, in particular where I had gone and who had paid for it. The officer said that Homeland Security’s investigators could assess my case more promptly if I supplied the names of anyone in my network whom I believed might have triggered the algorithm. I declined to provide this information.

I hope the exhibition is successful; it has certainly experienced a thought-provoking start.

Finally, I have often featured postings that discuss the ‘uncanny valley’. To find those postings, just use that phrase in the blog search engine. You might also went to search ‘Hiroshi Ishiguro’, a Japanese scientist and robotocist who specializes in humanoid robots.

Second order memristor

I think this is my first encounter with a second-order memristor. An August 28, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces the research (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology [MIPT} have created a device that acts like a synapse in the living brain, storing information and gradually forgetting it when not accessed for a long time. Known as a second-order memristor, the new device is based on hafnium oxide and offers prospects for designing analog neurocomputers imitating the way a biological brain learns.

An August 28, 2019 MIPT press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides an explanation for neuromorphic computing (analog neurocomputers; brainlike computing), the difference between a first-order and second-order memristor, and an in depth view of the research,

Neurocomputers, which enable artificial intelligence, emulate the way the brain works. It stores data in the form of synapses, a network of connections between the nerve cells, or neurons. Most neurocomputers have a conventional digital architecture and use mathematical models to invoke virtual neurons and synapses.

Alternatively, an actual on-chip electronic component could stand for each neuron and synapse in the network. This so-called analog approach has the potential to drastically speed up computations and reduce energy costs.

The core component of a hypothetical analog neurocomputer is the memristor. The word is a portmanteau of “memory” and “resistor,” which pretty much sums up what it is: a memory cell acting as a resistor. Loosely speaking, a high resistance encodes a zero, and a low resistance encodes a one. This is analogous to how a synapse conducts a signal between two neurons (one), while the absence of a synapse results in no signal, a zero.

But there is a catch: In an actual brain, the active synapses tend to strengthen over time, while the opposite is true for inactive ones. This phenomenon known as synaptic plasticity is one of the foundations of natural learning and memory. It explains the biology of cramming for an exam and why our seldom accessed memories fade.

Proposed in 2015, the second-order memristor is an attempt to reproduce natural memory, complete with synaptic plasticity. The first mechanism for implementing this involves forming nanosized conductive bridges across the memristor. While initially decreasing resistance, they naturally decay with time, emulating forgetfulness.

“The problem with this solution is that the device tends to change its behavior over time and breaks down after prolonged operation,” said the study’s lead author Anastasia Chouprik from MIPT’s Neurocomputing Systems Lab. “The mechanism we used to implement synaptic plasticity is more robust. In fact, after switching the state of the system 100 billion times, it was still operating normally, so my colleagues stopped the endurance test.”

Instead of nanobridges, the MIPT team relied on hafnium oxide to imitate natural memory. This material is ferroelectric: Its internal bound charge distribution — electric polarization — changes in response to an external electric field. If the field is then removed, the material retains its acquired polarization, the way a ferromagnet remains magnetized.

The physicists implemented their second-order memristor as a ferroelectric tunnel junction — two electrodes interlaid with a thin hafnium oxide film (fig. 1, right). The device can be switched between its low and high resistance states by means of electric pulses, which change the ferroelectric film’s polarization and thus its resistance.

“The main challenge that we faced was figuring out the right ferroelectric layer thickness,” Chouprik added. “Four nanometers proved to be ideal. Make it just one nanometer thinner, and the ferroelectric properties are gone, while a thicker film is too wide a barrier for the electrons to tunnel through. And it is only the tunneling current that we can modulate by switching polarization.”

What gives hafnium oxide an edge over other ferroelectric materials, such as barium titanate, is that it is already used by current silicon technology. For example, Intel has been manufacturing microchips based on a hafnium compound since 2007. This makes introducing hafnium-based devices like the memristor reported in this story far easier and cheaper than those using a brand-new material.

In a feat of ingenuity, the researchers implemented “forgetfulness” by leveraging the defects at the interface between silicon and hafnium oxide. Those very imperfections used to be seen as a detriment to hafnium-based microprocessors, and engineers had to find a way around them by incorporating other elements into the compound. Instead, the MIPT team exploited the defects, which make memristor conductivity die down with time, just like natural memories.

