‘Nanotraps’ are not vaccines although they do call the immune system into play. They represent a different way for dealing with COVID-19. (This work reminds of my June 24, 2020 posting Tiny sponges lure coronavirus away from lung cells where the researchers have a similar approach with what they call ‘nanosponges’.)
Researchers at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago have designed a completely novel potential treatment for COVID-19: nanoparticles that capture SARS-CoV-2 viruses within the body and then use the body’s own immune system to destroy it.
These “Nanotraps” attract the virus by mimicking the target cells the virus infects. When the virus binds to the Nanotraps, the traps then sequester the virus from other cells and target it for destruction by the immune system.
In theory, these Nanotraps could also be used on variants of the virus, leading to a potential new way to inhibit the virus going forward. Though the therapy remains in early stages of testing, the researchers envision it could be administered via a nasal spray as a treatment for COVID-19.
“Since the pandemic began, our research team has been developing this new way to treat COVID-19,” said Asst. Prof. Jun Huang, whose lab led the research. “We have done rigorous testing to prove that these Nanotraps work, and we are excited about their potential.”
Designing the perfect trap
To design the Nanotrap, the research team – led by postdoctoral scholar Min Chen and graduate student Jill Rosenberg – looked into the mechanism SARS-CoV-2 uses to bind to cells: a spike-like protein on its surface that binds to a human cell’s ACE2 receptor protein.
To create a trap that would bind to the virus in the same way, they designed nanoparticles with a high density of ACE2 proteins on their surface. Similarly, they designed other nanoparticles with neutralizing antibodies on their surfaces. (These antibodies are created inside the body when someone is infected and are designed to latch onto the coronavirus in various ways).
Both ACE2 proteins and neutralizing antibodies have been used in treatments for COVID-19, but by attaching them to nanoparticles, the researchers created an even more robust system for trapping and eliminating the virus.
Made of FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]-approved polymers and phospholipids, the nanoparticles are about 500 nanometers in diameter – much smaller than a cell. That means the Nanotraps can reach more areas inside the body and more effectively trap the virus.
The researchers tested the safety of the system in a mouse model and found no toxicity. They then tested the Nanotraps against a pseudovirus – a less potent model of a virus that doesn’t replicate – in human lung cells in tissue culture plates and found that they completely blocked entry into the cells.
Once the pseudovirus bound itself to the nanoparticle – which in tests took about 10 minutes after injection – the nanoparticles used a molecule that calls the body’s macrophages to engulf and degrade the Nanotrap. Macrophages will generally eat nanoparticles within the body, but the Nanotrap molecule speeds up the process. The nanoparticles were cleared and degraded within 48 hours.
The researchers also tested the nanoparticles with a pseudovirus in an ex vivo lung perfusion system – a pair of donated lungs that is kept alive with a ventilator – and found that they completely blocked infection in the lungs.
They also collaborated with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory to test the Nanotraps with a live virus (rather than a pseudovirus) in an in vitro system. They found that their system inhibited the virus 10 times better than neutralizing antibodies or soluble ACE2 alone.
A potential future treatment for COVID-19 and beyond
Next the researchers hope to further test the system, including more tests with a live virus and on the many virus variants.
“That’s what is so powerful about this Nanotrap,” Rosenberg said. “It’s easily modulated. We can switch out different antibodies or proteins or target different immune cells, based on what we need with new variants.”
The Nanotraps can be stored in a standard freezer and could ultimately be given via an intranasal spray, which would place them directly in the respiratory system and make them most effective.
The researchers say it is also possible to serve as a vaccine by optimizing the Nanotrap formulation, creating an ultimate therapeutic system for the virus.
“This is the starting point,” Huang said. “We want to do something to help the world.”
The research involved collaborators across departments, including chemistry, biology, and medicine.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Nanotraps for the containment and clearance of SARS-CoV-2 by Min Chen, Jillian Rosenberg, Xiaolei Cai, Andy Chao Hsuan Lee, Jiuyun Shi, Mindy Nguyen, Thirushan Wignakumar, Vikranth Mirle, Arianna Joy Edobor, John Fung, Jessica Scott Donington, Kumaran Shanmugarajah, Yiliang Lin, Eugene Chang, Glenn Randall, Pablo Penaloza-MacMaster, Bozhi Tian, Maria Lucia Madariaga, Jun Huang. Matter, April 19, 2021, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matt.2021.04.005
As far as superstars for Canadian science communication go, there is only one candidate and that would be Timothy Caulfield, professor of Health Law and Policy a the University of Alberta.
Not being Caulfield’s biggest fan, I stumbled onto some of his latest work by accident in a Tweet from Canadian Science Publishing (@cdnsciencepub). It sent me on a search that resulted in an open access paper (a pretty good one too or so I thought), a description of the research project that resulted in the paper, and more.
This story begins in 2020 with the research project description, from an April 15, 2020 posting on the Alberta Innovates (a provincial research entity) website,
Timothy Caulfield may be the most well-known face of scientific myth-busting. He is the host of Netflix’s The User’s Guide to Cheating Death and the author of multiple bestsellers on science and misinformation, including Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? and The Vaccination Picture. He’s also a law professor at the University of Alberta, the Research Director of its Health Law Institute, and a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy.
In March , Caulfield and his team received a $381,708 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Alberta Innovates to research the spread of misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and recommend ways to counter it.
Q: Are you seeing any types of themes around COVID misinformation?
A: In the early days a lot of the misinformation was about the source of it. It’s a bio-weapon, right? Or even the idea that it was a hoax. Now what we’re seeing is a lot of the misinformation, not surprisingly, is about cures, is about prevention, about things that people can do in order to avoid getting it. That’s problematic.
The other thing we’re seeing is a lot of marketing, which is infuriating. A lot of people taking advantage of the fear and the uncertainty to push products.
Q: Why don’t people trust science?
A: That’s actually a topic that we’ve been exploring for a long time at the institute, looking at it in different contexts. Of course it’s complex. I think that there is a conflation between science and scientific institutions. Obviously a lot’s going on here, but things like the misbehaviour of the pharmaceutical industry have an impact.
The other thing that we’ve done research on and we’ve found that anytime industry is involved, trust erodes very quickly. You can say, “Do you trust the university research?” People say yes. If that same university researcher receives industry funding, the trust erodes, that’s part of the story.
There’s also this erosion in trust with the health-care system. Because many people feel like it hasn’t treated them well. …
As new science emerges, rapid changes in information and health advice have created fertile ground for conspiracy theories and misinformation to flourish, says Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor of health law and science policy.
“When things are uncertain, when there’s a lot of fear, when the science is still moving, people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories,” Caufield said. “That’s certainly the situation that we have now.”
A recent Carleton University study found that half of Canadians believe at least one conspiracy theory around the novel coronavirus, including 26 per cent who believe it was lab-created bioweapon.
That’s the kind of data that Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health law and policy, is looking at as part of an ongoing research project into the viral spread of misinformation during the pandemic.
In a wide-ranging Q&A with Nancy Carlson, host of CBC Edmonton’s News at 6, Caulfield said sorting good information from bad is as simple as thinking like a scientist, a skill that only requires a healthy degree of curiosity and internet access.
Where is it all coming from?
“It’s really coming from all over and that’s why it is so difficult to battle,” Caulfield said. But there are a few notable trends.
Celebrities and prominent individuals are the source of about 20 per cent of misinformation, but their posts have extraordinary reach, making up more than 70 per cent of what is shared online, Caulfield said. “That really gives you a sense of the power of pop culture.”
Bots, particularly on Twitter, play an important role, while the role of social media in general — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and more — can’t be underplayed. “This really has been a social media-driven infodemic,” he said.
Changing course a ‘badge of honour’
Should the border be closed? Do masks make a difference? Is hydroxychloroquine the answer? If science is so good, why do public health officials keep changing their minds?
While public frustration is understandable, Caulfield urges people to applaud health leaders for staying on top of emerging science and changing public health rules accordingly.
“If you are a science-based decision-maker, like a public health authority … it is a badge of honour that you’re changing your mind. It’s a badge of honour that you’re willing to look at the evolving evidence and reframe a recommendation,” he said.
Changing the dialogue
Here is one more fact about the COVID-19 infodemic: The mind of a conspiracy theorist will not be changed. At least not easily, said Caulfield.
“They may go to an idea or a belief for one reason … but once they start to embrace it, it becomes part of who they are, it becomes part of their personal identity, it becomes part of their personal brand,” he said.
“What you want to do is stop their rhetoric, their belief systems, from infecting the rest of the community, [emphasis mine]” Caulfield said. “We don’t want the hard-core deniers to impact the rest of the community in a way that’s not rational. That should be the goal of science communication.”
Interesting, eh? In that last paragraph, you’d think Caulfield was talking about a virus.
If COVDI-19 science communication interests you, this is a very good paper. I am particularly taken with their section on the ‘Hydroxychloroquine’ story from the first whispers that the medication might help to claims that it does to the research rush to prove/disprove the hypothesis to the entrenchment of belief in some quarters.
My reservations lie in problems that permeate science communication, (1) top/down communication, (2) disagreement means you are wrong, (3) you have to change (4) experts/government organizations are never wrong; they’ve simply gotten more data and, accordingly, have had to change course. Note: Experts/governments often pretend that they haven’t changed course due to their belief that the public has a short memory.
It’s very easy into the traps and, with that said, there’s much value in this paper.
Canada at UNESCO@Canada2UNESCO · May 6@Canada2UNESCO is partaking in negotiations today on the draft recommendation on #OpenScience The benefits of #science and #technology to health, the #economy and #development should be available to all.6:40 AM · May 13, 2021·Twitter Web App
No reply. No surprise
Brief summary of Canada’s COVID-19 patent rights nonwaiver
At the time, I noted a disparity in Canada’s policies centering on open science and patents; scroll down to the “Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada” subsection for a more nuanced analysis. For those who don’t have the patience and/or the time, it boils down to this:
Canada is happily participating in a UNESCO meeting on open science,
the 2021 Canadian federal budget just dedicated a big chunk of money to augmenting Canada’s national patent strategy, and
Canada is “willing to discuss” a waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings.
I predicted UNESCO would see our representative’s enthusiastic participation while our representative at the WTO meeting would dance around the topic without committing. to anything. Sadly, it’s starting to look like I was right.
Leigh Beadon in a May 12, 2021 posting on Techdirt reveals the situation is worse than I thought (Note: Links have been removed),
Few things illustrate the broken state of our global intellectual property system better than the fact that, well over a year into this devastating pandemic and in the face of a strong IP waiver push by some of the hardest hit countries, patents are still holding back the production of life-saving vaccines. And of all the countries opposing a waiver at the WTO (or withholding support for it, which is functionally the same thing), Canada might be the most frustrating [emphasis mine].
