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Preparing for Space Travel


As long-distance space travel transforms from a science fiction fantasy to a near-future reality, humanity is faced with a complex challenge: Can people socially and culturally adapt to and survive spending years hurtling across the universe in a contained, artificial space?

Dr. Shawn Graham, Department of History
Dr. Shawn Graham, Department of History

Shawn Graham, a digital archaeologist and historian at Carleton University, is working with the International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP) to record and analyze the rich material culture onboard the International Space Station (ISS) after more than 20 years of human occupation.

“As far as we know, no other beings have ever left their home planet,” says Graham.

“We are documenting this not only to preserve the past, but also to understand what it means to be human.”

And to prepare for the future.

For Graham, this research is essential for understanding a brand-new facet of the human experience.

“If we’re going to be serious about space flight,” he says, “we need to understand how spacecraft create places for human dwelling and interaction, and how human interaction affects those dwellings in turn.”

In addition to reviewing key procedures and policies associated with the ISSAP, Graham was asked to develop a digital data-entry system to help researchers make archaeological sense of human activity on the ISS.

He brought on Carleton History and Data Science master’s student Chantal Brousseau, a recent Digital Humanities Award winner, who built upon his initial sketches using an open-source image annotation tool.

Chantal Brousseau, MA Student in History and Data Science
Chantal Brousseau, MA Student in History and Data Science

Together, Brousseau and Graham have created an application capable of processing and analyzing photographs of various spaces within the ISS. These snapshots will be dutifully taken by astronauts on an almost hourly basis as part of their research duties while aboard the station.

The application uses the photos as timestamps to study how these material spaces steadily change over time. It allows the researchers to identify specific objects (a pencil clipped to a peg board, for example, or a pair of scissors attached to a tether) and track their movements across multiple photos. The software then pushes the data into a graph database, which is used to identify patterns.

The tool also lets researchers annotate photographs for eventual machine learning—meaning that, eventually, Brousseau and Graham will be able train a computer to analyze the images just like an archaeologist would. Ultimately, the data captured in this project will enable researchers to finally tell the full story of how humans co-exist within the built space of the ISS.

“NASA and the other space agencies have for years been tracking everything that goes up to the space station—they have to account for the weight when figuring out the fuel requirements of the launch vehicle, for instance—but apparently there are things that have gone missing up there,” says Graham.

“It’d be neat to spot some of those. But more prosaically, there are the everyday objects of life on a space station: things for making meals, personal objects, items that help mark out a space as mine and thine. If humans are going to live and explore in space, then we’d best understand how the inhabited artificial spaces we live in help to create that spacefaring society.”

Demo of the webapp, using a photograph by Katie Rodriguez (Source: ISSAP)
Demo of the webapp, using a photograph by Katie Rodriguez (Source: ISSAP)

The data collection portion of the pioneering space archaeology project began on January 17, 2022 and was slated to run for about two months. For their part, Brousseau and Graham can’t wait to see what gets captured.

“I’ve always been interested in space, partially due to growing up with parents who loved Star Trek and partially because my dream job when I was young was to be an astronomer, until I found out you needed math and physics for that,” says Brousseau.

“As someone who ultimately ended up becoming a historian, having the opportunity to be involved with a project that actually deals with life in space is something I never fathomed.”

“If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they usually say either an archaeologist or an astronaut,” says Graham. “This is a dream project that combines the two, and we’re excited to be a part of the beginning of a new field.”

Technology for Good

Research, Innovation & COVID-19

For nearly seven decades, CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research, based in Geneva—has been at the forefront of world-changing innovations, from the birth of the World Wide Web to advances in cancer treatment and data processing.In normal times, the main focus at CERN is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator, where the ATLAS detector is one of four flagship experiments. The 5,500-plus scientists, engineers and technicians who work on ATLAS, including nearly three dozen from Carleton University, are addressing questions such as “What are the basic building blocks of matter?” and “What are the fundamental forces of nature?”

But even that vast scope expanded in 2020 when, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, CERN brought part of its powerful computing resources to bear on the global challenge.

As scientists around the world raced to understand the biological and chemical challenges of SARS-CoV-2, the number-crunching capabilities of CERN were used to simulate protein dynamics within the virus and support other urgent pandemic-related research, aiding the successful effort to develop vaccines.

While the fight against COVID-19 continues, CERN is preparing to ramp up the LHC once again in spring 2022, searching for new particles and attempting to unravel the mysteries of dark matter.

“There are amazing opportunities here that you don’t find anywhere else,” says Carleton researcher Manuella Vincter, who serves as the deputy spokesperson for ATLAS, which records the high-energy particle collisions that take place in the LHC.

