Tag Archives: University of Cambridge

Transformational machine learning (TML)

It seems machine learning is getting a tune-up. A November 29, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily describes research into improving machine learning from an international team of researchers,

Researchers have developed a new approach to machine learning that ‘learns how to learn’ and out-performs current machine learning methods for drug design, which in turn could accelerate the search for new disease treatments.

The method, called transformational machine learning (TML), was developed by a team from the UK, Sweden, India and Netherlands. It learns from multiple problems and improves performance while it learns.

A November 29, 2021 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the potential this new technique may have on drug discovery and more,

TML could accelerate the identification and production of new drugs by improving the machine learning systems which are used to identify them. The results are reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most types of machine learning (ML) use labelled examples, and these examples are almost always represented in the computer using intrinsic features, such as the colour or shape of an object. The computer then forms general rules that relate the features to the labels.

“It’s sort of like teaching a child to identify different animals: this is a rabbit, this is a donkey and so on,” said Professor Ross King from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, who led the research. “If you teach a machine learning algorithm what a rabbit looks like, it will be able to tell whether an animal is or isn’t a rabbit. This is the way that most machine learning works – it deals with problems one at a time.”

However, this is not the way that human learning works: instead of dealing with a single issue at a time, we get better at learning because we have learned things in the past.

“To develop TML, we applied this approach to machine learning, and developed a system that learns information from previous problems it has encountered in order to better learn new problems,” said King, who is also a Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute. “Where a typical ML system has to start from scratch when learning to identify a new type of animal – say a kitten – TML can use the similarity to existing animals: kittens are cute like rabbits, but don’t have long ears like rabbits and donkeys. This makes TML a much more powerful approach to machine learning.”

The researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of their idea on thousands of problems from across science and engineering. They say it shows particular promise in the area of drug discovery, where this approach speeds up the process by checking what other ML models say about a particular molecule. A typical ML approach will search for drug molecules of a particular shape, for example. TML instead uses the connection of the drugs to other drug discovery problems.

“I was surprised how well it works – better than anything else we know for drug design,” said King. “It’s better at choosing drugs than humans are – and without the best science, we won’t get the best results.”

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

Transformational machine learning: Learning how to learn from many related scientific problems by Ivan Olier, Oghenejokpeme I. Orhobor, Tirtharaj Dash, Andy M. Davis, Larisa N. Soldatova, Joaquin Vanschoren, and Ross D. King. PNAS December 7, 2021 118 (49) e2108013118; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2108013118

This paper appears to be open access.

Congratulations! Noēma magazine’s first year anniversary

Apparently, I am an idiot—if the folks at Expunct and other organizations passionately devoted to their own viewpoints are to be believed.

To be specific, Berggruen Institute (which publishes Noēma magazine) has attracted remarkably sharp criticism and, by implication, that seems to include anyone examining, listening, or reading the institute’s various communication efforts.

Perhaps you’d like to judge the quality of the ideas for yourself?

Abut the Institute and about the magazine

The institute is a think tank founded by Nicolas Berggruen, US-based billionaire investor and philanthropist, and Nathan Gardels, journalist and editor-in-chief of Noēma magazine, in 2010. Before moving onto the magazine’s first anniversary, here’s more about the Institute from its About webpage,

Ideas for a Changing World

We live in a time of great transformations. From capitalism, to democracy, to the global order, our institutions are faltering. The very meaning of the human is fragmenting.

The Berggruen Institute was established in 2010 to develop foundational ideas about how to reshape political and social institutions in the face of these great transformations. We work across cultures, disciplines and political boundaries, engaging great thinkers to develop and promote long-term answers to the biggest challenges of the 21st Century.

As the for the magazine, here’s more from the About Us webpage (Note: I have rearranged the paragraph order),

In ancient Greek, noēma means “thinking” or the “object of thought.” And that is our intention: to delve deeply into the critical issues transforming the world today, at length and with historical context, in order to illuminate new pathways of thought in a way not possible through the immediacy of daily media. In this era of accelerated social change, there is a dire need for new ideas and paradigms to frame the world we are moving into.

Noema is a magazine exploring the transformations sweeping our world. We publish essays, interviews, reportage, videos and art on the overlapping realms of philosophy, governance, geopolitics, economics, technology and culture. In doing so, our unique approach is to get out of the usual lanes and cross disciplines, social silos and cultural boundaries. From artificial intelligence and the climate crisis to the future of democracy and capitalism, Noema Magazine seeks a deeper understanding of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.

Published online and in print by the Berggruen Institute, Noema grew out of a previous publication called The WorldPost, which was first a partnership with HuffPost and later with The Washington Post. Noema publishes thoughtful, rigorous, adventurous pieces by voices from both inside and outside the institute. While committed to using journalism to help build a more sustainable and equitable world, we do not promote any particular set of national, economic or partisan interests.

