Category: Emerging Technology

autonomous vehicle smoking

In 2014, over 32,000 people were killed in car crashes in the U.S. In 2012, more than two million Americans visited the emergency room as a result of car crashes. And an estimated 94 percent of the crashes that cause these injuries and fatalities are attributable to human choice or error. These are sobering statistics. And because human behavior is at the heart of them, they raise an interesting question: Once we can take people out of the equation, could driving your own car become as socially frowned on as other risky habits, like smoking? It’s less an intriguing hypothetical than a near-future public health question thanks to the rapid development and emergence of self-driving cars. And a new federal policy for automated vehicles from the U.S. Department of Transportation has just given self-driving cars another nudge forward. Technology coming on fast, social consequences to follow Self-driving cars have progressed in leaps and bounds in recent years. In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched an autonomous vehicle grand challenge: Build a robotic vehicle able to “navigate 300 miles of rugged terrain between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.” In the first event, the top-scoring vehicle managed a meager 7.5 miles. Twelve years later, autonomous vehicles are heading toward becoming commonplace. The Tesla Model S, for instance, comes ready-equipped with the company’s “autopilot.” Top car manufacturers like Ford and Volvo are investing heavily in self-driving vehicles. And Google and Uber already have test vehicles on the road. Granted, these cars don’t have to navigate the desert terrain of the DARPA challenge (although it could be argued that urban roads present an altogether tougher challenge). And they’re still far from perfect (as recent crashes involving Google and Tesla vehicles demonstrate). Even so, progress over the past decade has been meteoric, and

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complex ethics of emerging brain technologies

Imagine infusing thousands of wireless devices into your brain, and using them to both monitor its activity and directly influence its actions. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and for the moment it still is – but possibly not for long. Brain research is on a roll at the moment. And as it converges with advances in science and technology more broadly, it’s transforming what we are likely to be able to achieve in the near future. Spurring the field on is the promise of more effective treatments for debilitating neurological and psychological disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and depression. But new brain technologies will increasingly have the potential to alter how someone thinks, feels, behaves and even perceives themselves and others around them – and not necessarily in ways that are within their control or with their consent. This is where things begin to get ethically uncomfortable. Because of concerns like these, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) are cohosting a meeting of experts this week on responsible innovation in brain science. Berkeley’s ‘neural dust’ sensors are one of the latest neurotech advances.   Where are neurotechnologies now? Brain research is intimately entwined with advances in the “neurotechnologies” that not only help us study the brain’s inner workings, but also transform the ways we can interact with and influence it. For example, researchers at the University of California Berkeley recently published the first in-animal trials of what they called “neural dust” – implanted millimeter-sized sensors. They inserted the sensors in the nerves and muscles of rats, showing that these miniature wirelessly powered and connected sensors can monitor neural activity. The long-term aim, though, is to introduce thousands of neural dust particles into human brains. The UC Berkeley sensors are still relatively large,

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Map showing magnetic flux lines for nickel nanoparticles

Navigating the risk landscape that surrounds nanotechnology development can be a daunting task – especially if you are an early career researcher just getting started in the field.  There are plenty of studies and speculations around what might – or might not – be risky about nanoscale science and engineering.   But surprisingly, there are relatively few guideposts to help researchers plot a sensible course through this landscape as they set out to develop successful, safe, and responsible products. Back in June, I wrote about seven basic “guideposts” that I find helpful in thinking about nanotech risks, from a researcher’s perspective.  You can read the the full article in the journal Nature Nanotechnology – here are the highlights though: 1.  Risk starts with something that is worth protecting. We usually think of nanotechnology “risk” as the probability of disease or death occurring – or in the case of the environment, damage to ecosystems – from release of and exposure to engineered nanomaterials.  Yet the risk landscape that lies between novel nanotechnology research and successful product is far more complex, and being aware of its shifting hills and valleys can help avoid early, costly mistakes. When stripped down to fundamentals, risk concerns threats to something you or others value.  Health and well-being tick the box here, alongside integrity and sustainability of the environment.  Yet so do security, friendships, social acceptance, and our sense of personal and cultural identity.  These broader dimensions of “value” often depend on who is defining them, and the circumstances under which they are being defined.  Yet they are critically important in determining the progress of nanoscale science and engineering in today’s increasingly interconnected world. 2.  “Nanotechnology” is an unreliable indicator of risk. While the products of nanotechnology do present risks that need to be understood and addressed, the term”nanotechnology”

