View from the AAAS Conference in Chicago

A couple of weeks ago I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in Chicago. It was my first conference of that size, and the first time I have gone as a journalist, and not a participant.

It is cold in Chicago in February, the lake was frozen for as far as you could see, with sheets that had broken off at some point rising out of the flat desert landscape on the water. It looked a bit like there had been a landslide or earthquake, with the plates sliding above each other.

It has been a harsh winter in general here, and Chicago had experienced some of the coldest temperatures in decades, I found this photo below on the Huffington Post site.

 

Chicago Frozen

Chicago Frozen by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the background we see the Chicago skyline, and the conference was held in one of the giant hotels that looks out over the lake. There are many hotels on the shorefront, and one thing that surprised me is that they are all linked together by a series of underground tunnels.

Tunnels is a bit of a misrepresentation really, they are underground streets, with shops and bars and sign posts, so that on a cold winter’s day guests do not have to step outside. The conference made use of several different hotels and restaurants, and some people told me that although attending different venues they had not in fact been outside, and had not put on a jacket since their arrival.

The system is known as the pedway, see an explanation here, it covers 40 square blocks. The photo below gives an idea of what parts of it look like. Apparently they are not uncommon in North American cities, in Montreal it is known as the underground city.

An Underground World

An Underground World

As I said above the conference was a giant affair as the program demonstrates. I wanted to see a session on responsible innovation and to take part in the launch of the Journal for Responsible Innovation (I am on the Editorial Board and the Bassetti Foundation sponsored the event) but at any one moment there were dozens of panels in session and associated events.

The journal launch clashed with a talk given by Alan Alda the American actor (most famous for his part in MASH). Alda now runs The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science where he addresses issues and trains people in the art of science communication.

Alan Alda in Mash

Alan Alda in Mash

As I said I couldn’t attend but many of my colleagues told me that his talk was great.

I attended a session called Responsible Innovation in a Global Context early on Saturday morning. It was a great session and I learned a lot. Did you know for example that all research that is conducted involving water has to use an internationally accredited water? Yes it is purified water that then has certain amounts of certain minerals added. This means that scientists doing research in Brazil are using identical water to those conducting research in Italy, or Australia or anywhere else for that matter.

Great we might think, but using this type of water also makes some of the research useless. If bacteria lives in a river it interacts with its own type of water, plants life etc and reacts in particular ways. In the official water these reactions are not seen, so the research does not replicate a real life situation, so the results are different to the real experience.

But in order to get funding and to have their research accredited only one type of water is allowed. So money is spent on research that does not represent reality because “that is what the funding bodies want”. A ridiculous situation it would seem.

The influence of politics in research was also addressed from a Brazilian perspective, but one that can be applied throughout the world. When research and innovation is so tied to politics and touted as the saviour of the economic decline or development of a country it sometimes takes on a nationalist hue. This leads to questions about by whom, for whom and with which goals, that involves ethics and responsibility.

One of the most interesting developments though involves collaborations between the hard and social sciences. In several areas social scientists have been placed within science labs to act as a forum that allows scientists to talk about and understand the ethical dilemmas that they face while carrying out their work.

Much of the stuff I write about is related to the problem of scientific development and dual uses, unforeseen effects and changes they bring about in society, and having a social scientist, philosopher or ethicist in the lab seems to open up debate and even effect scientific outcomes. It might even seem to improve productivity is some ways!

As an aside I should add that attending a conference as a journalist has many advantages. As a participant you want people to listen to you, you have to pay to attend and publicize your event. But as a journalist everyone wants to talk to you so that you will write about them.

At every chance organizations try to engage you. There are free cooked breakfasts offered by national research councils, aperitifs form journals and unions, awards, free books and cd’s more alcohol, cakes and coffee, nights out with transport laid on, more food and more alcohol. Many of my colleagues were jealous, they had to pay for everything.

Thousands of people attended the conference and a lot of networking took place. I get the impression that this is really what these large conferences are all about. I am pleased to report that science bloggers (such as myself) are taken seriously and accepted as serious journalists, and there were many of us sitting alongside Reuters and the New York Times. All Kudos to the AAAS for that.

