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In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.
Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.
When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.
Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.
The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”
The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.
The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.
By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.
“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”
There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.
In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.
“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.
“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”
Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.
The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
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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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Hardly a day goes by without a research study or article published talking sh*t—or more precisely, talking about the gut microbiome. When it comes to cutting-edge innovations in medicine, all signs point to the microbiome. Maybe we should have listened to Hippocrates: “All disease begins in the gut.”
Your microbiome is mostly located in your gut and contains trillions of little guys and gals called microbes. If you want to optimize your health, biohack your body, make progress against chronic disease, or know which foods are right for you—almost all of this information can be found in your microbiome.
My company, Viome, offers technology to measure your microscopic organisms and their behavior at a molecular level. Think of it as the Instagram of your inner world. A snapshot of what’s happening inside your body. New research about the microbiome is changing our understanding of who we are as humans and how the human body functions.
It turns out the microbiome may be mission control for your body and mind. Your healthy microbiome is part best friend, part power converter, part engine, and part pharmacist. At Viome, we’re working to analyze these microbial functions and recommend a list of personalized food and supplements to keep these internal complex machines in a finely tuned balance.
We now have more information than ever before about what your microbiome is doing, and it’s going to help you and the rest of the world do a whole lot better. The new insights emerging from microbiome research are changing our perception of what keeps us healthy and what makes us sick. This new understanding of the microbiome activities may put an end to conflicting food advice and make fad diets a thing of the past.
What are these new insights showing us? The information is nothing short of mind-blowing. The value of your poop just got an upgrade.
Here are some of the amazing things we’ve learned from our work at Viome.
1. Was Popeye wrong? Why “health food” isn’t necessarily healthy.
Each week there is a new fad diet released, discussed, and followed. The newest “research” shows that this is now the superfood to eat for everyone. But, too often, the fad diet is just a regurgitation of what worked for one person and shouldn’t be followed by everyone else.
For example, we’ve been told to eat our greens and that greens and nuts are “anti-inflammatory,” but this is actually not always true. Spinach, bran, rhubarb, beets, nuts, and nut butters all contain oxalate. We now know that oxalate-containing food can be harmful, unless you have the microbes present that can metabolize it into a non-harmful substance.
30% of Viome customers do not have the microbes to metabolize oxalates properly. In other words, “healthy foods” like spinach are actually not healthy for these people.
Looks like not everyone should follow Popeye’s food plan.
2. Aren’t foods containing “antioxidants” always good for everyone?
Just like oxalates, polyphenols in foods are usually considered very healthy, but unless you have microbes that utilize specific polyphenols, you may not get full benefit from them. One example is a substance found in these foods called ellagic acid. We can detect if your microbiome is metabolizing ellagic acid and converting it into urolithin A. It is only the urolithin A that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Without the microbes to do this conversion you will not benefit from the ellagic acid in foods.
Examples: Walnuts, raspberries, pomegranate, blackberries, pecans, and cranberries all contain ellagic acid.
We have analyzed tens of thousands of people, and only about 50% of the people actually benefit from eating more foods containing ellagic acid.
3. You’re probably eating too much protein (and it may be causing inflammation).
When you think high-protein diet, you think paleo, keto, and high-performance diets.
Protein is considered good for you. It helps build muscle and provide energy—but if you eat too much, it can cause inflammation and decrease longevity.
We can analyze the activity of your microbiome to determine if you are eating too much protein that feeds protein-fermenting bacteria like Alistipes putredinis and Tannerella forsythia, and if these organisms are producing harmful substances such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, p-cresol, or putrescine. These substances can damage your gut lining and lead to things like leaky gut.
4. Something’s fishy. Are “healthy foods” causing heart disease?
Choline in certain foods can get converted by bacteria into a substance called trimethylamine (TMA) that is associated with heart disease when it gets absorbed into your body and converted to TMAO. However, TMA conversion doesn’t happen in individuals without these types of bacteria in their microbiome.
We can see the TMA production pathways and many of the gammaproteobacteria that do this conversion.
What foods contain choline? Liver, salmon, chickpeas, split peas, eggs, navy beans, peanuts, and many others.
Before you decide to go full-on pescatarian or paleo, you may want to check if your microbiome is producing TMA with that salmon or steak.
5. Hold up, Iron Man. We can see inflammation from too much iron.
Minerals like iron in your food can, in certain inflammatory microbial environments, promote growth of pathogens like Esherichia, Shigella, and Salmonella.
Maybe it wasn’t just that raw chicken that gave you food poisoning, but your toxic microbiome that made you sick.
On the other hand, when you don’t have enough iron, you could become anemic leading to weakness and shortness of breath.
So, just like Iron Man, it’s about finding your balance so that you can fly.