First anniversary

Noēma’s anniversary is being marked by its second paper publication (the first was produced for the magazine’s launch). From a July 1, 2021 announcement received via email,

June 2021 marked one year since the launch of Noema Magazine, a crucial milestone for the new publication focused on exploring and amplifying transformative ideas. Noema is working to attract audiences through longform perspectives and contemporary artwork that weave together threads in philosophy, governance, geopolitics, economics, technology, and culture.

“What began more than seven years ago as a news-driven global voices platform for The Huffington Post known as The WorldPost, and later in partnership with The Washington Post, has been reimagined,” said Nathan Gardels, editor-in-chief of Noema. “It has evolved into a platform for expansive ideas through a visual lens, and a timely and provocative portal to plumb the deeper issues behind present events.”

The magazine’s editorial board, involved in the genesis and as content drivers of the magazine, includes Orhan Pamuk, Arianna Huffington, Fareed Zakaria, Reid Hoffman, Dambisa Moyo, Walter Isaacson, Pico Iyer, and Elif Shafak. Pieces by thinkers cracking the calcifications of intellectual domains include, among many others:

·      Francis Fukuyama on the future of the nation-state

·      A collage of commentary on COVID with Yuval Harari and Jared Diamond 

·      An interview with economist Mariana Mazzucato on “mission-oriented government”

·      Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang on digital democracy

·      Hedge-fund giant Ray Dalio in conversation with Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz

·      Shannon Vallor on how AI is making us less intelligent and more artificial

·      Former Governor Jerry Brown in conversation with Stewart Brand 

·      Ecologist Suzanne Simard on the intelligence of forest ecosystems

·      A discussion on protecting the biosphere with Bill Gates’s guru Vaclav Smil 

·      An original story by Chinese science-fiction writer Hao Jingfang

Noema seeks to highlight how the great transformations of the 21st century are reflected in the work of today’s artistic innovators. Most articles are accompanied by an original illustration, melding together an aesthetic experience with ideas in social science and public policy. Among others, in the past year, the magazine has featured work from multimedia artist Pierre Huyghe, illustrator Daniel Martin Diaz, painter Scott Listfield, graphic designer and NFT artist Jonathan Zawada, 3D motion graphics artist Kyle Szostek, illustrator Moonassi, collage artist Lauren Lakin, and aerial photographer Brooke Holm. Additional contributions from artists include Berggruen Fellows Agnieszka Kurant and Anicka Yi discussing how their work explores the myth of the self.

Noema is available online and annually in print; the magazine’s second print issue will be released on July13, 2021. The theme of this issue is “planetary realism,” which proposes to go beyond the exhausted notions of globalization and geopolitical competition among nation-states to a new “Gaiapolitik.” It addresses the existential challenge of climate change across all borders and recognizes that human civilization is but one part of the ecology of being that encompasses multiple intelligences from microbes to forests to the emergent global exoskeleton of AI and internet connectivity (more on this in the letter from the editors below).

Published by the Berggruen Institute, Noema is an incubator for the Institute’s core ideas, such as “participation without populism,” “pre-distribution” and universal basic capital (vs. income), and the need for dialogue between the U.S. and China to avoid an AI arms race or inadvertent war.

“The world needs divergent thinking on big questions if we’re going to meet the challenges of the 21st century; Noema publishes bold and experimental ideas,” said Kathleen Miles, executive editor of Noema. “The magazine cross-fertilizes ideas across boundaries and explores correspondences among them in order to map out the terrain of the great transformations underway.”  

I notice Suzanne Simard (from the University of British Columbia and author of “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest”) on the list of essayists along with a story by Chinese science fiction writer, Hao Jingfang.

Simard was mentioned here in a May 12, 2021 posting (scroll down to the “UBC forestry professor, Suzanne Simard’s memoir going to the movies?” subhead) when it was announced that her then not yet published memoir will be a film starring Amy Adams (or so they hope).

Hao Jingfang was mentioned here in a November 16, 2020 posting titled: “Telling stories about artificial intelligence (AI) and Chinese science fiction; a Nov. 17, 2020 virtual event” (co-hosted by the Berggruen Institute and University of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence [CFI]).

A month after Noēma’s second paper issue on July 13, 2021, the theme and topics appear especially timely in light of the extensive news coverage in Canada and many other parts of the world given to the Monday, August, 9, 2021 release of the sixth UN Climate report raising alarms over irreversible impacts. (Emily Chung’s August 12, 2021 analysis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] offers a little good news for those severely alarmed by the report.) Note: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the UN body tasked with assessing the science related to climate change.

