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#435110 5 Coming Breakthroughs in Energy and ...

The energy and transportation industries are being aggressively disrupted by converging exponential technologies.

In just five days, the sun provides Earth with an energy supply exceeding all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas. Capturing just 1 part in 8,000 of this available solar energy would allow us to meet 100 percent of our energy needs.

As we leverage renewable energy supplied by the sun, wind, geothermal sources, and eventually fusion, we are rapidly heading towards a future where 100 percent of our energy needs will be met by clean tech in just 30 years.

During the past 40 years, solar prices have dropped 250-fold. And as these costs plummet, solar panel capacity continues to grow exponentially.

On the heels of energy abundance, we are additionally witnessing a new transportation revolution, which sets the stage for a future of seamlessly efficient travel at lower economic and environmental costs.

Top 5 Transportation Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
Entrepreneur and inventor Ramez Naam is my go-to expert on all things energy and environment. Currently serving as the Energy Co-Chair at Singularity University, Naam is the award-winning author of five books, including the Nexus series of science fiction novels. Having spent 13 years at Microsoft, his software has touched the lives of over a billion people. Naam holds over 20 patents, including several shared with co-inventor Bill Gates.

In the next five years, he forecasts five respective transportation and energy trends, each poised to disrupt major players and birth entirely new business models.

Let’s dive in.

Autonomous cars drive 1 billion miles on US roads. Then 10 billion

Alphabet’s Waymo alone has already reached 10 million miles driven in the US. The 600 Waymo vehicles on public roads drive a total of 25,000 miles each day, and computer simulations provide an additional 25,000 virtual cars driving constantly. Since its launch in December, the Waymo One service has transported over 1,000 pre-vetted riders in the Phoenix area.

With more training miles, the accuracy of these cars continues to improve. Since last year, GM Cruise has improved its disengagement rate by 321 percent since last year, trailing close behind with only one human intervention per 5,025 miles self-driven.

Autonomous taxis as a service in top 20 US metro areas

Along with its first quarterly earnings released last week, Lyft recently announced that it would expand its Waymo partnership with the upcoming deployment of 10 autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix area. While individuals previously had to partake in Waymo’s “early rider program” prior to trying Waymo One, the Lyft partnership will allow anyone to ride in a self-driving vehicle without a prior NDA.

Strategic partnerships will grow increasingly essential between automakers, self-driving tech companies, and rideshare services. Ford is currently working with Volkswagen, and Nvidia now collaborates with Daimler (Mercedes) and Toyota. Just last week, GM Cruise raised another $1.15 billion at a $19 billion valuation as the company aims to launch a ride-hailing service this year.

“They’re going to come to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston, other cities with relatively good weather,” notes Naam. “In every major city within five years in the US and in some other parts of the world, you’re going to see the ability to hail an autonomous vehicle as a ride.”

Cambrian explosion of vehicle formats

Naam explains, “If you look today at the average ridership of a taxi, a Lyft, or an Uber, it’s about 1.1 passengers plus the driver. So, why do you need a large four-seater vehicle for that?”

Small electric, autonomous pods that seat as few as two people will begin to emerge, satisfying the majority of ride-hailing demands we see today. At the same time, larger communal vehicles will appear, such as Uber Express, that will undercut even the cheapest of transportation methods—buses, trams, and the like. Finally, last-mile scooter transit (or simply short-distance walks) might connect you to communal pick-up locations.

By 2024, an unimaginably diverse range of vehicles will arise to meet every possible need, regardless of distance or destination.

Drone delivery for lightweight packages in at least one US city

Wing, the Alphabet drone delivery startup, recently became the first company to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make deliveries in the US. Having secured approval to deliver to 100 homes in Canberra, Australia, Wing additionally plans to begin delivering goods from local businesses in the suburbs of Virginia.

The current state of drone delivery is best suited for lightweight, urgent-demand payloads like pharmaceuticals, thumb drives, or connectors. And as Amazon continues to decrease its Prime delivery times—now as speedy as a one-day turnaround in many cities—the use of drones will become essential.

Robotic factories drive onshoring of US factories… but without new jobs

The supply chain will continue to shorten and become more agile with the re-onshoring of manufacturing jobs in the US and other countries. Naam reasons that new management and software jobs will drive this shift, as these roles develop the necessary robotics to manufacture goods. Equally as important, these robotic factories will provide a more humane setting than many of the current manufacturing practices overseas.