Canada is the biggest hoarder [emphasis mine] of vaccine pre-orders, having secured enough to vaccinate the population five times over. Despite this, it has constantly run into supply problems and lagged behind comparable countries when it comes to administering the vaccines on a per capita basis. In response to criticism of its hoarding, the government continues to focus on its plans to donate all surplus doses to the COVAX vaccine sharing program — but these promises were somewhat more convincing before Canada became the only G7 country to withdraw doses from COVAX. Despite all this, and despite pressure from experts who explain how vaccine hoarding will prolong the pandemic for everyone, the country has continually refused to voice its support for a TRIPS patent waiver at the WTO.
Momentum for changing Canada’s position on a COVID-19 vaccine patent right waivers?
The only way to combat this pandemic successfully is through a massive global vaccination campaign on a scale and timeline never before undertaken. This requires the production of effective tools and technologies to fight COVID-19 at scale and coordinated global distribution efforts.
The Trade-Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) is leading to the opposite outcome. Vaccine production is hindered by granting pharmaceutical companies monopoly power through protection of intellectual property rights, industrial designs and trade secrets. Pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to engage in health technology knowledge transfer makes large-scale, global vaccine production in (and for) low- and middle-income countries all but impossible. The current distribution of vaccines globally speaks to these obstacles.
Hundreds of civil society groups, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the elected governments of over 100 countries, including India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have come together and stated that current intellectual property protections reduce the availability of vaccines for protecting their people. On May 5, 2021 the United States also announced its intention to support a temporary waiver for vaccines at the WTO.
We are writing to ask our Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to an equitable global pandemic response by supporting a temporary waiver of the TRIPS agreement. But clearly that is a necessary but not a sufficient first step. We recognize that scaling up vaccine production requires more than just a waiver of intellectual property rights, so we further request that our government support the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to facilitate knowledge sharing and work with the WTO to address the supply chain and export constraints currently impeding vaccine production. Finally, because vaccines must be rolled out as part of an integrated strategy to end the acute phase of the epidemic, we request that Canada support the full scope of the TRIPS waiver, which extends to all essential COVID-19 products and technologies, including vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics.
The status quo is clearly not working fast enough to end the acute phase of the pandemic globally. This waiver respects global intellectual property frameworks and takes advantage of existing provisions for exceptions during emergencies, as enshrined in the TRIPS agreement. Empowering countries to take measures to protect their own people is fundamental to bringing this pandemic to an end.
Anand Giridharadas (author of the 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World) also makes the case for a patent rights waiver in his May 11, 2021 posting on The Ink, Note: A link has been removed,
Patents are temporary monopolies granted to inventors, to reward invention and thus encourage more of it. But what happens when you invent a drug that people around the world require to stay alive? What happens when, furthermore, that drug was built in part on technology the public paid for? Are there limits to intellectual property?
For years, activists have pressured the United States government to break or suspend patents in particular cases, as with HIV/Aids. They have had little luck. Indeed, the United States has often fought developing countries when they try to break patents to do right by their citizens, choosing American drug companies over dying people.
So it was a dramatic swerve when, last week, the Biden administration announced that it supported a waiver of the patents for Covid vaccines.
Not long afterward, I reached out to several leading activists for vaccine access to understand the significance of the announcement and where we go from here.
in all this talk about patents and social justice and, whether it’s directly referenced or not, money, the only numbers of I’ve seen,until recently, have been numbers of doses and aggregate costs.
How much does a single vaccine dose cost?
A Sunday, April 11, 2021 article by Krassen Nikolov for EURACTIV provides an answer about the cost in one region, the European Union,
“Pfizer cost €12, then €15.50. The Commission now signs contracts for €19,50”, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov revealed on Sunday [April 11, 2021].
The European Commission is in talks with Pfizer for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines in 2022 and 2023. Borissov said the contracts provide for €19.50 per dose.
Under an agreement with the vaccine producing companies, the European Commission has so far refused to reveal the price of vaccines. However, last December Belgian Secretary of State Eva De Bleeker shared on Twitter the vaccine prices negotiated by the Commission, as well as the number of doses purchased by her government. Then, it became known that the AstraZeneca jab costs €1.78 compared to €12 for Pfizer-BioNTech.
€12 to €19,50, that’s an increase of over 50%. I wonder how Pfizer is justifying such a hefty increase?
According to a March 16, 2021 article by Swikar Oli for the National Post (a Canadian newspaper), these prices are a cheap pandemic special prices,
A top Pfizer executive told shareholders the company is looking at a “significant opportunity” to raise the price of its Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
While addressing investors at the virtual Barclays Global Healthcare Conference last week, Pfizer CFO Frank D’Amelio noted they could raise prices when the virus becomes endemic, meaning it’s regularly found in clusters around the globe, according to a transcript of the conference posted on Pfizer’s website.
Current vaccine pricing models are pandemic-related, D’Amelio explained. After the pandemic is defeated and “normal market conditions” arrive, he noted the window would open for a “significant opportunity…from a pricing perspective.”
“So the one price that we published is the price with the U.S. of $19.50 per dose. Obviously, that’s not a normal price like we typically get for a vaccine, $150, $175 [emphasis mine] per dose,” he said, “So pandemic pricing.”
If I remember it rightly, as you increase production, you lower costs per unit. In other words, it’s cheaper to produce one dozen than one, which is why your bakery charges you less money per bun or cake if you purchase by the dozen.
During this pandemic, Pfizer has been producing huge amounts of vaccine, which they would not expect to do should the disease become endemic. As Pfizer has increased production, I would think the price should be dropping but according to the Bulgarian prime minister, it’s not.
They don’t seem to be changing the vaccine as new variants arrive. So, raising the prices doesn’t seem to be linked to research issues and as for the new production facilities, surely those didn’t cost billions.
Since posting about Science Odyssey, I have received a number of emails announcing event and not all of them are part of the Odyssey experience.
From the looks of things, May 2021 is going to be a very busy month. Given how early it is in the month I expect to receive another batch of notices and most likely will post another May 2021 events roundup.
At this point, there’s a heavy emphasis on architecture (human and other) and design.
Proximal Spaces on May 3, 2021
This is one of those event within an event notices. There’s a festival: FACTT 20/21 – Improbable Times. Trans-disciplinary & Trans-national Festival of Art & Science in Portugal and within the festival there is Proximal Spaces in Toronto, Canada. Here’s more from the ArtScience Salon (ArtSci Salon) May 1, 2021 announcement (received via email),
May 3, 2021 – 3.00 PM (EST) [12 pm PST]
Join us at this poetry reading by six Canadian artists responding to the work of eight bioartists. Event with be streamed on Facebook Live.
Please note that you don’t need to sign up in order to access the streaming as it is public.
Proximal Spaces’ is a multi-modal exhibition that explores the environment at multiple scales in concentric circles of proximity to the body. Inspired by Edward Hall’s [Edward Twitchell Hall or E. T. Hall] 1961 notation of intimate (1.5ft), personal (4ft), social (12ft) and public (25ft) spaces in his “Proxemics” diagrams, the installation portion presents similar diagrams of his concentric circles affixed to the wall of the gallery space, as well as developed in Augmented Reality around the venue. Each of these diagrams is a montage of microscopic and sub-microscopic images of the everyday environment as experienced by a collaborative team of international bioartists, and arrayed in a fractal form. In addition, an AR-enabled application explores the invisible environments of computer generated bioaerosols suspended in the air of virtual space.
This work visualizes the variegated response of the biological environment to unprecedented levels of physical distancing and self-isolation and recent developments in vaccine design that impact our understanding of interpersonal and interspecies ‘messaging’. What continues to thrive in the 6ft ‘dead spaces’ between us? What invisible particles linger on and create a biological archive through our movements through space? The artwork presents an interesting mode of interspecies engagement through hybrid virtual and physical interaction.
In the spring of 2021, six Canadian poets – Kelley Aitken, nancy viva davis halifax, Maureen Hynes, Anita Lahey, Dilys Leman, & Sheila Stewart – came together to pursue a lyric response to Proximal Spaces. They were challenged and inspired by the virtual exhibition with its combination of art, science, and proxemics. The focus of the artworks – what inhabits and thrives in the spaces and environments where we live, work, and breathe—generated six distinctive poems.
Poets: Kelley Aitken, nancy viva davis halifax, Maureen Hynes, Anita Lahey, Dilys Leman, & Sheila Stewart
Bioartists: Roberta Buiani, Nathalie Dubois Calero, Sarah Choukah, Nicole Clouston, Jess Holtz, Mick Lorusso, Maro Pebo, Felipe Shibuya
This project is part of FACTT-Improbable Times (http://factt.arteinstitute.org/), a project spearheaded and promoted by the Arte Institute we are in or production and conception partners with Cultivamos Cultura and Ectopia (Portugal), InArts Lab@Ionian University (Greece), ArtSci Salon@The Fields Institute and Sensorium@York University (Canada), School of Visual Arts (USA), UNAM [National Autonomous University of Mexico], Arte+Ciência and Bioscénica (Mexico), and Central Academy of Fine Arts (China). Together we will work and bring into being our ideas and actions for this during the year of 2021!
Morphogenesis: Geometry, Physics, and Biology on May 5, 2021
i love this image, he seems so delighted to show off the bug (?),
Here’s more from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI) April 30, 2021 announcement (received via email),
Earth is home to millions of different species – from simple plants and unicellular organisms to trees and whales and humans. The incredible diversity of life on Earth led Charles Darwin to lament that it is “enough to drive the sanest man mad.”
How can we make sense of this diversity of form, which arises from the process of morphogenesis that links molecular- and cellular-level processes to conspire and lead to the emergence of “endless forms most beautiful,” as Darwin said?
In his May 5  lecture webcast, Harvard professor L. Mahadevan [Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan] will take viewers on a journey into the mathematical, physical, and biological workings of morphogenesis to demonstrate how scientists are beginning to unlock many of the secrets that have vexed scientists since Darwin.
Possible Worlds: “How Will We Live Together?” on May 6, 2021
For those who are interested in human architecture, there’s this from a May 3, 3021 Berggruen institute announcement (received via email) about a talk by Chilean architect and 2016 Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Gastón Aravena Mori (Alejandro Aravena),
Possible Worlds: How Will We Live Together
May 6, 2021
11am — Virtual
Possible Worlds: The UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] – Berggruen Institute Speaker Series is a new partnership between the UCLA Division of Humanities and the Berggruen Institute.
Please click here to submit a question to Alejandro Aravena
About Alejandro Aravena Alejandro Aravena is an architect, founder and executive director of the firm Elemental. His works include the “Siamese Towers” at the Catholic University of Chile and the Novartis office campus in Shanghai. In 2016, the New York Times named Aravena one of the world’s “creative geniuses” who had helped define culture. He and Elemental have received numerous honors, including the 2016 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the 2015 London Design Museum’s Design of the Year award and the 2011 Index Award. Aravena currently serves as the president of the Pritzker Prize jury. Aravena’s lecture title, “How Will We Live Together?” echoes the theme of the upcoming international architecture exhibition, Biennale Architettura, in which Elemental will be participating.