Graphene and its magnetism

I have two news bits about graphene and magnetism. If I understood what I was reading, one is more focused on applications and the other is focused on further establishing the field of valleytronics.

University of Cambridge and superconductivity

A February 8, 2021 news item on Nanowerk announces ‘magnetic work’ from the University of Cambridge (Note: A link has been removed),

The researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, were able to control the conductivity and magnetism of iron thiophosphate (FePS3), a two-dimensional material which undergoes a transition from an insulator to a metal when compressed. This class of magnetic materials offers new routes to understanding the physics of new magnetic states and superconductivity.

Using new high-pressure techniques, the researchers have shown what happens to magnetic graphene during the transition from insulator to conductor and into its unconventional metallic state, realised only under ultra-high pressure conditions. When the material becomes metallic, it remains magnetic, which is contrary to previous results and provides clues as to how the electrical conduction in the metallic phase works. The newly discovered high-pressure magnetic phase likely forms a precursor to superconductivity so understanding its mechanisms is vital.

Their results, published in the journal Physical Review X, also suggest a way that new materials could be engineered to have combined conduction and magnetic properties, which could be useful in the development of new technologies such as spintronics, which could transform the way in which computers process information.

A February 8, 2021 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves into the topic,

Properties of matter can alter dramatically with changing dimensionality. For example, graphene, carbon nanotubes, graphite and diamond are all made of carbon atoms, but have very different properties due to their different structure and dimensionality.

“But imagine if you were also able to change all of these properties by adding magnetism,” said first author Dr Matthew Coak, who is jointly based at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the University of Warwick. “A material which could be mechanically flexible and form a new kind of circuit to store information and perform computation. This is why these materials are so interesting, and because they drastically change their properties when put under pressure so we can control their behaviour.”

In a previous study by Sebastian Haines of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the Department of Earth Sciences, researchers established that the material becomes a metal at high pressure, and outlined how the crystal structure and arrangement of atoms in the layers of this 2D material change through the transition.

“The missing piece has remained however, the magnetism,” said Coak. “With no experimental techniques able to probe the signatures of magnetism in this material at pressures this high, our international team had to develop and test our own new techniques to make it possible.”

The researchers used new techniques to measure the magnetic structure up to record-breaking high pressures, using specially designed diamond anvils and neutrons to act as the probe of magnetism. They were then able to follow the evolution of the magnetism into the metallic state.

“To our surprise, we found that the magnetism survives and is in some ways strengthened,” co-author Dr Siddharth Saxena, group leader at the Cavendish Laboratory. “This is unexpected, as the newly-freely-roaming electrons in a newly conducting material can no longer be locked to their parent iron atoms, generating magnetic moments there – unless the conduction is coming from an unexpected source.”

In their previous paper, the researchers showed these electrons were ‘frozen’ in a sense. But when they made them flow or move, they started interacting more and more. The magnetism survives, but gets modified into new forms, giving rise to new quantum properties in a new type of magnetic metal.

How a material behaves, whether conductor or insulator, is mostly based on how the electrons, or charge, move around. However, the ‘spin’ of the electrons has been shown to be the source of magnetism. Spin makes electrons behave a bit like tiny bar magnets and point a certain way. Magnetism from the arrangement of electron spins is used in most memory devices: harnessing and controlling it is important for developing new technologies such as spintronics, which could transform the way in which computers process information.

“The combination of the two, the charge and the spin, is key to how this material behaves,” said co-author Dr David Jarvis from the Institut Laue-Langevin, France, who carried out this work as the basis of his PhD studies at the Cavendish Laboratory. “Finding this sort of quantum multi-functionality is another leap forward in the study of these materials.”

“We don’t know exactly what’s happening at the quantum level, but at the same time, we can manipulate it,” said Saxena. “It’s like those famous ‘unknown unknowns’: we’ve opened up a new door to properties of quantum information, but we don’t yet know what those properties might be.”

There are more potential chemical compounds to synthesise than could ever be fully explored and characterised. But by carefully selecting and tuning materials with special properties, it is possible to show the way towards the creation of compounds and systems, but without having to apply huge amounts of pressure.

Additionally, gaining fundamental understanding of phenomena such as low-dimensional magnetism and superconductivity allows researchers to make the next leaps in materials science and engineering, with particular potential in energy efficiency, generation and storage.

As for the case of magnetic graphene, the researchers next plan to continue the search for superconductivity within this unique material. “Now that we have some idea what happens to this material at high pressure, we can make some predictions about what might happen if we try to tune its properties through adding free electrons by compressing it further,” said Coak.

“The thing we’re chasing is superconductivity,” said Saxena. “If we can find a type of superconductivity that’s related to magnetism in a two-dimensional material, it could give us a shot at solving a problem that’s gone back decades.”

The citation and link to the paper are at the end of this blog posting.

