Tag Archives: Thomson Reuters

Vector Institute and Canada’s artificial intelligence sector

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

In addition, Vector is expected to receive funding from the Province of Ontario and more than 30 top Canadian and global companies eager to tap this pool of talent to grow their businesses. The institute will also work closely with other Ontario universities with AI talent.

(See my March 24, 2017 posting; scroll down about 25% for the science part, including the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy of the budget.)

Not obvious in last week’s coverage of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is that the much lauded Hinton has been living in the US and working for Google. These latest announcements (Pan-Canadian AI Strategy and Vector Institute) mean that he’s moving back.

A March 28, 2017 article by Kate Allen for TorontoStar.com provides more details about the Vector Institute, Hinton, and the Canadian ‘brain drain’ as it applies to artificial intelligence, (Note:  A link has been removed)

Toronto will host a new institute devoted to artificial intelligence, a major gambit to bolster a field of research pioneered in Canada but consistently drained of talent by major U.S. technology companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

The Vector Institute, an independent non-profit affiliated with the University of Toronto, will hire about 25 new faculty and research scientists. It will be backed by more than $150 million in public and corporate funding in an unusual hybridization of pure research and business-minded commercial goals.

The province will spend $50 million over five years, while the federal government, which announced a $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in last week’s budget, is providing at least $40 million, backers say. More than two dozen companies have committed millions more over 10 years, including $5 million each from sponsors including Google, Air Canada, Loblaws, and Canada’s five biggest banks [Bank of Montreal (BMO). Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce ({CIBC} President’s Choice Financial},  Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Scotiabank (Tangerine), Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Canada Trust)].

The mode of artificial intelligence that the Vector Institute will focus on, deep learning, has seen remarkable results in recent years, particularly in image and speech recognition. Geoffrey Hinton, considered the “godfather” of deep learning for the breakthroughs he made while a professor at U of T, has worked for Google since 2013 in California and Toronto.

Hinton will move back to Canada to lead a research team based at the tech giant’s Toronto offices and act as chief scientific adviser of the new institute.

Researchers trained in Canadian artificial intelligence labs fill the ranks of major technology companies, working on tools like instant language translation, facial recognition, and recommendation services. Academic institutions and startups in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Edmonton boast leaders in the field, but other researchers have left for U.S. universities and corporate labs.

The goals of the Vector Institute are to retain, repatriate and attract AI talent, to create more trained experts, and to feed that expertise into existing Canadian companies and startups.

Hospitals are expected to be a major partner, since health care is an intriguing application for AI. Last month, researchers from Stanford University announced they had trained a deep learning algorithm to identify potentially cancerous skin lesions with accuracy comparable to human dermatologists. The Toronto company Deep Genomics is using deep learning to read genomes and identify mutations that may lead to disease, among other things.

Intelligent algorithms can also be applied to tasks that might seem less virtuous, like reading private data to better target advertising. Zemel [Richard Zemel, the institute’s research director and a professor of computer science at U of T] says the centre is creating an ethics working group [emphasis mine] and maintaining ties with organizations that promote fairness and transparency in machine learning. As for privacy concerns, “that’s something we are well aware of. We don’t have a well-formed policy yet but we will fairly soon.”

The institute’s annual funding pales in comparison to the revenues of the American tech giants, which are measured in tens of billions. The risk the institute’s backers are taking is simply creating an even more robust machine learning PhD mill for the U.S.

“They obviously won’t all stay in Canada, but Toronto industry is very keen to get them,” Hinton said. “I think Trump might help there.” Two researchers on Hinton’s new Toronto-based team are Iranian, one of the countries targeted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel bans.

Ethics do seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Presumably the Vector Institute’s ‘ethics working group’ won’t include any regular folks. Is there any thought to what the rest of us think about these developments? As there will also be some collaboration with other proposed AI institutes including ones at the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) and the University of Alberta (Kate McGillivray’s article coming up shortly mentions them), might the ethics group be centered in either Edmonton or Montreal? Interestingly, two Canadians (Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta and Eric Racine at Université de Montréa) testified at the US Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Feb. 10 – 11, 2014 meeting, the Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology. Still speculating here but I imagine Caulfield and/or Racine could be persuaded to extend their expertise in ethics and the human brain to AI and its neural networks.

Getting back to the topic at hand the ‘AI sceneCanada’, Allen’s article is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time.

Kate McGillivray’s March 29, 2017 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online provides more details about the Canadian AI situation and the new strategies,

With artificial intelligence set to transform our world, a new institute is putting Toronto to the front of the line to lead the charge.

The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, made possible by funding from the federal government revealed in the 2017 budget, will move into new digs in the MaRS Discovery District by the end of the year.

Vector’s funding comes partially from a $125 million investment announced in last Wednesday’s federal budget to launch a pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy, with similar institutes being established in Montreal and Edmonton.

“[A.I.] cuts across pretty well every sector of the economy,” said Dr. Alan Bernstein, CEO and president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the organization tasked with administering the federal program.

“Silicon Valley and England and other places really jumped on it, so we kind of lost the lead a little bit. I think the Canadian federal government has now realized that,” he said.

Stopping up the brain drain

Critical to the strategy’s success is building a homegrown base of A.I. experts and innovators — a problem in the last decade, despite pioneering work on so-called “Deep Learning” by Canadian scholars such as Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, a former University of Toronto professor who will now serve as Vector’s chief scientific advisor.

With few university faculty positions in Canada and with many innovative companies headquartered elsewhere, it has been tough to keep the few graduates specializing in A.I. in town.

“We were paying to educate people and shipping them south,” explained Ed Clark, chair of the Vector Institute and business advisor to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The existence of that “fantastic science” will lean heavily on how much buy-in Vector and Canada’s other two A.I. centres get.

Toronto’s portion of the $125 million is a “great start,” said Bernstein, but taken alone, “it’s not enough money.”