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What is Nanotechnology

The latest video from Risk Bites takes a four minute dive into what nanotechnology is, and why it’s important.  It was created as a primer for 5th graders – which probably means that there’ll be a lot of 5th graders at heart watching it! It also takes a somewhat less than conventional approach to nanotech: The video came about after I spent some time mentoring a fifth grade teacher this summer. While developing class material on nanotech and water, we discovered that it’s really tough to find engaging and relevant online material that can help set the scene for kids just learning about nanotechnology. Hopefully this fits the bill. (More from Risk Bites on nanotechnology)

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Elon Musk's new master plan will take more than advanced tech to pull off

Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla Motors – has just revealed the second part of his master plan for the company. And it’s a doozy. Not content with producing sleek electric cars (which to be fair, was only ever a stepping stone to greater things), Musk wants to fundamentally change how we live our lives. But the road to Musk’s techno-utopia may be rocky. In 2006, Musk announced his “Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan.” Steps one to three were simple and elegant: Build [a] sports car Use that money to build an affordable car Use that money to build an even more affordable car.   But cutting through these was a fourth step that had a much stronger social goal in sight: to develop and “provide zero emission electric power generation options.” Step One: complete. Tesla, CC BY-ND   This desire to change the world for the better is apparent in “part deux” of the master plan. Steps one to three of the new plan are superficially technological goals: Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning.   Yet underpinning them is a revolutionary vision for transforming society. Elon Musk doesn’t just want to fast-track the transition to renewable energy and self-driving cars – he wants to rewrite the rulebook on how we build a futuristic sustainable society. Shifting the culture with new technologies This comes through loud and clear in his fourth step in the new master plan. Once there are enough privately owned fully autonomous Teslas on the road, Musk wants to co-opt them into the “Tesla shared fleet.” The concept is as simple as it is audacious: Instead of your Tesla

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How risky are the World Economic Forum’s top 10 emerging technologies for 2016

Take an advanced technology. Add a twist of fantasy. Stir well, and watch the action unfold. It’s the perfect recipe for a Hollywood tech-disaster blockbuster. And clichéd as it is, it’s the scenario that we too often imagine for emerging technologies. Think superintelligent machines, lab-bred humans, the ability to redesign whole species – you get the picture. The reality, of course, is that the real world is usually far more mundane: less “zombie apocalypse” and more “teens troll supercomputer; teach it bad habits.” Looking through this year’s crop of Top Ten Emerging Technologies from the World Economic Forum (WEF), this is probably a good thing. World Economic Forum     Since 2012, I’ve been part of a group of WEF advisers who help compile an annual list of emerging technologies that are poised to transform our lives. This year’s list includes autonomous vehicles, blockchain (the technology behind BitCoin), next-generation batteries and a number of other technologies that are beginning to make their mark. The list is aimed at raising awareness around potentially transformative technologies so that investors, businesses, regulators and others know what’s coming down the pike. It’s also an opportunity for us to think through what might go wrong as the technologies mature. Admittedly, some of these technologies would stretch the imagination of the most creative of apocalyptic screenwriters – it’ll be a while, I suspect, before “Graphene Apocalypse” or “Day of the Perovskite Cell” hit the silver screen. But others show considerable potential for a summer scare-flick, including “brain-controlling” optogenetics and the mysterious sounding “Internet of Nano Things.” Putting Hollywood fantasies aside, though, it’s hard to predict the plausible downsides of emerging technologies. Yet this is exactly what is needed if we’re to ensure they’re developed responsibly in the long run. Sometimes we need to head back to

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Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do. As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made. The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated. So what’s changed? Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. Andrew Winning/Reuters Carbon nanotube concerns, or lack thereof The pigment at the center of the Kapoor story is a material called Vantablack S-VIS, developed by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. It’s a carbon nanotube-based spray paint so black that surfaces coated with it reflect next to no light. The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly

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Three ways synthetic biology could annihilate Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases

In just a few short weeks, Zika has shot from being an obscure infection to a headline-hitting public health disaster. The virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas (and potentially beyond), is suspected of being associated with birth defects that affect brain development and currently has no specific vaccine or treatment. Understandably, scientists are scrambling to respond to what the World Health Organization is now calling a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In the arsenal of weapons against the mosquito-borne disease, there are tried and tested approaches that include the liberal application of insecticides and repellents, widespread use of mosquito nets and elimination of breeding sites. Yet to combat Zika and other mosquito-borne disease, more is needed. Which is why scientists are increasingly turning to emerging technologies such as synthetic biology for solutions. The joke goes that if you get 10 synthetic biologists in a room together, you’ll get 10 different explanations of what they do. After all, synthetic biology is a young and rapidly evolving field. But underneath this lack of clarity lies a clear and profound shift in our technological capabilities – the ability to “upload” genetic code to computers, edit and manipulate it, and then “download” it into living organisms. In effect, we’ve discovered how to hack biology – how to code in DNA and computer-design living things. It’s early days yet – biology is complex and messy and doesn’t follow the same rules as computer code. But increasingly, scientists are learning how to use synthetic biology to change how organisms operate – including insects that carry dangerous human diseases, such as Zika. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry Zika, dengue and chikungunya. Paulo Whitaker Turn off a gene and goodbye mosquitoes Using synthetic biology-based genetic engineering techniques, the British company Oxitec (owned by U.S.-based Intrexon Corp) has

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Technology innovation and life in the 21st century Views from Civil Society

In 2009, I commissioned ten guest articles on technology innovation from people working for, associated with or generally reflecting the views of Civil Society groups. Over six years on, these essays still present insightful and often challenging views on technology innovation, and are well worth a revisit. The aim was to expose readers to perspectives on technology innovation that are sometimes drowned out in mainstream conversations, and to give a sense of the breadth of opinions and perspectives that are often lumped under the banners of “civic society” or “Non Government Organizations.” You may not agree with everything that’s written (I’d be surprised and disappointed if you were).  But whether you are a tech believer, a tech skeptic, or somewhere in between, I hope these articles will inform, challenge, surprise, and even amuse you. Biopolitics for the 21st Century Marcy Darnovsky, Center for Genetics & Society Innovation for whom? Innovation for what? The Impact of Ableism Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary Beyond safety: some bigger questions about new technologies Georgia Miller, Friends of the Earth Innovation for a well-fed world – what role for technology? Geoff Tansey, Food Ethics Council Stop and Think: A Luddite Perspective Jen Sass, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) A new era of responsible innovation Richard Owen, University of Westminster Ecology and Nanotechnology Richard Worthington, Loka Reversing the Technological Dilemma George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA) Innovation in the Doc Tim Jackson, University of Surrey 21st Century Tech Governance? What would Ned Ludd do? Jim Thomas, ETC Group

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What if we approach risk like entrepreneurs approach innovation

If you’ve been following this month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), you’ll know with absolute certainty that the future is cool, shiny and stuffed to the brim with “must-have” gadgets. Reading the ebullient reports, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything other than overflowing optimism for how technology will transform our lives. And admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how smart shoes or a rollable TV screen could possibly be bad for us. From virtual reality so “there” you can almost touch it, to the Internet of every imaginable thing, we’re being dazzled by the seemingly infinite possibilities that modern tech has to offer. But I wonder whether, in all the buzz and hype, we’re in danger of losing sight of the darker side of technology innovation. CES and similar expos represent the glitzy face of deeper trends that could be destructive if developed without a sophisticated appreciation of potential risks. All technologies come with risks With the uncritical enthusiasm around CES, it’s easy to ignore the potential consequences of irresponsible technology innovation. It’s even easier to turn a blind eye to the challenges we face in developing technologies that are good for society as a whole, and don’t just enrich those who create them. Take for example robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – three trends that were amply represented at the show. While each holds the potential to profoundly change our lives for the better, these technologies are by no stretch of the imagination intrinsically safe. Fears over the consequences of irresponsible AI development have already been widely voiced, and the rapid rise of the Internet of Things threatens to make everyday objects vulnerable to cyber attacks. And all three have the potential to widen the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged. In today’s evolving social

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Steampunk smart pill

It’s that time of year again when technology pundits peer into their crystal balls, and predict the hottest tech trends of the coming twelve months. Let’s be honest though, these lists can get a little stale. So I thought I’d break ranks this year by imagining what a top tech trends list would look like in a “steampunk” world, where steam engines, clockwork mechanisms, and retro-artistic flair, rule supreme.

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the real risk from consumer drones this holiday season

This holiday season, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is estimating that over one million small “Unmanned Aerial Systems” (sUAS’s) – drones, to the rest of us – will be sold to consumers. But as hordes of novice pilots take to the air, just how safe are these small bundles of metal, plastic, video cameras and whirling blades?