Featuring a discussion with moderator Dana Cuff
Dana Cuff is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UCLA, where she is also Director of cityLAB, an award-winning think tank that advances goals of spatial justice through experimental urbanism and architecture (www.cityLAB.aud.ucla.edu). Since receiving her Ph.D. in Architecture from Berkeley, Cuff has published and lectured widely about affordable housing, the architectural profession, and Los Angeles’ urban history. She is author of several books, including The Provisional City about postwar housing in L.A., and a co-authored book called Urban Humanities: New Practices for Reimagining the City, documenting her collaborative, crossdisciplinary research and teaching at UCLA funded by the Mellon Foundation. Based on cityLAB’s design research, Cuff co-authored landmark legislation that permits “backyard homes” on some 8.1 million single-family properties, doubling the density of suburbs across California (AB 2299, Bloom-2016). In 2019, cityLAB opened a satellite center in the MacArthur Park/Westlake neighborhood where a deep, multi-year exchange with community organizations is already demonstrating ways that humanistic design of the public realm can create more compassionate cities. Cuff recently received three awards that describe her career: Women in Architecture Activist of the Year (2019, Architectural Record); Distinguished Leadership in Architectural Research (2020, ARCC); and Educator of the Year (2021, American Institute of Architects Los Angeles).
About the Series Possible Worlds: The UCLA – Berggruen Institute Speaker Series is a new partnership between the UCLA Division of Humanities and the Berggruen Institute. This semiannual series will bring some of today’s most imaginative intellectual leaders and creators to deliver public talks on the future of humanity. Through the lens of their singular achievements and experiences, these trailblazers in creativity, innovation, philosophy and politics will lecture on provocative topics that explore current challenges and transformations in human progress.
UCLA faculty and students have long been at the forefront of interpreting the world’s legacy of language, literature, art and science. UCLA Humanities serves a vital role in readying future leaders to articulate their thoughts with clarity and imagination, to interpret the world of ideas, and to live as informed citizens in an increasingly complex world. We are proud to be partnering in this lecture series with the Berggruen Institute, whose work addresses the “Great Transformations” taking place in technology and culture, politics and economics, global power arrangements, and even how we perceive ourselves as humans. The Institute seeks to connect deep thought in the human sciences — philosophy and culture — to the pursuit of practical improvements in governance.
A selection committee comprising representatives of UCLA and the Berggruen Institute has been formed to make recommendations for lecturers. The committee includes:
• Ursula Heise, Professor and Chair, Department of English; Professor, UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Marcia H. Howard Term Chair in Literary Studies • Pamela Hieronymi, Professor of Philosophy • Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Professor of Urban Planning; Associate Provost for Academic Planning • Todd Presner, Associate Dean, Digital Initiatives; Chair of the Digital Humanities Program; Michael and Irene Ross Endowed Chair of Yiddish Studies; Professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature • Lynn Vavreck, Professor, Department of Political Science; Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy • David Schaberg, Senior Dean of the UCLA College; Dean of Humanities; Professor, Asian Languages & Cultures • Nils Gilman, Vice President of Programs, the Berggruen Institute
Generative Art and Computational Creativity starts May 7, 2021
A Spring 2021 MetaCreation Lab (Simon Fraser University; SFU) newsletter (received via email on April 23, 2021) highlights a number of festival submissions and papers along with some news about a free introductory course. First, the video introduction to the course,
This first course in the two-part program, Generative Art and Computational Creativity [there’s a fee for part two], proposes an introduction and overview of the history and practice of generative arts and computational creativity with an emphasis on the formal paradigms and algorithms used for generation. The full program will be taught by Associate Professor from the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University and multi-disciplinary researcher, Philippe Pasquier.
On the technical side, we will study core techniques from mathematics, artificial intelligence, and artificial life that are used by artists, designers and musicians across the creative industry. We will start with processes involving chance operations, chaos theory and fractals and move on to see how stochastic processes, and rule-based approaches can be used to explore creative spaces. We will study agents and multi-agent systems and delve into cellular automata, and virtual ecosystems to explore their potential to create novel and valuable artifacts and aesthetic experiences.
The presentation is illustrated by numerous examples from past and current productions across creative practices such as visual art, new media, music, poetry, literature, performing arts, design, architecture, games, robot-art, bio-art and net-art. Students get to practice these algorithms first hand and develop new generative pieces through assignments and projects in MAX. Finally, the course addresses relevant philosophical, and societal debates associated with the automation of creative tasks.
Music for this course was composed with the StyleMachineLite Max for Live engine of Metacreative Inc.
Artistic direction: Philippe Pasquier, Programmation: Arne Eigenfeldt, Sound Production: Philippe Bertrand
This course is in adaptive mode and is open for enrollment. Learn more about adaptive courses here.
Session 1: Introduction and Typology of Generative Art (May 7, 2021) To start off this course, we define generative art and computational creativity and discuss how these relate through the study of prominent examples. We establish a typology of generative systems based on levels of autonomy and agency.
Session 2: History Of Generative Art, Chance Operations, and Chaos Theory (May 14, 2021) Generative art is nothing new, and this session goes through the history of the field from pre-history to the popularization of computers. We study chance, noise, fractals, chaos theory, and their applications in visual art and music.
Session 3: Rule-Based Systems, Grammars and Markov Chains (May 21, 2021) This session introduces and illustrate the generative potential of rule-based and expert systems. We study generative grammars through the Chomsky hierarchy, and introduce L-systems, shape grammars, and Markov chains. We discuss how these have been applied in visual art, music, design, architecture, and electronic literature.
Session 4: Cognitive Agents And Multiagent Systems (May 28, 2021) This session introduces the concepts underlying the notion of artificial agents. We study the belief, desire, and intention (BDI) cognitive architecture, and message based agent communication resting on the speech act theory. We discuss musical agents, conversational agents, chat bots and twitter bots and their artistic potential.
Session 5: Reactive Agents And Multiagent Systems (June 4, 2021) In this session, we introduce reactive agents and the subsumption architecture. We study boids, and detail how complex behaviors can emerge from a distributed population of simple artificial agents. We look at a myriad of applications from ant painting to swarm music and we discuss artistic approaches to virtual ecosystems.
Session 6: A-Life And Cellular Automaton (June 11, 2021) In this concluding session, we introduce artificial life (A-life). We study cellular automaton, multi-agent ecosystems for music, visual art, non-photorealistic rendering, and gaming. The session also concludes the class by reflecting on the state of the art in the field and its consequences on creative practices.
The human being – so fragile, so ethereal, speaking a sweet language. A piece of architecture – so physically imminent, so solid, speaking a language of hardness.
Photo by Oliviero Godi – Frantoio Ipogeo nel Salento
Join photographer & architect Oliviero Godi as he explores the relationship between the body & the material, the transient & the permanent, in search of the correct balance where neither element prevails.
To make your donation, please send an e-transfer to email@example.com. Thank you!
Learn More [about this other upcoming Cultural Events]
Respiration and the Brain on May 25, 2021
Before getting to the April 29, 2021 BrainTalks announcement, here’s a little bit about BrainTalks from their webspace on the University of British Columbia (UBC) website,
BrainTalks is a series of talks inviting you to contemplate emerging research about the brain. Researchers studying the brain, from various disciplines including psychiatry, neuroscience, neuroimaging, and neurology, gather to discuss current leading edge topics on the mind.
As an audience member, you join the discussion at the end of the talk, both in the presence of the entire audience, and with an opportunity afterwards to talk with the speaker more informally in a catered networking session. The talks also serve as a connecting place for those interested in similar topics, potentially launching new endeavours or simply connecting people in discussions on how to approach their research, their knowledge, or their clinical practice.
For the general public, these talks serve as a channel where by knowledge usually sequestered in inaccessible journals or university classrooms, is now available, potentially allowing people to better understand their brains and minds, how they work, and how to optimize brain health.
[UBC School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry]
Onto the April 29, 2021 BrainTalks announcement (received via email),
BrainTalks: Respiration and the Brain
Tuesday, May 25th, 2021 from 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM [PT]
Join us for a series of online talks exploring questions of respiration and the brain. Emerging empirical research will be presented on ventilation-associated brain injury and breathing-based interventions for the treatment of stress and anxiety disorders. We presenters will include Dr. Thiago Bassi, Dr. Lloyd Lalande and Taylor Willi, MSc.
Dr. Thiago Bassi will address the biological connection between the brain and lungs, exploring the potential adverse effects of mechanical ventilation on the brain. Dr. Bassi is a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, who worked clinically for more than ten years in Brazil. He joined the Lungpacer Medical team and C2B2 lab in 2017, and is currently completing his doctorate in Biomedicine Physiology at Simon Fraser University.
Dr. Lloyd Lalande will describe Guided Respiration Mindfulness Therapy (GRMT), as an emerging clinical breathwork intervention for its effectiveness in reducing depression, anxiety and stress, and in increasing mindfulness and sense of wellbeing. Dr. Lalonde is an Assistant Professor teaching psychology at the Buddhist TzuChi University of Science and Technology, and the developer of GRMT. His current research is based out of the TzuChi Buddhist General Hospital, investigating GRMT as an evidence-based treatment for a variety of outcomes.
Mr. Taylor Willi will present the findings of his dissertation research comparing the effect of performing daily brief relaxation techniques on measures of stress and anxiety. Mr. Willi completed a Masters Degree of Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, and is currently completing his doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Simon Fraser University.
Each of the speakers will present an overview of their research findings investigating respiration in three unique ways. Following their presentations, the speakers will be available for an audience-drive panel discussion.
The Canadian federal budget is due to be announced/revealed on April 19, 2021—the first budget we’ve seen since 2019.
The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC)is hosting an April 27 -28, 2021 symposium online and the main focus will be on science and funding. Before moving onto the symposium details, I think a quick refresher is in order.
No oversight, WE Charity scandal
While the Liberal government has done much which is laudable by supporting people and businesses through this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, there have been at least two notable missteps with regard to fiscal responsibility. This March 24, 2020 article in The Abbotsford News outlines the problem,
Conservative Finance critic Pierre Poilievre says there’s no deal yet between the Liberal government and Opposition over a proposed emergency aid bill to spend billions of dollars to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and cushion some of its damage to the economy.
The opposition parties had said they would back the $82 billion in direct spending and deferred taxes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to put up to prepare the country for mass illness and help Canadians cope with lost jobs and wages.
Yet a draft of the bill circulated Monday suggested it was going to give cabinet, not MPs, extraordinary power over taxes and spending, so ministers could act without Parliament’s approval for months.
The Conservatives will support every one of the aid measures contained in bill with no debate, Poilievre said. The only issue is whether the government needs to be given never before seen powers to tax and spend. [emphasis mine]
When there’s a minority government like the one Trudeau leads, the chance to bring the government down on a spending bill is what gives the opposition its power.
