Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Category: Computers/Technology Page 1 of 17

Decentralized Finance and the Power of Smart Contracts

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When people use apps or services like Netflix, Instagram, Amazon, etc. they sign, or rather virtually accept, digital user agreements. Digital agreements have been around since the 1990s. These agreements are written and enforced by the institutions that create these services and products. However, in certain conditions, these systems fail and these digital or service-level agreements can be breached, causing people to feel robbed. 

A recent example of this is the Robinhood scandal that occurred in mid-2021. Essentially, people came together and all wanted to buy the same stock. However, Robinhood ended up restricting buying, citing issues with volatile stock and regulatory agreements. As a result, they ended up paying $70 million dollars in fines for system outages and misleading customers. And individual customers were left feeling robbed. This was partially the result of centralization and Robinhood having full control over the platform as well as enforcing the digital agreement.

Zak Ayesh Presenting on Chainlink
and Decentralized Smart Contracts

Zak Ayesh, a developer advocate at Chainlink recently came to Duke to talk about decentralized Smart Contracts that could solve many of the problems with current centralized digital agreements and traditional paper contracts as well. 

What makes smart contracts unique is that they programmatically implement a series of if-then rules without the need for a third-party human interaction. While currently these are primarily being used on blockchains, they were actually created by computer scientist Nick Szabo in 1994. Most smart contracts now run on blockchains because it allows them to remain decentralized and transparent. If unfamiliar with blockchain refer to my previous article here. 

Smart contracts are self-executing contracts with the terms of the agreement being directly written into computer code.

Zak Ayesh

There are several benefits to decentralized contracts. The first is transparency. Because every action on a blockchain is recorded and publicly available, the enforcement of smart contracts is unavoidably built-in. Next is trust minimization and guaranteed execution. With smart contracts, there is reduced counterparty risk — that’s the probability one party involved in a transaction or agreement might default on its contractual obligation because neither party has control of the agreement’s execution or enforcement. Lastly, they are more efficient due to automation. Operating on blockchains allows for cheaper and more frictionless transactions than traditional alternatives. For instance, the complexities of cross-border remittances involving multiple jurisdictions and sets of legal compliances can be simplified through coded automation in smart contracts.

Dr. Campbell Harvey, a J. Paul Sticht Professor of International Business at Fuqua, has done considerable research on smart contracts as well, culminating in the publication of a book, DeFi and the Future of Finance which was released in the fall of 2021.

In the book, Dr. Harvey explores the role smart contracts play in decentralized finance and how Ethereum and other smart contract platforms give rise to the ability for decentralized application or dApp. Additionally, smart contracts can only exist as long as the chain or platform they live on exists. However, because these platforms are decentralized, they remove the need for a third party to mediate the agreement. Harvey quickly realized how beneficial this could be in finance, specifically decentralized finance or DeFi where third-party companies, like banks, mediate agreements at a high price.  

“Because it costs no more at an organization level to provide services to a customer with $100 or $100 million in assets, DeFi proponents believe that all meaningful financial infrastructure will be replaced by smart contracts which can provide more value to a larger group of users,” Harvey explains in the book

Beyond improving efficiency, this also creates greater accessibility to financial services. Smart contracts provide a foundation for DeFi by eliminating the middleman through publicly traceable coded agreements. However, the transition will not be completely seamless and Harvey also investigates the risks associated with smart contracts and advancements that need to be made for them to be fully scalable.

Ultimately, there is a smart contract connectivity problem. Essentially, smart contracts are unable to connect with external systems, data feeds, application programming interfaces (APIs), existing payment systems, or any other off-chain resource on their own. This is something called the Oracle Problem which Chainlink is looking to solve.

Harvey explains that when a smart contract is facilitating an exchange between two tokens, it determines the price by comparing exchange rates with another similar contract on the same chain. The other smart contract is therefore acting as a price oracle, meaning it is providing external price information. However, there are many opportunities to exploit this such as purchasing large amounts on one oracle exchange in order to alter the price and then go on to purchase even more on a different exchange in the opposite direction. This allows for capitalization on price movement by manipulating the information the oracle communicates to other smart contracts or exchanges. 

That being said, smart contracts are being used heavily, and Pratt senior Manmit Singh has been developing them since his freshman year along with some of his peers in the Duke Blockchain Lab. One of his most exciting projects involved developing smart contracts for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine allowing for a more seamless way to develop energy units.

One example of how this could be used outside of the crypto world is insurance. Currently, when people get into a car accident it takes months or even a year to evaluate the accident and release compensation. In the future, there could be sensors placed on cars connected to smart contracts that immediately evaluate the damage and payout.

Decentralization allows us to avoid using intermediaries and simply connect people to people or people to information as opposed to first connecting people to institutions that can then connect them to something else. This also allows for fault tolerance: if one blockchain goes down, the entire system does not go down with it. Additionally, because there is no central source controlling the system, it is very difficult to gain control of thus protecting against attack resistance and collusion resistance. While risks like the oracle problem need to be further explored, the world and importance of DeFi, as well as smart contracts, is only growing.

And as Ayesh put it, “This is the future.”

Post by Anna Gotskind, Class of 2022

Experts Unpack the Space Debris Challenge Just Before an “Irresponsible” Russian Missile Launch

Russia sucessfully tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile on Monday, creating a debris field of more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris — space junk — whizzing around the planet. The crew aboard the International Space Station was ordered into their spacesuits to help them survive if one of the shards hit their home.

The Russian test, which has been strongly condemned by US officials, has created extreme hazards for satellites. US Space Command Commander General James Dickinson stated that “Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations.”

You might be wondering, What’s the big deal?

