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The question of whether an artificial general intelligence will be developed in the future—and, if so, when it might arrive—is controversial. One (very uncertain) estimate suggests 2070 might be the earliest we could expect to see such technology.
Some futurists point to Moore’s Law and the increasing capacity of machine learning algorithms to suggest that a more general breakthrough is just around the corner. Others suggest that extrapolating exponential improvements in hardware is unwise, and that creating narrow algorithms that can beat humans at specialized tasks brings us no closer to a “general intelligence.”
But evolution has produced minds like the human mind at least once. Surely we could create artificial intelligence simply by copying nature, either by guided evolution of simple algorithms or wholesale emulation of the human brain.
Both of these ideas are far easier to conceive of than they are to achieve. The 302 neurons of the nematode worm’s brain are still an extremely difficult engineering challenge, let alone the 86 billion in a human brain.
Leaving aside these caveats, though, many people are worried about artificial general intelligence. Nick Bostrom’s influential book on superintelligence imagines it will be an agent—an intelligence with a specific goal. Once such an agent reaches a human level of intelligence, it will improve itself—increasingly rapidly as it gets smarter—in pursuit of whatever goal it has, and this “recursive self-improvement” will lead it to become superintelligent.
This “intelligence explosion” could catch humans off guard. If the initial goal is poorly specified or malicious, or if improper safety features are in place, or if the AI decides it would prefer to do something else instead, humans may be unable to control our own creation. Bostrom gives examples of how a seemingly innocuous goal, such as “Make everyone happy,” could be misinterpreted; perhaps the AI decides to drug humanity into a happy stupor, or convert most of the world into computing infrastructure to pursue its goal.
Drexler and Comprehensive AI Services
These are increasingly familiar concerns for an AI that behaves like an agent, seeking to achieve its goal. There are dissenters to this picture of how artificial general intelligence might arise. One notable alternative point of view comes from Eric Drexler, famous for his work on molecular nanotechnology and Engines of Creation, the book that popularized it.
With respect to AI, Drexler believes our view of an artificial intelligence as a single “agent” that acts to maximize a specific goal is too narrow, almost anthropomorphizing AI, or modeling it as a more realistic route towards general intelligence. Instead, he proposes “Comprehensive AI Services” (CAIS) as an alternative route to artificial general intelligence.
What does this mean? Drexler’s argument is that we should look more closely at how machine learning and AI algorithms are actually being developed in the real world. The optimization effort is going into producing algorithms that can provide services and perform tasks like translation, music recommendations, classification, medical diagnoses, and so forth.
AI-driven improvements in technology, argues Drexler, will lead to a proliferation of different algorithms: technology and software improvement, which can automate increasingly more complicated tasks. Recursive improvement in this regime is already occurring—take the newer versions of AlphaGo, which can learn to improve themselves by playing against previous versions.
Many Smart Arms, No Smart Brain
Instead of relying on some unforeseen breakthrough, the CAIS model of AI just assumes that specialized, narrow AI will continue to improve at performing each of its tasks, and the range of tasks that machine learning algorithms will be able to perform will become wider. Ultimately, once a sufficient number of tasks have been automated, the services that an AI will provide will be so comprehensive that they will resemble a general intelligence.
One could then imagine a “general” intelligence as simply an algorithm that is extremely good at matching the task you ask it to perform to the specialized service algorithm that can perform that task. Rather than acting like a single brain that strives to achieve a particular goal, the central AI would be more like a search engine, looking through the tasks it can perform to find the closest match and calling upon a series of subroutines to achieve the goal.
For Drexler, this is inherently a safety feature. Rather than Bostrom’s single, impenetrable, conscious and superintelligent brain (which we must try to psychoanalyze in advance without really knowing what it will look like), we have a network of capabilities. If you don’t want your system to perform certain tasks, you can simply cut it off from access to those services. There is no superintelligent consciousness to outwit or “trap”: more like an extremely high-level programming language that can respond to complicated commands by calling upon one of the myriad specialized algorithms that have been developed by different groups.
