Category: Technology Innovation

The poetry of innovating responsibly

What have technology innovation, haiku, and this summer’s blockbuster-in-waiting Jurassic World got in common? The answer: a short book of haiku on responsible technological innovation that a group of colleagues helped put together last summer.

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I was taken aback- to say the least – by an article from the New York Times that crossed my Twitter feed today that suggested wearable electronics like the new Apple Watch could be has harmful as smoking. I have to wonder whether the author actually read the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) monograph on which it’s based!

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Dunkin Donuts Hopes To Raise $400 Million Through IPO

In response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow, Dunkin’ Brands has announced that it will be removing allegedly “nano” titanium dioxide from Dunkin’ Donuts’ powdered sugar donuts. As You Sow claims there are safety concerns around the use of the material, while Dunkin’ Brands cites concerns over investor confidence. It’s a move that further confirms the food sector’s conservatism over adopting new technologies in the face of public uncertainty. But how justified is it based on what we know about the safety of nanoparticles? Titanium dioxide (which isn’t the same thing as the metal titanium) is an inert, insoluble material that’s used as a whitener in everything from paper and paint to plastics. It’s the active ingredient in many mineral-based sunscreens. And as a pigment, is also used to make food products look more appealing. Part of the appeal to food producers is that titanium dioxide is a pretty dull chemical. It doesn’t dissolve in water. It isn’t particularly reactive. It isn’t easily absorbed into the body from food. And it doesn’t seem to cause adverse health problems. It just seems to do what manufacturers want it to do – make food look better. It’s what makes the powdered sugar coating on donuts appear so dense and snow white. Titanium dioxide gives it a boost. And you’ve probably been consuming it for years without knowing. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration allows food products to contain up to 1% food-grade titanium dioxide without the need to include it on the ingredient label. Help yourself to a slice of bread, a bar of chocolate, a spoonful of mayonnaise or a donut, and chances are you’ll be eating a small amount of the substance. Why does As You Sow want this substance gone from Dunkin’ Donuts?  

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The World Economic Forum’s 2015 top 10 emerging technologies reflect the tremendous potential of technology innovation. Yet to build a resilient tech-based future, we need new ideas, new research and new tools that will enable us to realize the benefits of technology innovation, while keeping us a safe distance from potentially catastrophic collapse. It’s a tough challenge, and one that will demand unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary investment, collaboration and creativity. Yet the price of not innovating responsibly is one that may just be too large to live with.

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Is-novelty-in-nanomaterials-overrated-when-it-comes-to-risk

Novelty and nanotechnology are deeply intertwined. The search for nanostructure-enabled materials has driven research funding in nanotechnology for well over a decade now; the exploitation of novel properties has underpinned the commercialization of nanomaterials; and concerns over potential risks has stimulated widespread studies into what makes these materials harmful. Yet ‘novelty’ is an ephemeral quality, and despite its close association with nanotechnology, it may be an unreliable guide to ensuring the long-term safety of materials that emerge from the field. If this is the case, do we need to find alternative approaches to developing advanced materials and products that are safe by design?

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From smart phones to cancer cures, we depend on technology innovation more now than at any point in human history. Yet in a cruel twist of irony, emerging technologies that could help improve lives and protect the environment may ultimately end up doing more harm than good. That is, unless new approaches to responsible innovation are developed and adopted…

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The challenges of governing emerging technologies are highlighted by the World Economic Forum in the 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report. Focusing in particular on synthetic biology, gene drives and artificial intelligence, the report warns that these and other emerging technologies present hard-to-foresee risks, and that oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks. The emerging global risk landscape For nearly a decade, the World Economic Forum has provided an annual expert analysis of some of the most most significant long-term risks worldwide.  This year’s report provides insight into the likelihood and impact of 28 global risks in five domains: economic, environmental, societal, geopolitical and technological. Interstate conflict, extreme weather events and the failure of national governance are the top three risks in terms of  likelihood, while water crisis, spread of infectious diseases and weapons of mass destruction are top in terms of potential impact (see below for infographics). Governance of Emerging Technologies Amongst these risks and risk trends, emerging technologies are singled out as one of three “risk constellations” in need of action.  From the report: The pace of technological change is faster than ever. Disciplines such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence are creating new fundamental capabilities, which offer tremendous potential for solving the world’s most pressing problems. At the same time, they present hard-to-foresee risks. Oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks – ranging from economic to environmental and societal. How Can the Risks and Rewards of Emerging Technologies Be Balanced? The report continues to delve deeper into the opportunities presented by emerging technologies, and the challenges that their development present.  The report acknowledges the benefits that