Aalto University’s valleytronics

Further north in Finland, researchers at Aalto University make some advances applicable to the field of valleytronics, from a February 5, 2021 Aalto University press release (also on EurekAltert but published February 8, 2021),

Electrons in materials have a property known as ‘spin’, which is responsible for a variety of properties, the most well-known of which is magnetism. Permanent magnets, like the ones used for refrigerator doors, have all the spins in their electrons aligned in the same direction. Scientists refer to this behaviour as ferromagnetism, and the research field of trying to manipulate spin as spintronics.

Down in the quantum world, spins can arrange in more exotic ways, giving rise to frustrated states and entangled magnets. Interestingly, a property similar to spin, known as “the valley,” appears in graphene materials. This unique feature has given rise to the field of valleytronics, which aims to exploit the valley property for emergent physics and information processing, very much like spintronics relies on pure spin physics.

‘Valleytronics would potentially allow encoding information in the quantum valley degree of freedom, similar to how electronics do it with charge and spintronics with the spin.’ Explains Professor Jose Lado, from Aalto’s Department of applied physics, and one of the authors of the work. ‘What’s more, valleytronic devices would offer a dramatic increase in the processing speeds in comparison with electronics, and with much higher stability towards magnetic field noise in comparison with spintronic devices.’

Structures made of rotated, ultra-thin materials provide a rich solid-state platform for designing novel devices. In particular, slightly twisted graphene layers have recently been shown to have exciting unconventional properties, that can ultimately lead to a new family of materials for quantum technologies. These unconventional states which are already being explored depend on electrical charge or spin. The open question is if the valley can also lead to its own family of exciting states.

Making materials for valleytronics

For this goal, it turns out that conventional ferromagnets play a vital role, pushing graphene to the realms of valley physics. In a recent work, Ph.D. student Tobias Wolf, together with Profs. Oded Zilberberg and Gianni Blatter at ETH Zurich, and Prof. Jose Lado at Aalto University, showed a new direction for correlated physics in magnetic van der Waals materials.

The team showed that sandwiching two slightly rotated layers of graphene between a ferromagnetic insulator provides a unique setting for new electronic states. The combination of ferromagnets, graphene’s twist engineering, and relativistic effects force the “valley” property to dominate the electrons behaviour in the material. In particular, the researchers showed how these valley-only states can be tuned electrically, providing a materials platform in which valley-only states can be generated. Building on top of the recent breakthrough in spintronics and van der Waals materials, valley physics in magnetic twisted van der Waals multilayers opens the door to the new realm of correlated twisted valleytronics.

‘Demonstrating these states represents the starting point towards new exotic entangled valley states.’ Said Professor Lado, ‘Ultimately, engineering these valley states can allow realizing quantum entangled valley liquids and fractional quantum valley Hall states. These two exotic states of matter have not been found in nature yet, and would open exciting possibilities towards a potentially new graphene-based platform for topological quantum computing.’

Citations and links

Here’s a link to and a citation for the University of Cambridge research,

Emergent Magnetic Phases in Pressure-Tuned van der Waals Antiferromagnet FePS3 by Matthew J. Coak, David M. Jarvis, Hayrullo Hamidov, Andrew R. Wildes, Joseph A. M. Paddison, Cheng Liu, Charles R. S. Haines, Ngoc T. Dang, Sergey E. Kichanov, Boris N. Savenko, Sungmin Lee, Marie Kratochvílová, Stefan Klotz, Thomas C. Hansen, Denis P. Kozlenko, Je-Geun Park, and Siddharth S. Saxena. Phys. Rev. X 11, 011024 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevX.11.011024 Published 5 February 2021

This article appears to be open access.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Aalto University research,

Spontaneous Valley Spirals in Magnetically Encapsulated Twisted Bilayer Graphene by Tobias M. R. Wolf, Oded Zilberberg, Gianni Blatter, and Jose L. Lado. Phys. Rev. Lett. 126, 056803 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.126.056803 Published 4 February 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gold nanotubes for treating mesothelioma?

An October 26, 2020 news item on Nanowerk describes some new research that may lead the way to treatments for people with asbestos-related cancers (e.g., mesothelioma), Note: A link has been removed,

Gold nanotubes – tiny hollow cylinders one thousandth the width of a human hair – could be used to treat mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, according to a team of researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Leeds.

In a study published in journal Small (“Exploring High Aspect Ratio Gold Nanotubes as Cytosolic Agents: Structural Engineering and Uptake into Mesothelioma Cells”), the researchers demonstrate that once inside the cancer cells, the nanotubes absorb light, causing them to heat up, thereby killing the cells.

