Tag Archives: material

#431862 Want Self-Healing Robots and Tires? ...

We all have scars, and each one tells a story. Tales of tomfoolery, tales of haphazardness, or in my case, tales of stupidity.
Whether the cause of your scar was a push-bike accident, a lack of concentration while cutting onions, or simply the byproduct of an active lifestyle, the experience was likely extremely painful and distressing. Not to mention the long and vexatious recovery period, stretching out for weeks and months after the actual event!
Cast your minds back to that time. How you longed for instant relief from your discomfort! How you longed to have your capabilities restored in an instant!
Well, materials that can heal themselves in an instant may not be far from becoming a reality—and a family of them known as elastomers holds the key.
“Elastomer” is essentially a big, fancy word for rubber. However, elastomers have one unique property—they are capable of returning to their original form after being vigorously stretched and deformed.
This unique property of elastomers has caught the eye of many scientists around the world, particularly those working in the field of robotics. The reason? Elastomer can be encouraged to return to its original shape, in many cases by simply applying heat. The implication of this is the quick and cost-effective repair of “wounds”—cuts, tears, and punctures to the soft, elastomer-based appendages of a robot’s exoskeleton.

Researchers from Vrije University in Brussels, Belgium have been toying with the technique, and with remarkable success. The team built a robotic hand with fingers made of a type of elastomer. They found that cuts and punctures were indeed able to repair themselves simply by applying heat to the affected area.
How long does the healing process take? In this instance, about a day. Now that’s a lot shorter than the weeks and months of recovery time we typically need for a flesh wound, during which we are unable to write, play the guitar, or do the dishes. If you consider the latter to be a bad thing…
However, it’s not the first time scientists have played around with elastomers and examined their self-healing properties. Another team of scientists, headed up by Cheng-Hui Li and Chao Wang, discovered another type of elastomer that exhibited autonomous self-healing properties. Just to help you picture this stuff, the material closely resembles animal muscle— strong, flexible, and elastic. With autogenetic restorative powers to boot.
Advancements in the world of self-healing elastomers, or rubbers, may also affect the lives of everyday motorists. Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a self-healing rubber material that could be used to make tires that repair their own punctures.
This time the mechanism of self-healing doesn’t involve heat. Rather, it is related to a physical phenomenon associated with the rubber’s unique structure. Normally, when a large enough stress is applied to a typical rubber, there is catastrophic failure at the focal point of that stress. The self-healing rubber the researchers created, on the other hand, distributes that same stress evenly over a network of “crazes”—which are like cracks connected by strands of fiber.
Here’s the interesting part. Not only does this unique physical characteristic of the rubber prevent catastrophic failure, it facilitates self-repair. According to Harvard researchers, when the stress is released, the material snaps back to its original form and the crazes heal.
This wonder material could be used in any number of rubber-based products.
Professor Jinrong Wu, of Sichuan University, China, and co-author of the study, happened to single out tires: “Imagine that we could use this material as one of the components to make a rubber tire… If you have a cut through the tire, this tire wouldn’t have to be replaced right away. Instead, it would self-heal while driving, enough to give you leeway to avoid dramatic damage,” said Wu.
So where to from here? Well, self-healing elastomers could have a number of different applications. According to the article published by Quartz, cited earlier, the material could be used on artificial limbs. Perhaps it will provide some measure of structural integrity without looking like a tattered mess after years of regular use.
Or perhaps a sort of elastomer-based hybrid skin is on the horizon. A skin in which wounds heal instantly. And recovery time, unlike your regular old human skin of yesteryear, is significantly slashed. Furthermore, this future skin might eliminate those little reminders we call scars.
For those with poor judgment skills, this spells an end to disquieting reminders of our own stupidity.
Image Credit: Vrije Universiteit Brussel / Prof. Dr. ir. Bram Vanderborght Continue reading

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#431689 Robotic Materials Will Distribute ...