This skirts the complex problem of consciousness and all of the sticky moral quandaries that arise in making minds that might be like ours. After all, if you could simulate a human mind, you could simulate it experiencing unimaginable pain. Black Mirror-esque dystopias where emulated minds have no rights and are regularly “erased” or forced to labor in dull and repetitive tasks, hove into view.
Drexler argues that, in this world, there is no need to ever build a conscious algorithm. Yet it seems likely that, at some point, humans will attempt to simulate our own brains, if only in the vain attempt to pursue immortality. This model cannot hold forever. Yet its proponents argue that any world in which we could develop general AI would probably also have developed superintelligent capabilities in a huge range of different tasks, such as computer programming, natural language understanding, and so on. In other words, CAIS arrives first.
The Future In Our Hands?
Drexler argues that his model already incorporates many of the ideas from general AI development. In the marketplace, algorithms compete all the time to perform these services: they undergo the same evolutionary pressures that lead to “higher intelligence,” but the behavior that’s considered superior is chosen by humans, and the nature of the “general intelligence” is far more shaped by human decision-making and human programmers. Development in AI services could still be rapid and disruptive.
But in Drexler’s case, the research and development capacity comes from humans and organizations driven by the desire to improve algorithms that are performing individualized and useful tasks, rather than from a conscious AI recursively reprogramming and improving itself.
In other words, this vision does not absolve us of the responsibility of making our AI safe; if anything, it gives us a greater degree of responsibility. As more and more complex “services” are automated, performing what used to be human jobs at superhuman speed, the economic disruption will be severe.
Equally, as machine learning is trusted to carry out more complex decisions, avoiding algorithmic bias becomes crucial. Shaping each of these individual decision-makers—and trying to predict the complex ways they might interact with each other—is no less daunting a task than specifying the goal for a hypothetical, superintelligent, God-like AI. Arguably, the consequences of the “misalignment” of these services algorithms are already multiplying around us.
The CAIS model bridges the gap between real-world AI, machine learning developments, and real-world safety considerations, as well as the speculative world of superintelligent agents and the safety considerations involved with controlling their behavior. We should keep our minds open as to what form AI and machine learning will take, and how it will influence our societies—and we must take care to ensure that the systems we create don’t end up forcing us all to live in a world of unintended consequences.
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Open AI’s Dota 2 AI Steamrolls World Champion e-Sports Team With Back-to-Back Victories
Nick Statt | The Verge
“…[OpenAI cofounder and CEO, Sam Altman] tells me there probably does not exist a video game out there right now that a system like OpenAI Five can’t eventually master at a level beyond human capability. For the broader AI industry, mastering video games may soon become passé, simple table stakes required to prove your system can learn fast and act in a way required to tackle tougher, real-world tasks with more meaningful benefits.”
Boston Dynamics Debuts the Production Version of SpotMini
Brian Heater, Catherine Shu | TechCrunch
“SpotMini is the first commercial robot Boston Dynamics is set to release, but as we learned earlier, it certainly won’t be the last. The company is looking to its wheeled Handle robot in an effort to push into the logistics space. It’s a super-hot category for robotics right now. Notably, Amazon recently acquired Colorado-based start up Canvas to add to its own arm of fulfillment center robots.”
Scientists Restore Some Brain Cell Functions in Pigs Four Hours After Death
Joel Achenbach | The Washington Post
“The ethicists say this research can blur the line between life and death, and could complicate the protocols for organ donation, which rely on a clear determination of when a person is dead and beyond resuscitation.”