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A Sony 85-inch Bravia XBR-X950B 4K television plays video after being unveiled during a Sony news conference at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas

Earlier this week, The Conversation reported that, “The future is bright, the future is … quantum dot televisions.” And judging by the buzz coming from this week’s annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that’s right – the technology is providing manufacturers with a cheap and efficient way of producing the next generation of brilliant, high-definition TV screens. But the quantum dots in these displays also use materials and technologies – including engineered nanoparticles and the heavy metal cadmium – that have been a magnet for health and environmental concerns. Will the dazzling pictures this technology allow blind us to new health and environmental challenges, or do their benefits outweigh the potential risks? Vials of quantum dots producing vivid colors from violet to deep red. Antipoff, CC BY-SA   Answer’s not black and white Quantum dots are a product of the emerging field of nanotechnology. They are made of nanometer-sized particles of a semiconducting material – often cadmium selenide. About 2,000 to 20,000 times smaller than the width of a single human hair, they’re designed to absorb light of one color and emit it as another color – to fluoresce. This property makes them particularly well-suited for use in products like tablets and TVs that need bright, white, uniform backlights. RNGS Reuters    There are of course other chemicals, such as phosphor, that fluoresce and are used in consumer products. What is unique about quantum dots is that the color of the emitted light can be modified by simply changing the size of the quantum dot particles. And because this color-shifting is a physical phenomenon, quantum dots far outperform their chemical counterparts in brightness, color and durability. Unfortunately, the heavy metal cadmium used in the production of many quantum dots is a health and environmental hazard. Under the European Restrictions on Hazardous

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How do you creatively explore the challenges and opportunities of developing new technologies responsibly?  This past summer, the University of Michigan Risk Science Center partnered with the V2_ Institute for Unstable Media in Rotterdam to just this.  And the result? A book of seventeen haiku! Exploring Responsible Innovation The book was the result of thirteen academics from the University of Michigan getting together with folks from V2_ over two days to grapple with responsibility and innovation.  We intentionally selected participants who had little formal training in the emerging field of Responsible Innovation, but who were engaged in innovation.  Their expertise ranged from health and engineering through to business, architecture. and art and design. As someone who does work in the area of responsible innovation,  I was blown away by the insights that emerged from this group.  Unconstrained by existing ideas and definitions, the participants were able to peel apart the deep complexities in defining what responsible innovation is – even what innovation itself is. Communicating Insights Through Haiku The idea to capture these insights in a series of haiku was an inspired one – not mine I hasten to add. During our discussions, it became clear that there are uncertainties, nuances and intangibles around the whole idea of responsible technological innovation that could never be captured in a formal academic report or white paper.  Instead, we needed a way of conveying our thoughts to others that would in turn inspire further creative thought on what it means to innovate responsibly. The breakthrough came when a participant pointed out that the then-President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, is an aficionado of haiku.  As well as providing an – if you’ll forgive me – innovative medium for conveying the workshop outcomes to others, this form proved extremely powerful in capturing elusive ideas in a way that would spark further creative thought in others. Seventeen

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Could we one day 3D print Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brain?  Before you ask, yes, this is a post about risk.  And no, I’m not talking about the dangers of immortalizing the star of Terminator Genisys‘ real-life biological brain. But to begin somewhere near the beginning: 3D Printing 3D printing – and additive manufacturing more broadly – are on a roll.  The idea of creating objects by building them up them layer by layer has been around for a while.  But over the past couple of years, there have been massive advances in access to low cost, extremely sophisticated 3D printing technologies. At one end of the spectrum, you have devices like the $100 Peach Printer.  At the other, industrial 3D printers that are capable of making on-demand parts for jet engines and other high performance products.  And in between, printers that are enabling everyone from kids and hobbyists to entrepreneurs make stuff that it wasn’t possible to make just a few years ago. The technology is opening new doors to how products are made.  But it’s also potentially leading to new health risks.  Whether it’s the products of 3D printers (how do you control weapons that can be printed at-source, or ensure the safety of a bespoke 3D printed car?), to the emissions from the devices (just how many 3D printers in a classroom does it take before the kids are inhaling more nanoparticles and fumes than is healthy?), 3D printing raises questions around risk and safety. Environmental Implications of Additive Manufacturing This past October, I participated in a National Science Foundation workshop on the Environmental Implications of Additive Manufacturing.  It was a valuable meeting – I want to emphasize that, just in case you suspect that my mind began to drift during the proceedings with what follows.  We talked extensively about the potential health risks of 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing,  and