The government did not receive that approval in Parliament—but they tried. That was in March 2020; a few weeks later, there’s this (from the WE Charity scandal entry on Wikipedia),, Note: Links have been removed
On April 5, 2020 amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and his then-Finance Minister Bill Morneau, held a telephone conversation discussing measures to financially assist the country’s student population. The Finance Department was tasked with devising a series of measures to address these issues. This would begin a chain of events involving numerous governmental agencies.
Through a no-bid selection process [emphasis mine], WE Charity was chosen to administer the CSSG [Canada Student Service Grant], which would have created grants for students who volunteered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The contract agreement was signed with WE Charity Foundation, a corporation affiliated with WE Charity, on June 23, 2020. It was agreed that WE Charity, which had already begun incurring eligible expenses for the project on May 5 at their own risk, would be paid $43.53 million to administer the program; $30 million of which was paid to WE Charity Foundation on June 30, 2020. This was later fully refunded. A senior bureaucrat would note that “ESDC thinks that ‘WE’ might be able to be the volunteer matching third party … The mission of WE is congruent with national service and they have a massive following on social media.”
Concurrent to these events, and prior to the announcement of the CSSG on June 25, 2020, WE Charity was simultaneously corresponding with the same government agencies ultimately responsible for choosing the administrator of the program. WE Charity would submit numerous proposals in April, beginning on April 9, 2020, on the topic of youth volunteer award programs. These were able to be reformed into what became the CSSG.
On June 25, 2020 Justin Trudeau announced a series of relief measures for students. Among them was the Canada Student Service Grant program; whereby students would be eligible to receive $1000 for every 100 hours of volunteer activities, up to $5,000.
The structure of the program, and the selection of WE Charity as its administrator, immediately triggered condemnation amongst the Official Opposition, as well as numerous other groups, such as the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Democracy Watch, and Volunteer Canada who argued that WE Charity:
Was not the only possible administrator as had been claimed
Had been the beneficiary of cronyism
Had experienced significant disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic and required a bailout
Had illegally lobbied the government
Was unable to operate in French-speaking regions of Canada
Was potentially in violation of labour laws
Had created hundreds of volunteer positions with WE Charity itself as part of the program, doing work generally conducted by paid employees, representing a conflict of interests. …
In a July 13, 2020 article about the scandal on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) online, it’s noted that Trudeau was about to undergo his third ethics inquiry since first becoming Prime Minister in 2015. His first ethics inquiry took place in 2017, the second in 2019, and again in 2020.
None of this has anything to do with science funding (as far as I know) but it does set the stage for questions about how science funding is determined and who will be getting it. There are already systems in place for science funding through various agencies but the federal budget often sets special priorities such as the 2017 Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy with its attendant $125M. As well,Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to use science as a means of enhancing his appeal. See my March 16, 2018 posting for a sample of this, scroll down to the “Sunny ways: a discussion between Justin Trudeau and Bill Nye” subhead.
Keynote talk by David Watters entitled: “Canada’s Performance in R&D and Innovation Ecosystem in the Context of Health and Economic Impact of COVID-19 and Investments in the Budget“ [sic]
Tentative Event Schedule
Tuesday April 27 12:00 – 4:30 pm EDT
12:00 – 1:00 Session I: Keynote Address: The Impact of Budget 2021 on the Performance of Canada’s National R&D/Innovation Ecosystem
David Watters, President & CEO, Global Advantage Consulting
1:15 – 1:45 Session II: Critical Analysis
Robert Asselin, Senior Vice President, Policy, Business Council of Canada Irene Sterian, Founder, President & CEO, REMAP (Refined Manufacturing Acceleration Process); Director, Technology & Innovation, Celestica David Wolfe, Professor of Political Science, UTM [University of Toronto Mississauga], Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
2:00 – 3:00 Session III: Superclusters
Bill Greuel, CEO, Protein Industries Canada Kendra MacDonald, CEO, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster Angela Mondou, President & CEO, TECHNATION Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen)
3:30 – 4:30 Session IV: Business & Industry 3:30 – 4:30
Namir Anani, President & CEO, Information and Communications Technology Council [ICTC] Karl Blackburn, President & CEO, Conseil du patronat du Québec Tabatha Bull, President & CEO, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business [CCAB] Karen Churchill, President & CEO, Ag-West Bio Inc. Karimah Es Sabar, CEO & Partner of Quark Venture LP; Chair, Health/Biosciences Economic Strategy Table
Wednesday April 28 2:00 – 4:30 pm EDT
2:00 – 3:00 Session V: Universities and Colleges
Steven Liss, Vice-President, Research and Innovation & Professor of Chemistry and Biology, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University Madison Rilling, Project Manager, Optonique, Québec’s Optics & Photonics Cluster; Youth Council Member, Office of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada
Genesa M. Greening, President & CEO, BC Women’s Health Foundation Maya Roy, CEO, YWCA Canada Gisèle Yasmeen, Executive Director, Food Secure Canada Jayson Myers, CEO, Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen)
PS: I expect the guests at the Canadian Science Policy Centre’s (CSPC) April 27 – 28, 2021 Federal Budget Symposium to offer at least some commentary that boils down to ‘we love getting more money’ or ‘we’re not getting enough money’ or a bit of both.
I also expect the usual moaning over our failure to support industrial research and/or home grown companies E.g., Element AI (Canadian artificial intelligence company formerly headquartered in Montréal) was sold to a US company in November 2020 (see the Wikipedia entry). The US company doesn’t seem to have kept any of the employees but it seems to have acquired the intellectual property.
Since COVID-19, we’ve been advised to wear face masks. It seems some of them may not be as safe as we assumed. First, the Health Canada advisory that was issued today, April 2, 2021 and then excerpts from an in-depth posting by Dr. Andrew Maynard (associate dean in the Arizona State University College of Global Futures) about the advisory and the use of graphene in masks.
Health Canada is advising Canadians not to use face masks that contain graphene because there is a potential that they could inhale graphene particles, which may pose health risks.
Graphene is a novel nanomaterial (materials made of tiny particles) reported to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. Health Canada conducted a preliminary scientific assessment after being made aware that masks containing graphene have been sold with COVID-19 claims and used by adults and children in schools and daycares. Health Canada believes they may also have been distributed for use in health care settings.
Health Canada’s preliminary assessment of available research identified that inhaled graphene particles had some potential to cause early lung toxicity in animals. However, the potential for people to inhale graphene particles from face masks and the related health risks are not yet known, and may vary based on mask design. The health risk to people of any age is not clear. Variables, such as the amount and duration of exposure, and the type and characteristics of the graphene material used, all affect the potential to inhale particles and the associated health risks. Health Canada has requested data from mask manufacturers to assess the potential health risks related to their masks that contain graphene.
Until the Department completes a thorough scientific assessment and has established the safety and effectiveness of graphene-containing face masks, it is taking the precautionary approach of removing them from the market while continuing to gather and assess information. Health Canada has directed all known distributors, importers and manufacturers to stop selling and to recall the affected products. Additionally, Health Canada has written to provinces and territories advising them to stop distribution and use of masks containing graphene. The Department will continue to take appropriate action to stop the import and sale of graphene face masks.
Face masks labelled as containing graphene or biomass graphene.
What you should do
Do not use face masks labelled to contain graphene or biomass graphene.
Consult your health care provider if you have used graphene face masks and have health concerns, such as new or unexplained shortness of breath, discomfort or difficulty breathing.
Dr. Andrew Maynard’s Edge of Innovation series features a March 26, 2021 posting about the use of graphene in masks (Note: Links have been removed),
Face masks should protect you, not place you in greater danger. However, last Friday Radio Canada revealed that residents of Quebec and Ottawa were being advised not to use specific types of graphene-containing masks as they could potentially be harmful.
The offending material in the masks is graphene — a form of carbon that consists of nanoscopically thin flakes of hexagonally-arranged carbon atoms. It’s a material that has a number of potentially beneficial properties, including the ability to kill bacteria and viruses when they’re exposed to it.
Yet despite its many potential uses, the scientific jury is still out when it comes to how safe the material is.
As with all materials, the potential health risks associated with graphene depend on whether it can get into the body, where it goes if it can, what it does when it gets there, and how much of it is needed to cause enough damage to be of concern.
Unfortunately, even though these are pretty basic questions, there aren’t many answers forthcoming when it comes to the substance’s use in face masks.
Early concerns around graphene were sparked by previous research on another form of carbon — carbon nanotubes. It turns out that some forms of these fiber-like materials can cause serious harm if inhaled. And following on from research here, a natural next-question to ask is whether carbon nanotubes’ close cousin graphene comes with similar concerns.
Because graphene lacks many of the physical and chemical aspects of carbon nanotubes that make them harmful (such as being long, thin, and hard for the body to get rid of), the indications are that the material is safer than its nanotube cousins. But safer doesn’t mean safe. And current research indicates that this is not a material that should be used where it could potentially be inhaled, without a good amount of safety testing first.
When it comes to inhaling graphene, the current state of the science indicates that if the material can get into the lower parts of the lungs (the respirable or alveolar region) it can lead to an inflammatory response at high enough concentrations.
There is some evidence that adverse responses are relatively short-lived, and that graphene particles can be broken down and disposed of by the lungs’ defenses.
This is good news as it means that there are less likely to be long-term health impacts from inhaling the material.
There’s also evidence that graphene, unlike some forms of thin, straight carbon nanotubes, does not migrate to the outside layers of the lungs where it could potentially do a lot more damage.
Again, this is encouraging as it suggests that graphene is unlikely to lead to serious long-term health impacts like mesothelioma.
However, research also shows that this is not a benign material. Despite being made of carbon — and it’s tempting to think of carbon as being safe, just because we’re familiar with it — there is some evidence that the jagged edges of some graphene particles can harm cells, leading to local damage as the body responds to any damage the material causes.
There are also concerns, although they are less well explored in the literature, that some forms of graphene may be carriers for nanometer-sized metal particles that can be quite destructive in the lungs. This is certainly the case with some carbon nanotubes, as the metallic catalyst particles used to manufacture them become embedded in the material, and contribute to its toxicity.
The long and short of this is that, while there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge around how much graphene it’s safe to inhale, inhaling small graphene particles probably isn’t a great idea unless there’s been comprehensive testing to show otherwise.
And this brings us to graphene-containing face masks.
Here, it’s important to stress that we don’t yet know if graphene particles are being released and, if they are, whether they are being released in sufficient quantities to cause health effects. And there are indications that, if there are health risks, these may be relatively short-term — simply because graphene particles may be effectively degraded by the lungs’ defenses.
At the same time, it seems highly irresponsible to include a material with unknown inhalation risks in a product that is intimately associated with inhalation. Especially when there are a growing number of face masks available that claim to use graphene.
