Hacking Matter Really Matters: A New Programmable Material Has Been Developed

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

The sales receipt from The Strand Bookstore in New York is dated April 5, 2003. It still remains tucked into one of the most brain-bendingly different books I have ever bought and read called Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages, and the Infinite Weirdness of Programmable Atoms (Basic Books, 2003), by Wil McCarthy. It was a fascinating deep dive into what was then the nascent nanotechnology research on creating a form of “programmable atoms” called quantum dots. This technology has since found applications in the production of semiconductors.

Fast forward thirteen years to a recent article entitled Exoskin: A Programmable Hybrid Shape-Changing Material, by Evan Ackerman, posted on IEEE Spectrum on June 3, 2016. This is about an all-new and entirely different development, quite separate from quantum dots, but nonetheless a current variation on the concept that matter can be programmed for new applications. While we always think of programming as involving systems and software, this new story takes and literally stretches this long-established process into some entirely new directions.

I highly recommend reading this most interesting report in its entirety and viewing the two short video demos embedded within it. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose several questions of my own on this, well, matter. I also think it fits in well with these 10 Subway Fold posts on other recent developments in material science including, among others, such way cool stuff as Q-Carbon, self-healing concrete and metamaterials.

Matter of Fact

The science of programmable matter is still in its formative stages. The Tangible Media Group at MIT Media Lab is currently working on this challenge included in its scores of imaginative projects. A student pursuing his Master’s Degree in this group is Basheer Tome. Among his current research projects, he is working on a type of programmable material he calls “Exoskin” which he describes as “membrane-backed rigid material”. It is composed of “tessellated triangles of firm silicone mounted on top of a stack of flexible silicone bladders”. By inflating these bladders in specific ways, Exoskin can change its shape in reaction to the user’s touch. This activity can, in turn, be used to relay information and “change functionality”.

Although this might sound a bit abstract, the two accompanying videos make the Exoskin’s operations quite clear. For example, it can be applied to a steering wheel which, through “tactile feedback”, can inform the driver about direction-finding using GPS navigation and other relevant driving data. This is intended to lower driver distractions and “simplify previously complex multitasking” behind the wheel.

The Exoskin, in part, by its very nature makes use of haptics (using touch as a form of interface). One of the advantages of this approach is that it enables “fast reflexive motor responses to stimuli”. Moreover, the Exoskin actually involves inputs that “are both highly tactily perceptible and visually interpretable”.

Fabrication Issues

A gap still exists between the current prototype and a commercially viable product in the future in terms of the user’s degree of “granular control” over the Exoskin. The number of “bladders” underneath the rigid top materials will play a key role in this. Under existing fabrication methods, multiple bladders in certain configurations are “not practical” at this time.

However, this restriction might be changing. Soon it may be possible to produce bladders for each “individual Exoskin element” rather than a single bladder for all of them. (Again, the videos present this.) This would involve a system of “reversible electrolysis” that alternatively separates water into hydrogen and oxygen and then back again into water. Other options to solve this fabrication issue are also under consideration.

Mt. Tome hopes this line of research disrupts the distinction between what is “rigid and soft” as well as “animate and inanimate” to inspire Human-Computer Interaction researchers at MIT to create “more interfaces using physical materials”.

My Questions

  • In what other fields might this technology find viable applications? What about medicine, architecture, education and online gaming just to begin?
  • Might Exoskin present new opportunities to enhance users’ experience with the current and future releases virtual reality and augmented reality systems? (These 15 Subway Fold posts cover a sampling of trends and developments in VR and AR.)
  • How might such an Exoskin-embedded steering wheel possibly improve drivers’ and riders’ experiences with Uber and other ride-sharing services?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities in design, engineering, programming and manufacturing might present themselves if Exoskin becomes commercialized?

Pushing the Envelopes: New US Postal Service Report Assesses Possible Blockchain Applications

"Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp", Image by Nicolas Raymond

“Vibrant US Air Mail Stamp”, Image by Nicolas Raymond

Way before the advent of email, when people exclusively wrote letters on paper and mailed them to each other (yes, this really did happen once upon a time), there was a long-running scam known as the “chain letter“. Recipients who received such a letter were asked, often through manipulative language, to copy it and send it on to as many other people as possible. In effect, these were structured as fraudulent pyramid schemes that ultimately would collapse in on themselves.

Sometimes chain letters involved illegal financial dealings and other hoaxes, also producing unwanted emotional effects on who mistakenly fell for them. Variations of the chain letter still survive today online and operate using email, texting and social media.

