Tag Archives: Italy

Technical University of Munich: embedded ethics approach for AI (artificial intelligence) and storing a tv series in synthetic DNA

I stumbled across two news bits of interest from the Technical University of Munich in one day (Sept. 1, 2020, I think). The topics: artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Embedded ethics and artificial intelligence (AI)

An August 27, 2020 Technical University of Munich (TUM) press release (also on EurekAlert but published Sept. 1, 2020) features information about a proposal to embed ethicists in with AI development teams,

The increasing use of AI (artificial intelligence) in the development of new medical technologies demands greater attention to ethical aspects. An interdisciplinary team at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) advocates the integration of ethics from the very beginning of the development process of new technologies. Alena Buyx, Professor of Ethics in Medicine and Health Technologies, explains the embedded ethics approach.

Professor Buyx, the discussions surrounding a greater emphasis on ethics in AI research have greatly intensified in recent years, to the point where one might speak of “ethics hype” …

Prof. Buyx: … and many committees in Germany and around the world such as the German Ethics Council or the EU Commission High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence have responded. They are all in agreement: We need more ethics in the development of AI-based health technologies. But how do things look in practice for engineers and designers? Concrete solutions are still few and far between. In a joint pilot project with two Integrative Research Centers at TUM, the Munich School of Robotics and Machine Intelligence (MSRM) with its director, Prof. Sami Haddadin, and the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), with Prof. Ruth Müller, we want to try out the embedded ethics approach. We published the proposal in Nature Machine Intelligence at the end of July [2020].

What exactly is meant by the “embedded ethics approach”?

Prof.Buyx: The idea is to make ethics an integral part of the research process by integrating ethicists into the AI development team from day one. For example, they attend team meetings on a regular basis and create a sort of “ethical awareness” for certain issues. They also raise and analyze specific ethical and social issues.

Is there an example of this concept in practice?

Prof. Buyx: The Geriatronics Research Center, a flagship project of the MSRM in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, is developing robot assistants to enable people to live independently in old age. The center’s initiatives will include the construction of model apartments designed to try out residential concepts where seniors share their living space with robots. At a joint meeting with the participating engineers, it was noted that the idea of using an open concept layout everywhere in the units – with few doors or individual rooms – would give the robots considerable range of motion. With the seniors, however, this living concept could prove upsetting because they are used to having private spaces. At the outset, the engineers had not given explicit consideration to this aspect.

Prof.Buyx: The approach sounds promising. But how can we avoid “embedded ethics” from turning into an “ethics washing” exercise, offering companies a comforting sense of “being on the safe side” when developing new AI technologies?

That’s not something we can be certain of avoiding. The key is mutual openness and a willingness to listen, with the goal of finding a common language – and subsequently being prepared to effectively implement the ethical aspects. At TUM we are ideally positioned to achieve this. Prof. Sami Haddadin, the director of the MSRM, is also a member of the EU High-Level Group of Artificial Intelligence. In his research, he is guided by the concept of human centered engineering. Consequently, he has supported the idea of embedded ethics from the very beginning. But one thing is certain: Embedded ethics alone will not suddenly make AI “turn ethical”. Ultimately, that will require laws, codes of conduct and possibly state incentives.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper espousing the embedded ethics for AI development approach,

An embedded ethics approach for AI development by Stuart McLennan, Amelia Fiske, Leo Anthony Celi, Ruth Müller, Jan Harder, Konstantin Ritt, Sami Haddadin & Alena Buyx. Nature Machine Intelligence (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s42256-020-0214-1 Published 31 July 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Religion, ethics and and AI

For some reason embedded ethics and AI got me to thinking about Pope Francis and other religious leaders.

The Roman Catholic Church and AI

There was a recent announcement that the Roman Catholic Church will be working with MicroSoft and IBM on AI and ethics (from a February 28, 2020 article by Jen Copestake for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online (Note: A link has been removed),

Leaders from the two tech giants met senior church officials in Rome, and agreed to collaborate on “human-centred” ways of designing AI.

Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted some people may “think of us as strange bedfellows” at the signing event.

“But I think the world needs people from different places to come together,” he said.

The call was supported by Pope Francis, in his first detailed remarks about the impact of artificial intelligence on humanity.

The Rome Call for Ethics [sic] was co-signed by Mr Smith, IBM executive vice-president John Kelly and president of the Pontifical Academy for Life Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

It puts humans at the centre of new technologies, asking for AI to be designed with a focus on the good of the environment and “our common and shared home and of its human inhabitants”.

Framing the current era as a “renAIssance”, the speakers said the invention of artificial intelligence would be as significant to human development as the invention of the printing press or combustion engine.

UN Food and Agricultural Organization director Qu Dongyu and Italy’s technology minister Paola Pisano were also co-signatories.

Hannah Brockhaus’s February 28, 2020 article for the Catholic News Agency provides some details missing from the BBC report and I found it quite helpful when trying to understand the various pieces that make up this initiative,

The Pontifical Academy for Life signed Friday [February 28, 2020], alongside presidents of IBM and Microsoft, a call for ethical and responsible use of artificial intelligence technologies.

According to the document, “the sponsors of the call express their desire to work together, in this context and at a national and international level, to promote ‘algor-ethics.’”

“Algor-ethics,” according to the text, is the ethical use of artificial intelligence according to the principles of transparency, inclusion, responsibility, impartiality, reliability, security, and privacy.

The signing of the “Rome Call for AI Ethics [PDF]” took place as part of the 2020 assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which was held Feb. 26-28 [2020] on the theme of artificial intelligence.

One part of the assembly was dedicated to private meetings of the academics of the Pontifical Academy for Life. The second was a workshop on AI and ethics that drew 356 participants from 41 countries.

On the morning of Feb. 28 [2020], a public event took place called “renAIssance. For a Humanistic Artificial Intelligence” and included the signing of the AI document by Microsoft President Brad Smith, and IBM Executive Vice-president John Kelly III.

The Director General of FAO, Dongyu Qu, and politician Paola Pisano, representing the Italian government, also signed.

The president of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, was also present Feb. 28.

Pope Francis canceled his scheduled appearance at the event due to feeling unwell. His prepared remarks were read by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Academy for Life.

You can find Pope Francis’s comments about the document here (if you’re not comfortable reading Italian, hopefully, the English translation which follows directly afterward will be helpful). The Pope’s AI initiative has a dedicated website, Rome Call for AI ethics, and while most of the material dates from the February 2020 announcement, they are keeping up a blog. It has two entries, one dated in May 2020 and another in September 2020.

Buddhism and AI

The Dalai Lama is well known for having an interest in science and having hosted scientists for various dialogues. So, I was able to track down a November 10, 2016 article by Ariel Conn for the futureoflife.org website, which features his insights on the matter,

The question of what it means and what it takes to feel needed is an important problem for ethicists and philosophers, but it may be just as important for AI researchers to consider. The Dalai Lama argues that lack of meaning and purpose in one’s work increases frustration and dissatisfaction among even those who are gainfully employed.

