Tag Archives: material

#433668 A Decade of Commercial Space ...

In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to cause dramatic change unless something disruptive comes along—a new technology, business model, or service design. The space industry has recently been enjoying all three.

But 10 years ago, none of those innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on Sept. 28, 2008, an entire company watched and hoped as their flagship product attempted a final launch after three failures. With cash running low, this was the last shot. Over 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and powered two booster stages off the launchpad.

This first official picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I was issued in Moscow Oct. 9, 1957. The satellite measured 1 foot, 11 inches and weighed 184 pounds. The Space Age began as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit, on Oct. 4, 1957.AP Photo/TASS
When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached orbit and the company secured a subsequent contract with NASA, SpaceX had survived its ‘startup dip’. That milestone, the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, ignited a new space industry that is changing our world, on this planet and beyond. What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean going forward?

While scientists are busy developing new technologies that address the countless technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, studying the business angle and the operations issues facing this new industry. In a recent paper, my colleague Christopher Tang and I investigate the questions firms need to answer in order to create a sustainable space industry and make it possible for humans to establish extraterrestrial bases, mine asteroids and extend space travel—all while governments play an increasingly smaller role in funding space enterprises. We believe these business solutions may hold the less-glamorous key to unlocking the galaxy.

The New Global Space Industry
When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program, putting a satellite in orbit in 1957, they kicked off a race to space fueled by international competition and Cold War fears. The Soviet Union and the United States played the primary roles, stringing together a series of “firsts” for the record books. The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic Apollo 11 moon landing which required massive public investment, on the order of US$25.4 billion, almost $200 billion in today’s dollars.

Competition characterized this early portion of space history. Eventually, that evolved into collaboration, with the International Space Station being a stellar example, as governments worked toward shared goals. Now, we’ve entered a new phase—openness—with private, commercial companies leading the way.

The industry for spacecraft and satellite launches is becoming more commercialized, due, in part, to shrinking government budgets. According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises last year. The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the Cold War rivals, the United States and USSR.

In 2018 to date, there have been 72 orbital launches, an average of two per week, from launch pads in China, Russia, India, Japan, French Guinea, New Zealand, and the US.

The uptick in orbital launches of actual rockets as well as spacecraft launches, which includes satellites and probes launched from space, coincides with this openness over the past decade.

More governments, firms and even amateurs engage in various spacecraft launches than ever before. With more entities involved, innovation has flourished. As Roberson notes in Digital Trends, “Private, commercial spaceflight. Even lunar exploration, mining, and colonization—it’s suddenly all on the table, making the race for space today more vital than it has felt in years.”

Worldwide launches into space. Orbital launches include manned and unmanned spaceships launched into orbital flight from Earth. Spacecraft launches include all vehicles such as spaceships, satellites and probes launched from Earth or space. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in space, Decision Sciences; Space Launch Report (Kyle 2017); Spacecraft Encyclopedia (Lafleur 2017), CC BY-ND

One can see this vitality plainly in the news. On Sept. 21, Japan announced that two of its unmanned rovers, dubbed Minerva-II-1, had landed on a small, distant asteroid. For perspective, the scale of this landing is similar to hitting a 6-centimeter target from 20,000 kilometers away. And earlier this year, people around the world watched in awe as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched and, more impressively, returned its two boosters to a landing pad in a synchronized ballet of epic proportions.

Challenges and Opportunities
Amidst the growth of capital, firms, and knowledge, both researchers and practitioners must figure out how entities should manage their daily operations, organize their supply chain, and develop sustainable operations in space. This is complicated by the hurdles space poses: distance, gravity, inhospitable environments, and information scarcity.

One of the greatest challenges involves actually getting the things people want in space, into space. Manufacturing everything on Earth and then launching it with rockets is expensive and restrictive. A company called Made In Space is taking a different approach by maintaining an additive manufacturing facility on the International Space Station and 3D printing right in space. Tools, spare parts, and medical devices for the crew can all be created on demand. The benefits include more flexibility and better inventory management on the space station. In addition, certain products can be produced better in space than on Earth, such as pure optical fiber.

How should companies determine the value of manufacturing in space? Where should capacity be built and how should it be scaled up? The figure below breaks up the origin and destination of goods between Earth and space and arranges products into quadrants. Humans have mastered the lower left quadrant, made on Earth—for use on Earth. Moving clockwise from there, each quadrant introduces new challenges, for which we have less and less expertise.