Vitalii Mikheev, the first author of the paper, shared the team’s future plans: “We are going to look into the interplay between the various mechanisms switching the resistance in our memristor. It turns out that the ferroelectric effect may not be the only one involved. To further improve the devices, we will need to distinguish between the mechanisms and learn to combine them.”

According to the physicists, they will move on with the fundamental research on the properties of hafnium oxide to make the nonvolatile random access memory cells more reliable. The team is also investigating the possibility of transferring their devices onto a flexible substrate, for use in flexible electronics.

Last year, the researchers offered a detailed description of how applying an electric field to hafnium oxide films affects their polarization. It is this very process that enables reducing ferroelectric memristor resistance, which emulates synapse strengthening in a biological brain. The team also works on neuromorphic computing systems with a digital architecture.

MIPT has provided this image illustrating the research,

Caption: The left image shows a synapse from a biological brain, the inspiration behind its artificial analogue (right). The latter is a memristor device implemented as a ferroelectric tunnel junction — that is, a thin hafnium oxide film (pink) interlaid between a titanium nitride electrode (blue cable) and a silicon substrate (marine blue), which doubles up as the second electrode. Electric pulses switch the memristor between its high and low resistance states by changing hafnium oxide polarization, and therefore its conductivity. Credit: Elena Khavina/MIPT Press Office

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

Ferroelectric Second-Order Memristor by Vitalii Mikheev, Anastasia Chouprik, Yury Lebedinskii, Sergei Zarubin, Yury Matveyev, Ekaterina Kondratyuk, Maxim G. Kozodaev, Andrey M. Markeev, Andrei Zenkevich, Dmitrii Negrov. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2019113532108-32114 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.9b08189 Publication Date:August 12, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Science and technology, the 2019 Canadian federal government, and the Phoenix Pay System

This posting will focus on science, technology, the tragic consequence of bureaucratic and political bungling (the technology disaster that is is the Phoenix payroll system), and the puzzling lack of concern about some of the biggest upcoming technological and scientific changes in government and society in decades or more.

Setting the scene

After getting enough Liberal party members elected to the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons to form a minority government in October 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new cabinet and some changes to the ‘science’ portfolios in November 2019. You can read more about the overall cabinet announcement in this November 20, 2019 news item by Peter Zimonjic on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, my focus will be the science and technology. (Note: For those who don’t know, there is already much discussion about how long this Liberal minority government will last. All i takes is a ‘loss of confidence’ motion and a majority of the official opposition and other parties to vote ‘no confidence’ and Canada will back into the throes of an election. Mitigating against a speedy new federal election,, the Conservative party [official opposition] needs to choose a new leader and the other parties may not have the financial resources for another federal election so soon after the last one.)

Getting back to now and the most recent Cabinet announcements, it seems this time around, there’s significantly less interest in science. Concerns about this were noted in a November 22, 2019 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,

Canadian researchers are raising concerns that the loss of a dedicated science minister signals a reduced voice for their agenda around the federal cabinet table.

“People are wondering if the government thinks its science agenda is done,” said Marie Franquin, a doctoral student in neuroscience and co-president of Science and Policy Exchange, a student-led research-advocacy group. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

While not a powerful player within cabinet, Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan] proved to be an ardent booster of Canada’s research community and engaged with its issues, including the muzzling of federal scientists by the former Harper government and the need to improve gender equity in the research ecosystem.

Among Ms. Duncan’s accomplishments was the appointment of a federal chief science adviser [sic] and the commissioning of a landmark review of Ottawa’s support for fundamental research, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor

… He [Andre Albinati, managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group] added the role of science in government is now further bolstered by chief science adviser [sic] Mona Nemer and a growing network of departmental science advisers [sic]. .

Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre …, cautioned that the chief science adviser’s [sic] role was best described as “science for policy,” meaning the use of science advice in decision-making. He added that the government still needed a separate role like that filled by Ms. Duncan … to champion “policy for science,” meaning decisions that optimize Canada’s research enterprise.

There’s one other commentary (by CresoSá) but I’m saving it for later.

The science minister disappears

There is no longer a separate position for Science. Kirsty Duncan was moved from her ‘junior’ position as Minister of Science (and Sport) to Deputy Leader of the government. Duncan’s science portfolio has been moved over to Navdeep Bains whose portfolio evolved from Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (yes, there were two ‘ministers of science’) to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sadly, nobody from the Prime Minister’s team called to ask for my input on the matter.)

Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere

There’s the Natural Resources (i.e., energy, minerals and metals, forests, earth sciences, mapping, etc.) portfolio which was led by Catherine McKenna who’s been moved over to Infrastructure and Communities. There have been mumblings that she was considered ‘too combative’ in her efforts. Her replacement in Natural Resources is Seamus O’Regan. No word yet on whether or not, he might also be ‘too combative’. Of course, it’s much easier if you’re female to gain that label. (You can read about the spray-painted slurs found on the windows of McKenna’s campaign offices after she was successfully re-elected. See: Mike Blanchfield’s October 24, 2019 article for Huffington Post and Brigitte Pellerin’s October 31, 2019 article for the Ottawa Citizen.)

There are other portfolios which can also be said to include science such as Environment and Climate Change which welcomes a new minister, Jonathan Wilkinson moving over from his previous science portfolio, Fisheries, Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard where Bernadette Jordan has moved into place. Patti Hajdu takes over at Heath Canada (which despite all of the talk about science muzzles being lifted still has its muzzle in place). While it’s not typically considered a ‘science’ portfolio in Canada, the military establishment regardless of country has long been considered a source of science innovation; Harjit Sajjan has retained his Minister of National Defence portfolio.

Plus there are at least half a dozen other portfolios that can be described as having significant science and/or technology elements folded into their portfolios, e.g., Transport Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, etc.

As I tend to focus on emerging science and technology, most of these portfolios are not ones I follow even on an irregular basis meaning I have nothing more to add about them in this posting. Mixing science and technology together in this posting is a reflection of how tightly the two are linked together. For example, university research into artificial intelligence is taking place on theoretical levels (science) and as applied in business and government (technology). Apologies to the mathematicians but this explanation is already complicated and I don’t think I can do justice to their importance.

Moving onto technology with a strong science link, this next portfolio received even less attention than the ‘science’ portfolios and I believe that’s undeserved.

The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle

These days people tend to take the digital nature of daily life for granted and that may be why this portfolio has escaped much notice. When the ministerial posting was first introduced, it was an addition to Scott Brison’s responsibilities as head of the Treasury Board. It continued to be linked to the Treasury Board when Joyce Murray* inherited Brison’s position, after his departure from politics. As of the latest announcement in November 2019, Digital Government and the Treasury Board are no longer tended to by the same cabinet member.

The new head of the Treasury Board is Jean-Yves Duclos while Joyce Murray has held on to the Minister of Digital Government designation. I’m not sure if the separation from the Treasury Board is indicative of the esteem the Prime Minister has for digital government or if this has been done to appease someone or some group, which means the digital government portfolio could well disappear in the future just as the ‘junior’ science portfolio did.

Regardless, here’s some evidence as to why I think ‘digital government’ is unfairly overlooked, from the minister’s December 13, 2019 Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister (Note: All of the emphases are mine],

I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities. In particular, you will:

  • Lead work across government to transition to a more digital government in order to improve citizen service.
  • Oversee the Chief Information Officer and the Canadian Digital Service as they work with departments to develop solutions that will benefit Canadians and enhance the capacity to use modern tools and methodologies across Government.
  • Lead work to analyze and improve the delivery of information technology (IT) within government. This work will include identifying all core and at-risk IT systems and platforms. You will lead the renewal of SSC [Shared Services Canada which provides ‘modern, secure and reliable IT services so federal organizations can deliver digital programs and services to meet Canadians’ needs’] so that it is properly resourced and aligned to deliver common IT infrastructure that is reliable and secure.
  • Lead work to create a centre of expertise that brings together the necessary skills to effectively implement major transformation projects across government, including technical, procurement and legal expertise.
  • Support the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in continuing work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
  • With the support of the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, accelerate progress on a new Government of Canada service strategy that aims to create a single online window for all government services with new performance standards.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development in expanding and improving the services provided by Service Canada.
  • Support the Minister of National Revenue on additional steps required to meaningfully improve the satisfaction of Canadians with the quality, timeliness and accuracy of services they receive from the Canada Revenue Agency.
  • Support the Minister of Public Services and Procurement in eliminating the backlog of outstanding pay issues for public servants as a result of the Phoenix Pay System.
  • Lead work on the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay System to replace the Phoenix Pay System and support the President of the Treasury Board as he actively engages Canada’s major public sector unions.
  • Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and the Minister of National Revenue to implement a voluntary, real-time e-payroll system with an initial focus on small businesses.
  • Fully implement lessons learned from previous information technology project challenges and failures [e,g, the Phoenix Payroll System], particularly around sunk costs and major multi-year contracts. Act transparently by sharing identified successes and difficulties within government, with the aim of constantly improving the delivery of projects large and small.
  • Encourage the use and development of open source products and open data, allowing for experimentation within existing policy directives and building an inventory of validated and secure applications that can be used by government to share knowledge and expertise to support innovation.