Top 5 Energy Breakthroughs (2019-2024)

First “1 cent per kWh” deals for solar and wind signed

Ten years ago, the lowest price of solar and wind power fell between 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), over twice the price of wholesale power from coal or natural gas.

Today, the gap between solar/wind power and fossil fuel-generated electricity is nearly negligible in many parts of the world. In G20 countries, fossil fuel electricity costs between 5 to 17 cents per kWh, while the average cost per kWh of solar power in the US stands at under 10 cents.

Spanish firm Solarpack Corp Technological recently won a bid in Chile for a 120 MW solar power plant supplying energy at 2.91 cents per kWh. This deal will result in an estimated 25 percent drop in energy costs for Chilean businesses by 2021.

Naam indicates, “We will see the first unsubsidized 1.0 cent solar deals in places like Chile, Mexico, the Southwest US, the Middle East, and North Africa, and we’ll see similar prices for wind in places like Mexico, Brazil, and the US Great Plains.”

Solar and wind will reach >15 percent of US electricity, and begin to drive all growth

Just over eight percent of energy in the US comes from solar and wind sources. In total, 17 percent of American energy is derived from renewable sources, while a whopping 63 percent is sourced from fossil fuels, and 17 percent from nuclear.

Last year in the U.K., twice as much energy was generated from wind than from coal. For over a week in May, the U.K. went completely coal-free, using wind and solar to supply 35 percent and 21 percent of power, respectively. While fossil fuels remain the primary electricity source, this week-long experiment highlights the disruptive potential of solar and wind power that major countries like the U.K. are beginning to emphasize.

“Solar and wind are still a relatively small part of the worldwide power mix, only about six percent. Within five years, it’s going to be 15 percent in the US and more than close to that worldwide,” Naam predicts. “We are nearing the point where we are not building any new fossil fuel power plants.”

It will be cheaper to build new solar/wind/batteries than to run on existing coal

Last October, Northern Indiana utility company NIPSCO announced its transition from a 65 percent coal-powered state to projected coal-free status by 2028. Importantly, this decision was made purely on the basis of financials, with an estimated $4 billion in cost savings for customers. The company has already begun several initiatives in solar, wind, and batteries.

NextEra, the largest power generator in the US, has taken on a similar goal, making a deal last year to purchase roughly seven million solar panels from JinkoSolar over four years. Leading power generators across the globe have vocalized a similar economic case for renewable energy.

ICE car sales have now peaked. All car sales growth will be electric

While electric vehicles (EV) have historically been more expensive for consumers than internal combustion engine-powered (ICE) cars, EVs are cheaper to operate and maintain. The yearly cost of operating an EV in the US is about $485, less than half the $1,117 cost of operating a gas-powered vehicle.

And as battery prices continue to shrink, the upfront costs of EVs will decline until a long-term payoff calculation is no longer required to determine which type of car is the better investment. EVs will become the obvious choice.

Many experts including Naam believe that ICE-powered vehicles peaked worldwide in 2018 and will begin to decline over the next five years, as has already been demonstrated in the past five months. At the same time, EVs are expected to quadruple their market share to 1.6 percent this year.

New storage technologies will displace Li-ion batteries for tomorrow’s most demanding applications

Lithium ion batteries have dominated the battery market for decades, but Naam anticipates new storage technologies will take hold for different contexts. Flow batteries, which can collect and store solar and wind power at large scales, will supply city grids. Already, California’s Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that maintains the majority of the state’s power grid, recently installed a flow battery system in San Diego.

Solid-state batteries, which consist of entirely solid electrolytes, will supply mobile devices in cars. A growing body of competitors, including Toyota, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, and Nissan, are already working on developing solid-state battery technology. These types of batteries offer up to six times faster charging periods, three times the energy density, and eight years of added lifespan, compared to lithium ion batteries.

Final Thoughts
Major advancements in transportation and energy technologies will continue to converge over the next five years. A case in point, Tesla’s recent announcement of its “robotaxi” fleet exemplifies the growing trend towards joint priority of sustainability and autonomy.