How Scientists 3D Printed a Tiny Heart From Human Cells
Yasmin Saplakoglu | Live Science
“Though the heart is much smaller than a human’s (it’s only the size of a rabbit’s), and there’s still a long way to go until it functions like a normal heart, the proof-of-concept experiment could eventually lead to personalized organs or tissues that could be used in the human body…”
The Next Clash of Silicon Valley Titans Will Take Place in Space
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“With bold plans that call for thousands of new satellites being put into orbit and astronomical costs, it’s going to be fascinating to observe the next phase of the tech platform battle being fought not on our desktops or mobile devices in our pockets, but outside of Earth’s atmosphere.”
The Images That Could Help Rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral
Alexis C. Madrigal | The Atlantic
“…in 2010, [Andrew] Tallon, an art professor at Vassar, took a Leica ScanStation C10 to Notre-Dame and, with the assistance of Columbia’s Paul Blaer, began to painstakingly scan every piece of the structure, inside and out. …Over five days, they positioned the scanner again and again—50 times in all—to create an unmatched record of the reality of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring buildings, represented as a series of points in space.”
Mapping Our World in 3D Will Let Us Paint Streets With Augmented Reality
Charlotte Jee | MIT Technology Review
“Scape wants to use its location services to become the underlying infrastructure upon which driverless cars, robotics, and augmented-reality services sit. ‘Our end goal is a one-to-one map of the world covering everything,’ says Miller. ‘Our ambition is to be as invisible as GPS is today.’i”
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During the past 50 years, the frequency of recorded natural disasters has surged nearly five-fold.
In this blog, I’ll be exploring how converging exponential technologies (AI, robotics, drones, sensors, networks) are transforming the future of disaster relief—how we can prevent them in the first place and get help to victims during that first golden hour wherein immediate relief can save lives.
Here are the three areas of greatest impact:
AI, predictive mapping, and the power of the crowd
Next-gen robotics and swarm solutions
Aerial drones and immediate aid supply
Let’s dive in!
Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Mapping
When it comes to immediate and high-precision emergency response, data is gold.
Already, the meteoric rise of space-based networks, stratosphere-hovering balloons, and 5G telecommunications infrastructure is in the process of connecting every last individual on the planet.
Aside from democratizing the world’s information, however, this upsurge in connectivity will soon grant anyone the ability to broadcast detailed geo-tagged data, particularly those most vulnerable to natural disasters.
Armed with the power of data broadcasting and the force of the crowd, disaster victims now play a vital role in emergency response, turning a historically one-way blind rescue operation into a two-way dialogue between connected crowds and smart response systems.
With a skyrocketing abundance of data, however, comes a new paradigm: one in which we no longer face a scarcity of answers. Instead, it will be the quality of our questions that matters most.
This is where AI comes in: our mining mechanism.
In the case of emergency response, what if we could strategically map an almost endless amount of incoming data points? Or predict the dynamics of a flood and identify a tsunami’s most vulnerable targets before it even strikes? Or even amplify critical signals to trigger automatic aid by surveillance drones and immediately alert crowdsourced volunteers?
Already, a number of key players are leveraging AI, crowdsourced intelligence, and cutting-edge visualizations to optimize crisis response and multiply relief speeds.
Take One Concern, for instance. Born out of Stanford under the mentorship of leading AI expert Andrew Ng, One Concern leverages AI through analytical disaster assessment and calculated damage estimates.
Partnering with the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and numerous cities in San Mateo County, the platform assigns verified, unique ‘digital fingerprints’ to every element in a city. Building robust models of each system, One Concern’s AI platform can then monitor site-specific impacts of not only climate change but each individual natural disaster, from sweeping thermal shifts to seismic movement.
This data, combined with that of city infrastructure and former disasters, are then used to predict future damage under a range of disaster scenarios, informing prevention methods and structures in need of reinforcement.
Within just four years, One Concern can now make precise predictions with an 85 percent accuracy rate in under 15 minutes.
And as IoT-connected devices and intelligent hardware continue to boom, a blooming trillion-sensor economy will only serve to amplify AI’s predictive capacity, offering us immediate, preventive strategies long before disaster strikes.