To be clear, the Minister of Digital Government is responsible (more or less) for helping to clean up a débacle, i.e., the implementation of the federal government’s Phoenix Payroll System and drive even more digitization and modernization of government data and processes.

They’ve been trying to fix the Phoenix problems since the day it was implemented in early 2016.That’s right, it will be four years in Spring 2020 when the Liberal government chose to implement a digital payroll system that had been largely untested and despite its supplier’s concerns.

The Phoenix Pay System and a great sadness

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (the largest union for federal employees; PSAC) has a separate space for Phoneix on its website, which features this video,

That video was posted on September 24, 2018 (on YouTube) and, to my knowledge, the situation has not changed appreciably. A November 8, 2019 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen details a very personal story about what can only be described as a failure on just about every level you can imagine,

Linda Deschâtelets’s death by suicide might have been prevented if the flawed Phoenix pay system hadn’t led her to emotional and financial ruin, a Quebec coroner has found.

Deschâtelets died in December of 2017, at age 52. At the time she was struggling with chronic pain and massive mortgage payments.

The fear of losing her home weighed heavily on her. In her final text message to one of her sons she said she had run out of energy and wanted to die before she lost her house in Val des Monts.

But Deschâtelets might have lived, says a report from coroner Pascale Boulay, if her employer, the Canada Revenue Agency, had shown a little empathy.

“During the final months before her death, she experienced serious financial troubles linked to the federal government’s pay system, Phoenix, which cut off her pay in a significant way, making her fear she would lose her house,” said Boulay’s report.

“A thorough analysis of this case strongly suggests that this death could have been avoided if a search for a solution to the current financial, psychological and medical situation had been made.”

Boulay found “there is no indication that management sought to meet Ms. Deschâtelets to offer her options. In addition, the lack of prompt follow-up in the processing of requests for information indicates a distressing lack of empathy for an employee who is experiencing real financial insecurity.”

Pay records “indeed show that she was living through serious financial problems and that she received irregular payments since the beginning of October 2017,” the coroner wrote.

As well, “her numerous online applications using the form for a compensation problem, in which she expresses her fear of not being able to make her mortgage payments and says that she wants a detailed statement of account, remain unanswered.”

On top of that, she had chronic back pain and sciatica and had been missing work. She was scheduled to get an ergonomically designed work area, but this change was never made even though she waited for months.

Money troubles kept getting worse.

She ran out of paid sick leave, and her department sent her an email to explain that she had automatically been docked pay for taking sick days. “In this same email, she was also advised that in the event that she missed additional days, other amounts would be deducted. No further follow-up with her was done,” the coroner wrote.

That email came eight days before her death.

Deschâtelets was also taking cocaine but this did not alter the fact that she genuinely risked losing her home over her financial problems, the coroner wrote.

“Given the circumstances, it is highly likely that Ms. Deschâtelets felt trapped” and ended her life “because of her belief that she would lose the house anyway. It was only a matter of time.”

The situation is “even more sad” because CRA had advisers on site who dealt with Phoenix issues, and could meet with employees, Boulay wrote.

“The federal government does a lot of promotion of workplace wellness. Surprisingly, these wellness measures are silent on the subject of financial insecurity at work,” Boulay wrote.

I feel sad for the family and indignant that there doesn’t seem to have been enough done to mitigate the hardships due to an astoundingly ill-advised decision to implement an untested payroll system for the federal government’s 280,000 or more civil servants.

Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix

I’m highlighting the Senate report here although there are also two reports from the Auditor General should you care to chase them down. From an August 1, 2018 article by Brian Jackson for IT World Canada,

In February 2016, in anticipation of the start of the Phoenix system rolling out, the government laid off 2,700 payroll clerks serving 120,000 employees. [I’m guessing the discrepancy in numbers of employees may be due to how the clerks were laid off, i.e., if they were load off in groups scheduled to be made redundant at different intervals.]

