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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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Robotics has come a long way in the past few years. Robots can now fetch items from specific spots in massive warehouses, swim through the ocean to study marine life, and lift 200 times their own weight. They can even perform synchronized dance routines.
But the really big question is—can robots put together an Ikea chair?
A team of engineers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore decided to find out, detailing their work in a paper published last week in the journal Science Robotics. The team took industrial robot arms and equipped them with parallel grippers, force-detecting sensors, and 3D cameras, and wrote software enabling the souped-up bots to tackle chair assembly. The robots’ starting point was a set of chair parts randomly scattered within reach.
As impressive as the above-mentioned robotic capabilities are, it’s worth noting that they’re mostly limited to a single skill. Putting together furniture, on the other hand, requires using and precisely coordinating multiple skills, including force control, visual localization, hand-eye coordination, and the patience to read each step of the manual without rushing through it and messing everything up.
Indeed, Ikea furniture, while meant to be simple and user-friendly, has left even the best of us scratching our heads and holding a spare oddly-shaped piece of wood as we stare at the desk or bed frame we just put together—or, for the less even-tempered among us, throwing said piece of wood across the room.
It’s a good thing robots don’t have tempers, because it took a few tries for the bots to get the chair assembly right.
Practice makes perfect, though (or in this case, rewriting code makes perfect), and these bots didn’t give up so easily. They had to hone three different skills: identifying which part was which among the scattered, differently-shaped pieces of wood, coordinating their movements to put those pieces in the right place, and knowing how much force to use in various steps of the process (i.e., more force is needed to connect two pieces than to pick up one piece).
A few tries later, the bots were able to assemble the chair from start to finish in about nine minutes.
On the whole, nicely done. But before we applaud the robots’ success too loudly, it’s important to note that they didn’t autonomously assemble the chair. Rather, each step of the process was planned and coded by engineers, down to the millimeter.
However, the team believes this closely-guided chair assembly was just a first step, and they see a not-so-distant future where combining artificial intelligence with advanced robotic capabilities could produce smart bots that would learn to assemble furniture and do other complex tasks on their own.
Future applications mentioned in the paper include electronics and aircraft manufacturing, logistics, and other high-mix, low-volume sectors.
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New planets found in distant corners of the galaxy. Climate models that may improve our understanding of sea level rise. The emergence of new antimalarial drugs. These scientific advances and discoveries have been in the news in recent months.
While representing wildly divergent disciplines, from astronomy to biotechnology, they all have one thing in common: Artificial intelligence played a key role in their scientific discovery.
One of the more recent and famous examples came out of NASA at the end of 2017. The US space agency had announced an eighth planet discovered in the Kepler-90 system. Scientists had trained a neural network—a computer with a “brain” modeled on the human mind—to re-examine data from Kepler, a space-borne telescope with a four-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. Or, more precisely, to find habitable planets where life might just exist.
The researchers trained the artificial neural network on a set of 15,000 previously vetted signals until it could identify true planets and false positives 96 percent of the time. It then went to work on weaker signals from nearly 700 star systems with known planets.
The machine detected Kepler 90i—a hot, rocky planet that orbits its sun about every two Earth weeks—through a nearly imperceptible change in brightness captured when a planet passes a star. It also found a sixth Earth-sized planet in the Kepler-80 system.
AI Handles Big Data
The application of AI to science is being driven by three great advances in technology, according to Ross King from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester, leader of a team that developed an artificially intelligent “scientist” called Eve.
Those three advances include much faster computers, big datasets, and improved AI methods, King said. “These advances increasingly give AI superhuman reasoning abilities,” he told Singularity Hub by email.
AI systems can flawlessly remember vast numbers of facts and extract information effortlessly from millions of scientific papers, not to mention exhibit flawless logical reasoning and near-optimal probabilistic reasoning, King says.
AI systems also beat humans when it comes to dealing with huge, diverse amounts of data.
That’s partly what attracted a team of glaciologists to turn to machine learning to untangle the factors involved in how heat from Earth’s interior might influence the ice sheet that blankets Greenland.
