Tag Archives: movements

#435522 Harvard’s Smart Exo-Shorts Talk to the ...

Exosuits don’t generally scream “fashionable” or “svelte.” Take the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that allowed a paraplegic man to kick off the World Cup back in 2014. Is it cool? Hell yeah. Is it practical? Not so much.

Yapping about wearability might seem childish when the technology already helps people with impaired mobility move around dexterously. But the lesson of the ill-fated Google Glassholes, which includes an awkward dorky head tilt and an assuming voice command, clearly shows that wearable computer assistants can’t just work technologically—they have to look natural and allow the user to behave like as usual. They have to, in a sense, disappear.

To Dr. Jose Pons at the Legs + Walking Ability Lab in Chicago, exosuits need three main selling points to make it in the real world. One, they have to physically interact with their wearer and seamlessly deliver assistance when needed. Two, they should cognitively interact with the host to guide and control the robot at all times. Finally, they need to feel like a second skin—move with the user without adding too much extra mass or reducing mobility.

This week, a US-Korean collaboration delivered the whole shebang in a Lululemon-style skin-hugging package combined with a retro waist pack. The portable exosuit, weighing only 11 pounds, looks like a pair of spandex shorts but can support the wearer’s hip movement when needed. Unlike their predecessors, the shorts are embedded with sensors that let them know when the wearer is walking versus running by analyzing gait.

Switching between the two movement modes may not seem like much, but what naturally comes to our brains doesn’t translate directly to smart exosuits. “Walking and running have fundamentally different biomechanics, which makes developing devices that assist both gaits challenging,” the team said. Their algorithm, computed in the cloud, allows the wearer to easily switch between both, with the shorts providing appropriate hip support that makes the movement experience seamless.

To Pons, who was not involved in the research but wrote a perspective piece, the study is an exciting step towards future exosuits that will eventually disappear under the skin—that is, implanted neural interfaces to control robotic assistance or activate the user’s own muscles.

“It is realistic to think that we will witness, in the next several years…robust human-robot interfaces to command wearable robotics based on…the neural code of movement in humans,” he said.

A “Smart” Exosuit Hack
There are a few ways you can hack a human body to move with an exosuit. One is using implanted electrodes inside the brain or muscles to decipher movement intent. With heavy practice, a neural implant can help paralyzed people walk again or dexterously move external robotic arms. But because the technique requires surgery, it’s not an immediate sell for people who experience low mobility because of aging or low muscle tone.

The other approach is to look to biophysics. Rather than decoding neural signals that control movement, here the idea is to measure gait and other physical positions in space to decipher intent. As you can probably guess, accurately deciphering user intent isn’t easy, especially when the wearable tries to accommodate multiple gaits. But the gains are many: there’s no surgery involved, and the wearable is low in energy consumption.

Double Trouble
The authors decided to tackle an everyday situation. You’re walking to catch the train to work, realize you’re late, and immediately start sprinting.

That seemingly easy conversion hides a complex switch in biomechanics. When you walk, your legs act like an inverted pendulum that swing towards a dedicated center in a predictable way. When you run, however, the legs move more like a spring-loaded system, and the joints involved in the motion differ from a casual stroll. Engineering an assistive wearable for each is relatively simple; making one for both is exceedingly hard.

Led by Dr. Conor Walsh at Harvard University, the team started with an intuitive idea: assisted walking and running requires specialized “actuation” profiles tailored to both. When the user is moving in a way that doesn’t require assistance, the wearable needs to be out of the way so that it doesn’t restrict mobility. A quick analysis found that assisting hip extension has the largest impact, because it’s important to both gaits and doesn’t add mass to the lower legs.

Building on that insight, the team made a waist belt connected to two thigh wraps, similar to a climbing harness. Two electrical motors embedded inside the device connect the waist belt to other components through a pulley system to help the hip joints move. The whole contraption weighed about 11 lbs and didn’t obstruct natural movement.