The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
Image Credit: Anatomy Insider / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#431603 What We Can Learn From the Second Life ...

For every new piece of technology that gets developed, you can usually find people saying it will never be useful. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, for example, said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” It’s equally easy to find people raving about whichever new technology is at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the buzz around these newest developments and attempts to temper predictions. When technologies emerge, there are all kinds of uncertainties, from the actual capacity of the technology to its use cases in real life to the price tag.
Eventually the dust settles, and some technologies get widely adopted, to the extent that they can become “invisible”; people take them for granted. Others fall by the wayside as gimmicky fads or impractical ideas. Picking which horses to back is the difference between Silicon Valley millions and Betamax pub-quiz-question obscurity. For a while, it seemed that Google had—for once—backed the wrong horse.
Google Glass emerged from Google X, the ubiquitous tech giant’s much-hyped moonshot factory, where highly secretive researchers work on the sci-fi technologies of the future. Self-driving cars and artificial intelligence are the more mundane end for an organization that apparently once looked into jetpacks and teleportation.
The original smart glasses, Google began selling Google Glass in 2013 for $1,500 as prototypes for their acolytes, around 8,000 early adopters. Users could control the glasses with a touchpad, or, activated by tilting the head back, with voice commands. Audio relay—as with several wearable products—is via bone conduction, which transmits sound by vibrating the skull bones of the user. This was going to usher in the age of augmented reality, the next best thing to having a chip implanted directly into your brain.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. People had dreamed about augmented reality for a long time—an onboard, JARVIS-style computer giving you extra information and instant access to communications without even having to touch a button. After smartphone ubiquity, it looked like a natural step forward.
Instead, there was a backlash. People may be willing to give their data up to corporations, but they’re less pleased with the idea that someone might be filming them in public. The worst aspect of smartphones is trying to talk to people who are distractedly scrolling through their phones. There’s a famous analogy in Revolutionary Road about an old couple’s loveless marriage: the husband tunes out his wife’s conversation by turning his hearing aid down to zero. To many, Google Glass seemed to provide us with a whole new way to ignore each other in favor of our Twitter feeds.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of whether it’s because we’re not used to them, or if it’s a more permanent feature, people wearing AR tech often look very silly. Put all this together with a lack of early functionality, the high price (do you really feel comfortable wearing a $1,500 computer?), and a killer pun for the users—Glassholes—and the final recipe wasn’t great for Google.
Google Glass was quietly dropped from sale in 2015 with the ominous slogan posted on Google’s website “Thanks for exploring with us.” Reminding the Glass users that they had always been referred to as “explorers”—beta-testing a product, in many ways—it perhaps signaled less enthusiasm for wearables than the original, Google Glass skydive might have suggested.
In reality, Google went back to the drawing board. Not with the technology per se, although it has improved in the intervening years, but with the uses behind the technology.
Under what circumstances would you actually need a Google Glass? When would it genuinely be preferable to a smartphone that can do many of the same things and more? Beyond simply being a fashion item, which Google Glass decidedly was not, even the most tech-evangelical of us need a convincing reason to splash $1,500 on a wearable computer that’s less socially acceptable and less easy to use than the machine you’re probably reading this on right now.
Enter the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Piloted in factories during the years that Google Glass was dormant, and now roaring back to life and commercially available, the Google Glass relaunch got under way in earnest in July of 2017. The difference here was the specific audience: workers in factories who need hands-free computing because they need to use their hands at the same time.
In this niche application, wearable computers can become invaluable. A new employee can be trained with pre-programmed material that explains how to perform actions in real time, while instructions can be relayed straight into a worker’s eyeline without them needing to check a phone or switch to email.
Medical devices have long been a dream application for Google Glass. You can imagine a situation where people receive real-time information during surgery, or are augmented by artificial intelligence that provides additional diagnostic information or questions in response to a patient’s symptoms. The quest to develop a healthcare AI, which can provide recommendations in response to natural language queries, is on. The famously untidy doctor’s handwriting—and the associated death toll—could be avoided if the glasses could take dictation straight into a patient’s medical records. All of this is far more useful than allowing people to check Facebook hands-free while they’re riding the subway.
Google’s “Lens” application indicates another use for Google Glass that hadn’t quite matured when the original was launched: the Lens processes images and provides information about them. You can look at text and have it translated in real time, or look at a building or sign and receive additional information. Image processing, either through neural networks hooked up to a cloud database or some other means, is the frontier that enables driverless cars and similar technology to exist. Hook this up to a voice-activated assistant relaying information to the user, and you have your killer application: real-time annotation of the world around you. It’s this functionality that just wasn’t ready yet when Google launched Glass.
Amazon’s recent announcement that they want to integrate Alexa into a range of smart glasses indicates that the tech giants aren’t ready to give up on wearables yet. Perhaps, in time, people will become used to voice activation and interaction with their machines, at which point smart glasses with bone conduction will genuinely be more convenient than a smartphone.
But in many ways, the real lesson from the initial failure—and promising second life—of Google Glass is a simple question that developers of any smart technology, from the Internet of Things through to wearable computers, must answer. “What can this do that my smartphone can’t?” Find your answer, as the Enterprise Edition did, as Lens might, and you find your product.
Image Credit: Hattanas / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#431343 How Technology Is Driving Us Toward Peak ...