“My estimate of the right amount of money to make a difference is a half a billion or so, and I think we will get there,” he said.

Jessica Murphy’s March 29, 2017 article for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) news online offers some intriguing detail about the Canadian AI scene,

Canadian researchers have been behind some recent major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. Now, the country is betting on becoming a big player in one of the hottest fields in technology, with help from the likes of Google and RBC [Royal Bank of Canada].

In an unassuming building on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, Geoff Hinton laboured for years on the “lunatic fringe” of academia and artificial intelligence, pursuing research in an area of AI called neural networks.

Also known as “deep learning”, neural networks are computer programs that learn in similar way to human brains. The field showed early promise in the 1980s, but the tech sector turned its attention to other AI methods after that promise seemed slow to develop.

“The approaches that I thought were silly were in the ascendancy and the approach that I thought was the right approach was regarded as silly,” says the British-born [emphasis mine] professor, who splits his time between the university and Google, where he is a vice-president of engineering fellow.

Neural networks are used by the likes of Netflix to recommend what you should binge watch and smartphones with voice assistance tools. Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI used them to win against a human in the ancient game of Go in 2016.

Foteini Agrafioti, who heads up the new RBC Research in Machine Learning lab at the University of Toronto, said those recent innovations made AI attractive to researchers and the tech industry.

“Anything that’s powering Google’s engines right now is powered by deep learning,” she says.

Developments in the field helped jumpstart innovation and paved the way for the technology’s commercialisation. They also captured the attention of Google, IBM and Microsoft, and kicked off a hiring race in the field.

The renewed focus on neural networks has boosted the careers of early Canadian AI machine learning pioneers like Hinton, the University of Montreal’s Yoshua Bengio, and University of Alberta’s Richard Sutton.

Money from big tech is coming north, along with investments by domestic corporations like banking multinational RBC and auto parts giant Magna, and millions of dollars in government funding.

Former banking executive Ed Clark will head the institute, and says the goal is to make Toronto, which has the largest concentration of AI-related industries in Canada, one of the top five places in the world for AI innovation and business.

The founders also want it to serve as a magnet and retention tool for top talent aggressively head-hunted by US firms.

Clark says they want to “wake up” Canadian industry to the possibilities of AI, which is expected to have a massive impact on fields like healthcare, banking, manufacturing and transportation.

Google invested C$4.5m (US$3.4m/£2.7m) last November [2016] in the University of Montreal’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

Microsoft is funding a Montreal startup, Element AI. The Seattle-based company also announced it would acquire Montreal-based Maluuba and help fund AI research at the University of Montreal and McGill University.

Thomson Reuters and General Motors both recently moved AI labs to Toronto.

RBC is also investing in the future of AI in Canada, including opening a machine learning lab headed by Agrafioti, co-funding a program to bring global AI talent and entrepreneurs to Toronto, and collaborating with Sutton and the University of Alberta’s Machine Intelligence Institute.

Canadian tech also sees the travel uncertainty created by the Trump administration in the US as making Canada more attractive to foreign talent. (One of Clark’s the selling points is that Toronto as an “open and diverse” city).

This may reverse the ‘brain drain’ but it appears Canada’s role as a ‘branch plant economy’ for foreign (usually US) companies could become an important discussion once more. From the ‘Foreign ownership of companies of Canada’ Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Historically, foreign ownership was a political issue in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was believed by some that U.S. investment had reached new heights (though its levels had actually remained stable for decades), and then in the 1980s, during debates over the Free Trade Agreement.

But the situation has changed, since in the interim period Canada itself became a major investor and owner of foreign corporations. Since the 1980s, Canada’s levels of investment and ownership in foreign companies have been larger than foreign investment and ownership in Canada. In some smaller countries, such as Montenegro, Canadian investment is sizable enough to make up a major portion of the economy. In Northern Ireland, for example, Canada is the largest foreign investor. By becoming foreign owners themselves, Canadians have become far less politically concerned about investment within Canada.

Of note is that Canada’s largest companies by value, and largest employers, tend to be foreign-owned in a way that is more typical of a developing nation than a G8 member. The best example is the automotive sector, one of Canada’s most important industries. It is dominated by American, German, and Japanese giants. Although this situation is not unique to Canada in the global context, it is unique among G-8 nations, and many other relatively small nations also have national automotive companies.

It’s interesting to note that sometimes Canadian companies are the big investors but that doesn’t change our basic position. And, as I’ve noted in other postings (including the March 24, 2017 posting), these government investments in science and technology won’t necessarily lead to a move away from our ‘branch plant economy’ towards an innovative Canada.

You can find out more about the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence here.

BTW, I noted that reference to Hinton as ‘British-born’ in the BBC article. He was educated in the UK and subsidized by UK taxpayers (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Hinton was educated at King’s College, Cambridge graduating in 1970, with a Bachelor of Arts in experimental psychology.[1] He continued his study at the University of Edinburgh where he was awarded a PhD in artificial intelligence in 1977 for research supervised by H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins.[3][12]

It seems Canadians are not the only ones to experience  ‘brain drains’.

Finally, I wrote at length about a recent initiative taking place between the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) and the University of Washington (Seattle, Washington), the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative in a Feb. 28, 2017 posting noting that the initiative is being funded by Microsoft to the tune $1M and is part of a larger cooperative effort between the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington. Artificial intelligence is not the only area where US technology companies are hedging their bets (against Trump’s administration which seems determined to terrify people from crossing US borders) by investing in Canada.

For anyone interested in a little more information about AI in the US and China, there’s today’s (March 31, 2017)earlier posting: China, US, and the race for artificial intelligence research domination.

Innovation and two Canadian universities

I have two news bits and both concern the Canadian universities, the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Toronto (UofT).