Here`s an image illustrating the research,

Caption: Confocal fluorescence image of gold nanotures (green) in mesothelioma cells. Credit: Arsalan Azad

An October 27, 2020 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert but published on Oct. 26, 2020), which originated the news item, describes the context for the research and provides a few more technical details,

More than 2,600 people are diagnosed in the UK each year with mesothelioma, a malignant form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Although the use of asbestos is outlawed in the UK now, the country has the world’s highest levels of mesothelioma because it imported vast amounts of asbestos in the post-war years. The global usage of asbestos remains high, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, which means mesothelioma will become a global problem.

“Mesothelioma is one of the ‘hard-to-treat’ cancers, and the best we can offer people with existing treatments is a few months of extra survival,” said Dr Arsalan Azad from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research at the University of Cambridge. “There’s an important unmet need for new, effective treatments.”

In 2018, the University of Cambridge was awarded £10million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to help develop engineering solutions, including nanotech, to find ways to address hard-to-treat cancers.

In a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and University of Leeds, researchers have developed a form of gold nanotubes whose physical properties are ‘tunable’ – in other words, the team can tailor the wall thickness, microstructure, composition, and ability to absorb particular wavelengths of light.

The researchers added the nanotubes to mesothelioma cells cultured in the lab and found that they were absorbed by the cells, residing close to the nucleus, where the cell’s DNA lies. When the team targeted the cells with a laser, the nanotubes absorbed the light and heated up, killing the mesothelioma cell.

Professor Stefan Marciniak, also from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, added: “The mesothelioma cells ‘eat’ the nanotubes, leaving them susceptible when we shine light on them. Laser light is able to penetrate deep into tissue without causing damage to surrounding tissue. It then gets absorbed by the nanotubes, which heat up and, we hope in the future, could be used to cause localised cancer-cell killing.”

The team will be developing the work further to ensure the nanotubes are targeted to cancer cells with less effect on normal tissue.

The nanotubes are made in a two-step process. First, solid silver nanorods are created of the desired diameter. Gold is then deposited from solution onto the surface of the silver. As the gold builds-up at the surface, the silver dissolves from the inside to leave a hollow nanotube.

The approach advanced by the Leeds team allows these nanotubes to be developed at room temperature, which should make their manufacture at scale more feasible.

Professor Stephen Evans from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds said: “Having control over the size and shape of the nanotubes allows us to tune them to absorb light where the tissue is transparent and will allow them to be used for both the imaging and treatment of cancers. The next stage will be to load these nanotubes with medicines for enhanced therapies.”

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

Exploring High Aspect Ratio Gold Nanotubes as Cytosolic Agents: Structural Engineering and Uptake into Mesothelioma Cells by Sunjie Ye, Arsalan A. Azad, Joseph E. Chambers, Alison J. Beckett, Lucien Roach, Samuel C. T. Moorcroft, Zabeada Aslam, Ian A. Prior, Alexander F. Markham, P. Louise Coletta, Stefan J. Marciniak, Stephen D. Evans. Small DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/smll.202003793 First published: 25 October 2020

This paper is open access.

Telling stories about artificial intelligence (AI) and Chinese science fiction; a Nov. 17, 2020 virtual event

[downloaded from https://www.berggruen.org/events/ai-narratives-in-contemporary-chinese-science-fiction/]

Exciting news: Chris Eldred of the Berggruen Institute sent this notice (from his Nov. 13, 2020 email)

Renowned science fiction novelists Hao Jingfang, Chen Qiufan, and Wang Yao (Xia Jia) will be featured in a virtual event next Tuesday, and I thought their discussion may be of interest to you and your readers. The event will explore how AI is used in contemporary Chinese science fiction, and the writers’ roundtable will address questions such as: How does Chinese sci-fi literature since the Reform and Opening-Up compare to sci-fi writing in the West? How does the Wandering Earth narrative and Chinese perspectives on home influence ideas about the impact of AI on the future?

Berggruen Fellow Hao Jingfang is an economist by training and an award-winning author (Hugo Award for Best Novelette). This event will be co-hosted with the University of Cambridge Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. 

This event will be live streamed on Zoom (agenda and registration link here) on Tuesday, November 17th, from 8:30-11:50 AM GMT / 4:30-7:50 PM CST. Simultaneous English translation will be provided. 

The Berggruen Institute is offering a conversation with authors and researchers about how Chinese science fiction grapples with artificial intelligence (from the Berggruen Institute’s AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction event page),

AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

November 17, 2020

Platform & Language:

Zoom (Chinese and English, with simultaneous translation)

Click here to register.