However, an emerging new form of virtual chain, in conjunction with the mail service, might soon appear – – namely using the blockchain – – within the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). However, this combination could potentially produce four very positive improvements in services. These exciting prospects were the subject of a most interesting new post on Quartz.com on May 24, 2016 entitled Even the US Postal Service Wants to Start Using Blockchain Tech, by Ian Kar. I recommend reading this article in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose some questions of my own (but without any additional postage due).

While blockchain technology has been getting a great deal of press coverage recently involving innovative new development initiatives in, among other fields, finance, law, government and the arts, this story illustrates how it also might affect something as routine and mundane as mail service with possibly dramatic results. Such changes could produce significant economic and logistical advances that would affect just about anyone who checks their real world mailbox every day.

(These six Subway Fold posts cover just a small sampling of blochchain projects.)

Better Letters

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

Traditionally, the USPS has never really distinguished itself as a leader in innovation. Rather, it has a long reputation for its inefficient operations. This could possibly be significantly changed by this series of a series of blockchain proposals. Because this technology is decentralized, widely accessible, and secured by encryption, it is highly resistant to tampering.

On May 23, 2016, the USPS Office of the Inspector General and a consulting firm called Swiss Economics, published a new report entitled Blockchain Technology: Possibilities for the U.S. Postal Service. It analyzed the following four possible future implementations:

1.  Financial Services:  US post offices currently offers a limited number of financial services such as international money transfers. The IOG report speculated that the USPS “could benefit from developing its own bitcoin-like digital currency”.  Perhaps it could be called “Postcoin”. This would permit the expansion into other financial services such as a “global payment service” for people without traditional bank accounts.

2.  Identity:  An individual’s identity could be verified for the USPS using a blockchain. Essentially, they already do this when they deliver your mail to you each day. By using a blockchain for this, the USPS could provide you with assistance to help you manage both your online and offline identities “by storing it on an immutable ledger”.

3.  Logistics Support:  Applying the blochchain to support the Internet of Things (IoT) could enhance the USPS logistics management operations. The IGO report imagine a system where “vehicles and sorting equipment could manage their own tracking, monitoring, and maintenance”. This could include items such as autonomously, efficiently and economically monitoring brake pad performance including:

  • Assessing when one will need to be replaced
  • Determining whether its warranty is still in effect
  • Creating a smart contract with a vendor to replace it
  • Paying for the part and its installation

4.  Mail Tracking:  On a daily basis, the USPS delivers 509 million pieces of mail. As stated in the OIG report, the blockchain can be deployed to uniquely identify each piece of it. This could be done with “a small sensor” on each piece in order to use the blockchain to “manage the chain of custody between different USPS partners, like UPS and Fedex”. As well, the blockchain could be put to the additional uses of:

  • Expediting customs clearance
  • Integrating payments
  • Shipping upon one unified platform

[All of these components form the very convenient anagram FILM, thus making it easier to, well, picture.]

For now, the USPS intends to keep studying blockchain technology. The OIG report states that the agency “could benefit from experimenting” with it on new financial products and then eventually progress on toward “more complex uses”.

"Stamped Mail to be Posted", Image by Steven Depolo

“Stamped Mail to be Posted”, Image by Steven Depolo

My Questions

  • Would these blochchain apps have a negative impact on USPS revenues as this massive government agency has been running at a budget deficit for many years? If so, would this have unintended negative consequences for consumers and/or the USPS?
  • Conversely, can the USPS use blockchain innovations to create new sources of revenue and employment? What new sorts of job descriptions and titles might emerge?
  • Would the blockchain do away with the traditional services of certified, registered, priority and insured mail? If so, what forms of proof of delivery or non-delivery could be provided to consumers?
  • Would any of these proposed new apps possibly create new privacy issues for consumers and policy concerns for the US government?
  • What type of opportunities might arise for entrepreneurs to create new mail apps built on the blockchain?

Ethical Issues and Considerations Arising in Big Data Research

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In 48 of 50 states in the US, new attorneys are required to pass a 60 multiple-choice question exam on legal ethics in addition to passing their state’s bar exam. This is known as the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). I well recall taking this test myself.

The subject matter of this test is the professional ethical roles and responsibilities a lawyer must abide by as an advocate and counselor to clients, courts and the legal profession. It is founded upon a series of ethical considerations and disciplinary rules that are strictly enforced by the bars of each state. Violations can potentially lead to a series of professional sanctions and, in severe cases depending upon the facts, disbarment from practice for a term of years or even permanently.