6. Are you anxious or stressed? Your poop will tell you.
Our gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve. A large majority of neurotransmitters are either produced or consumed by our microbiome. In fact, some 90% of all serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) is produced by your gut microbiome and not by your brain.
When you have a toxic microbiome that’s producing a large amount of toxins like hydrogen sulfide, the lining of your gut starts to deteriorate into what’s known as leaky gut. Think of leaky gut as your gut not having healthy borders or boundaries. And when this happens, all kinds of disease can emerge. When the barrier of the gut breaks down, it starts a chain reaction causing low-grade chronic inflammation—which has been identified as a potential source of depression and higher levels of anxiety, in addition to many other chronic diseases.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t meditate, but if you want to get the most out of your meditation and really reduce your stress levels, make sure you are eating the right food that promotes a healthy microbiome.
7. Your microbiome is better than Red Bull.
If you want more energy, get your microbiome back into balance.
No you don’t need three pots of coffee to keep you going, you just need a balanced microbiome.
Your microbiome is responsible for calorie extraction, or creating energy, through pathways such as the Tricarboxylic acid cycle. Our bodies depend on the energy that our microbiome produces.
How much energy we get from our food is dependent on how efficient our microbiome is at converting the food into energy. High-performing microbiomes are excellent at converting food into energy. This is great when you are an athlete and need the extra energy, but if you don’t use up the energy it may be the source of some of those unwanted pounds.
If the microbes can’t or won’t metabolize the glucose (sugar) that you eat, it will be stored as fat. If the microbes are extracting too many calories from your food or producing lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and causing metabolic endotoxemia leading to activation of toll-like receptors and insulin resistance you may end up storing what you eat as fat.
Think of your microbiome as Doc Brown’s car from the future—it can take pretty much anything and turn it into fuel if it’s strong and resilient enough.
8. We can see your joint pain in your poop.
Got joint pain? Your microbiome can tell you why.
Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) is a key pro-inflammatory molecule made by some of your microbes. If your microbes are making too much LPS, it can wreak havoc on your immune system by putting it into overdrive. When your immune system goes on the warpath there is often collateral damage to your joints and other body parts.
Perhaps balancing your microbiome is a better solution than reaching for the glucosamine. Think of your microbiome as the top general of your immune army. It puts your immune system through basic training and determines when it goes to war.
Ideally, your immune system wins the quick battle and gets some rest, but sometimes if your microbiome keeps it on constant high alert it becomes a long, drawn-out war resulting in chronic inflammation and chronic diseases.
Are you really “getting older” or is your microbiome just making you “feel” older because it keeps giving warnings to your immune system ultimately leading to chronic pain?
Before you throw in the towel on your favorite activities, check your microbiome. And, if you have anything with “itis” in it, it’s possible that when you balance your microbiome the inflammation from your “itis” will be reduced.
9. Your gut is doing the talking for your mouth.
When you have low stomach acid, your mouth bacteria makes it down to your GI tract.
Stomach acid is there to protect you from the bacteria in your mouth and the parasites and fungi that are in your food. If you don’t have enough of it, the bacteria in your mouth will invade your gut. This invasion is associated with and a risk factor for autoimmune disease and inflammation in the gut.
We are learning that low stomach acid is perhaps one of the major causes of chronic disease. This stomach acid is essential to kill mouth bacteria and help us digest our food.
What kinds of things cause low stomach acid? Stress and antacids like Nexium, Zantac, and Prilosec.
10. Carbs can be protein precursors.
Rejoice! Perhaps carbs aren’t as bad as we thought (as long as your microbiome is up to the task). We can see if some of the starches you eat can be made into amino acids by the microbiome.
Our microbiome makes 20% of our branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) for us, and it will adapt to make these vital BCAAs for us in almost any way it can.
Essentially, your microbiome is hooking up carbons and hydrogens into different formulations of BCAAs, depending on what you feed it. The microbiome is excellent at adapting and pivoting based on the food you feed it and the environment that it’s in.
So, good news: Carbs are protein precursors, as long as you have the right microbiome.
Stop Talking Sh*t Now
Your microbiome is a world class entrepreneur that can take low-grade sources of food and turn them into valuable and useable energy.
You have a best friend and confidant within you that is working wonders to make sure you have energy and that all of your needs are met.
And, just like a best friend, if you take great care of your microbiome, it will take great care of you.
Given the research emerging daily about the microbiome and its importance on your quality of life, prioritizing the health of your microbiome is essential.
When you have a healthy microbiome, you’ll have a healthy life.
It’s now clear that some of the greatest insights for your health will come from your poop.
It’s time to stop talking sh*t and get your sh*t together. Your life may depend on it.
Viome can help you identify what your microbiome is actually doing. The combination of Viome’s metatranscriptomic technology and cutting-edge artificial intelligence is paving a brand new path forward for microbiome health.
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