SciTech Now Episode 245

In this episode of SciTech Now, studying the toxicity of harmful chemicals; using new technology to build smarter cities; a prosthetics lab powered by 3-D printers; and how new technologies are transforming the world of theater.


Coming up, tracking the dangers of chemical exposure...

I've got an example of where we will test dozens of chemicals on a single plate.

But we'll test varying concentrations of each chemical so we see how the biological response changes with increasing or decreasing concentrations of the test chemical.

...Building smarter cities...

We have the opportunity to deploy novel sensor technologies, for example, sensors that can watch out over a broad swath of the city, looking for sources of pollution, for example, or outages in the electrical system.

...And finally, could a computer produce the next Tony-winning musical?

As these systems become more sophisticated where it's generating music or lyrics or story, what will happen is that they will become more available as tools for people to interact with as part of their own creative process.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Lewis B. and Louise Hirschfeld Cullman, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Shailaja and Umesh Nagarkatte, and contributions to this station.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

From the air we breathe to the food we eat, we're constantly being exposed to chemicals.

But what are the health risks associated with this exposure?

We go inside the lab at the Environmental Protection Agency and watch as scientists perform chemical toxicology tests to find answers to that very question.

Here's a look.

It doesn't get much cleaner than McCorkle Place, one of the large, grassy, tree-lined squares in the middle of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus.

But grab a bench and look around.

You'll find people interacting with all sorts of chemicals in the midst of all that nature.

Take that person, eating his lunch from a Styrofoam container.

There are lots of people drinking from plastic water bottles, more than a few people sipping from coffee cups and drink cups, not to mention the hundreds of cellphones and earbuds being used.

Um, chemicals, we're exposed to them on a daily basis.

Um, they're in the -- the -- the air we breathe, the water we drink, even the products we use in the -- in the home.

And the -- the, um, the fact that not everybody appreciates is that the potential health risks of many of those chemicals isn't really fully understood.

Rusty Thomas directs the division of the Environmental Protection Agency that tests the safety of chemicals found in the items we use every day.

The labs of the National Center for Computational Toxicology are in Research Triangle Park.

Federal law gives the EPA the authority to test, regulate, and maintain an inventory of all the chemicals used in commerce.

The agency's inventory lists about 75,000 chemicals.

But there are different levels of scrutiny, depending on how the chemical is used.

The computational toxicology division has testing information on about 8,000 chemicals in its library.

We're tending to focus more on understanding the toxicity of single chemicals.

Um, but we do have some research efforts to understanding how they interact, mixtures, um, and how that mixture, the combined effects of chemicals may also be of concern to the agency.

The agency uses robotics and computational modeling to look at the link between the source of chemicals in the environment and negative outcomes, as well as study the health risk a chemical poses.

The new techniques allow researchers to assess the risks of large numbers of chemicals and pinpoint those needing further review, rather than examining individual chemicals one at a time.

And on the top, I've got an example of where will -- would test dozens of chemicals on a single plate.

But we'll test varying concentrations of each chemical.


And this gives us -- We call it concentration response.

We see how the biological response changes with increasing or decreasing concentrations of the test chemical.

There's a couple things.

You gotta see if it reacts and then how much of it --

Or how little -- how -- actually, how little of it is really what we're shooting for.

How little of it is required to actually produce a measurable response.

Weighing the potential toxicity of a chemical, a person's exposure, and the mechanism through which a chemical becomes harmful determines the possible health risk.

It's just not whether that chemical disrupts your hormone systems.

It's how much of a chemical is required to disrupt your hormone systems.

And that's what toxicologists typically refer to as a dose.

Um, and so we, uh, um, determine what dose we need to be concerned about.

And then we compare that dose of which may disrupt your hormone systems and compare it to those predicted exposures.

And the difference between those two is, determine how much we should be concerned about that chemical.

So, like, an example I like to think of, um, so I'm wearing t-shirt that is 100% cotton.

But 100% cotton means the fibers are all cotton.

They're actually -- it is treated with chemicals to keep it from catching on fire, which I appreciate.

But I wear that, I mean, it's all over my skin right now.

And so, knowledge of what the chemical is that's in the shirt, the markers of that chemical might very well also be -- you know, the CDC would be able to see that in us.

And, uh, and so that's the sort of chemical exposure.