In other professions including, among others, medicine and accounting, similar codes of ethics exist and are expected to be scrupulously followed. They are defined efforts to ensure honesty, quality, transparency and integrity in their industries’ dealings with the public, and to address certain defined breaches. Many professional trade organizations also have formal codes of ethics but often do not have much, if any, sanction authority.

Should some comparable forms of guidelines and boards likewise be put into place to oversee the work of big data researchers? This was the subject of a very compelling article posted on Wired.com on May 20, 2016, entitled Scientists Are Just as Confused About the Ethics of Big-Data Research as You by Sharon Zhang. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and add some further context to this, as well as pose a few questions of my own.

Two Recent Data Research Incidents

Last month. an independent researcher released, without permission, the profiles with very personal information of 70,000 users of the online dating site OKCupid. These users were quite angered by this. OKCupid is pursuing a legal claim to remove this data.

Earlier in 2014, researchers at Facebook manipulated items in users’ News Feeds for a study on “mood contagion“.¹ Many users were likewise upset when they found out. The journal that published this study released an “expression of concern”.

Users’ reactions over such incidents can have an effect upon subsequent “ethical boundaries”.

Nonetheless, the researchers involved in both of these cases had “never anticipated” the significant negative responses to their work. The OKCupid study was not scrutinized by any “ethical review process”, while a review board at Cornell had concluded that the Facebook study did not require a full review because the Cornell researchers only had a limited role in it.

Both of these incidents illustrate how “untested the ethics” are of these big data research. Only now are the review boards that oversee the work of these researchers starting to pay attention to emerging ethical concerns. This is in high contrast to the controls and guidelines upon medical research in clinical trials.

The Applicability of The Common Rule and Institutional Research Boards

In the US, under the The Common Rule, which governs ethics for federally funded biomedical and behavioral research where humans are involved, studies are required to undergo an ethical review.  However, such review does not apply a “unified system”, but rather, each university maintains its own institutional review board (IRB). These are composed of other (mostly medical) researchers at each university. Only a few of them “are professional ethicists“.

To a lesser extent, do they have experience in computer technology. This deficit may be affecting the protection of subjects who participate in data science research projects. In the US, there are hundreds of IRBs but they are each dealing with “research efforts in the digital age” in their own ways.

Both the Common Rule and the IRB system came into being following the revelation in the 1970s that the U.S. Public Health Service had, between 1932 and 1972, engaged in a terrible and shameful secret program that came to be known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. This involved leaving African Americans living in rural Alabama with untreated syphilis in order to study the disease. As a result of this outrage, the US Department of Health and Human Services created new regulations concerning any research on human subjects they conducted. All other federal agencies likewise adopted such regulations. Currently, “any institution that gets federal funding has to set up an IRB to oversee research involving humans”.

However, many social scientists today believe these regulations are not accurate or appropriate for their types of research involving areas where the risks involved “are usually more subtle than life or death”. For example, if you are seeking volunteers to take a survey on test-taking behaviors, the IRB language requirements on physical risks does not fit the needs of the participants in such a study.

Social scientist organizations have expressed their concern about this situation. As a result, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recommended:

  • Adding more social scientists to IRBs, or
  • Creating new and separate review boards to assess social science research

In 2013, AAUP issued a report entitled Regulation of Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board, recommending that the researchers themselves should decide if “their minimal risk work needs IRB approval or not”. In turn, this would make more time available to IRBs for “biomedical research with life-or-death stakes”.

This does not, however, imply that all social science research, including big data studies, are entirely risk-free.

Ethical Issues and Risk Analyses When Data Sources Are Comingled

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buchanan who works as an ethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, believes that the Internet is now entering its “third phase” where researchers can, for example, purchase several years’ worth of Twitter data and then integrate it “with other publicly available data”.² This mixture results in issues involving “ethics and privacy”.

Recently, while serving on an IRB, she took part in evaluated a project proposal involving merging mentions of a drug by its street name appearing on social media with public crime data. As a result, people involved in crimes could potentially become identified. The IRB still gave its approval. According to Dr. Buchanan, the social value of this undertaking must be weighed against its risk. As well, the risk should be minimized by removing any possible “idenifiers” in any public release of this information.