Just last Friday on November 12th, a group of experts met with the Duke community to discuss the threats to space – an environment we often forget about – and why space junk poses a large challenge for the 21st century.

Benjamin Schmitt PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, facilitated the group conversation, which featured Hugh Lewis PhD, Professor of Astronautics and Head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton. Schmitt stated that for the last two weeks, people around the world have paused to look up at the climate with the proceedings of COP26, but they “should also tilt their heads back a bit further” and consider the problem of space junk.

The challenge of space debris requires technical and diplomatic solutions, which are often complex. This has been effectively demonstrated by the Russian launch and resultant global reactions to the “irresponsibility” of the maneuver.

Schmitt and Lewis were joined by Brit Lundgren PhD, Laura Newburgh PhD, and W. Robert Pearson JD. Lundgren is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Newburgh is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Yale University, and Pearson is a retired U.S. Ambassador and current Duke University Center for International and Global Studies Fellow.

Space experts engaged in Friday’s conversation

“The space debris problem is a wicked problem,” Lewis said. And the problem is this: According to the European Space Agency, there are over 36,500 objects larger than 10cm, 1,000,000 objects over 1cm, and more than one-third of a billion objects over 1mm in size in orbit around the Earth. These numbers, though bewilderingly large, are posed to expand.

As all this junk collides with itself, there are more and more fragments and particles in space. Lewis said that unlike climate change, there is not a “tipping point.” There will not be a warning or any sudden event that pushes us into the exponential growth phase – it will just, sort of, happen.

These pieces of debris pose substantial risks to the space systems that our modern societies have come to rely on, like piloting and navigation, communication, and many forms of entertainment like television. “Without those services, all of us, the entire planet, would suffer,” Lewis said.

A visualization of the space debris currently rotating around Earth.

But this issue of space debris likely feels entirely disconnected and irrelevant for most of the world’s population. “For us down here on Earth, we are really not aware of this growing problem … and we are really not able to connect to it,” Lewis said. “Unless we make that human connection, it’s not something we would be able to address.”

The panelists all agreed that making the connections between space debris and the current functioning of our globe is a critical step to getting the public to engage with the space debris challenge.

There are also other important reasons to care about space debris. Lundgren pointed out that there has already been a global 10% increase in brightness relative to the natural, dark sky because of light-reflecting space debris. This is the kind of light pollution that you cannot escape, Lundgren stated, “You can’t just drive away like with city pollution.” For communities of people, like the Indigenous, this is also having severe impact on the cultural ways in which they use nighttime skies.

Newburgh’s scientific research uses a particular satellite frequency for data collection. This wavelength was just sold to a communication company, meaning that eventually, she will no longer be able to do her work. The frequencies used for satellites are limited, and thus an extremely valuable and expensive, monopolizable commodity. Scientists like Newburgh are gravely concerned about the protection of the future of their work and worried that we might “lose out on science.”

Because of the initiatives like Starlink, a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, Newburgh said that space has begun to feel like the “Wild West” with no rules or regulation. “It feels like you could just do anything.”

This was a very important tenet of the discussion: “[Space debris] is not just a technical problem we have to solve, but a social one as well.” While technical solutions are needed to constrain the exponential growth of space debris, the even bigger challenge seems to lie in answering questions like “Who gets to use the remaining capacity in lowest orbit and how do we decide?” that Lewis asked. “Lots of companies, governments, and so on want to use space,” Lewis said.

Starlink satellites are changing to night sky. The company’s satellites can be seen traveling through space.

Ambassador Pearson said that this issue could be resolved by starting with a shared interest in the space debris issue and working outwards to points of change that are important across nations. The result would not ultimately be the full wish of any singular entity. Pearson also emphasized the pertinence of action: “It’s one thing to talk about what ought to be done and to talk about what we will do.”

While Pearson says that he does not believe there is a way to avoid national competition in space, it is essential to develop rules to mitigate and govern international interactions in space. This is likely to be a long process and has been on the minds of experts for decades already. But as Pearson reminded the audience it took almost 40 years to “get the ball rolling on climate change” and 10 years for the first nuclear disarmament.

The conversation ultimately kept returning to the need to engage the public and the impact that unconstrained space debris would have on their lives. Pearson said it is important to let the public know that the access to health, technology, communications, and many facets of society people had come to expect in their lives, would be severely impacted by damage to our space infrastructure.

“Whenever you think about the environment down here that we all occupy, that we are all connected to, we have to also think about the environment in space,” Lewis said.

He ended the conversation with a quote from the science fiction movie, Terminator 2: There is no fate but what we make for ourselves. This fate is dependent on cooperation between scientists, diplomats, regulatory and technical experts, and the public around the world.

Post by Cydney Livingston, Class of 2022

“Rainforest Radio”: Linguistic Ecology in the Western Amazon

Radio host Rita Tunay interviews a local elder on the Kichwa-language radio program “Mushuk Ñampi” [A New Path].
Photographs from Dr. Georgia Ennis.

Starting at the pre-dawn hours of 3 or 4 AM, the Kichwa people of Napo, Ecuador, gather with family and spend time talking and listening and drinking tea, in a tradition known as Wayusa Upina.

In Kichwa, the verb “to listen” also means “to understand,” says Penn State anthropologist Georgia Ennis, who spoke at Duke last week. Wayusa Upina provides natural opportunities for children to learn from parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. Kichwa pedagogies, Ennis explains, “have a lot less to do with a traditional classroom.”

But as multigenerational households become less common and Kichwa children spend more time in schools, the tradition has become less widespread. Meanwhile, other traditions, like radio programs in Kichwa, are becoming more common, and “the radio ends up filling the space” that multigenerational conversation might otherwise fill. Through music videos, social media, live performances, books, and radio programs, the people of Napo are finding new roles for an old language.