“The problem,” says the Dalai Lama, “is … the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies. … Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”

If feeling needed and feeling useful are necessary for happiness, then AI researchers may face a conundrum. Many researchers hope that job loss due to artificial intelligence and automation could, in the end, provide people with more leisure time to pursue enjoyable activities. But if the key to happiness is feeling useful and needed, then a society without work could be just as emotionally challenging as today’s career-based societies, and possibly worse.

I also found a talk on the topic by The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, first here’s a description from his bio at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values webspace on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website,

… an innovative thinker, philosopher, educator and a polymath monk. He is Director of the Ethics Initiative at the MIT Media Lab and President & CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Venerable Tenzin’s unusual background encompasses entering a Buddhist monastery at the age of ten and receiving graduate education at Harvard University with degrees ranging from Philosophy to Physics to International Relations. He is a Tribeca Disruptive Fellow and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. Venerable Tenzin serves on the boards of a number of academic, humanitarian, and religious organizations. He is the recipient of several recognitions and awards and received Harvard’s Distinguished Alumni Honors for his visionary contributions to humanity.

He gave the 2018 Roger W. Heyns Lecture in Religion and Society at Stanford University on the topic, “Religious and Ethical Dimensions of Artificial Intelligence.” The video runs over one hour but he is a sprightly speaker (in comparison to other Buddhist speakers I’ve listened to over the years).

Judaism, Islam, and other Abrahamic faiths examine AI and ethics

I was delighted to find this January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event as it brought together a range of thinkers from various faiths and disciplines,

New technologies are transforming our world every day, and the pace of change is only accelerating.  In coming years, human beings will create machines capable of out-thinking us and potentially taking on such uniquely-human traits as empathy, ethical reasoning, perhaps even consciousness.  This will have profound implications for virtually every human activity, as well as the meaning we impart to life and creation themselves.  This conference will provide an introduction for non-specialists to Artificial Intelligence (AI):

What is it?  What can it do and be used for?  And what will be its implications for choice and free will; economics and worklife; surveillance economies and surveillance states; the changing nature of facts and truth; and the comparative intelligence and capabilities of humans and machines in the future? 

Leading practitioners, ethicists and theologians will provide cross-disciplinary and cross-denominational perspectives on such challenges as technology addiction, inherent biases and resulting inequalities, the ethics of creating destructive technologies and of turning decision-making over to machines from self-driving cars to “autonomous weapons” systems in warfare, and how we should treat the suffering of “feeling” machines.  The conference ultimately will address how we think about our place in the universe and what this means for both religious thought and theological institutions themselves.

UTS [Union Theological Seminary] is the oldest independent seminary in the United States and has long been known as a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship.  JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism and a major center for academic scholarship in Jewish studies. The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international, open, welcoming, and affirming church and congregation that has served as a focal point of global and national activism for peace and social justice since its inception and continues to serve God through word and public witness. The annual Greater Good Gathering, the following week at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, focuses on how technology is changing society, politics and the economy – part of a growing nationwide effort to advance conversations promoting the “greater good.”

They have embedded a video of the event (it runs a little over seven hours) on the January 30, 2020 Artificial Intelligence: Implications for Ethics and Religion event page. For anyone who finds that a daunting amount of information, you may want to check out the speaker list for ideas about who might be writing and thinking on this topic.

As for Islam, I did track down this November 29, 2018 article by Shahino Mah Abdullah, a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia,

As the global community continues to work together on the ethics of AI, there are still vast opportunities to offer ethical inputs, including the ethical principles based on Islamic teachings.

This is in line with Islam’s encouragement for its believers to convey beneficial messages, including to share its ethical principles with society.

In Islam, ethics or akhlak (virtuous character traits) in Arabic, is sometimes employed interchangeably in the Arabic language with adab, which means the manner, attitude, behaviour, and etiquette of putting things in their proper places. Islamic ethics cover all the legal concepts ranging from syariah (Islamic law), fiqh ( jurisprudence), qanun (ordinance), and ‘urf (customary practices).

Adopting and applying moral values based on the Islamic ethical concept or applied Islamic ethics could be a way to address various issues in today’s societies.

At the same time, this approach is in line with the higher objectives of syariah (maqasid alsyariah) that is aimed at conserving human benefit by the protection of human values, including faith (hifz al-din), life (hifz alnafs), lineage (hifz al-nasl), intellect (hifz al-‘aql), and property (hifz al-mal). This approach could be very helpful to address contemporary issues, including those related to the rise of AI and intelligent robots.

..

Part of the difficulty with tracking down more about AI, ethics, and various religions is linguistic. I simply don’t have the language skills to search for the commentaries and, even in English, I may not have the best or most appropriate search terms.

Television (TV) episodes stored on DNA?

According to a Sept. 1, 2020 news item on Nanowerk, the first episode of a tv series, ‘Biohackers’ has been stored on synthetic DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) by a researcher at TUM and colleagues at another institution,

The first episode of the newly released series “Biohackers” was stored in the form of synthetic DNA. This was made possible by the research of Prof. Reinhard Heckel of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and his colleague Prof. Robert Grass of ETH Zürich.

They have developed a method that permits the stable storage of large quantities of data on DNA for over 1000 years.

A Sept. 1, 2020 TUM press release, which originated the news item, proceeds with more detail in an interview format,

Prof. Heckel, Biohackers is about a medical student seeking revenge on a professor with a dark past – and the manipulation of DNA with biotechnology tools. You were commissioned to store the series on DNA. How does that work?

First, I should mention that what we’re talking about is artificially generated – in other words, synthetic – DNA. DNA consists of four building blocks: the nucleotides adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). Computer data, meanwhile, are coded as zeros and ones. The first episode of Biohackers consists of a sequence of around 600 million zeros and ones. To code the sequence 01 01 11 00 in DNA, for example, we decide which number combinations will correspond to which letters. For example: 00 is A, 01 is C, 10 is G and 11 is T. Our example then produces the DNA sequence CCTA. Using this principle of DNA data storage, we have stored the first episode of the series on DNA.

And to view the series – is it just a matter of “reverse translation” of the letters?

In a very simplified sense, you can visualize it like that. When writing, storing and reading the DNA, however, errors occur. If these errors are not corrected, the data stored on the DNA will be lost. To solve the problem, I have developed an algorithm based on channel coding. This method involves correcting errors that take place during information transfers. The underlying idea is to add redundancy to the data. Think of language: When we read or hear a word with missing or incorrect letters, the computing power of our brain is still capable of understanding the word. The algorithm follows the same principle: It encodes the data with sufficient redundancy to ensure that even highly inaccurate data can be restored later.

Channel coding is used in many fields, including in telecommunications. What challenges did you face when developing your solution?

The first challenge was to create an algorithm specifically geared to the errors that occur in DNA. The second one was to make the algorithm so efficient that the largest possible quantities of data can be stored on the smallest possible quantity of DNA, so that only the absolutely necessary amount of redundancy is added. We demonstrated that our algorithm is optimized in that sense.

DNA data storage is very expensive because of the complexity of DNA production as well as the reading process. What makes DNA an attractive storage medium despite these challenges?