Discussion points:

1. How does Chinese sci-fi literature since the Reform and Opening-Up compare to sci-fi writing in the West?

2. How does the Wandering Earth narrative and Chinese perspectives on home influence ideas about the impact of AI on the future

About the Speakers:

WU Yan is a professor and PhD supervisor at the Humanities Center of Southern University of Science and Technology. He is a science fiction writer, vice chairman of the China Science Writers Association, recipient of the Thomas D Clareson Award of the American Science Fiction Research Association, and co-founder of the Xingyun (Nebula) Awards for Global Chinese Science Fiction. He is the author of science fictions such as Adventure of the Soul and The Sixth Day of Life and Death, academic works such as Outline of Science Fiction Literature, and textbooks such as Science and Fantasy – Training Course for Youth Imagination and Scientific Innovation.

Sanfeng is a science fiction researcher, visiting researcher of the Humanities Center of Southern University of Science and Technology, chief researcher of Shenzhen Science & Fantasy Growth Foundation, honorary assistant professor of the University of Hong Kong, Secretary-General of the World Chinese Science Fiction Association, and editor-in-chief of Nebula Science Fiction Review. His research covers the history of Chinese science fiction, development of science fiction industry, science fiction and urban development, science fiction and technological innovation, etc.

About the Event

Keynote 1 “Chinese AI Science Fiction in the Early Period of Reform and Opening-Up (1978-1983)”

(改革开放早期(1978-1983)的中国AI科幻小说)

Abstract: Science fiction on the themes of computers and robots emerged early but in a scattered manner in China. In the stories, the protagonists are largely humanlike assistants chiefly collecting data or doing daily manual labor, and this does not fall in the category of today’s artificial intelligence. Major changes took place after the reform and opening-up in 1978 in this regard. In 1979, the number of robot-themed works ballooned. By 1980, the quality of works also saw a quantum leap, and stories on the nature of artificial intelligence began to appear. At this stage, the AI works such as Spy Case Outside the Pitch, Dulles and Alice, Professor Shalom’s Misconception, and Riot on the Ziwei Island That Shocked the World describe how intelligent robots respond to activities such as adversarial ball games (note that these are not chess games), fully integrate into the daily life of humans, and launch collective riots beyond legal norms under special circumstances. The ideas that the growth of artificial intelligence requires a suitable environment, stable family relationship, social adaptation, etc. are still of important value.

Keynote 2 “Algorithm of the Soul: Narrative of AI in Recent Chinese Science Fiction”

(灵魂的算法:近期中国科幻小说中的AI叙事)

Abstract: As artificial intelligence has been applied to the fields of technology and daily life in the past decade, the AI narrative in Chinese science fiction has also seen seismic changes. On the one hand, young authors are aware that the “soul” of AI comes, to a large extent, from machine learning algorithms. As a result, their works often highlight the existence and implementation of algorithms, bringing maneuverability and credibility to the AI. On the other hand, the authors prefer to focus on the conflicts and contradictions in emotions, ethics, and morality caused by AI that penetrate into human life. If the previous AI-themed science fiction is like a distant robot fable, the recent AI narrative assumes contemporary and practical significance. This report focuses on exploring the AI-themed science fiction by several young authors (including Hao Jingfang’s [emphasis mine] The Problem of Love and Where Are You, Chen Qiufan’s Image Maker and Algorithm for Life, and Xia Jia’s Let’s Have a Talk and Shejiang, Baoshu’s Little Girl and Shuangchimu’s The Cock Prince, etc.) to delve into the breakthroughs and achievements in AI narratives.

Hao Jingfang, one of the authors mentioned in the abstract, is currently a fellow at the Berggruen Institute and she is scheduled to be a guest according to the co-host’s the University of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI) page: Workshop: AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction programme description (I’ll try not to include too much repetitive information),

Workshop 2 – November 17, 2020

AI Narratives in Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction

Programme

16:30-16:40 CST (8:30-8:40 GMT)  Introductions

SONG Bing, Vice President, Co-Director, Berggruen Research Center, Peking University

Kanta Dihal, Postdoctoral Researcher, Project Lead on Global Narratives, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, University of Cambridge  

16:40-17:10 CST (8:40-9:10 GMT)  Talk 1 [Chinese AI SciFi and the early period]

17:10-17:40 CST (9:10-9:40 GMT)  Talk 2  [Algorithm of the soul]

17:40-18:10 CST (9:40-10:10 GMT)  Q&A

18:10-18:20 CST (10:10-10:20 GMT) Break

18:20-19:50 CST (10:20-11:50 GMT)  Roundtable Discussion

Host:

HAO Jingfang(郝景芳), author, researcher & Berggruen Fellow

Guests:

Baoshu (宝树), sci-fi and fantasy writer

CHEN Qiufan(陈楸帆), sci-fi writer, screenwriter & translator

Feidao(飞氘), sci-fi writer, Associate Professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Tsinghua University

WANG Yao(王瑶,pen name “Xia Jia”), sci-fi writer, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University