At some point in the future—and in some ways we are already seeing this—the amount of physical stuff moving around the world will peak and begin to decline. By “stuff,” I am referring to liquid fuels, coal, containers on ships, food, raw materials, products, etc.
New technologies are moving us toward “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of energy, food, and products with reduced reliance on a global supply chain.
The trade of physical stuff has been central to globalization as we’ve known it. So, this declining movement of stuff may signal we are approaching “peak globalization.”
To be clear, even as the movement of stuff may slow, if not decline, the movement of people, information, data, and ideas around the world is growing exponentially and is likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
Peak globalization may provide a pathway to preserving the best of globalization and global interconnectedness, enhancing economic and environmental sustainability, and empowering individuals and communities to strengthen democracy.
At the same time, some of the most troublesome aspects of globalization may be eased, including massive financial transfers to energy producers and loss of jobs to manufacturing platforms like China. This shift could bring relief to the “losers” of globalization and ease populist, nationalist political pressures that are roiling the developed countries.
That is quite a claim, I realize. But let me explain the vision.
New Technologies and Businesses: Digital, Democratized, Decentralized
The key factors moving us toward peak globalization and making it economically viable are new technologies and innovative businesses and business models allowing for “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of energy, food, and products.
Exponential technologies are enabling these trends by sharply reducing the “cost of entry” for creating businesses. Driven by Moore’s Law, powerful technologies have become available to almost anyone, anywhere.
Beginning with the microchip, which has had a 100-billion-fold improvement in 40 years—10,000 times faster and 10 million times cheaper—the marginal cost of producing almost everything that can be digitized has fallen toward zero.
A hard copy of a book, for example, will always entail the cost of materials, printing, shipping, etc., even if the marginal cost falls as more copies are produced. But the marginal cost of a second digital copy, such as an e-book, streaming video, or song, is nearly zero as it is simply a digital file sent over the Internet, the world’s largest copy machine.* Books are one product, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in once-physical, separate products jammed into our devices at little to no cost.
A smartphone alone provides half the human population access to artificial intelligence—from SIRI, search, and translation to cloud computing—geolocation, free global video calls, digital photography and free uploads to social network sites, free access to global knowledge, a million apps for a huge variety of purposes, and many other capabilities that were unavailable to most people only a few years ago.
As powerful as dematerialization and demonetization are for private individuals, they’re having a stronger effect on businesses. A small team can access expensive, advanced tools that before were only available to the biggest organizations. Foundational digital platforms, such as the internet and GPS, and the platforms built on top of them by the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon, and others provide the connectivity and services democratizing business tools and driving the next generation of new startups.

