Tag Archives: University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know? Artificial Intelligence at the Vancouver (Canada) Art Gallery (2 of 2): Meditations

Dear friend,

I thought it best to break this up a bit. There are a couple of ‘objects’ still to be discussed but this is mostly the commentary part of this letter to you. (Here’s a link for anyone who stumbled here but missed Part 1.)

Ethics, the natural world, social justice, eeek, and AI

Dorothy Woodend in her March 10, 2022 review for The Tyee) suggests some ethical issues in her critique of the ‘bee/AI collaboration’ and she’s not the only one with concerns. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has produced global recommendations for ethical AI (see my March 18, 2022 posting). More recently, there’s “Racist and sexist robots have flawed AI,” a June 23, 2022 posting, where researchers prepared a conference presentation and paper about deeply flawed AI still being used in robots.

Ultimately, the focus is always on humans and Woodend has extended the ethical AI conversation to include insects and the natural world. In short, something less human-centric.

My friend, this reference to the de Young exhibit may seem off topic but I promise it isn’t in more ways than one. The de Young Museum in San Francisco (February 22, 2020 – June 27, 2021) also held and AI and art show called, “Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI”), from the exhibitions page,

In today’s AI-driven world, increasingly organized and shaped by algorithms that track, collect, and evaluate our data, the question of what it means to be human [emphasis mine] has shifted. Uncanny Valley is the first major exhibition to unpack this question through a lens of contemporary art and propose new ways of thinking about intelligence, nature, and artifice. [emphasis mine]

Courtesy: de Young Museum [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/exhibitions/uncanny-valley]

As you can see, it hinted (perhaps?) at an attempt to see beyond human-centric AI. (BTW, I featured this ‘Uncanny Valley’ show in my February 25, 2020 posting where I mentioned Stephanie Dinkins [featured below] and other artists.)

Social justice

While the VAG show doesn’t see much past humans and AI, it does touch on social justice. In particular there’s Pod 15 featuring the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL). The group “combine[s] art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of AI” as per their website’s homepage.

In Pod 9, Stephanie Dinkins’ video work with a robot (Bina48), which was also part of the de Young Museum ‘Uncanny Valley’ show, addresses some of the same issues.

Still of Stephanie Dinkins, “Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present. Courtesy of the artist [downloaded from https://deyoung.famsf.org/stephanie-dinkins-conversations-bina48-0]

From the the de Young Museum’s Stephanie Dinkins “Conversations with Bina48” April 23, 2020 article by Janna Keegan (Dinkins submitted the same work you see at the VAG show), Note: Links have been removed,

Transdisciplinary artist and educator Stephanie Dinkins is concerned with fostering AI literacy. The central thesis of her social practice is that AI, the internet, and other data-based technologies disproportionately impact people of color, LGBTQ+ people, women, and disabled and economically disadvantaged communities—groups rarely given a voice in tech’s creation. Dinkins strives to forge a more equitable techno-future by generating AI that includes the voices of multiple constituencies …

The artist’s ongoing Conversations with Bina48 takes the form of a series of interactions with the social robot Bina48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture, 48 exaflops per second). The machine is the brainchild of Martine Rothblatt, an entrepreneur in the field of biopharmaceuticals who, with her wife, Bina, cofounded the Terasem Movement, an organization that seeks to extend human life through cybernetic means. In 2007 Martine commissioned Hanson Robotics to create a robot whose appearance and consciousness simulate Bina’s. The robot was released in 2010, and Dinkins began her work with it in 2014.

Part psychoanalytical discourse, part Turing test, Conversations with Bina48 also participates in a larger dialogue regarding bias and representation in technology. Although Bina Rothblatt is a Black woman, Bina48 was not programmed with an understanding of its Black female identity or with knowledge of Black history. Dinkins’s work situates this omission amid the larger tech industry’s lack of diversity, drawing attention to the problems that arise when a roughly homogenous population creates technologies deployed globally. When this occurs, writes art critic Tess Thackara, “the unconscious biases of white developers proliferate on the internet, mapping our social structures and behaviors onto code and repeating imbalances and injustices that exist in the real world.” One of the most appalling and public of these instances occurred when a Google Photos image-recognition algorithm mislabeled the faces of Black people as “gorillas.”

Eeek

You will find as you go through the ‘imitation game’ a pod with a screen showing your movements through the rooms in realtime on a screen. The installation is called “Creepers” (2021-22). The student team from Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media (CDM) describes their project this way, from the CDM’s AI-driven Installation Piece for the Vancouver Art Gallery webpage,

Project Description

Kaleidoscope [team name] is designing an installation piece that harnesses AI to collect and visualize exhibit visitor behaviours, and interactions with art, in an impactful and thought-provoking way.

There’s no warning that you’re being tracked and you can see they’ve used facial recognition software to track your movements through the show. It’s claimed on the pod’s signage that they are deleting the data once you’ve left.

‘Creepers’ is an interesting approach to the ethics of AI. The name suggests that even the student designers were aware it was problematic.

For the curious, there’s a description of the other VAG ‘imitation game’ installations provided by CDM students on the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage.

In recovery from an existential crisis (meditations)

There’s something greatly ambitious about “The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” and walking up the VAG’s grand staircase affirms that ambition. Bravo to the two curators, Grenville and Entis for an exhibition.that presents a survey (or overview) of artificial intelligence, and its use in and impact on creative visual culture.

I’ve already enthused over the history (specifically Turing, Lovelace, Ovid), admitted to being mesmerized by Scott Eaton’s sculpture/AI videos, and confessed to a fascination (and mild repulsion) regarding Oxman’s honeycombs.

It’s hard to remember all of the ‘objects’ as the curators have offered a jumble of work, almost all of them on screens. Already noted, there’s Norbert Wiener’s The Moth (1949) and there are also a number of other computer-based artworks from the 1960s and 1970s. Plus, you’ll find works utilizing a GAN (generative adversarial network), an AI agent that is explained in the exhibit.

It’s worth going more than once to the show as there is so much to experience.

Why did they do that?

Dear friend, I’ve already commented on the poor flow through the show and It’s hard to tell if the curators intended the experience to be disorienting but this is to the point of chaos, especially when the exhibition is crowded.

I’ve seen Grenville’s shows before. In particular there was “MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture, a massive survey documenting the emergence of a mode of creativity that materialized in the late 1800s and has grown to become the dominant model of cultural production in the 21st century” and there was “KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Manga + Video Games + Art.” As you can see from the description, he pulls together disparate works and ideas into a show for you to ‘make sense’ of them.

One of the differences between those shows and the “imitation Game: …” is that most of us have some familiarity, whether we like it or not, with modern art/culture and anime/manga/etc. and can try to ‘make sense’ of it.

By contrast, artificial intelligence (which even experts have difficulty defining) occupies an entirely different set of categories; all of them associated with science/technology. This makes for a different kind of show so the curators cannot rely on the audience’s understanding of basics. It’s effectively an art/sci or art/tech show and, I believe, the first of its kind at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Unfortunately, the curators don’t seem to have changed their approach to accommodate that difference.

AI is also at the centre of a current panic over job loss, loss of personal agency, automated racism and sexism, etc. which makes the experience of viewing the show a little tense. In this context, their decision to commission and use ‘Creepers’ seems odd.

Where were Ai-Da and Dall-E-2 and the others?

Oh friend, I was hoping for a robot. Those roomba paintbots didn’t do much for me. All they did was lie there on the floor

To be blunt I wanted some fun and perhaps a bit of wonder and maybe a little vitality. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Ai-Da, an artisitic robot, but something three dimensional and fun in this very flat, screen-oriented show would have been nice.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-asset.jpeg
Ai-Da was at the Glastonbury Festival in the U from 23-26th June 2022. Here’s Ai-Da and her Billie Eilish (one of the Glastonbury 2022 headliners) portrait. [downloaded from https://www.ai-darobot.com/exhibition]

Ai-Da was first featured here in a December 17, 2021 posting about performing poetry that she had written in honour of the 700th anniversary of poet Dante Alighieri’s death.

Named in honour of Ada Lovelace, Ai-Da visited the 2022 Venice Biennale as Leah Henrickson and Simone Natale describe in their May 12, 2022 article for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Ai-Da sits behind a desk, paintbrush in hand. She looks up at the person posing for her, and then back down as she dabs another blob of paint onto the canvas. A lifelike portrait is taking shape. If you didn’t know a robot produced it, this portrait could pass as the work of a human artist.