As soon as Phoenix was launched, problems began. By May 2018 there were 60,000 pay requests backlogged. Now the government has dedicated resources to explaining to affected employees the best way to avoid pay-related problems, and to file grievances related to the system.

“The causes of the failure are multiple, including, failing to manage the pay system in an integrated fashion with human resources processes, not conducting a pilot project, removing essential processing functions to stay on budget, laying off experienced compensation advisors, and implementing a pay system that wasn’t ready,” the Senate report states. “We are dismayed that this project proceeded with minimal independent oversight, including from central agencies, and that no one has accepted responsibility for the failure of Phoenix or has been held to account. We believe that there is an underlying cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The government needs to move away from a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility, [emphasis mine] to one that encourages employee engagement, feedback and collaboration.”

There is at least one estimate that the Phoenix failure will cost $2.2 billion but I’m reasonably certain that figure does not include the costs of suicide, substance abuse, counseling, marriage breakdown, etc. (Of course, how do you really estimate the cost of a suicide or a marriage breakdown or the impact that financial woes have on children?)

Also concerning the Senate report, there is a July 31, 2018 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

“We are not confident that this problem has been solved, that the lessons have all been learned,” said Sen. André Pratte, deputy chair of the committee. [emphases mine]

I haven’t seen much coverage about the Phoenix Pay System recently in the mainstream media but according to a December 4, 2019 PSAC update,

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the Phoenix situation could continue until 2023, yet government funding commitments so far have fallen significantly short of what is needed to end the Phoenix nightmare. 

PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:

  • eliminate the over 200,000 cases in the pay issues backlog
  • compensate workers for their many hardships
  • stabilize Phoenix
  • properly develop, test and launch a new pay system

2023 would mean the débacle had a seven year lifespan, assuming everything has been made better by then.

Finally, there seems to be one other minister tasked with the Phoenix Pay System ‘fix’ (December 13, 2019 mandate letter) and that is the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Anita Anand. She is apparently a rookie MP (member of Parliament), which would make her a ‘cabinet rookie’ as well. Interesting choice.

More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public

Despite all that has gone before, the government is continuing in its drive to digitize itself as can be seen in the Minister of Digital Government’s mandate letter (excerpted above in ‘The Minister of Digital Government and some …’ subsection) and on the government’s Digital Government webspace,

Our digital shift to becoming more agile, open, and user-focused. We’re working on tomorrow’s Canada today.

I don’t find that particularly reassuring in light of the Phoenix Payroll System situation. However, on the plus side, Canada has a Digital Charter with 10 principles which include universal access, safety and security, control and consent, etc. Oddly, it looks like it’s the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry who are tasked with enhancing and advancing the charter. Shouldn’t this group also include the Minister of Digital Government?

The Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, does not oversee a ministry and I think that makes this a ‘junior’ position in much the same way the Minister of Science was a junior position. It suggests a mindset where some of the biggest changes to come for both employees and the Canadian public are being overseen by someone without the resources to do the work effectively or the bureaucratic weight and importance to ensure the changes are done properly.

It’s all very well to have a section on the Responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) on your Digital Government webspace but there is no mention of ways and means to fix problems. For example, what happens to people who somehow run into an issue that the AI system can’t fix or even respond to because the algorithm wasn’t designed that way. Ever gotten caught in an automated telephone system? Or perhaps more saliently, what about the people who died in two different airplane accidents due to the pilots’ poor training and an AI system? (For a more informed view of the Boeing 737 Max, AI, and two fatal plane crashes see: a June 2, 2019 article by Rachel Kraus for Mashable.)

The only other minister whose mandate letter includes AI is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains (from his December 13, 2019 mandate letter),

  • With the support of the Minister of Digital Government, continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.

So, the Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, is supporting the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains. That would suggest a ‘junior’ position wouldn’t it? If you look closely at the Minister of Digital Services’ mandate letter, you’ll see the Minister is almost always supporting another minister.

Where the Phoenix Pay System is concerned, the Minister of Digital Services is supporting the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, the previously mentioned rookie MP and rookie Cabinet member, Anita Anand. Interestingly, the employees’ union, PSAC, has decided (as of a November 20, 2019 news release) to ramp up its ad campaign regarding the Phoenix Pay System and its bargaining issues by targeting the Prime Minister and the new President of the Treasury Board, Jean-Yves Duclos. Guess whose mandate letter makes no mention of Phoenix (December 13, 2019 mandate letter for the President of the Treasury Board).