The town of Archidona, Ecuador, located in the Western Amazon.

Ennis studies language oppression and reclamation and is broadly interested in the relationship between ecological and linguistic change. “How can we bring language and the environment together?” she asks. While her work was initially focused on language standardization, she became interested in the environmental aspects during her research. The two issues aren’t separate; they are linked in complex ways. To explain ecology in a linguistic sense, Dr. Ennis offers a definition from Einar Haugen: “Language ecology may be defined as the study of interactions between any given language and its environment… The true environment of a language is the society that uses it as one of its codes.”

Many scientists believe we are witnessing a sixth mass extinction, and extinction is occurring at unprecedented rates, but Dr. Ennis says we are losing another kind of diversity as well: the diversity of languages. Her own work focuses on Upper Napo Kichwa in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Though there are 47,000 speakers, there has been a language shift toward Spanish among younger generations. “Spanish really remains the dominant language of social life,” she says, even though the majority of the residents are Kichwa.

The concept of “language endangerment,” or the rapid loss of marginalized languages as speakers adopt dominant languages instead, is complex and not without its critics. Dr. Ennis believes languages like Kichwa are “actively oppressed,” not passively endangered.

There are eight varieties of Kichwa in the Andean highlands and the Amazon. “Unified Kichwa,” which Dr. Ennis says is based on reconstruction of Andean varieties, was adopted as an official language of Ecuador in 2008, but this standardized version fails to capture local variation. In Napo, Dr. Ennis found that “the regional linguistic varieties were understood to be inherited from your elders.” Initially, she had “a much stronger stance” against standardized language, but she now sees certain benefits to Unified Kichwa. It can, for instance, help encourage bilingual education. Still, it risks outcompeting local dialects. Many of the people she worked with in Napo are actively trying to prevent that.

The reverse of language endangerment or oppression is language revitalization or reclamation, which aims to preserve linguistic diversity by increasing the number of speakers and broadening the use of language. Media production, for instance, can help create social, political, and economic value for Upper Napo Kichwa.

Ofelia Salazar of the Association of Upper Napo Kichwa midwives weaves a shigra bag from the natural fiber pitak.

In Napo, Dr. Ennis realized that many Kichwa are interested in reclaiming more than just language. They are also working to preserve traditional environmental practices and intergenerational pedagogies. None of these issues exist in a vacuum, and recognizing their links is important. Dr. Ennis wants people to realize that “ecologies are more than just biological ecosystems.” Through the course of her work, she’s become more aware of the ties between linguistic and environmental issues. Environmental issues, she says, are present in daily life; they shape what people talk about. Conversations like these are essential. Whether in radio programs or casual discussions, political debates or household conversations before the sun has risen, the things we talk about and the stories we tell affect how we view the world and how we respond to it.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

The Duke Blockchain Lab: Disrupting and Redefining Finance

The first decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was created in 2009 by a developer named Satoshi Nakamoto which is assumed to be a pseudonym. Over the last decade, cryptocurrency has taken the world by storm, influencing the way people think about the intersection of society and economics. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum, another popular token, operate on blockchains.

Manmit Singh, a senior studying electrical and computer engineering, was introduced to blockchain his freshman year at Duke after meeting Joey Santoro ‘19, a senior studying computer science at the time.

Singh quickly found that he was not only interested in the promise of blockchain but skilled at building blockchain applications as well. As a result, he joined the Duke blockchain lab, a club on campus that, at the time, had no more than fifteen students. Singh, who is now president of the Duke Blockchain Lab, explained that there are now over 100 members in the club working on different projects related to blockchain. 

“Blockchain is a computer network with a built-in immutable ledge.”

Manmit SIngh

Essentially, computers process information, the internet allows us to communicate information and blockchain is the next step in the evolution of the digital era. It not only allows computers to communicate value but to transfer it as well in a completely transparent way because every transaction is tracked and, a record of that transaction is added to every participant’s ledger which is visible to others.

The concept and application of blockchain is not intuitive to everybody. Not only do people have difficulty understanding it, but they do not even know where to begin asking questions. 

For Singh, a key element to the club’s success was recruiting new members. The crypto space experienced a crash in 2017 resulting in a lot of skepticism around an already novel idea, decentralized currency. As a result, it was crucial to educate others on the potential of decentralized finance (DeFi), cryptocurrency, and, of course, blockchain. When recruiting, Singh wanted to bring in both tech and business-focused students so that they could not only work on building blockchain applications but conduct research on business models and how to generate value within decentralized finance as well.

Members of the Duke Blockchain Lab at a
weekly meeting learning about Stablecoins,
one type of token in cryptocurrency

Currently, members are working on a variety of projects including looking at consensus algorithms or how the blockchain makes decisions given that it is decentralized so inherently no one is in control. However, their most ambitious venture is the development of their Crypto Fund where people can invest money.

They are also looking to develop a Duke-inspired marketplace with talented Duke artists to sell non-fungible-tokens or NFTs. If unfamiliar, Abby Shlesinger, a senior studying Art History, created a blog to educate people on what NFTs are. 

One of the first projects Singh led involved developing a “smart contract” for cryptocurrency-based energy trading on the Ethereum Virtual Machine, a computation engine that acts like a decentralized computer that can hold millions of executable projects. Smart contracts are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met.

Additionally, Singh and other members of the Duke Blockchain Lab are working on tokenomic research with Dr. Harvey, a Duke professor who recently published a book alongside Santoro titled “DeFi and the Future of Finance” which you can find here. 

“Every blockchain is a complete economy that exists on a different plane.” 