Ai-Da is touted as the “first robot to paint like an artist,” and an exhibition of her work, called Leaping into the Metaverse, opened at the Venice Biennale.

Ai-Da produces portraits of sitting subjects using a robotic hand attached to her lifelike feminine figure. She’s also able to talk, giving detailed answers to questions about her artistic process and attitudes toward technology. She even gave a TEDx talk about “The Intersection of Art and AI” in Oxford a few years ago. While the words she speaks are programmed, Ai-Da’s creators have also been experimenting with having her write and perform her own poetry.

She has her own website.

If not Ai-Da, what about Dall-E-2? Aaron Hertzmann’s June 20, 2022 commentary, “Give this AI a few words of description and it produces a stunning image – but is it art?” investigates for Salon (Note: Links have been removed),

DALL-E 2 is a new neural network [AI] algorithm that creates a picture from a short phrase or sentence that you provide. The program, which was announced by the artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI in April 2022, hasn’t been released to the public. But a small and growing number of people – myself included – have been given access to experiment with it.

As a researcher studying the nexus of technology and art, I was keen to see how well the program worked. After hours of experimentation, it’s clear that DALL-E – while not without shortcomings – is leaps and bounds ahead of existing image generation technology. It raises immediate questions about how these technologies will change how art is made and consumed. It also raises questions about what it means to be creative when DALL-E 2 seems to automate so much of the creative process itself.

A July 4, 2022 article “DALL-E, Make Me Another Picasso, Please” by Laura Lane for The New Yorker has a rebuttal to Ada Lovelace’s contention that creativity is uniquely human (Note: A link has been removed),

“There was this belief that creativity is this deeply special, only-human thing,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s C.E.O., explained the other day. Maybe not so true anymore, he said. Altman, who wore a gray sweater and had tousled brown hair, was videoconferencing from the company’s headquarters, in San Francisco. DALL-E is still in a testing phase. So far, OpenAI has granted access to a select group of people—researchers, artists, developers—who have used it to produce a wide array of images: photorealistic animals, bizarre mashups, punny collages. Asked by a user to generate “a plate of various alien fruits from another planet photograph,” DALL-E returned something kind of like rambutans. “The rest of mona lisa” is, according to DALL-E, mostly just one big cliff. Altman described DALL-E as “an extension of your own creativity.”

There are other AI artists, in my August 16, 2019 posting, I had this,

AI artists first hit my radar in August 2018 when Christie’s Auction House advertised an art auction of a ‘painting’ by an algorithm (artificial intelligence). There’s more in my August 31, 2018 posting but, briefly, a French art collective, Obvious, submitted a painting, “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy,” that was created by an artificial intelligence agent to be sold for an estimated to $7000 – $10,000. They weren’t even close. According to Ian Bogost’s March 6, 2019 article for The Atlantic, the painting sold for $432,500 In October 2018.

That posting also included AI artist, AICAN. Both artist-AI agents (Obvious and AICAN) are based on GANs (generative adversarial networks) for learning and eventual output. Both artist-AI agents work independently or with human collaborators on art works that are available for purchase.

As might be expected not everyone is excited about AI and visual art. Sonja Drimmer, Professor of Medieval Art, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, provides another perspective on AI, visual art, and, her specialty, art history in her November 1, 2021 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past year alone, I’ve come across articles highlighting how artificial intelligence recovered a “secret” painting of a “lost lover” of Italian painter Modigliani, “brought to life” a “hidden Picasso nude”, “resurrected” Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s destroyed works and “restored” portions of Rembrandt’s 1642 painting “The Night Watch.” The list goes on.

As an art historian, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the coverage and circulation of these projects.

They have not, in actuality, revealed one secret or solved a single mystery.

What they have done is generate feel-good stories about AI.

Take the reports about the Modigliani and Picasso paintings.

These were projects executed by the same company, Oxia Palus, which was founded not by art historians but by doctoral students in machine learning.

In both cases, Oxia Palus relied upon traditional X-rays, X-ray fluorescence and infrared imaging that had already been carried out and published years prior – work that had revealed preliminary paintings beneath the visible layer on the artists’ canvases.

The company edited these X-rays and reconstituted them as new works of art by applying a technique called “neural style transfer.” This is a sophisticated-sounding term for a program that breaks works of art down into extremely small units, extrapolates a style from them and then promises to recreate images of other content in that same style.

As you can ‘see’ my friend, the topic of AI and visual art is a juicy one. In fact, I have another example in my June 27, 2022 posting, which is titled, “Art appraised by algorithm.” So, Grenville’s and Entis’ decision to focus on AI and its impact on visual culture is quite timely.

Visual culture: seeing into the future

The VAG Imitation Game webpage lists these categories of visual culture “animation, architecture, art, fashion, graphic design, urban design and video games …” as being represented in the show. Movies and visual art, not mentioned in the write up, are represented while theatre and other performing arts are not mentioned or represented. That’ s not a surprise.

In addition to an area of science/technology that’s not well understood even by experts, the curators took on the truly amorphous (and overwhelming) topic of visual culture. Given that even writing this commentary has been a challenge, I imagine pulling the show together was quite the task.

Grenville often grounds his shows in a history of the subject and, this time, it seems especially striking. You’re in a building that is effectively a 19th century construct and in galleries that reflect a 20th century ‘white cube’ aesthetic, while looking for clues into the 21st century future of visual culture employing technology that has its roots in the 19th century and, to some extent, began to flower in the mid-20th century.

Chung’s collaboration is one of the only ‘optimistic’ notes about the future and, as noted earlier, it bears a resemblance to Wiener’s 1949 ‘Moth’

Overall, it seems we are being cautioned about the future. For example, Oxman’s work seems bleak (bees with no flowers to pollinate and living in an eternal spring). Adding in ‘Creepers’ and surveillance along with issues of bias and social injustice reflects hesitation and concern about what we will see, who sees it, and how it will be represented visually.

Learning about robots, automatons, artificial intelligence, and more

I wish the Vancouver Art Gallery (and Vancouver’s other art galleries) would invest a little more in audience education. A couple of tours, by someone who may or may not know what they’re talking, about during the week do not suffice. The extra material about Stephanie Dinkins and her work (“Conversations with Bina48,” 2014–present) came from the de Young Museum’s website. In my July 26, 2021 commentary on North Vancouver’s Polygon Gallery 2021 show “Interior Infinite,” I found background information for artist Zanele Muholi on the Tate Modern’s website. There is nothing on the VAG website that helps you to gain some perspective on the artists’ works.

It seems to me that if the VAG wants to be considered world class, it should conduct itself accordingly and beefing up its website with background information about their current shows would be a good place to start.

Robots, automata, and artificial intelligence

Prior to 1921, robots were known exclusively as automatons. These days, the word ‘automaton’ (or ‘automata’ in the plural) seems to be used to describe purely mechanical representations of humans from over 100 years ago whereas the word ‘robot’ can be either ‘humanlike’ or purely machine, e.g. a mechanical arm that performs the same function over and over. I have a good February 24, 2017 essay on automatons by Miguel Barral for OpenMind BBVA*, which provides some insight into the matter,

The concept of robot is relatively recent. The idea was introduced in 1921 by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his work R.U.R to designate a machine that performs tasks in place of man. But their predecessors, the automatons (from the Greek automata, or “mechanical device that works by itself”), have been the object of desire and fascination since antiquity. Some of the greatest inventors in history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, have contributed to our fascination with these fabulous creations:

The Al-Jazari automatons

The earliest examples of known automatons appeared in the Islamic world in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1206, the Arab polymath Al-Jazari, whose creations were known for their sophistication, described some of his most notable automatons: an automatic wine dispenser, a soap and towels dispenser and an orchestra-automaton that operated by the force of water. This latter invention was meant to liven up parties and banquets with music while floating on a pond, lake or fountain.

As the water flowed, it started a rotating drum with pegs that, in turn, moved levers whose movement produced different sounds and movements. As the pegs responsible for the musical notes could be exchanged for different ones in order to interpret another melody, it is considered one of the first programmable machines in history.