Open government, eh?

Putting a gift bow on a pile of manure doesn’t turn it into a gift (for most people, anyway) and calling your government open and/or transparent doesn’t necessarily make it so even when you amend your Access to Information Act to make it more accessible (August 22, 2019 Digital Government news release by Ruth Naylor).

One of the Liberal government’s most heavily publicized ‘open’ initiatives was the lifting of the muzzles put on federal scientists in the Environment and Natural Resources ministries. Those muzzles were put into place by a Conservative government and the 2015 Liberal government gained a lot of political capital from its actions. No one seemed to remember that Health Canada also had been muzzled. That muzzle had been put into place by one of the Liberal governments preceding the Conservative one. To date there is no word as to whether or not that muzzle has ever been lifted.

However, even in the ministries where the muzzles were lifted, it seems scientists didn’t feel free to speak even many months later (from a Feb 21, 2018 article by Brian Owens for Science),

More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.

That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”

I found this a little chilling (from the PIPSC Defrosting Public Science; a 2017 survey of federal scientists webpage),

To better illustrate this concern, in 2013, The Big Chill revealed that 86% of respondents feared censorship or retaliation from their department or agency if they spoke out about a departmental decision or action that, based on their scientific knowledge, could bring harm to the public interest. In 2017, when asked the same question, 73% of respondents said they would not be able to do so without fear of censorship or retaliation – a mere 13% drop.

It’s possible things have improved but while the 2018 Senate report did not focus on scientists, it did highlight issues with the government’s openness and transparency or in their words: “… a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility.” It seems the Senate is not the only group with concerns about government culture; so do the government’s employees (the scientists, anyway).

The other science commentary

I can’t find any commentary or editorials about the latest ministerial changes or the mandate letters on the Canadian Science Policy Centre website so was doubly pleased to find this December 6, 2019 commentary by Creso Sá for University Affairs,

The recently announced Liberal cabinet brings what appear to be cosmetic changes to the science file. Former Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is no longer in it, which sparked confusion among casual observers who believed that the elimination of her position signalled the termination of the science ministry or the downgrading of the science agenda. In reality, science was and remains part of the renamed Ministry of Innovation, Science, and (now) Industry (rather than Economic Development), where Minister Navdeep Bains continues at the helm.

Arguably, these reactions show that appearances have been central [emphasis mine] to the modus operandi of this government. Minister Duncan was an active, and generally well-liked, champion for the Trudeau government’s science platform. She carried the torch of team science over the last four years, becoming vividly associated with the launch of initiatives such as the Fundamental Science Review, the creation of the chief science advisor position, and the introduction of equity provisions in the Canada Research Chairs program. She talked a good talk, but her role did not in fact give her much authority to change the course of science policy in the country. From the start, her mandate was mostly defined around building bridges with members of cabinet, which was likely good experience for her new role of deputy house leader.

Upon the announcement of the new cabinet, Minister Bains took to Twitter to thank Dr. Duncan for her dedication to placing science in “its rightful place back at the centre of everything our government does.” He indicated that he will take over her responsibilities, which he was already formally responsible for. Presumably, he will now make time to place science at the centre of everything the government does.

This kind of sloganeering has been common [emphasis mine] since the 2015 campaign, which seems to be the strategic moment the Liberals can’t get out of. Such was the real and perceived hostility of the Harper Conservatives to science that the Liberals embraced the role of enlightened advocates. Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit their predecessors left behind was the sheer absence of any intelligible articulation of where they stood on the science file, which the Liberals seized upon with gusto. Virtue signalling [emphasis mine] became a first line of response.

When asked about her main accomplishments over the past year as chief science advisor at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, Mona Nemer started with the creation of a network of science advisors across government departments. Over the past four years, the government has indeed not been shy about increasing the number of appointments with “science” in their job titles. That is not a bad thing. We just do not hear much about how “science is at the centre of everything the government does.” Things get much fuzzier when the conversation turns to the bold promises of promoting evidence-based decision making that this government has been vocal about. Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians. [emphasis mine]

I’m tempted to describe the ‘Digital Government’ existence and portfolio as virtue signalling.