A framework of Earth-space operations. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in Space, Decision Sciences, CC BY-ND
I first became interested in this particular problem as I listened to a panel of robotics experts discuss building a colony on Mars (in our third quadrant). You can’t build the structures on Earth and easily send them to Mars, so you must manufacture there. But putting human builders in that extreme environment is equally problematic. Essentially, an entirely new mode of production using robots and automation in an advance envoy may be required.

Resources in Space
You might wonder where one gets the materials for manufacturing in space, but there is actually an abundance of resources: Metals for manufacturing can be found within asteroids, water for rocket fuel is frozen as ice on planets and moons, and rare elements like helium-3 for energy are embedded in the crust of the moon. If we brought that particular isotope back to Earth, we could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

As demonstrated by the recent Minerva-II-1 asteroid landing, people are acquiring the technical know-how to locate and navigate to these materials. But extraction and transport are open questions.

How do these cases change the economics in the space industry? Already, companies like Planetary Resources, Moon Express, Deep Space Industries, and Asterank are organizing to address these opportunities. And scholars are beginning to outline how to navigate questions of property rights, exploitation and partnerships.

Threats From Space Junk
A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris – not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. NASA
The movie “Gravity” opens with a Russian satellite exploding, which sets off a chain reaction of destruction thanks to debris hitting a space shuttle, the Hubble telescope, and part of the International Space Station. The sequence, while not perfectly plausible as written, is a very real phenomenon. In fact, in 2013, a Russian satellite disintegrated when it was hit with fragments from a Chinese satellite that exploded in 2007. Known as the Kessler effect, the danger from the 500,000-plus pieces of space debris has already gotten some attention in public policy circles. How should one prevent, reduce or mitigate this risk? Quantifying the environmental impact of the space industry and addressing sustainable operations is still to come.

NASA scientist Mark Matney is seen through a fist-sized hole in a 3-inch thick piece of aluminum at Johnson Space Center’s orbital debris program lab. The hole was created by a thumb-size piece of material hitting the metal at very high speed simulating possible damage from space junk. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
What’s Next?
It’s true that space is becoming just another place to do business. There are companies that will handle the logistics of getting your destined-for-space module on board a rocket; there are companies that will fly those rockets to the International Space Station; and there are others that can make a replacement part once there.

What comes next? In one sense, it’s anybody’s guess, but all signs point to this new industry forging ahead. A new breakthrough could alter the speed, but the course seems set: exploring farther away from home, whether that’s the moon, asteroids, or Mars. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, SpaceX launches were yet to be successful. Today, a vibrant private sector consists of scores of companies working on everything from commercial spacecraft and rocket propulsion to space mining and food production. The next step is working to solidify the business practices and mature the industry.

Standing in a large hall at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the White House Frontiers Conference, I see the future. Wrapped around my head are state-of-the-art virtual reality goggles. I’m looking at the surface of Mars. Every detail is immediate and crisp. This is not just a video game or an aimless exercise. The scientific community has poured resources into such efforts because exploration is preceded by information. And who knows, maybe 10 years from now, someone will be standing on the actual surface of Mars.

Image Credit: SpaceX

Joel Wooten, Assistant Professor of Management Science, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#433620 Instilling the Best of Human Values in ...

Now that the era of artificial intelligence is unquestionably upon us, it behooves us to think and work harder to ensure that the AIs we create embody positive human values.

Science fiction is full of AIs that manifest the dark side of humanity, or are indifferent to humans altogether. Such possibilities cannot be ruled out, but nor is there any logical or empirical reason to consider them highly likely. I am among a large group of AI experts who see a strong potential for profoundly positive outcomes in the AI revolution currently underway.

We are facing a future with great uncertainty and tremendous promise, and the best we can do is to confront it with a combination of heart and mind, of common sense and rigorous science. In the realm of AI, what this means is, we need to do our best to guide the AI minds we are creating to embody the values we cherish: love, compassion, creativity, and respect.

The quest for beneficial AI has many dimensions, including its potential to reduce material scarcity and to help unlock the human capacity for love and compassion.

Reducing Scarcity
A large percentage of difficult issues in human society, many of which spill over into the AI domain, would be palliated significantly if material scarcity became less of a problem. Fortunately, AI has great potential to help here. AI is already increasing efficiency in nearly every industry.