Beyond natural disasters, however, crowdsourced intelligence, predictive crisis mapping, and AI-powered responses are just as formidable a triage in humanitarian disasters.
One extraordinary story is that of Ushahidi. When violence broke out after the 2007 Kenyan elections, one local blogger proposed a simple yet powerful question to the web: “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring and put it on a map?”
Within days, four ‘techies’ heeded the call, building a platform that crowdsourced first-hand reports via SMS, mined the web for answers, and—with over 40,000 verified reports—sent alerts back to locals on the ground and viewers across the world.
Today, Ushahidi has been used in over 150 countries, reaching a total of 20 million people across 100,000+ deployments. Now an open-source crisis-mapping software, its V3 (or “Ushahidi in the Cloud”) is accessible to anyone, mining millions of Tweets, hundreds of thousands of news articles, and geo-tagged, time-stamped data from countless sources.
Aggregating one of the longest-running crisis maps to date, Ushahidi’s Syria Tracker has proved invaluable in the crowdsourcing of witness reports. Providing real-time geographic visualizations of all verified data, Syria Tracker has enabled civilians to report everything from missing people and relief supply needs to civilian casualties and disease outbreaks— all while evading the government’s cell network, keeping identities private, and verifying reports prior to publication.
As mobile connectivity and abundant sensors converge with AI-mined crowd intelligence, real-time awareness will only multiply in speed and scale.
Imagining the Future….
Within the next 10 years, spatial web technology might even allow us to tap into mesh networks.
As I’ve explored in a previous blog on the implications of the spatial web, while traditional networks rely on a limited set of wired access points (or wireless hotspots), a wireless mesh network can connect entire cities via hundreds of dispersed nodes that communicate with each other and share a network connection non-hierarchically.
In short, this means that individual mobile users can together establish a local mesh network using nothing but the computing power in their own devices.
Take this a step further, and a local population of strangers could collectively broadcast countless 360-degree feeds across a local mesh network.
Imagine a scenario in which armed attacks break out across disjointed urban districts, each cluster of eye witnesses and at-risk civilians broadcasting an aggregate of 360-degree videos, all fed through photogrammetry AIs that build out a live hologram in real time, giving family members and first responders complete information.
Or take a coastal community in the throes of torrential rainfall and failing infrastructure. Now empowered by a collective live feed, verification of data reports takes a matter of seconds, and richly-layered data informs first responders and AI platforms with unbelievable accuracy and specificity of relief needs.
By linking all the right technological pieces, we might even see the rise of automated drone deliveries. Imagine: crowdsourced intelligence is first cross-referenced with sensor data and verified algorithmically. AI is then leveraged to determine the specific needs and degree of urgency at ultra-precise coordinates. Within minutes, once approved by personnel, swarm robots rush to collect the requisite supplies, equipping size-appropriate drones with the right aid for rapid-fire delivery.
This brings us to a second critical convergence: robots and drones.
While cutting-edge drone technology revolutionizes the way we deliver aid, new breakthroughs in AI-geared robotics are paving the way for superhuman emergency responses in some of today’s most dangerous environments.
Let’s explore a few of the most disruptive examples to reach the testing phase.
Autonomous Robots and Swarm Solutions
As hardware advancements converge with exploding AI capabilities, disaster relief robots are graduating from assistance roles to fully autonomous responders at a breakneck pace.
Born out of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, the Cheetah III is but one of many robots that may form our first line of defense in everything from earthquake search-and-rescue missions to high-risk ops in dangerous radiation zones.
Now capable of running at 6.4 meters per second, Cheetah III can even leap up to a height of 60 centimeters, autonomously determining how to avoid obstacles and jump over hurdles as they arise.
Initially designed to perform spectral inspection tasks in hazardous settings (think: nuclear plants or chemical factories), the Cheetah’s various iterations have focused on increasing its payload capacity, range of motion, and even a gripping function with enhanced dexterity.
Cheetah III and future versions are aimed at saving lives in almost any environment.