I stayed at the Palmer house hotel in Chicago, a splendid structure and once the largest hotel in the world. Worth a stay or even just a look if you are passing through. Other famous guests include Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charles dickens and the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, so I won’t be asking for a plaque to be erected about my visit.

Sequencing Baby DNA, a Project in Boston

Last week the Science in Mind blog on my local Boston.com website ran an interesting story that is definitely worthy of reflection. It involves 2 local hospitals that are carrying out a project funded by the National Institute of Health (USA). The projects involve sequencing the DNA of newly born babies over the next 5 years. Read all about it here.

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Babies to have their DNA sequenced

Now sequencing the DNA of babies carries with it several risks and ethical concerns, as well as well argued benefits. If we take the benefits first, doctors may gain information about a baby, such as high risk for a certain disease, genetic mutations that may require changes of lifestyle etc. They might also find explanations for problems that might otherwise go undetected.

There are though as I say risks and concerns. How will parents react if they discover that their baby has a high risk of an incurable disease? How will the knowledge gained through the test effect the way the parents view and behave towards their children? Are we giving families information that will change their understanding of parenting to such a degree that it might destroy the very fabric of their social relationships?

This is not to mention the social implications of giving out such information regarding extended family. If for example I am told that my baby has a genetic mutation carried by the parents that might have a serious effect on its life, should I tell my brothers and cousins so that they can screen their prospective wives, make decisions about having children or even worse a pregnancy already in course? And not to mention the obvious problem of discovering that the father is not the man stood in the room with the mother.

These problems are in fact the issues that the researchers running the project are hoping to look into. The question is if the clinical benefits outweigh the risks of such an approach.

I have written a lot about this subject in recent years if you would like more to read:

In June of last year I wrote a post here on Technology Bloggers called Sequencing the Genome of Unborn Babies. I also raised a lot of similar ethical concerns in May of the same year in Home Genetic Testing, Pros and Cons.

On the Bassetti Foundation we find DNA Privacy Issues from January of this year, a series called Architectures for Life from 2012 and a review of a book called Go Ask Your Father, just for starters.

My own personal view is that much of the promise peddled to us surrounding medicine and the sequencing of the human genome has yet to be delivered. One problem is money. Personalized medicine sounds like a great idea. I get my genome sequenced, we can see which drugs might work the best, the type of treatment I need etc. But drug companies cannot make, test and market a drug especially for me even with all of this information, it is just not cost effective. They want big sellers, generic medicines that work to some extent on everybody, not something that is fantastic for me with my particular gene pool.

There are clinical benefits, I am not arguing otherwise, but we must wait to see how great.

The Third Industrial Revolution

Recently there has been a lot of talk about a third industrial revolution in the making. It is of course that involving 3D printing. Take a look at the other articles on the website for an overview.

The thing about these machines is that they can produce individual tailor made objects at low cost, something that was not really possible in the days of mass production, when multiples were cheap but individual one off projects very expensive.

It is a contentious technology though for several reason, the first being its versatility. A few months ago we had the first fully printed gun, the plans were put online for free before being removed but only after more than 100 000 people downloaded them.100 000 more unlicensed guns in the world possibly. Check out this article.

Another reason is that these machines will completely change manufacturing. The old days of heavy machinery in production lines might be numbered, and this means that the power and financial strength that the organizations that have control of these systems currently posess is about to be lost.

So where should somewhere like MIT here in Cambridge MA stand? They have to support new technology, it is their job, but in doing so they might be undermining their own foundations, rooted as they are in large scale US industry.

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

As well as the printable gun though there are obviously a million good uses for this technology. Two weeks ago I mentioned an engineering company that is testing an aeroplane engine that uses printed parts, and in case of dire need you can now print a prosthetic hand for about $150 through an open source website. Read the article here.

Last week the Bassetti Foundation sponsored a series of events in San Francisco based around these problems. One of the main speakers was Chris Anderson, ex editor of Wired magazine and author of the book Makers, he is a leader in thinking on these matters. There is plenty of information on the website for interested readers, including videos of the symposium about the political and social implications of a move towards 3D printed manufacture.

3D Printed Motorbike

3D Printed Motorbike

Check out the photos too, here is a printed motorbike. They can produce far more than you imagine.

What is Shodan?