Within these blockchain economies are various different types of tokens that vary in function and value. Tokenomics explores how these economies work and can be used to generate value. When asked to compare tokenomic concepts to ones in traditional finance, Singh explained that payment tokens are like dollars, asset tokens are like bonds and security tokens are like stocks. Currently, several companies are working on creating competitive blockchains that will be both cheaper and faster allowing creating an avenue for blockchain to continue accelerating into the mainstream. 

Meanwhile, Santoro, who introduced Singh to blockchain, graduated from Duke in 2019 and went on to form The Fei Protocol, a stable coin that unlike bitcoin does not change in value. His protocol raised one billion dollars within several weeks and while it had some initial challenges, it is now set to launch V2, a second version, soon. 

Singh plans to continue working on blockchain applications after graduating this spring and hopes to combine it with his passion for entrepreneurship.

“I am enthused by the applications of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the internet of things in disrupting the world as we know it.”

Manmit Singh
By: Anna Gotskind

Back in Action: HackDuke’s 2021 “Code for Good”

If you walked across Duke’s Engineering Quad between 9AM on Saturday, October 23rd, and 5PM on Sunday, October 24th, the scene might’ve looked like that of any other day: students gathered in small groups, working diligently.

But then you’d see the giant banner and realize something special was afoot. These students were participating in HackDuke’s “Code for Good,” one of the most eminent social good hackathons in the country.

Participants have to “build something, not just an idea,” said Anita Li, co-director of HackDuke. Working in teams, students develop software, hardware, or quantum solutions to problems in one of four tracks: inequality, health, education, and energy and environment.

Participants can win “track prizes,” where $2,400 in total donations are made in winners’ names ($300 for first, $200 for second, $100 for third) to charities doing work in that track. There are other prizes too. Sponsors, including Capital One, Accenture, and Microsoft give incentives: if participants incorporate their technology or use their database, they’re qualified to win that sponsor’s prize (gift cards, usually, or software worth hundreds of dollars).

This year, Duke’s department of Student Affairs sponsored the health track, in hopes that participants might come up with ideas that could help promote student wellness here at Duke. “It’s a great space for thinking about these issues,” Li said.

Li told me they had more than 1,000 registrations, though there’s always a little less turnout. HackDuke is open to all students and recent graduates, so that “you get to see these cool ideas from everywhere.”

Just under half of this year’s participants were from Duke, almost 10% hailed from UNC, and the rest were from other universities across the US and the world. 30 percent of participants were women — a significant increase from the last HackDuke covered by the Research Blog, in 2014. 

This year is “particularly interesting,” Li said, because of the hybrid model. Last year, everything was virtual. This year, about 300 (vaccinated) students attended in person, making HackDuke one of the few Major League Hacking events with an in-person component this year. With the hybrid model, talks, workshops, and demos are all livestreamed so that no one misses out.

Some social events also had online elements: you could zoom into the Bob Ross painting session as well as the open mic, which Li said quickly turned into karaoke night. The spicy ramen challenge was “a little harder over Zoom.”

I came across Sydney Wang and Ray Lennon, along with teammate Jean Rabideau, as they were building a web app called JamJar for the Education Track contest. In the app, students give real-time feedback to teachers about how well they’re understanding the material. There are three categories: engagement (you can rank your engagement along a scale from “mentally I’m in outer space” to “locked in), understanding (“where am I?” to “crystal clear”), and speed (“a glacial pace” to “TOO FAST!”). Student responses get compiled and graphed to show mean markers of understanding over time. 

Lennon said he’s participating because “this is the best way to learn: to be thrown in the fire and have to learn as you go.” Wang felt the same way. She’s new to coding, and feels like she’s learning a lot from Lennon.

Like Lennon and Wang, many participants see HackDuke as an opportunity to learn. There are technical workshops where participants can learn HTML and CSS. There are talks where speakers discuss working in the coding and social good sector. The CTO of change.org, Elaine Zhou, flew to Durham to speak to participants about her experience. So there’s a networking opportunity, too — participants can meet people like Zhou doing the work they want to do, and professors and company representatives who can help them on their journey to get there.

There were challenges. Staying hydrated was one: by Sunday morning, they’d gone through seven cases of water, 16 cases of soda, and three cases of red bull. “It takes a lot of liquids,” Li said. And then there’s sleep — or lack thereof. When Li was participating in her freshman year, she slept for about three hours. Many people pull all-nighters, but “nap sporadically everywhere,” Li said. “It’s like finals season, with everyone knocked out.” She saw a handful of guys sleeping on the floor in Fitzpatrick. She gave them bed pads. 

Li’s love for HackDuke is contagious. She loves to see participants focusing on social good and drawing on their awareness of what’s happening in the world. “People are thinking about things that are intense; they’re really worrying about issues facing certain communities,” Li said.

At HackDuke, people really are coding for good.

Post by Zella Hanson

How Freshman Engineers Solve Real-World Problems in EGR 101

The sound of drills whirring, the smell of heated plastic from the 3D printers, and trying to see through foggy goggles. As distracting as it may sound, this is a normal day for a first-year engineering student (including myself) in class. 

During these past few weeks, freshmen engineers have been brainstorming and building projects that have piqued their interest in their EGR101 class. Wanting to know more, I couldn’t help but approach Amanda Smith, Jaden Fisher, Myers Murphy, and Christopher Cosby, and ask about their goal to make an assistive device to help people with limited mobility take trash cans up an inclined driveway that is slippery and wet.

“Our client noticed the problem in his neighborhood in Chapel Hill with its mainly-elderly population, and asked for a solution to help them,” Fisher says. “We thought it would be cool to give back to the community.” Their solution: a spool with a motor. 