If you’re curious about automata, my friend, I found this Sept. 26, 2016 ABC news radio news item about singer Roger Daltrey’s and his wife, Heather’s auction of their collection of 19th century French automata (there’s an embedded video showcasing these extraordinary works of art). For more about automata, robots, and androids, there’s an excellent May 4, 2022 article by James Vincent, ‘A visit to the human factory; How to build the world’s most realistic robot‘ for The Verge; Vincent’s article is about Engineered Arts, the UK-based company that built Ai-Da.

AI is often used interchangeably with ‘robot’ but they aren’t the same. Not all robots have AI integrated into their processes. At its simplest AI is an algorithm or set of algorithms, which may ‘live’ in a CPU and be effectively invisible or ‘live’ in or make use of some kind of machine and/or humanlike body. As the experts have noted, the concept of artificial intelligence is a slippery concept.

*OpenMind BBVA is a Spanish multinational financial services company, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), which runs the non-profit project, OpenMind (About us page) to disseminate information on robotics and so much more.*

You can’t always get what you want

My friend,

I expect many of the show’s shortcomings (as perceived by me) are due to money and/or scheduling issues. For example, Ai-Da was at the Venice Biennale and if there was a choice between the VAG and Biennale, I know where I’d be.

Even with those caveats in mind, It is a bit surprising that there were no examples of wearable technology. For example, Toronto’s Tapestry Opera recently performed R.U.R. A Torrent of Light (based on the word ‘robot’ from Karel Čapek’s play, R.U.R., ‘Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti’), from my May 24, 2022 posting,

I have more about tickets prices, dates, and location later in this post but first, here’s more about the opera and the people who’ve created it from the Tapestry Opera’s ‘R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’ performance webpage,

“This stunning new opera combines dance, beautiful multimedia design, a chamber orchestra including 100 instruments creating a unique electronica-classical sound, and wearable technology [emphasis mine] created with OCAD University’s Social Body Lab, to create an immersive and unforgettable science-fiction experience.”

And, from later in my posting,

“Despite current stereotypes, opera was historically a launchpad for all kinds of applied design technologies. [emphasis mine] Having the opportunity to collaborate with OCAD U faculty is an invigorating way to reconnect to that tradition and foster connections between art, music and design, [emphasis mine]” comments the production’s Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, who is also Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director. 

That last quote brings me back to the my comment about theatre and performing arts not being part of the show. Of course, the curators couldn’t do it all but a website with my hoped for background and additional information could have helped to solve the problem.

The absence of the theatrical and performing arts in the VAG’s ‘Imitation Game’ is a bit surprising as the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) in their third assessment, “Competing in a Global Innovation Economy: The Current State of R&D in Canada” released in 2018 noted this (from my April 12, 2018 posting),

Canada, relative to the world, specializes in subjects generally referred to as the
humanities and social sciences (plus health and the environment), and does
not specialize as much as others in areas traditionally referred to as the physical
sciences and engineering. Specifically, Canada has comparatively high levels
of research output in Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Public Health and
Health Services, Philosophy and Theology, Earth and Environmental Sciences,
and Visual and Performing Arts. [emphasis mine] It accounts for more than 5% of world research in these fields. Conversely, Canada has lower research output than expected in Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Enabling and Strategic Technologies,
Engineering, and Mathematics and Statistics. The comparatively low research
output in core areas of the natural sciences and engineering is concerning,
and could impair the flexibility of Canada’s research base, preventing research
institutions and researchers from being able to pivot to tomorrow’s emerging
research areas. [p. xix Print; p. 21 PDF]

US-centric

My friend,

I was a little surprised that the show was so centered on work from the US given that Grenville has curated ate least one show where there was significant input from artists based in Asia. Both Japan and Korea are very active with regard to artificial intelligence and it’s hard to believe that their artists haven’t kept pace. (I’m not as familiar with China and its AI efforts, other than in the field of facial recognition, but it’s hard to believe their artists aren’t experimenting.)

The Americans, of course, are very important developers in the field of AI but they are not alone and it would have been nice to have seen something from Asia and/or Africa and/or something from one of the other Americas. In fact, anything which takes us out of the same old, same old. (Luba Elliott wrote this (2019/2020/2021?) essay, “Artificial Intelligence Art from Africa and Black Communities Worldwide” on Aya Data if you want to get a sense of some of the activity on the African continent. Elliott does seem to conflate Africa and Black Communities, for some clarity you may want to check out the Wikipedia entry on Africanfuturism, which contrasts with this August 12, 2020 essay by Donald Maloba, “What is Afrofuturism? A Beginner’s Guide.” Maloba also conflates the two.)

As it turns out, Luba Elliott presented at the 2019 Montréal Digital Spring event, which brings me to Canada’s artificial intelligence and arts scene.

I promise I haven’t turned into a flag waving zealot, my friend. It’s just odd there isn’t a bit more given that machine learning was pioneered at the University of Toronto. Here’s more about that (from Wikipedia entry for Geoffrey Hinston),

Geoffrey Everest HintonCCFRSFRSC[11] (born 6 December 1947) is a British-Canadian cognitive psychologist and computer scientist, most noted for his work on artificial neural networks.

Hinton received the 2018 Turing Award, together with Yoshua Bengio [Canadian scientist] and Yann LeCun, for their work on deep learning.[24] They are sometimes referred to as the “Godfathers of AI” and “Godfathers of Deep Learning“,[25][26] and have continued to give public talks together.[27][28]

Some of Hinton’s work was started in the US but since 1987, he has pursued his interests at the University of Toronto. He wasn’t proven right until 2012. Katrina Onstad’s February 29, 2018 article (Mr. Robot) for Toronto Life is a gripping read about Hinton and his work on neural networks. BTW, Yoshua Bengio (co-Godfather) is a Canadian scientist at the Université de Montréal and Yann LeCun (co-Godfather) is a French scientist at New York University.

Then, there’s another contribution, our government was the first in the world to develop a national artificial intelligence strategy. Adding those developments to the CCA ‘State of Science’ report findings about visual arts and performing arts, is there another word besides ‘odd’ to describe the lack of Canadian voices?

You’re going to point out the installation by Ben Bogart (a member of Simon Fraser University’s Metacreation Lab for Creative AI and instructor at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECU)) but it’s based on the iconic US scifi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As for the other Canadian, Sougwen Chung, she left Canada pretty quickly to get her undergraduate degree in the US and has since moved to the UK. (You could describe hers as the quintessential success story, i.e., moving from Canada only to get noticed here after success elsewhere.)

Of course, there are the CDM student projects but the projects seem less like an exploration of visual culture than an exploration of technology and industry requirements, from the ‘Master of Digital Media Students Develop Revolutionary Installations for Vancouver Art Gallery AI Exhibition‘ webpage, Note: A link has been removed,

In 2019, Bruce Grenville, Senior Curator at Vancouver Art Gallery, approached [the] Centre for Digital Media to collaborate on several industry projects for the forthcoming exhibition. Four student teams tackled the project briefs over the course of the next two years and produced award-winning installations that are on display until October 23 [2022].

Basically, my friend, it would have been nice to see other voices or, at the least, an attempt at representing other voices and visual cultures informed by AI. As for Canadian contributions, maybe put something on the VAG website?

Playing well with others

it’s always a mystery to me why the Vancouver cultural scene seems comprised of a set of silos or closely guarded kingdoms. Reaching out to the public library and other institutions such as Science World might have cost time but could have enhanced the show

For example, one of the branches of the New York Public Library ran a programme called, “We are AI” in March 2022 (see my March 23, 2022 posting about the five-week course, which was run as a learning circle). The course materials are available for free (We are AI webpage) and I imagine that adding a ‘visual culture module’ wouldn’t be that difficult.

There is one (rare) example of some Vancouver cultural institutions getting together to offer an art/science programme and that was in 2017 when the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery (at the University of British Columbia; UBC) hosted an exhibition of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s work (see my Sept. 11, 2017 posting about the gallery show) along with that show was an ancillary event held by the folks at Café Scientifique at Science World and featuring a panel of professionals from UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and Dept. of Psychology, discussing Cajal’s work.

In fact, where were the science and technology communities for this show?

On a related note, the 2022 ACM SIGGRAPH conference (August 7 – 11, 2022) is being held in Vancouver. (ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery; SIGGRAPH is for Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.) SIGGRAPH has been holding conferences in Vancouver every few years since at least 2011.