EDITOR NOTE: This is Jonny’s 75th post on Technology Bloggers! Jonny was a complete newbie to blogging when he wrote his first post (about prosthetic limbs) but he is now somewhat of an expert – although he probably wouldn’t agree! – note by Christopher

Recently a couple of articles have appeared on large US websites about a type of search engine called Shodan. This search engine has been about for about 3 years, but it is different from Google and its cohorts in many ways. I looked at it and could not understand it at all, so what is it then and why is it causing such concern?

A screenshot of the Shodan website

Expose online devices

I have seen Shodan described as “The scariest search engine on the Internet”. This CNN money article explains that Shodan navigates the Internet’s back channels. It’s a kind of “dark” Google, looking for the servers, webcams, printers, routers and all the other stuff that is connected to and makes up the Internet.

What interest could there be in such capability? Well a lot apparently. The system allows an individual to find security cameras, cooling systems and all types of home control systems that we have connected to the Internet. (See Christopher’s series about his British Gas system here).

One serious problem is that many of these systems have little or no security because they are not perceived as threatened. Shodan searchers have however found control systems for a water park, a gas station, a hotel wine cooler and a crematorium. Cybersecurity researchers have even located command and control systems for nuclear power plants and a particle-accelerating cyclotron by using Shodan.

Hacking apart it turns out that the world is full of systems that are attached via router to the office computer and web server, and on to the outside world. Access for anyone who can find them and might like to turn of the refrigeration at the local ice rink, shut down a city’s traffic lights or just turn off a hydroelectric plant.

The Shodan system was designed to help police forces and others who might have legitimate need for such a tool, but what when it gets into the wrong hands. Security is non existent, just get your free account and do a few searches and see what you find.

See this Tech News World article for a further look at the ethical and practical issues that such a freely available product might bring

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in these types of problems through my work at the Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. I am not sure how the development and marketing of such a tool could be seen as responsible behaviour, but as I have been told on many occasions during interviews there are plenty of other ways of finding out such things. These types of systems are gathering already available information to make it usable, nothing more, so not doing anything wrong.

Do you agree?

Why not Write a Book?

Why not publish a book? I had been thinking about self publishing for some time, and so decided to have a try. In January of this year I took my Technology Bloggers “Health of the Planet” series, made it into a booklet and put it on Issuu, so the obvious next step was a book on Amazon.

On 24th October I sent an outline to my boss at the Bassetti Foundation for a book. My aim was to prepare it and get it out for download on Amazon by 27th November to coincide with my trip to Italy and participation in the nanotechnology lecture at the university that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Rather a tall order we might think, but not an opportunity to miss, and I think that many bloggers could and possibly should do the same, after all a book is a book, and it looks good on the CV.

I started to look at what I had already written about nanotechnology, synthetic biology and the other topics that might come up in the discussion. I had a simple strategy, find all of the relevant pieces, put together a coherent collection in groups, write an introduction and conclusion and put it out.

I decided to write the introduction last, once I had a better idea of what the book would look like.

I had to think of a title though, a grand title that would make people want to read it, and also a price. Because I was publishing works that were already in the public domain I could only ask for the 30% royalties option from Amazon. There are 2 options for self publishing, 70% for original works and 30% if they have already appeared, so I had to go for 30. This lead me on to thinking about the price. Amazon are going to take the vast majority of the income, so I should accept the fact that I am not retiring to the Bahamas on the money this book will make. So I should give it away. You can’t give it away though through Amazon, or at least I could not find an option to do it, so I chose the cheapest option, 99 US cents a download.

So back to the title. I wanted to get Responsible Innovation into the title, but that in itself wasn’t a puller. I want students and people interested in innovation and technology to buy it, an overview of a complex scenario. A handbook? Yes A handbook. The Handbook of Responsible innovation? Well that is too grand a title even for me, so “A Handbook For Responsible Innovation” it is.

Cover to the Handbook

Handbook Cover

My boss at the Bassetti Foundation agreed to put the book out through the Foundation series, so I sent the title details etc to our man in Milan and he produced a cover as you see above, so now all I had to do was put the contents together.

