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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.
Image Credit: PeterVrabel / Shutterstock.com Continue reading
Earth’s oceans are having a rough go of it these days. On top of being the repository for millions of tons of plastic waste, global warming is affecting the oceans and upsetting marine ecosystems in potentially irreversible ways.
Coral bleaching, for example, occurs when warming water temperatures or other stress factors cause coral to cast off the algae that live on them. The coral goes from lush and colorful to white and bare, and sometimes dies off altogether. This has a ripple effect on the surrounding ecosystem.
Warmer water temperatures have also prompted many species of fish to move closer to the north or south poles, disrupting fisheries and altering undersea environments.
To keep these issues in check or, better yet, try to address and improve them, it’s crucial for scientists to monitor what’s going on in the water. A paper released last week by a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled a new tool for studying marine life: a biomimetic soft robotic fish, dubbed SoFi, that can swim with, observe, and interact with real fish.
SoFi isn’t the first robotic fish to hit the water, but it is the most advanced robot of its kind. Here’s what sets it apart.
It swims in three dimensions
Up until now, most robotic fish could only swim forward at a given water depth, advancing at a steady speed. SoFi blows older models out of the water. It’s equipped with side fins called dive planes, which move to adjust its angle and allow it to turn, dive downward, or head closer to the surface. Its density and thus its buoyancy can also be adjusted by compressing or decompressing air in an inner compartment.
“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” said CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the study. “We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.”
The team took SoFi to the Rainbow Reef in Fiji to test out its swimming skills, and the robo fish didn’t disappoint—it was able to swim at depths of over 50 feet for 40 continuous minutes. What keeps it swimming? A lithium polymer battery just like the one that powers our smartphones.
It’s remote-controlled… by Super Nintendo
SoFi has sensors to help it see what’s around it, but it doesn’t have a mind of its own yet. Rather, it’s controlled by a nearby scuba-diving human, who can send it commands related to speed, diving, and turning. The best part? The commands come from an actual repurposed (and waterproofed) Super Nintendo controller. What’s not to love?
Image Credit: MIT CSAIL
Previous robotic fish built by this team had to be tethered to a boat, so the fact that SoFi can swim independently is a pretty big deal. Communication between the fish and the diver was most successful when the two were less than 10 meters apart.
It looks real, sort of
SoFi’s side fins are a bit stiff, and its camera may not pass for natural—but otherwise, it looks a lot like a real fish. This is mostly thanks to the way its tail moves; a motor pumps water between two chambers in the tail, and as one chamber fills, the tail bends towards that side, then towards the other side as water is pumped into the other chamber. The result is a motion that closely mimics the way fish swim. Not only that, the hydraulic system can change the water flow to get different tail movements that let SoFi swim at varying speeds; its average speed is around half a body length (21.7 centimeters) per second.
Besides looking neat, it’s important SoFi look lifelike so it can blend in with marine life and not scare real fish away, so it can get close to them and observe them.
“A robot like this can help explore the reef more closely than current robots, both because it can get closer more safely for the reef and because it can be better accepted by the marine species.” said Cecilia Laschi, a biorobotics professor at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.
Just keep swimming
It sounds like this fish is nothing short of a regular Nemo. But its creators aren’t quite finished yet.
They’d like SoFi to be able to swim faster, so they’ll work on improving the robo fish’s pump system and streamlining its body and tail design. They also plan to tweak SoFi’s camera to help it follow real fish.
“We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,” said CSAIL director Daniela Rus. “It has the potential to be a new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of marine life.”
The CSAIL team plans to make a whole school of SoFis to help biologists learn more about how marine life is reacting to environmental changes.
Image Credit: MIT CSAIL Continue reading
Ever wished you could be in two places at the same time? The XPRIZE Foundation wants to make that a reality with a $10 million competition to build robot avatars that can be controlled from at least 100 kilometers away.
The competition was announced by XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis at the SXSW conference in Austin last week, with an ambitious timeline of awarding the grand prize by October 2021. Teams have until October 31st to sign up, and they need to submit detailed plans to a panel of judges by the end of next January.