At this year’s conference, they have at least two sessions that indicate interests similar to the VAG’s. First, there’s Immersive Visualization for Research, Science and Art which includes AI and machine learning along with other related topics. There’s also, Frontiers Talk: Art in the Age of AI: Can Computers Create Art?

This is both an international conference and an exhibition (of art) and the whole thing seems to have kicked off on July 25, 2022. If you’re interested, the programme can be found here and registration here.

Last time SIGGRAPH was here the organizers seemed interested in outreach and they offered some free events.

In the end

it was good to see the show. The curators brought together some exciting material. As is always the case, there were some missed opportunities and a few blind spots. But all is not lost.

July 27, 2022, the VAG held a virtual event with an artist,

Gwenyth Chao to learn more about what happened to the honeybees and hives in Oxman’s Synthetic Apiary project. As a transdisciplinary artist herself, Chao will also discuss the relationship between art, science, technology and design. She will then guide participants to create a space (of any scale, from insect to human) inspired by patterns found in nature.

Hopefully there will be more more events inspired by specific ‘objects’. Meanwhile, August 12, 2022, the VAG is hosting,

… in partnership with the Canadian Music Centre BC, New Music at the Gallery is a live concert series hosted by the Vancouver Art Gallery that features an array of musicians and composers who draw on contemporary art themes.

Highlighting a selection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music compositions, this second concert, inspired by the exhibition The Imitation Game: Visual Culture in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, will spotlight The Iliac Suite (1957), the first piece ever written using only a computer, and Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria (2006), which is in a large part dependent on a computer-generated musical process.

It would be lovely if they could include an Ada Lovelace Day event. This is an international celebration held on October 11, 2022.

Do go. Do enjoy, my friend.

Neuromorphic computing with voltage usage comparable to human brains

Part of neuromorphic computing’s appeal is the promise of using less energy because, as it turns out, the human brain uses small amounts of energy very efficiently. A team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed function in the same range of voltages as the human brain. From an April 20, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

Only 10 years ago, scientists working on what they hoped would open a new frontier of neuromorphic computing could only dream of a device using miniature tools called memristors that would function/operate like real brain synapses.

But now a team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has discovered, while on their way to better understanding protein nanowires, how to use these biological, electricity conducting filaments to make a neuromorphic memristor, or “memory transistor,” device. It runs extremely efficiently on very low power, as brains do, to carry signals between neurons. Details are in Nature Communications.

An April 20, 2020 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news items, dives into detail about how these researchers were able to achieve bio-voltages,

As first author Tianda Fu, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering, explains, one of the biggest hurdles to neuromorphic computing, and one that made it seem unreachable, is that most conventional computers operate at over 1 volt, while the brain sends signals called action potentials between neurons at around 80 millivolts – many times lower. Today, a decade after early experiments, memristor voltage has been achieved in the range similar to conventional computer, but getting below that seemed improbable, he adds.

Fu reports that using protein nanowires developed at UMass Amherst from the bacterium Geobacter by microbiologist and co-author Derek Lovely, he has now conducted experiments where memristors have reached neurological voltages. Those tests were carried out in the lab of electrical and computer engineering researcher and co-author Jun Yao.

Yao says, “This is the first time that a device can function at the same voltage level as the brain. People probably didn’t even dare to hope that we could create a device that is as power-efficient as the biological counterparts in a brain, but now we have realistic evidence of ultra-low power computing capabilities. It’s a concept breakthrough and we think it’s going to cause a lot of exploration in electronics that work in the biological voltage regime.”

Lovely points out that Geobacter’s electrically conductive protein nanowires offer many advantages over expensive silicon nanowires, which require toxic chemicals and high-energy processes to produce. Protein nanowires also are more stable in water or bodily fluids, an important feature for biomedical applications. For this work, the researchers shear nanowires off the bacteria so only the conductive protein is used, he adds.

Fu says that he and Yao had set out to put the purified nanowires through their paces, to see what they are capable of at different voltages, for example. They experimented with a pulsing on-off pattern of positive-negative charge sent through a tiny metal thread in a memristor, which creates an electrical switch.

They used a metal thread because protein nanowires facilitate metal reduction, changing metal ion reactivity and electron transfer properties. Lovely says this microbial ability is not surprising, because wild bacterial nanowires breathe and chemically reduce metals to get their energy the way we breathe oxygen.

As the on-off pulses create changes in the metal filaments, new branching and connections are created in the tiny device, which is 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, Yao explains. It creates an effect similar to learning – new connections – in a real brain. He adds, “You can modulate the conductivity, or the plasticity of the nanowire-memristor synapse so it can emulate biological components for brain-inspired computing. Compared to a conventional computer, this device has a learning capability that is not software-based.”

Fu recalls, “In the first experiments we did, the nanowire performance was not satisfying, but it was enough for us to keep going.” Over two years, he saw improvement until one fateful day when his and Yao’s eyes were riveted by voltage measurements appearing on a computer screen.

“I remember the day we saw this great performance. We watched the computer as current voltage sweep was being measured. It kept doing down and down and we said to each other, ‘Wow, it’s working.’ It was very surprising and very encouraging.”

Fu, Yao, Lovely and colleagues plan to follow up this discovery with more research on mechanisms, and to “fully explore the chemistry, biology and electronics” of protein nanowires in memristors, Fu says, plus possible applications, which might include a device to monitor heart rate, for example. Yao adds, “This offers hope in the feasibility that one day this device can talk to actual neurons in biological systems.”

That last comment has me wondering about why you would want to have your device talk to actual neurons. For neuroprosthetics perhaps?

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

Bioinspired bio-voltage memristors by Tianda Fu, Xiaomeng Liu, Hongyan Gao, Joy E. Ward, Xiaorong Liu, Bing Yin, Zhongrui Wang, Ye Zhuo, David J. F. Walker, J. Joshua Yang, Jianhan Chen, Derek R. Lovley & Jun Yao. Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 1861 (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15759-y Published: 20 April 2020

This paper is open access.

There is an illustration of the work

Caption: A graphic depiction of protein nanowires (green) harvested from microbe Geobacter (orange) facilitate the electronic memristor device (silver) to function with biological voltages, emulating the neuronal components (blue junctions) in a brain. Credit: UMass Amherst/Yao lab

Food nanoparticles and their effect on intestinal flora (i.e., your gut microbiome)

This work from Germany is largely speculative. The scientists seem to be interested in exploring how engineered nanoparticles and naturally occurring nanoparticles in food affect your gut. From a January 29, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

The intestinal microbiome is not only key for food processing but an accepted codeterminant for various diseases. Researchers led by the University Medical Center of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) identified effects of nanoparticles on intestinal microorganisms. The ultra-small particles adhere to intestinal microorganisms, thereby affecting their life cycle as well as cross talk with the host. One of the researchers’ observations was that nanoparticles’ binding inhibits the infection with Helicobacter pylori, a pathogen implicated in gastric cancer. The findings will stimulate further epidemiological studies and pave the way for the development of potential ‘probiotic’ nanoparticles for food. The discoveries were published in Science of Food.

A January 29, 2019 Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Due to their minute size, nanoparticles have unique characteristics and capabilities, such as adhering to microstructures. Nanotechnology is as an important driver of innovation for both consumer industry and medicine. In medicine, the focus is on improving diagnostics and therapeutics, while industry addresses mainly product optimization. Hence, synthetic nanoparticles are already used as additives to improve the characteristics of food. But how can we use nanotechnology more efficiently and safely in food? And are there unknown effects of nanoparticles, which need to be further exploited?

Nutrition strongly influences the diversity and composition of our microbiome. ‘Microbiome’ describes all colonizing microorganisms present in a human being, in particular, all the bacteria in the gut. In other words, your microbiome includes your intestinal flora as well as the microorganisms that colonize your skin, mouth, and nasal cavity.

Scientists and clinicians are interested in microbiomes because of their positive or negative effects on the host. These include modulation of our immune system, metabolism, vascular aging, cerebral functioning, and our hormonal system. The composition of the microbiome seems to play an important role for the development of various disorders, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, allergies, obesity, and even mental disorders. “Hence, nutrition and its containing nanoparticulates may affect the microbiome-host balance, finally influencing human health. In order to reduce potential risks and, ideally, promote health, the impact of dietary nanoparticles needs to be understood,” emphasized Professor David J. McClements from the Department of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, USA.

