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#435070 5 Breakthroughs Coming Soon in Augmented ...

Convergence is accelerating disruption… everywhere! Exponential technologies are colliding into each other, reinventing products, services, and industries.

In this third installment of my Convergence Catalyzer series, I’ll be synthesizing key insights from my annual entrepreneurs’ mastermind event, Abundance 360. This five-blog series looks at 3D printing, artificial intelligence, VR/AR, energy and transportation, and blockchain.

Today, let’s dive into virtual and augmented reality.

Today’s most prominent tech giants are leaping onto the VR/AR scene, each driving forward new and upcoming product lines. Think: Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus, Amazon’s Sumerian, and Google’s Cardboard (Apple plans to release a headset by 2021).

And as plummeting prices meet exponential advancements in VR/AR hardware, this burgeoning disruptor is on its way out of the early adopters’ market and into the majority of consumers’ homes.

My good friend Philip Rosedale is my go-to expert on AR/VR and one of the foremost creators of today’s most cutting-edge virtual worlds. After creating the virtual civilization Second Life in 2013, now populated by almost 1 million active users, Philip went on to co-found High Fidelity, which explores the future of next-generation shared VR.

In just the next five years, he predicts five emerging trends will take hold, together disrupting major players and birthing new ones.

Let’s dive in…

Top 5 Predictions for VR/AR Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
“If you think you kind of understand what’s going on with that tech today, you probably don’t,” says Philip. “We’re still in the middle of landing the airplane of all these new devices.”

(1) Transition from PC-based to standalone mobile VR devices

Historically, VR devices have relied on PC connections, usually involving wires and clunky hardware that restrict a user’s field of motion. However, as VR enters the dematerialization stage, we are about to witness the rapid rise of a standalone and highly mobile VR experience economy.

Oculus Go, the leading standalone mobile VR device on the market, requires only a mobile app for setup and can be transported anywhere with WiFi.

With a consumer audience in mind, the 32GB headset is priced at $200 and shares an app ecosystem with Samsung’s Gear VR. While Google Daydream are also standalone VR devices, they require a docked mobile phone instead of the built-in screen of Oculus Go.

In the AR space, Lenovo’s standalone Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 leads the way in providing tetherless experiences.

Freeing headsets from the constraints of heavy hardware will make VR/AR increasingly interactive and transportable, a seamless add-on whenever, wherever. Within a matter of years, it may be as simple as carrying lightweight VR goggles wherever you go and throwing them on at a moment’s notice.

(2) Wide field-of-view AR displays

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 leads the AR industry in headset comfort and display quality. The most significant issue with their prior version was the limited rectangular field of view (FOV).

By implementing laser technology to create a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) display, however, HoloLens 2 can position waveguides in front of users’ eyes, directed by mirrors. Subsequently enlarging images can be accomplished by shifting the angles of these mirrors. Coupled with a 47 pixel per degree resolution, HoloLens 2 has now doubled its predecessor’s FOV. Microsoft anticipates the release of its headset by the end of this year at a $3,500 price point, first targeting businesses and eventually rolling it out to consumers.

Magic Leap provides a similar FOV but with lower resolution than the HoloLens 2. The Meta 2 boasts an even wider 90-degree FOV, but requires a cable attachment. The race to achieve the natural human 120-degree horizontal FOV continues.

“The technology to expand the field of view is going to make those devices much more usable by giving you bigger than a small box to look through,” Rosedale explains.

(3) Mapping of real world to enable persistent AR ‘mirror worlds’

‘Mirror worlds’ are alternative dimensions of reality that can blanket a physical space. While seated in your office, the floor beneath you could dissolve into a calm lake and each desk into a sailboat. In the classroom, mirror worlds would convert pencils into magic wands and tabletops into touch screens.

Pokémon Go provides an introductory glimpse into the mirror world concept and its massive potential to unite people in real action.

To create these mirror worlds, AR headsets must precisely understand the architecture of the surrounding world. Rosedale predicts the scanning accuracy of devices will improve rapidly over the next five years to make these alternate dimensions possible.

(4) 5G mobile devices reduce latency to imperceptible levels

Verizon has already launched 5G networks in Minneapolis and Chicago, compatible with the Moto Z3. Sprint plans to follow with its own 5G launch in May. Samsung, LG, Huawei, and ZTE have all announced upcoming 5G devices.