Next, the team programmed two separate supporting profiles for walking and running. The goal was to reduce the “metabolic cost” for both movements, so that the wearer expends as little energy as needed. To switch between the two programs, they used a cloud-based classification algorithm to measure changes in energy fluctuation to figure out what mode—running or walking—the user is in.

Smart Booster
Initial trials on treadmills were highly positive. Six male volunteers with similar age and build donned the exosuit and either ran or walked on the treadmill at varying inclines. The algorithm performed perfectly at distinguishing between the two gaits in all conditions, even at steep angles.

An outdoor test with eight volunteers also proved the algorithm nearly perfect. Even on uneven terrain, only two steps out of all test trials were misclassified. In an additional trial on mud or snow, the algorithm performed just as well.

“The system allows the wearer to use their preferred gait for each speed,” the team said.

Software excellence translated to performance. A test found that the exosuit reduced the energy for walking by over nine percent and running by four percent. It may not sound like much, but the range of improvement is meaningful in athletic performance. Putting things into perspective, the team said, the metabolic rate reduction during walking is similar to taking 16 pounds off at the waist.

The Wearable Exosuit Revolution
The study’s lightweight exoshorts are hardly the only players in town. Back in 2017, SRI International’s spin-off, Superflex, engineered an Aura suit to support mobility in the elderly. The Aura used a different mechanism: rather than a pulley system, it incorporated a type of smart material that contracts in a manner similar to human muscles when zapped with electricity.

Embedded with a myriad of sensors for motion, accelerometers and gyroscopes, Aura’s smartness came from mini-computers that measure how fast the wearer is moving and track the user’s posture. The data were integrated and processed locally inside hexagon-shaped computing pods near the thighs and upper back. The pods also acted as the control center for sending electrical zaps to give the wearer a boost when needed.

Around the same time, a collaboration between Harvard’s Wyss Institute and ReWalk Robotics introduced a fabric-based wearable robot to assist a wearer’s legs for balance and movement. Meanwhile, a Swiss team coated normal fabric with electroactive material to weave soft, pliable artificial “muscles” that move with the skin.

Although health support is the current goal, the military is obviously interested in similar technologies to enhance soldiers’ physicality. Superflex’s Aura, for example, was originally inspired by technology born from DARPA’s Warrior Web Program, which aimed to reduce a soldier’s mechanical load.

That said, military gear has had a long history of trickling down to consumer use. Similar to the way camouflage, cargo pants, and GORE-TEX trickled down into the consumer ecosphere, it’s not hard to imagine your local Target eventually stocking intelligent exowear.

Image and Video Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435199 The Rise of AI Art—and What It Means ...

Artificially intelligent systems are slowly taking over tasks previously done by humans, and many processes involving repetitive, simple movements have already been fully automated. In the meantime, humans continue to be superior when it comes to abstract and creative tasks.

However, it seems like even when it comes to creativity, we’re now being challenged by our own creations.

In the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of hundreds of “AI artists.” These complex algorithms are creating unique (and sometimes eerie) works of art. They’re generating stunning visuals, profound poetry, transcendent music, and even realistic movie scripts. The works of these AI artists are raising questions about the nature of art and the role of human creativity in future societies.

Here are a few works of art created by non-human entities.

Unsecured Futures
by Ai.Da

Ai-Da Robot with Painting. Image Credit: Ai-Da portraits by Nicky Johnston. Published with permission from Midas Public Relations.
Earlier this month we saw the announcement of Ai.Da, considered the first ultra-realistic drawing robot artist. Her mechanical abilities, combined with AI-based algorithms, allow her to draw, paint, and even sculpt. She is able to draw people using her artificial eye and a pencil in her hand. Ai.Da’s artwork and first solo exhibition, Unsecured Futures, will be showcased at Oxford University in July.