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How do we chart a path forward toward the effective and responsible development and use of new technologies?  For the next two years, the World Economic Forum Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies will be tackling this and other questions as it develops ways of supporting informed decisions on technology innovation in today’s rapidly changing world. I’ll be joining my fellow meta-council members in Dubai next week as we begin to flesh out our plans for the next 24 months.  In preparation for this, I’ve been thinking through some of the broader framing issues that are important when considering emerging technologies.  In no particular order: Understanding the role of technology trends in enabling innovation and raising opportunities and challenges, as opposed to discrete technologies Broad, headline-grabbing technology innovation trends include nanoscale science and technology; gene editing; synthetic biology; human enhancement; next generation computing; autonomous vehicles; and many others.  These are often collections of technological capabilities tied together by common factors – either within a specific domain of science and technology, or in the applications domain.  They are rarely discrete technologies. Recognizing the importance of convergence between technologies and technology trends in stimulating innovation Technology convergence is relevant on a large scale, such as in discussions around technology clusters such as Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognition-based technology (so-called NBIC convergence), and other combinations of what’s capturing people’s imagination – although these clusterings are are often somewhat artificial constructs.  Convergence also relevant at a much smaller scale, and often the less constrained innovators are within specific domains of technology, the more creative they are able to be.  This small-scale convergence may be more important than the acronym-heavy trends, as many advanced products and processes rely on synergies between multiple technologies to be competitive.  It’s very rare that a mono-technology product (or even one built on just two or three technologies) does

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As a member of the selection committee for the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers, it’s always exciting to see which companies made the bar each year. This year’s Technology Pioneers have just been announced.  They represent 24 of the world’s most innovative and pioneering technology companies. The tech pioneers for 2015 include companies that are significantly improving diagnostics and health treatment; providing electricity to the off-grid underprivileged; pioneering low-cost computing; developing new visual, audio and sensor technologies; and embedding Internet of Things services. For more information, check out the World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers 2015 widget This year’s Technology Pioneers are: AutoGrid Systems, Avegant, BlaBlaCar, Cambrian Innovation, Canonical, Couchbase, Eta Devices, Genomatica, Guardant Health, Health Catalyst, HiBot Corporation, Ionic Security, Jasper Technologies, Kakao Corporation, Labcyte, LearnUp, Mera Gao Power, Newlight Technologies, Organovo, Proterra, Raspberry Pi Foundation, Silicor Materials, SmartThings, and Vaxxas. Image credit: World Economic Forum

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I’ve just had my attention drawn to this inspiring 2 minute video on engineering from University of Michigan PhD student Barry Belmont:   The video’s part of the National Academy of Engineering Engineering for You Video Contest. What I like about it is the way it connects advances in engineering to our needs, hopes and aspirations as people. Barry’s looking for votes for the contest, which closes on September 1st.  If you like video, you can vote for it by giving it the thumbs up on YouTube, or on the NAE website. It’s also worth checking out the other videos that have been submitted – see them all here.  

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Chemistry World posted a good article yesterday on nanotech regulation in Europe (Europe mulls best way to handle nanotech by Andrew Williams).  I have a couple of quotes in the piece, along with Risk Science Center colleague Diana Bowman).  These are taken from a longer set of responses to questions from Williams, which I thought it might be worth posting here (edited slightly so that they make more sense grammatically!) What are currently the main EU nanomaterial regulations? What are the key elements of these regulations? What is REACH’s (Registration Evaluation Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals regulations) stance as a pan-national regulation on nanomaterials – and is it moving towards the creation of a register? REACH has deep implications to how chemical substances are assessed and regulated across the European Union, and is impacting on any company either wanting to trade with member states, or manufacture within these states (and so the reach – if you’ll forgive the pun – goes well beyond the EU). Two associated issues here are what constitutes a nanomaterial, and whether the explicit differentiation of nano- and non-nanoscale materials make sense within the context of REACH. The EC Joint Research Council recently published a massive 280+ page document evaluating the previously released definition of nano materials for regulatory purposes – and this is just part one of the definition review process! This document provides a deep and scientifically rigorous assessment of considerations relevant to a definition for regulatory purposes, but is still driven by the assumption that there is something unique about engineered nanomaterial risks that requires them to be distinguished from other materials. I continue to argue that some emerging materials will lead to unanticipated health challenges, but that fixating on the nanoscale potentially blinkers a larger conversation about advanced material safety (latest piece on this).  