And so we've actually tested chemicals like the flame retardant that would keep this shirt from catching on fire in the robot assays.

And then trying to predict whether or not we get exposed, we have to ask questions like, 'Is this in clothing?

Is it in cups?'

So let's go back to McCorkle Place.

The chemicals in different products are regulated differently.

Chemicals that go into pesticides, that are used in pesticides are regulated differently than, um, chemicals that may be in your shampoo or in other cleaning products in your house.

And those are under different levels of scrutiny.

Chemicals that go into a pesticide that are likely to end up on your food, um, are required to submit a whole range of toxicity studies to the agency for approval.

However, for chemicals in many of the products that we encounter on a daily basis, there isn't that requirement.

All companies are required to submit is, uh, what's called a pre-manufacturing notice.

And then the agency has 90 days to sort of demonstrate or determine, uh, whether they can proceed.

And, essentially, the burden is on the agency to determine that a product or a chemical is unsafe.

And so it's a pretty high burden.

In just a few decades, 70% of the world's projected 9 billion inhabitants will live in cities.

And scientists, corporations, and governments are using data to understand and improve our urban living environments.

Here to discuss data and the future of our cities is Steven Koonin, director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University.

So what are the kinds of data that exist in cities that we might not be familiar with?

Well, first of all, I would start with municipal records, uh, property records, taxes, educational, health records, and so on.

The cities have all of this data.

There is a growing movement to make a good fraction of it open and available.

For example, here in New York City, there's a website that hosts about 1,000 data sets about the city and its infrastructure.

So besides the municipal records, it used to be a pain to go down to City Hall and go through the file cabinets and wait in line.

All right. That's easier.

Well, what else could we do with this?

So, we sensor data.

We all carry sensors in our pocket, of course.

Rooms are being sensored for light, for temperature.

We have, uh, toll booths that are collecting information about the cars.

Uh, 600 intersections in Manhattan are instrumented for traffic flow, for example.

Then we also have what I would call found data.

The mobile phone system, uh, with the various apps that we all run generates a tremendous amount of data about mobility in the city.

The, uh, transit system, similarly, information about how people are moving around.

And then we have the opportunity to deploy novel sensor technologies, for example, sensors that can watch out over a broad swath of the city looking for sources of pollution, for example, or outages in the electrical system.

One of the things that people, uh, immediately jump to when you hear about large scale sensor surveillance or otherwise is, what happens to individual privacy and how do you balance that?

How do you make sure that, that these sensors are picking up what they should be and not anything more?

It's not as though we haven't had sensitive data in our records for a long time, the educational records, for example, healthcare records, these are all sensitive data that society has learned how to protect.

We need to learn how to do that.

We learning how to do that with these more modern forms of data.

So how does a city figure out behavior patterns of its inhabitants based on all this information that's kinda floating around us?

So you would like to know, for example, where do people live and where do they work.

And that determines the kind of transportation system you might like.

It determines how you might do zoning for land use, residential versus commercial and so on.

The old way of doing that was to, uh, run a survey.

But you now can look at transit card swipes.

You can look at anonymous phone tracks of where people are going.

Uh, and that starts to give you a much better sense, almost in real time, of how people are moving around the city.

I use Waze sometimes or Google Maps.

And they have -- Basically every one of these phones is a sensor for them, right?

So what about the fact that corporations now own huge amounts of these data sets separate from...


...The city Department of Transportation?

Uh, a lot of people are most worried about government and privacy.

But, in fact, as you just noted, the corporations are amassing an enormous amount of data.

There are far fewer restrictions on what they can do with that data, uh, than, for example, those of us in academia or in government.

Uh, and so there is value in all of that.

But at the same time, there is peril.

And we need to be vigilant about how those data are used.

We've talked about New York City.

It's a pretty fantastic lab in some senses.

But what about smaller cities or mid-sized cities around the country?


I think the smaller cities can benefit from the experiments and demonstrations that the larger cities are doing.

The big cities have the resources, never enough, but some resources to try these new things out.

And then it can start to be adopted by these smaller cities.

Uh, it was just announced back in September the formation of MetroLab Network consisting of 20 cities and their universities, uh, around the country, some very big, some much smaller.

San Jose, for example, is one of the smaller cities in the network, where we'll be able to share experiences, best practice, and so on to move this technology to cities of all sizes in the U.S.