“Prior to our studies, nobody really looked whether and how nano-additives directly influence the gastrointestinal flora,” commented Professor Roland Stauber of the Department of Otolaryngology, Head, and Neck Surgery at the Mainz University Medical Center. “Hence, we studied at a wide range of technical nanoparticles with clearly defined properties in order to mimic what happens to currently used or potential future nanosized food additives. By simulating the journey of particles through the different environments of the digestive tract in the laboratory, we found that the all tested nanomaterials were indeed able to bind to bacteria.” explained Stauber.

The scientists discovered that these binding processes can have different outcomes. On the one hand, nanoparticle-bound microorganisms were less efficiently recognized by the immune system, which may lead to increased inflammatory responses. On the other hand, ‘nano-food’ showed beneficial effects. In cell culture models, silica nanoparticles inhibited the infectivity of Helicobacter pylori, which is considered to be one of the main agents involved in gastric cancer.

‘It was puzzling that we were able to also isolate naturally occurring nanoparticles from food, like beer, which showed similar effects. Nanoparticles in our daily food are not just those added deliberately but can also be generated naturally during preparation. Nanoparticulates are already omnipresent,” concluded Stauber.

The insights of the study will allow to derive strategies for developing and utilizing synthetic or natural nanoparticles to modulate the microbiome as beneficial ingredients in functional foods. “The challenge is to identify nanoparticles that fit the desired purpose, perhaps even as probiotic food supplements in the future. Challenge accepted,” emphasized Stauber and his team.

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

Nanosized food additives impact beneficial and pathogenic bacteria in the human gut: a simulated gastrointestinal study by Svenja Siemer, Angelina Hahlbrock, Cecilia Vallet, David Julian McClements, Jan Balszuweit, Jens Voskuhl, Dominic Docter, Silja Wessler, Shirley K. Knauer, Dana Westmeier, & Roland H. Stauber. npj Science of Foodvolume 2, Article number: 22 (2018) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41538-018-0030-8 Published 04 December 2018

This paper is open access.

Liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids and more

I’d have to see it to believe it but researchers at the US Dept. of Energy (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have developed a new kind of ‘bijel’ which would allow for some pretty nifty robotics. From a Sept. 25, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new two-dimensional film, made of polymers and nanoparticles and developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), can direct two different non-mixing liquids into a variety of exotic architectures. This finding could lead to soft robotics, liquid circuitry, shape-shifting fluids, and a host of new materials that use soft, rather than solid, substances.

The study, reported today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, presents the newest entry in a class of substances known as bicontinuous jammed emulsion gels, or bijels, which hold promise as a malleable liquid that can support catalytic reactions, electrical conductivity, and energy conversion.

A Sept. 25, 2017 LBNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Bijels are typically made of immiscible, or non-mixing, liquids. People who shake their bottle of vinaigrette before pouring the dressing on their salad are familiar with such liquids. As soon as the shaking stops, the liquids start to separate again, with the lower density liquid – often oil – rising to the top.

Trapping, or jamming, particles where these immiscible liquids meet can prevent the liquids from completely separating, stabilizing the substance into a bijel. What makes bijels remarkable is that, rather than just making the spherical droplets that we normally see when we try to mix oil and water, the particles at the interface shape the liquids into complex networks of interconnected fluid channels.

Bijels are notoriously difficult to make, however, involving exact temperatures at precisely timed stages. In addition, the liquid channels are normally more than 5 micrometers across, making them too large to be useful in energy conversion and catalysis.

“Bijels have long been of interest as next-generation materials for energy applications and chemical synthesis,” said study lead author Caili Huang. “The problem has been making enough of them, and with features of the right size. In this work, we crack that problem.”

Huang started the work as a graduate student with Thomas Russell, the study’s principal investigator, at Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, and he continued the project as a postdoctoral researcher at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Creating a new bijel recipe

The method described in this new study simplifies the bijel process by first using specially coated particles about 10-20 nanometers in diameter. The smaller-sized particles line the liquid interfaces much more quickly than the ones used in traditional bijels, making the smaller channels that are highly valued for applications.

Illustration shows key stages of bijel formation. Clockwise from top left, two non-mixing liquids are shown. Ligands (shown in yellow) with amine groups are dispersed throughout the oil or solvent, and nanoparticles coated with carboxylic acids (shown as blue dots) are scattered in the water. With vigorous shaking, the nanoparticles and ligands form a “supersoap” that gets trapped at the interface of the two liquids. The bottom panel is a magnified view of the jammed nanoparticle supersoap. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL)

“We’ve basically taken liquids like oil and water and given them a structure, and it’s a structure that can be changed,” said Russell, a visiting faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab. “If the nanoparticles are responsive to electrical, magnetic, or mechanical stimuli, the bijels can become reconfigurable and re-shaped on demand by an external field.”

The researchers were able to prepare new bijels from a variety of common organic, water-insoluble solvents, such as toluene, that had ligands dissolved in it, and deionized water, which contained the nanoparticles. To ensure thorough mixing of the liquids, they subjected the emulsion to a vortex spinning at 3,200 revolutions per minute.

“This extreme shaking creates a whole bunch of new places where these particles and polymers can meet each other,” said study co-author Joe Forth, a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division. “You’re synthesizing a lot of this material, which is in effect a thin, 2-D coating of the liquid surfaces in the system.”

The liquids remained a bijel even after one week, a sign of the system’s stability.

Russell, who is also a professor of polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, added that these shape-shifting characteristics would be valuable in microreactors, microfluidic devices, and soft actuators.

Nanoparticle supersoap

Nanoparticles had not been seriously considered in bijels before because their small size made them hard to trap in the liquid interface. To resolve that problem, the researchers coated nano-sized particles with carboxylic acids and put them in water. They then took polymers with an added amine group – a derivative of ammonia – and dissolved them in the toluene.

At left is a vial of bijel stabilized with nanoparticle surfactants. On the right is the same vial after a week of inversion, showing that the nanoparticle kept the liquids from moving. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL)

This configuration took advantage of the amine group’s affinity to water, a characteristic that is comparable to surfactants, like soap. Their nanoparticle “supersoap” was designed so that the nanoparticles join ligands, forming an octopus-like shape with a polar head and nonpolar legs that get jammed at the interface, the researchers said.

“Bijels are really a new material, and also excitingly weird in that they are kinetically arrested in these unusual configurations,” said study co-author Brett Helms, a staff scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry. “The discovery that you can make these bijels with simple ingredients is a surprise. We all have access to oils and water and nanocrystals, allowing broad tunability in bijel properties. This platform also allows us to experiment with new ways to control their shape and function since they are both responsive and reconfigurable.”

The nanoparticles were made of silica, but the researchers noted that in previous studies they used graphene and carbon nanotubes to form nanoparticle surfactants.

“The key is that the nanoparticles can be made of many materials,” said Russell.  “The most important thing is what’s on the surface.”

This is an animation of the bijel

3-D rendering of the nanoparticle bijel taken by confocal microscope. (Credit: Caili Huang/ORNL [Oak Ridge National Laboratory] and Joe Forth/Berkeley Lab)

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

Bicontinuous structured liquids with sub-micrometre domains using nanoparticle surfactants by Caili Huang, Joe Forth, Weiyu Wang, Kunlun Hong, Gregory S. Smith, Brett A. Helms & Thomas P. Russell. Nature Nanotechnology (2017) doi:10.1038/nnano.2017.182 25 September 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

A new memristor circuit

Apparently engineers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed a new kind of memristor. A Sept. 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

Engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are leading a research team that is developing a new type of nanodevice for computer microprocessors that can mimic the functioning of a biological synapse—the place where a signal passes from one nerve cell to another in the body. The work is featured in the advance online publication of Nature Materials (“Memristors with diffusive dynamics as synaptic emulators for neuromorphic computing”).

Such neuromorphic computing in which microprocessors are configured more like human brains is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under study.

While it doesn’t sound different from any other memristor, that’s misleading. Do read on. A Sept. 27, 2016 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the researchers and the work,

J. Joshua Yang and Qiangfei Xia are professors in the electrical and computer engineering department in the UMass Amherst College of Engineering. Yang describes the research as part of collaborative work on a new type of memristive device.

Memristive devices are electrical resistance switches that can alter their resistance based on the history of applied voltage and current. These devices can store and process information and offer several key performance characteristics that exceed conventional integrated circuit technology.

