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#431110 Soft robotics: self-contained soft ...

Researchers at Columbia Engineering have solved a long-standing issue in the creation of untethered soft robots whose actions and movements can help mimic natural biological systems. A group in the Creative Machines lab led by Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering, has developed a 3D-printable synthetic soft muscle, a one-of-a-kind artificial active tissue with intrinsic expansion ability that does not require an external compressor or high voltage equipment as previous muscles required. The new material has a strain density (expansion per gram) that is 15 times larger than natural muscle, and can lift 1000 times its own weight. Continue reading

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#431052 Chinese robotics artist makes real-life ...

In the suburbs of China's capital, a 32-year-old engineer creates the kind of larger-than-life, shapeshifting robots that most have only seen in "Transformers" movies. Continue reading

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#431022 Robots and AI Will Take Over These 3 ...

We’re no stranger to robotics in the medical field. Robot-assisted surgery is becoming more and more common. Many training programs are starting to include robotic and virtual reality scenarios to provide hands-on training for students without putting patients at risk.
With all of these advances in medical robotics, three niches stand out above the rest: surgery, medical imaging, and drug discovery. How have robotics already begun to exert their influence on these practices, and how will they change them for good?
Robot-Assisted Surgery
Robot-assisted surgery was first documented in 1985, when it was used for a neurosurgical biopsy. This led to the use of robotics in a number of similar surgeries, both laparoscopic and traditional operations. The FDA didn’t approve robotic surgery tools until 2000, when the da Vinci Surgery system hit the market.
The robot-assisted surgery market is expected to grow steadily into 2023 and potentially beyond. The only thing that might stand in the way of this growth is the cost of the equipment. The initial investment may prevent small practices from purchasing the necessary devices.
Medical Imaging
The key to successful medical imaging isn’t the equipment itself. It’s being able to interpret the information in the images. Medical images are some of the most information-dense pieces of data in the medical field and can reveal so much more than a basic visual inspection can.
Robotics and, more specifically, artificial intelligence programs like IBM Watson can help interpret these images more efficiently and accurately. By allowing an AI or basic machine learning program to study the medical images, researchers can find patterns and make more accurate diagnoses than ever before.
Drug Discovery
Drug discovery is a long and often tedious process that includes years of testing and assessment. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive algorithms could help speed up this system.
Imagine if researchers could input the kind of medicine they’re trying to make and the kind of symptoms they’re trying to treat into a computer and let it do the rest. With robotics, that may someday be possible.

This isn’t a perfect solution yet—these systems require massive amounts of data before they can start making decisions or predictions. By feeding data into the cloud where these programs can access it, researchers can take the first steps towards setting up a functional database.
Another benefit of these AI programs is that they might see connections humans would never have thought of. People can make those leaps, but the chances are much lower, and it takes much longer if it happens at all. Simply put, we’re not capable of processing the sheer amount of data that computers can process.
This isn’t a field where we’re worrying about robots stealing jobs.
Quite the opposite, in fact—we want robots to become commonly-used tools that can help improve patient care and surgical outcomes.
A human surgeon might have intuition, but they’ll never have the steadiness that a pair of robotic hands can provide or the data-processing capabilities of a machine learning algorithm. If we let them, these tools could change the way we look at medicine.
Image Credit: Intuitive Surgical Continue reading

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#430855 Why Education Is the Hardest Sector of ...

We’ve all heard the warning cries: automation will disrupt entire industries and put millions of people out of jobs. In fact, up to 45 percent of existing jobs can be automated using current technology.
However, this may not necessarily apply to the education sector. After a detailed analysis of more than 2,000-plus work activities for more than 800 occupations, a report by McKinsey & Co states that of all the sectors examined, “…the technical feasibility of automation is lowest in education.”
There is no doubt that technological trends will have a powerful impact on global education, both by improving the overall learning experience and by increasing global access to education. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), chatbot tutors, and AI-powered lesson plans are just a few examples of the digital transformation in global education. But will robots and artificial intelligence ever fully replace teachers?
The Most Difficult Sector to Automate
While various tasks revolving around education—like administrative tasks or facilities maintenance—are open to automation, teaching itself is not.
Effective education involves more than just transfer of information from a teacher to a student. Good teaching requires complex social interactions and adaptation to the individual student’s learning needs. An effective teacher is not just responsive to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, but is also empathetic towards the student’s state of mind. It’s about maximizing human potential.
Furthermore, students don’t just rely on effective teachers to teach them the course material, but also as a source of life guidance and career mentorship. Deep and meaningful human interaction is crucial and is something that is very difficult, if not impossible, to automate.
Automating teaching is an example of a task that would require artificial general intelligence (as opposed to narrow or specific intelligence). In other words, this is the kind of task that would require an AI that understands natural human language, can be empathetic towards emotions, plan, strategize and make impactful decisions under unpredictable circumstances.
This would be the kind of machine that can do anything a human can do, and it doesn’t exist—at least, not yet.
We’re Getting There
Let’s not forget how quickly AI is evolving. Just because it’s difficult to fully automate teaching, it doesn’t mean the world’s leading AI experts aren’t trying.
Meet Jill Watson, the teaching assistant from Georgia Institute of Technology. Watson isn’t your average TA. She’s an IBM-powered artificial intelligence that is being implemented in universities around the world. Watson is able to answer students’ questions with 97 percent certainty.
Technologies like this also have applications in grading and providing feedback. Some AI algorithms are being trained and refined to perform automatic essay scoring. One project has achieved a 0.945 correlation with human graders.
All of this will have a remarkable impact on online education as we know it and dramatically increase online student retention rates.