“5G is rolling out this year and it’s going to materially affect particularly my work, which is making you feel like you’re talking to somebody else directly face to face,” explains Rosedale. “5G is critical because currently the cell devices impose too much delay, so it doesn’t feel real to talk to somebody face to face on these devices.”

To operate seamlessly from anywhere on the planet, standalone VR/AR devices will require a strong 5G network. Enhancing real-time connectivity in VR/AR will transform the communication methods of tomorrow.

(5) Eye-tracking and facial expressions built in for full natural communication

Companies like Pupil Labs and Tobii provide eye tracking hardware add-ons and software to VR/AR headsets. This technology allows for foveated rendering, which renders a given scene in high resolution only in the fovea region, while the peripheral regions appear in lower resolution, conserving processing power.

As seen in the HoloLens 2, eye tracking can also be used to identify users and customize lens widths to provide a comfortable, personalized experience for each individual.

According to Rosedale, “The fundamental opportunity for both VR and AR is to improve human communication.” He points out that current VR/AR headsets miss many of the subtle yet important aspects of communication. Eye movements and microexpressions provide valuable insight into a user’s emotions and desires.

Coupled with emotion-detecting AI software, such as Affectiva, VR/AR devices might soon convey much more richly textured and expressive interactions between any two people, transcending physical boundaries and even language gaps.

Final Thoughts
As these promising trends begin to transform the market, VR/AR will undoubtedly revolutionize our lives… possibly to the point at which our virtual worlds become just as consequential and enriching as our physical world.

A boon for next-gen education, VR/AR will empower youth and adults alike with holistic learning that incorporates social, emotional, and creative components through visceral experiences, storytelling, and simulation. Traveling to another time, manipulating the insides of a cell, or even designing a new city will become daily phenomena of tomorrow’s classrooms.

In real estate, buyers will increasingly make decisions through virtual tours. Corporate offices might evolve into spaces that only exist in ‘mirror worlds’ or grow virtual duplicates for remote workers.

In healthcare, accuracy of diagnosis will skyrocket, while surgeons gain access to digital aids as they conduct life-saving procedures. Or take manufacturing, wherein training and assembly will become exponentially more efficient as visual cues guide complex tasks.

In the mere matter of a decade, VR and AR will unlock limitless applications for new and converging industries. And as virtual worlds converge with AI, 3D printing, computing advancements and beyond, today’s experience economies will explode in scale and scope. Prepare yourself for the exciting disruption ahead!

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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

#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

#434865 5 AI Breakthroughs We’ll Likely See in ...

Convergence is accelerating disruption… everywhere! Exponential technologies are colliding into each other, reinventing products, services, and industries.

As AI algorithms such as Siri and Alexa can process your voice and output helpful responses, other AIs like Face++ can recognize faces. And yet others create art from scribbles, or even diagnose medical conditions.

Let’s dive into AI and convergence.

Top 5 Predictions for AI Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
My friend Neil Jacobstein is my ‘go-to expert’ in AI, with over 25 years of technical consulting experience in the field. Currently the AI and Robotics chair at Singularity University, Jacobstein is also a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Stanford’s MediaX Program, a Henry Crown Fellow, an Aspen Institute moderator, and serves on the National Academy of Sciences Earth and Life Studies Committee. Neil predicted five trends he expects to emerge over the next five years, by 2024.

AI gives rise to new non-human pattern recognition and intelligence results

AlphaGo Zero, a machine learning computer program trained to play the complex game of Go, defeated the Go world champion in 2016 by 100 games to zero. But instead of learning from human play, AlphaGo Zero trained by playing against itself—a method known as reinforcement learning.

Building its own knowledge from scratch, AlphaGo Zero demonstrates a novel form of creativity, free of human bias. Even more groundbreaking, this type of AI pattern recognition allows machines to accumulate thousands of years of knowledge in a matter of hours.

While these systems can’t answer the question “What is orange juice?” or compete with the intelligence of a fifth grader, they are growing more and more strategically complex, merging with other forms of narrow artificial intelligence. Within the next five years, who knows what successors of AlphaGo Zero will emerge, augmenting both your business functions and day-to-day life.