In the next few decades, as nanotech and 3D printing continue to advance, AI-driven design will become a larger factor in the economy. Radical new tools like artificial enzymes built using Christian Schafmeister’s spiroligomer molecules, and designed using quantum physics-savvy AIs, will enable the creation of new materials and medicines.

For amazing advances like the intersection of AI and nanotech to lead toward broadly positive outcomes, however, the economic and political aspects of the AI industry may have to shift from the current status quo.

Currently, most AI development occurs under the aegis of military organizations or large corporations oriented heavily toward advertising and marketing. Put crudely, an awful lot of AI today is about “spying, brainwashing, or killing.” This is not really the ideal situation if we want our first true artificial general intelligences to be open-minded, warm-hearted, and beneficial.

Also, as the bulk of AI development now occurs in large for-profit organizations bound by law to pursue the maximization of shareholder value, we face a situation where AI tends to exacerbate global wealth inequality and class divisions. This has the potential to lead to various civilization-scale failure modes involving the intersection of geopolitics, AI, cyberterrorism, and so forth. Part of my motivation for founding the decentralized AI project SingularityNET was to create an alternative mode of dissemination and utilization of both narrow AI and AGI—one that operates in a self-organizing way, outside of the direct grip of conventional corporate and governmental structures.

In the end, though, I worry that radical material abundance and novel political and economic structures may fail to create a positive future, unless they are coupled with advances in consciousness and compassion. AGIs have the potential to be massively more ethical and compassionate than humans. But still, the odds of getting deeply beneficial AGIs seem higher if the humans creating them are fuller of compassion and positive consciousness—and can effectively pass these values on.

Transmitting Human Values
Brain-computer interfacing is another critical aspect of the quest for creating more positive AIs and more positive humans. As Elon Musk has put it, “If you can’t beat ’em, join’ em.” Joining is more fun than beating anyway. What better way to infuse AIs with human values than to connect them directly to human brains, and let them learn directly from the source (while providing humans with valuable enhancements)?

Millions of people recently heard Elon Musk discuss AI and BCI on the Joe Rogan podcast. Musk’s embrace of brain-computer interfacing is laudable, but he tends to dodge some of the tough issues—for instance, he does not emphasize the trade-off cyborgs will face between retaining human-ness and maximizing intelligence, joy, and creativity. To make this trade-off effectively, the AI portion of the cyborg will need to have a deep sense of human values.

Musk calls humanity the “biological boot loader” for AGI, but to me this colorful metaphor misses a key point—that we can seed the AGI we create with our values as an initial condition. This is one reason why it’s important that the first really powerful AGIs are created by decentralized networks, and not conventional corporate or military organizations. The decentralized software/hardware ecosystem, for all its quirks and flaws, has more potential to lead to human-computer cybernetic collective minds that are reasonable and benevolent.

Algorithmic Love
BCI is still in its infancy, but a more immediate way of connecting people with AIs to infuse both with greater love and compassion is to leverage humanoid robotics technology. Toward this end, I conceived a project called Loving AI, focused on using highly expressive humanoid robots like the Hanson robot Sophia to lead people through meditations and other exercises oriented toward unlocking the human potential for love and compassion. My goals here were to explore the potential of AI and robots to have a positive impact on human consciousness, and to use this application to study and improve the OpenCog and SingularityNET tools used to control Sophia in these interactions.

The Loving AI project has now run two small sets of human trials, both with exciting and positive results. These have been small—dozens rather than hundreds of people—but have definitively proven the point. Put a person in a quiet room with a humanoid robot that can look them in the eye, mirror their facial expressions, recognize some of their emotions, and lead them through simple meditation, listening, and consciousness-oriented exercises…and quite a lot of the time, the result is a more relaxed person who has entered into a shifted state of consciousness, at least for a period of time.

In a certain percentage of cases, the interaction with the robot consciousness guide triggered a dramatic change of consciousness in the human subject—a deep meditative trance state, for instance. In most cases, the result was not so extreme, but statistically the positive effect was quite significant across all cases. Furthermore, a similar effect was found using an avatar simulation of the robot’s face on a tablet screen (together with a webcam for facial expression mirroring and recognition), but not with a purely auditory interaction.