Algorithms juggled 22 geologic variables—such as bedrock topography, crustal thickness, magnetic anomalies, rock types, and proximity to features like trenches, ridges, young rifts, and volcanoes—to predict geothermal heat flux under the ice sheet throughout Greenland.
The machine learning model, for example, predicts elevated heat flux upstream of Jakobshavn Glacier, the fastest-moving glacier in the world.
“The major advantage is that we can incorporate so many different types of data,” explains Leigh Stearns, associate professor of geology at Kansas University, whose research takes her to the polar regions to understand how and why Earth’s great ice sheets are changing, questions directly related to future sea level rise.
“All of the other models just rely on one parameter to determine heat flux, but the [machine learning] approach incorporates all of them,” Stearns told Singularity Hub in an email. “Interestingly, we found that there is not just one parameter…that determines the heat flux, but a combination of many factors.”
The research was published last month in Geophysical Research Letters.
Stearns says her team hopes to apply high-powered machine learning to characterize glacier behavior over both short and long-term timescales, thanks to the large amounts of data that she and others have collected over the last 20 years.
Emergence of Robot Scientists
While Stearns sees machine learning as another tool to augment her research, King believes artificial intelligence can play a much bigger role in scientific discoveries in the future.
“I am interested in developing AI systems that autonomously do science—robot scientists,” he said. Such systems, King explained, would automatically originate hypotheses to explain observations, devise experiments to test those hypotheses, physically run the experiments using laboratory robotics, and even interpret the results. The conclusions would then influence the next cycle of hypotheses and experiments.
His AI scientist Eve recently helped researchers discover that triclosan, an ingredient commonly found in toothpaste, could be used as an antimalarial drug against certain strains that have developed a resistance to other common drug therapies. The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Automation using artificial intelligence for drug discovery has become a growing area of research, as the machines can work orders of magnitude faster than any human. AI is also being applied in related areas, such as synthetic biology for the rapid design and manufacture of microorganisms for industrial uses.
King argues that machines are better suited to unravel the complexities of biological systems, with even the most “simple” organisms are host to thousands of genes, proteins, and small molecules that interact in complicated ways.
“Robot scientists and semi-automated AI tools are essential for the future of biology, as there are simply not enough human biologists to do the necessary work,” he said.
Creating Shockwaves in Science
The use of machine learning, neural networks, and other AI methods can often get better results in a fraction of the time it would normally take to crunch data.
For instance, scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have a deep learning system for the rapid detection and characterization of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are disturbances in spacetime, emanating from big, high-energy cosmic events, such as the massive explosion of a star known as a supernova. The “Holy Grail” of this type of research is to detect gravitational waves from the Big Bang.
Dubbed Deep Filtering, the method allows real-time processing of data from LIGO, a gravitational wave observatory comprised of two enormous laser interferometers located thousands of miles apart in California and Louisiana. The research was published in Physics Letters B. You can watch a trippy visualization of the results below.
In a more down-to-earth example, scientists published a paper last month in Science Advances on the development of a neural network called ConvNetQuake to detect and locate minor earthquakes from ground motion measurements called seismograms.
ConvNetQuake uncovered 17 times more earthquakes than traditional methods. Scientists say the new method is particularly useful in monitoring small-scale seismic activity, which has become more frequent, possibly due to fracking activities that involve injecting wastewater deep underground. You can learn more about ConvNetQuake in this video:
King says he believes that in the long term there will be no limit to what AI can accomplish in science. He and his team, including Eve, are currently working on developing cancer therapies under a grant from DARPA.
“Robot scientists are getting smarter and smarter; human scientists are not,” he says. “Indeed, there is arguably a case that human scientists are less good. I don’t see any scientist alive today of the stature of a Newton or Einstein—despite the vast number of living scientists. The Physics Nobel [laureate] Frank Wilczek is on record as saying (10 years ago) that in 100 years’ time the best physicist will be a machine. I agree.”
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