Ai-Da Cartesian Painting. Image Credit: Ai-Da Artworks. Published with permission from Midas Public Relations.
Obviously Ai.Da has no true consciousness, thoughts, or feelings. Despite that, the (human) organizers of the exhibition believe that Ai.Da serves as a basis for crucial conversations about the ethics of emerging technologies. The exhibition will serve as a stimulant for engaging with critical questions about what kind of future we ought to create via such technologies.

The exhibition’s creators wrote, “Humans are confident in their position as the most powerful species on the planet, but how far do we actually want to take this power? To a Brave New World (Nightmare)? And if we use new technologies to enhance the power of the few, we had better start safeguarding the future of the many.”

Google’s PoemPortraits
Our transcendence adorns,
That society of the stars seem to be the secret.

The two lines of poetry above aren’t like any poetry you’ve come across before. They are generated by an algorithm that was trained via deep learning neural networks trained on 20 million words of 19th-century poetry.

Google’s latest art project, named PoemPortraits, takes a word of your suggestion and generates a unique poem (once again, a collaboration of man and machine). You can even add a selfie in the final “PoemPortrait.” Artist Es Devlin, the project’s creator, explains that the AI “doesn’t copy or rework existing phrases, but uses its training material to build a complex statistical model. As a result, the algorithm generates original phrases emulating the style of what it’s been trained on.”

The generated poetry can sometimes be profound, and sometimes completely meaningless.But what makes the PoemPortraits project even more interesting is that it’s a collaborative project. All of the generated lines of poetry are combined to form a consistently growing collective poem, which you can view after your lines are generated. In many ways, the final collective poem is a collaboration of people from around the world working with algorithms.

Faceless Portraits Transcending Time
AICAN + Ahmed Elgammal

Image Credit: AICAN + Ahmed Elgammal | Faceless Portrait #2 (2019) | Artsy.
In March of this year, an AI artist called AICAN and its creator Ahmed Elgammal took over a New York gallery. The exhibition at HG Commentary showed two series of canvas works portraying harrowing, dream-like faceless portraits.

The exhibition was not simply credited to a machine, but rather attributed to the collaboration between a human and machine. Ahmed Elgammal is the founder and director of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers University. He considers AICAN to not only be an autonomous AI artist, but also a collaborator for artistic endeavors.

How did AICAN create these eerie faceless portraits? The system was presented with 100,000 photos of Western art from over five centuries, allowing it to learn the aesthetics of art via machine learning. It then drew from this historical knowledge and the mandate to create something new to create an artwork without human intervention.

Genesis
by AIVA Technologies

Listen to the score above. While you do, reflect on the fact that it was generated by an AI.

AIVA is an AI that composes soundtrack music for movies, commercials, games, and trailers. Its creative works span a wide range of emotions and moods. The scores it generates are indistinguishable from those created by the most talented human composers.

The AIVA music engine allows users to generate original scores in multiple ways. One is to upload an existing human-generated score and select the temp track to base the composition process on. Another method involves using preset algorithms to compose music in pre-defined styles, including everything from classical to Middle Eastern.

Currently, the platform is promoted as an opportunity for filmmakers and producers. But in the future, perhaps every individual will have personalized music generated for them based on their interests, tastes, and evolving moods. We already have algorithms on streaming websites recommending novel music to us based on our interests and history. Soon, algorithms may be used to generate music and other works of art that are tailored to impact our unique psyches.

The Future of Art: Pushing Our Creative Limitations
These works of art are just a glimpse into the breadth of the creative works being generated by algorithms and machines. Many of us will rightly fear these developments. We have to ask ourselves what our role will be in an era where machines are able to perform what we consider complex, abstract, creative tasks. The implications on the future of work, education, and human societies are profound.

At the same time, some of these works demonstrate that AI artists may not necessarily represent a threat to human artists, but rather an opportunity for us to push our creative boundaries. The most exciting artistic creations involve collaborations between humans and machines.

We have always used our technological scaffolding to push ourselves beyond our biological limitations. We use the telescope to extend our line of sight, planes to fly, and smartphones to connect with others. Our machines are not always working against us, but rather working as an extension of our minds. Similarly, we could use our machines to expand on our creativity and push the boundaries of art.

