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Few recognize the vast implications of materials science.
To build today’s smartphone in the 1980s, it would cost about $110 million, require nearly 200 kilowatts of energy (compared to 2kW per year today), and the device would be 14 meters tall, according to Applied Materials CTO Omkaram Nalamasu.
That’s the power of materials advances. Materials science has democratized smartphones, bringing the technology to the pockets of over 3.5 billion people. But far beyond devices and circuitry, materials science stands at the center of innumerable breakthroughs across energy, future cities, transit, and medicine. And at the forefront of Covid-19, materials scientists are forging ahead with biomaterials, nanotechnology, and other materials research to accelerate a solution.
As the name suggests, materials science is the branch devoted to the discovery and development of new materials. It’s an outgrowth of both physics and chemistry, using the periodic table as its grocery store and the laws of physics as its cookbook.
And today, we are in the middle of a materials science revolution. In this article, we’ll unpack the most important materials advancements happening now.
Let’s dive in.
The Materials Genome Initiative
In June 2011 at Carnegie Mellon University, President Obama announced the Materials Genome Initiative, a nationwide effort to use open source methods and AI to double the pace of innovation in materials science. Obama felt this acceleration was critical to the US’s global competitiveness, and held the key to solving significant challenges in clean energy, national security, and human welfare. And it worked.
By using AI to map the hundreds of millions of different possible combinations of elements—hydrogen, boron, lithium, carbon, etc.—the initiative created an enormous database that allows scientists to play a kind of improv jazz with the periodic table.
This new map of the physical world lets scientists combine elements faster than ever before and is helping them create all sorts of novel elements. And an array of new fabrication tools are further amplifying this process, allowing us to work at altogether new scales and sizes, including the atomic scale, where we’re now building materials one atom at a time.
Biggest Materials Science Breakthroughs
These tools have helped create the metamaterials used in carbon fiber composites for lighter-weight vehicles, advanced alloys for more durable jet engines, and biomaterials to replace human joints. We’re also seeing breakthroughs in energy storage and quantum computing. In robotics, new materials are helping us create the artificial muscles needed for humanoid, soft robots—think Westworld in your world.
Let’s unpack some of the leading materials science breakthroughs of the past decade.
(1) Lithium-ion batteries
The lithium-ion battery, which today powers everything from our smartphones to our autonomous cars, was first proposed in the 1970s. It couldn’t make it to market until the 1990s, and didn’t begin to reach maturity until the past few years.
An exponential technology, these batteries have been dropping in price for three decades, plummeting 90 percent between 1990 and 2010, and 80 percent since. Concurrently, they’ve seen an eleven-fold increase in capacity.
But producing enough of them to meet demand has been an ongoing problem. Tesla has stepped up to the challenge: one of the company’s Gigafactories in Nevada churns out 20 gigawatts of energy storage per year, marking the first time we’ve seen lithium-ion batteries produced at scale.
Musk predicts 100 Gigafactories could store the energy needs of the entire globe. Other companies are moving quickly to integrate this technology as well: Renault is building a home energy storage based on their Zoe batteries, BMW’s 500 i3 battery packs are being integrated into the UK’s national energy grid, and Toyota, Nissan, and Audi have all announced pilot projects.
Lithium-ion batteries will continue to play a major role in renewable energy storage, helping bring down solar and wind energy prices to compete with those of coal and gasoline.
Derived from the same graphite found in everyday pencils, graphene is a sheet of carbon just one atom thick. It is nearly weightless, but 200 times stronger than steel. Conducting electricity and dissipating heat faster than any other known substance, this super-material has transformative applications.
Graphene enables sensors, high-performance transistors, and even gel that helps neurons communicate in the spinal cord. Many flexible device screens, drug delivery systems, 3D printers, solar panels, and protective fabric use graphene.
As manufacturing costs decrease, this material has the power to accelerate advancements of all kinds.
Right now, the “conversion efficiency” of the average solar panel—a measure of how much captured sunlight can be turned into electricity—hovers around 16 percent, at a cost of roughly $3 per watt.
Perovskite, a light-sensitive crystal and one of our newer new materials, has the potential to get that up to 66 percent, which would double what silicon panels can muster.
Perovskite’s ingredients are widely available and inexpensive to combine. What do all these factors add up to? Affordable solar energy for everyone.
Materials of the Nano-World
Nanotechnology is the outer edge of materials science, the point where matter manipulation gets nano-small—that’s a million times smaller than an ant, 8,000 times smaller than a red blood cell, and 2.5 times smaller than a strand of DNA.