“As these trends gain steam in coming decades, they’ll bleed into and fundamentally transform global supply chains.”

An AI startup, for example, doesn’t need its own server farm to train its software and provide service to customers. The team can rent computing power from Amazon Web Services. This platform model enables small teams to do big things on the cheap. And it isn’t just in software. Similar trends are happening in hardware too. Makers can 3D print or mill industrial grade prototypes of physical stuff in a garage or local maker space and send or sell designs to anyone with a laptop and 3D printer via online platforms.
These are early examples of trends that are likely to gain steam in coming decades, and as they do, they’ll bleed into and fundamentally transform global supply chains.
The old model is a series of large, connected bits of centralized infrastructure. It makes sense to mine, farm, or manufacture in bulk when the conditions, resources, machines, and expertise to do so exist in particular places and are specialized and expensive. The new model, however, enables smaller-scale production that is local and decentralized.
To see this more clearly, let’s take a look at the technological trends at work in the three biggest contributors to the global trade of physical stuff—products, energy, and food.
Products
3D printing (additive manufacturing) allows for distributed manufacturing near the point of consumption, eliminating or reducing supply chains and factory production lines.
This is possible because product designs are no longer made manifest in assembly line parts like molds or specialized mechanical tools. Rather, designs are digital and can be called up at will to guide printers. Every time a 3D printer prints, it can print a different item, so no assembly line needs to be set up for every different product. 3D printers can also print an entire finished product in one piece or reduce the number of parts of larger products, such as engines. This further lessens the need for assembly.
Because each item can be customized and printed on demand, there is no cost benefit from scaling production. No inventories. No shipping items across oceans. No carbon emissions transporting not only the final product but also all the parts in that product shipped from suppliers to manufacturer. Moreover, 3D printing builds items layer by layer with almost no waste, unlike “subtractive manufacturing” in which an item is carved out of a piece of metal, and much or even most of the material can be waste.
Finally, 3D printing is also highly scalable, from inexpensive 3D printers (several hundred dollars) for home and school use to increasingly capable and expensive printers for industrial production. There are also 3D printers being developed for printing buildings, including houses and office buildings, and other infrastructure.
The technology for finished products is only now getting underway, and there are still challenges to overcome, such as speed, quality, and range of materials. But as methods and materials advance, it will likely creep into more manufactured goods.
Ultimately, 3D printing will be a general purpose technology that involves many different types of printers and materials—such as plastics, metals, and even human cells—to produce a huge range of items, from human tissue and potentially human organs to household items and a range of industrial items for planes, trains, and automobiles.
Energy
Renewable energy production is located at or relatively near the source of consumption.
Although electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal, and other renewable sources can of course be transmitted over longer distances, it is mostly generated and consumed locally or regionally. It is not transported around the world in tankers, ships, and pipelines like petroleum, coal, and natural gas.
Moreover, the fuel itself is free—forever. There is no global price on sun or wind. The people relying on solar and wind power need not worry about price volatility and potential disruption of fuel supplies as a result of political, market, or natural causes.
Renewables have their problems, of course, including intermittency and storage, and currently they work best if complementary to other sources, especially natural gas power plants that, unlike coal plants, can be turned on or off and modulated like a gas stove, and are half the carbon emissions of coal.
Within the next decades or so, it is likely the intermittency and storage problems will be solved or greatly mitigated. In addition, unlike coal and natural gas power plants, solar is scalable, from solar panels on individual homes or even cars and other devices, to large-scale solar farms. Solar can be connected with microgrids and even allow for autonomous electricity generation by homes, commercial buildings, and communities.
It may be several decades before fossil fuel power plants can be phased out, but the development cost of renewables has been falling exponentially and, in places, is beginning to compete with coal and gas. Solar especially is expected to continue to increase in efficiency and decline in cost.
Given these trends in cost and efficiency, renewables should become obviously cheaper over time—if the fuel is free for solar and has to be continually purchased for coal and gas, at some point the former is cheaper than the latter. Renewables are already cheaper if externalities such as carbon emissions and environmental degradation involved in obtaining and transporting the fuel are included.
Food
Food can be increasingly produced near the point of consumption with vertical farms and eventually with printed food and even printed or cultured meat.
These sources bring production of food very near the consumer, so transportation costs, which can be a significant portion of the cost of food to consumers, are greatly reduced. The use of land and water are reduced by 95% or more, and energy use is cut by nearly 50%. In addition, fertilizers and pesticides are not required and crops can be grown 365 days a year whatever the weather and in more climates and latitudes than is possible today.
While it may not be practical to grow grains, corn, and other such crops in vertical farms, many vegetables and fruits can flourish in such facilities. In addition, cultured or printed meat is being developed—the big challenge is scaling up and reducing cost—that is based on cells from real animals without slaughtering the animals themselves.
There are currently some 70 billion animals being raised for food around the world [PDF] and livestock alone counts for about 15% of global emissions. Moreover, livestock places huge demands on land, water, and energy. Like vertical farms, cultured or printed meat could be produced with no more land use than a brewery and with far less water and energy.
A More Democratic Economy Goes Bottom Up
This is a very brief introduction to the technologies that can bring “production-at-the-point-of-consumption” of products, energy, and food to cities and regions.
What does this future look like? Here’s a simplified example.
Imagine a universal manufacturing facility with hundreds of 3D printers printing tens of thousands of different products on demand for the local community—rather than assembly lines in China making tens of thousands of the same product that have to be shipped all over the world since no local market can absorb all of the same product.
Nearby, a vertical farm and cultured meat facility produce much of tomorrow night’s dinner. These facilities would be powered by local or regional wind and solar. Depending on need and quality, some infrastructure and machinery, like solar panels and 3D printers, would live in these facilities and some in homes and businesses.
The facilities could be owned by a large global corporation—but still locally produce goods—or they could be franchised or even owned and operated independently by the local population. Upkeep and management at each would provide jobs for communities nearby. Eventually, not only would global trade of parts and products diminish, but even required supplies of raw materials and feed stock would decline since there would be less waste in production, and many materials would be recycled once acquired.