“CERN is a collaborative environment with no geographic boundaries. It helps launch important innovations and is producing the next generation of highly qualified personnel. We’re fostering a STEM culture—and these large experiments make you dream bigger.”

Fundamental Research Leads to Real-World Applications

The Higgs boson particle—described by some as the “God particle”—was first observed at CERN in 2012. It proved to be the final missing piece in the Standard Model of particle physics, a set of basic interactions that describes the fundamental structure of matter. Beyond that discovery, one of the biggest breakthroughs is arguably the World Wide Web.

It was conceived of and developed at CERN in 1989 to satisfy demand for automated information-sharing between scientists at universities and institutes around the world—a key stepping stone toward today’s digital infrastructure.

But other examples abound showing how the biggest science project on the planet has changed the world in important ways:

  • Particle accelerator technology has made the leap into health care, where much smaller but similar machines make radioactive isotopes for cancer detection.
  • Particle detector technology has helped improve cancer treatments, allowing doctors to pinpoint precisely where the tumors are and minimizing the impact on surrounding healthy tissue.
  • Advances in super-conducting magnets, which accelerate protons within the LHC, have led to higher-resolution X-rays.

One of the big differences between particle physics research and medical applications, explains Vincter, is that technology at CERN can be tweaked over time, while medical uses must be safe from the start, which means that concepts pioneered at CERN are adapted and commercialized by other parties.

Vincter’s colleague Alain Bellerive, another particle physicist at Carleton who works on ATLAS, says the experiment is also at the cutting edge of data science and fast computing because of the volume of data being processed, the sophisticated algorithms required and the astounding speed at which all this happens.

Moreover, grid computing solutions developed a dozen years ago at the LHC—leveraging multiple remote computers connected via networks—have spread to many other realms:

  • The artificial intelligence that underlies this computing can also be used to interpret CT scans and other types of medical imaging.
  • The electronic chips needed to operate at this ultra-fast pace have a long list of uses, such as autonomous vehicles that must brake instantaneously when it’s time to stop.

Putting on his science-fiction hat, Bellerive can only speculate about the futuristic applications of tech developed at CERN: particle beams that break down nuclear waste or methane molecules, or real-time imaging of a human heart that simultaneously gets treated by photons.

“We’re not there yet,” says Bellerive. “But remember: pure research led to things like video calls. This is what innovation does. The challenge is to find something that helps society.”

Paging Dr. Robot

The robot wheels into the hospital room of a patient who is coughing and feverous—symptoms typically associated with COVID-19 or a number of other contagious illnesses.Through the monitor, camera and microphone on the “face” of the four-and-half-foot-tall, remote-controlled intelligent telepresence device, a doctor in a nearby room can safely talk to the patient and assess their condition.

Then a touchless drawer on the front of the robot slides open. Inside are a stethoscope, a thermometer, a pulse oximeter and several more medical instruments. With the doctor providing instructions, the patient checks their own vital signs—measures such as heart rate and blood oxygen saturation, which are instantaneously transmitted to the doctor’s computer.

Intake assessment complete, the patient puts the instruments back in the drawer, where they’re disinfected with a UV light as the robot rolls into the hallway and to a nearby station for a disinfecting UV shower of its own before its next assignment.

While this may sound like a scene from a science fiction movie, if a team at Carleton University has its way, it could be a reality sooner than we think. Inspired by the pandemic, their medical robotics project is an attempt to meet challenges faced by health-care workers as they diagnose and treat patients with infectious diseases.

Led by Mojtaba Ahmadi, a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering researcher who is supported by three master’s students and several undergraduates, the team was already working on assistive devices for seniors and health-care environments when the coronavirus reached Canada.

In collaboration with doctors from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), and with funding from Carleton’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program, Ahmadi and his Advanced Biomechatronics and Locomotion Laboratory quickly began developing a robot that can not only provide high-quality care but also keep health-care workers safe.

“Getting this robot ready is an interesting challenge and takes time,” says Ahmadi.

“The mechanics and electronics are there and a lot of the core issues we were facing have been addressed. We just have to integrate things, do some more software development and make sure the user interface is effective. Then we’ll be able to start testing.”

Testing Medical Robots in the Hospital Environment

Initially, doctors from CHEO will come to the Carleton campus for trial runs as soon as the system is ready. For the next phase of testing, the robot will be taken to the hospital, where its omni-directional nature—it can travel in any direction—will allow it to navigate a complex and busy environment.

With three wheels below its half-metre wide base and an ABS plastic shell over its pyramidical aluminum frame, the robot won’t look like a human. That’s a key point, because it’s not replacing physicians, nurses or other health-care workers—its purpose is making it easier and safer for people to do their jobs.