And the Cheetah III is not alone. Just this February, Tokyo’s Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has put one of its own robots to the test. For the first time since Japan’s devastating 2011 tsunami, which led to three nuclear meltdowns in the nation’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, a robot has successfully examined the reactor’s fuel.
Broadcasting the process with its built-in camera, the robot was able to retrieve small chunks of radioactive fuel at five of the six test sites, offering tremendous promise for long-term plans to clean up the still-deadly interior.
Also out of Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHi) is even using robots to fight fires with full autonomy. In a remarkable new feat, MHi’s Water Cannon Bot can now put out blazes in difficult-to-access or highly dangerous fire sites.
Delivering foam or water at 4,000 liters per minute and 1 megapascal (MPa) of pressure, the Cannon Bot and its accompanying Hose Extension Bot even form part of a greater AI-geared system to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance on larger transport vehicles.
As wildfires grow ever more untameable, high-volume production of such bots could prove a true lifesaver. Paired with predictive AI forest fire mapping and autonomous hauling vehicles, not only will solutions like MHi’s Cannon Bot save numerous lives, but avoid population displacement and paralyzing damage to our natural environment before disaster has the chance to spread.
But even in cases where emergency shelter is needed, groundbreaking (literally) robotics solutions are fast to the rescue.
After multiple iterations by Fastbrick Robotics, the Hadrian X end-to-end bricklaying robot can now autonomously build a fully livable, 180-square-meter home in under three days. Using a laser-guided robotic attachment, the all-in-one brick-loaded truck simply drives to a construction site and directs blocks through its robotic arm in accordance with a 3D model.
Meeting verified building standards, Hadrian and similar solutions hold massive promise in the long-term, deployable across post-conflict refugee sites and regions recovering from natural catastrophes.
But what if we need to build emergency shelters from local soil at hand? Marking an extraordinary convergence between robotics and 3D printing, the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) is already working on a solution.
In a major feat for low-cost construction in remote zones, IAAC has found a way to convert almost any soil into a building material with three times the tensile strength of industrial clay. Offering myriad benefits, including natural insulation, low GHG emissions, fire protection, air circulation, and thermal mediation, IAAC’s new 3D printed native soil can build houses on-site for as little as $1,000.
But while cutting-edge robotics unlock extraordinary new frontiers for low-cost, large-scale emergency construction, novel hardware and computing breakthroughs are also enabling robotic scale at the other extreme of the spectrum.
Again, inspired by biological phenomena, robotics specialists across the US have begun to pilot tiny robotic prototypes for locating trapped individuals and assessing infrastructural damage.
Take RoboBees, tiny Harvard-developed bots that use electrostatic adhesion to ‘perch’ on walls and even ceilings, evaluating structural damage in the aftermath of an earthquake.
Or Carnegie Mellon’s prototyped Snakebot, capable of navigating through entry points that would otherwise be completely inaccessible to human responders. Driven by AI, the Snakebot can maneuver through even the most densely-packed rubble to locate survivors, using cameras and microphones for communication.
But when it comes to fast-paced reconnaissance in inaccessible regions, miniature robot swarms have good company.
Next-Generation Drones for Instantaneous Relief Supplies
Particularly in the case of wildfires and conflict zones, autonomous drone technology is fundamentally revolutionizing the way we identify survivors in need and automate relief supply.
Not only are drones enabling high-resolution imagery for real-time mapping and damage assessment, but preliminary research shows that UAVs far outpace ground-based rescue teams in locating isolated survivors.
As presented by a team of electrical engineers from the University of Science and Technology of China, drones could even build out a mobile wireless broadband network in record time using a “drone-assisted multi-hop device-to-device” program.
And as shown during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, drones can provide scores of predictive intel on everything from future flooding to damage estimates.