Nanobots are machines that can be directed to produce more of themselves, or more of whatever else you’d like. And because this takes place at an atomic scale, these nanobots can pull apart any kind of material—soil, water, air—atom by atom, and use these now raw materials to construct just about anything.
Progress has been surprisingly swift in the nano-world, with a bevy of nano-products now on the market. Never want to fold clothes again? Nanoscale additives to fabrics help them resist wrinkling and staining. Don’t do windows? Not a problem! Nano-films make windows self-cleaning, anti-reflective, and capable of conducting electricity. Want to add solar to your house? We’ve got nano-coatings that capture the sun’s energy.
Nanomaterials make lighter automobiles, airplanes, baseball bats, helmets, bicycles, luggage, power tools—the list goes on. Researchers at Harvard built a nanoscale 3D printer capable of producing miniature batteries less than one millimeter wide. And if you don’t like those bulky VR goggles, researchers are now using nanotech to create smart contact lenses with a resolution six times greater than that of today’s smartphones.
And even more is coming. Right now, in medicine, drug delivery nanobots are proving especially useful in fighting cancer. Computing is a stranger story, as a bioengineer at Harvard recently stored 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA.
On the environmental front, scientists can take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into super-strong carbon nanofibers for use in manufacturing. If we can do this at scale—powered by solar—a system one-tenth the size of the Sahara Desert could reduce CO2 in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels in about a decade.
The applications are endless. And coming fast. Over the next decade, the impact of the very, very small is about to get very, very large.
With the help of artificial intelligence and quantum computing over the next decade, the discovery of new materials will accelerate exponentially.
And with these new discoveries, customized materials will grow commonplace. Future knee implants will be personalized to meet the exact needs of each body, both in terms of structure and composition.
Though invisible to the naked eye, nanoscale materials will integrate into our everyday lives, seamlessly improving medicine, energy, smartphones, and more.
Ultimately, the path to demonetization and democratization of advanced technologies starts with re-designing materials— the invisible enabler and catalyst. Our future depends on the materials we create.
(Note: This article is an excerpt from The Future Is Faster Than You Think—my new book, just released on January 28th! To get your own copy, click here!)
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This article originally appeared on diamandis.com. Read the original article here.
Image Credit: Anand Kumar from Pixabay Continue reading
We usually think of robots as taking the place of humans in various tasks, but robots of all kinds can also enhance human capabilities. This may be especially true for people with disabilities. And while the Cybathlon competition showed what's possible when cutting-edge research robotics is paired with expert humans, that competition isn't necessarily reflective of the kind of robotics available to most people today.
Kinova Robotics's Jaco arm is an assistive robotic arm designed to be mounted on an electric wheelchair. With six degrees of freedom plus a three-fingered gripper, the lightweight carbon fiber arm is frequently used in research because it's rugged and versatile. But from the start, Kinova created it to add autonomy to the lives of people with mobility constraints.
Earlier this year, Kinova shared the story of Mary Nelson, an 11-year-old girl with spinal muscular atrophy, who uses her Jaco arm to show her horse in competition. Spinal muscular atrophy is a neuromuscular disorder that impairs voluntary muscle movement, including muscles that help with respiration, and Mary depends on a power chair for mobility.
We wanted to learn more about how Kinova designs its Jaco arm, and what that means for folks like Mary, so we spoke with both Kinova and Mary's parents to find out how much of a difference a robot arm can make.
IEEE Spectrum: How did Mary interact with the world before having her arm, and what was involved in the decision to try a robot arm in general? And why then Kinova's arm specifically?
Ryan Nelson: Mary interacts with the world much like you and I do, she just uses different tools to do so. For example, she is 100 percent independent using her computer, iPad, and phone, and she prefers to use a mouse. However, she cannot move a standard mouse, so she connects her wheelchair to each device with Bluetooth to move the mouse pointer/cursor using her wheelchair joystick.
For years, we had a Manfrotto magic arm and super clamp attached to her wheelchair and she used that much like the robotic arm. We could put a baseball bat, paint brush, toys, etc. in the super clamp so that Mary could hold the object and interact as physically able children do. Mary has always wanted to be more independent, so we knew the robotic arm was something she must try. We had seen videos of the Kinova arm on YouTube and on their website, so we reached out to them to get a trial.
Can you tell us about the Jaco arm, and how the process of designing an assistive robot arm is different from the process of designing a conventional robot arm?
Nathaniel Swenson, Director of U.S. Operations — Assistive Technologies at Kinova: Jaco is our flagship robotic arm. Inspired by our CEO's uncle and its namesake, Jacques “Jaco” Forest, it was designed as assistive technology with power wheelchair users in mind.