Coming from a mechanical engineering mindset, the team came up with the idea to create a spool-like object that has ropes that connect to the trash can, and with a motor, it would twist, pull up the trash can, and then slowly unroll it back down the driveway. As of now, they are currently in the prototyping phase, but they are continuing to work hard nonetheless. 

“For now, our goal is to slowly begin to scale up and hopefully be able to make it carry a full trash can. Maybe one day, our clients can implement it in real life and help the people that need it,” says Smith.

Low-fidelity prototype of the spool

All of this planning and building is part of the Engineering Design & Communication class, also known as EGR 101, which all Pratt students have to take in their first year. Students are taught about the engineering design process, and then assigned a project to implement what they learned in a real life situation by the end of the semester.

“This is a very active learning type of class, with an emphasis on the design process,” says Chip Bobbert, one of the EGR 101 professors. “We think early exposure will be something that will carry forward with student’s careers.”

Not only do the students deal with local clients, but some take on problems from  nationwide companies, like Vivek Tarapara, Will Denton, Del Cudjoe, Ken Kalin, Desmond Decker, and their client, SKANSKA, a global construction company.

“They have an issue scheduling deliveries of materials to their subcontractors, which causes many issues like getting things late, dropped in the wrong areas, etc.,” Tarapara explains. “There is a white board in these construction sites, but with people erasing things and illegible handwriting, we want to make a software-based organizational tool so that everyone involved in the construction is on the same page.”

Watching the team test their code and explain to me each part of their software, I see they have successfully developed an online form that can be accessed with a QR code at the construction site or through a website. It would input the information on a calendar so that users can see everything at any time, where anyone can access it, and a text bot to help facilitate the details.

“We are currently still working on making it look better and more fluid, and make a final solution that SKANSKA will be satisfied with,” Denton says, as he continues to type away at his code.

Vivek Tarapara (left) and Will Denton (right) working on their code and text bot

One final project, brought up by Duke oral surgeon Katharine Ciarrocca, consists of students Abigail Paris, Fernando Rodriguez, Konur Nordberg, and Camila Cordero (hey, that’s me!), and their mouth prop design project. 

After many trials and errors, my team has created a solution that we are currently in the works of printing with liquid silicone rubber. “We have made a bite block pair, connected by a horizontal prism with a gap to clip on, as well as elevated it to give space for the tongue to rest naturally,” Paris elaborates.

The motivation behind this project comes from COVID-19. With the increase of ICU patients, many receiving endotracheal intubations, doctors have come to realize that these intubations are causing other health issues such as pressure necrosis, biting on the tongue, and bruising from the lip. Dr. Ciarrocca decided to ask the EGR 101 class to come up with a device to help reduce such injuries.

Medium-fidelity prototype of mouth prop inside of mouth model with an endotracheal intubation tube

Being part of this class and having first-hand look at all the upcoming projects, it’s surprising to see freshman students already working on such real-world problems.

“One of the things I love about engineering and this course is that we’re governed by physics and power, and it all comes to bear,” says Steven McClelland, another EGR 101 professor. “So this reckoning of using the real world and beginning to take theory and take everything into consideration, it’s fascinating to see the students finally step into reality.”

Not only does it push freshmen to test their creativity, but it also creates a sense of teamwork and bonding between classmates, even in the most unordinary class setting.

“I look around the room and there’s someone wearing a pool noodle, another boiling alcohol, and another trying to measure the inside of their mouth,” says Bobberts as he scans the area quickly. “I’m excited to see people going and doing stuff together.”

Post by Camila Codero, Class of 2025

Law Tech Demo Roundup, Using Technology to Address Gaps in Access to Justice

If innovative technology solutions are the key to addressing gaps in our justice system, Duke Law Tech Lab (DLTL) is a place where these solutions come to life.

Friday, October 22nd, three teams presented on their work, supported by DLTL, to change the way that legal services are delivered. And the presentation had more at stake than just educating the attendees. Real cash prizes were on the line – voted on by a panel of judges and even audience members – to provide even more funding for these startups.

Jeff Ward introduces the 2021 Law Tech Legal Demo Judges.

The three teams were accepted out of dozens of applications to work with the DLTL, according to host Jeff Ward (JD), Director of Duke’s Center on Law and Technology and Clinical Professor of Law. The Lab looks for early-stage companies striving to increase access to legal solutions to offer monetary support, but the missions of the DLTL initiative go far beyond that. DLTL is building a community for creative entrepreneurs in the legal tech space, connecting start-ups with valuable partners and mentors, and fostering a space of growth through tailored resources and support.

First up at the 2021 Law Tech Lab Demo Day was Creators’ Legal. “The traditional legal solutions simply don’t work for the modern content creator,” said Eric Farber, founder and CEO of Creators’ Legal. Farber’s company is seeking to help what is now the second-fastest sector of the world economy: Content creators. Content creators are people who generate revenue by sponsorships and advertising, often through social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok. This market is huge and expanding, but “completely underserved” with legal solutions, said Farber.

Creators’ Legal CEO and Founder, Eric Farber, explains how the company works to support modern content creators.

Because content creators can go from production to distribution within just a few hours or less, traditional entertainment legal that is filled with time-consuming, expensive, and unresponsive lawyers is not a viable option.

Farber says that “Industry Standard Agreements and deals are hidden behind the doors of [this] traditional legal.” By creating a platform that has easy-to-use contract templates, eSignatures, and a digital briefcase for storing files offered on a by-contract or subscription-basis, Creators Legal wants to be a company that serves the gaps left for content creators.

Next up was Justice Innovations, represented by its CEO, Sasha Davenport. Davenport and Justice Innovations want to rearrange the workflow associated with the process that happens from the time a crime takes place to the person who has been arrested for the case makes their initial appearance in court.