Suggested Readings

ABOUT CHINESE [Science] FICTION

“What Makes Chinese Fiction Chinese?”, by Xia Jia and Ken Liu,

The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction”, Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

Science Fiction in China: 2016 in Review

SHORT NOVELS ABOUT ROBOTS/AI/ALGORITHM:

The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales”, by Feidao, translated by Ken Liu

Goodnight, Melancholy”, by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu

The Reunion”, by Chen Qiufan, translated by Emily Jin and Ken Liu, MIT Technology Review, December 16, 2018

Folding Beijing”, by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu

Let’s have a talk”, by Xia Jia

For those of us on the West Coast of North America the event times are: Tuesday, November 17, 2020, 1430 – 1750 or 2:30 – 5:50 pm. *Added On Nov.16.20 at 11:55 am PT: For anyone who can’t attend the live event, a full recording will be posted to YouTube.*

Kudos to all involved in organizing and participating in this event. It’s important to get as many viewpoints as possible on AI and its potential impacts.

Finally and for the curious, there’s another posting about Chinese science fiction here (May 31, 2019).

Viburnum and a new kind of structural colo(u)r

I love structural colo(u) and the first such story here was this February 7, 2013 posting, which is where you’ll find the image below,

AGELESS BRILLIANCE: Although the pigment-derived leaf color of this decades-old specimen of the African perennial Pollia condensata has faded, the fruit still maintains its intense metallic-blue iridescence.COURTESY OF P.J. RUDALL [downloaded from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34200/title/Color-from-Structure/]

Those berries are stunning especially when you realize they are part of a long-dead Pollia plant. Scientist, Rox Middleton of University of Bristol (UK) was studying the structures that render the Pollia plant’s berries (fruit) blue when she decided to study another, more conveniently accessible plant with blue fruit. That’s when she got a surprise (from an August 11, 2020 article by Véronique Greenwood for the New York Times),

Big, leafy viburnum bushes have lined yards in the United States and Europe for decades — their domes of blossoms have an understated attractiveness. But once the flowers of the Viburnum tinus plant fade, the shrub makes something unusual: shiny, brilliantly blue fruit.

Scientists had noticed that pigments related to those in blueberries exist in viburnum fruit, and assumed that this must be the source of their odd hue. Blue fruit, after all, is rare. But researchers reported last week in Current Biology that viburnum’s blue is actually created by layers of molecules arranged under the surface of the skin, a form of what scientists call structural color. By means still unknown, the plant’s cells create thin slabs of fat [emphasis mine] arranged in a stack, like the flakes of puff pastry, and their peculiar gleam is the result.

Rox Middleton, a researcher at University of Bristol in England and an author of the new paper, had been studying the African pollia plant, which produces its own exotic blue fruit. But viburnum fruit were everywhere, and she realized that their blue had not been well-studied. Along with Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and other colleagues, she set out to take a closer look at the fruit’s skin.

The pollia fruit’s blue is a form of structural color, in which light bounces off a regularly spaced arrangement of tiny structures such that certain wavelengths, usually those that look blue or green to us, are reflected back at the viewer. In pollia fruit, the color comes from light interacting with thin sheets of cellulose packed together. At first the team thought there would be something similar in viburnum. But they saw no cellulose stacks.

The research team has concluded that all it comes down the arrangement of fat molecules, which are also responsible for the cloudier, metallic blue in viburnum berries,

Caption Closeup of viburnum tinus. Credit: Rox Middleton Courtesy University of Cambridge

I encourage you to read Greenwood’s August 11, 2020 article in its entirety. For those who like more details, there are two press releases. The first is an August 6, 2020 University of Cambridge press release on EurekAlert. Middleton completed the ‘Virbunum’ research while completing her PhD at Cambridge. As mentioned earlier, Middleton is currently a researcher at the University of Bristol and they issued an August 11, 2020 press release touting her accomplishment.

Finally, for the insatiably curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Viburnum tinus Fruits Use Lipids to Produce Metallic Blue Structural Color by Rox Middleton, Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, Yu Ogawa, Gianni Jacucci, Edwige Moyroud, Paula J. Rudall, Chrissie Prychid, Maria Conejero, Beverley J. Glover, Michael J. Donoghue, Silvia Vignolini. Current Biology DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.07.005 Published:August 06, 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Improving neuromorphic devices with ion conducting polymer

A July 1, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily announces work which researchers are hopeful will allow them exert more control over neuromorphic devices’ speed of response,

“Neuromorphic” refers to mimicking the behavior of brain neural cells. When one speaks of neuromorphic computers, they are talking about making computers think and process more like human brains-operating at high-speed with low energy consumption.