Image Credit: Ai-Da portraits by Nicky Johnston. Published with permission from Midas Public Relations. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435098 Coming of Age in the Age of AI: The ...

The first generation to grow up entirely in the 21st century will never remember a time before smartphones or smart assistants. They will likely be the first children to ride in self-driving cars, as well as the first whose healthcare and education could be increasingly turned over to artificially intelligent machines.

Futurists, demographers, and marketers have yet to agree on the specifics of what defines the next wave of humanity to follow Generation Z. That hasn’t stopped some, like Australian futurist Mark McCrindle, from coining the term Generation Alpha, denoting a sort of reboot of society in a fully-realized digital age.

“In the past, the individual had no power, really,” McCrindle told Business Insider. “Now, the individual has great control of their lives through being able to leverage this world. Technology, in a sense, transformed the expectations of our interactions.”

No doubt technology may impart Marvel superhero-like powers to Generation Alpha that even tech-savvy Millennials never envisioned over cups of chai latte. But the powers of machine learning, computer vision, and other disciplines under the broad category of artificial intelligence will shape this yet unformed generation more definitively than any before it.

What will it be like to come of age in the Age of AI?

The AI Doctor Will See You Now
Perhaps no other industry is adopting and using AI as much as healthcare. The term “artificial intelligence” appears in nearly 90,000 publications from biomedical literature and research on the PubMed database.

AI is already transforming healthcare and longevity research. Machines are helping to design drugs faster and detect disease earlier. And AI may soon influence not only how we diagnose and treat illness in children, but perhaps how we choose which children will be born in the first place.

A study published earlier this month in NPJ Digital Medicine by scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine used 12,000 photos of human embryos taken five days after fertilization to train an AI algorithm on how to tell which in vitro fertilized embryo had the best chance of a successful pregnancy based on its quality.

Investigators assigned each embryo a grade based on various aspects of its appearance. A statistical analysis then correlated that grade with the probability of success. The algorithm, dubbed Stork, was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97 percent accuracy.

“Our algorithm will help embryologists maximize the chances that their patients will have a single healthy pregnancy,” said Dr. Olivier Elemento, director of the Caryl and Israel Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, in a press release. “The IVF procedure will remain the same, but we’ll be able to improve outcomes by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.”

Other medical researchers see potential in applying AI to detect possible developmental issues in newborns. Scientists in Europe, working with a Finnish AI startup that creates seizure monitoring technology, have developed a technique for detecting movement patterns that might indicate conditions like cerebral palsy.

Published last month in the journal Acta Pediatrica, the study relied on an algorithm to extract the movements from a newborn, turning it into a simplified “stick figure” that medical experts could use to more easily detect clinically relevant data.

The researchers are continuing to improve the datasets, including using 3D video recordings, and are now developing an AI-based method for determining if a child’s motor maturity aligns with its true age. Meanwhile, a study published in February in Nature Medicine discussed the potential of using AI to diagnose pediatric disease.

AI Gets Classy
After being weaned on algorithms, Generation Alpha will hit the books—about machine learning.

China is famously trying to win the proverbial AI arms race by spending billions on new technologies, with one Chinese city alone pledging nearly $16 billion to build a smart economy based on artificial intelligence.

To reach dominance by its stated goal of 2030, Chinese cities are also incorporating AI education into their school curriculum. Last year, China published its first high school textbook on AI, according to the South China Morning Post. More than 40 schools are participating in a pilot program that involves SenseTime, one of the country’s biggest AI companies.

In the US, where it seems every child has access to their own AI assistant, researchers are just beginning to understand how the ubiquity of intelligent machines will influence the ways children learn and interact with their highly digitized environments.

Sandra Chang-Kredl, associate professor of the department of education at Concordia University, told The Globe and Mail that AI could have detrimental effects on learning creativity or emotional connectedness.