On the connectivity front, 5G and next-generation mobile networks will continue to enable the growth of autonomous fleets, many of which will soon run on renewable energy sources. This growth demands important partnerships between energy storage manufacturers, automakers, self-driving tech companies, and ridesharing services.

In the eco-realm, increasingly obvious economic calculi will catalyze consumer adoption of autonomous electric vehicles. In just five years, Naam predicts that self-driving rideshare services will be cheaper than owning a private vehicle for urban residents. And by the same token, plummeting renewable energy costs will make these fuels far more attractive than fossil fuel-derived electricity.

As universally optimized AI systems cut down on traffic, aggregate time spent in vehicles will decimate, while hours in your (or not your) car will be applied to any number of activities as autonomous systems steer the way. All the while, sharing an electric vehicle will cut down not only on your carbon footprint but on the exorbitant costs swallowed by your previous SUV. How will you spend this extra time and money? What new natural resources will fuel your everyday life?

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Posted in Human Robots

#435046 The Challenge of Abundance: Boredom, ...

As technology continues to progress, the possibility of an abundant future seems more likely. Artificial intelligence is expected to drive down the cost of labor, infrastructure, and transport. Alternative energy systems are reducing the cost of a wide variety of goods. Poverty rates are falling around the world as more people are able to make a living, and resources that were once inaccessible to millions are becoming widely available.

But such a life presents fuel for the most common complaint against abundance: if robots take all the jobs, basic income provides us livable welfare for doing nothing, and healthcare is a guarantee free of charge, then what is the point of our lives? What would motivate us to work and excel if there are no real risks or rewards? If everything is simply given to us, how would we feel like we’ve ever earned anything?

Time has proven that humans inherently yearn to overcome challenges—in fact, this very desire likely exists as the root of most technological innovation. And the idea that struggling makes us stronger isn’t just anecdotal, it’s scientifically validated.

For instance, kids who use anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers too often tend to develop weak immune systems, causing them to get sick more frequently and more severely. People who work out purposely suffer through torn muscles so that after a few days of healing their muscles are stronger. And when patients visit a psychologist to handle a fear that is derailing their lives, one of the most common treatments is exposure therapy: a slow increase of exposure to the suffering so that the patient gets stronger and braver each time, able to take on an incrementally more potent manifestation of their fears.

Different Kinds of Struggle
It’s not hard to understand why people might fear an abundant future as a terribly mundane one. But there is one crucial mistake made in this assumption, and it was well summarized by Indian mystic and author Sadhguru, who said during a recent talk at Google:

Stomach empty, only one problem. Stomach full—one hundred problems; because what we refer to as human really begins only after survival is taken care of.

This idea is backed up by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was first presented in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow shows the steps required to build to higher and higher levels of the human experience. Not surprisingly, the first two levels deal with physiological needs and the need for safety—in other words, with the body. You need to have food, water, and sleep, or you die. After that, you need to be protected from threats, from the elements, from dangerous people, and from disease and pain.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Photo by Wikimedia User:Factoryjoe / CC BY-SA 3.0
The beauty of these first two levels is that they’re clear-cut problems with clear-cut solutions: if you’re hungry, then you eat; if you’re thirsty, then you drink; if you’re tired, then you sleep.

But what about the next tiers of the hierarchy? What of love and belonging, of self-esteem and self-actualization? If we’re lonely, can we just summon up an authentic friend or lover? If we feel neglected by society, can we demand it validate us? If we feel discouraged and disappointed in ourselves, can we simply dial up some confidence and self-esteem?

Of course not, and that’s because these psychological needs are nebulous; they don’t contain clear problems with clear solutions. They involve the external world and other people, and are complicated by the infinite flavors of nuance and compromise that are required to navigate human relationships and personal meaning.

These psychological difficulties are where we grow our personalities, outlooks, and beliefs. The truly defining characteristics of a person are dictated not by the physical situations they were forced into—like birth, socioeconomic class, or physical ailment—but instead by the things they choose. So a future of abundance helps to free us from the physical limitations so that we can truly commit to a life of purpose and meaning, rather than just feel like survival is our purpose.

The Greatest Challenge
And that’s the plot twist. This challenge to come to grips with our own individuality and freedom could actually be the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. Can you imagine waking up every day with infinite possibility? Every choice you make says no to the rest of reality, and so every decision carries with it truly life-defining purpose and meaning. That sounds overwhelming. And that’s probably because in our current socio-economic systems, it is.