So you helped to write a report to the President about this and how technology is changing our landscape.

And how does all of this increase our or better our quality of life or access to social services, uh, just increase sustainability?

There are many ways.

Of course, cities are very complicated entities, probably the most complicated entities humans have built in their history.

And there are many different parts.

We see some of it already just in our daily lives, whether it's the apps that help us get around better, the apps that help me hail a cab, the apps that help me reserve in a restaurant.

These are just the very beginning of the kind of efficiencies that we can see.

I think we can look forward to more applications in health.

I'd like to know the kind of environment that I'm going through every day.

What am I being exposed to, whether it's pollutants or people who might be infected.

Uh, so there are many different dimensions in which this is going to improve things.

All right.

Steven Koonin from NYU, thanks so much.

I volunteer for a group called Not Impossible.

They call me their chief mad scientist.

We did a really great project with 3D printing called Project Daniel.

And it was all centered around, uh, a young man in the Sudan, who had had both of his arms blown off in a bombing.

Mick Ebeling, who's the founder of Not Impossible, read about Daniel in They were doing a story about just the devastation that's going on in this area of southern Sudan where this place is being routinely carpet bombed.

We came together and we tried to come up with a solution to the problem that involved technology.

And we wanted to develop prosthetics that would be usable, that would be functional, that would be helpful and would also be able to be developed by the people in the region.

One by one, all of the sort of tools or devices or things that other people -- that had worked elsewhere, which is not going to work in this region that had no resources and was just being routinely bombed.

And so we thought, 'Okay, we're going to have to bring stuff in.'

Um, and that was when we came up with the concept of 3D printing.

Mick took a small team out into the Sudan and, uh, out to this hospital and, um, set up a self-sustaining prosthetics clinic.

He taught the locals how to print their own prosthetics.

And there's been about -- an arm per week has been printed out of this lab.

You know, it's just really an example of how 3D printing has been able to innovate an entire area and really give people a lot of function back.

Could a computer produce a musical to match the mastery of Stephen Sondheim?

It's possible.

Next, the shows us how computers and technology are enhancing and creating live theater.

Let's take a look.

New technologies are changing theater, expanding traditional ideas of what a play can be and do.

At the National Theater in London, the musical '' reimagines Lewis Carroll's classic tale for the Internet age.

Striking digital projections suggest the blurring of real and online identities.

♪♪ The company 1927 uses animation to create unique theatrical worlds and to challenge the conventions of live performance.

1927's production of 'The Magic Flute' is currently playing in five cities worldwide.

♪♪ Used badly, such technologies can be pointless, confused, or, worse still, distracting.

To work, the technology itself has to enrich the story being told on stage.

One piece of theater that couldn't exist without cutting-edge technology is 'The Encounter,' a thrilling one-man show by Simon McBurney, artistic director of Complicite theater.

He's performing it here at the Barbican Centre in London.

And if I were to breathe in your ear, your brain would tell you that I was really breathing in your ear.

The audience wear headphones and McBurney uses a binaural microphone, which records and transmits sounds separately into each ear to tell the story of a real life journey into the depths of the Amazon Rainforest.

There's no set but the sound world he creates, envelops, and transports the audience.

I think it's a once-in-a-decade show.

And one that has plenty to say about the way we use technology in our every-day lives.

Over the past decade, the director, Katie Mitchell, and video designer Leo Warner have pioneered a former theater they call live cinema.

It's a technique they first used on a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf's experimental novel, 'The Waves,' at the National Theater in 2006.

Their ninth live cinema show, 'The Forbidden Zone,' comes to the Barbican in May.

But what exactly is live cinema?

Are you all right, ma'am?

The most obvious thing that is different about it from you might call traditional theater is the use of a lot of live camera work.

Offset against that is a projection surface, normally something which is similar proportions and similar, um, resemblance to a, um, cinema screen.

That material is then graded and output via projector to the cinema screen, um, in pretty much as close to real time as you can get.

And what we're presenting to the audience is, on the one-hand, a fragmentary making-of process, which runs simultaneous with a completely linearized cinematic-quality projected output.

'The Forbidden Zone' tells the story, if you like, of the genesis of biological warfare.

Well, it actually happens over several periods of time and tells of the effect of that invention on multiple generations of the same family.