“Assistive technology is an important area for robotics,” says Max Polzin, one of the master’s students contributing to the project.

“This type of automation can make things safer for people and help speed up their work.”

Polzin’s particular focus involves “semantic learning,” which essentially means enabling the robot to understand and relate to its environment in a human way. The sensors in its navigation system gather geometric data and perform object detection, but he’s hoping to program the device so that, for example, it will see and recognize a refrigerator and know that it’s in a kitchen when it’s been asked to retrieve a water bottle for somebody.

In addition to testing the technology, the researchers will also do human factor experiments to see how patients might interact with the robot.

Moreover, because the system is modular and the drawer of medical instruments can be swapped out for an assistive arm, getting insights into how people perceive the robot will help expand its use into long-term care homes and independent living situations where seniors might need help with certain physical tasks.

“It’s part of our broader look at assistive devices and applications,” says Ahmadi, who also helms the ongoing Intelligent Telepresence and Assistive Devices (iTAD) project for fourth-year engineering students at Carleton.

“The system could be a game changer for rapid and safe responses to outbreaks like COVID-19,” he adds. “Bridging two very strong teams of medical and engineering experts in Ottawa, with each having access to novel technologies, could lay the base for a future solution as a frontline health-care outbreak device.

“But this project will go beyond health care. Other applications exist in areas such as natural disasters, material spills, independent living and nursing homes.”

Technology for Good

Cybersecurity Beyond ‘Y2Q’

In the not-too-distant future, a new generation of powerful computers will transform our world in myriad ways, from advances in medical and pharmaceutical research and more accurate climate modelling to faster data processing in areas such as artificial intelligence and the financial sector. But the very same revolutionary technology that promises to enhance so many aspects of our lives could also be used to perpetrate dangerous and debilitating cyberattacks. That’s because the cryptography currently used to safeguard digital communications and transactions will be no match for the speed and problem-solving capabilities of quantum computers, which could defeat our current encryption algorithms in seconds.

Stepping up to this challenge is Carleton University economics graduate James Nguyen, who co-founded Quantropi, a cybersecurity startup that specializes in quantum security. Since its launch in 2018, the Ottawa-based company has been steadily developing a platform that it believes will set the standard for quantum-secure data communication.

“We’re at the dawn of a paradigm shift,” says Nguyen, Quantropi’s CEO, “but the average person might not understand this until digital privacy fails them.

“Think about what will happen if and when quantum attacks become mainstream. Anybody who has access to a quantum computer will be able to break any type of protection. This threat is imminent, anywhere from three to ten years from now. We call it Y2Q.”

Not only will be your personal information be vulnerable to quantum hackers, but “bad actors” from rogue nations or criminal organizations could cause issues like electrical blackouts, military equipment failures, breaches of national security and the theft of valuable, sensitive data such as financial and medical records. The ability to compromise and paralyze phone and computer networks, making data unavailable, is real; encrypted data is already being “harvested” in order to be decrypted later using quantum computers.

“Without proper cybersecurity, 5G or 6G won’t matter,” says Nguyen.

“Without security, the Internet of Things won’t matter. Without security, fintech won’t matter. Without security, the quantum advantage becomes the quantum disadvantage.

“Somebody could use private data to defraud people. Somebody could take over a drone and instruct it to attack you. Anything can be manipulated and weaponized.”

Cybersecurity Fuels Company’s Growth

Quantropi, which Nguyen started with inventor Randy Kuang, began as a four-person company in Kuang’s basement. Today it has grown into a 25-person team in a 4,000-square-foot office. It has raised more than $8 million in financing and is set to expand again.

Quantropi’s flagship QiSpace platform, a solution rooted in quantum mechanics expressed as linear algebra, promises quantum-secure random key generation and distribution using today’s internet. Asymmetric encryption establishes trust between two parties sharing information, rendering their data uninterpretable by outsiders forever.

Two of the three cybersecurity products that comprise this platform are commercially available to clients, says Nguyen, and the third should be ready in the first quarter of 2022.

“This is what we envisioned—a platform that’s scalable for the market,” he says. “Our solution is going to work in the connected world of smart cities, smart economies and smart infrastructure.

“We’re not just about quantum security,” adds Nguyen.

“We’re about enabling a whole new ecosystem of emerging technology, a whole new ecosystem of quantum-secure applications and devices that were not possible before so that the world can continue to evolve.”

From Bit to Qubits: How Quantum Computers Work

Quantum computers work by going beyond the standard bits used by conventional computers, which rely on a binary system of ones and zeros to exchange information and can essentially only do one thing at a time.

Quantum bits, or qubits, derive their performance from the ability of atomic and subatomic particles to exist in more than one state simultaneously, a phenomenon known as superposition. Because a single qubit can represent any number of positions between one and zero, it can store and share much more information than a bit, while using less energy.