Creative Destruction Lab – West

First, the Creative Destruction Lab, a technology commercialization effort based at UofT’s Rotman School of Management, is opening an office in the west according to a Sept. 28, 2016 UBC media release (received via email; Note: Links have been removed; this is a long media release which interestingly does not mention Joseph Schumpeter the man who developed the economic theory which he called: creative destruction),

The UBC Sauder School of Business is launching the Western Canadian version of the Creative Destruction Lab, a successful seed-stage program based at UofT’s Rotman School of Management, to help high-technology ventures driven by university research maximize their commercial impact and benefit to society.

“Creative Destruction Lab – West will provide a much-needed support system to ensure innovations formulated on British Columbia campuses can access the funding they need to scale up and grow in-province,” said Robert Helsley, Dean of the UBC Sauder School of Business. “The success our partners at Rotman have had in helping commercialize the scientific breakthroughs of Canadian talent is remarkable and is exactly what we plan to replicate at UBC Sauder.”

Between 2012 and 2016, companies from CDL’s first four years generated over $800 million in equity value. It has supported a long line of emerging startups, including computer-human interface company Thalmic Labs, which announced nearly USD $120 million in funding on September 19, one of the largest Series B financings in Canadian history.

Focusing on massively scalable high-tech startups, CDL-West will provide coaching from world-leading entrepreneurs, support from dedicated business and science faculty, and access to venture capital. While some of the ventures will originate at UBC, CDL-West will also serve the entire province and extended western region by welcoming ventures from other universities. The program will closely align with existing entrepreneurship programs across UBC, including, e@UBC and HATCH, and actively work with the BC Tech Association [also known as the BC Technology Industry Association] and other partners to offer a critical next step in the venture creation process.

“We created a model for tech venture creation that keeps startups focused on their essential business challenges and dedicated to solving them with world-class support,” said CDL Founder Ajay Agrawal, a professor at the Rotman School of Management and UBC PhD alumnus.

“By partnering with UBC Sauder, we will magnify the impact of CDL by drawing in ventures from one of the country’s other leading research universities and B.C.’s burgeoning startup scene to further build the country’s tech sector and the opportunities for job creation it provides,” said CDL Director, Rachel Harris.

CDL uses a goal-setting model to push ventures along a path toward success. Over nine months, a collective of leading entrepreneurs with experience building and scaling technology companies – called the G7 – sets targets for ventures to hit every eight weeks, with the goal of maximizing their equity-value. Along the way ventures turn to business and technology experts for strategic guidance on how to reach goals, and draw on dedicated UBC Sauder students who apply state-of the-art business skills to help companies decide which market to enter first and how.

Ventures that fail to achieve milestones – approximately 50 per cent in past cohorts – are cut from the process. Those that reach their objectives and graduate from the program attract investment from the G7, as well as other leading venture-capital firms.

Currently being assembled, the CDL-West G7 will be comprised of entrepreneurial luminaries, including Jeff Mallett, the founding President, COO and Director of Yahoo! Inc. from 1995-2002 – a company he led to $4 billion in revenues and grew from a startup to a publicly traded company whose value reached $135 billion. He is now Managing Director of Iconica Partners and Managing Partner of Mallett Sports & Entertainment, with ventures including the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park and Mission Rock Development, Comcast Bay Area Sports Network, the San Jose Giants, Major League Soccer, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and a variety of other sports and online ventures.

Already bearing fruit, the Creative Destruction Lab partnership will see several UBC ventures accepted into a Machine Learning Specialist Track run by Rotman’s CDL this fall. This track is designed to create a support network for enterprises focused on artificial intelligence, a research strength at UofT and Canada more generally, which has traditionally migrated to the United States for funding and commercialization. In its second year, CDL-West will launch its own specialist track in an area of strength at UBC that will draw eastern ventures west.

“This new partnership creates the kind of high impact innovation network the Government of Canada wants to encourage,” said Brandon Lee, Canada’s Consul General in San Francisco, who works to connect Canadian innovation to customers and growth capital opportunities in Silicon Valley. “By collaborating across our universities to enhance our capacity to turn the scientific discoveries into businesses in Canada, we can further advance our nation’s global competitiveness in the knowledge-based industries.”

The Creative Destruction Lab is guided by an Advisory Board, co-chaired by Vancouver-based Haig Farris, a pioneer of the Canadian venture capitalist industry, and Bill Graham, Chancellor of Trinity College at UofT and former Canadian cabinet minister.

“By partnering with Rotman, UBC Sauder will be able to scale up its support for high-tech ventures extremely quickly and with tremendous impact,” said Paul Cubbon, Leader of CDL-West and a faculty member at UBC Sauder. “CDL-West will act as a turbo booster for ventures with great ideas, but which lack the strategic roadmap and funding to make them a reality.”

CDL-West launched its competitive application process for the first round of ventures that will begin in January 2017. Interested ventures are encouraged to submit applications via the CDL website at: www.creativedestructionlab.com


UBC Technology ventures represented at media availability

Awake Labs is a wearable technology startup whose products measure and track anxiety in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to better understand behaviour. Their first device, Reveal, monitors a wearer’s heart-rate, body temperature and sweat levels using high-tech sensors to provide insight into care and promote long term independence.

Acuva Technologies is a Vancouver-based clean technology venture focused on commercializing breakthrough UltraViolet Light Emitting Diode technology for water purification systems. Initially focused on point of use systems for boats, RVs and off grid homes in North American market, where they already have early sales, the company’s goal is to enable water purification in households in developing countries by 2018 and deploy large scale systems by 2021.

Other members of the CDL-West G7 include:

Boris Wertz: One of the top tech early-stage investors in North America and the founding partner of Version One, Wertz is also a board partner with Andreessen Horowitz. Before becoming an investor, Wertz was the Chief Operating Officer of AbeBooks.com, which sold to Amazon in 2008. He was responsible for marketing, business development, product, customer service and international operations. His deep operational experience helps him guide other entrepreneurs to start, build and scale companies.