The ability to make an audience believe that you have actors on a train delivering a scene give a kind of new level of suspension of disbelief or maybe it's like a different type of suspension of disbelief than you would get if you simply staged it as a cinematic exercise without the live element.

And there's something about the incredibly lo-fi ways of, for example, convincing an audience, um, that you're on a moving train that you have to do if you're not.

Which, kinda demands a certain amount of intellectual theatrical rigor.

I don't think people go to see these shows particularly for the technology anymore.

I think there may have been a point 10, 15 years ago when, um, the use of new technology in the theater was a reason for seeing it itself.

I kind of feel like everyone's seen that now.

And what we need to do is deliver really great art.

The imperative is narrative and emotion.

As long as everything is in service of that, then you're on the right path.

The nature of the medium is one which sort of heightens the sense of process and, um, begs questions about linearity and fragmentation of experience while actually delivering an extremely linearized and unfragmented final output.

So we're kind of offering two things to people.

And to an extent, they can edit their own experience between those two and choose the extent to which they want their experience to be mediated by us and by the cameras and by the editing, uh, or experience something which is very, um, I suppose chaotic.

Um, uh, which in a way, I think is much more about how we experience every-day life.

Both 'The Encounter' and 'The Forbidden Zone' openly show the technologies with which they weave their magic, inviting us, the audience, to consider the processes involved in the performance.

But the role of technology isn't always so obvious.

Beyond the fence is a new musical that's just opened here at the Arts Theatre.

It looks like an old-fashioned crowd pleaser.

But in actual fact, it's the world's first ever computer generated musical.

Both the music and the plot have been devised by a computer program rather than by humans.

And the whole process has been documented by Sky Arts for a new series called 'Computer Says Show.'

The project behind 'Beyond the Fence' started probably about a year ago.

And it began as a discussion, uh, just about creativity and whether it might be possible to automate it.

We knew that we were interested in musicals as an art form to look at.

They're notoriously hard to do well or succeed in.

Um, and also they have lots of different elements.

We worked with a team from Cambridge University who are specialists in machine learning and statistics.

They wanted to do a kind of analysis of all of the musicals that have gone before that have been more or less successful to try and work out what might be predictive of success.

And that kind of analysis and that process helped us create a set of guidelines for what the new show should be, so, everything from the gender of the lead to what the ending should be like, whether someone should die, the overall scripture of the show, you know, where the peaks of love and tension would need to be.

We then worked with another team from Goldsmiths University who are interested in, uh, generating ideas, developing computer systems for ideation.

And they generated a whole load of premises.

And then our humans in the mix and they can tailor how to then choose one of those premises.

With the music, um, I think, considering how it's been generated so based on a kind of wishing, listening, and then generating model, it's not the ideal way to get a computer to compose music.

And the first time Ben and Nathan heard it, I think they had this kind of combination of surprise and excitement that there was something there but simultaneously a fair dose of terror at the fact that the music and the way that it's generated is relatively formless.

And it comes in enormous quantities.

They just powered through every lead sheet until a melody or a chord sequence or an ostinato just popped out to them.

And that would go on the 'yes' pile.

It will be interesting to see how people react to the experience of it and whether they can, in a way, put the experiment, the strange origins of this show to one side and just enjoy it as a piece.

And then, you know, maybe they want to talk about the story or maybe they want to talk about artificial intelligence and all of those sorts of things afterwards.

Most people, when they set out to create something, to create a new work of art, they do it because they're investing something of themselves in the process.

So I don't think that desire for humans to do that is going to go away any time soon.

What I do think is that as these systems become more sophisticated, where it's generating music or lyrics or story, what will happen is that they will be -- become more available as tools for people to interact with as part of their own creative process.

People will be -- then be able to, I guess, go beyond themselves.


What's interesting is that all these pieces are using technology in a really human way.

So 'Beyond the Fence,' the computer becomes a kind of compositional aide.

And Simon McBurney's using his headphones more as a communication tool than anything else.

Katie Mitchell -- she's using the camera to get us up close and personal with the story she's telling, because ultimately, there's nothing intrinsically interesting about technology in and of itself.

Instead, when it comes to art, it's what we do with it that counts.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website.

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You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Lewis B. and Louise Hirschfeld Cullman, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Shailaja and Umesh Nagarkatte, and contributions to this station.