Similar concerns inspired Stefania Druga, a member of the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab (and former Education Teaching Fellow at SU), to study interactions between children and artificial intelligence devices in order to encourage positive interactions.

Toward that goal, Druga created Cognimates, a platform that enables children to program and customize their own smart devices such as Alexa or even a smart, functional robot. The kids can also use Cognimates to train their own AI models or even build a machine learning version of Rock Paper Scissors that gets better over time.

“I believe it’s important to also introduce young people to the concepts of AI and machine learning through hands-on projects so they can make more informed and critical use of these technologies,” Druga wrote in a Medium blog post.

Druga is also the founder of Hackidemia, an international organization that sponsors workshops and labs around the world to introduce kids to emerging technologies at an early age.

“I think we are in an arms race in education with the advancement of technology, and we need to start thinking about AI literacy before patterns of behaviors for children and their families settle in place,” she wrote.

AI Goes Back to School
It also turns out that AI has as much to learn from kids. More and more researchers are interested in understanding how children grasp basic concepts that still elude the most advanced machine minds.

For example, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has written and lectured extensively about how studying the minds of children can provide computer scientists clues on how to improve machine learning techniques.

In an interview on Vox, she described that while DeepMind’s AlpahZero was trained to be a chessmaster, it struggles with even the simplest changes in the rules, such as allowing the bishop to move horizontally instead of vertically.

“A human chess player, even a kid, will immediately understand how to transfer that new rule to their playing of the game,” she noted. “Flexibility and generalization are something that even human one-year-olds can do but that the best machine learning systems have a much harder time with.”

Last year, the federal defense agency DARPA announced a new program aimed at improving AI by teaching it “common sense.” One of the chief strategies is to develop systems for “teaching machines through experience, mimicking the way babies grow to understand the world.”

Such an approach is also the basis of a new AI program at MIT called the MIT Quest for Intelligence.

The research leverages cognitive science to understand human intelligence, according to an article on the project in MIT Technology Review, such as exploring how young children visualize the world using their own innate 3D models.

“Children’s play is really serious business,” said Josh Tenenbaum, who leads the Computational Cognitive Science lab at MIT and his head of the new program. “They’re experiments. And that’s what makes humans the smartest learners in the known universe.”

In a world increasingly driven by smart technologies, it’s good to know the next generation will be able to keep up.

Image Credit: phoelixDE / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435070 5 Breakthroughs Coming Soon in Augmented ...

Convergence is accelerating disruption… everywhere! Exponential technologies are colliding into each other, reinventing products, services, and industries.

In this third installment of my Convergence Catalyzer series, I’ll be synthesizing key insights from my annual entrepreneurs’ mastermind event, Abundance 360. This five-blog series looks at 3D printing, artificial intelligence, VR/AR, energy and transportation, and blockchain.

Today, let’s dive into virtual and augmented reality.

Today’s most prominent tech giants are leaping onto the VR/AR scene, each driving forward new and upcoming product lines. Think: Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus, Amazon’s Sumerian, and Google’s Cardboard (Apple plans to release a headset by 2021).

And as plummeting prices meet exponential advancements in VR/AR hardware, this burgeoning disruptor is on its way out of the early adopters’ market and into the majority of consumers’ homes.

My good friend Philip Rosedale is my go-to expert on AR/VR and one of the foremost creators of today’s most cutting-edge virtual worlds. After creating the virtual civilization Second Life in 2013, now populated by almost 1 million active users, Philip went on to co-found High Fidelity, which explores the future of next-generation shared VR.

In just the next five years, he predicts five emerging trends will take hold, together disrupting major players and birthing new ones.

Let’s dive in…

Top 5 Predictions for VR/AR Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
“If you think you kind of understand what’s going on with that tech today, you probably don’t,” says Philip. “We’re still in the middle of landing the airplane of all these new devices.”