First, DNA has a very high information density. This permits the storage of enormous data volumes in a minimal space. In the case of the TV series, we stored “only” 100 megabytes on a picogram – or a billionth of a gram of DNA. Theoretically, however, it would be possible to store up to 200 exabytes on one gram of DNA. And DNA lasts a long time. By comparison: If you never turned on your PC or wrote data to the hard disk it contains, the data would disappear after a couple of years. By contrast, DNA can remain stable for many thousands of years if it is packed right.

And the method you have developed also makes the DNA strands durable – practically indestructible.

My colleague Robert Grass was the first to develop a process for the “stable packing” of DNA strands by encapsulating them in nanometer-scale spheres made of silica glass. This ensures that the DNA is protected against mechanical influences. In a joint paper in 2015, we presented the first robust DNA data storage concept with our algorithm and the encapsulation process developed by Prof. Grass. Since then we have continuously improved our method. In our most recent publication in Nature Protocols of January 2020, we passed on what we have learned.

What are your next steps? Does data storage on DNA have a future?

We’re working on a way to make DNA data storage cheaper and faster. “Biohackers” was a milestone en route to commercialization. But we still have a long way to go. If this technology proves successful, big things will be possible. Entire libraries, all movies, photos, music and knowledge of every kind – provided it can be represented in the form of data – could be stored on DNA and would thus be available to humanity for eternity.

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

Reading and writing digital data in DNA by Linda C. Meiser, Philipp L. Antkowiak, Julian Koch, Weida D. Chen, A. Xavier Kohll, Wendelin J. Stark, Reinhard Heckel & Robert N. Grass. Nature Protocols volume 15, pages86–101(2020) Issue Date: January 2020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41596-019-0244-5 Published [online] 29 November 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for ‘Biohackers’, it’s a German science fiction television series and you can find out more about it here on the Internet Movie Database.

“Eat up your ceramic nanoparticles” says the European Space Agency

A Sept. 4, 2020 news item on phys.org showcases some intriguing research from the European Space Agency (ESA),

“Eat your vitamins” might be replaced with “ingest your ceramic nano-particles” in the future as space research is giving more weight to the idea that nanoscopic particles could help protect cells from common causes of damage.

A Sept, 4, 2020 ESA press release, which originated the news item, fills in some of the details and raises a question,

Oxidative stress occurs in our bodies when cells lose the natural balance of electrons in the molecules that we are made of. This is a common and constant occurrence that is part of our metabolism but also plays a role in the aging process and several pathological conditions, such as heart failure, muscle atrophy and Parkinson’s disease.

The best advice for keeping your body in balance and avoiding oxidative stress is still to have a healthy diet and eat enough vitamins, but nanoparticles are showing promising results in keeping cells in shape.

When in space, astronauts have been shown to suffer from more oxidative stress due to the extra radiation they receive and as a by-product of floating in weightlessness, so researchers in Italy were keen to see if nanoparticles would have the same protective effect on cells on the International Space Station as on Earth.

They prepared muscle cells that flew to the International Space Station and were cultured in ESA’s Kubik incubator before being frozen for storage.

A year ago [emphasis mine] our frozen samples splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on the Dragon spacecraft, and after comparing the samples we saw a marked effect in the cells treated with ceramic nanoparticles,” says Gianni Ciofani from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy. “The effect we observed seems to imply that nanoparticles work better and longer than traditional antioxidants such as vitamins.”

“The experiment setup resulted in excellent samples to analyze using state-of-the art RNA sequencing,” continues Gianni. “Conducting space research is nothing like traditional lab work, as we have less samples, we cannot do the work ourselves and we have to work around deadlines such as launch days, landing and storing the samples, it is challenging but thrilling research!” The team even found ways to improve and simplify the process for future studies.

Baby astronauts hypothesis

The research adds weight to the baby-astronaut hypothesis of weightlessness. The changes in muscle tissue observed are similar to how babies’ tissues develop in the womb.

“Some researchers see similarities to how human bodies adapt to living in space with pre-natal conditions: there are similarities with floating in a warm environment with different oxygen intake and we consider it a possibility of return to the state,” says Giada Genchi, also of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia’s Smart Bio-Interfaces department.

The team’s high-quality muscle tissue samples are being further analyzed and compared to samples from similar experiments that flew earlier. There is still much more to learn, such as what is the best way to administer nano-ceramics and how long do their protective effects last as well as possible unwanted side effects.

I highlighted a “A year ago” because that should mean 2019 but the research the ESA press release linked to was published in 2018. I cannot find anything more recent. So, for the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the 2018 research paper,

Modulation of gene expression in rat muscle cells following treatment with nanoceria in different gravity regimes by Giada Graziana Genchi, Andrea Degl’Innocenti, Alice Rita Salgarella, Ilaria Pezzini, Attilio Marino, Arianna Menciassi, Sara Piccirillo, Michele Balsamo & Gianni Ciofani. Nanomedicine Vol. 13, No. 22 Preliminary Communication DOI: https://doi.org/10.2217/nnm-2018-0316 Published Online: 18 Oct 2018 Print Version: 2018 Nov;13 (22): 2821-2833. DOI: 10.2217/nnm-2018-0316.

The paper is behind a paywall.

This image was used to illustrate the work,

Courtesy Nanomedicine (journal)

Regardless of when the research was published, it’s still pretty interesting work and I hope to hear more about it in the future.

A biohybrid artificial synapse that can communicate with living cells

As I noted in my June 16, 2020 posting, we may have more than one kind of artificial brain in our future. This latest work features a biohybrid. From a June 15, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

In 2017, Stanford University researchers presented a new device that mimics the brain’s efficient and low-energy neural learning process [see my March 8, 2017 posting for more]. It was an artificial version of a synapse — the gap across which neurotransmitters travel to communicate between neurons — made from organic materials. In 2019, the researchers assembled nine of their artificial synapses together in an array, showing that they could be simultaneously programmed to mimic the parallel operation of the brain [see my Sept. 17, 2019 posting].

Now, in a paper published June 15 [2020] in Nature Materials, they have tested the first biohybrid version of their artificial synapse and demonstrated that it can communicate with living cells. Future technologies stemming from this device could function by responding directly to chemical signals from the brain. The research was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology — IIT) in Italy and at Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands).

“This paper really highlights the unique strength of the materials that we use in being able to interact with living matter,” said Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and co-senior author of the paper. “The cells are happy sitting on the soft polymer. But the compatibility goes deeper: These materials work with the same molecules neurons use naturally.”

While other brain-integrated devices require an electrical signal to detect and process the brain’s messages, the communications between this device and living cells occur through electrochemistry — as though the material were just another neuron receiving messages from its neighbor.

A June 15, 2020 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Taylor Kubota, which originated the news item, delves further into this recent work,

How neurons learn

The biohybrid artificial synapse consists of two soft polymer electrodes, separated by a trench filled with electrolyte solution – which plays the part of the synaptic cleft that separates communicating neurons in the brain. When living cells are placed on top of one electrode, neurotransmitters that those cells release can react with that electrode to produce ions. Those ions travel across the trench to the second electrode and modulate the conductive state of this electrode. Some of that change is preserved, simulating the learning process occurring in nature.