The prize, sponsored by Japanese airline ANA, has given contestants little guidance on how they expect them to solve the challenge other than saying their solutions need to let users see, hear, feel, and interact with the robot’s environment as well as the people in it.
XPRIZE has also not revealed details of what kind of tasks the robots will be expected to complete, though they’ve said tasks will range from “simple” to “complex,” and it should be possible for an untrained operator to use them.
That’s a hugely ambitious goal that’s likely to require teams to combine multiple emerging technologies, from humanoid robotics to virtual reality high-bandwidth communications and high-resolution haptics.
If any of the teams succeed, the technology could have myriad applications, from letting emergency responders enter areas too hazardous for humans to helping people care for relatives who live far away or even just allowing tourists to visit other parts of the world without the jet lag.
“Our ability to physically experience another geographic location, or to provide on-the-ground assistance where needed, is limited by cost and the simple availability of time,” Diamandis said in a statement.
“The ANA Avatar XPRIZE can enable creation of an audacious alternative that could bypass these limitations, allowing us to more rapidly and efficiently distribute skill and hands-on expertise to distant geographic locations where they are needed, bridging the gap between distance, time, and cultures,” he added.
Interestingly, the technology may help bypass an enduring hand break on the widespread use of robotics: autonomy. By having a human in the loop, you don’t need nearly as much artificial intelligence analyzing sensory input and making decisions.
Robotics software is doing a lot more than just high-level planning and strategizing, though. While a human moves their limbs instinctively without consciously thinking about which muscles to activate, controlling and coordinating a robot’s components requires sophisticated algorithms.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge demonstrated just how hard it was to get human-shaped robots to do tasks humans would find simple, such as opening doors, climbing steps, and even just walking. These robots were supposedly semi-autonomous, but on many tasks they were essentially tele-operated, and the results suggested autonomy isn’t the only problem.
There’s also the issue of powering these devices. You may have noticed that in a lot of the slick web videos of humanoid robots doing cool things, the machine is attached to the roof by a large cable. That’s because they suck up huge amounts of power.
Possibly the most advanced humanoid robot—Boston Dynamics’ Atlas—has a battery, but it can only run for about an hour. That might be fine for some applications, but you don’t want it running out of juice halfway through rescuing someone from a mine shaft.
When it comes to the link between the robot and its human user, some of the technology is probably not that much of a stretch. Virtual reality headsets can create immersive audio-visual environments, and a number of companies are working on advanced haptic suits that will let people “feel” virtual environments.
Motion tracking technology may be more complicated. While even consumer-grade devices can track peoples’ movements with high accuracy, you will probably need to don something more like an exoskeleton that can both pick up motion and provide mechanical resistance, so that when the robot bumps into an immovable object, the user stops dead too.
How hard all of this will be is also dependent on how the competition ultimately defines subjective terms like “feel” and “interact.” Will the user need to be able to feel a gentle breeze on the robot’s cheek or be able to paint a watercolor? Or will simply having the ability to distinguish a hard object from a soft one or shake someone’s hand be enough?
Whatever the fidelity they decide on, the approach will require huge amounts of sensory and control data to be transmitted over large distances, most likely wirelessly, in a way that’s fast and reliable enough that there’s no lag or interruptions. Fortunately 5G is launching this year, with a speed of 10 gigabits per second and very low latency, so this problem should be solved by 2021.
And it’s worth remembering there have already been some tentative attempts at building robotic avatars. Telepresence robots have solved the seeing, hearing, and some of the interacting problems, and MIT has already used virtual reality to control robots to carry out complex manipulation tasks.
South Korean company Hankook Mirae Technology has also unveiled a 13-foot-tall robotic suit straight out of a sci-fi movie that appears to have made some headway with the motion tracking problem, albeit with a human inside the robot. Toyota’s T-HR3 does the same, but with the human controlling the robot from a “Master Maneuvering System” that marries motion tracking with VR.
Combining all of these capabilities into a single machine will certainly prove challenging. But if one of the teams pulls it off, you may be able to tick off trips to the Seven Wonders of the World without ever leaving your house.
Image Credit: ANA Avatar XPRIZE Continue reading