Nguyen offers an analogy. If you flip a coin, it will land on either heads or tails—like a binary bit. A qubit, however, can contain every possible angle of that coin as it flies through the air.

If you want to find somebody in a 10,000-room hotel, he continues, a contemporary computer would have to check each room one by one. A quantum computer would check all of the rooms at the same time and find the person instantly.

Technology for Good | The New Economy

Smart Home Solutions

By 2037, an estimated 10.4 million Canadians will be 65 or older, about 25 per cent of the population compared to 18 per cent in 2022. Roughly 90 per cent will want to live in their own homes for as long as possible despite becoming less independent and requiring more support. This demographic wave, coupled with the mobility and cognition changes and medical conditions associated with aging, will create significant challenges and opportunities as demand grows for homecare services and long-term care beds.

The race is on to develop solutions and one promising approach can be found at Carleton University in Ottawa, where a team of researchers, in partnership with the Bruyère Research Institute and AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence, is developing supportive smart home systems to help older adults age in place safely and with dignity.

“We’re bringing together emerging technology, aging adults, industry partners and clinical expertise,” says Bruce Wallace, executive director of the Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM3) AGE-WELL National Innovation Hub. “It’s time to get this technology out of the laboratory and into the community.”

A man leans against a desk in a classroom next to examples of smart home technology.
Bruce Wallace, executive director of the Sensors and Analytics for Monitoring Mobility and Memory (SAM3) project

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Wallace took as many sensors as he could from his labs on campus and at Bruyère and set them up in his house to continue the research.

He’s experimenting with electronic pads under mattresses and on the floor. Wirelessly connected to a computer, the sensors track when someone gets up from bed, and motion sensors in the hallway monitor where they go.

If they are disoriented and walk into the living room at 3 a.m. instead of the bathroom—the most frequent destination for seniors at that hour—a pre-recorded voice coming from a home speaker could let them know where they are. Or, pre-emptively, the hallway and bathroom lights could turn on to guide them (and a light atop a walker could switch on as a reminder for those who use a mobility tool).

Open/closed sensors on the exterior doors of the smart home can detect whether they go outside, which is a risk for somebody suffering from dementia, and send a text or phone alert to a relative that their loved one might be wandering.

Meanwhile, door open/closed sensors on the fridge could track whether they’re preparing breakfast in the morning, and a thermal camera focused on the stove could tell whether they’re cooking something nutritious—and remind them to turn off the burner when finished.

Wallace, who has more than 100 sensors in his house, believes this research could become reality within the next few years.

People would have to be comfortable with and consent to the use of this technology, but studies show that seniors would indeed trade some privacy for greater independence, a conclusion affirmed by trials in the homes of about 20 volunteers in Ottawa.

Passive sensing is one of the keys to success. It means people won’t need to wear devices and cameras won’t capture or share images. The sensors gather data that can generate a safety alert or build a profile to help family members and healthcare professionals assess a senior’s behaviour and determine when and how to intervene.

The technology could also be used in long-term care facilities to help overnight staff keep residents safe. If somebody gets out of bed and doesn’t return within a certain amount of time, a notification could prompt staff to check in.

Fine-Tuning Smart Home Technology

More than a dozen Carleton students are helping fine-tune the smart home technology. Engineering master’s student Ashi Agarwal is using an artificial intelligence-equipped camera from industry partner AltumView to measure walking speed, which can be an indicator of declining health.

“Gait analysis can tell you a lot about how somebody is doing,” says Agarwal, whose camera creates a stick figure-like image of research subjects, rather than photos or video. “This information could help doctors get insights into everyday life.”

“This leading research greatly benefits this ever-increasing demographic of the aging Canadian population,” says Rafik Goubran, Carleton’s vice-president (Research and International), a sensors and data analytics researcher and one of the leaders of SAM3. “It enables our seniors to live safety and independently in their own homes while providing hands-on multidisciplinary experience to our students.”

From looking at the big picture and working closely with patients, Bruyère Memory Program physician and SAM3 co-founder Dr. Frank Knoefel sees the need for this type of high-tech assistance.

A man in a black business suit poses for a photo.
Dr. Frank Knoefel, Bruyère Memory Program physician and SAM3 co-founder

“Our society has a serious issue,” he says about Canada’s aging population. “How are we going to care for all these people? Technology will never replace clinicians, but it can perform a type of triage.

“At the end of the day, it’s about quality of life. People want to stay at home and remain independent for as long as they can, and this technology can help.

“My hope for aging Canadians… is that we will have supportive smart homes that will allow us to age in place.”

Technology for Good | Health and Wellness