As technology continues to advance, such risk evaluation can become more challenging. For instance, in 2013, MIT researchers found out that they were able to match up “publicly available DNA sequences” by using data about the participants that the “original researchers” had uploaded online.³ Consequently, in such cases, Dr. Buchanan believes it is crucial for IRBs “to have either a data scientist, computer scientist or IT security individual” involved.

Likewise, other types of research organizations such as, among others, open science repositories, could perhaps “pick up the slack” and handle more of these ethical questions. According to Michelle Meyer, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai, oversight must be assumed by someone but the best means is not likely to be an IRB because they do not have the necessary “expertise in de-identification and re-identification techniques”.

Different Perspectives on Big Data Research

A technology researcher at the University of Maryland 4 named Dr. Katie Shilton recently conducted interviews of “20 online data researchers”. She discovered “significant disagreement” among them on matters such as the “ethics of ignoring Terms of Service and obtaining informed consent“. The group also reported that the ethical review boards they dealt with never questioned the ethics of the researchers, while peer reviewers and their professional colleagues had done so.

Professional groups such as the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) and the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) have created and posted their own guidelines:

However, IRBs who “actually have power” are only now “catching up”.

Beyond universities, tech companies such as Microsoft have begun to establish in-house “ethical review processes”. As well, in December 2015, the Future of Privacy Forum held a gathering called Beyond IRBs to evaluate “processes for ethical review outside of federally funded research”.

In conclusion., companies continually “experiment on us” with data studies. Just to name to name two, among numerous others, they focus on A/B testing 5 of news headings and supermarket checkout lines. As they hire increasing numbers of data scientists from universities’ Ph.D. programs, these schools are sensing an opportunity to close the gap in terms of using “data to contribute to public knowledge”.

My Questions

  • Would the companies, universities and professional organizations who issue and administer ethical guidelines for big data studies be taken more seriously if they had the power to assess and issue public notices for violations? How could this be made binding and what sort of appeals processes might be necessary?
  • At what point should the legal system become involved? When do these matters begin to involve civil and/or criminal investigations and allegations? How would big data research experts be certified for hearings and trials?
  • Should teaching ethics become a mandatory part of curriculum in data science programs at universities? If so, should the instructors only be selected from the technology industry or would it be helpful to invite them from other industries?
  • How should researchers and their employers ideally handle unintended security and privacy breaches as a result of their work? Should they make timely disclosures and treat all inquiries with a high level of transparency?
  • Should researchers experiment with open source methods online to conduct certain IRB functions for more immediate feedback?

 


1.  For a detailed report on this story, see Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions in News Feed Experiment, Stirring Outcry, by Vindu Goel, in the June 29, 2014 edition of The New York Times.

2These ten Subway Fold posts cover a variety of applications in analyzing Twitter usage data.

3.  For coverage on this story see an article published in The New York Times on January 17, 2013, entitled Web Hunt for DNA Sequences Leaves Privacy Compromised, by Gina Kolata.

4.  For another highly interesting but unrelated research initiative at the University of Maryland, see the December 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland.

5.  For a detailed report on this methodology, see the September 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Google’s A/B Testing Method is Being Applied to Improve Government Operations.

Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Presentation

"Blue Marble - 2002", Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Blue Marble – 2002”, Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

On June 1, 2016, at the 2016 Code Conference held this week in California, Mary Meeker, a world-renowned Internet expert and partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, presented her fifteenth annual in-depth and highly analytical presentation on current Internet trends. It is an absolutely remarkable accomplishment that is highly respected throughout the global technology industry and economy. The video of her speech is available here on Recode.com

Her 2016 Internet Trends presentation file is divided into a series of eight main sections covering, among many other things: Internet user and financial growth rates, online advertising, generational market segments and technological preferences, new products and vendors, mobile screens for nearly everything, e-commerce, big data, privacy issues, video growth on social media platforms, messaging systems , smartphone growth,  voice interfaces, consumer spending, online security, connectivity, Facebook’s v. Google’s growth rates, and massive consumer markets in China and India. That is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg in this 213-slide file.

Ms. Meeker’s assessments and predictions here form an extraordinarily comprehensive and insightful piece of work. There is much here for anyone and everyone to learn and consider in the current and trending states nearly anything and everything online. Moreover, there are likely many potential opportunities for new and established businesses, as well as other institutions, within this file.

I very highly recommend that you set aside some time to thoroughly read through Ms. Meeker’s full presentation. You will be richly rewarded with knowledge and insight that can potentially yield a world of informative and practical dividends.