Lisa Shields: Founder of Hyperwallet Systems Inc., Shields guided Hyperwallet from a technology startup to the leading international payments processor for business to consumer mass payouts. Prior to founding Hyperwallet, Lisa managed payments acceptance and risk management technology teams for high-volume online merchants. She was the founding director of the Wireless Innovation Society of British Columbia and is driven by the social and economic imperatives that shape global payment technologies.

Jeff Booth: Co-founder, President and CEO of Build Direct, a rapidly growing online supplier of home improvement products. Through custom and proprietary web analytics and forecasting tools, BuildDirect is reinventing and redefining how consumers can receive the best prices. BuildDirect has 12 warehouse locations across North America and is headquartered in Vancouver, BC. In 2015, Booth was awarded the BC Technology ‘Person of the Year’ Award by the BC Technology Industry Association.


CDL-west will provide a transformational experience for MBA and senior undergraduate students at UBC Sauder who will act as venture advisors. Replacing traditional classes, students learn by doing during the process of rapid equity-value creation.

Supporting venture development at UBC:

CDL-west will work closely with venture creation programs across UBC to complete the continuum of support aimed at maximizing venture value and investment. It will draw in ventures that are being or have been supported and developed in programs that span campus, including:

University Industry Liaison Office which works to enable research and innovation partnerships with industry, entrepreneurs, government and non-profit organizations.

e@UBC which provides a combination of mentorship, education, venture creation, and seed funding to support UBC students, alumni, faculty and staff.

HATCH, a UBC technology incubator which leverages the expertise of the UBC Sauder School of Business and entrepreneurship@UBC and a seasoned team of domain-specific experts to provide real-world, hands-on guidance in moving from innovative concept to successful venture.

Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub, a program base at the UBC Sauder Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing focused on developing ventures with the goal of creating positive social and environmental impact.

About the Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto:

The Creative Destruction Lab leverages the Rotman School’s leading faculty and industry network as well as its location in the heart of Canada’s business capital to accelerate massively scalable, technology-based ventures that have the potential to transform our social, industrial, and economic landscape. The Lab has had a material impact on many nascent startups, including Deep Genomics, Greenlid, Atomwise, Bridgit, Kepler Communications, Nymi, NVBots, OTI Lumionics, PUSH, Thalmic Labs, Vertical.ai, Revlo, Validere, Growsumo, and VoteCompass, among others. For more information, visit www.creativedestructionlab.com

About the UBC Sauder School of Business

The UBC Sauder School of Business is committed to developing transformational and responsible business leaders for British Columbia and the world. Located in Vancouver, Canada’s gateway to the Pacific Rim, the school is distinguished for its long history of partnership and engagement in Asia, the excellence of its graduates, and the impact of its research which ranks in the top 20 globally. For more information, visit www.sauder.ubc.ca

About the Rotman School of Management

The Rotman School of Management is located in the heart of Canada’s commercial and cultural capital and is part of the University of Toronto, one of the world’s top 20 research universities. The Rotman School fosters a new way to think that enables graduates to tackle today’s global business and societal challenges. For more information, visit www.rotman.utoronto.ca.

It’s good to see a couple of successful (according to the news release) local entrepreneurs on the board although I’m somewhat puzzled by Mallett’s presence since, if memory serves, Yahoo! was not doing that well when he left in 2002. The company was an early success but utterly dwarfed by Google at some point in the early 2000s and these days, its stock (both financial and social) has continued to drift downwards. As for Mallett’s current successes, there is no mention of them.

Reuters Top 100 of the world’s most innovative universities

After reading or skimming through the CDL-West news you might think that the University of Toronto ranked higher than UBC on the Reuters list of the world’s most innovative universities. Before breaking the news about the Canadian rankings, here’s more about the list from a Sept, 28, 2016 Reuters news release (receive via email),

Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University top the second annual Reuters Top 100 ranking of the world’s most innovative universities. The Reuters Top 100 ranking aims to identify the institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and help drive the global economy. Unlike other rankings that often rely entirely or in part on subjective surveys, the ranking uses proprietary data and analysis tools from the Intellectual Property & Science division of Thomson Reuters to examine a series of patent and research-related metrics, and get to the essence of what it means to be truly innovative.

In the fast-changing world of science and technology, if you’re not innovating, you’re falling behind. That’s one of the key findings of this year’s Reuters 100. The 2016 results show that big breakthroughs – even just one highly influential paper or patent – can drive a university way up the list, but when that discovery fades into the past, so does its ranking. Consistency is key, with truly innovative institutions putting out groundbreaking work year after year.

Stanford held fast to its first place ranking by consistently producing new patents and papers that influence researchers elsewhere in academia and in private industry. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (ranked #2) were behind some of the most important innovations of the past century, including the development of digital computers and the completion of the Human Genome Project. Harvard University (ranked #3), is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, and has produced 47 Nobel laureates over the course of its 380-year history.

Some universities saw significant movement up the list, including, most notably, the University of Chicago, which jumped from #71 last year to #47 in 2016. Other list-climbers include the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology (#73 to #44) and South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University (#66 to #46).

The United States continues to dominate the list, with 46 universities in the top 100; Japan is once again the second best performing country, with nine universities. France and South Korea are tied in third, each with eight. Germany has seven ranked universities; the United Kingdom has five; Switzerland, Belgium and Israel have three; Denmark, China and Canada have two; and the Netherlands and Singapore each have one.

You can find the rankings here (scroll down about 75% of the way) and for the impatient, the University of British Columbia ranked 50th and the University of Toronto 57th.

The biggest surprise for me was that China, like Canada, had two universities on the list. I imagine that will change as China continues its quest for science and innovation dominance. Given how they tout their innovation prowess, I had one other surprise, the University of Waterloo’s absence.

Congratulations to Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology (journal)

Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology, published by InTech, is an open access journal, which launched in 2011 as per my March 25, 2011 posting and this year (2014), the journal celebrate this (from a Jan. 16, 2014 news item on Nanowerk),

“Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology” journal has been accepted for indexing by Thomson Reuters. Following its acceptance by Scopus in 2013, this journal will soon be indexed in Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE) and Current Contents/Physical, Chemical & Earth Sciences (CC/PC&ES), beginning with volume 1(1) 2011.