“In a biological synapse, essentially everything is controlled by chemical interactions at the synaptic junction. Whenever the cells communicate with one another, they’re using chemistry,” said Scott Keene, a graduate student at Stanford and co-lead author of the paper. “Being able to interact with the brain’s natural chemistry gives the device added utility.”

This process mimics the same kind of learning seen in biological synapses, which is highly efficient in terms of energy because computing and memory storage happen in one action. In more traditional computer systems, the data is processed first and then later moved to storage.

To test their device, the researchers used rat neuroendocrine cells that release the neurotransmitter dopamine. Before they ran their experiment, they were unsure how the dopamine would interact with their material – but they saw a permanent change in the state of their device upon the first reaction.

“We knew the reaction is irreversible, so it makes sense that it would cause a permanent change in the device’s conductive state,” said Keene. “But, it was hard to know whether we’d achieve the outcome we predicted on paper until we saw it happen in the lab. That was when we realized the potential this has for emulating the long-term learning process of a synapse.”

A first step

This biohybrid design is in such early stages that the main focus of the current research was simply to make it work.

“It’s a demonstration that this communication melding chemistry and electricity is possible,” said Salleo. “You could say it’s a first step toward a brain-machine interface, but it’s a tiny, tiny very first step.”

Now that the researchers have successfully tested their design, they are figuring out the best paths for future research, which could include work on brain-inspired computers, brain-machine interfaces, medical devices or new research tools for neuroscience. Already, they are working on how to make the device function better in more complex biological settings that contain different kinds of cells and neurotransmitters.

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

A biohybrid synapse with neurotransmitter-mediated plasticity by Scott T. Keene, Claudia Lubrano, Setareh Kazemzadeh, Armantas Melianas, Yaakov Tuchman, Giuseppina Polino, Paola Scognamiglio, Lucio Cinà, Alberto Salleo, Yoeri van de Burgt & Francesca Santoro. Nature Materials (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-020-0703-y Published: 15 June 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canadian and Italian researchers go beyond graphene with 2D polymers

According to a May 20,2020 McGill University news release (also on EurkekAltert), a team of Canadian and Italian researchers has broken new ground in materials science (Note: There’s a press release I found a bit more accessible and therefore informative coming up after this one),

A study by a team of researchers from Canada and Italy recently published in Nature Materials could usher in a revolutionary development in materials science, leading to big changes in the way companies create modern electronics.

The goal was to develop two-dimensional materials, which are a single atomic layer thick, with added functionality to extend the revolutionary developments in materials science that started with the discovery of graphene in 2004.

In total, 19 authors worked on this paper from INRS [Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique], McGill {University], Lakehead [University], and Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, the national research council in Italy.

This work opens exciting new directions, both theoretical and experimental. The integration of this system into a device (e.g. transistors) may lead to outstanding performances. In addition, these results will foster more studies on a wide range of two-dimensional conjugated polymers with different lattice symmetries, thereby gaining further insights into the structure vs. properties of these systems.

The Italian/Canadian team demonstrated the synthesis of large-scale two-dimensional conjugated polymers, also thoroughly characterizing their electronic properties. They achieved success by combining the complementary expertise of organic chemists and surface scientists.

“This work represents an exciting development in the realization of functional two-dimensional materials beyond graphene,” said Mark Gallagher, a Physics professor at Lakehead University.

“I found it particularly rewarding to participate in this collaboration, which allowed us to combine our expertise in organic chemistry, condensed matter physics, and materials science to achieve our goals.”

Dmytro Perepichka, a professor and chair of Chemistry at McGill University, said they have been working on this research for a long time.

“Structurally reconfigurable two-dimensional conjugated polymers can give a new breadth to applications of two-dimensional materials in electronics,” Perepichka said.

“We started dreaming of them more than 15 years ago. It’s only through this four-way collaboration, across the country and between the continents, that this dream has become the reality.”

Federico Rosei, a professor at the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre of the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) in Varennes who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nanostructured Materials since 2016, said they are excited about the results of this collaboration.

“These results provide new insights into mechanisms of surface reactions at a fundamental level and simultaneously yield a novel material with outstanding properties, whose existence had only been predicted theoretically until now,” he said.

About this study

Synthesis of mesoscale ordered two-dimensional π-conjugated polymers with semiconducting properties” by G. Galeotti et al. was published in Nature Materials.

This research was partially supported by a project Grande Rilevanza Italy-Quebec of the Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale, Direzione Generale per la Promozione del Sistema Paese, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Fonds Québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies and a US Army Research Office. Federico Rosei is also grateful to the Canada Research Chairs program for funding and partial salary support.

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill is a leading Canadian post-secondary institution. It has two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

About the INRS
The Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) is the only institution in Québec dedicated exclusively to graduate level university research and training. The impacts of its faculty and students are felt around the world. INRS proudly contributes to societal progress in partnership with industry and community stakeholders, both through its discoveries and by training new researchers and technicians to deliver scientific, social, and technological breakthroughs in the future.

Lakehead University
Lakehead University is a fully comprehensive university with approximately 9,700 full-time equivalent students and over 2,000 faculty and staff at two campuses in Orillia and Thunder Bay, Ontario. Lakehead has 10 faculties, including Business Administration, Education, Engineering, Graduate Studies, Health & Behavioural Sciences, Law, Natural Resources Management, the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, Science & Environmental Studies, and Social Sciences & Humanities. In 2019, Maclean’s 2020 University Rankings, once again, included Lakehead University among Canada’s Top 10 primarily undergraduate universities, while Research Infosource named Lakehead ‘Research University of the Year’ in its category for the fifth consecutive year. Visit www.lakeheadu.ca

I’m a little surprised there wasn’t a quote from one of the Italian researchers in the McGill news release but then there isn’t a quote in this slightly more accessible May 18, 2020 Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche press release either,

Graphene’s isolation took the world by surprise and was meant to revolutionize modern electronics. However, it was soon realized that its intrinsic properties limit the utilization in our daily electronic devices. When a concept of Mathematics, namely Topology, met the field of on-surface chemistry, new materials with exotic features were theoretically discovered. Topological materials exhibit technological relevant properties such as quantum hall conductivity that are protected by a concept similar to the comparison of a coffee mug and a donut.  These structures can be synthesized by the versatile molecular engineering toolbox that surface reactions provide. Nevertheless, the realization of such a material yields access to properties that suit the figure of merits for modern electronic application and could eventually for example lead to solve the ever-increasing heat conflict in chip design. However, problems such as low crystallinity and defect rich structures prevented the experimental observation and kept it for more than a decade a playground only investigated theoretically.

An international team of scientists from Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (Centre Energie, Matériaux et Télécommunications), McGill University and Lakehead University, both located in Canada, and the SAMOS laboratory of the Istituto di Struttura della Materia (Cnr), led by Giorgio Contini, demonstrates, in a recent publication on Nature Materials, that the synthesis of two-dimensional π-conjugated polymers with topological Dirac cone and flats bands became a reality allowing a sneak peek into the world of organic topological materials.