… There are millions of graphene face masks and respirators being sold and used around the world. And while the unfolding news focuses on Quebec and one particular type of face mask, this is casting uncertainty over the safety of any graphene-containing masks that are being sold.
And this uncertainty will persist until manufacturers and regulators provide data indicating that they have tested the products for the release and subsequent inhalation of fine graphene particles, and shown the risks to be negligible.
I strongly recommend reading, in its entirety , Dr. Maynard’s March 26, 2021 posting, Which he has updated twice since first posting the story.
In short. you may want to hold off before buying a mask with graphene until there’s more data about safety.
What a great bit of work, publicity-wise, from either or both the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Canada) and artist/scientist Radha Chaddah. IAM (ee-yam): Dance of the Molecules, a virtual performance installation featuring COVID-19 and molecular dance, has been profiled in the Toronto Star, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, and in the Globe and Mail within the last couple of weeks. From a Canadian perspective, that’s major coverage and much of it national.
Bruce DeMara’s March 11, 2021 article for the Toronto Star introduces artist/scientist Radha Chaddah, her COVID-19 dance of molecules, and her team (Note: A link has been removed),
Visual artist Radha Chaddah has always had an abiding interest in science. She has a degree in biology and has done graduate studies in stem cell research.
[…] four-act dance performance; the first part “IAM: Dance of the Molecules” premiered as a digital exhibition on the Aga Khan Museum’s website March 5  and runs for eight weeks. Subsequent acts — human, planetary and universal, all using the COVID virus as an entry point — will be unveiled over the coming months until the final instalment in December 2022.
Among Chaddah’s team were Allie Blumas and the Open Fortress dance collective — who perform as microscopic components of the virus’s proliferation, including “spike” proteins, A2 receptors and ribosomes — costumiers Call and Response (who designed for the late Prince), director of photography Henry Sansom and composer Dan Bédard (who wrote the film’s music after observing the dance rehearsals remotely).
A March 5, 2021 article by Leah Collins for CBC online offers more details (Note: Links have been removed),
This month, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is debuting new work from local artist Radha Chaddah. Called IAM, this digital exhibition is actually the first act in a series of four short films that she aims to produce between now and the end of 2022. It’s a “COVID story,” says Chaddah, but one that offers a perspective beyond the anniversary of its impact on life and culture and toilet-paper consumption. “I wanted to present a piece that makes people think about the coronavirus in a different way,” she explains, “one that pulls them out of the realm of fear and puts our imaginations into the realm of curiosity.”
It’s scientific curiosity that Chaddah’s talking about, and her own extra-curricular inquiries first sparked the series. For several years, Chaddah has produced work that splices art and science, a practice she began while doing grad studies in molecular neurobiology. “If I had to describe it simply, I would say that I make art about invisible realities, often using the tools of research science,” she says, and in January of last year, she was gripped by news of the novel coronavirus’ discovery.
“I started researching: reading research papers, looking into how it was that [the virus] actually affected the human body,” she says. “How does it get into the cells? What’s its replicative life cycle?” Chaddah wanted a closer look at the structure of the various molecules associated with the progression of COVID-19 in the body, and there is, it turns out, a trove of free material online. Using animated 3-D renderings (sourced from this digital database), Chaddah began reviewing the files: blowing them up with a video projector, and using the trees in her own backyard as “a kind of green, living stage.”
Part one of IAM (the film appearing on the Aga Khan’s website) is called “Dance of the Molecules.” Recorded on Chaddah’s property in September, it features two dancers: Allie Blumas (who choreographed the piece) and Lee Gelbloom. Their bodies, along with the leafy setting, serve as a screen for Chaddah’s projections: a swirl of firecracker colour and pattern, built from found digital models. Quite literally, the viewer is looking at an illustration of how the coronavirus infects the human body and then replicates. (The very first images, for example, are close-ups of the virus’ spiky surface, she explains.) And in tandem with this molecular drama, the dancers interpret the process.
Radha Chaddah is a Toronto based visual artist and scientist. Born in Owen Sound, Ontario she studied Film and Art History at Queen’s University (BAH), and Human Biology at the University of Toronto, where she received a Master of Science in Cell and Molecular Neurobiology.
Chaddah makes art about invisible realities like the cellular world, electromagnetism and wave form energy, using light as her primary medium. Her work examines the interconnected themes of knowledge, illusion, desire and the unseen world. In her studio she designs projected light installations for public exhibition. In the laboratory, she uses the tools of research science to grow and photograph cells using embedded fluorescent light-emitting molecules. Her cell photographs and light installations have been exhibited across Canada and her photographs have appeared in numerous publications. She has lectured on basic cell and stem cell biology for artists, art students and the public at OCADU [Ontario College of Art & Design University], the Ontario Science Centre, the University of Toronto and the Textile Museum of Canada.
A Dec. 7, 2020 news item on Nanowerk announced a new technology for rapid COVID-19 testing (Note: A link has been removed),
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, testing remains a key strategy for tracking and containing the virus. Bioengineering graduate student, Maha Alafeef, has co-developed a rapid, ultrasensitive test using a paper-based electrochemical sensor that can detect the presence of the virus in less than five minutes.
The team led by professor Dipanjan Pan reported their findings in ACS Nano (“Rapid, Ultrasensitive, and Quantitative Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Using Antisense Oligonucleotides Directed Electrochemical Biosensor Chip”).
“Currently, we are experiencing a once-in-a-century life-changing event,” said Alafeef. “We are responding to this global need from a holistic approach by developing multidisciplinary tools for early detection and diagnosis and treatment for SARS-CoV-2.”
I wonder why they didn’t think to provide a caption for the graphene substrate (the square surface) underlying the gold electrode (the round thing) or provide a caption for the electrode. Maybe they assumed anyone knowledgeable about graphene would be able to identify it?
There are two broad categories of COVID-19 tests on the market. The first category uses reverse transcriptase real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and nucleic acid hybridization strategies to identify viral RNA. Current FDA [US Food and Drug Administration]-approved diagnostic tests use this technique. Some drawbacks include the amount of time it takes to complete the test, the need for specialized personnel and the availability of equipment and reagents.
The second category of tests focuses on the detection of antibodies. However, there could be a delay of a few days to a few weeks after a person has been exposed to the virus for them to produce detectable antibodies.
In recent years, researchers have had some success with creating point-of-care biosensors using 2D nanomaterials such as graphene to detect diseases. The main advantages of graphene-based biosensors are their sensitivity, low cost of production and rapid detection turnaround. “The discovery of graphene opened up a new era of sensor development due to its properties. Graphene exhibits unique mechanical and electrochemical properties that make it ideal for the development of sensitive electrochemical sensors,” said Alafeef. The team created a graphene-based electrochemical biosensor with an electrical read-out setup to selectively detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material.
There are two components [emphasis mine] to this biosensor: a platform to measure an electrical read-out and probes to detect the presence of viral RNA. To create the platform, researchers first coated filter paper with a layer of graphene nanoplatelets to create a conductive film [emphasis mine]. Then, they placed a gold electrode with a predefined design on top of the graphene [emphasis mine] as a contact pad for electrical readout. Both gold and graphene have high sensitivity and conductivity which makes this platform ultrasensitive to detect changes in electrical signals.
Current RNA-based COVID-19 tests screen for the presence of the N-gene (nucleocapsid phosphoprotein) on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In this research, the team designed antisense oligonucleotide (ASOs) probes to target two regions of the N-gene. Targeting two regions ensures the reliability of the senor in case one region undergoes gene mutation. Furthermore, gold nanoparticles (AuNP) are capped with these single-stranded nucleic acids (ssDNA), which represents an ultra-sensitive sensing probe for the SARS-CoV-2 RNA.
The researchers previously showed the sensitivity of the developed sensing probes in their earlier work published in ACS Nano. The hybridization of the viral RNA with these probes causes a change in the sensor electrical response. The AuNP caps accelerate the electron transfer and when broadcasted over the sensing platform, results in an increase in the output signal and indicates the presence of the virus.
The team tested the performance of this sensor by using COVID-19 positive and negative samples. The sensor showed a significant increase in the voltage of positive samples compared to the negative ones and confirmed the presence of viral genetic material in less than five minutes. Furthermore, the sensor was able to differentiate viral RNA loads in these samples. Viral load is an important quantitative indicator of the progress of infection and a challenge to measure using existing diagnostic methods.
This platform has far-reaching applications due to its portability and low cost. The sensor, when integrated with microcontrollers and LED screens or with a smartphone via Bluetooth or wifi, could be used at the point-of-care in a doctor’s office or even at home. Beyond COVID-19, the research team also foresees the system to be adaptable for the detection of many different diseases.
“The unlimited potential of bioengineering has always sparked my utmost interest with its innovative translational applications,” Alafeef said. “I am happy to see my research project has an impact on solving a real-world problem. Finally, I would like to thank my Ph.D. advisor professor Dipanjan Pan for his endless support, research scientist Dr. Parikshit Moitra, and research assistant Ketan Dighe for their help and contribution toward the success of this study.”
I’m not sure where I found this notice but it is most definitely from the American Chemical Society: “This paper is freely accessible, at this time, for unrestricted RESEARCH re-use and analyses in any form or by any means with acknowledgement of the original source. These permissions are granted for the duration of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic.”
Usually when a company is featured in a news item, there’s some reason why it’s considered newsworthy. Even after reading the article twice, I still don’t see what makes the Precision Nanosystems Inc. (PNI) newsworthy.
Kevin Griffin’s Jan. 17, 2021 article about Vancouver area Precision Nanosystems Inc. (PNI) for The Province is interesting for anyone who’s looking for information about members of the local biotechnology and/or nanomedicine community (Note: Links have been removed),
A Vancouver nanomedicine company is part of a team using new genetic technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Precision NanoSystems Incorporated is working on a vaccine in the same class the ones made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the only two COVID-19 vaccines approved by Health Canada.
PNI’s vaccine is based on a new kind of technology called mRNA which stands for messenger ribonucleic acid. The mRNA class of vaccines carry genetic instructions to make proteins that trigger the body’s immune system. Once a body has antibodies, it can fight off a real infection when it comes in contact with SARS-CoV-2, the name of the virus that causes COVID-19.
James Taylor, CEO of Precision NanoSystems, said the “revolutionary technology is having an impact not only on COVID-19 pandemic but also the treatment of other diseases.
The federal government has invested $18.2 million in PNI to carry its vaccine candidate through pre-clinical studies and clinical trails.
Ottawa has also invested another $173 million in Medicago, a Quebec-city based company which is developing a virus-like particle vaccine on a plant-based platform and building a large-scale vaccine and antibody production facility. The federal government has an agreement with Medicago to buy up to 76 million doses (enough for 38 million people) of its COVID-19 vaccine.
PNI’s vaccine, which the company is developing with other collaborators, is still at an early, pre-clinical stage.