“This [at the initial appearance] is where things get really interesting for me,” said Davenport because about 40% of cases are dropped for no-actions. This leads to a huge number of wasted time, effort, budgets, and more. By creating and integrating a software system that they are dubbing Vet-IT, the company wants to increase data-sharing across agencies that should be on the same page with each other but often are not.

Sasha Davenport, CEO, explains how Vet-IT works through different steps from initial crime reporting to someone’s first appearance in court.

Through the data-sharing platform, information would be entered about a case from the first moments of crime investigation to help decide if this is a charge that would even end up being prosecuted or not. The benefits, according to Davenport, including filtering out bad cases, deflecting more people from entering the carceral system, decreasing jail populations, expediting redirection for individuals in need to mental health interventions, and, potentially, improved community-police trust. Justice Innovations were inspired to pursue this idea because of the great success that Harris County Texas has had in producing few no-action cases. Harris County achieved this by a process of phone-trees across agencies for the last 50 years.

Founder and Executive Director of SAEF Legal Aid, Eamonn Keenan, explains the company’s marketing strategy of community outreach.

Last, but not least, was SAEF Legal Aid. Eamonn Keenan, company Founder and Executive Director, laid out the team’s legal tech solution. There is a systematic problem of finding the legal support that one needs before it is too late, bringing with it immense challenges and large expenditures of time. Keenan became aware of this issue while working at a legal aid help desk. SAEF Legal Aid’s solution is to leverage practical tech to more accurately diagnose user’s legal problems and facilitate access to free or affordable legal solutions via reliable referrals and strategic partnerships.

In doing this work, the team hopes to help low-income families more immediately, starting with family law services and expanding out. A large part of their solution also includes building partnerships with “word-of-mouth marketing” to embed the service in high-need communities. “People without internet access might need legal help the most,” Keenan said. SAEF Legal Aid hopes to cut through the lack of staffing for legal aid advice desks and bypass the waiting game of larger legal aid providers who often have high turn-away rates and long waiting periods for attorney follow up to resolve the barrier that intake causes in gaining access to legal help.

At the end of the presentation, Justice Innovations walked away with the Audience Favorite prize and SAEF Legal Aid took the Grand Prize. Regardless of prizes, these three teams will inevitably continue to be part of the solution to gaps in justice as they carry their work forward.

Post by Cydney Livingston

‘Anonymous Has Viewed Your Profile’: All Networks Lead to Re-Identification

For half an hour this rainy Wednesday, October 6th, I logged on to a LinkedIn Live series webinar with Dr. Jiaming Xu from the Fuqua School of Business. I sat inside the bridge between Perkins and Bostock, my laptop connected to DukeBlue wifi. I had Instagram open on my phone and was tapping through friends’ stories while I waited for the broadcast to start. I had Google Docs open in another tab to take notes. 

The title of the webinar was “Can Anyone Truly Be Anonymous Online?” 

Xu spoke about “network privacy,” which is “the intersection of network analysis and data privacy.” When you make an account, connect to wifi, share your location, search something online, or otherwise hint at your personal information, you are creating a “user profile”: a network of personal data that hints at your identity. 

You are probably familiar with how social media companies track your decisions to curate a more engaging experience for you (i.e. the reason I scroll through TikTok for 5 minutes, then 30 minutes, then… Oh no! Two hours have gone by). Other companies track other kinds of data— data that isn’t always just for algorithmic manipulation or creepy-accurate Amazon ads (i.e. “Hey! I was just thinking about buying cat litter. How did Mr. Bezos know?”). Your name, work history, date of birth, address, location, and other critical identifying factors can be collected even if you think your profile is scrubbed clean. In a rather on-the-nose anecdote to his LinkedIn audience on Wednesday, Xu explained that in April 2021, over 500 million user profiles on LinkedIn were hacked. Valuable, “sensitive, work-related data,” he noted, was made vulnerable. 

Image courtesy of Flickr

So, what do you have to worry about? I know I tend to not worry about my personal information online; letting companies collect my data benefits me. I can get targeted Google ads about things I’m interested in and cool filters on Snapchat. In a medical setting, Xu said, prediction algorithms may help patients’ health in the long run. But even anonymized and sanitized data can be traced back to you. For further reading: in an essay published in July 2021, philosophers Evan Selinger and Judy Rhee elaborate on the dangers of “normalizing surveillance.”

The meat of Xu’s talk was how your data can be traced back to you. Xu gave three examples. 

The first was a study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas- Austin attempting to identify users submitting “anonymous” reviews for movies on Netflix (keep in mind this was 2007, so picture the red Netflix logo on the DVD box accordingly). To achieve this, they cross-referenced the network of reviews published by Netflix with the network of individuals signed up on IMDB; they matched those who reviewed movies similarly on both platforms with their public profiles on IMDB. You can read more about that specific study here. (For those unafraid of the full research paper, click here). 

Let’s take a pause to learn a new vocab word! “Signatures.” In this example, the signature was users’ movie ratings. See if you can name the signature in the other two examples.

The second example was conducted by the same researchers; to identify users on Twitter who shared their data anonymously, it was simply a matter of cross-referencing the network of Twitter users with Flickr users. If you know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, you and that group of people are likely to initiate that same chain of following each other on every social media platform you have (it may remind you of the theory that you are connected by “six degrees of separation” from every person on the planet, which, as it turns out, is also supported by social media data). The researchers were able to identify the correct users 30.8% of the time. 

Time for another vocab break! Those users who connect groups of people who know a guy who know a guy who know a guy are called “seeds.” Speaking of which, did you identify the signature in this example? 