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I was going through the 2020 Science archives the other day looking for pieces on nanoparticles and sunscreens, and was rather shocked to see that the earliest article dates back to 2008! Here they are in chronological order – surprising how little things change with time!  The 2010 exchange with Friends of the Earth is definitely worth a revisit. Nano-sunscreens leave their mark June 21 2008 Accelerated aging on steel roofing in Australia suggests the use of photoactive particles in sunscreens.  Read the full article → Industry critics give nanotechnology sunscreens the thumbs up July 3 2009 The NGO Environmental Working Group (EWG) endorses the use of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens (they still do). Read the full article → Sunscreens and Alzheimer’s – solid science or scare-mongering speculation? August 25 2009 Speculation on links between nanoparticles in sunscreen and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinsons and Alzheimers.  A very poorly conceived press release was at the heart of this – and from a university!  Read the full article → Friends of the Earth come down hard on nanotechnology – are they right? June 8 2010 Back in 2010 Friends of the Earth Australia had some beef with nanoparticles in sunscreens – they still do.  Read the full article → Just how risky could nanoparticles in sunscreens be? June 8 2010 I challenge Friends of the Earth Australia to answer the question ” What is your worst case estimate of the human health risk from titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens?  Read the full article → Just how risky can nanoparticles in sunscreens be? Friends of the Earth respond June 15 2010 I asked the question – Friends of the Earth Australia respond. Read the full article → The safety of nanotechnology-based sunscreens – some reflections July 18 2010 …And

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I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of Surrey nanosystems’ carbon nanotube-based Vantablack material this week. The material’s had widespread coverage – just Google “vantablack” to see what I mean.  But in amongst all the geeked-out media excitement over the world’s darkest material, there’s been nary a word on the possible health risks presented by the material. As it turns out, this is fair enough, as the likelihood of anyone being exposed to substantial amounts of Vantablack carbon nanotubes is pretty low – as I discussed the other day. But consider this: 1.  Certain forms of carbon nanotubes are known to be highly toxic if inhaled; 2.  Past media coverage (and research) has compared long, thin, straight carbon nanotubes to asbestos; 3.  The biggest no-no with carbon nanotubes would be to use them in clothing and furnishings where they could be released and inhaled; and 4.  Rather a lot of the media coverage of Vantablack speculated about  the material’s use in ultra-black clothing. You’d have thought that, with this context, at least one journalist would have written something about the potential risks and how they might be avoided. But apart from the 2020 Science piece posted on Wednesday, I cannot find a single article that goes beyond giddy excitement. (If you do find one, please post the link in the comments!) I guess tech writers either don’t care that much about the possible risks of engineered nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes, or don’t know enough to care. Which is disappointing for readers who’d like to know about the possible risks as well as the potential benefits – even if the risks are negligible.  

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What are the risks of nanoparticles in sunscreens? The New York Times has just posted an “Ask Well” article today by Deborah Blum answering the questions What are the risks from nanoparticles of titanium in sunscreens? and I am curious about the dangers of nanoparticles in sunblocks Risk Bites As I uploaded a YouTube video recently on the risks of TiO2 nanoparticles in sunscreens, I thought this was probably an opportune time to flag it up here, as it compliments Deborah’s piece: And just for the heck of it, here’s the 2020 science archive on sunscreens and nanoparticles. The New York Times also posted their own video (here).  It covers much of the same ground as Deborah’s piece. The video frustratingly does refer to “titanium” in sunscreens – probably because the first of the questions above uses this terminology.  It’s worth pointing out that titanium dioxide and titanium are not the same, even though they both contain atoms of titanium – just like carbon and cyanide aren’t the same.  And believe me, if airplane manufacturers for instance were as cavalier about whether they were using titanium dioxide or titanium, we’d have a problem!  But this may just be me nit-picking! Titanium dioxide and cancer Both the New York Times video and article also refer to the International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC) classification of titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogen.  This classification was solely associated with inhalation exposure, where one study showed that overloading the lungs of rats with massive amounts of titanium dioxide dust led to some cancer formation.  It is not related to skin applications of the substance.  It is also highly controversial, as the levels of titanium dioxide used in these studies were so massive that they utterly overwhelmed the lungs defense mechanisms, and led to a result that would probably