Taylor is one of the co-founders of PNI along with Euan Ramsay, the company’s chief commercial officer.
The scientific co-founders of PNI are physicist Carl Hansen [emphasis mine] and Pieter Cullis. Cullis is also board chairman and scientific adviser at Acuitas Therapeutics [emphasis mine], the UBC biotechnology company that developed the delivery system for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
PNI, founded in 2010 as a spin-off from UBC [University of British Columbia], focuses on developing technology and expertise in genetic medicine to treat a wide range of infectious and rare diseases and cancers.
What has been described as PNI’s flagship product is a NanoAssemblr Benchtop Instrument, which allows scientists to develop nanomedicines for testing.
It’s informational but none of this is new, if you’ve been following developments in the COVID-19 vaccine story or local biotechnology scene. The $18.2 million federal government investment was announced in the company’s latest press release dated October 23, 2020. Not exactly fresh news.
One possibility is that the company is trying to generate publicity prior to a big announcement. As to why a reporter would produce this profile, perhaps he was promised an exclusive?
Acuitas Therapeutics, which I highlighted in the excerpt from Griffin’s story, has been featured here before in a November 12, 2020 posting about lipid nanoparticles and their role in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Curiously (or not), Griffin didn’t mention Vancouver’s biggest ‘COVID-19 star’, AbCellera. You can find out more about that company in my December 30, 2020 posting titled, Avo Media, Science Telephone, and a Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist, which features a link to a video about AbCellera’s work (scroll down about 60% of the way to the subsection titled: Avo Media, The Tyee, and Science Telephone, second paragraph).
The Canadian COVID-19 billionaire scientist? That would be Carl Hansen, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AbCellera and co-founder of PNI. it’s such a small world sometimes.
Amsterdam, NL – The use of algorithms in government is transforming the way bureaucrats work and make decisions in different areas, such as healthcare or criminal justice. Experts address the transparency challenges of using algorithms in decision-making procedures at the macro-, meso-, and micro-levels in this special issue of Information Polity.
Machine-learning algorithms hold huge potential to make government services fairer and more effective and have the potential of “freeing” decision-making from human subjectivity, according to recent research. Algorithms are used in many public service contexts. For example, within the legal system it has been demonstrated that algorithms can predict recidivism better than criminal court judges. At the same time, critics highlight several dangers of algorithmic decision-making, such as racial bias and lack of transparency.
Some scholars have argued that the introduction of algorithms in decision-making procedures may cause profound shifts in the way bureaucrats make decisions and that algorithms may affect broader organizational routines and structures. This special issue on algorithm transparency presents six contributions to sharpen our conceptual and empirical understanding of the use of algorithms in government.
“There has been a surge in criticism towards the ‘black box’ of algorithmic decision-making in government,” explain Guest Editors Sarah Giest (Leiden University) and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen (Utrecht University). “In this special issue collection, we show that it is not enough to unpack the technical details of algorithms, but also look at institutional, organizational, and individual context within which these algorithms operate to truly understand how we can achieve transparent and responsible algorithms in government. For example, regulations may enable transparency mechanisms, yet organizations create new policies on how algorithms should be used, and individual public servants create new professional repertoires. All these levels interact and affect algorithmic transparency in public organizations.”
The transparency challenges for the use of algorithms transcend different levels of government – from European level to individual public bureaucrats. These challenges can also take different forms; transparency can be enabled or limited by technical tools as well as regulatory guidelines or organizational policies. Articles in this issue address transparency challenges of algorithm use at the macro-, meso-, and micro-level. The macro level describes phenomena from an institutional perspective – which national systems, regulations and cultures play a role in algorithmic decision-making. The meso-level primarily pays attention to the organizational and team level, while the micro-level focuses on individual attributes, such as beliefs, motivation, interactions, and behaviors.
“Calls to ‘keep humans in the loop’ may be moot points if we fail to understand how algorithms impact human decision-making and how algorithmic design impacts the practical possibilities for transparency and human discretion,” notes Rik Peeters, research professor of Public Administration at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. In a review of recent academic literature on the micro-level dynamics of algorithmic systems, he discusses three design variables that determine the preconditions for human transparency and discretion and identifies four main sources of variation in “human-algorithm interaction.”
The article draws two major conclusions: First, human agents are rarely fully “out of the loop,” and levels of oversight and override designed into algorithms should be understood as a continuum. The second pertains to bounded rationality, satisficing behavior, automation bias, and frontline coping mechanisms that play a crucial role in the way humans use algorithms in decision-making processes.
For future research Dr. Peeters suggests taking a closer look at the behavioral mechanisms in combination with identifying relevant skills of bureaucrats in dealing with algorithms. “Without a basic understanding of the algorithms that screen- and street-level bureaucrats have to work with, it is difficult to imagine how they can properly use their discretion and critically assess algorithmic procedures and outcomes. Professionals should have sufficient training to supervise the algorithms with which they are working.”
At the macro-level, algorithms can be an important tool for enabling institutional transparency, writes Alex Ingrams, PhD, Governance and Global Affairs, Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands. This study evaluates a machine-learning approach to open public comments for policymaking to increase institutional transparency of public commenting in a law-making process in the United States. The article applies an unsupervised machine learning analysis of thousands of public comments submitted to the United States Transport Security Administration on a 2013 proposed regulation for the use of new full body imaging scanners in airports. The algorithm highlights salient topic clusters in the public comments that could help policymakers understand open public comments processes. “Algorithms should not only be subject to transparency but can also be used as tool for transparency in government decision-making,” comments Dr. Ingrams.
“Regulatory certainty in combination with organizational and managerial capacity will drive the way the technology is developed and used and what transparency mechanisms are in place for each step,” note the Guest Editors. “On its own these are larger issues to tackle in terms of developing and passing laws or providing training and guidance for public managers and bureaucrats. The fact that they are linked further complicates this process. Highlighting these linkages is a first step towards seeing the bigger picture of why transparency mechanisms are put in place in some scenarios and not in others and opens the door to comparative analyses for future research and new insights for policymakers. To advocate the responsible and transparent use of algorithms, future research should look into the interplay between micro-, meso-, and macro-level dynamics.”
“We are proud to present this special issue, the 100th issue of Information Polity. Its focus on the governance of AI demonstrates our continued desire to tackle contemporary issues in eGovernment and the importance of showcasing excellent research and the insights offered by information polity perspectives,” add Professor Albert Meijer (Utrecht University) and Professor William Webster (University of Stirling), Editors-in-Chief.
This image illustrates the interplay between the various level dynamics,
Here’s a link, to and a citation for the special issue,
An AI governance publication from the US’s Wilson Center
Within one week of the release of a special issue of Information Polity on AI and governments, a Wilson Center (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) December 21, 2020 news release (received via email) announces a new publication,
Governing AI: Understanding the Limits, Possibilities, and Risks of AI in an Era of Intelligent Tools and Systems by John Zysman & Mark Nitzberg
In debates about artificial intelligence (AI), imaginations often run wild. Policy-makers, opinion leaders, and the public tend to believe that AI is already an immensely powerful universal technology, limitless in its possibilities. However, while machine learning (ML), the principal computer science tool underlying today’s AI breakthroughs, is indeed powerful, ML is fundamentally a form of context-dependent statistical inference and as such has its limits. Specifically, because ML relies on correlations between inputs and outputs or emergent clustering in training data, today’s AI systems can only be applied in well- specified problem domains, still lacking the context sensitivity of a typical toddler or house-pet. Consequently, instead of constructing policies to govern artificial general intelligence (AGI), decision- makers should focus on the distinctive and powerful problems posed by narrow AI, including misconceived benefits and the distribution of benefits, autonomous weapons, and bias in algorithms. AI governance, at least for now, is about managing those who create and deploy AI systems, and supporting the safe and beneficial application of AI to narrow, well-defined problem domains. Specific implications of our discussion are as follows:
AI applications are part of a suite of intelligent tools and systems and must ultimately be regulated as a set. Digital platforms, for example, generate the pools of big data on which AI tools operate and hence, the regulation of digital platforms and big data is part of the challenge of governing AI. Many of the platform offerings are, in fact, deployments of AI tools. Hence, focusing on AI alone distorts the governance problem.
Simply declaring objectives—be they assuring digital privacy and transparency, or avoiding bias—is not sufficient. We must decide what the goals actually will be in operational terms.
The issues and choices will differ by sector. For example, the consequences of bias and error will differ from a medical domain or a criminal justice domain to one of retail sales.
The application of AI tools in public policy decision making, in transportation design or waste disposal or policing among a whole variety of domains, requires great care. There is a substantial risk of focusing on efficiency when the public debate about what the goals should be in the first place is in fact required. Indeed, public values evolve as part of social and political conflict.
The economic implications of AI applications are easily exaggerated. Should public investment concentrate on advancing basic research or on diffusing the tools, user interfaces, and training needed to implement them?
As difficult as it will be to decide on goals and a strategy to implement the goals of one community, let alone regional or international communities, any agreement that goes beyond simple objective statements is very unlikely.
However, I have found a draft version of the report (Working Paper) published August 26, 2020 on the Social Science Research Network. This paper originated at the University of California at Berkeley as part of a series from the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy (BRIE). ‘Governing AI: Understanding the Limits, Possibility, and Risks of AI in an Era of Intelligent Tools and Systems’ is also known as the BRIE Working Paper 2020-5.
Canadian government and AI
The special issue on AI and governance and the the paper published by the Wilson Center stimulated my interest in the Canadian government’s approach to governance, responsibility, transparency, and AI.
There is information out there but it’s scattered across various government initiatives and ministries. Above all, it is not easy to find, open communication. Whether that’s by design or the blindness and/or ineptitude to be found in all organizations I leave that to wiser judges. (I’ve worked in small companies and they too have the problem. In colloquial terms, ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’.)
Responsible use? Maybe not after 2019
First there’s a government of Canada webpage, Responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI). Other than a note at the bottom of the page “Date modified: 2020-07-28,” all of the information dates from 2016 up to March 2019 (which you’ll find on ‘Our Timeline’). Is nothing new happening?
For anyone interested in responsible use, there are two sections “Our guiding principles” and “Directive on Automated Decision-Making” that answer some questions. I found the ‘Directive’ to be more informative with its definitions, objectives, and, even, consequences. Sadly, you need to keep clicking to find consequences and you’ll end up on The Framework for the Management of Compliance. Interestingly, deputy heads are assumed in charge of managing non-compliance. I wonder how employees deal with a non-compliant deputy head?
What about the government’s digital service?
You might think Canadian Digital Service (CDS) might also have some information about responsible use. CDS was launched in 2017, according to Luke Simon’s July 19, 2017 article on Medium,
In case you missed it, there was some exciting digital government news in Canada Tuesday. The Canadian Digital Service (CDS) launched, meaning Canada has joined other nations, including the US and the UK, that have a federal department dedicated to digital.
