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watching nanoparticles grow

I have spent a lot of time over the past decade-and-a-half talking about nanotech and nanoparticles. The often unexpected properties of these tiny specks of matter are give them applications in everything from synthetic antibodies to fuel cells to water filters and far beyond.
Recently, for the first time ever, scientists were able to watch the particles grow from their earliest stage of development. Given that the performance of nanoparticles is based on their structure, composition, and size, being able to see how they grow could lead to the development of better growing conditions, and thus better nanotechnology.
The research was carried out by a team of scientists from the Center for Nanoscale Materials, the Advanced Photon Source (both run by US Government's Argonne National Laboratory) and the High Pressure Synergetic Consortium (HPSynC).
The team used highly focused high-energy X-ray diffraction to observe the nanoparticles. Amongst other things, it was noted that the initial chemical reaction often occurred quite quickly, then continued to evolve over time.
“It’s been very difficult to watch these tiny particles be born and grow in the past because traditional techniques require that the sample be in a vacuum and many nanoparticles are grown in a metal-conducting liquid,” said study coauthor Wenge Yang. “We have not been able to see how different conditions affect the particles, much less understand how we can tweak the conditions to get a desired effect.”
HPSynC’s Russell Hemley added, “This study shows the promise of new techniques for probing crystal growth in real time. Our ultimate goal is to use these new methods to track chemical reactions as they occur under a variety of conditions, including variable pressures and temperatures, and to use that knowledge to design and make new materials for energy applications.”
The research was recently published in the journal NANOLetters.

Downloading Books From Your Local Library

I visited my local library the other day and it wasn’t exactly a hive of activity. The Internet and the plethora of technologies capable of distributing its content has forced a decline in activity at your local branch. But a scheme designed to embrace modern alternatives to the printed book could breathe new life back into the service. However, local libraries in the UK are now subsidizing conventional methods by offering eBook rentals online.

The service works by offering access to a rentals web site where readers can download books for free, which are then automatically deleted 14 days later, which saves the problem of chasing up overdue books and handing out late fines. Currently, Essex, Luton and Windsor & Maidenhead are offering the service, with Hampshire, Liverpool and Norfolk looking to get involved in the near future.

Luton library representative Fiona Marriot highlights the increasing interest in the scheme, stating "In recent weeks the number of eBook downloads has been increasing fast, and there are people emailing us from all over the country and even abroad asking if they can join as members online." Indeed, more than 250 new users have signed up to get involved in the Luton area, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that only local residents can join the service.

eBooks can obviously be transferred to most eBook readers (though unfortunately not Amazon’s Kindle, which uses proprietary software), and with Asus announcing the world’s cheapest last month and other notable parties such as Barnes & Noble and Plastic Logic getting involved, this seems like a market that’s clearly on the up.

Former president of The Society of Chief Librarians Tory Durcan states "Book issues have seriously declined in recent years. This is an exciting development. These are not going to replace the paper book, they are as well as." He also cites additional advantages for older readers due to the ability to control the print size using an electronic reader, and may even consider lending devices to older, housebound residents.

The scheme looks to redress figures recently announced by the department of Culture, Media and Sport, which state that annual library visits have dropped from 302 million 10 years ago to 280 million and are continuing to fall sharply. So although the new service may help increase the number of library visits, they are likely to be of the virtual kind.

robot teachers

I have been thinking about how humans learn now and could learn in the future. Recently, various studies have been published including some that document the amazing amount of brain development that happens in infants and later on in childhood.

This is especially relevant to me as my son is just about to be 17 months old. And as I watch him grow and learn. I have been doing some new thinking about education lately. I also do a great deal of work for Education Testing Service. Founded in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million knowledge metrics or tests annually.

So, here's my prognostication - in the future, more and more of us will learn from social robots, especially kids learning pre-school skills and students of all ages studying a new language.There will be a new science of learning," which brings together recent findings from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, machine learning and education.

The premise for my thinking: We humans are born immature and naturally curious, and become creatures capable of highly complex cultural achievements — such as the ability to build schools and school systems that can teach us how to create computers that mimic our brains.

With a stronger understanding of how this learning happens, scientists are coming up with new principles for human learning, new educational theories and designs for learning environments that better match how we learn best.And, social robots have a potentially growing role in these future learning environments. The mechanisms behind these sophisticated machines apparently complement some of the mechanisms behind human learning.

One such robot, which looks like the head of Albert Einstein, was revealed this week to show facial expressions and react to real human expressions. The researchers who built the strikingly real-looking yet body-less 'bot plan to test it in schools.


Machine learning

In the first 5 years of life, our learning is exuberant and "effortless. We are born learning, and adults are driven to teach infants and children. During those years and up to puberty, our brains exhibit "neural plasticity" — it's easier to learn languages, including foreign languages. It's almost magical how we learn a foreign language, what becomes our native tongue, in the first two or three years we're alive.

Magic aside, our early learning is computational.

Children under three and even infants have been found to use statistical thinking, such as frequency distributions and probabilities and covariation, to learn the phonetics of their native tongue and to infer cause-effect relationships in the physical world.

Some of these findings have helped engineers build machines that can learn and develop social skills, such as BabyBot, a baby doll trained to detect human faces.

Meanwhile, our learning is also highly social, so social, in fact, that newborns as young as 42 minutes old have been found to match gestures shown to them, such as someone sticking out her tongue or opening his mouth.

Imitation is a key component to our learning — it's a faster and safer way to learn than just trying to figure something out on our own.

Even as adults, we use imitation when we go to a new setting such as a dinner party or a foreign country, to try and fit in. Of course, for kids, the learning packed into every day can amount to traveling to a foreign country. In this case, they are "visiting" adult culture and learning how to act like the people in our culture, becoming more like us.

If you roll all these human learning features into the field of robotics, there is a somewhat natural overlap — robots are well-suited to imitate us, learn from us, socialize with us and eventually teach us.

Robot teachers

Social robots are being used on an experimental basis already to teach various skills to preschool children, including the names of colors, new vocabulary words and simple songs.

In the future, robots will only be used to teach certain skills, such as acquiring a foreign or new language, possibly in playgroups with children or to individual adults. But robot teachers can be cost-effective compared to the expense of paying a human teacher.

If we can capture the magic of social interaction and pedagogy, what makes social interaction so effective as a vehicle for learning, we may be able to embody some of those tricks in machines, including computer agents, automatic tutors, and robots.

Still, children clearly learn best from other people and playgroups of peers, and I don't see children in the future being taught entirely by robots.

Terrance Sejnowski of the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) at the University of California at San Diego, is working on using technology to merge the social with the instructional, and bringing it to bear on classrooms to create personalized, individualized teaching tailored to students and tracking their progress.

"By developing a very sophisticated computational model of a child's mind, we can help improve that child's performance," Sejnowski said.

Overall, the hope, in my mind anyway, would be to figure out how to combine the passion and curiosity for learning that children display with formal schooling. There is no reason why curiosity and passion can’t be fanned at school where there are dedicated professionals, teachers, trying to help children learn. Right?