The Loving AI experiments are not only about AI; they are about human-robot and human-avatar interaction, with AI as one significant aspect. The facial interaction with the robot or avatar is pushing “biological buttons” that trigger emotional reactions and prime the mind for changes of consciousness. However, this sort of body-mind interaction is arguably critical to human values and what it means to be human; it’s an important thing for robots and AIs to “get.”

Halting or pausing the advance of AI is not a viable possibility at this stage. Despite the risks, the potential economic and political benefits involved are clear and massive. The convergence of narrow AI toward AGI is also a near inevitability, because there are so many important applications where greater generality of intelligence will lead to greater practical functionality. The challenge is to make the outcome of this great civilization-level adventure as positive as possible.

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#432891 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

TRANSPORTATION
Elon Musk Presents His Tunnel Vision to the People of LA
Jack Stewart and Aarian Marshall | Wired
“Now, Musk wants to build this new, 2.1-mile tunnel, near LA’s Sepulveda pass. It’s all part of his broader vision of a sprawling network that could take riders from Sherman Oaks in the north to Long Beach Airport in the south, Santa Monica in the west to Dodger Stadium in the east—without all that troublesome traffic.”

ROBOTICS
Feel What This Robot Feels Through Tactile Expressions
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“Guy Hoffman’s Human-Robot Collaboration & Companionship (HRC2) Lab at Cornell University is working on a new robot that’s designed to investigate this concept of textural communication, which really hasn’t been explored in robotics all that much. The robot uses a pneumatically powered elastomer skin that can be dynamically textured with either goosebumps or spikes, which should help it communicate more effectively, especially if what it’s trying to communicate is, ‘Don’t touch me!’”

VIRTUAL REALITY
In Virtual Reality, How Much Body Do You Need?
Steph Yin | The New York Times
“In a paper published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, they showed that animating virtual hands and feet alone is enough to make people feel their sense of body drift toward an invisible avatar. Their work fits into a corpus of research on illusory body ownership, which has challenged understandings of perception and contributed to therapies like treating pain for amputees who experience phantom limb.”

MEDICINE
How Graphene and Gold Could Help Us Test Drugs and Monitor Cancer
Angela Chen | The Verge
“In today’s study, scientists learned to precisely control the amount of electricity graphene generates by changing how much light they shine on the material. When they grew heart cells on the graphene, they could manipulate the cells too, says study co-author Alex Savtchenko, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego. They could make it beat 1.5 times faster, three times faster, 10 times faster, or whatever they needed.”

DISASTER RELIEF
Robotic Noses Could Be the Future of Disaster Rescue—If They Can Outsniff Search Dogs
Eleanor Cummins | Popular Science
“While canine units are a tried and fairly true method for identifying people trapped in the wreckage of a disaster, analytical chemists have for years been working in the lab to create a robotic alternative. A synthetic sniffer, they argue, could potentially prove to be just as or even more reliable than a dog, more resilient in the face of external pressures like heat and humidity, and infinitely more portable.”

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#432882 Why the Discovery of Room-Temperature ...

Superconductors are among the most bizarre and exciting materials yet discovered. Counterintuitive quantum-mechanical effects mean that, below a critical temperature, they have zero electrical resistance. This property alone is more than enough to spark the imagination.

A current that could flow forever without losing any energy means transmission of power with virtually no losses in the cables. When renewable energy sources start to dominate the grid and high-voltage transmission across continents becomes important to overcome intermittency, lossless cables will result in substantial savings.

What’s more, a superconducting wire carrying a current that never, ever diminishes would act as a perfect store of electrical energy. Unlike batteries, which degrade over time, if the resistance is truly zero, you could return to the superconductor in a billion years and find that same old current flowing through it. Energy could be captured and stored indefinitely!

With no resistance, a huge current could be passed through the superconducting wire and, in turn, produce magnetic fields of incredible power.

You could use them to levitate trains and produce astonishing accelerations, thereby revolutionizing the transport system. You could use them in power plants—replacing conventional methods which spin turbines in magnetic fields to generate electricity—and in quantum computers as the two-level system required for a “qubit,” in which the zeros and ones are replaced by current flowing clockwise or counterclockwise in a superconductor.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; superconductors can certainly seem like magical devices. So, why aren’t they busy remaking the world? There’s a problem—that critical temperature.

For all known materials, it’s hundreds of degrees below freezing. Superconductors also have a critical magnetic field; beyond a certain magnetic field strength, they cease to work. There’s a tradeoff: materials with an intrinsically high critical temperature can also often provide the largest magnetic fields when cooled well below that temperature.