Image courtesy of Flickr

The third and final example was my personal favorite because it was the funkiest and creative. Facebook user data— also “scrubbed clean” before being sold to third-party advertisers— was overlain with LinkedIn user data to reveal a network of connections that are repeated. How did they match up those networks, you ask? First, the algorithm assigned a computed score to every individual user based on how many Facebook friends they have and one for every user based on how many LinkedIn connections they have. Then, each user was assigned a list of integers based on their friends’ popularity score. Bet you weren’t expecting that. 

This method sort of improves upon the Twitter/Flickr example, but in addition to overlaying networks and chains of users, it better matches who is who. Since you are likely to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, but you are also likely to know all of those guys down the line, following specific chains does not always accurately convey who is who. Unlike the seeds signature, the friends’ popularity signature was able to correctly re-identify users most of the time. 

Sitting in the bridge Wednesday, I was connected to many networks that I wouldn’t think could be used to identify me through my limited public data. Now, I’m not so sure.

So, what’s the lesson here? At the least, it was fun to learn about, even if the ultimate realization leaves us powerless against big data analytics. Your data has monetary value, and it is not as secure as you think: but it may be worth asking whether or not we even have the ability to protect our anonymity.

In Drawers of Old Bones, New Clues to the Genomes of Lost Giants

DNA extracted from a 1,475-year-old jawbone reveals genetic blueprint for one of the largest lemurs ever.

By teasing trace amounts of DNA from this partially fossilized jawbone, nearly 1,500 years after the creature’s death, scientists have managed to reconstruct the first giant lemur genome. Credit: University of Antananarivo and George Perry, Penn State

If you’ve been to the Duke Lemur Center, perhaps you’ve seen these cute mouse- to cat-sized primates leaping through the trees. Now imagine a lemur as big as a gorilla, lumbering its way through the forest as it munches on leaves.

It may sound like a scene from a science fiction thriller, but from skeletal remains we know that at least 17 supersized lemurs once roamed the African island of Madagascar. All of them were two to 20 times heftier than the average lemur living today, some weighing up to 350 pounds.

Then, sometime after humans arrived on the island, these creatures started disappearing.

The reasons for their extinction remain a mystery, but by 500 years ago all of them had vanished.

Coaxing molecular clues to their lives from the bones and teeth they left behind has proved a struggle, because after all this time their DNA is so degraded.

But now, thanks to advances in our ability to read ancient DNA, a giant lemur that may have fallen into a cave or sinkhole near the island’s southern coast nearly 1,500 years ago has had much of its DNA pieced together again. Researchers believe it was a slow-moving 200-pound vegetarian with a pig-like snout, long arms, and powerful grasping feet for hanging upside down from branches.

A single jawbone, stored at Madagascar’s University of Antananarivo, was all the researchers had. But that contained enough traces of DNA for a team led by George Perry and Stephanie Marciniak at Penn State to reconstruct the nuclear genome for one of the largest giant lemurs, Megaladapis edwardsi, a koala lemur from Madagascar.

Ancient DNA can tell stories about species that have long since vanished, such as how they lived and what they were related to. But sequencing DNA from partially fossilized remains is no small feat, because DNA breaks down over time. And because the DNA is no longer intact, researchers have to take these fragments and figure out their correct order, like the pieces of a mystery jigsaw puzzle with no image on the box.

Bones like these are all that’s left of Madagascar’s giant lemurs, the largest of which weighed in at 350 pounds — 20 times heftier than lemurs living today. Credit: Matt Borths, Curator of the Division of Fossil Primates at the Duke Lemur Center

Hard-won history lessons

The first genetic study of M. edwardsi, published in 2005 by Duke’s Anne Yoder, was based on DNA stored not in the nucleus — which houses most of our genes — but in another cellular compartment called the mitochondria that has its own genetic material. Mitochondria are plentiful in animal cells, which makes it easier to find their DNA.

At the time, ancient DNA researchers considered themselves lucky to get just a few hundred letters of an extinct animal’s genetic code. In the latest study they managed to tease out and reconstruct some one million of them.

“I never even dreamed that the day would come that we could produce whole genomes,” said Yoder, who has been studying ancient DNA in extinct lemurs for over 20 years and is a co-author of the current paper.

For the latest study, the researchers tried to extract DNA from hundreds of giant lemur specimens, but only one yielded enough useful material to reconstitute the whole genome.

Once the creature’s genome was sequenced, the team was able to compare it to the genomes of 47 other living vertebrate species, including five modern lemurs, to identify its closest living relatives. Its genetic similarities with other herbivores suggest it was well adapted for grazing on leaves.

Despite their nickname, koala lemurs weren’t even remotely related to koalas. Their DNA confirms that they belonged to the same evolutionary lineage as lemurs living today.

To Yoder it’s another piece of evidence that the ancestors of today’s lemurs colonized Madagascar in a single wave.

Since the first ancient DNA studies were published, in the 1980s, scientists have unveiled complete nuclear genomes for other long-lost species, including the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, and even extinct human relatives such as Neanderthals.

Most of these species lived in cooler, drier climates where ancient DNA is better preserved. But this study extends the possibilities of ancient DNA research for our distant primate relatives that lived in the tropics, where exposure to heat, sunlight and humidity can cause DNA to break down faster.

“Tropical conditions are death to DNA,” Yoder said. “It’s so exciting to get a deeper glimpse into what these animals were doing and have that validated and verified.”

See them for yourself

Assembled in drawers and cabinets cases in the Duke Lemur Center’s Division of Fossil Primates on Broad St. are the remains of at least eight species of giant lemurs that you can no longer find in the wild. If you live in Durham, you may drive by them every day and have no idea. It’s the world’s largest collection.