A January ??, 2014 InTech news release (you may need to scroll down) provides a little more information about the journal and its scope,

Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology is an open access journal now in its 4th volume. Under the editorship of Dr. Paola Prete, the journal has featured articles by some of the most outstanding researchers in Nanoscience, quickly rising to the status of a renowned journal in this particular field of research and application.

Solely in 2013 the journal was browsed by + 30,000 readers across all continents looking for the newest results and innovative advances achieved nanoscale science and technology.

As for the 2013 acceptance by Scopus, the October ??, 2013 InTech news release (scroll down) noted the increased number of indexes which will includes Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology as well as a heads-up about the Thomson Reuters (ISI) acceptance,

Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology, currently in its 3rd volume, has officially been accepted for indexing in the Scopus database. The Content Selection & Advisory Board (CSAB) announced that the journal fulfilled all criteria necessary for its content to be processed and indexed.

Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology is indexed in Ulrich’s Periodical Directory, Scirus, EBSCO, WorldCat, BASE, DOAJ, Electronic Journals Library, Google Scholar, CAS. The journal is also being evaluated for indexing in ISI [Thomson Reuters] databases.

Again, congratulations to the Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology editorial team and authors. For anyone who hasn’t yet see the journal, here’s a link to the current issue. (2013).

News of nanotechnology-enabled recovery of rare earth elements from industrial wastewater and some rare earths context

An Oct. 31, 2013 news item on Azonano features information about rare earth elements and their use in technology along with a new technique for recycling them from wastewater,

Many of today’s technologies, from hybrid car batteries to flat-screen televisions, rely on materials known as rare earth elements (REEs) that are in short supply, but scientists are reporting development of a new method to recycle them from wastewater.

The process, which is described in a study in the journal ACS [American Chemical Society] Applied Materials & Interfaces, could help alleviate economic and environmental pressures facing the REE industry.

… Attempts so far to recycle them from industrial wastewater are expensive or otherwise impractical. A major challenge is that the elements are typically very diluted in these waters. The team knew that a nanomaterial known as nano-magnesium hydroxide, or nano-Mg(OH)2, was effective at removing some metals and dyes from wastewater. So they set out to understand how the compound worked and whether it would efficiently remove diluted REEs, as well.

The Oct. 30, 2013 ACS PressPac news release, which originated the news item, provides a few details about how the scientists tested their approach,

To test their idea, they produced inexpensive nano-Mg(OH)2 particles, whose shapes resemble flowers when viewed with a high-power microscope. They showed that the material captured more than 85 percent of the REEs that were diluted in wastewater in an initial experiment mimicking real-world conditions. “Recycling REEs from wastewater not only saves rare earth resources and protects the environment, but also brings considerable economic benefits,” the researchers state. “The pilot-scale experiment indicated that the self-supported flower-like nano-Mg(OH)2 had great potential to recycle REEs from industrial wastewater.”

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

Recycling Rare Earth Elements from Industrial Wastewater with Flowerlike Nano-Mg(OH)2 by Chaoran Li †‡, Zanyong Zhuang, Feng Huang, Zhicheng Wu, Yangping Hong, and Zhang Lin. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2013, 5 (19), pp 9719–9725 DOI: 10.1021/am4027967 Publication Date (Web): September 13, 2013

Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

As for the short supply mentioned in the first line of the news item, the world’s largest exporter of rare earth elements at 90% of the market, China, recently announced a cap according to a Sept. 6, 2013 article by David Stanway for Reuters. The Chinese government appears to be curtailing exports as part of an ongoing, multi-year strategy. Here’s how Cientifica‘s (an emerging technologies consultancy, etc.) white paper (Simply No Substitute?) about critical materials published in 2012 (?), described the situation,

Despite their name, REE are not that rare in the Earth’s crust. What has happened in the past decade is that REE exports from China undercut prices elsewhere, leading to the closure of mines such as the Mountain Pass REE mine in California. Once China had acquired a dominant market position, prices began to rise. But this situation will likely ease. The US will probably begin REE production from the Mountain Pass mine later in 2012, and mines in other countries are expected to start operation soon as well.

Nevertheless, owing to their broad range of uses REE will continue to exert pressures on their supply – especially for countries without notable REE deposits. This highlights two aspects of importance for strategic materials: actual rarity and strategic supply issues such as these seen for REE. Although strategic and diplomatic supply issues may have easier solutions, their consideration for manufacturing industries will almost be the same – a shortage of crucial supply lines.

Furthermore, as the example of REE shows, the identification of long-term supply problems can often be difficult, and not every government has the same strategic foresight that the Chinese demonstrated. And as new technologies emerge, new elements may see an unexpected, sudden demand in supply. (pp. 16-17)

Meanwhile, in response to China’s decision to cap its 2013 REE exports, the Russian government announced a $1B investment to 2018 in rare earth production,, according to a Sept. 10, 2013 article by Polina Devitt for Reuters.

For those who like to get their information in a more graphic form, here’s an infographic from Thomson Reuters from a May 13, 2012 posting on their eponymous blog,

Rare Earth Metals - Graphic of the Day Credit:  Thomson Reuters [downloaded from http://blog.thomsonreuters.com/index.php/rare-earth-metals-graphic-of-the-day/]

Rare Earth Metals – Graphic of the Day Credit: Thomson Reuters [downloaded from http://blog.thomsonreuters.com/index.php/rare-earth-metals-graphic-of-the-day/]

There is a larger version on  their blog.

All of this serves to explain the interest in recycling REE from industrial wastewater. Surprisingly,, the researchers who developed this new recycling technique are based in China which makes me wonder if the Chinese government sees a future where it too will need to import rare earths as its home sources diminish.