“Peak globalization could be a viable pathway to an economic foundation that puts people first while building a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.”

This model suggests a shift toward a “bottom up” economy that is more democratic, locally controlled, and likely to generate more local jobs.
The global trends in democratization of technology make the vision technologically plausible. Much of this technology already exists and is improving and scaling while exponentially decreasing in cost to become available to almost anyone, anywhere.
This includes not only access to key technologies, but also to education through digital platforms available globally. Online courses are available for free, ranging from advanced physics, math, and engineering to skills training in 3D printing, solar installations, and building vertical farms. Social media platforms can enable local and global collaboration and sharing of knowledge and best practices.
These new communities of producers can be the foundation for new forms of democratic governance as they recognize and “capitalize” on the reality that control of the means of production can translate to political power. More jobs and local control could weaken populist, anti-globalization political forces as people recognize they could benefit from the positive aspects of globalization and international cooperation and connectedness while diminishing the impact of globalization’s downsides.
There are powerful vested interests that stand to lose in such a global structural shift. But this vision builds on trends that are already underway and are gaining momentum. Peak globalization could be a viable pathway to an economic foundation that puts people first while building a more economically and environmentally sustainable future.
This article was originally posted on Open Democracy (CC BY-NC 4.0). The version above was edited with the author for length and includes additions. Read the original article on Open Democracy.
* See Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Part II, pp. 69-154.
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#431186 The Coming Creativity Explosion Belongs ...