This has meant that superconductor applications so far have been limited to situations where you can afford to cool the components of your system to close to absolute zero: in particle accelerators and experimental nuclear fusion reactors, for example.

But even as some aspects of superconductor technology become mature in limited applications, the search for higher temperature superconductors moves on. Many physicists still believe a room-temperature superconductor could exist. Such a discovery would unleash amazing new technologies.

The Quest for Room-Temperature Superconductors
After Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity by accident while attempting to prove Lord Kelvin’s theory that resistance would increase with decreasing temperature, theorists scrambled to explain the new property in the hope that understanding it might allow for room-temperature superconductors to be synthesized.

They came up with the BCS theory, which explained some of the properties of superconductors. It also predicted that the dream of technologists, a room-temperature superconductor, could not exist; the maximum temperature for superconductivity according to BCS theory was just 30 K.

Then, in the 1980s, the field changed again with the discovery of unconventional, or high-temperature, superconductivity. “High temperature” is still very cold: the highest temperature for superconductivity achieved was -70°C for hydrogen sulphide at extremely high pressures. For normal pressures, -140°C is near the upper limit. Unfortunately, high-temperature superconductors—which require relatively cheap liquid nitrogen, rather than liquid helium, to cool—are mostly brittle ceramics, which are expensive to form into wires and have limited application.

Given the limitations of high-temperature superconductors, researchers continue to believe there’s a better option awaiting discovery—an incredible new material that checks boxes like superconductivity approaching room temperature, affordability, and practicality.

Tantalizing Clues
Without a detailed theoretical understanding of how this phenomenon occurs—although incremental progress happens all the time—scientists can occasionally feel like they’re taking educated guesses at materials that might be likely candidates. It’s a little like trying to guess a phone number, but with the periodic table of elements instead of digits.

Yet the prospect remains, in the words of one researcher, tantalizing. A Nobel Prize and potentially changing the world of energy and electricity is not bad for a day’s work.

Some research focuses on cuprates, complex crystals that contain layers of copper and oxygen atoms. Doping cuprates with various different elements, such exotic compounds as mercury barium calcium copper oxide, are amongst the best superconductors known today.

Research also continues into some anomalous but unexplained reports that graphite soaked in water can act as a room-temperature superconductor, but there’s no indication that this could be used for technological applications yet.

In early 2017, as part of the ongoing effort to explore the most extreme and exotic forms of matter we can create on Earth, researchers managed to compress hydrogen into a metal.

The pressure required to do this was more than that at the core of the Earth and thousands of times higher than that at the bottom of the ocean. Some researchers in the field, called condensed-matter physics, doubt that metallic hydrogen was produced at all.

It’s considered possible that metallic hydrogen could be a room-temperature superconductor. But getting the samples to stick around long enough for detailed testing has proved tricky, with the diamonds containing the metallic hydrogen suffering a “catastrophic failure” under the pressure.

Superconductivity—or behavior that strongly resembles it—was also observed in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) at room temperature in 2014. The only catch was that this electron transport lasted for a tiny fraction of a second and required the material to be bombarded with pulsed lasers.

Not very practical, you might say, but tantalizing nonetheless.

Other new materials display enticing properties too. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the theoretical work that characterizes topological insulators—materials that exhibit similarly strange quantum behaviors. They can be considered perfect insulators for the bulk of the material but extraordinarily good conductors in a thin layer on the surface.

Microsoft is betting on topological insulators as the key component in their attempt at a quantum computer. They’ve also been considered potentially important components in miniaturized circuitry.

A number of remarkable electronic transport properties have also been observed in new, “2D” structures—like graphene, these are materials synthesized to be as thick as a single atom or molecule. And research continues into how we can utilize the superconductors we’ve already discovered; for example, some teams are trying to develop insulating material that prevents superconducting HVDC cable from overheating.

Room-temperature superconductivity remains as elusive and exciting as it has been for over a century. It is unclear whether a room-temperature superconductor can exist, but the discovery of high-temperature superconductors is a promising indicator that unconventional and highly useful quantum effects may be discovered in completely unexpected materials.

Perhaps in the future—through artificial intelligence simulations or the serendipitous discoveries of a 21st century Kamerlingh Onnes—this little piece of magic could move into the realm of reality.

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#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

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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Posted in Human Robots