The primary differences between Jaco and our other robots, such as the new Gen3, which was designed to meet the needs of academic and industry research teams, are speed and power consumption. Other robots such as the Gen3 can move faster and draw slightly more power because they aren't limited by the battery size of power wheelchairs. Depending on the use case, they might not interact directly with a human being in the research setting and can safely move more quickly. Jaco is designed to move at safe speeds and make direct contact with the end user and draw very little power directly from their wheelchair.
The most important consideration in the design process of an assistive robot is the safety of the end user. Jaco users operate their robots through their existing drive controls to assist them in daily activities such as eating, drinking, and opening doors and they don't have to worry about the robot draining their chair's batteries throughout the day. The elegant design that results from meeting the needs of our power chair users has benefited subsequent iterations, [of products] such as the Gen3, as well: Kinova's robots are lightweight, extremely efficient in their power consumption, and safe for direct human-robot interaction. This is not true of conventional industrial robots.
What was the learning process like for Mary? Does she feel like she's mastered the arm, or is it a continuous learning process?
Ryan Nelson: The learning process was super quick for Mary. However, she amazes us every day with the new things that she can do with the arm. Literally within minutes of installing the arm on her chair, Mary had it figured out and was shaking hands with the Kinova rep. The control of the arm is super intuitive and the Kinova reps say that SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) children are perfect users because they are so smart—they pick it up right away. Mary has learned to do many fine motor tasks with the arm, from picking up small objects like a pencil or a ruler, to adjusting her glasses on her face, to doing science experiments.
Photo: The Nelson Family
Mary uses a headset microphone to amplify her voice, and she will use the arm and finger to adjust the microphone in front of her mouth after she is done eating (also a task she mastered quickly with the arm). Additionally, Mary will use the arms to reach down and adjust her feet or leg by grabbing them with the arm and moving them to a more comfortable position. All of these examples are things she never really asked us to do, but something she needed and just did on her own, with the help of the arm.
What is the most common feedback that you get from new users of the arm? How about from experienced users who have been using the arm for a while?
Nathaniel Swenson: New users always tell us how excited they are to see what they can accomplish with their new Jaco. From day one, they are able to do things that they have longed to do without assistance from a caregiver: take a drink of water or coffee, scratch an itch, push the button to open an “accessible” door or elevator, or even feed their baby with a bottle.
The most common feedback I hear from experienced users is that Jaco has changed their life. Our experienced users like Mary are rock stars: everywhere they go, people get excited to see what they'll do next. The difference between a new user and an experienced user could be as little as two weeks. People who operate power wheelchairs every day are already expert drivers and we just add a new “gear” to their chair: robot mode. It's fun to see how quickly new users master the intuitive Jaco control modes.
What changes would you like to see in the next generation of Jaco arm?
Ryan Nelson: Titanium fingers! Make it lift heavier objects, hold heavier items like a baseball bat, machine gun, flame thrower, etc., and Mary literally said this last night: “I wish the arm moved fast enough to play the piano.”
Nathaniel Swenson: I love the idea of titanium fingers! Jaco's fingers are made from a flexible polymer and designed to avoid harm. This allows the fingers to bend or dislocate, rather than break, but it also means they are not as durable as a material like titanium. Increased payload, the ability to manipulate heavier objects, requires increased power consumption. We've struck a careful balance between providing enough strength to accomplish most medically necessary Activities of Daily Living and efficient use of the power chair's batteries.
We take Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics pretty seriously. When we start to combine machine guns, flame throwers, and artificial intelligence with robots, I get very nervous!
I wish the arm moved fast enough to play the piano, too! I am also a musician and I share Mary's dream of an assistive robot that would enable her to make music. In the meantime, while we work on that, please enjoy this beautiful violin piece by Manami Ito and her one-of-a-kind violin prosthesis:
To what extent could more autonomy for the arm be helpful for users? What would be involved in implementing that?
Nathaniel Swenson: Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning will introduce greater autonomy in future iterations of assistive robots. This will enable them to perform more complex tasks that aren't currently possible, and enable them to accomplish routine tasks more quickly and with less input than the current manual control requires.
For assistive robots, implementation of greater autonomy involves a focus on end-user safety and improvements in the robot's awareness of its environment. Autonomous robots that work in close proximity with humans need vision. They must be able to see to avoid collisions and they use haptic feedback to tell the robot how much force is being exerted on objects. All of these technologies exist, but the largest obstacle to bringing them to the assistive technology market is to prove to the health insurance companies who will fund them that they are both safe and medically necessary. Continue reading