Any student with a smartphone can access a wealth of information and free courses from universities around the world. MOOCs have allowed valuable courses to become available to millions of students. But at the moment, not all participants can receive customized feedback for their work. Currently, this is limited by manpower, but in the future that may not be the case.
What chatbots like Jill Watson allow is the opportunity for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of students to have their work reviewed and all their questions answered at a minimal cost.
AI algorithms also have a significant role to play in personalization of education. Every student is unique and has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Data analysis can be used to improve individual student results, assess each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and create mass-customized programs. Algorithms can analyze student data and consequently make flexible programs that adapt to the learner based on real-time feedback. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, all of this data in education could unlock between $900 billion and $1.2 trillion in global economic value.
Beyond Automated Teaching
It’s important to recognize that technological automation alone won’t fix the many issues in our global education system today. Dominated by outdated curricula, standardized tests, and an emphasis on short-term knowledge, many experts are calling for a transformation of how we teach.
It is not enough to simply automate the process. We can have a completely digital learning experience that continues to focus on outdated skills and fails to prepare students for the future. In other words, we must not only be innovative with our automation capabilities, but also with educational content, strategy, and policies.
Are we equipping students with the most important survival skills? Are we inspiring young minds to create a better future? Are we meeting the unique learning needs of each and every student? There’s no point automating and digitizing a system that is already flawed. We need to ensure the system that is being digitized is itself being transformed for the better.
Stock Media provided by davincidig / Pond5 Continue reading

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#430830 Biocomputers Made From Cells Can Now ...