In one case are partially fossilized bits of jaws, skulls and leg bones from Madagascar’s extinct koala lemurs. Nearby are the remains of the monkey-like Archaeolemur edwardsi, which was once widespread across the island. There’s even a complete skeleton of a sloth lemur that would have weighed in at nearly 80 pounds, Palaeopropithecus kelyus, hanging upside down from a branch.

Most of these specimens were collected over 25 years between 1983 and 2008, when Duke Lemur Center teams went to Madagascar to collect fossils from caves and ancient swamps across the island.

“What is really exciting about getting better and better genetic data from the subfossils, is we may discover more genetically distinct species than only the fossil record can reveal,” said Duke paleontologist Matt Borths, who curates the collection. “That in turn may help us better understand how many species were lost in the recent past.”

They plan to return in 2022. “Hopefully there is more Megaladapis to discover,” Borths said.

A fossil site in Madagascar. Courtesy of Matt Borths, Duke Lemur Center Division of Fossil Primates

CITATION: “Evolutionary and Phylogenetic Insights From a Nuclear Genome Sequence of the Extinct, Giant, ‘Subfossil’ Koala Lemur Megaladapis Edwardsi,” Stephanie Marciniak, Mehreen R. Mughal, Laurie R. Godfrey, Richard J. Bankoff, Heritiana Randrianatoandro, Brooke E. Crowley, Christina M. Bergey, Kathleen M. Muldoon, Jeannot Randrianasy, Brigitte M. Raharivololona, Stephan C. Schuster, Ripan S. Malhi, Anne D. Yoder, Edward E. Louis Jr, Logan Kistler, and George H. Perry. PNAS, June 29, 2021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022117118.

A New Algorithm for “In-Betweening” images applied to Covid, Aging and Continental Drift

Collaborating with a colleague in Shanghai, we recently published an article that explains the mathematical concept of ‘in-betweening,’in images – calculating intermediate stages of changes in appearance from one image to the next.

Our equilibrium-driven deformation algorithm (EDDA) was used to demonstrate three difficult tasks of ‘in-betweening’ images: Facial aging, coronavirus spread in the lungs, and continental drift.

Part I. Understanding Pneumonia Invasion and Retreat in COVID-19

The pandemic has influenced the entire world and taken away nearly 3 million lives to date. If a person were unlucky enough to contract the virus and COVID-19, one way to diagnose them is to carry out CT scans of their lungs to visualize the damage caused by pneumonia.

However, it is impossible to monitor the patient all the time using CT scans. Thus, the invading process is usually invisible for doctors and researchers.

To solve this difficulty, we developed a mathematical algorithm which relies on only two CT scans to simulate the pneumonia invasion process caused by COVID-19.

We compared a series of CT scans of a Chinese patient taken at different times. This patient had severe pneumonia caused by COVID-19 but recovered after a successful treatment. Our simulation clearly revealed the pneumonia invasion process in the patient’s lungs and the fading away process after the treatment.

Our simulation results also identify several significant areas in which the patient’s lungs are more vulnerable to the virus and other areas in which the lungs have better response to the treatment. Those areas were perfectly consistent with the medical analysis based on this patient’s actual, real-time CT scan images. The consistency of our results indicates the value of the method.

The COVID-19 pneumonia invading (upper panel) and fading away (lower panel) process from the data-driven simulations. Red circles indicate four significant areas in which the patient’s lungs were more vulnerable to the pneumonia and blue circles indicate two significant areas in which the patient’s lungs had better response to the treatment. (Image credit: Gao et al., 2021)
We also applied this algorithm to simulate human facial changes over time, in which the aging processes for different parts of a woman’s face were automatically created by the algorithm with high resolution. (Image credit: Gao et al., 2021. Video)

Part II. Solving the Puzzle of Continental Drift

It has always been mysterious how the continents we know evolved and formed from the ancient single supercontinent, Pangaea. But then German polar researcher Alfred Wegener proposed the continental drift hypothesis in the early 20th century. Although many geologists argued about his hypothesis initially, more sound evidence such as continental structures, fossils and the magnetic polarity of rocks has supported Wegener’s proposition.

Our data-driven algorithm has been applied to simulate the possible evolution process of continents from Pangaea period.

The underlying forces driving continental drift were determined by the equilibrium status of the continents on the current planet. In order to describe the edges that divide the land to create oceans, we proposed a delicate thresholding scheme.

The formation and deformation for different continents is clearly revealed in our simulation. For example, the ‘drift’ of the Antarctic continent from Africa can be seen happening. This exciting simulation presents a quick and obvious way for geologists to establish more possible lines of inquiry about how continents can drift from one status to another, just based on the initial and equilibrium continental status. Combined with other technological advances, this data-driven method may provide a path to solve Wegener’s puzzle of continental drift.

The theory of continental drift reconciled similar fossil plants and animals now found on widely separated continents. The southern part after Pangaea breaks (Gondwana) is shown here evidence of Wegener’s theory. (Image credit: United States Geological Survey)
The continental drift process of the data-driven simulations. Black arrow indicates the formation of the Antarctic. (Image credit: Gao et al., 2021)

The study was supported by the Department of Mathematics and Physics, Duke University.

CITATION: “Inbetweening auto-animation via Fokker-Planck dynamics and thresholding,” Yuan Gao, Guangzhen Jin & Jian-Guo Liu. Inverse Problems and Imaging, February, 2021, DOI: 10.3934/ipi.2021016. Online: http://www.aimsciences.org/article/doi/10.3934/ipi.2021016

Yuan Gao

Yuan Gao is the William W. Elliot Assistant Research Professor in the department of mathematics, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

Jian-Guo Liu is a Professor in the departments of mathematics and physics, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

Jian-Guo Liu

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