“Memristors have become a leading candidate to enable neuromorphic computing by reproducing the functions in biological synapses and neurons in a neural network system, while providing advantages in energy and size,” the researchers say.

Neuromorphic computing—meaning microprocessors configured more like human brains than like traditional computer chips—is one of the most promising transformative computing technologies currently under intensive study. Xia says, “This work opens a new avenue of neuromorphic computing hardware based on memristors.”

They say that most previous work in this field with memristors has not implemented diffusive dynamics without using large standard technology found in integrated circuits commonly used in microprocessors, microcontrollers, static random access memory and other digital logic circuits.

The researchers say they proposed and demonstrated a bio-inspired solution to the diffusive dynamics that is fundamentally different from the standard technology for integrated circuits while sharing great similarities with synapses. They say, “Specifically, we developed a diffusive-type memristor where diffusion of atoms offers a similar dynamics [?] and the needed time-scales as its bio-counterpart, leading to a more faithful emulation of actual synapses, i.e., a true synaptic emulator.”

The researchers say, “The results here provide an encouraging pathway toward synaptic emulation using diffusive memristors for neuromorphic computing.”

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

Memristors with diffusive dynamics as synaptic emulators for neuromorphic computing by Zhongrui Wang, Saumil Joshi, Sergey E. Savel’ev, Hao Jiang, Rivu Midya, Peng Lin, Miao Hu, Ning Ge, John Paul Strachan, Zhiyong Li, Qing Wu, Mark Barnell, Geng-Lin Li, Huolin L. Xin, R. Stanley Williams [emphasis mine], Qiangfei Xia, & J. Joshua Yang. Nature Materials (2016) doi:10.1038/nmat4756 Published online 26 September 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I’ve emphasized R. Stanley Williams’ name as he was the lead researcher on the HP Labs team that proved Leon Chua’s 1971 theory about the memristor and exerted engineering control of the memristor in 2008. (Bernard Widrow, in the 1960s,  predicted and proved the existence of something he termed a ‘memistor’. Chua arrived at his ‘memristor’ theory independently.)

Austin Silver in a Sept. 29, 2016 posting on The Human OS blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website) delves into this latest memristor research (Note: Links have been removed),

In research published in Nature Materials on 26 September [2016], Yang and his team mimicked a crucial underlying component of how synaptic connections get stronger or weaker: the flow of calcium.

The movement of calcium into or out of the neuronal membrane, neuroscientists have found, directly affects the connection. Chemical processes move the calcium in and out— triggering a long-term change in the synapses’ strength. 2015 research in ACS NanoLetters and Advanced Functional Materials discovered that types of memristors can simulate some of the calcium behavior, but not all.

In the new research, Yang combined two types of memristors in series to create an artificial synapse. The hybrid device more closely mimics biological synapse behavior—the calcium flow in particular, Yang says.

The new memristor used–called a diffusive memristor because atoms in the resistive material move even without an applied voltage when the device is in the high resistance state—was a dielectic film sandwiched between Pt [platinum] or Au [gold] electrodes. The film contained Ag [silver] nanoparticles, which would play the role of calcium in the experiments.

By tracking the movement of the silver nanoparticles inside the diffusive memristor, the researchers noticed a striking similarity to how calcium functions in biological systems.

A voltage pulse to the hybrid device drove silver into the gap between the diffusive memristor’s two electrodes–creating a filament bridge. After the pulse died away, the filament started to break and the silver moved back— resistance increased.

Like the case with calcium, a force made silver go in and a force made silver go out.

To complete the artificial synapse, the researchers connected the diffusive memristor in series to another type of memristor that had been studied before.

When presented with a sequence of voltage pulses with particular timing, the artificial synapse showed the kind of long-term strengthening behavior a real synapse would, according to the researchers. “We think it is sort of a real emulation, rather than simulation because they have the physical similarity,” Yang says.

I was glad to find some additional technical detail about this new memristor and to find the Human OS blog, which is new to me and according to its home page is a “biomedical blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.”

Synthetic biowire for nanoelectronics

Apparently this biowire derived by synthetic biology processes can make nanoelectronics a greener affair. From a July 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst report in the current issue of Small that they have genetically designed a new strain of bacteria that spins out extremely thin and highly conductive wires made up of solely of non-toxic, natural amino acids.

A July 14, 2016 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more information,

Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovley say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials.

Lovley says, “New sources of electronic materials are needed to meet the increasing demand for making smaller, more powerful electronic devices in a sustainable way.” The ability to mass-produce such thin conductive wires with this sustainable technology has many potential applications in electronic devices, functioning not only as wires, but also transistors and capacitors. Proposed applications include biocompatible sensors, computing devices, and as components of solar panels.

This advance began a decade ago, when Lovley and colleagues discovered that Geobacter, a common soil microorganism, could produce “microbial nanowires,” electrically conductive protein filaments that help the microbe grow on the iron minerals abundant in soil. These microbial nanowires were conductive enough to meet the bacterium’s needs, but their conductivity was well below the conductivities of organic wires that chemists could synthesize.

“As we learned more about how the microbial nanowires worked we realized that it might be possible to improve on Nature’s design,” says Lovley. “We knew that one class of amino acids was important for the conductivity, so we rearranged these amino acids to produce a synthetic nanowire that we thought might be more conductive.”

The trick they discovered to accomplish this was to introduce tryptophan, an amino acid not present in the natural nanowires. Tryptophan is a common aromatic amino acid notorious for causing drowsiness after eating Thanksgiving turkey. However, it is also highly effective at the nanoscale in transporting electrons.

“We designed a synthetic nanowire in which a tryptophan was inserted where nature had used a phenylalanine and put in another tryptophan for one of the tyrosines. We hoped to get lucky and that Geobacter might still form nanowires from this synthetic peptide and maybe double the nanowire conductivity,” says Lovley.

The results greatly exceeded the scientists’ expectations. They genetically engineered a strain of Geobacter and manufactured large quantities of the synthetic nanowires 2000 times more conductive than the natural biological product. An added bonus is that the synthetic nanowires, which Lovley refers to as “biowire,” had a diameter only half that of the natural product.

“We were blown away by this result,” says Lovley. The conductivity of biowire exceeds that of many types of chemically-produced organic nanowires with similar diameters. The extremely thin diameter of 1.5 nanometers (over 60,000 times thinner than a human hair) means that thousands of the wires can easily be packed into a very small space.

The added benefit is that making biowire does not require any of the dangerous chemicals that are needed for synthesis of other nanowires. Also, biowire contains no toxic components. “Geobacter can be grown on cheap renewable organic feedstocks so it is a very ‘green’ process,” he notes. And, although the biowire is made out of protein, it is extremely durable. In fact, Lovley’s lab had to work for months to establish a method to break it down.

“It’s quite an unusual protein,” Lovley says. “This may be just the beginning” he adds. Researchers in his lab recently produced more than 20 other Geobacter strains, each producing a distinct biowire variant with new amino acid combinations. He notes, “I am hoping that our initial success will attract more funding to accelerate the discovery process. We are hoping that we can modify biowire in other ways to expand its potential applications.”

As it often does, funding provides some notes of interest,

This research was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center and the UMass Amherst Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing.

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

Caption: Synthetic biowire are making an electrical connection between two electrodes. Researchers led by microbiologist Derek Lovely at UMass Amherst say the wires, which rival the thinnest wires known to man, are produced from renewable, inexpensive feedstocks and avoid the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. Credit: UMass Amherst

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

Synthetic Biological Protein Nanowires with High Conductivity by Yang Tan, Ramesh Y. Adhikari, Nikhil S. Malvankar, Shuang Pi, Joy E. Ward, Trevor L. Woodard, Kelly P. Nevin, Qiangfei Xia, Mark T. Tuominen, and Derek R. Lovley. Small DOI: 10.1002/smll.201601112 Version of Record online: 13 JUL 2016

© 2016 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Just how bendy are the new organic semiconductors?

In all the excitement about flexible electronics, an interesting question about performance, which seems to have been overlooked until now (how bendy are they?), is being answered by scientists, according to a May 5, 2015 University of Massachusetts at Amherst news release (also on EurekAlert),

A revolution is coming in flexible electronic technologies as cheaper, more flexible, organic transistors come on the scene to replace expensive, rigid, silicone-based semiconductors, but not enough is known about how bending in these new thin-film electronic devices will affect their performance, say materials scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

They are the first to apply inhomogeneous deformations, that is strain, to the conducting channel of an organic transistor and to understand the observed effects, says Reyes-Martinez [Marcos Reyes-Martinez], who conducted the series of experiments as part of his doctoral work.

