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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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Advances in neural implants and genetic engineering suggest that in the not–too–distant future we may be able to boost human intelligence. If that’s true, could we—and should we—bring our animal cousins along for the ride?
Human brain augmentation made headlines last year after several tech firms announced ambitious efforts to build neural implant technology. Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev told me in July it could be decades before these devices have applications beyond the strictly medical.
But he said the technology, as well as other pharmacological and genetic engineering approaches, will almost certainly allow us to boost our mental capacities at some point in the next few decades.
Whether this kind of cognitive enhancement is a good idea or not, and how we should regulate it, are matters of heated debate among philosophers, futurists, and bioethicists, but for some it has raised the question of whether we could do the same for animals.
There’s already tantalizing evidence of the idea’s feasibility. As detailed in BBC Future, a group from MIT found that mice that were genetically engineered to express the human FOXP2 gene linked to learning and speech processing picked up maze routes faster. Another group at Wake Forest University studying Alzheimer’s found that neural implants could boost rhesus monkeys’ scores on intelligence tests.
The concept of “animal uplift” is most famously depicted in the Planet of the Apes movie series, whose planet–conquering protagonists are likely to put most people off the idea. But proponents are less pessimistic about the outcomes.
Science fiction author David Brin popularized the concept in his “Uplift” series of novels, in which humans share the world with various other intelligent animals that all bring their own unique skills, perspectives, and innovations to the table. “The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing,” he told Scientific American.
Others, like George Dvorsky, the director of the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, go further and claim there is a moral imperative. He told the Boston Globe that denying augmentation technology to animals would be just as unethical as excluding certain groups of humans.
Others are less convinced. Forbes’ Alex Knapp points out that developing the technology to uplift animals will likely require lots of very invasive animal research that will cause huge suffering to the animals it purports to help. This is problematic enough with normal animals, but could be even more morally dubious when applied to ones whose cognitive capacities have been enhanced.
The whole concept could also be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Humans are prone to seeing intelligence as a single, self-contained metric that progresses in a linear way with humans at the pinnacle.
In an opinion piece in Wired arguing against the likelihood of superhuman artificial intelligence, Kevin Kelly points out that science has no such single dimension with which to rank the intelligence of different species. Each one combines a bundle of cognitive capabilities, some of which are well below our own capabilities and others which are superhuman. He uses the example of the squirrel, which can remember the precise location of thousands of acorns for years.
Uplift efforts may end up being less about boosting intelligence and more about making animals more human-like. That represents “a kind of benevolent colonialism” that assumes being more human-like is a good thing, Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, told the Boston Globe. There’s scant evidence that’s the case, and it’s easy to see how a chimpanzee with the mind of a human might struggle to adjust.
There are also fundamental barriers that may make it difficult to achieve human-level cognitive capabilities in animals, no matter how advanced brain augmentation technology gets. In 2013 Swedish researchers selectively bred small fish called guppies for bigger brains. This made them smarter, but growing the energy-intensive organ meant the guppies developed smaller guts and produced fewer offspring to compensate.
This highlights the fact that uplifting animals may require more than just changes to their brains, possibly a complete rewiring of their physiology that could prove far more technically challenging than human brain augmentation.
Our intelligence is intimately tied to our evolutionary history—our brains are bigger than other animals’; opposable thumbs allow us to use tools; our vocal chords make complex communication possible. No matter how much you augment a cow’s brain, it still couldn’t use a screwdriver or talk to you in English because it simply doesn’t have the machinery.
Finally, from a purely selfish point of view, even if it does become possible to create a level playing field between us and other animals, it may not be a smart move for humanity. There’s no reason to assume animals would be any more benevolent than we are, having evolved in the same ‘survival of the fittest’ crucible that we have. And given our already endless capacity to divide ourselves along national, religious, or ethnic lines, conflict between species seems inevitable.
We’re already likely to face considerable competition from smart machines in the coming decades if you believe the hype around AI. So maybe adding a few more intelligent species to the mix isn’t the best idea.
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Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.
Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
Image Credit: Keplinger Research Group/University of Colorado Continue reading