(1) Transition from PC-based to standalone mobile VR devices

Historically, VR devices have relied on PC connections, usually involving wires and clunky hardware that restrict a user’s field of motion. However, as VR enters the dematerialization stage, we are about to witness the rapid rise of a standalone and highly mobile VR experience economy.

Oculus Go, the leading standalone mobile VR device on the market, requires only a mobile app for setup and can be transported anywhere with WiFi.

With a consumer audience in mind, the 32GB headset is priced at $200 and shares an app ecosystem with Samsung’s Gear VR. While Google Daydream are also standalone VR devices, they require a docked mobile phone instead of the built-in screen of Oculus Go.

In the AR space, Lenovo’s standalone Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 leads the way in providing tetherless experiences.

Freeing headsets from the constraints of heavy hardware will make VR/AR increasingly interactive and transportable, a seamless add-on whenever, wherever. Within a matter of years, it may be as simple as carrying lightweight VR goggles wherever you go and throwing them on at a moment’s notice.

(2) Wide field-of-view AR displays

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 leads the AR industry in headset comfort and display quality. The most significant issue with their prior version was the limited rectangular field of view (FOV).

By implementing laser technology to create a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) display, however, HoloLens 2 can position waveguides in front of users’ eyes, directed by mirrors. Subsequently enlarging images can be accomplished by shifting the angles of these mirrors. Coupled with a 47 pixel per degree resolution, HoloLens 2 has now doubled its predecessor’s FOV. Microsoft anticipates the release of its headset by the end of this year at a $3,500 price point, first targeting businesses and eventually rolling it out to consumers.

Magic Leap provides a similar FOV but with lower resolution than the HoloLens 2. The Meta 2 boasts an even wider 90-degree FOV, but requires a cable attachment. The race to achieve the natural human 120-degree horizontal FOV continues.

“The technology to expand the field of view is going to make those devices much more usable by giving you bigger than a small box to look through,” Rosedale explains.

(3) Mapping of real world to enable persistent AR ‘mirror worlds’

‘Mirror worlds’ are alternative dimensions of reality that can blanket a physical space. While seated in your office, the floor beneath you could dissolve into a calm lake and each desk into a sailboat. In the classroom, mirror worlds would convert pencils into magic wands and tabletops into touch screens.

Pokémon Go provides an introductory glimpse into the mirror world concept and its massive potential to unite people in real action.

To create these mirror worlds, AR headsets must precisely understand the architecture of the surrounding world. Rosedale predicts the scanning accuracy of devices will improve rapidly over the next five years to make these alternate dimensions possible.

(4) 5G mobile devices reduce latency to imperceptible levels

Verizon has already launched 5G networks in Minneapolis and Chicago, compatible with the Moto Z3. Sprint plans to follow with its own 5G launch in May. Samsung, LG, Huawei, and ZTE have all announced upcoming 5G devices.

“5G is rolling out this year and it’s going to materially affect particularly my work, which is making you feel like you’re talking to somebody else directly face to face,” explains Rosedale. “5G is critical because currently the cell devices impose too much delay, so it doesn’t feel real to talk to somebody face to face on these devices.”

To operate seamlessly from anywhere on the planet, standalone VR/AR devices will require a strong 5G network. Enhancing real-time connectivity in VR/AR will transform the communication methods of tomorrow.

(5) Eye-tracking and facial expressions built in for full natural communication

Companies like Pupil Labs and Tobii provide eye tracking hardware add-ons and software to VR/AR headsets. This technology allows for foveated rendering, which renders a given scene in high resolution only in the fovea region, while the peripheral regions appear in lower resolution, conserving processing power.

As seen in the HoloLens 2, eye tracking can also be used to identify users and customize lens widths to provide a comfortable, personalized experience for each individual.

According to Rosedale, “The fundamental opportunity for both VR and AR is to improve human communication.” He points out that current VR/AR headsets miss many of the subtle yet important aspects of communication. Eye movements and microexpressions provide valuable insight into a user’s emotions and desires.