Studies have shown that people in wealthier nations tend to experience more anxiety and depression. Ron Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard and World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, summarized his findings of global mental health by saying, “When you’re literally trying to survive, who has time for depression? Americans, on the other hand, many of whom lead relatively comfortable lives, blow other nations away in the depression factor, leading some to suggest that depression is a ‘luxury disorder.’”

This might explain why America scores in the top rankings for the most depressed and anxious country on the planet. We surpassed our survival needs, and instead became depressed because our jobs and relationships don’t fulfill our expectations for the next three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).

But a future of abundance would mean we’d have to deal with these levels. This is the challenge for the future; this is what keeps things from being mundane.

As a society, we would be forced to come to grips with our emotional intelligence, to reckon with philosophy rather than simply contemplate it. Nearly every person you meet will be passionately on their own customized life journey, not following a routine simply because of financial limitations. Such a world seems far more vibrant and interesting than one where most wander sleep-deprived and numb while attempting to survive the rat race.

We can already see the forceful hand of this paradigm shift as self-driving cars become ubiquitous. For example, consider the famous psychological and philosophical “trolley problem.” In this thought experiment, a person sees a trolley car heading towards five people on the train tracks; they see a lever that will allow them to switch the trolley car to a track that instead only has one person on it. Do you switch the lever and have a hand in killing one person, or do you let fate continue and kill five people instead?

For the longest time, this was just an interesting quandary to consider. But now, massive corporations have to have an answer, so they can program their self-driving cars with the ability to choose between hitting a kid who runs into the road or swerving into an oncoming car carrying a family of five. When companies need philosophers to make business decisions, it’s a good sign of what’s to come.

Luckily, it’s possible this forceful reckoning with philosophy and our own consciousness may be exactly what humanity needs. Perhaps our great failure as a species has been a result of advanced cognition still trapped in the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy due to a long history of scarcity.

As suggested in the opening scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, our ape-like proclivity for violence has long stayed the same while the technology we fight with and live amongst has progressed. So while well-off Americans may have comfortable lives, they still know they live in a system where there is no safety net, where a single tragic failure could still mean hunger and homelessness. And because of this, that evolutionarily hard-wired neurotic part of our brain that fears for our survival has never been able to fully relax, and so that anxiety and depression that come with too much freedom but not enough security stays ever present.

Not only might this shift in consciousness help liberate humanity, but it may be vital if we’re to survive our future creations as well. Whatever values we hold dear as a species are the ones we will imbue into the sentient robots we create. If machine learning is going to take its guidance from humanity, we need to level up humanity’s emotional maturity.

While the physical struggles of the future may indeed fall to the wayside amongst abundance, it’s unlikely to become a mundane world; instead, it will become a vibrant culture where each individual is striving against the most important struggle that affects all of us: the challenge to find inner peace, to find fulfillment, to build meaningful relationships, and ultimately, the challenge to find ourselves.

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Posted in Human Robots

#435043 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

The Microbots Are on Their Way
Kenneth Chang | The New York Times
“Like Frankenstein, Marc Miskin’s robots initially lie motionless. Then their limbs jerk to life. But these robots are the size of a speck of dust. Thousands fit side-by-side on a single silicon wafer similar to those used for computer chips, and, like Frankenstein coming to life, they pull themselves free and start crawling.”

Why the ‘Post-Natural’ Age Could Be Strange and Beautiful
Lauren Holt | BBC
“As long as humans have existed, we have been influencing our planet’s flora and fauna. So, if humanity continues to flourish far into the future, how will nature change? And how might this genetic manipulation affect our own biology and evolutionary trajectory? The short answer: it will be strange, potentially beautiful and like nothing we’re used to.”

Watch This Wild 3D-Printed Lung Air Sac Breathe
Amanda Kooser | CNET
“A research team led by bioengineers at the University of Washington and Rice University developed an open-source technique for bioprinting tissues ‘with exquisitely entangled vascular networks similar to the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph and other vital fluids.’i”

A New Camera Can Photograph You From 45 Kilometers Away
Emerging Technology from the arXiv | MIT Technology Review
“Conventional images taken through the telescope show nothing other than noise. But the new technique produces images with a spatial resolution of about 60 cm, which resolves building windows.”