Finally

There doesn’t seem to be all that much government interest in science or, even, technology for that matter. We have a ‘junior’ Minister of Science disappear so that science can become part of all the ministries. Frankly, I wish that science were integrated throughout all the ministries but when you consider the government culture, this move more easily lends itself to even less responsibility being taken by anyone. Take another look at the Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s comment: “Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians.” Meanwhile, we get a ‘junior Minister of Digital Government whose portfolio has the potential to affect Canadians of all ages and resident in Canada or not.

A ‘junior’ minister is not necessarily evil as Sá points out but I would like to see some indication that efforts are being made to shift the civil service culture and the attitude about how the government conducts its business and that the Minister of Digital Government will receive the resources and the respect she needs to do her job. I’d also like to see some understanding of how catastrophic a wrong move has already been and could be in the future along with options for how citizens are going to be making their way through this brave new digital government world and some options for fixing problems, especially the catastrophic ones.

*December 30, 2019 correction: After Scott Brison left his position as President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government in January 2019, Jane Philpott held the two positions until March 2019 when she left the Liberal Party. Carla Quatrough was acting head from March 4 – March 18, 2019 when Joyce Murray was appointed to the two positions which she held for eight months until November 2019 when, as I’ve noted, the ‘Minister of Digital Government’ was split from the ‘President of the Treasury Board’ appointment.

ETA January 28, 2020: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has an update on the Phoenix Pay System situation in a January 28, 2020 posting (supplied by The Canadian Press),

More than 98,000 civil servants may still owe the federal government money after being overpaid through the disastrous Phoenix pay system.

… the problems persist, despite the hiring of hundreds of pay specialists to work through a backlog of system errors.

The public service pay centre was still dealing with a backlog of about 202,000 complaints as of Dec. 24 [2019], down from 214,000 pay transactions that went beyond normal workload in November [2019].

A deep look at atomic switches

A July 19, 2019 news item on phys.org describes research that may result in a substantive change for information technology,

A team of researchers from Tokyo Institute of Technology has gained unprecedented insight into the inner workings of an atomic switch. By investigating the composition of the tiny metal ‘bridge’ that forms inside the switch, their findings may spur the design of atomic switches with improved performance.

A July 22, 2019 Tokyo Institute of Technology press release (also on EurekAlert but published July 19, 2019), which originated the news item, explains how this research could have such an important impact,

Atomic switches are hailed as the tiniest of electrochemical switches that could change the face of information technology. Due to their nanoscale dimensions and low power consumption, they hold promise for integration into next-generation circuits that could drive the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Although various designs have emerged, one intriguing question concerns the nature of the metallic filament, or bridge, that is key to the operation of the switch. The bridge forms inside a metal sulfide layer sandwiched between two electrodes [see figure below], and is controlled by applying a voltage that induces an electrochemical reaction. The formation and annihilation of this bridge determines whether the switch is on or off.

Now, a research group including Akira Aiba and Manabu Kiguchi and colleagues at Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Department of Chemistry has found a useful way to examine precisely what the bridge is composed of.

By cooling the atomic switch enough so as to be able to investigate the bridge using a low-temperature measurement technique called point contact spectroscopy (PCS) [2], their study revealed that the bridge is made up of metal atoms from both the electrode and the metal sulfide layer. This surprising finding controverts the prevailing notion that the bridge derives from the electrode only, Kiguchi explains.

The team compared atomic switches with different combinations of electrodes (Pt and Ag, or Pt and Cu) and metal sulfide layers (Cu2S and Ag2S). In both cases, they found that the bridge is mainly composed of Ag.

The reason behind the dominance of Ag in the bridge is likely due to “the higher mobility of Ag ions compared to Cu ions”, the researchers say in their paper published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

They conclude that “it would be better to use metals with low mobility” for designing atomic switches with higher stability.

Much remains to be explored in the advancement of atomic switch technologies, and the team is continuing to investigate which combination of elements would be the most effective in improving performance.

###

Technical terms
[1] Atomic switch: The idea behind an atomic switch — one that can be controlled by the motion of a single atom — was introduced by Donald Eigler and colleagues at the IBM Almaden Research Center in 1991. Interest has since focused on how to realize and harness the potential of such extremely small switches for use in logic circuits and memory devices. Over the past two decades, researchers in Japan have taken a world-leading role in the development of atomic switch technologies.
[2] Point contact spectroscopy: A method of measuring the properties or excitations of single atoms at low temperature.