At the time, Simon was Director of Outreach at Code for Canada.
Presumably, CDS, from an organizational perspective, is somehow attached to the Minister of Digital Government (it’s a position with virtually no governmental infrastructure as opposed to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development who is responsible for many departments and agencies). The current minister is Joyce Murray whose government profile offers almost no information about her work on digital services. Perhaps there’s a more informative profile of the Minister of Digital Government somewhere on a government website.
Meanwhile, they are friendly folks at CDS but they don’t offer much substantive information. From the CDS homepage,
Our aim is to make services easier for government to deliver. We collaborate with people who work in government to address service delivery problems. We test with people who need government services to find design solutions that are easy to use.
At the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), we partner up with federal departments to design, test and build simple, easy to use services. Our goal is to improve the experience – for people who deliver government services and people who use those services.
How it works
We work with our partners in the open, regularly sharing progress via public platforms. This creates a culture of learning and fosters best practices. It means non-partner departments can apply our work and use our resources to develop their own services.
Together, we form a team that follows the ‘Agile software development methodology’. This means we begin with an intensive ‘Discovery’ research phase to explore user needs and possible solutions to meeting those needs. After that, we move into a prototyping ‘Alpha’ phase to find and test ways to meet user needs. Next comes the ‘Beta’ phase, where we release the solution to the public and intensively test it. Lastly, there is a ‘Live’ phase, where the service is fully released and continues to be monitored and improved upon.
Between the Beta and Live phases, our team members step back from the service, and the partner team in the department continues the maintenance and development. We can help partners recruit their service team from both internal and external sources.
Before each phase begins, CDS and the partner sign a partnership agreement which outlines the goal and outcomes for the coming phase, how we’ll get there, and a commitment to get them done.
As you can see, there’s not a lot of detail and they don’t seem to have included anything about artificial intelligence as part of their operation. (I’ll come back to the government’s implementation of artificial intelligence and information technology later.)
Does the Treasury Board of Canada have charge of responsible AI use?
I think so but there are government departments/ministries that also have some responsibilities for AI and I haven’t seen any links back to the Treasury Board documentation.
The Treasury Board of Canada represent a key entity within the federal government. As an important cabinet committee and central agency, they play an important role in financial and personnel administration. Even though the Treasury Board plays a significant role in government decision making, the general public tends to know little about its operation and activities. [emphasis mine] The following article provides an introduction to the Treasury Board, with a focus on its history, responsibilities, organization, and key issues.
I haven’t read the entire document but the table of contents doesn’t include a heading for artificial intelligence and there wasn’t any mention of it in the opening comments.
But isn’t there a Chief Information Officer for Canada?
Herein lies a tale (I doubt I’ll ever get the real story) but the answer is a qualified ‘no’. The Chief Information Officer for Canada, Alex Benay (there is an AI aspect) stepped down in September 2019 to join a startup company according to an August 6, 2019 article by Mia Hunt for Global Government Forum,
Alex Benay has announced he will step down as Canada’s chief information officer next month to “take on new challenge” at tech start-up MindBridge.
“It is with mixed emotions that I am announcing my departure from the Government of Canada,” he said on Wednesday in a statement posted on social media, describing his time as CIO as “one heck of a ride”.
He said he is proud of the work the public service has accomplished in moving the national digital agenda forward. Among these achievements, he listed the adoption of public Cloud across government; delivering the “world’s first” ethical AI management framework; [emphasis mine] renewing decades-old policies to bring them into the digital age; and “solidifying Canada’s position as a global leader in open government”.
He also led the introduction of new digital standards in the workplace, and provided “a clear path for moving off” Canada’s failed Phoenix pay system. [emphasis mine]
Since September 2019, Mr. Benay has moved again according to a November 7, 2019 article by Meagan Simpson on the BetaKit,website (Note: Links have been removed),
Alex Benay, the former CIO [Chief Information Officer] of Canada, has left his role at Ottawa-based Mindbridge after a short few months stint.
The news came Thursday, when KPMG announced that Benay was joining the accounting and professional services organization as partner of digital and government solutions. Benay originally announced that he was joining Mindbridge in August, after spending almost two and a half years as the CIO for the Government of Canada.
Benay joined the AI startup as its chief client officer and, at the time, was set to officially take on the role on September 3rd. According to Benay’s LinkedIn, he joined Mindbridge in August, but if the September 3rd start date is correct, Benay would have only been at Mindbridge for around three months. The former CIO of Canada was meant to be responsible for Mindbridge’s global growth as the company looked to prepare for an IPO in 2021.
Benay told The Globe and Mail that his decision to leave Mindbridge was not a question of fit, or that he considered the move a mistake. He attributed his decision to leave to conversations with Mindbridge customer KPMG, over a period of three weeks. Benay told The Globe that he was drawn to the KPMG opportunity to lead its digital and government solutions practice, something that was more familiar to him given his previous role.
Mindbridge has not completely lost what was touted as a start hire, though, as Benay will be staying on as an advisor to the startup. “This isn’t a cutting the cord and moving on to something else completely,” Benay told The Globe. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Via Mr. Benay, I’ve re-introduced artificial intelligence and introduced the Phoenix Pay system and now I’m linking them to government implementation of information technology in a specific case and speculating about implementation of artificial intelligence algorithms in government.
Phoenix Pay System Debacle (things are looking up), a harbinger for responsible use of artificial intelligence?
I’m happy to hear that the situation where government employees had no certainty about their paycheques is becoming better. After the ‘new’ Phoenix Pay System was implemented in early 2016, government employees found they might get the correct amount on their paycheque or might find significantly less than they were entitled to or might find huge increases.
The instability alone would be distressing but adding to it with the inability to get the problem fixed must have been devastating. Almost five years later, the problems are being resolved and people are getting paid appropriately, more often.
The estimated cost for fixing the problems was, as I recall, over $1B; I think that was a little optimistic. James Bagnall’s July 28, 2020 article for the Ottawa Citizen provides more detail, although not about the current cost, and is the source of my measured optimism,
Something odd has happened to the Phoenix Pay file of late. After four years of spitting out errors at a furious rate, the federal government’s new pay system has gone quiet.
And no, it’s not because of the even larger drama written by the coronavirus. In fact, there’s been very real progress at Public Services and Procurement Canada [PSPC; emphasis mine], the department in charge of pay operations.
Since January 2018, the peak of the madness, the backlog of all pay transactions requiring action has dropped by about half to 230,000 as of late June. Many of these involve basic queries for information about promotions, overtime and rules. The part of the backlog involving money — too little or too much pay, incorrect deductions, pay not received — has shrunk by two-thirds to 125,000.
These are still very large numbers but the underlying story here is one of long-delayed hope. The government is processing the pay of more than 330,000 employees every two weeks while simultaneously fixing large batches of past mistakes.
While officials with two of the largest government unions — Public Service Alliance of Canada [PSAC] and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada [PPSC] — disagree the pay system has worked out its kinks, they acknowledge it’s considerably better than it was. New pay transactions are being processed “with increased timeliness and accuracy,” the PSAC official noted.
Neither union is happy with the progress being made on historical mistakes. PIPSC president Debi Daviau told this newspaper that many of her nearly 60,000 members have been waiting for years to receive salary adjustments stemming from earlier promotions or transfers, to name two of the more prominent sources of pay errors.
Even so, the sharp improvement in Phoenix Pay’s performance will soon force the government to confront an interesting choice: Should it continue with plans to replace the system?
Treasury Board, the government’s employer, two years ago launched the process to do just that. Last March, SAP Canada — whose technology underpins the pay system still in use at Canada Revenue Agency — won a competition to run a pilot project. Government insiders believe SAP Canada is on track to build the full system starting sometime in 2023.
When Public Services set out the business case in 2009 for building Phoenix Pay, it noted the pay system would have to accommodate 150 collective agreements that contained thousands of business rules and applied to dozens of federal departments and agencies. The technical challenge has since intensified.
Under the original plan, Phoenix Pay was to save $70 million annually by eliminating 1,200 compensation advisors across government and centralizing a key part of the operation at the pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., where 550 would manage a more automated system.
Instead, the Phoenix Pay system currently employs about 2,300. This includes 1,600 at Miramichi and five regional pay offices, along with 350 each at a client contact centre (which deals with relatively minor pay issues) and client service bureau (which handles the more complex, longstanding pay errors). This has naturally driven up the average cost of managing each pay account — 55 per cent higher than the government’s former pay system according to last fall’s estimate by the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
… As the backlog shrinks, the need for regional pay offices and emergency staffing will diminish. Public Services is also working with a number of high-tech firms to develop ways of accurately automating employee pay using artificial intelligence [emphasis mine].
Given the Phoenix Pay System debacle, it might be nice to see a little information about how the government is planning to integrate more sophisticated algorithms (artificial intelligence) in their operations.
The blonde model or actress mentions that companies applying to Public Services and Procurement Canada for placement on the list must use AI responsibly. Her script does not include a definition or guidelines, which, as previously noted, as on the Treasury Board website.
Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) is putting into operation the Artificial intelligence source list to facilitate the procurement of Canada’s requirements for Artificial intelligence (AI).
After research and consultation with industry, academia, and civil society, Canada identified 3 AI categories and business outcomes to inform this method of supply:
Insights and predictive modelling
PSPC is focused only on procuring AI. If there are guidelines on their website for its use, I did not find them.
I found one more government agency that might have some information about artificial intelligence and guidelines for its use, Shared Services Canada,
Shared Services Canada (SSC) delivers digital services to Government of Canada organizations. We provide modern, secure and reliable IT services so federal organizations can deliver digital programs and services that meet Canadians needs.
Since the Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, is listed on the homepage, I was hopeful that I could find out more about AI and governance and whether or not the Canadian Digital Service was associated with this government ministry/agency. I was frustrated on both counts.
To sum up, there is no information that I could find after March 2019 about Canada, it’s government and plans for AI, especially responsible management/governance and AI on a Canadian government website although I have found guidelines, expectations, and consequences for non-compliance. (Should anyone know which government agency has up-to-date information on its responsible use of AI, please let me know in the Comments.
In 2017, the Government of Canada appointed CIFAR to develop and lead a $125 million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the world’s first national AI strategy.
CIFAR works in close collaboration with Canada’s three national AI Institutes — Amii in Edmonton, Mila in Montreal, and the Vector Institute in Toronto, as well as universities, hospitals and organizations across the country.
The objectives of the strategy are to:
Attract and retain world-class AI researchers by increasing the number of outstanding AI researchers and skilled graduates in Canada.
Foster a collaborative AI ecosystem by establishing interconnected nodes of scientific excellence in Canada’s three major centres for AI: Edmonton, Montreal, and Toronto.
Advance national AI initiatives by supporting a national research community on AI through training programs, workshops, and other collaborative opportunities.