As he explains, “This is relevant to today’s tech industry because transistors drive the logic of all the consumer electronics we use. In the screen on your smart phone, for example, every little pixel that makes up the image is turned on and off by hundreds of thousands or even millions of miniaturized transistors.”

“Traditionally, the transistors are rigid, made of an inorganic material such as silicon,” he adds. “We’re working with a crystalline semiconductorcalled rubrene, which is an organic, carbon-based material that has performance factors, such as charge-carrier mobility, surpassing those measured in amorphous silicon. Organic semiconductors are an interesting alternative to silicon because their properties can be tuned to make them easily processed, allowing them to coat a variety of surfaces, including soft substrates at relatively low temperatures. As a result, devices based on organic semiconductors are projected to be cheaper since they do not require high temperatures, clean rooms and expensive processing steps like silicon does.”

Until now, Reyes-Martinez notes, most researchers have focused on controlling the detrimental effects of mechanical deformation to atransistor’s electrical properties. But in their series of systematic experiments, the UMass Amherst team discovered that mechanical deformations only decrease performance under certain conditions, and actually can enhance or have no effect in other instances.

“Our goal was not only to show these effects, but to explain and understand them. What we’ve done istake advantage of the ordered structure of ultra-thin organic single crystals of rubrene to fabricate high-perfomance, thin-film transistors,” he says. “This is the first time that anyone has carried out detailed fundamental work at these length scales with a single crystal.”

Though single crystals were once thought to be too fragile for flexible applications, the UMass Amherst team found that crystals ranging in thickness from about 150 nanometers to 1 micrometer were thin enough to be wrinkled and applied to any elastomer substrate. Reyes-Martinez also notes, “Our experiments are especially important because they help scientists working on flexible electronic devices to determine performance limitations of new materials under extreme mechanical deformations, such as when electronic devices conform to skin.”

They developed an analytical model based on plate bending theoryto quantifythe different local strains imposed on the transistor structure by the wrinkle deformations. Using their model they are able to predict how different deformations modulate charge mobility, which no one had quantified before, Reyes-Martinez notes.

These contributions “represent a significant step forward in structure-function relationships in organic semiconductors, critical for the development of the next generation of flexible electronic devices,” the authors point out.

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

Rubrene crystal field-effect mobility modulation via conducting channel wrinkling by Marcos A. Reyes-Martinez, Alfred J. Crosby,  & Alejandro L. Briseno. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6948 doi:10.1038/ncomms7948 Published 05 May 2015

This is an open access paper.

Geckskin update

It appears that researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have found a way to make their ‘Geckskin’, an adhesive product modeled on a gecko’s feet (a lizard famously able to stick to an object by a single toe), adhere to the widest range of surfaces yet (from an April 17, 2014 University of Massachusetts news release [also on EurekAlert but dated April 18, 2014]),

The ability to stick objects to a wide range of surfaces such as drywall, wood, metal and glass with a single adhesive has been the elusive goal of many research teams across the world, but now a team of University of Massachusetts Amherst inventors describe a new, more versatile version of their invention, Geckskin, that can adhere strongly to a wider range of surfaces, yet releases easily, like a gecko’s feet.

“Imagine sticking your tablet on a wall to watch your favorite movie and then moving it to a new location when you want, without the need for pesky holes in your painted wall,” says polymer science and engineering professor Al Crosby. Geckskin is a ‘gecko-like,’ reusable adhesive device that they had previously demonstrated can hold heavy loads on smooth surfaces such as glass.

‘Geckskin’ first mentioned here in an April 3, 2012 posting features a different approach to mimicking the gecko’s adhesiveness; most teams are focused on the nanoscopic hairs on the gecko’s feet while the researchers at the University of Massachusetts have worked on ‘draping’,

The University of Massachusetts team’s innovation (from the Feb. 17, 2012 news item),

The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create an integrated adhesive with a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric, which allows the pad to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. Further, as in natural gecko feet, the skin is woven into a synthetic “tendon,” yielding a design that plays a key role in maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom, the researchers explain.

Importantly, the Geckskin’s adhesive pad uses simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which holds promise for developing an inexpensive, strong and durable dry adhesive.

The UMass Amherst researchers are continuing to improve their Geckskin design by drawing on lessons from the evolution of gecko feet, which show remarkable variation in anatomy. “Our design for Geckskin shows the true integrative power of evolution for inspiring synthetic design that can ultimately aid humans in many ways,” says Irschick.

Two years later, the researchers have proved their concept across a range of surfaces (from the 2014 news release),

In Geckskin, the researchers created this ability by combining soft elastomers and ultra-stiff fabrics such as glass or carbon fiber fabrics. By “tuning” the relative stiffness of these materials, they can optimize Geckskin for a range of applications, the inventors say.

To substantiate their claims of Geckskin’s properties, the UMass Amherst team compared three versions to the abilities of a living Tokay gecko on several surfaces, as described in their journal article this month. As predicted by their theory, one Geckskin version matches and even exceeds the gecko’s performance on all tested surfaces.

Irschick points out, “The gecko’s ability to stick to a variety of surfaces is critical for its survival, but it’s equally important to be able to release and re-stick whenever it wants. Geckskin displays the same ability on different commonly used surfaces, opening up great possibilities for new technologies in the home, office or outdoors.”

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

Creating Gecko-Like Adhesives for “Real World” Surfaces by Daniel R. King, Michael D. Bartlett, Casey A. Gilman, Duncan J. Irschick, and Alfred J. Crosby. Advanced Materials. Article first published online: 17 APR 2014 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201306259

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

The researchers have produced a video (silent) where they demonstrate the Geckskin’s adhesive properties over a number of different surfaces. At seven minutes or so, it runs a bit longer than the videos I embed here but you can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SayqhqTZoxI&feature=youtu.be.

Chad Mirkin’s periodic table of modified nucleic acid nanoparticles

Chad Mirkin has been pushing his idea for a new periodic table of ‘nanoparticles’ since at least Feb. 2013 (I wrote about this and some of Mirkin’s other work in my Feb. 19, 2013 posting) when he presented it at the 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. From a Feb. 17, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Northwestern University’s Chad A. Mirkin, a leader in nanotechnology research and its application, has developed a completely new set of building blocks that is based on nanoparticles and DNA. Using these tools, scientists will be able to build — from the bottom up, just as nature does — new and useful structures.

Mirkin will discuss his research in a session titled “Nucleic Acid-Modified Nanostructures as Programmable Atom Equivalents: Forging a New Periodic Table” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston.

“We have a new set of building blocks,” Mirkin said. “Instead of taking what nature gives you, we can control every property of the new material we make. [emphasis mine] We’ve always had this vision of building matter and controlling architecture from the bottom up, and now we’ve shown it can be done.”

Mirkin seems a trifle grandiose; I’m hoping he doesn’t have any grand creation projects that require seven days.

Getting back to the new periodic table, the Feb. 13, 2013 Northwestern University news release by Megan Fellman, which originated the news item,  provides a few more details,

Using nanoparticles and DNA, Mirkin has built more than 200 different crystal structures with 17 different particle arrangements. Some of the lattice types can be found in nature, but he also has built new structures that have no naturally occurring mineral counterpart.
….
Mirkin can make new materials and arrangements of particles by controlling the size, shape, type and location of nanoparticles within a given particle lattice. He has developed a set of design rules that allow him to control almost every property of a material.

New materials developed using his method could help improve the efficiency of optics, electronics and energy storage technologies. “These same nanoparticle building blocks have already found wide-spread commercial utility in biology and medicine as diagnostic probes for markers of disease,” Mirkin added.

With this present advance, Mirkin uses nanoparticles as “atoms” and DNA as “bonds.” He starts with a nanoparticle, which could be gold, silver, platinum or a quantum dot, for example. The core material is selected depending on what physical properties the final structure should have.

He then attaches hundreds of strands of DNA (oligonucleotides) to the particle. The oligonucleotide’s DNA sequence and length determine how bonds form between nanoparticles and guide the formation of specific crystal lattices.