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If your nanotechnology stream is anything like mine today, it will have been swamped by accounts like this one of “Vantablack” fabric – supposedly the world-s blackest-ever material! The material relies on a carbon nanotube forest that absorbs 99.965% of visible light that lands on it.  Putting aside the questions of safety, and how likely those nanotubes are to become detached and inhaled (not something that you’d probably want), I can’t believe that no-one’s made the link yet between Vantablack and the Disaster Area stunt ship from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘It’s the wild colour scheme that freaks me out,’ said Zaphod, whose love affair with the ship had lasted almost three minutes into the flight. ‘Every time you try and operate these weird black controls that are labeled in black on a black background, a little black light lights up in black to let you know you’ve done it.’ Douglas would have been proud! Note: if anyone comes across more technical information on Vantablack, let me know in the comments!  Fun aside, it’s frustrating that the web is so chock full of articles along the lines of “it’s sooo black” that I can’t find any information at all on the technical details, or whether there are likely to be significant safety issues here.  Carbon nanotubes are, after all, something that you definitely want to stay in your product and out of your lungs.

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Donut

Having written yesterday about nanoparticle titanium dioxide (TiO2) concentrations in donuts, Raphaël Lévy asked for some clarification on where I got my figures from.  I thought it easiest to post the analysis in full – it goes a little deep into particle analysis, but on the other hand it’s also a useful example of the level of particle size distribution analysis I rarely see in nanoparticle papers these days. Preparing for the analysis The starting point was the As You Sow reported analysis by Analytical Sciences LLC on the mass of TiO2 10 nm in diameter and below in the coatings on donuts.  In any analysis, it’s good practice to test the data for “reasonableness” – i.e. whether they make sense or are utter nonsense. To do this, I first needed data on the typical size distribution of food grade TiO2 particles – the material that will have been used in the donut coatings. There are a number of sources that I could have used here, but I chose to go with a recent paper published by Yang et al.: Yu Yang, Kyle Doudrick, Xiangyu Bi, Kiril Hristovski, Pierre Herckes, Paul Westerhoff, and Ralf Kaegi  (2014) Characterization of Food-Grade Titanium Dioxide: The Presence of Nanosized Particles Environ Sci Tech DOI: 10.1021/es500436x This paper specifically reports on the particle size distribution from five samples of food grade TiO2, using Transmission Electron Microscopy Analysis.  However, the way the data are presented (particle counts between specific particle diameters) isn’t sufficient on its own to estimate the likely mass of particles below 10 nm in a typical food grade TiO2 powder.  For this, the usual approach is to represent the particle counts with a mathematical function that represents size distribution.  This allows a rather more sophisticated analysis of how many particles are likely to be within certain size ranges in

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A couple of weeks ago, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative released a progress review on its 2011 nanotechnology environmental, health and safety research strategy. This progress review provides a useful and timely update on activities and outputs across the federal government addressing the environmental, health and safety implications of engineered nano materials. The review confirms that the US federal government has made great strides over the past several years in developing and implementing a research strategy aimed at supporting the safe and responsible development of engineered nanomaterials. It also confirms that US agencies are working together and leveraging resources to address critical issues, and are making a significant contribution to a global understanding of nanomaterial risks and risk management. However, this is primarily a list of activities. It also only reports on activities up to September 2012, and so is a little out of date. Because of this, the update does not respond reports and reviews related to nanotechnology risk research from the Government Accountability Office and the National Research Council, which make specific recommendations on research investment and directions. As a result, the review lacks specific information on advances in understanding; progress toward actionable benchmarks that enable informed decisions by companies, regulators and consumers; a synthesis of the state of knowledge resulting from the over $100 million a year investment on nano EHS research by the federal government, or an analysis of areas where course corrections and adjustments are needed, in line with the stated aim of adaptive management processes. It does mention important partnerships with OECD and ISO in developing approaches to safer development and use of engineered nanomaterials, but otherwise does not place current research in the US in the context of global efforts.  It also does not address how global research is being integrated and applied to help ensure current applications of nanotechnology as are

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2020 Science is the creation of Andrew Maynard - a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. Andrew spends his time obsessing over effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, He posts regularly here at "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short, entertaining, and (hopefully) informative videos on understanding health risks on his YouTube channel Risk Bites

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