Complementary work of organic chemists and surface scientists lead to two-dimensional polymers on a mesoscopic scale and granted access to their electronic properties. The band structure of the topological polymer reveals both flat bands and a Dirac cone confirming the prediction of theory. The observed coexistence of both structures is of particular interest, since whereas Dirac cones yield massless charge carriers (a band velocity of the same order of magnitude of graphene has been obtained), necessary for technological applications, flat bands quench the kinetic energy of charge carriers and could give rise to intriguing phenomena such as the anomalous Hall effect, surface superconductivity or superfluid transport.

This work paths multiple new roads – both theoretical and experimental nature. The integration of this topological polymer into a device such as transistors possibly reveals immense performance. On the other hand, it will foster many researchers to explore a wide range of two-dimensional polymers with different lattice symmetries, obtaining insight into the relationship between geometrical and electrical topology, which would in return be beneficial to fine tune a-priori theoretical studies. These materials – beyond graphene – could be then used for both their intrinsic properties as well as their interplay in new heterostructure designs.

The authors are currently exploring the practical use of the realized material trying to integrate it into transistors, pushing toward a complete designing of artificial topological lattices.

This work was partially supported by a project Grande Rilevanza Italy-Quebec of the Italian Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (MAECI), Direzione Generale per la Promozione del Sistema Paese.

The Italians also included an image to accompany their press release,

Image of the synthesized material and its band structure Courtesy: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche

My heart sank when I saw the number of authors for this paper (WordPress no longer [since their Christmas 2018 update] makes it easy to add the author’s names quickly to the ‘tags field’). Regardless and in keeping with my practice, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Synthesis of mesoscale ordered two-dimensional π-conjugated polymers with semiconducting properties by G. Galeotti, F. De Marchi, E. Hamzehpoor, O. MacLean, M. Rajeswara Rao, Y. Chen, L. V. Besteiro, D. Dettmann, L. Ferrari, F. Frezza, P. M. Sheverdyaeva, R. Liu, A. K. Kundu, P. Moras, M. Ebrahimi, M. C. Gallagher, F. Rosei, D. F. Perepichka & G. Contini. Nature Materials (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-020-0682-z Published 18 May 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Connecting biological and artificial neurons (in UK, Switzerland, & Italy) over the web

Caption: The virtual lab connecting Southampton, Zurich and Padova. Credit: University of Southampton

A February 26, 2020 University of Southampton press release (also on EurekAlert) describes this work,

Research on novel nanoelectronics devices led by the University of Southampton enabled brain neurons and artificial neurons to communicate with each other. This study has for the first time shown how three key emerging technologies can work together: brain-computer interfaces, artificial neural networks and advanced memory technologies (also known as memristors). The discovery opens the door to further significant developments in neural and artificial intelligence research.

Brain functions are made possible by circuits of spiking neurons, connected together by microscopic, but highly complex links called ‘synapses’. In this new study, published in the scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports, the scientists created a hybrid neural network where biological and artificial neurons in different parts of the world were able to communicate with each other over the internet through a hub of artificial synapses made using cutting-edge nanotechnology. This is the first time the three components have come together in a unified network.

During the study, researchers based at the University of Padova in Italy cultivated rat neurons in their laboratory, whilst partners from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich created artificial neurons on Silicon microchips. The virtual laboratory was brought together via an elaborate setup controlling nanoelectronic synapses developed at the University of Southampton. These synaptic devices are known as memristors.

The Southampton based researchers captured spiking events being sent over the internet from the biological neurons in Italy and then distributed them to the memristive synapses. Responses were then sent onward to the artificial neurons in Zurich also in the form of spiking activity. The process simultaneously works in reverse too; from Zurich to Padova. Thus, artificial and biological neurons were able to communicate bidirectionally and in real time.

Themis Prodromakis, Professor of Nanotechnology and Director of the Centre for Electronics Frontiers at the University of Southampton said “One of the biggest challenges in conducting research of this kind and at this level has been integrating such distinct cutting edge technologies and specialist expertise that are not typically found under one roof. By creating a virtual lab we have been able to achieve this.”

The researchers now anticipate that their approach will ignite interest from a range of scientific disciplines and accelerate the pace of innovation and scientific advancement in the field of neural interfaces research. In particular, the ability to seamlessly connect disparate technologies across the globe is a step towards the democratisation of these technologies, removing a significant barrier to collaboration.

Professor Prodromakis added “We are very excited with this new development. On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI [artificial intelligence] chips.”

I’m fascinated by this work and after taking a look at the paper, I have to say, the paper is surprisingly accessible. In other words, I think I get the general picture. For example (from the Introduction to the paper; citation and link follow further down),

… To emulate plasticity, the memristor MR1 is operated as a two-terminal device through a control system that receives pre- and post-synaptic depolarisations from one silicon neuron (ANpre) and one biological neuron (BN), respectively. …

If I understand this properly, they’ve integrated a biological neuron and an artificial neuron in a single system across three countries.

For those who care to venture forth, here’s a link and a citation for the paper,

Memristive synapses connect brain and silicon spiking neurons by Alexantrou Serb, Andrea Corna, Richard George, Ali Khiat, Federico Rocchi, Marco Reato, Marta Maschietto, Christian Mayr, Giacomo Indiveri, Stefano Vassanelli & Themistoklis Prodromakis. Scientific Reports volume 10, Article number: 2590 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-58831-9 Published 25 February 2020

The paper is open access.

Neuronal regenerative-interfaces made of cross-linked carbon nanotube films

If I understand this research rightly, they are creating a film made of carbon nanotubes that can stimulate the growth of nerve cells (neurons) thus creating a ‘living/nonliving’ hybrid or as they call it in the press release a ‘biosynthetic hybrid’.

An August 2, 2019 news item on Nanowerk introduces the research (Note 1: There seem to be some translation issues; Note 2: Links have been removed),

Carbon nanotubes able to take on the desired shapes thanks to a special chemical treatment, called crosslinking and, at the same time, able to function as substrata for the growth of nerve cells, finely tuning their growth and activity.

The research published in ACS Nano (“Chemically Cross-Linked Carbon Nanotube Films Engineered to Control Neuronal Signaling”), is a new and important step towards the construction of neuronal regenerative-interfaces to repair spinal injuries.

The study is the new achievement of a long-term and, in terms of results, successful collaboration between the scientists Laura Ballerini of SISSA (Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati), Trieste, and Maurizio Prato of the University of Trieste. The work team has also been assisted by CIC biomaGUNE of San Sebastián, Spain.