Doctors risk malpractice when not using machine learning for diagnosis and treatment planning

A group of Chinese and American researchers recently created an AI system that diagnoses common childhood illnesses, ranging from the flu to meningitis. Trained on electronic health records compiled from 1.3 million outpatient visits of almost 600,000 patients, the AI program produced diagnosis outcomes with unprecedented accuracy.

While the US health system does not tout the same level of accessible universal health data as some Chinese systems, we’ve made progress in implementing AI in medical diagnosis. Dr. Kang Zhang, chief of ophthalmic genetics at the University of California, San Diego, created his own system that detects signs of diabetic blindness, relying on both text and medical images.

With an eye to the future, Jacobstein has predicted that “we will soon see an inflection point where doctors will feel it’s a risk to not use machine learning and AI in their everyday practices because they don’t want to be called out for missing an important diagnostic signal.”

Quantum advantage will massively accelerate drug design and testing

Researchers estimate that there are 1060 possible drug-like molecules—more than the number of atoms in our solar system. But today, chemists must make drug predictions based on properties influenced by molecular structure, then synthesize numerous variants to test their hypotheses.

Quantum computing could transform this time-consuming, highly costly process into an efficient, not to mention life-changing, drug discovery protocol.

“Quantum computing is going to have a major industrial impact… not by breaking encryption,” said Jacobstein, “but by making inroads into design through massive parallel processing that can exploit superposition and quantum interference and entanglement, and that can wildly outperform classical computing.”

AI accelerates security systems’ vulnerability and defense

With the incorporation of AI into almost every aspect of our lives, cyberattacks have grown increasingly threatening. “Deep attacks” can use AI-generated content to avoid both human and AI controls.

Previous examples include fake videos of former President Obama speaking fabricated sentences, and an adversarial AI fooling another algorithm into categorizing a stop sign as a 45 mph speed limit sign. Without the appropriate protections, AI systems can be manipulated to conduct any number of destructive objectives, whether ruining reputations or diverting autonomous vehicles.

Jacobstein’s take: “We all have security systems on our buildings, in our homes, around the healthcare system, and in air traffic control, financial organizations, the military, and intelligence communities. But we all know that these systems have been hacked periodically and we’re going to see that accelerate. So, there are major business opportunities there and there are major opportunities for you to get ahead of that curve before it bites you.”

AI design systems drive breakthroughs in atomically precise manufacturing

Just as the modern computer transformed our relationship with bits and information, AI will redefine and revolutionize our relationship with molecules and materials. AI is currently being used to discover new materials for clean-tech innovations, such as solar panels, batteries, and devices that can now conduct artificial photosynthesis.

Today, it takes about 15 to 20 years to create a single new material, according to industry experts. But as AI design systems skyrocket in capacity, these will vastly accelerate the materials discovery process, allowing us to address pressing issues like climate change at record rates. Companies like Kebotix are already on their way to streamlining the creation of chemistries and materials at the click of a button.

Atomically precise manufacturing will enable us to produce the previously unimaginable.

Final Thoughts
Within just the past three years, countries across the globe have signed into existence national AI strategies and plans for ramping up innovation. Businesses and think tanks have leaped onto the scene, hiring AI engineers and tech consultants to leverage what computer scientist Andrew Ng has even called the new ‘electricity’ of the 21st century.

As AI plays an exceedingly vital role in everyday life, how will your business leverage it to keep up and build forward?

In the wake of burgeoning markets, new ventures will quickly arise, each taking advantage of untapped data sources or unmet security needs.

And as your company aims to ride the wave of AI’s exponential growth, consider the following pointers to leverage AI and disrupt yourself before it reaches you first:

Determine where and how you can begin collecting critical data to inform your AI algorithms
Identify time-intensive processes that can be automated and accelerated within your company
Discern which global challenges can be expedited by hyper-fast, all-knowing minds

Remember: good data is vital fuel. Well-defined problems are the best compass. And the time to start implementing AI is now.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434823 The Tangled Web of Turning Spider Silk ...

Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.

Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.

That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.

The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.

Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.

“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.

The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.

The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)

Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.

The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.

Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.

Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.

“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”

Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.

Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.

Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.

For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.

Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.

Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.

“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.

That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.

“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”

And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.

Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.

“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.

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