When it comes to biomolecules, RNA doesn’t get a lot of love.
Maybe you haven’t even heard of the silent workhorse. RNA is the cell’s de facto translator: like a game of telephone, RNA takes DNA’s genetic code to a cellular factory called ribosomes. There, the cell makes proteins based on RNA’s message.
But RNA isn’t just a middleman. It controls what proteins are formed. Because proteins wiz around the cell completing all sorts of important processes, you can say that RNA is the gatekeeper: no RNA message, no proteins, no life.
In a new study published in Nature, RNA finally took center stage. By adding bits of genetic material to the E. Coli bacteria, a team of biohackers at the Wyss Institute hijacked the organism’s RNA messengers so that they only spring into action following certain inputs.
The result? A bacterial biocomputer capable of performing 12-input logic operations—AND, OR, and NOT—following specific inputs. Rather than outputting 0s and 1s, these biocircuits produce results based on the presence or absence of proteins and other molecules.
“It’s the greatest number of inputs in a circuit that a cell has been able to process,” says study author Dr. Alexander Green at Arizona State University. “To be able to analyze those signals and make a decision is the big advance here.”
When given a specific set of inputs, the bacteria spit out a protein that made them glow neon green under fluorescent light.
But synthetic biology promises far more than just a party trick—by tinkering with a cell’s RNA repertoire, scientists may one day coax them to photosynthesize, produce expensive drugs on the fly, or diagnose and hunt down rogue tumor cells.
Illustration of an RNA-based ‘ribocomputing’ device that makes logic-based decisions in living cells. The long gate RNA (blue) detects the binding of an input RNA (red). The ribosome (purple/mauve) reads the gate RNA to produce an output protein. Image Credit: Alexander Green / Arizona State University
The software of life
This isn’t the first time that scientists hijacked life’s algorithms to reprogram cells into nanocomputing systems. Previous work has already introduced to the world yeast cells that can make anti-malaria drugs from sugar or mammalian cells that can perform Boolean logic.
Yet circuits with multiple inputs and outputs remain hard to program. The reason is this: synthetic biologists have traditionally focused on snipping, fusing, or otherwise arranging a cell’s DNA to produce the outcomes they want.
But DNA is two steps removed from proteins, and tinkering with life’s code often leads to unexpected consequences. For one, the cell may not even accept and produce the extra bits of DNA code. For another, the added code, when transformed into proteins, may not act accordingly in the crowded and ever-changing environment of the cell.
What’s more, tinkering with one gene is often not enough to program an entirely new circuit. Scientists often need to amp up or shut down the activity of multiple genes, or multiple biological “modules” each made up of tens or hundreds of genes.
It’s like trying to fit new Lego pieces in a specific order into a room full of Lego constructions. Each new piece has the potential to wander off track and click onto something it’s not supposed to touch.
Getting every moving component to work in sync—as you might have guessed—is a giant headache.
The RNA way
With “ribocomputing,” Green and colleagues set off to tackle a main problem in synthetic biology: predictability.
Named after the “R (ribo)” in “RNA,” the method grew out of an idea that first struck Green back in 2012.
“The synthetic biological circuits to date have relied heavily on protein-based regulators that are difficult to scale up,” Green wrote at the time. We only have a limited handful of “designable parts” that work well, and these circuits require significant resources to encode and operate, he explains.
RNA, in comparison, is a lot more predictable. Like its more famous sibling DNA, RNA is composed of units that come in four different flavors: A, G, C, and U. Although RNA is only single-stranded, rather than the double helix for which DNA is known for, it can bind short DNA-like sequences in a very predictable manner: Gs always match up with Cs and As always with Us.
Because of this predictability, it’s possible to design RNA components that bind together perfectly. In other words, it reduces the chance that added RNA bits might go rogue in an unsuspecting cell.
Normally, once RNA is produced it immediately rushes to the ribosome—the cell’s protein-building factory. Think of it as a constantly “on” system.
However, Green and his team found a clever mechanism to slow them down. Dubbed the “toehold switch,” it works like this: the artificial RNA component is first incorporated into a chain of A, G, C, and U folded into a paperclip-like structure.
This blocks the RNA from accessing the ribosome. Because one RNA strand generally maps to one protein, the switch prevents that protein from ever getting made.
In this way, the switch is set to “off” by default—a “NOT” gate, in Boolean logic.
To activate the switch, the cell needs another component: a “trigger RNA,” which binds to the RNA toehold switch. This flips it on: the RNA grabs onto the ribosome, and bam—proteins.
BioLogic gates
String a few RNA switches together, with the activity of each one relying on the one before, and it forms an “AND” gate. Alternatively, if the activity of each switch is independent, that’s an “OR” gate.
“Basically, the toehold switches performed so well that we wanted to find a way to best exploit them for cellular applications,” says Green. They’re “kind of the equivalent of your first transistors,” he adds.
Once the team optimized the designs for different logic gates, they carefully condensed the switches into “gate RNA” molecules. These gate RNAs contain both codes for proteins and the logic operations needed to kickstart the process—a molecular logic circuit, so to speak.
If you’ve ever played around with an Arduino-controlled electrical circuit, you probably know the easiest way to test its function is with a light bulb.
That’s what the team did here, though with a biological bulb: green fluorescent protein, a light-sensing protein not normally present in bacteria that—when turned on—makes the microbugs glow neon green.
In a series of experiments, Green and his team genetically inserted gate RNAs into bacteria. Then, depending on the type of logical function, they added different combinations of trigger RNAs—the inputs.
When the input RNA matched up with its corresponding gate RNA, it flipped on the switch, causing the cell to light up.

Their most complex circuit contained five AND gates, five OR gates, and two NOTs—a 12-input ribocomputer that functioned exactly as designed.
That’s quite the achievement. “Everything is interacting with everything else and there are a million ways those interactions could flip the switch on accident,” says RNA researcher Dr. Julies Lucks at Northwestern University.
The specificity is thanks to RNA, the authors explain. Because RNAs bind to others so predictably, we can now design massive libraries of gate and trigger units to mix-and-match into all types of nano-biocomputers.
RNA BioNanobots
Although the technology doesn’t have any immediate applications, the team has high hopes.
For the first time, it’s now possible to massively scale up the process of programming new circuits into living cells. We’ve expanded the library of available biocomponents that can be used to reprogram life’s basic code, the authors say.
What’s more, when freeze-dried onto a piece of tissue paper, RNA keeps very well. We could potentially print RNA toehold switches onto paper that respond to viruses or to tumor cells, the authors say, essentially transforming the technology into highly accurate diagnostic platforms.
But Green’s hopes are even wilder for his RNA-based circuits.
“Because we’re using RNA, a universal molecule of life, we know these interactions can also work in other cells, so our method provides a general strategy that could be ported to other organisms,” he says.
Ultimately, the hope is to program neural network-like capabilities into the body’s other cells.
Imagine cells endowed with circuits capable of performing the kinds of computation the brain does, the authors say.
Perhaps one day, synthetic biology will transform our own cells into fully programmable entities, turning us all into biological cyborgs from the inside. How wild would that be?
Image Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University Continue reading

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