Caption: Carbon nanotubes able to take on the desired shapes thanks to a special chemical treatment, called crosslinking and, at the same time, able to function as substrata for the growth of nerve cells, finely tuning their growth and activity. Credit: Rossana Rauti

An August 2, 2019 SISSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, adds detail,

The carbon nanotubes used in the research have been modified by appropriate chemical treatments: “For many years, in our laboratories we have been working on the chemical reactivity of carbon nanotubes, a fascinating but very difficult material to work. Thanks to our experience, we have crosslinked them or, to say it more clearly, we have treated the nanotubes so they could link themselves to one another thanks to specific chemical reactions. We have discovered that this procedure gives the material very interesting characteristics. For example, the material organises itself in a stable manner according to a precise shape, we choose: a tissue where nerve cells need to be planted, for example. Or around some electrodes” explains Professor Prato. “We know from previous research that nerve cells grow well on carbon nanotubes so they could be used as a surface to build hybrid devices to regenerate nerve tissues. It was necessary to ensure that this chemical modification did not compromise this process and study whether the interaction with neurons was altered”.

Towards biosynthetic hybrids

Professor Ballerini continues: “We have discovered that the chemical process has important effects because through this treatment we can modulate the activity of neurons, in terms of growth, adhesion and survival. These materials can also regulate the communication between neurons. We can say that the carpet of crosslinked carbon nanotubes interacts intensely and constructively with the nerve cells”. This interaction depends on how much the different carbon nanotubes are linked to each other, or rather crosslinked. The lower the link number among the nanotubes the higher the activity of neurons that grow on their surface. Through the chemical control of their properties, and of the links between them, it is possible to regulate the response of the neurons. Ballerini and Prato explain: “This is an intriguing result that emerges from the important and fruitful collaboration between our research groups involving advanced research in chemistry, nanoscience and neurobiology . This study provides a further step in the design of future biosynthetic hybrids to recover injured nerve tissues functions”.

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

Chemically Cross-Linked Carbon Nanotube Films Engineered to Control Neuronal Signaling by Myriam Barrejón, Rossana Rauti, Laura Ballerini, Maurizio Prato. ACS Nano2019 XXXXXXXXXX-XXX Publication Date:July 22, 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.9b02429 Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Computers made of gold embroidery and an Organic Bioelectronics conference (ORBITALY) in Naples, Italy

Spend enough time reading about emerging technologies and, at some point, you will find yourself questioning some of your dearly held beliefs. It gives a whole new meaning to term, mind altering (also, mind blowing or mind expanding), which in the 1960s was used to refer to the effects of LSD and other hallucinogens. Today <September 1, 2019 (Labour Day in Canada and elsewhere), I have two news bits that could be considered mind expanding, sans hallucinogens.

Gold-embroidered computers

The Embroidered Computer. Artists: Irene Posch and Ebru Kurbak .[downloaded from http://www.ireneposch.net/the-embroidered-computer/]

If you look closely, you’ll see the beads shift position and that’s how the ones and zeroes make themselves known on this embroidered computer. An August 23, 2019 article (updated from a March 8, 2019 article) on the CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio, Spark programme web space, provides insight into the work,

A beautiful ’embroidered computer’ may explode our categories of what computers are supposed to look like.

After all, we may think the design of a computer is permanent, but what a computer ‘looks like’ depends a lot on what era it’s from.

“We use gold-coloured copper wire to form a coil, in a donut shape” Posch told Spark host Nora Young. “Then we have a magnetic bead that sits in the middle of this coil, and when this coil is [connected to] power, the magnetic bead is either attracted or pushed away….

Depending on how we power… the embroidered coil, we can direct the magnetic bead in different positions.”

More gold embroidery on top of the bead will flip one way or another, based on the bead [above].

The process is analogous to the zeros and ones of computation.

As well as being an artist, Posch is a professor at the University for Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria. Much of her work and research uses textile art to explore digital technology.

In this case, it’s not like Irene expects people to start doing today’s heavy-duty computing on a two-metre-long, eight-bit golden embroidered fabric computer. But The Embroidered Computer project opens up space to question the design of computers in particular, but also our technologies in general

“I understand The Embroidered Computer as an alternative, as an example, but also a critique of what we assume a computer to be today, and how it technically could be different,” Posch said. “If this is actually what we want is a whole different question, but I think it’s interesting to propose an alternative.”

Bringing together textiles and electronics, which are normally seen as worlds apart, can bring new insights. “Going into the history of computing we very soon become aware that they’re not that apart as we sometimes think they are, if you think of the Jacquard weaving loom as one of the predecessors of computing today.”

You can find our more about the artists (Ebru Kurkak here) and (Irene Posch here). Finally, you can hear the Spark radio interview with Irene Posch here.

ORBITALY 2019

I don’t have a lot of information about this event but what I do have looks intriguing. From the ORBITALY 2019 conference home page,

OrBItaly (Organic BIoelectronics Italy) is an international conference, organized by the Italian Scientific Community and attended by scientists of the highest reputation, dedicated to the most recent results in the field of bioelectronics, with a particular focus on the employment of organic materials.

OrBItaly has attracted in the years a growing interest by scientists coming from all over the world. The 2019 edition is the fifth one of this cross-disciplinary conference, and will be held in Naples, on October 21st-23rd, 2019, at the Congress Center of the University Federico II

This year the conference will be preceded by the first edition of the Graduate School in Organic Bioelectronics, that will be held at the Congress Center of the University of Naples Federico II in Naples (Italy), on October 20th, 2019. The school is mainly targeted to PhD students, post-docs and young researchers as well as to senior scientists and industry-oriented researchers, giving them the opportunity to attend an overview of the latest advances in the fields of organic bioelectronics presented by leading scientists of the highest international repute. Invited lecturers will provide highly stimulating lessons at advanced levels in their own field of research, and closely interact with the attendees during platform discussions, outreach events and informal meetings.

Organizing Committee

Mario Barra, CNR – SPIN, mario.barra@spin.cnr.it
Irene Bonadies, CNR – IPCB, irene.bonadies@ipcb.cnr.it
Antonio Cassinese, Univ. Napoli Federico II, cassinese@na.infn.it
Valeria Criscuolo, IIT, valeria.criscuolo@iit.it
Claudia Lubrano, IIT, claudia.lubrano@iit.it
Maria Grazia Maglione, ENEA, mariagrazia.maglione@enea.it
Paola Manini, Univ. Napoli Federico II, paola.manini@unina.it
Alessandro Pezzella, Univ. Napoli Federico II, alessandro.pezzella@unina.it
Maria Grazia Raucci, CNR – IPCB, mariagrazia.raucci@cnr.it
Francesca Santoro, IIT, francesca.santoro@iit.it
Paolo Tassini, ENEA, paolo.tassini@enea.it

So, the conference runs from the 21st to the 23rd of October 2019 and there’s a one-day graduate school programme being held one day prior to the conference on the 20th of October 2019.

Regular readers may notice that some of the ORBITALY 2019 organizers have recently been mentioned here in an August 25, 2019 posting titled, Cyborgs based on melanin circuits.

Cyborgs based on melanin circuits

Pigments for biocompatible electronics? According to a March 26, 2019 news item on Nanowerk this is a distinct possibility (Note: A link has been removed),

The dark brown melanin pigment, eumelanin, colors hair and eyes, and protects our skin from sun damage. It has also long been known to conduct electricity, but too little for any useful application – until now.

