Category: Science-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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Nanoparticles in baby formula

There’s a lot of stuff you’d expect to find in baby formula: proteins, carbs, vitamins, essential minerals. But parents probably wouldn’t anticipate finding extremely small, needle-like particles. Yet this is exactly what a team of scientists here at Arizona State University recently discovered. The research, commissioned and published by Friends of the Earth (FoE) – an environmental advocacy group – analyzed six commonly available off-the-shelf baby formulas (liquid and powder) and found nanometer-scale needle-like particles in three of them. The particles were made of hydroxyapatite – a poorly soluble calcium-rich mineral. Manufacturers use it to regulate acidity in some foods, and it’s also available as a dietary supplement. Needle-like particles of hydroxyapatite found in infant formula by ASU researchers. Westerhoff and Schoepf/ASU, CC BY-ND Looking at these particles at super-high magnification, it’s hard not to feel a little anxious about feeding them to a baby. They appear sharp and dangerous – not the sort of thing that has any place around infants. And they are “nanoparticles” – a family of ultra-small particles that have been raising safety concerns within the scientific community and elsewhere for some years. For all these reasons, questions like “should infants be ingesting them?” make a lot of sense. However, as is so often the case, the answers are not quite so straightforward. What are these tiny needles? Calcium is an essential part of a growing infant’s diet, and is a legally required component in formula. But not necessarily in the form of hydroxyapatite nanoparticles. Hydroxyapatite is a tough, durable mineral. It’s naturally made in our bodies as an essential part of bones and teeth – it’s what makes them so strong. So it’s tempting to assume the substance is safe to eat. But just because our bones and teeth are made of the mineral doesn’t

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image-20160328-17824-d98u5v

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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Can citizen science empower disenfranchised communities

Early in 2015, a group calling itself the Nappy Science Gang hit the parenting scene in the U.K. It was made up of moms and dads who used cloth nappies – or diapers – with their kids, and wanted to know the best ways to keep them clean and safe. The Nappy Science Gang is part of a growing global movement toward citizens getting involved in science. Over the past few years, there’s been an explosion of opportunities for ordinary people to collect data for researchers, and sometimes help analyze it. Platforms such as Zooniverse, Scientific American and SciStarter are all helping citizens (anyone who’s part of a community, in this context) connect with scientists and get involved with the process of scientific discovery. Without doubt, the movement is enabling more people than ever before to become engaged in science and to contribute toward scientific progress. Yet in many of these citizen science projects, researchers remain firmly in the driver’s seat – asking the questions, setting the agenda and making sense of the data. They’re big on engagement, maybe not so much on empowerment – especially when it comes to issues that directly affect participants’ lives. Citizens setting the science agenda This is where the Nappy Science Gang is different. It represents an emerging trend where citizens partner with experts to do the science that’s useful to them and their community, not just someone else. Partnerships like this can have wide-reaching consequences. One question asked by the Nappy Science Gang, for instance, was: why are biological detergents not advisable for washing cloth diapers? Despite this being the advice given by organizations like the U.K. National Health Service, the group’s research findings didn’t seem to support it. So they asked one of their expert advisers for help. Unable to explain things,

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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 will it take to master the fourth industrial revolution

In April 2000, Bill Joy famously wrote in Wired Magazine: Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species. At the time, Joy was an accomplished technologist and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. Yet he argued passionately that society was in danger of being destroyed by the very technologies scientists and engineers thought could save it. Nearly 16 years on, Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has just published an equally passionate treatise on the power of emerging technologies. Unlike Joy, he maps out a vastly more optimistic future where technology innovation – and our ability to harness it – becomes a powerhouse for social and economic growth. Technology as a revolutionizing force for good Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971 to ‘improve the state of the world.’ World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA In his new book The Fourth Industrial Revolution – published to coincide with the WEF annual meeting in Davos – Schwab argues that we are at the beginning of a technological revolution that “is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another.” At the heart of Schwab’s revolution is an accelerating convergence between our increasingly powerful technological capabilities. Autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, gene editing, robotics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things – these and many more emerging trends, he suggests, are arising from an unparalleled melding of physical, biological and digital worlds. These coalescing capabilities are both transforming and being transformed by society. And it is this tight coupling that, to Schwab, signals a new era of technology innovation. Just as the widespread use of steam, electricity and computers have in the past revolutionized society, so, he argues, will this new wave of technological convergence. Are

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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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If Elon Musk is a Luddite, count me in

On December 21, the company SpaceX made history by successfully launching a rocket and returning it to a safe landing on Earth. It’s also the day that SpaceX founder Elon Musk was nominated for a Luddite Award. It’s an odd juxtaposition, to say the least.

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Hoverboards and health - how good for you is this year’s hottest trend 750x400 2

Walking across campus to my office each morning this semester, I’ve found it hard to ignore the growing number of students using hoverboards to get around. These two-wheel self-balancing boards (they don’t really hover, Back-to-the-Future-style) are one of the hottest gadgets this holiday season. As sedentary lifestyles continue to be a major underlying factor in chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, I wondered whether these trendy two-wheelers are simply another way to avoid the exercise we all need to stay healthy. As it turns out, it’s not only their health that hoverboard users need to worry about.

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Cancer - Countering the bad luck hypothesis

A new study has just been published in the journal Nature that calls the so-called “bad luck hypothesis”of cancer formation into question, and concludes that cancer risk is heavily influenced by external factors.

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Are vegetarian diets really more harmful to the environment

Carnegie Mellon University had an eye-catching headline on its news feed this morning: Eat More Bacon. It was based on a new study that suggests fruit and veg have a higher environmental impact per calorie than meat. However, the analysis failst to take account of the nutritional needs in a healthy diet.

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

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