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Gene Drives

Gene editing and gene drives are rapidly emerging as the disruptive technologies du jour.  But what are they, what can they do, and why should you care? Just last week, research was published that took us a step closer to being able to re-engineer whole species by driving specific genes through successive generations   – the species in this case was mosquitoes, and the trait to be engineered was the ability to host malaria-causing parasites. And this week, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, together with the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the U.K.’s Royal Society, are co-hosting an international summit on gene editing in humans – and especially the ethical and governance issues emerging capabilities raise. To help make sense of gene drives and the underlying gene editing technologies, there’s a new explainer video on Risk Bites.  Watch the video here, or read the transcript below. Transcript Imagine we could stop mosquitoes from carrying malaria. For good.  Or prevent ticks from transmitting lyme disease. Or eliminate the billions of dollars of damage caused by bugs to our food supplies each year. Gene drives are a radical new approach to genetic engineering that could help us achieve these goals, and a whole lot more.  Yet, as you might expect, the technology isn’t risk-free. Gene drives are designed to eliminate unwanted traits in insects and other animals.  They work by pushing out genetic modifications through whole species, until eventually, every critter has been changed into something we’ve intentionally engineered. The idea isn’t especially new.  But it’s only very recently that advanced gene editing techniques have made human-designed gene drives possible.  And at the heart of this revolution is a new technique for precision-editing genes – clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or if you’re not into brain-bending tongue twisters, CRISPR for short.

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Are you breathing carbon nanotubes and should you be worried

For over two decades, carbon nanotubes have been attracting attention.  First, they were seen as a super-strong, super-conductive new form of carbon that could potentially revolutionize everything from space travel to drug delivery.  Later, concerns were raised that these long, thin, fiber-like materials might cause or exacerbate lung diseases if inhaled. Now, a new study in the journal EBioMedicine has suggested that these microscopic carbon fibers are ubiquitous in the air many of us breathe every day.  And the obvious question that results is: should you be worried? The new paper – a collaboration between scientists in Paris in France, and Texas in the US – analyzed carbon particles found in lung fluid samples from 64 asthmatic children living in Paris.  Using high resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), they found carbon nanotube-like fibers in each sample.  Similar fibers were found in lung cells from five patients, and dust samples taken from deposits around vehicle tailpipes, and inside buildings close to minor roads. The authors concluded that carbon nanotube are the main component of inhaled particulate matter. At first blush, the paper seems alarming – carbon nanotubes that could be harmful were found in the lungs of children with a lung condition.  However – as the authors acknowledge in the paper – the results, while interesting, don’t provide evidence that these exposures are a health risk. To start with, it wasn’t too surprising that some fibrous carbon-based particle were found in the samples.  Research over the past ten years has indicated that carbon nanotube-like particles are incidentally formed as a by-product in a number of high temperature processes.  In 2006 for instance, Murr and Guerrero found multiwalled carbon nanotubes in soot collected from burning pine wood.  And in 2013, Jung and colleagues found carbon nanotubes amongst diesel exhaust particles under controlled

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Back in 2011 – while I was Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center – I was part of a larger team exploring the possibility of conducting a full-blown assessment of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) possibilities and pitfalls in Michigan.  We were interested in applying the Integrated Assessment methodology developed at the University of Michigan to a growing challenge – the sustainable development and use of fracking. Four years later, the final report from the resulting program on high volume hydraulic fracturing in Michigan has just been published. This represents three intensive years of research and analysis by University of Michigan experts in evaluating fracking options across multiple dimensions, and developing options for proceeding sustainably. While the report focuses on Michigan, the analysis is broadly applicable to other states and beyond, and provides a deep and broad analysis of fracking. The program  set out to explore the best environmental, economic, social, and technological approaches for managing hydraulic fracturing in the State of Michigan.  Today’s final report presents options for moving forward sustainably that cover public participation in decision making, use of water resources, chemicals use policies.  It also provides a comprehensive introduction to fracking, and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Complimenting the final report are seven technical reports that address the technology of fracking; the geological/hydrological context of fracking; environment and ecology considerations; public health issues, policy and law aspects of fracking; the economics of fracking; and public perception around fracking. Together with today’s report, these provide an exceptionally comprehensive overview of the multidimensional challenges presented by fracking, and the options available to develop sustainable uses of the technology. While I’m no longer at Michigan, I’m proud that the Risk Science Center and its members were able to contribute support and expertise to this initiative, as part of helping enable informed decisions on risk within society. Feature image: Process of