The Search for the Kryptonite That Can Stop CRISPR
Antonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review
“CRISPR weapons? We’ll leave it to your imagination exactly what one could look like. What is safe to say, though, is that DARPA has asked Doudna and others to start looking into prophylactic treatments or even pills you could take to stop gene editing, just the way you can swallow antibiotics if you’ve gotten an anthrax letter in the mail.”

The Holy Grail of Robotics: Inside the Quest to Build a Mechanical Human Hand
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“For real-life roboticists, building the perfect robot hand has long been the Holy Grail. It is the hardware yin to the software yang of creating an artificial mind. Seeking out the ultimate challenge, robotics experts gravitated to recreating what is one of the most complicated and beautiful pieces of natural engineering found in the human body.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#435023 Inflatable Robot Astronauts and How to ...

The typical cultural image of a robot—as a steel, chrome, humanoid bucket of bolts—is often far from the reality of cutting-edge robotics research. There are difficulties, both social and technological, in realizing the image of a robot from science fiction—let alone one that can actually help around the house. Often, it’s simply the case that great expense in producing a humanoid robot that can perform dozens of tasks quite badly is less appropriate than producing some other design that’s optimized to a specific situation.

A team of scientists from Brigham Young University has received funding from NASA to investigate an inflatable robot called, improbably, King Louie. The robot was developed by Pneubotics, who have a long track record in the world of soft robotics.

In space, weight is at a premium. The world watched in awe and amusement when Commander Chris Hadfield sang “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station—but launching that guitar into space likely cost around $100,000. A good price for launching payload into outer space is on the order of $10,000 per pound ($22,000/kg).

For that price, it would cost a cool $1.7 million to launch Boston Dynamics’ famous ATLAS robot to the International Space Station, and its bulk would be inconvenient in the cramped living quarters available. By contrast, an inflatable robot like King Louie is substantially lighter and can simply be deflated and folded away when not in use. The robot can be manufactured from cheap, lightweight, and flexible materials, and minor damage is easy to repair.

Inflatable Robots Under Pressure
The concept of inflatable robots is not new: indeed, earlier prototypes of King Louie were exhibited back in 2013 at Google I/O’s After Hours, flailing away at each other in a boxing ring. Sparks might fly in fights between traditional robots, but the aim here was to demonstrate that the robots are passively safe: the soft, inflatable figures won’t accidentally smash delicate items when moving around.

Health and safety regulations form part of the reason why robots don’t work alongside humans more often, but soft robots would be far safer to use in healthcare or around children (whose first instinct, according to BYU’s promotional video, is either to hug or punch King Louie.) It’s also much harder to have nightmarish fantasies about robotic domination with these friendlier softbots: Terminator would’ve been a much shorter franchise if Skynet’s droids were inflatable.

Robotic exoskeletons are increasingly used for physical rehabilitation therapies, as well as for industrial purposes. As countries like Japan seek to care for their aging populations with robots and alleviate the burden on nurses, who suffer from some of the highest rates of back injuries of any profession, soft robots will become increasingly attractive for use in healthcare.

Precision and Proprioception
The main issue is one of control. Rigid, metallic robots may be more expensive and more dangerous, but the simple fact of their rigidity makes it easier to map out and control the precise motions of each of the robot’s limbs, digits, and actuators. Individual motors attached to these rigid robots can allow for a great many degrees of freedom—individual directions in which parts of the robot can move—and precision control.

For example, ATLAS has 28 degrees of freedom, while Shadow’s dexterous robot hand alone has 20. This is much harder to do with an inflatable robot, for precisely the same reasons that make it safer. Without hard and rigid bones, other methods of control must be used.

In the case of King Louie, the robot is made up of many expandable air chambers. An air-compressor changes the pressure levels in these air chambers, allowing them to expand and contract. This harks back to some of the earliest pneumatic automata. Pairs of chambers act antagonistically, like muscles, such that when one chamber “tenses,” another relaxes—allowing King Louie to have, for example, four degrees of freedom in each of its arms.

The robot is also surprisingly strong. Professor Killpack, who works at BYU on the project, estimates that its payload is comparable to other humanoid robots on the market, like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter (RIP).