“This constitutes a completely new class of building blocks in materials science that gives you a type of programmability that is extraordinarily versatile and powerful,” Mirkin said. “It provides nanotechnologists for the first time the ability to tailor properties of materials in a highly programmable way from the bottom up.”

Mirkin and his colleagues have since published a paper about this new periodic table in Angewandte Chemie (May 2013). And, earlier today (July 5, 2013) Philip Ball writing (A self-assembled periodic table) for the Royal Society of Chemistry provided a critique of the idea while supporting it in principle,

Mirkin and his colleagues perceive the pairing of [DNA] strands as somewhat analogous to the covalent pairing of electrons and call their DNA-tagged nanoparticles programmable atom equivalents (PAEs). These PAEs may bind to one another according to particular combinatorial rules and Mirkin proposes a kind of periodic table of PAEs that systematises their possible interactions and permutations.
Well, it’s not hard to start enumerating ways in which PAEs are unlike atoms. Most fundamentally, perhaps, the bonding propensity of a PAE need bear no real relation to the ‘atom’ (the nanoparticle) with which it is associated: a given nanoparticle might be paired with any other, and there’s nothing periodic about those tendencies.

I recommend reading Ball’s piece for the way he analyzes the weaknesses and for why he thinks the effort to organize PAEs conceptually is worthwhile.

For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ published paper,

Nucleic Acid-Modified Nanostructures as Programmable Atom Equivalents: Forging a New “Table of Elements by Robert J. Macfarlane, Matthew N. O’Brien, Dr. Sarah Hurst Petrosko, and Prof. Chad A. Mirkin. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 52, Issue 22, pages 5688–5698, May 27, 2013. Article first published online: 2 MAY 2013 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201209336

Copyright © 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This article is behind a paywall.

One final comment, this is not the first ‘nanoparticle table of elements’.  Larry Bell mentioned one in his Dec. 7, 2010 NISENet (Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network) blog posting,

The focus of today’s sessions at NSF’s [US National Science Foundation] meeting of nanoscale science and engineering grantees focuses on putting the science to practical use. First up this morning is nanomanufacturing. Mark Tuonimen from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst gave a talk about the Nanoscale Manufacturing Network and one of his images caught my imagination. This image, which comes from the draft Nano2 vision document on the next decade of nanoscale research, illustrates and idea that is sometimes referred to as a periodic table of nanoparticles.

[downloaded from http://www.nisenet.org/blogs/observations_insights/periodic_table_nanoparticles]

[downloaded from http://www.nisenet.org/blogs/observations_insights/periodic_table_nanoparticles]

Bell goes on to describe one way in which a nanoparticle table of elements would have to differ from the traditional chemistry table.

Geckskin and Z-Man

Z-Man or do I mean SpiderMan? They used to make reference to SpiderMan and/or geckos when there was some research breakthrough or other concerning adhesion (specifically, bioadhesion) but these days, it’s all geckos, all the time.

I’m going to start with the first announcement from the research team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, from the Feb. 17, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

For years, biologists have been amazed by the power of gecko feet, which let these 5-ounce lizards produce an adhesive force roughly equivalent to carrying nine pounds up a wall without slipping. Now, a team of polymer scientists and a biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have discovered exactly how the gecko does it, leading them to invent “Geckskin,” a device that can hold 700 pounds on a smooth wall. Doctoral candidate Michael Bartlett in Alfred Crosby’s polymer science and engineering lab at UMass Amherst is the lead author of their article describing the discovery in the current online issue of Advanced Materials (“Looking Beyond Fibrillar Features to Scale Gecko-Like Adhesion”). The group includes biologist Duncan Irschick, a functional morphologist who has studied the gecko’s climbing and clinging abilities for over 20 years. Geckos are equally at home on vertical, slanted, even backward-tilting surfaces.

Here’s a picture illustrating the material’s strength,

A card-sized pad of Geckskin can firmly attach very heavy objects such as this 42-inch television weighing about 40 lbs. (18 kg) to a smooth vertical surface. The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric that includes a synthetic tendon. Together these features allow the stiff yet flexible pad to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. Photo courtesy of UMass Amherst

This image is meant as an illustration of what the product could do and not as a demonstration, i.e., the tv is not being held up by ‘geckskin’.

There are other research teams around the world working on ways to imitate the properties of gecko feet or bioadhesion (my Nov. 2, 2011 posting mentions some work on robots with ‘gecko feet’ at Simon Fraser University [Canada] and my March 19, 2012 posting mentions in passing some work being done at the University of Waterloo [Canada] are two recent examples).

The University of Massachusetts team’s innovation (from the Feb. 17, 2012 news item),

The key innovation by Bartlett and colleagues was to create an integrated adhesive with a soft pad woven into a stiff fabric, which allows the pad to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. Further, as in natural gecko feet, the skin is woven into a synthetic “tendon,” yielding a design that plays a key role in maintaining stiffness and rotational freedom, the researchers explain.

Importantly, the Geckskin’s adhesive pad uses simple everyday materials such as polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), which holds promise for developing an inexpensive, strong and durable dry adhesive.

The UMass Amherst researchers are continuing to improve their Geckskin design by drawing on lessons from the evolution of gecko feet, which show remarkable variation in anatomy. “Our design for Geckskin shows the true integrative power of evolution for inspiring synthetic design that can ultimately aid humans in many ways,” says Irschick.

The research at the University of Massachusetts is being funded, in part, by DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) through its Z-man program. From the March 2, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

“Geckskin” is one output of the Z-Man program. It is a synthetically-fabricated reversible adhesive inspired by the gecko’s ability to climb surfaces of various materials and roughness, including smooth surfaces like glass. Performers on Z-Man designed adhesive pads to mimic the gecko foot over multiple length scales, from the macroscopic foot tendons to the microscopic setae and spatulae, to maximize reversible van der Waals interactions with the surface.

Here’s the reasoning for the Z-Man program, from the March 2, 2012 news item,

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s “Z-Man program” aims to develop biologically inspired climbing aids to enable soldiers to scale vertical walls constructed from typical building materials, while carrying a full combat load, and without the use of ropes or ladders.

Soldiers operate in all manner of environments, including tight urban terrain. Their safety and effectiveness demand maximum flexibility for maneuvering and responding to circumstances. To overcome obstacles and secure entrance and egress routes, soldiers frequently rely on ropes, ladders and related climbing tools. Such climbing tools cost valuable time to use, have limited application and add to the load warfighters are forced to carry during missions.

The Z-Man program provides more information, as well as, images here, where you will find this image, which is not as pretty as the one with the tv screen but this one is a demonstration,

A proof-of-concept demonstration of a 16-square-inch sheet of Geckskin adhering to a vertical glass wall while supporting a static load of up to 660 pounds. (from the Z-Man Program website)

In the very latest news, the University of Massachusetts team has won international funding for its (and Cambridge University’s) work on bioadhesion. From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst March 28, 2012 [news release],

Duncan Irschick, Biology, and Al Crosby, Polymer Science and Engineering, with Walter Federle of Cambridge University, have been awarded a three-year, $900,000 grant from the Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP) in Strasbourg, France, to study bioadhesion in geckos and insects.

Theirs was one of only 25 teams from among approximately 800 to apply worldwide. HFSP is a global organization that funds research at the frontiers of the life sciences.

Crosby, Irschick and colleagues received international scientific and media attention over the past several weeks for their discovery reported in the journal Advanced Materials, of how gecko feet and skin produce an adhesive force roughly equivalent to the 5-ounce animal carrying nine pounds up a wall without slipping. This led them to invent “Geckskin,” a device that can hold 700 pounds on a smooth wall. Irschick, a functional morphologist who has studied the gecko’s climbing and clinging abilities for over 20 years, says the lizards are equally at home on vertical, slanted and even backward-tilting surfaces.

Not having heard of the Human Science Frontier Program (HSFP) previously, I was moved to investigate further. From the About Us page,

The Human Frontier Science Program is a program of funding for frontier research in the life sciences. It is implemented by the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) with its office in Strasbourg.

The members of the HFSPO, the so-called Management Supporting Parties (MSPs) are the contributing countries and the European Union, which contributes on behalf of the non-G7 EU members.

The current MSPs are Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the European Union.

I wonder how much impact all the publicity had on the funding decision. In any event, it’s good to find out about a new funding program and I wish anyone who applies the best of luck!