A nanotechnology wrinkle

A cosmetics ad (more about that in a minute) came back to memory this morning as I read Michael Berger’s Nanowerk Spotlight article (Using nanotechnology to unlock a fountain of bull) about a Thomson Reuters report on nanotechnology and the cosmetics industry. From the article,

Two days ago we ran a press release from Thomson Reuters about a brief report they compiled on patent data relating to nanotechnology in the cosmetics industry. …

It already begins with the sensational title: Can Nanotech Unlock The Fountain of Youth? (pdf). That certainly catches the eye of the layperson. What exactly face creams, shampoos and sunscreens have to do with the “fountain of youth” remains unexplained. Oh, and they do make a reference to ‘remote concepts’ like nanorobotics. So let your imagination run wild! Little NanoStretchinators (trademark pending Nanowerk) that remove wrinkles from underneath the skin maybe? Or the fully automated Follicle-NanoSeeder that restores the shining body of the male scalp?

After poking a little more fun at the report, Berger hones in on distortions such as this,

Not a word about potential risks, or health and environmental concerns. But when you look at these three quoted studies you get a different message. The initiative by the EPA they are referring to actually “will determine whether these materials present a potential environmental hazard or exposure over their life cycles, and how these materials, when used in products, may be modified or managed to avoid or mitigate potential human health or ecological impacts.”

Berger goes on to provide more eye opening references and comments. As for the ad I’d seen, it’s been a few months since I first saw it in one of my local daily newspapers but I clipped it since it featured this copy:

Euoko’s Eye Contour Nanolift
Like millions of very tiny plastic surgeons

Seems like a nanobot reference, doesn’t it?

It caught me eye because these days, it’s not often (almost never) that you see a cosmetics company overtly touting a nanotechnology product.  L’Oréal doesn’t mention ‘nanosomes’ after years of using the term in its marketing campaigns for its Revitalift ads (no nanosomes on the company’s Canadian website when I checked it this morning, July 15, 2010). If you’re interested in “millions of tiny plastic surgeons”, you can pay $320 CAD for 15 ml online here. Sadly, the website makes no mention of the plastic surgeons but there is this,

The cocktail for the post-injection, post-laser, post-surgery, post-peel era. Millions of lifting nanoparticles work with South American native rose moss and Asiatic pennywort to sustain instant and long-term surface smoothness. Lupine lipopeptides from France maximize optical properties of the skin to accentuate radiance. [emphasis mine]

On other wrinkling nanotechnology news, a news item on Nanowerk features this,

As a sign of aging or in a suit, wrinkles are almost never welcome, but two papers in the current issue of Physical Review Letters (“Smooth Cascade of Wrinkles at the Edge of a Floating Elastic Film” and “Draping Films: A Wrinkle to Fold Transition”) offer some perspective on what determines their size and shape in soft materials.

The experiments offer complimentary insights into how defects, such as an edge or a fold, influence the presence of wrinkles and could prove helpful in understanding the formation of wrinkles in biological tissue.

I’m curious as to funding details for this work being done by two different teams of physicists at the University of Massachusetts but I haven’t been able to track details. I was not able to access the research articles themselves and that’s usually where you can find those details.

A couple comments about science in Japan and China

A few weeks ago there was a new global research report (written by Jonathan Adams, Christopher King, Nobuko Miyairi, and David Pendlebury) from Thomson Reuters that focused on Japan. From the news release,

This latest report, Global Research Report: Japan, found that:

For the period 2005-2009, physics proved to be Japan’s focus, with roughly 54,800 papers constituting just over 11 percent of the field

The average rate of citation is significantly below those of the other G7 nations. Japan scores 2 percentage points below the world average for the period 2005-2009

Regional collaboration with China and South Korea are likely to be of increasing significance as their domestic research bases grow – another illustration of an emerging Asia/Pacific regional network

This report suggests that Japan is underperforming. From the report,

We now turn to Japan, a G7 economy and the traditional scientific leader of Asia. Japan drove its post-war reconstruction at a phenomenal pace. The post-war baby-boomers, shaped by the nation’s industrious character, provided a committed labor force that enabled strong economic growth into the 1960s and 1970s. However, by the time Japan established its well-founded reputation for excellence based on the quality of its innovative industrial products, the nation was falling into a so-called “Lost Decade” after the economy peaked in the 1980s. This was followed by chronic economic stagnation which continues until today. (p. 3)

There are some opportunities,

The quality of research has improved markedly in some institutions across the Asia-Pacific region and that pattern is likely to become pervasive. The leading institutions will want to partner with established regional centers of excellence. Japan could benefit enormously in gaining access by joining with new partners with new ideas who are just a few hours’ flight away.

Is there a threat here for Japan? The lack of impetus in what has evidently been a very strong research base must be worrying for any policy maker. But regional diversification may be just the stimulus that is needed to rebuild the momentum that enabled Japan to do so well in the post-war period. There is no doubt about the national capacity for rapid and dynamic intellectual and technological advancement. The research challenges of disease, ageing, food security, information technology and social inclusion are all targets to which that capacity could be applied collaboratively with enormous mutual benefit across the region.

I was particularly interested in this report since Japan has been one of the leaders in nanoscience/nanotechnology research. Strangely there’s no mention of either. Here’s the list of main science fields which were included (and which I excerpted) in Table 1 on page 6 of the report,

Pharmacology & Toxicology
Materials Science
Biology & Biochemistry
Molec. Biology & Genetics
Neuroscience & Behavior
Clinical Medicine
Space Science
Plant & Animal Science
Agricultural Sciences
Computer Science

I assume research in nanoscience/nanotechnology has been included in several of these classifications. Personally, I think it would be useful to analyse a nanoscience/nanotechnology data subset to find out if it is consistent with or contradicts the conclusions.

You can check out other global reports from Thomson Reuters here. Note: I had to sign up in order to access the reports. It’s free and you do get announcements of newly published reports.