Proprioception, that sixth sense that allows us to map out and control our own bodies and muscles in fine detail, is being enhanced for a wider range of soft, flexible robots with the use of machine learning algorithms connected to input from a whole host of sensors on the robot’s body.

Part of the reason this is so complicated with soft, flexible robots is that the shape and “map” of the robot’s body can change; that’s the whole point. But this means that every time King Louie is inflated, its body is a slightly different shape; when it becomes deformed, for example due to picking up objects, the shape changes again, and the complex ways in which the fabric can twist and bend are far more difficult to model and sense than the behavior of the rigid metal of King Louie’s hard counterparts. When you’re looking for precision, seemingly-small changes can be the difference between successfully holding an object or dropping it.

Learning to Move
Researchers at BYU are therefore spending a great deal of time on how to control the soft-bot enough to make it comparably useful. One method involves the commercial tracking technology used in the Vive VR system: by moving the game controller, which provides a constant feedback to the robot’s arm, you can control its position. Since the tracking software provides an estimate of the robot’s joint angles and continues to provide feedback until the arm is correctly aligned, this type of feedback method is likely to work regardless of small changes to the robot’s shape.

The other technologies the researchers are looking into for their softbot include arrays of flexible, tactile sensors to place on the softbot’s skin, and minimizing the complex cross-talk between these arrays to get coherent information about the robot’s environment. As with some of the new proprioception research, the project is looking into neural networks as a means of modeling the complicated dynamics—the motion and response to forces—of the softbot. This method relies on large amounts of observational data, mapping how the robot is inflated and how it moves, rather than explicitly understanding and solving the equations that govern its motion—which hopefully means the methods can work even as the robot changes.

There’s still a long way to go before soft and inflatable robots can be controlled sufficiently well to perform all the tasks they might be used for. Ultimately, no one robotic design is likely to be perfect for any situation.

Nevertheless, research like this gives us hope that one day, inflatable robots could be useful tools, or even companions, at which point the advertising slogans write themselves: Don’t let them down, and they won’t let you down!

Image Credit: Brigham Young University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434854 New Lifelike Biomaterial Self-Reproduces ...

Life demands flux.

Every living organism is constantly changing: cells divide and die, proteins build and disintegrate, DNA breaks and heals. Life demands metabolism—the simultaneous builder and destroyer of living materials—to continuously upgrade our bodies. That’s how we heal and grow, how we propagate and survive.

What if we could endow cold, static, lifeless robots with the gift of metabolism?

In a study published this month in Science Robotics, an international team developed a DNA-based method that gives raw biomaterials an artificial metabolism. Dubbed DASH—DNA-based assembly and synthesis of hierarchical materials—the method automatically generates “slime”-like nanobots that dynamically move and navigate their environments.

Like humans, the artificial lifelike material used external energy to constantly change the nanobots’ bodies in pre-programmed ways, recycling their DNA-based parts as both waste and raw material for further use. Some “grew” into the shape of molecular double-helixes; others “wrote” the DNA letters inside micro-chips.

The artificial life forms were also rather “competitive”—in quotes, because these molecular machines are not conscious. Yet when pitted against each other, two DASH bots automatically raced forward, crawling in typical slime-mold fashion at a scale easily seen under the microscope—and with some iterations, with the naked human eye.

“Fundamentally, we may be able to change how we create and use the materials with lifelike characteristics. Typically materials and objects we create in general are basically static… one day, we may be able to ‘grow’ objects like houses and maintain their forms and functions autonomously,” said study author Dr. Shogo Hamada to Singularity Hub.

“This is a great study that combines the versatility of DNA nanotechnology with the dynamics of living materials,” said Dr. Job Boekhoven at the Technical University of Munich, who was not involved in the work.

Dissipative Assembly
The study builds on previous ideas on how to make molecular Lego blocks that essentially assemble—and destroy—themselves.

Although the inspiration came from biological metabolism, scientists have long hoped to cut their reliance on nature. At its core, metabolism is just a bunch of well-coordinated chemical reactions, programmed by eons of evolution. So why build artificial lifelike materials still tethered by evolution when we can use chemistry to engineer completely new forms of artificial life?

Back in 2015, for example, a team led by Boekhoven described a way to mimic how our cells build their internal “structural beams,” aptly called the cytoskeleton. The key here, unlike many processes in nature, isn’t balance or equilibrium; rather, the team engineered an extremely unstable system that automatically builds—and sustains—assemblies from molecular building blocks when given an external source of chemical energy.