Does creativity make human intelligence special?
It may appear so at first glance. Though machines can calculate, analyze, and even perceive, creativity may seem far out of reach. Perhaps this is because we find it mysterious, even in ourselves. How can the output of a machine be anything more than that which is determined by its programmers?
Increasingly, however, artificial intelligence is moving into creativity’s hallowed domain, from art to industry. And though much is already possible, the future is sure to bring ever more creative machines.
What Is Machine Creativity?
Robotic art is just one example of machine creativity, a rapidly growing sub-field that sits somewhere between the study of artificial intelligence and human psychology.
The winning paintings from the 2017 Robot Art Competition are strikingly reminiscent of those showcased each spring at university exhibitions for graduating art students. Like the works produced by skilled artists, the compositions dreamed up by the competition’s robotic painters are aesthetically ambitious. One robot-made painting features a man’s bearded face gazing intently out from the canvas, his eyes locking with the viewer’s. Another abstract painting, “inspired” by data from EEG signals, visually depicts the human emotion of misery with jagged, gloomy stripes of black and purple.
More broadly, a creative machine is software (sometimes encased in a robotic body) that synthesizes inputs to generate new and valuable ideas, solutions to complex scientific problems, or original works of art. In a process similar to that followed by a human artist or scientist, a creative machine begins its work by framing a problem. Next, its software specifies the requirements the solution should have before generating “answers” in the form of original designs, patterns, or some other form of output.
Although the notion of machine creativity sounds a bit like science fiction, the basic concept is one that has been slowly developing for decades.
Nearly 50 years ago while a high school student, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil created software that could analyze the patterns in musical compositions and then compose new melodies in a similar style. Aaron, one of the world’s most famous painting robots, has been hard at work since the 1970s.
Industrial designers have used an automated, algorithm-driven process for decades to design computer chips (or machine parts) whose layout (or form) is optimized for a particular function or environment. Emily Howell, a computer program created by David Cope, writes original works in the style of classical composers, some of which have been performed by human orchestras to live audiences.
What’s different about today’s new and emerging generation of robotic artists, scientists, composers, authors, and product designers is their ubiquity and power.

“The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives.”