Coupled with emotion-detecting AI software, such as Affectiva, VR/AR devices might soon convey much more richly textured and expressive interactions between any two people, transcending physical boundaries and even language gaps.

Final Thoughts
As these promising trends begin to transform the market, VR/AR will undoubtedly revolutionize our lives… possibly to the point at which our virtual worlds become just as consequential and enriching as our physical world.

A boon for next-gen education, VR/AR will empower youth and adults alike with holistic learning that incorporates social, emotional, and creative components through visceral experiences, storytelling, and simulation. Traveling to another time, manipulating the insides of a cell, or even designing a new city will become daily phenomena of tomorrow’s classrooms.

In real estate, buyers will increasingly make decisions through virtual tours. Corporate offices might evolve into spaces that only exist in ‘mirror worlds’ or grow virtual duplicates for remote workers.

In healthcare, accuracy of diagnosis will skyrocket, while surgeons gain access to digital aids as they conduct life-saving procedures. Or take manufacturing, wherein training and assembly will become exponentially more efficient as visual cues guide complex tasks.

In the mere matter of a decade, VR and AR will unlock limitless applications for new and converging industries. And as virtual worlds converge with AI, 3D printing, computing advancements and beyond, today’s experience economies will explode in scale and scope. Prepare yourself for the exciting disruption ahead!

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Posted in Human Robots

#434854 New Lifelike Biomaterial Self-Reproduces ...

Life demands flux.

Every living organism is constantly changing: cells divide and die, proteins build and disintegrate, DNA breaks and heals. Life demands metabolism—the simultaneous builder and destroyer of living materials—to continuously upgrade our bodies. That’s how we heal and grow, how we propagate and survive.

What if we could endow cold, static, lifeless robots with the gift of metabolism?

In a study published this month in Science Robotics, an international team developed a DNA-based method that gives raw biomaterials an artificial metabolism. Dubbed DASH—DNA-based assembly and synthesis of hierarchical materials—the method automatically generates “slime”-like nanobots that dynamically move and navigate their environments.

Like humans, the artificial lifelike material used external energy to constantly change the nanobots’ bodies in pre-programmed ways, recycling their DNA-based parts as both waste and raw material for further use. Some “grew” into the shape of molecular double-helixes; others “wrote” the DNA letters inside micro-chips.

The artificial life forms were also rather “competitive”—in quotes, because these molecular machines are not conscious. Yet when pitted against each other, two DASH bots automatically raced forward, crawling in typical slime-mold fashion at a scale easily seen under the microscope—and with some iterations, with the naked human eye.

“Fundamentally, we may be able to change how we create and use the materials with lifelike characteristics. Typically materials and objects we create in general are basically static… one day, we may be able to ‘grow’ objects like houses and maintain their forms and functions autonomously,” said study author Dr. Shogo Hamada to Singularity Hub.

“This is a great study that combines the versatility of DNA nanotechnology with the dynamics of living materials,” said Dr. Job Boekhoven at the Technical University of Munich, who was not involved in the work.

Dissipative Assembly
The study builds on previous ideas on how to make molecular Lego blocks that essentially assemble—and destroy—themselves.

Although the inspiration came from biological metabolism, scientists have long hoped to cut their reliance on nature. At its core, metabolism is just a bunch of well-coordinated chemical reactions, programmed by eons of evolution. So why build artificial lifelike materials still tethered by evolution when we can use chemistry to engineer completely new forms of artificial life?

Back in 2015, for example, a team led by Boekhoven described a way to mimic how our cells build their internal “structural beams,” aptly called the cytoskeleton. The key here, unlike many processes in nature, isn’t balance or equilibrium; rather, the team engineered an extremely unstable system that automatically builds—and sustains—assemblies from molecular building blocks when given an external source of chemical energy.

Sound familiar? The team basically built molecular devices that “die” without “food.” Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics (hey ya, Newton!), that energy eventually dissipates, and the shapes automatically begin to break down, completing an artificial “circle of life.”