On the China front, there was a June 29, 2010 posting by Dave Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis about scientific research in China. Dave was responding to an article in the Washington Post by John Pomfret,

Last year, Zhao Bowen was part of a team that cracked the genetic code of the cucumber. These days, he’s probing the genetic basis for human IQ.

Zhao is 17.

Centuries after it led the world in technological prowess — think gunpowder, irrigation and the printed word — China has barged back into the ranks of the great powers in science. With the brashness of a teenager, in some cases literally, China’s scientists and inventors are driving a resurgence in potentially world-changing research.

Unburdened by social and legal constraints common in the West, China’s trailblazing scientists are also pushing the limits of ethics and principle as they create a new — and to many, worrisome — Wild West in the Far East.

First, some of Dave’s response as he unpacks part of this article,

As I suspect this article could get some play in science advocacy and debates over economic competitiveness, I’ve read it a few times, closely. I find it a bit of a puzzle, because it manages to hint at a lot more than it explains. That the headline fails to note the complexity of the issue, which the article tries to express, is no surprise. Where things fall short is in the lack of a consistent theme to the piece and in the continued emphasis on the quantitative in assessing scientific output. [emphases mine]

Since Dave goes on to talk about some of the ethical issues as well I’m going to focus on one of the dominant and damning metaphors used to set this piece.

Conflating cucumbers and IQs is interesting but the kicker (a three word paragraph)  is the 17 year old researcher. We then have China “barging” into research with the “brashness of a teenager” who is “unburdened by social and legal constraints”  and “pushing the limits of ethics and principles” in a “Wild West.”  In case anyone should miss the point, Pomfret’s article ends with this,

“If I had stayed in America, the chances of making a discovery would have been lower,” he said. “Here, people are willing to take risks. They give you money, and essentially you can do whatever you want.” [emphasis mine]

The article carries a somewhat patronizing tone and a blithe disregard for attitudes commonly found in scientists (and others) everywhere not just in China. As for why there are more research checks and balances in what he describes as “The West,” that’s very simple. Researchers crossed ethical lines and public outcry necessitated changes.

For example, there’s the Tuskegee Syphillis Experiment. In the 1920’s a charitable organization approached the US Public Health Service (PHS) about providing medication for men suffering from syphillis in parts of the US South. The project started and then the money ran out so someone decided to change the project. It now became an experiment where doctors could observe the effects of untreated syphillis. No one informed the men. The Tuskegee experiment was continued until the 1970s. From the Tuskegee University website,

While study participants received medical examinations, none were told that they were infected with syphilis. They were either not treated or were treated at a level that was judged to be insufficient to cure the disease.

Over the course of the project, PHS officials not only denied study participants treatment, but prevented other agencies from supplying treatment.

During World War II, about 50 of the study subjects were ordered by their draft boards to undergo treatment for syphilis. The PHS requested that the draft boards exclude study subjects from the requirement for treatment. The draft boards agreed.

In 1943, the PHS began to administer penicillin to patients with syphilis. Study subjects were excluded.

Beginning in 1952, the PHS began utilizing local health departments to track study participants who had left Macon County. Until the end of the study in the 1970s, local health departments worked with the PHS to keep the study subjects from receiving treatment.

The project was finally brought to a stop 1972 when Peter Buxton told the story of the Tuskegee Study to an Associated Press reporter.

Jaw dropping, isn’t it?

To get back to my point, ‘The West’ is not inherently more ethical and while Pomfret does indicate the source for at least some of the funding for this ‘Wild West-type’ (or is it adolescent?) research in China, I’m willing to bet that at least some of it comes from ‘Western’ business interests.

There’s also some implied criticism of the ‘West’ from the Chinese researchers. After all, we’re afraid to “take risks.”

I’d like to see some open and honest discussion (i.e., let’s abandon the imagined moral superiority on anyone’s part) about some of these issues around ethics, competitiveness, and risktaking.

Industrial production of carbon nanotubes?; Portland Art Museum’s China exhibit; scientific business not a good idea

We hear a lot of hype about all the new products and materials that nanotechnology will make possible for us but it’s always at some unspecified future date or  something like ‘it will come to market in three to five years or, five to seven years’.  I’m still waiting for self-cleaning windows which, as far as I know, no one has promised to bring market at any time (sigh). There is a ray of light regarding new carbon nanotube-based materials according to an article by Michael Berger on Nanowerk. From the article,

For years now, nanotechnology researchers have been promising us carbon nanotubes as the basis for numerous breakthrough applications such as multifunctional high-strength fibres, coatings and transparent conducting films. Not to mention as a cure for cancer (see “Horeradish, carbon nanotubes and cancer therapy”) and a solution to the energy crisis. … CNTs are notoriously difficult to work with and, because researchers haven’t found efficient ways yet to assemble them, the resulting materials demonstrate only a small fraction of the possible single-object properties of CNTs. …

New research reported this week has now established an industrially relevant process for assembling carbon nanotubes that allows them to efficiently be made into fibers, coatings and films – the basic forms of material that can be used in engineering applications.

With the possibility of producing carbon nanotubes on a large scale, I would imagine some folks will be curious about health & safety and environmental issues. On occasion I’ve included information about research on carbon nanotubes and their resemblance to asbestos fibres. These carbon nanotubes are multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) and the ones being made ready for industrial purposes in Berger’s article are single-walled CNTs. I have not come across anything yet which suggests that single-walled CNTs resemble asbestos fibres.

Back to China. The Portland (Oregon) Art Museum has a major exhibit called China Design Now according to an article by Steve McCallion, The Portland Art Museum Transforms an Art Exhibition into a Social Platform, in Fast Company. From the article,

As I mentioned in previous posts, the Portland Art Museum brought China Design Now, the London Victoria & Albert exhibit, to Portland to attract a new audience and elevate Portland’s cultural discourse to a global level. The exhibition documents China’s impressive advancement in graphics, fashion and design over the last 20 years. In my last post  I discussed how the Portland Art Museum used story and metaphor to make the exhibition even more meaningful. The museum’s most significant innovation, however, is not in the content of the exhibition–it’s the museum experience itself.