Sound familiar? The team basically built molecular devices that “die” without “food.” Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics (hey ya, Newton!), that energy eventually dissipates, and the shapes automatically begin to break down, completing an artificial “circle of life.”

The new study took the system one step further: rather than just mimicking synthesis, they completed the circle by coupling the building process with dissipative assembly.

Here, the “assembling units themselves are also autonomously created from scratch,” said Hamada.

DNA Nanobots
The process of building DNA nanobots starts on a microfluidic chip.

Decades of research have allowed researchers to optimize DNA assembly outside the body. With the help of catalysts, which help “bind” individual molecules together, the team found that they could easily alter the shape of the self-assembling DNA bots—which formed fiber-like shapes—by changing the structure of the microfluidic chambers.

Computer simulations played a role here too: through both digital simulations and observations under the microscope, the team was able to identify a few critical rules that helped them predict how their molecules self-assemble while navigating a maze of blocking “pillars” and channels carved onto the microchips.

This “enabled a general design strategy for the DASH patterns,” they said.

In particular, the whirling motion of the fluids as they coursed through—and bumped into—ridges in the chips seems to help the DNA molecules “entangle into networks,” the team explained.

These insights helped the team further develop the “destroying” part of metabolism. Similar to linking molecules into DNA chains, their destruction also relies on enzymes.

Once the team pumped both “generation” and “degeneration” enzymes into the microchips, along with raw building blocks, the process was completely autonomous. The simultaneous processes were so lifelike that the team used a metric commonly used in robotics, finite-state automation, to measure the behavior of their DNA nanobots from growth to eventual decay.

“The result is a synthetic structure with features associated with life. These behaviors include locomotion, self-regeneration, and spatiotemporal regulation,” said Boekhoven.

Molecular Slime Molds
Just witnessing lifelike molecules grow in place like the dance move running man wasn’t enough.

In their next experiments, the team took inspiration from slugs to program undulating movements into their DNA bots. Here, “movement” is actually a sort of illusion: the machines “moved” because their front ends kept regenerating, whereas their back ends degenerated. In essence, the molecular slime was built from linking multiple individual “DNA robot-like” units together: each unit receives a delayed “decay” signal from the head of the slime in a way that allowed the whole artificial “organism” to crawl forward, against the steam of fluid flow.

Here’s the fun part: the team eventually engineered two molecular slime bots and pitted them against each other, Mario Kart-style. In these experiments, the faster moving bot alters the state of its competitor to promote “decay.” This slows down the competitor, allowing the dominant DNA nanoslug to win in a race.

Of course, the end goal isn’t molecular podracing. Rather, the DNA-based bots could easily amplify a given DNA or RNA sequence, making them efficient nano-diagnosticians for viral and other infections.

The lifelike material can basically generate patterns that doctors can directly ‘see’ with their eyes, which makes DNA or RNA molecules from bacteria and viruses extremely easy to detect, the team said.

In the short run, “the detection device with this self-generating material could be applied to many places and help people on site, from farmers to clinics, by providing an easy and accurate way to detect pathogens,” explained Hamaga.

A Futuristic Iron Man Nanosuit?
I’m letting my nerd flag fly here. In Avengers: Infinity Wars, the scientist-engineer-philanthropist-playboy Tony Stark unveiled a nanosuit that grew to his contours when needed and automatically healed when damaged.

DASH may one day realize that vision. For now, the team isn’t focused on using the technology for regenerating armor—rather, the dynamic materials could create new protein assemblies or chemical pathways inside living organisms, for example. The team also envisions adding simple sensing and computing mechanisms into the material, which can then easily be thought of as a robot.

Unlike synthetic biology, the goal isn’t to create artificial life. Rather, the team hopes to give lifelike properties to otherwise static materials.

“We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before,” said lead author Dr. Dan Luo.

“Ultimately, our material may allow the construction of self-reproducing machines… artificial metabolism is an important step toward the creation of ‘artificial’ biological systems with dynamic, lifelike capabilities,” added Hamada. “It could open a new frontier in robotics.”

Image Credit: A timelapse image of DASH, by Jeff Tyson at Cornell University. Continue reading

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