Caption: The ‘bridge’ that forms within the metal sulfide layer, connecting two metal electrodes, results in the atomic switch being turned on. Credit: Manabu Kiguchi

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

Investigation of Ag and Cu Filament Formation Inside the Metal Sulfide Layer of an Atomic Switch Based on Point-Contact Spectroscopy by A. Aiba, R. Koizumi, T. Tsuruoka, K. Terabe, K. Tsukagoshi, S. Kaneko, S. Fujii, T. Nishino, M. Kiguchi. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces 2019 XXXXXXXXXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsami.9b05523 Publication Date:July 5, 2019 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone who might need a bit of a refresher for the chemical elements, Pt is platinum, Ag is silver, and Cu is copper. So, with regard to the metal sulfide layers Cu2S is copper sulfide and Ag2S is silver sulfide.

Using light to manipulate neurons

There are three (or more?) possible applications including neuromorphic computing for this new optoelectronic technology which is based on black phophorus. A July 16, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces the research,

Researchers from RMIT University [Australia] drew inspiration from an emerging tool in biotechnology – optogenetics – to develop a device that replicates the way the brain stores and loses information.

Optogenetics allows scientists to delve into the body’s electrical system with incredible precision, using light to manipulate neurons so that they can be turned on or off.

The new chip is based on an ultra-thin material that changes electrical resistance in response to different wavelengths of light, enabling it to mimic the way that neurons work to store and delete information in the brain.

Caption: The new chip is based on an ultra-thin material that changes electrical resistance in response to different wavelengths of light. Credit: RMIT University

A July 17, 2019 RMIT University press release (also on EurekAlert but published on July 16, 2019), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Research team leader Dr Sumeet Walia said the technology moves us closer towards artificial intelligence (AI) that can harness the brain’s full sophisticated functionality.

“Our optogenetically-inspired chip imitates the fundamental biology of nature’s best computer – the human brain,” Walia said.

“Being able to store, delete and process information is critical for computing, and the brain does this extremely efficiently.

“We’re able to simulate the brain’s neural approach simply by shining different colours onto our chip.

“This technology takes us further on the path towards fast, efficient and secure light-based computing.

“It also brings us an important step closer to the realisation of a bionic brain – a brain-on-a-chip that can learn from its environment just like humans do.”

Dr Taimur Ahmed, lead author of the study published in Advanced Functional Materials, said being able to replicate neural behavior on an artificial chip offered exciting avenues for research across sectors.

“This technology creates tremendous opportunities for researchers to better understand the brain and how it’s affected by disorders that disrupt neural connections, like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” Ahmed said.

The researchers, from the Functional Materials and Microsystems Research Group at RMIT, have also demonstrated the chip can perform logic operations – information processing – ticking another box for brain-like functionality.

Developed at RMIT’s MicroNano Research Facility, the technology is compatible with existing electronics and has also been demonstrated on a flexible platform, for integration into wearable electronics.

How the chip works:

Neural connections happen in the brain through electrical impulses. When tiny energy spikes reach a certain threshold of voltage, the neurons bind together – and you’ve started creating a memory.

On the chip, light is used to generate a photocurrent. Switching between colors causes the current to reverse direction from positive to negative.

This direction switch, or polarity shift, is equivalent to the binding and breaking of neural connections, a mechanism that enables neurons to connect (and induce learning) or inhibit (and induce forgetting).

This is akin to optogenetics, where light-induced modification of neurons causes them to either turn on or off, enabling or inhibiting connections to the next neuron in the chain.

To develop the technology, the researchers used a material called black phosphorus (BP) that can be inherently defective in nature.

This is usually a problem for optoelectronics, but with precision engineering the researchers were able to harness the defects to create new functionality.

“Defects are usually looked on as something to be avoided, but here we’re using them to create something novel and useful,” Ahmed said.

“It’s a creative approach to finding solutions for the technical challenges we face.”

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

Multifunctional Optoelectronics via Harnessing Defects in Layered Black Phosphorus by Taimur Ahmed, Sruthi Kuriakose, Sherif Abbas,, Michelle J. S. Spencer, Md. Ataur Rahman, Muhammad Tahir, Yuerui Lu, Prashant Sonar, Vipul Bansal, Madhu Bhaskaran, Sharath Sriram, Sumeet Walia. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.201901991 First published (online): 17 July 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.