The new study took the system one step further: rather than just mimicking synthesis, they completed the circle by coupling the building process with dissipative assembly.

Here, the “assembling units themselves are also autonomously created from scratch,” said Hamada.

DNA Nanobots
The process of building DNA nanobots starts on a microfluidic chip.

Decades of research have allowed researchers to optimize DNA assembly outside the body. With the help of catalysts, which help “bind” individual molecules together, the team found that they could easily alter the shape of the self-assembling DNA bots—which formed fiber-like shapes—by changing the structure of the microfluidic chambers.

Computer simulations played a role here too: through both digital simulations and observations under the microscope, the team was able to identify a few critical rules that helped them predict how their molecules self-assemble while navigating a maze of blocking “pillars” and channels carved onto the microchips.

This “enabled a general design strategy for the DASH patterns,” they said.

In particular, the whirling motion of the fluids as they coursed through—and bumped into—ridges in the chips seems to help the DNA molecules “entangle into networks,” the team explained.

These insights helped the team further develop the “destroying” part of metabolism. Similar to linking molecules into DNA chains, their destruction also relies on enzymes.

Once the team pumped both “generation” and “degeneration” enzymes into the microchips, along with raw building blocks, the process was completely autonomous. The simultaneous processes were so lifelike that the team used a metric commonly used in robotics, finite-state automation, to measure the behavior of their DNA nanobots from growth to eventual decay.

“The result is a synthetic structure with features associated with life. These behaviors include locomotion, self-regeneration, and spatiotemporal regulation,” said Boekhoven.

Molecular Slime Molds
Just witnessing lifelike molecules grow in place like the dance move running man wasn’t enough.

In their next experiments, the team took inspiration from slugs to program undulating movements into their DNA bots. Here, “movement” is actually a sort of illusion: the machines “moved” because their front ends kept regenerating, whereas their back ends degenerated. In essence, the molecular slime was built from linking multiple individual “DNA robot-like” units together: each unit receives a delayed “decay” signal from the head of the slime in a way that allowed the whole artificial “organism” to crawl forward, against the steam of fluid flow.

Here’s the fun part: the team eventually engineered two molecular slime bots and pitted them against each other, Mario Kart-style. In these experiments, the faster moving bot alters the state of its competitor to promote “decay.” This slows down the competitor, allowing the dominant DNA nanoslug to win in a race.

Of course, the end goal isn’t molecular podracing. Rather, the DNA-based bots could easily amplify a given DNA or RNA sequence, making them efficient nano-diagnosticians for viral and other infections.

The lifelike material can basically generate patterns that doctors can directly ‘see’ with their eyes, which makes DNA or RNA molecules from bacteria and viruses extremely easy to detect, the team said.

In the short run, “the detection device with this self-generating material could be applied to many places and help people on site, from farmers to clinics, by providing an easy and accurate way to detect pathogens,” explained Hamaga.

A Futuristic Iron Man Nanosuit?
I’m letting my nerd flag fly here. In Avengers: Infinity Wars, the scientist-engineer-philanthropist-playboy Tony Stark unveiled a nanosuit that grew to his contours when needed and automatically healed when damaged.

DASH may one day realize that vision. For now, the team isn’t focused on using the technology for regenerating armor—rather, the dynamic materials could create new protein assemblies or chemical pathways inside living organisms, for example. The team also envisions adding simple sensing and computing mechanisms into the material, which can then easily be thought of as a robot.

Unlike synthetic biology, the goal isn’t to create artificial life. Rather, the team hopes to give lifelike properties to otherwise static materials.

“We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before,” said lead author Dr. Dan Luo.

“Ultimately, our material may allow the construction of self-reproducing machines… artificial metabolism is an important step toward the creation of ‘artificial’ biological systems with dynamic, lifelike capabilities,” added Hamada. “It could open a new frontier in robotics.”

Image Credit: A timelapse image of DASH, by Jeff Tyson at Cornell University. Continue reading

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