In a landmark study published in Frontiers in Chemistry (“Evidence of Unprecedented High Electronic Conductivity in Mammalian Pigment Based Eumelanin Thin Films After Thermal Annealing in Vacuum”), Italian researchers subtly modified the structure of eumelanin by heating it in a vacuum.

“Our process produced a billion-fold increase in the electrical conductivity of eumelanin,” say study senior authors Dr. Alessandro Pezzella of University of Naples Federico II and Dr. Paolo Tassini of Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development. “This makes possible the long-anticipated design of melanin-based electronics, which can be used for implanted devices due to the pigment’s biocompatibility.”

This is a rather dreamy image to illustrate the point,

Despite extensive research on the structure of melanin, nobody has yet managed to harness its potential in implantable electronics. Image: Shutterstock. [downloaded from https://blog.frontiersin.org/2019/03/26/will-cyborgs-circuits-be-made-from-melanin/]

A March 26, 2019 Frontiers in Chemistry (journal) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

A young Pezzella had not even begun school when scientists first discovered that a type of melanin can conduct electricity. Excitement quickly rose around the discovery because eumelanin – the dark brown pigment found in hair, skin and eyes – is fully biocompatible.

“Melanins occur naturally in virtually all forms of life. They are non-toxic and do not elicit an immune reaction,” explains Pezzella. “Out in the environment, they are also completely biodegradable.”

Decades later, and despite extensive research on the structure of melanin, nobody has managed to harness its potential in implantable electronics.

“To date, conductivity of synthetic as well as natural eumelanin has been far too low for valuable applications,” he adds.

Some researchers tried to increase the conductivity of eumelanin by combining it with metals, or super-heating it into a graphene-like material – but what they were left with was not truly the biocompatible conducting material promised.

Determined to find the real deal, the Neapolitan group considered the structure of eumelanin.

“All of the chemical and physical analyses of eumelanin paint the same picture – of electron-sharing molecular sheets, stacked messily together. The answer seemed obvious: neaten the stacks and align the sheets, so they can all share electrons – then the electricity will flow.”

This process, called annealing, is used already to increase electrical conductivity and other properties in materials such as metals.

For the first time, the researchers put films of synthetic eumelanin through an annealing process under high vacuum to neaten them up – a little like hair straightening, but with only the pigment.

“We heated these eumelanin films – no thicker than a bacterium – under vacuum conditions, from 30 min up to 6 hours,” describes Tassini. “We call the resulting material High Vacuum Annealed Eumelanin, HVAE.”

The annealing worked wonders for eumelanin: the films slimmed down by more than half, and picked up quite a tan.

“The HVAE films were now dark brown and about as thick as a virus,” Tassini reports.

Crucially, the films had not simply been burnt to a crisp.

“All our various analyses agree that these changes reflect reorganization of eumelanin molecules from a random orientation to a uniform, electron-sharing stack. The annealing temperatures were too low to break up the eumelanin, and we detected no combustion to elemental carbon.”

Having achieved the intended structural changes to eumelanin, the researchers proved their hypothesis in spectacular fashion.

“The conductivity of the films increased billion-fold to an unprecedented value of over 300 S/cm, after annealing at 600°C for 2 hours,” Pezzella confirms.

Although well short of most metal conductors – copper has a conductivity of around 6 x 107 S/cm – this finding launches eumelanin well into a useful range for bioelectronics.

What’s more, the conductivity of HVAE was tunable according to the annealing conditions.

“The conductivity of the films increased with increasing temperature, from 1000-fold at 200°C. This opens the possibility of tailoring eumelanin for a wide range of applications in organic electronics and bioelectronics. It also strongly supports the conclusion from structural analysis that annealing reorganized the films, rather than burning them.”

There is one potential dampener: immersion of the films in water results in a marked decrease in conductivity.

“This contrasts with untreated eumelanin which, albeit in a much lower range, becomes more conductive with hydration (humidity) because it conducts electricity via ions as well as electrons. Further research is needed to fully understand the ionic vs. electronic contributions in eumelanin conductivity, which could be key to how eumelanin is used practically in implantable electronics.” concludes Pezzella.

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

Evidence of Unprecedented High Electronic Conductivity in Mammalian Pigment Based Eumelanin Thin Films After Thermal Annealing in Vacuum by Ludovico Migliaccio, Paola Manini, Davide Altamura, Cinzia Giannini, Paolo Tassini, Maria Grazia Maglione, Carla Minarini, and Alessandro Pezzella. Front. Chem., 26 March 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fchem.2019.00162

This paper is open access.

CARESSES your elders (robots for support)

Culturally sensitive robots for elder care! It’s about time. The European Union has funded the Culture Aware Robots and Environmental Sensor Systems for Elderly Support (CARESSES) project being coordinated in Italy. A December 13, 2018 news item on phys.org describes the project,

Researchers have developed revolutionary new robots that adapt to the culture and customs of the elderly people they assist.

Population ageing has implications for many sectors of society, one of which is the increased demand on a country’s health and social care resources. This burden could be greatly eased through advances in artificial intelligence. Robots have the potential to provide valuable assistance to caregivers in hospitals and care homes. They could also improve home care and help the elderly live more independently. But to do this, they will have to be able to respond to older people’s needs in a way that is more likely to be trusted and accepted.
The EU-funded project CARESSES has set out to build the first ever culturally competent robots to care for the elderly. The groundbreaking idea involved designing these robots to adapt their way of acting and speaking to match the culture and habits of the elderly person they’re assisting.

“The idea is that robots should be capable of adapting to human culture in a broad sense, defined by a person’s belonging to a particular ethnic group. At the same time, robots must be able to adapt to an individual’s personal preferences, so in that sense, it doesn’t matter if you’re Italian or Indian,” explained researcher Alessandro Saffiotti of project partner Örebro University, Sweden, …

A December 13, 2018 (?) CORDIS press release, which originated the news item, adds more detail about the robots and their anticipated relationship to their elderly patients,

Through its communication with an elderly person, the robot will fine-tune its knowledge by adapting it to that person’s cultural identity and individual characteristics. Using this knowledge, it will be able to remind the elderly person to take their prescribed medication, encourage them to eat healthily and be active, or help them stay in touch with family and friends. The robot will also be able to make suggestions about the appropriate clothing for specific occasions and remind people of upcoming religious and other celebrations. It doesn’t replace a care home worker. Nevertheless, it will play a vital role in helping to make elderly people’s lives less lonely and reducing the need to have a caregiver nearby at all times.

Scientists are testing the first CARESSES robots in care homes in the United Kingdom and Japan. They’re being used to assist elderly people from different cultural backgrounds. The aim is to see if people feel more comfortable with robots that interact with them in a culturally sensitive manner. They’re also examining whether such robots improve the elderly’s quality of life. “The testing of robots outside of the laboratory environment and in interaction with the elderly will without a doubt be the most interesting part of our project,” added Saffiotti.

The innovative CARESSES (Culture Aware Robots and Environmental Sensor Systems for Elderly Support) robots may pave the way to more culturally sensitive services beyond the sphere of elderly care, too. “It will add value to robots intended to interact with people. Which is not to say that today’s robots are completely culture-neutral. Instead, they unintentionally reflect the culture of the humans who build and program them.”