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For tech innovation to succeed, we need parallel innovation in how we think about risk

In October 2014, Google announced it was working on an innovative nanotechnology-based approach to avoiding and managing disease. The idea was to create a pill that would deliver magnetic, functionalized nanoparticles from the gut to the bloodstream. Once there, they would circulate — presumably for days, or longer — picking up biomarkers of disease along the way. The particles would then be remotely interrogated directly by the patient, perhaps using a wrist-mounted monitor. In effect, the plan was to create the ultimate in wearable tech: a personal device that could give you up-to-the-minute information on health and wellness, much as wrist-worn devices provide feedback on fitness today. Google’s nanosensor concept is certainly audacious. Its success though will depend on overcoming a number of challenges — not least, addressing potential risks. Based on what is currently known about nanoparticle behaviour, the technology faces a plethora of possible health and environmental challenges. Failure to address these could leave the company with a non-starter on its hands. Yet the probability of causing harm is not the only risk that could prevent these nanosensors from becoming a reality. In the expanded list of potential risks, there is also the chance of outmoded or overly restrictive regulations blocking progress; or the possibility of investor ambivalence, consumer suspicion, or social media backlash. These hint at a much larger and murkier risk landscape that emerging technologies will have to navigate to be successful. Google’s nanoparticle sensors are indicative of a growing number of technologies that are facing increasingly complex risk-related challenges. Recently, the Future of Life Institute awarded close to US$7 million for research aimed at ensuring the robust and beneficial development of artificial intelligence — funding prompted by how unexpected risks could undermine the technology’s development. Earlier this year, published research into using the gene-editing technique

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Characterizing nanoparticles in the 1880s

On May 29th, there were 52,000 nanoparticles per cubic centimeter of air measured at the top of the Eiffel Tower. This may not seem the most compelling opening to an article, until you realize that the measurement was made in 1889 – over 100 years before nanotechnology and nanoparticles began hitting headlines as one of the most talked about emerging technologies in recent decades. The particles were measured by the Scottish scientist John Aitken, using his newly developed device for counting airborne dust particles.

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Politics don't always play a role in attitudes toward science issues 750x400

Comments provided for GENeS on the launch of the Pew Research Center attitudes survey on Americans, Politics and Science Issues (July 1 2015) Political leanings are frequently associated with attitudes toward science and technology in the U.S.  Yet as the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center on Americans, Politics and Science Issues shows, public attitudes toward science and technology depend on a far more diverse and complex set of factors. This latest survey uses tried and tested statistical approaches to assess the degree to which different factors predict attitudes toward science, technology and engineering related issues amongst American adults.  As well as investigating attitudes as a function of ideology and political party, the survey also looks at the influence of age, education and science knowledge, gender, race and ethnicity, and religion or religious activities. These factors are mapped onto 22 areas covering climate and energy, government funding of science and technology, evolution, biomedical research and applications, food safety, animal testing, and space research and exploration.  For each area, the analysis assesses how strongly or weakly each factor predicts public attitudes. As with all statistical analyses, there are some uncertainties surrounding the results.  However, the approach used enables different influences to be disentangled from one another, allowing a clear picture to emerge of how different factors influence attitudes.  Within the caveats that apply to any such assessment, the survey paints a nuanced overview of factors influencing American attitudes toward the development and applications of science, technology and engineering. As might be expected, the survey shows attitudes toward climate change and fossil fuel use to be strongly associated with political affiliation and ideology.  In contrast, acceptance of evolution due to natural processes is not strongly associated with political allegiances; rather, age and religion are stronger predictors of whether someone accepts

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Risk Innovation Clean 750x400

Five years ago, I joined the University of Michigan School of Public Health as Director of the U-M Risk Science Center. It’s been a good five years. However, last year, the good folks at Arizona State University made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – the opportunity to expand substantially my work on risk and innovation, at one of the most exciting and progressive universities in the U.S.

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Step by step guide to making a Risk Bites video

Just for the fun of it, I decided to live-tweet the making of the previous Risk Bites video (Five things worth knowing about nanoparticles and sunscreens – posted June 15 2014). [View the story “Making a Risk Bites video” on Storify] The whole six and a half hours from finalizing the script to posting the finished video can be relived at Storify –

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

Andrew can be found on Twitter at @2020science and on YouTube at Risk Bites


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