Understand the societal implications of AI by developing global thought leadership on the economic, ethical, policy, and legal implications [emphasis mine] of advances in AI.
Responsible AI at CIFAR
You can find Responsible AI in a webspace devoted to what they have called, AI & Society. Here’s more from the homepage,
CIFAR is leading global conversations about AI’s impact on society.
The AI & Society program, one of the objectives of the CIFAR Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, develops global thought leadership on the economic, ethical, political, and legal implications of advances in AI. These dialogues deliver new ways of thinking about issues, and drive positive change in the development and deployment of responsible AI.
Canada was the first country in the world to announce a federally-funded national AI strategy, prompting many other nations to follow suit. CIFAR published two reports detailing the global landscape of AI strategies.
I skimmed through the second report and it seems more like a comparative study of various country’s AI strategies than a overview of responsible use of AI.
Final comments about Responsible AI in Canada and the new reports
I’m glad to see there’s interest in Responsible AI but based on my adventures searching the Canadian government websites and the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy webspace, I’m left feeling hungry for more.
I didn’t find any details about how AI is being integrated into government departments and for what uses. I’d like to know and I’d like to have some say about how it’s used and how the inevitable mistakes will be dealh with.
The great unwashed
What I’ve found is high minded, but, as far as I can tell, there’s absolutely no interest in talking to the ‘great unwashed’. Those of us who are not experts are being left out of these earlier stage conversations.
I’m sure we’ll be consulted at some point but it will be long past the time when are our opinions and insights could have impact and help us avoid the problems that experts tend not to see. What we’ll be left with is protest and anger on our part and, finally, grudging admissions and corrections of errors on the government’s part.
Let’s take this for an example. The Phoenix Pay System was implemented in its first phase on Feb. 24, 2016. As I recall, problems develop almost immediately. The second phase of implementation starts April 21, 2016. In May 2016 the government hires consultants to fix the problems. November 29, 2016 the government minister, Judy Foote, admits a mistake has been made. February 2017 the government hires consultants to establish what lessons they might learn. February 15, 2018 the pay problems backlog amounts to 633,000. Source: James Bagnall, Feb. 23, 2018 ‘timeline‘ for Ottawa Citizen
Do take a look at the timeline, there’s more to it than what I’ve written here and I’m sure there’s more to the Phoenix Pay System debacle than a failure to listen to warnings from those who would be directly affected. It’s fascinating though how often a failure to listen presages far deeper problems with a project.
The Canadian government, both a conservative and a liberal government, contributed to the Phoenix Debacle but it seems the gravest concern is with senior government bureaucrats. You might think things have changed since this recounting of the affair in a June 14, 2018 article by Michelle Zilio for the Globe and Mail,
The three public servants blamed by the Auditor-General for the Phoenix pay system problems were not fired for mismanagement of the massive technology project that botched the pay of tens of thousands of public servants for more than two years.
Marie Lemay, deputy minister for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), said two of the three Phoenix executives were shuffled out of their senior posts in pay administration and did not receive performance bonuses for their handling of the system. Those two employees still work for the department, she said. Ms. Lemay, who refused to identify the individuals, said the third Phoenix executive retired.
In a scathing report last month, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson blamed three “executives” – senior public servants at PSPC, which is responsible for Phoenix − for the pay system’s “incomprehensible failure.” [emphasis mine] He said the executives did not tell the then-deputy minister about the known problems with Phoenix, leading the department to launch the pay system despite clear warnings it was not ready.
Speaking to a parliamentary committee on Thursday, Ms. Lemay said the individuals did not act with “ill intent,” noting that the development and implementation of the Phoenix project were flawed. She encouraged critics to look at the “bigger picture” to learn from all of Phoenix’s failures.
Mr. Ferguson, whose office spoke with the three Phoenix executives as a part of its reporting, said the officials prioritized some aspects of the pay-system rollout, such as schedule and budget, over functionality. He said they also cancelled a pilot implementation project with one department that would have helped it detect problems indicating the system was not ready.
Mr. Ferguson’s report warned the Phoenix problems are indicative of “pervasive cultural problems” [emphasis mine] in the civil service, which he said is fearful of making mistakes, taking risks and conveying “hard truths.”
Speaking to the same parliamentary committee on Tuesday, Privy Council Clerk [emphasis mine] Michael Wernick challenged Mr. Ferguson’s assertions, saying his chapter on the federal government’s cultural issues is an “opinion piece” containing “sweeping generalizations.”
The Privy Council Clerk is the top level bureaucrat (and there is only one such clerk) in the civil/public service and I think his quotes are quite telling of “pervasive cultural problems.” There’s a new Privy Council Clerk but from what I can tell he was well trained by his predecessor.
Do* we really need senior government bureaucrats?
I now have an example of bureaucratic interference, specifically with the Global Public Health Information Network (GPHIN) where it would seem that not much has changed, from a December 26, 2020 article by Grant Robertson for the Globe & Mail,
When Canada unplugged support for its pandemic alert system [GPHIN] last year, it was a symptom of bigger problems inside the Public Health Agency. Experienced scientists were pushed aside, expertise was eroded, and internal warnings went unheeded, which hindered the department’s response to COVID-19
As a global pandemic began to take root in February, China held a series of backchannel conversations with Canada, lobbying the federal government to keep its borders open.
With the virus already taking a deadly toll in Asia, Heng Xiaojun, the Minister Counsellor for the Chinese embassy, requested a call with senior Transport Canada officials. Over the course of the conversation, the Chinese representatives communicated Beijing’s desire that flights between the two countries not be stopped because it was unnecessary.
“The Chinese position on the continuation of flights was reiterated,” say official notes taken from the call. “Mr. Heng conveyed that China is taking comprehensive measures to combat the coronavirus.”
Canadian officials seemed to agree, since no steps were taken to restrict or prohibit travel. To the federal government, China appeared to have the situation under control and the risk to Canada was low. Before ending the call, Mr. Heng thanked Ottawa for its “science and fact-based approach.”
It was a critical moment in the looming pandemic, but the Canadian government lacked the full picture, instead relying heavily on what Beijing was choosing to disclose to the World Health Organization (WHO). Ottawa’s ability to independently know what was going on in China – on the ground and inside hospitals – had been greatly diminished in recent years.
Canada once operated a robust pandemic early warning system and employed a public-health doctor based in China who could report back on emerging problems. But it had largely abandoned those international strategies over the past five years, and was no longer as plugged-in.
By late February , Ottawa seemed to be taking the official reports from China at their word, stating often in its own internal risk assessments that the threat to Canada remained low. But inside the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), rank-and-file doctors and epidemiologists were growing increasingly alarmed at how the department and the government were responding.
“The team was outraged,” one public-health scientist told a colleague in early April, in an internal e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail, criticizing the lack of urgency shown by Canada’s response during January, February and early March. “We knew this was going to be around for a long time, and it’s serious.”
China had locked down cities and restricted travel within its borders. Staff inside the Public Health Agency believed Beijing wasn’t disclosing the whole truth about the danger of the virus and how easily it was transmitted. “The agency was just too slow to respond,” the scientist said. “A sane person would know China was lying.”
It would later be revealed that China’s infection and mortality rates were played down in official records, along with key details about how the virus was spreading.
But the Public Health Agency, which was created after the 2003 SARS crisis to bolster the country against emerging disease threats, had been stripped of much of its capacity to gather outbreak intelligence and provide advance warning by the time the pandemic hit.
The Global Public Health Intelligence Network, an early warning system known as GPHIN that was once considered a cornerstone of Canada’s preparedness strategy, had been scaled back over the past several years, with resources shifted into projects that didn’t involve outbreak surveillance.
However, a series of documents obtained by The Globe during the past four months, from inside the department and through numerous Access to Information requests, show the problems that weakened Canada’s pandemic readiness run deeper than originally thought. Pleas from the international health community for Canada to take outbreak detection and surveillance much more seriously were ignored by mid-level managers [emphasis mine] inside the department. A new federal pandemic preparedness plan – key to gauging the country’s readiness for an emergency – was never fully tested. And on the global stage, the agency stopped sending experts [emphasis mine] to international meetings on pandemic preparedness, instead choosing senior civil servants with little or no public-health background [emphasis mine] to represent Canada at high-level talks, The Globe found.
The curtailing of GPHIN and allegations that scientists had become marginalized within the Public Health Agency, detailed in a Globe investigation this past July , are now the subject of two federal probes – an examination by the Auditor-General of Canada and an independent federal review, ordered by the Minister of Health.
Those processes will undoubtedly reshape GPHIN and may well lead to an overhaul of how the agency functions in some areas. The first steps will be identifying and fixing what went wrong. With the country now topping 535,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 14,700 dead, there will be lessons learned from the pandemic.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he is unsure what role added intelligence [emphasis mine] could have played in the government’s pandemic response, though he regrets not bolstering Canada’s critical supplies of personal protective equipment sooner. But providing the intelligence to make those decisions early is exactly what GPHIN was created to do – and did in previous outbreaks.
Epidemiologists have described in detail to The Globe how vital it is to move quickly and decisively in a pandemic. Acting sooner, even by a few days or weeks in the early going, and throughout, can have an exponential impact on an outbreak, including deaths. Countries such as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, which have fared much better than Canada, appear to have acted faster in key tactical areas, some using early warning information they gathered. As Canada prepares itself in the wake of COVID-19 for the next major health threat, building back a better system becomes paramount.
If you have time, do take a look at Robertson’s December 26, 2020 article and the July 2020 Globe investigation. As both articles make clear, senior bureaucrats whose chief attribute seems to have been longevity took over, reallocated resources, drove out experts, and crippled the few remaining experts in the system with a series of bureaucratic demands while taking trips to attend meetings (in desirable locations) for which they had no significant or useful input.
The Phoenix and GPHIN debacles bear a resemblance in that senior bureaucrats took over and in a state of blissful ignorance made a series of disastrous decisions bolstered by politicians who seem to neither understand nor care much about the outcomes.
If you think I’m being harsh watch Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reporter Rosemary Barton interview Prime Minister Trudeau for a 2020 year-end interview, Note: There are some commercials. Then, pay special attention to the Trudeau’s answer to the first question,
Responsible AI, eh?
Based on the massive mishandling of the Phoenix Pay System implementation where top bureaucrats did not follow basic and well established information services procedures and the Global Public Health Information Network mismanagement by top level bureaucrats, I’m not sure I have a lot of confidence in any Canadian government claims about a responsible approach to using artificial intelligence.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter as implementation is most likely already taking place here in Canada.
Enough with the pessimism. I feel it’s necessary to end this on a mildly positive note. Hurray to the government employees who worked through the Phoenix Pay System debacle, the current and former GPHIN experts who continued to sound warnings, and all those people striving to make true the principles of ‘Peace, Order, and Good Government’, the bedrock principles of the Canadian Parliament.
A lot of mistakes have been made but we also do make a lot of good decisions.