Having had a mother who recently died in a care facility, I can testify to the importance of cultural and religious sensitivity on the part of caregivers. As for this type of robot not replacing anyone, I take that with a grain of salt. They always say that and I expect it’s true in the initial stages but once the robots are well established and working well? Why not? After all, they’re cheaper in many, many ways and with the coming tsunami of elders in many countries around the world, it seems to me that displacement by robots is an inevitability.

Artificial synapse courtesy of nanowires

It looks like a popsicle to me,

Caption: Image captured by an electron microscope of a single nanowire memristor (highlighted in colour to distinguish it from other nanowires in the background image). Blue: silver electrode, orange: nanowire, yellow: platinum electrode. Blue bubbles are dispersed over the nanowire. They are made up of silver ions and form a bridge between the electrodes which increases the resistance. Credit: Forschungszentrum Jülich

Not a popsicle but a representation of a device (memristor) scientists claim mimics a biological nerve cell according to a December 5, 2018 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists from Jülich [Germany] together with colleagues from Aachen [Germany] and Turin [Italy] have produced a memristive element made from nanowires that functions in much the same way as a biological nerve cell. The component is able to both save and process information, as well as receive numerous signals in parallel. The resistive switching cell made from oxide crystal nanowires is thus proving to be the ideal candidate for use in building bioinspired “neuromorphic” processors, able to take over the diverse functions of biological synapses and neurons.

A Dec. 5, 2018 Forschungszentrum Jülich press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

Computers have learned a lot in recent years. Thanks to rapid progress in artificial intelligence they are now able to drive cars, translate texts, defeat world champions at chess, and much more besides. In doing so, one of the greatest challenges lies in the attempt to artificially reproduce the signal processing in the human brain. In neural networks, data are stored and processed to a high degree in parallel. Traditional computers on the other hand rapidly work through tasks in succession and clearly distinguish between the storing and processing of information. As a rule, neural networks can only be simulated in a very cumbersome and inefficient way using conventional hardware.

Systems with neuromorphic chips that imitate the way the human brain works offer significant advantages. Experts in the field describe this type of bioinspired computer as being able to work in a decentralised way, having at its disposal a multitude of processors, which, like neurons in the brain, are connected to each other by networks. If a processor breaks down, another can take over its function. What is more, just like in the brain, where practice leads to improved signal transfer, a bioinspired processor should have the capacity to learn.

“With today’s semiconductor technology, these functions are to some extent already achievable. These systems are however suitable for particular applications and require a lot of space and energy,” says Dr. Ilia Valov from Forschungszentrum Jülich. “Our nanowire devices made from zinc oxide crystals can inherently process and even store information, as well as being extremely small and energy efficient,” explains the researcher from Jülich’s Peter Grünberg Institute.

For years memristive cells have been ascribed the best chances of being capable of taking over the function of neurons and synapses in bioinspired computers. They alter their electrical resistance depending on the intensity and direction of the electric current flowing through them. In contrast to conventional transistors, their last resistance value remains intact even when the electric current is switched off. Memristors are thus fundamentally capable of learning.

In order to create these properties, scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen University used a single zinc oxide nanowire, produced by their colleagues from the polytechnic university in Turin. Measuring approximately one ten-thousandth of a millimeter in size, this type of nanowire is over a thousand times thinner than a human hair. The resulting memristive component not only takes up a tiny amount of space, but also is able to switch much faster than flash memory.

Nanowires offer promising novel physical properties compared to other solids and are used among other things in the development of new types of solar cells, sensors, batteries and computer chips. Their manufacture is comparatively simple. Nanowires result from the evaporation deposition of specified materials onto a suitable substrate, where they practically grow of their own accord.

In order to create a functioning cell, both ends of the nanowire must be attached to suitable metals, in this case platinum and silver. The metals function as electrodes, and in addition, release ions triggered by an appropriate electric current. The metal ions are able to spread over the surface of the wire and build a bridge to alter its conductivity.

Components made from single nanowires are, however, still too isolated to be of practical use in chips. Consequently, the next step being planned by the Jülich and Turin researchers is to produce and study a memristive element, composed of a larger, relatively easy to generate group of several hundred nanowires offering more exciting functionalities.

The Italians have also written about the work in a December 4, 2018 news item for the Polytecnico di Torino’s inhouse magazine, PoliFlash’. I like the image they’ve used better as it offers a bit more detail and looks less like a popsicle. First, the image,

Courtesy: Polytecnico di Torino

Now, the news item, which includes some historical information about the memristor (Note: There is some repetition and links have been removed),

Emulating and understanding the human brain is one of the most important challenges for modern technology: on the one hand, the ability to artificially reproduce the processing of brain signals is one of the cornerstones for the development of artificial intelligence, while on the other the understanding of the cognitive processes at the base of the human mind is still far away.

And the research published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications by Gianluca Milano and Carlo Ricciardi, PhD student and professor, respectively, of the Applied Science and Technology Department of the Politecnico di Torino, represents a step forward in these directions. In fact, the study entitled “Self-limited single nanowire systems combining all-in-one memristive and neuromorphic functionalities” shows how it is possible to artificially emulate the activity of synapses, i.e. the connections between neurons that regulate the learning processes in our brain, in a single “nanowire” with a diameter thousands of times smaller than that of a hair.

It is a crystalline nanowire that takes the “memristor”, the electronic device able to artificially reproduce the functions of biological synapses, to a more performing level. Thanks to the use of nanotechnologies, which allow the manipulation of matter at the atomic level, it was for the first time possible to combine into one single device the synaptic functions that were individually emulated through specific devices. For this reason, the nanowire allows an extreme miniaturisation of the “memristor”, significantly reducing the complexity and energy consumption of the electronic circuits necessary for the implementation of learning algorithms.

Starting from the theorisation of the “memristor” in 1971 by Prof. Leon Chua – now visiting professor at the Politecnico di Torino, who was conferred an honorary degree by the University in 2015 – this new technology will not only allow smaller and more performing devices to be created for the implementation of increasingly “intelligent” computers, but is also a significant step forward for the emulation and understanding of the functioning of the brain.

“The nanowire memristor – said Carlo Ricciardirepresents a model system for the study of physical and electrochemical phenomena that govern biological synapses at the nanoscale. The work is the result of the collaboration between our research team and the RWTH University of Aachen in Germany, supported by INRiM, the National Institute of Metrological Research, and IIT, the Italian Institute of Technology.”

h.t for the Italian info. to Nanowerk’s Dec. 10, 2018 news item.

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

Self-limited single nanowire systems combining all-in-one memristive and neuromorphic functionalities by Gianluca Milano, Michael Luebben, Zheng Ma, Rafal Dunin-Borkowski, Luca Boarino, Candido F. Pirri, Rainer Waser, Carlo Ricciardi, & Ilia Valov. Nature Communicationsvolume 9, Article number: 5151 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07330-7 Published: 04 December 2018

This paper is open access.

Just use the search term “memristor” in the blog search engine if you’re curious about the multitudinous number of postings on the topic here.