Chapter 1, an overview. I found some pieces I had written for the Innovation Excellence blog, 3 quite formal posts about responsible innovation. If you decide to do this you have to read them and re-write and delete sections, because in my case they repeated themselves. There was also a lot of updating and putting the correct dates in. For example “last Monday I…” is no good. On (date and year) I….. is better. Also if referring to something that was in the future at the time of writing you should renew the research, so a report that was for publication will now be out, so you have to read it and put something in about the contents. A little bit of cut and paste here and there and a few new pieces and you are done.

I carried on to nanotechnology and did the same, moved on to a section that I titled Bioethics, about DNA testing and medical decision making. Then on to Information and Knowledge, about citizen science and where and how to participate in science and find reliable information, I have written about all of these matters here and in fact there are references to Technology Blogger posts both by myself and Christopher, but I decided not to put in any of my blog posts from Technology Bloggers as articles, only as references. This was a stylistic choice, and something to think about if you follow this idea. A book needs to be coherent, so pitch and register of the arguments should be consistent. This choice also cut out the issue of comments as the articles that I chose either were not set up for comments or had few, so i was not cutting the argument short.

If you were thinking of putting comments in as in the Health of the Planet booklet mentioned earlier it might be an idea to try and weave them into the argument instead of making them look like comments. This would not be easy but I think would give more of a book feel to a finished publication.

The last chapter in the Handbook is a collection of interview transcriptions. I cut out 2 more chapters that had been in the outline about design, as the book was already 150 pages long. In a process such as this I think flexibility is a must.

Then I had to go and put references in instead of links. Fortunately most of these essays had been posted on the Bassetti Foundation website and they have fantastic technicians. They designed the site so that when you download an article in PDF the links automatically come up as references. So I used the same format for all the other articles and in a few hours they were all done. I sent it back to Milan and asked the Scientific Director to write a preface. The preface idea was not my own but it certainly gives a formal feel to the publication, so again well worth thinking about.

So all that was left to write was the introduction and conclusion. The introduction turned out to be just an outline of the book, a page and a half. I feel that in a case like this all that is required is a few lines about the purpose of the book, where the articles are taken from and what is in each chapter. The conclusion is the only thing I had to write from scratch, I included as much as I could of the comments that my fellow workers had made about the book as some of their ideas were difficult to weave into already finished articles. Once I had started to cut and paste articles to insert sections I realized that insertion changes the flow of the writing, so adopted this solution instead.

I translated the preface into English and placed it in, Formatted everything, made a PDF and we were finished with a week to go.

The Foundation opened an account with Amazon and we uploaded the book with cover, all far too easy! A day later I got an email stating that as the material was already available online I had to provide links to each article in every place it was published so that Amazon were sure that my copyright was being respected. This took some time, and once submitted Amazon took a couple of days to come back again.

On the 26th they responded and we were good to go. But looking at the book online and ready to download we saw that the formatting had all changed, centering was gone, blank pages etc. PDF is not the way to do it! Also you need a full Word 2010 to do the summary aspect of it, something I have not got. A Filtered web page in HTML in a zip file is the way to do it. So back to Milan, new upload and wait and see. All of this is explained in a free Kindle download. Oh the beauty of hindsight!

We had 10 copies spiral bound for the lecture so that we could present it. I think a few hard copies are a good investment, people can see a product and thumb through it so it somehow becomes concrete.

A couple of days later we got the OK from Kindle, the status changed from “in revision” to “in publication” and notification of an ASIN number.

On 3rd December it was out, Hurray, a 5 week turnaround! I ordered 5oo business cards from an online printer with the name of the book and reference number to give out at every occasion and started thinking about generating some publicity.

So my thought on this matter is that if I can do it then many other bloggers can do it too. A little organization and filtering is all that is required. I made mistakes and wasted time, I spent ages writing a contents page with page numbers etc to find out that the pages did not correspond after formatting and anyway numbers are a thing of the past. A link takes the reader directly from contents to the section they require.

Everybody gains something from the process though, the author, Amazon, the blogs that host the original articles, and it didn’t cost anything, completely free. If you choose the KDP Select option Amazon have sole distribution rights for 90 days so you cannot put it out on Barnes and Noble or any other platform, but Amazon offer a free lend to their prime members and a free preview to anyone, and it is readable on any computer so Kindle not required.

However many people download the book (feel free, it is here) it is a good result, and you should see my CV now! The next stage will be to put it up in paperback.