I’m very enthused about this and would dearly love to get to Portland to experience the various shows, that’s right plural–shows not show. The museum folks encouraged artists and people working in galleries to put on their own shows as part of a larger dialog for Portland. The art museum also extended itself online,

To extend community involvement online, the museum created CDNPDX.org where sixteen different blog editors from the community contribute content and editorial perspectives daily. They are not museum employees, but people from the community that have insight into China and/or design, and are willing to contribute to the discourse for free.

While including potentially offensive underground comics and “amateur” art may make some traditional museum-goers uncomfortable, the museum believes that inviting people to be part of the experience is necessary to remain relevant and worth the risk.

Meanwhile at the Vancouver Art Gallery, we continue with the traditional art museum experience (sigh).

Following my concerns about introducing scientific methods into government bureaucracies, I found this somewhat related article by Linda Tischler (in Fast Company) about scientific methods in business. From the article, a portion of the interview with Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto,

Martin: Well, yes. With every good thing in life, there’s often a dark shadow. The march of science is good, and corporations are being run more scientifically. But what they analyze is the past. And if the future is not exactly like the past, or there are things happening that are hard to measure scientifically, they get ignored. Corporations are pushing analytical thinking so far that it’s become unproductive. The future has no legitimacy for analytical thinkers.

Fast Company: What’s the alternative?

Martin: New ideas must come from a new kind of thinking. The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce called it abductive logic. It’s a logical leap of the mind that you can’t prove from past data.

Fast Company: I can’t see many CEOs being comfortable with that!

Martin: Why not? The scientific method starts with a hypothesis. It’s often what happens in the shower or when an apple hits you on the head. It’s what we call ‘intuitive thinking.’ Its purpose is to know without explicit reasoning.

I’m relieved to see that Martin points out that scientific thinking does require creativity but his point that things which are hard to measure scientifically get ignored is well taken. While scientific breakthroughs often arise from a creative leap, the work (using the scientific method) to achieve that leap is painstaking and the narratives within the field tend to ignore the creative element. This is almost the opposite of an artistic or creative endeavour which also requires a creative leap and painstaking work to achieve but where narrative focuses primarily on the creative.

The scientific method for many is considered to be  rigorously objective and inspires a certain faith (at times, religious in its intensity). It is a tool and a very effective tool in some, not all, situations. After all, you use a hammer ti build something with a nail, you don’t use it to paint your walls.

As for the Thomson Reuters report on China, I tried but had no joy when trying to retrieve it.

Nano ties to protect against spreading the H1N1 virus; more about China and science

Ties can carry viruses and germs just as easily as any other textile product so it makes sense that health and medical personnel would want to eliminate one more possible source of infection. The ‘nano’ tie (aka Safety Tie), which promises that you won’t inadvertently spread the H1N1 virus or other nasties,  is distributed by a company called SafeSmart.  From the company’s press release on Nanowerk,

Well before the swine flu outbreak, Florida-based SafeSmart developed a line of antimicrobial ties that has been widely accepted in healthcare, food service and other industries. SafetyTies, made of 100 percent nano-treated silk, have a built-in barrier that keeps dirt, liquids and bacteria out. In independent studies performed at BCS Laboratories of Gainesville, Florida, laboratory testing indicated that SafetyTies are 99.95 percent resistant to H1N1 influenza A.

I did try to find out about the “built-in barrier” but no details were offered in the press release or on the company’s website. Given that the tie is described as “antimicrobial,” I suspect they are binding silver nanoparticles to the silk and don’t want to make that information public.

The reluctance is understandable because of the concerns raised about silver nanoparticles, which are toxic, being washed off and ending up in the water supply. I recently noted a news item about Swiss researchers who published a study on washing silver nanoparticles off items of clothing and didn’t have time to include anything much more than links (the link to the study is no longer useful as the study is now behind a paywall). Michael Berger at Nanowerk has written in more depth about the research here. From Berger’s article,

“We found that the total released varied considerably from less than 1 to 45 percent of the total nanosilver in the fabric and that most came out during the first wash,” Bernd Nowack, head of the Environmental Risk Assessment and Management Group at the Empa-Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research, tells Nanowerk. “These results have important implications for the risk assessment of silver textiles and also for environmental fate studies of nanosilver, because they show that under certain conditions relevant to washing, primarily coarse silver-containing particles are released.”

I gather this research means that manufacturers can refine their products by using finer grained silver nanoparticles to minimize the number released through washing. All of which leads me to some other questions:

  • Should we insist that no silver nanoparticles be washed off?
  • Before considering that question, I’d like to find out if we had silver nanoparticles floating around in the water prior to the manufacture of textiles made by incorporating them into the fiber.
  • Did we ingest silver nanoparticles before we had antimicrobial fabrics?
  • Does the silver come off when you sweat and where does it go then? Could your sweat represent a bigger problem than the water supply?

There is at least one other line of query that can be taken as well. Is it a good idea to limit or eliminate our exposure to bacteria and germs? There are studies which suggest that our immune systems don’t work unless they’re stimulated by the very exposure we work so vigilantly to eliminate. I’m not suggesting that we expose people to dangerous diseases so they can build up their immune systems but this mania to eliminate all germs and bacteria from our personal environments seems ill-advised to me.

I found a news item about another report on China and its research output. From the news item on Nanowerk,

“If China’s research growth remains this rapid and substantial, European and North American institutions will want to be part of it,” said Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters. “China no longer depends on links to traditional G8 partners to help its knowledge development. When Europe and the USA visit China they can only do so as equal partners.”

I have requested a copy of the Thomson Reuters study, Global Research Report: China, mentioned. You can request your own copy from here.