Despite a growing interest in polymer-based neuromorphic devices, researchers have yet to establish an effective method for controlling the response speed of devices. Researchers from Tohoku University and the University of Cambridge, however, have overcome this obstacle through mixing the polymers PSS-Na and PEDOT:PSS, discovering that adding an ion conducting polymer enhances neuromorphic device response time.

A June 24, 2020 Tohoku University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a few more technical details,

Polymers are materials composed of long molecular chains and play a fundamental aspect in modern life from the rubber in tires, to water bottles, to polystyrene. Mixing polymers together results in the creation of new materials with their own distinct physical properties.

Most studies on neuromorphic devices based on polymer focus exclusively on the application of PEDOT: PSS, a mixed conductor that transports both electrons and ions. PSS-Na, on the other hand, transports ions only. By blending these two polymers, the researchers could enhance the ion diffusivity in the active layer of the device. Their measurements confirmed an increase in device response time, achieving a 5-time shorting at maximum. The results also proved how closely related response time is to the diffusivity of ions in the active layer.

“Our study paves the way for a deeper understanding behind the science of conducting polymers.” explains co-author Shunsuke Yamamoto from the Department of Biomolecular Engineering at Tohoku University’s Graduate School of Engineering. “Moving forward, it may be possible to create artificial neural networks composed of multiple neuromorphic devices,” he adds.

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

Controlling the Neuromorphic Behavior of Organic Electrochemical Transistors by Blending Mixed and Ion Conductors by Shunsuke Yamamoto and George G. Malliaras. ACS [American Chemical Society] Appl. Electron. Mater. 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsaelm.0c00203 Publication Date:June 15, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Colo(u)r-changing building surfaces thanks to gold nanoparticles

Gold, at the nanoscale, has different properties than it has at the macroscale and research at the University of Cambridge has found a new way to exploit gold’s unique properties at the nanoscale according to a May 13, 2019 news item item on ScienceDaily,

The smallest pixels yet created — a million times smaller than those in smartphones, made by trapping particles of light under tiny rocks of gold — could be used for new types of large-scale flexible displays, big enough to cover entire buildings.

The colour pixels, developed by a team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge, are compatible with roll-to-roll fabrication on flexible plastic films, dramatically reducing their production cost. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances [May 10, 2019].

A May 10,2019 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

It has been a long-held dream to mimic the colour-changing skin of octopus or squid, allowing people or objects to disappear into the natural background, but making large-area flexible display screens is still prohibitively expensive because they are constructed from highly precise multiple layers.

At the centre of the pixels developed by the Cambridge scientists is a tiny particle of gold a few billionths of a metre across. The grain sits on top of a reflective surface, trapping light in the gap in between. Surrounding each grain is a thin sticky coating which changes chemically when electrically switched, causing the pixel to change colour across the spectrum.

The team of scientists, from different disciplines including physics, chemistry and manufacturing, made the pixels by coating vats of golden grains with an active polymer called polyaniline and then spraying them onto flexible mirror-coated plastic, to dramatically drive down production cost.

The pixels are the smallest yet created, a million times smaller than typical smartphone pixels. They can be seen in bright sunlight and because they do not need constant power to keep their set colour, have an energy performance that makes large areas feasible and sustainable. “We started by washing them over aluminized food packets, but then found aerosol spraying is faster,” said co-lead author Hyeon-Ho Jeong from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

“These are not the normal tools of nanotechnology, but this sort of radical approach is needed to make sustainable technologies feasible,” said Professor Jeremy J Baumberg of the NanoPhotonics Centre at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, who led the research. “The strange physics of light on the nanoscale allows it to be switched, even if less than a tenth of the film is coated with our active pixels. That’s because the apparent size of each pixel for light is many times larger than their physical area when using these resonant gold architectures.”

The pixels could enable a host of new application possibilities such as building-sized display screens, architecture which can switch off solar heat load, active camouflage clothing and coatings, as well as tiny indicators for coming internet-of-things devices.
The team are currently working at improving the colour range and are looking for partners to develop the technology further.

The research is funded as part of a UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) investment in the Cambridge NanoPhotonics Centre, as well as the European Research Council (ERC) and the China Scholarship Council.

This image accompanies the press release,

Caption: eNPoMs formed from gold nanoparticles (Au NPs) encapsulated in a conductive polymer shell. Credit: NanoPhotonics Cambridge/Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Jialong Peng Credit: NanoPhotonics Cambridge/Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Jialong Peng

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

Scalable electrochromic nanopixels using plasmonics by Jialong Peng, Hyeon-Ho Jeong, Qianqi Lin, Sean Cormier, Hsin-Ling Liang, Michael F. L. De Volder, Silvia Vignolini, and Jeremy J. Baumberg. Science Advances Vol. 5, no. 5, eaaw2205 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw2205 Published: 01 May 2019

This paper appears to be open access.