I’ve already mentioned the rapidly advancing fields of robotic art and music. In the realm of scientific research, so-called “robotic scientists” such as Eureqa and Adam and Eve develop new scientific hypotheses; their “insights” have contributed to breakthroughs that are cited by hundreds of academic research papers. In the medical industry, creative machines are hard at work creating chemical compounds for new pharmaceuticals. After it read over seven million words of 20th century English poetry, a neural network developed by researcher Jack Hopkins learned to write passable poetry in a number of different styles and meters.
The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives, including faster processors, ubiquitous sensors and wireless networks, and better algorithms.
As they continue to improve, creative machines—like humans—will perform a broad range of creative activities, ranging from everyday problem solving (sometimes known as “Little C” creativity) to producing once-in-a-century masterpieces (“Big C” creativity). A creative machine’s outputs could range from a design for a cast for a marble sculpture to a schematic blueprint for a clever new gadget for opening bottles of wine.
In the coming decades, by automating the process of solving complex problems, creative machines will again transform our world. Creative machines will serve as a versatile source of on-demand talent.
In the battle to recruit a workforce that can solve complex problems, creative machines will put small businesses on equal footing with large corporations. Art and music lovers will enjoy fresh creative works that re-interpret the style of ancient disciplines. People with a health condition will benefit from individualized medical treatments, and low-income people will receive top-notch legal advice, to name but a few potentially beneficial applications.
How Can We Make Creative Machines, Unless We Understand Our Own Creativity?
One of the most intriguing—yet unsettling—aspects of watching robotic arms skillfully oil paint is that we humans still do not understand our own creative process. Over the centuries, several different civilizations have devised a variety of models to explain creativity.
The ancient Greeks believed that poets drew inspiration from a transcendent realm parallel to the material world where ideas could take root and flourish. In the Middle Ages, philosophers and poets attributed our peculiarly human ability to “make something of nothing” to an external source, namely divine inspiration. Modern academic study of human creativity has generated vast reams of scholarship, but despite the value of these insights, the human imagination remains a great mystery, second only to that of consciousness.
Today, the rise of machine creativity demonstrates (once again), that we do not have to fully understand a biological process in order to emulate it with advanced technology.
Past experience has shown that jet planes can fly higher and faster than birds by using the forward thrust of an engine rather than wings. Submarines propel themselves forward underwater without fins or a tail. Deep learning neural networks identify objects in randomly-selected photographs with super-human accuracy. Similarly, using a fairly straightforward software architecture, creative software (sometimes paired with a robotic body) can paint, write, hypothesize, or design with impressive originality, skill, and boldness.
At the heart of machine creativity is simple iteration. No matter what sort of output they produce, creative machines fall into one of three categories depending on their internal architecture.
Briefly, the first group consists of software programs that use traditional rule-based, or symbolic AI, the second group uses evolutionary algorithms, and the third group uses a variation of a form of machine learning called deep learning that has already revolutionized voice and facial recognition software.
1) Symbolic creative machines are the oldest artificial artists and musicians. In this approach—also known as “good old-fashioned AI (GOFAI) or symbolic AI—the human programmer plays a key role by writing a set of step-by-step instructions to guide the computer through a task. Despite the fact that symbolic AI is limited in its ability to adapt to environmental changes, it’s still possible for a robotic artist programmed this way to create an impressively wide variety of different outputs.
2) Evolutionary algorithms (EA) have been in use for several decades and remain powerful tools for design. In this approach, potential solutions “compete” in a software simulator in a Darwinian process reminiscent of biological evolution. The human programmer specifies a “fitness criterion” that will be used to score and rank the solutions generated by the software. The software then generates a “first generation” population of random solutions (which typically are pretty poor in quality), scores this first generation of solutions, and selects the top 50% (those random solutions deemed to be the best “fit”). The software then takes another pass and recombines the “winning” solutions to create the next generation and repeats this process for thousands (and sometimes millions) of generations.
3) Generative deep learning (DL) neural networks represent the newest software architecture of the three, since DL is data-dependent and resource-intensive. First, a human programmer “trains” a DL neural network to recognize a particular feature in a dataset, for example, an image of a dog in a stream of digital images. Next, the standard “feed forward” process is reversed and the DL neural network begins to generate the feature, for example, eventually producing new and sometimes original images of (or poetry about) dogs. Generative DL networks have tremendous and unexplored creative potential and are able to produce a broad range of original outputs, from paintings to music to poetry.
The Coming Explosion of Machine Creativity
In the near future as Moore’s Law continues its work, we will see sophisticated combinations of these three basic architectures. Since the 1950s, artificial intelligence has steadily mastered one human ability after another, and in the process of doing so, has reduced the cost of calculation, analysis, and most recently, perception. When creative software becomes as inexpensive and ubiquitous as analytical software is today, humans will no longer be the only intelligent beings capable of creative work.
This is why I have to bite my tongue when I hear the well-intended (but shortsighted) advice frequently dispensed to young people that they should pursue work that demands creativity to help them “AI-proof” their futures.
Instead, students should gain skills to harness the power of creative machines.
There are two skills in which humans excel that will enable us to remain useful in a world of ever-advancing artificial intelligence. One, the ability to frame and define a complex problem so that it can be handed off to a creative machine to solve. And two, the ability to communicate the value of both the framework and the proposed solution to the other humans involved.
What will happen to people when creative machines begin to capably tread on intellectual ground that was once considered the sole domain of the human mind, and before that, the product of divine inspiration? While machines engaging in Big C creativity—e.g., oil painting and composing new symphonies—tend to garner controversy and make the headlines, I suspect the real world-changing application of machine creativity will be in the realm of everyday problem solving, or Little C. The mainstream emergence of powerful problem-solving tools will help people create abundance where there was once scarcity.
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