Among multiple others, a team led by Texas A&M computer science professor and director of the university’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue Dr. Robin Murphy flew a total of 119 drone missions over the city, from small-scale quadcopters to military-grade unmanned planes. Not only were these critical for monitoring levee infrastructure, but also for identifying those left behind by human rescue teams.
But beyond surveillance, UAVs have begun to provide lifesaving supplies across some of the most remote regions of the globe. One of the most inspiring examples to date is Zipline.
Created in 2014, Zipline has completed 12,352 life-saving drone deliveries to date. While drones are designed, tested, and assembled in California, Zipline primarily operates in Rwanda and Tanzania, hiring local operators and providing over 11 million people with instant access to medical supplies.
Providing everything from vaccines and HIV medications to blood and IV tubes, Zipline’s drones far outpace ground-based supply transport, in many instances providing life-critical blood cells, plasma, and platelets in under an hour.
But drone technology is even beginning to transcend the limited scale of medical supplies and food.
Now developing its drones under contracts with DARPA and the US Marine Corps, Logistic Gliders, Inc. has built autonomously-navigating drones capable of carrying 1,800 pounds of cargo over unprecedented long distances.
Built from plywood, Logistic’s gliders are projected to cost as little as a few hundred dollars each, making them perfect candidates for high-volume remote aid deliveries, whether navigated by a pilot or self-flown in accordance with real-time disaster zone mapping.
As hardware continues to advance, autonomous drone technology coupled with real-time mapping algorithms pose no end of abundant opportunities for aid supply, disaster monitoring, and richly layered intel previously unimaginable for humanitarian relief.
Perhaps one of the most consequential and impactful applications of converging technologies is their transformation of disaster relief methods.
While AI-driven intel platforms crowdsource firsthand experiential data from those on the ground, mobile connectivity and drone-supplied networks are granting newfound narrative power to those most in need.
And as a wave of new hardware advancements gives rise to robotic responders, swarm technology, and aerial drones, we are fast approaching an age of instantaneous and efficiently-distributed responses in the midst of conflict and natural catastrophes alike.
Empowered by these new tools, what might we create when everyone on the planet has the same access to relief supplies and immediate resources? In a new age of prevention and fast recovery, what futures can you envision?
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Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. It’s a bit surprising given that one of the more common phobias is arachnophobia—a debilitating fear of spiders.
Perhaps more fantastical is that young Peter Parker, a brainy high school science nerd, seemingly developed overnight the famous web-shooters and the synthetic spider silk that he uses to swing across the cityscape like Tarzan through the jungle.
That’s because scientists have been trying for decades to replicate spider silk, a material that is five times stronger than steel, among its many superpowers. In recent years, researchers have been untangling the protein-based fiber’s structure down to the molecular level, leading to new insights and new potential for eventual commercial uses.
The applications for such a material seem near endless. There’s the more futuristic visions, like enabling robotic “muscles” for human-like movement or ensnaring real-life villains with a Spider-Man-like web. Near-term applications could include the biomedical industry, such as bandages and adhesives, and as a replacement textile for everything from rope to seat belts to parachutes.
Spinning Synthetic Spider Silk
Randy Lewis has been studying the properties of spider silk and developing methods for producing it synthetically for more than three decades. In the 1990s, his research team was behind cloning the first spider silk gene, as well as the first to identify and sequence the proteins that make up the six different silks that web slingers make. Each has different mechanical properties.
“So our thought process was that you could take that information and begin to to understand what made them strong and what makes them stretchy, and why some are are very stretchy and some are not stretchy at all, and some are stronger and some are weaker,” explained Lewis, a biology professor at Utah State University and director of the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab, in an interview with Singularity Hub.
Spiders are naturally territorial and cannibalistic, so any intention to farm silk naturally would likely end in an orgy of arachnid violence. Instead, Lewis and company have genetically modified different organisms to produce spider silk synthetically, including inserting a couple of web-making genes into the genetic code of goats. The goats’ milk contains spider silk proteins.
The lab also produces synthetic spider silk through a fermentation process not entirely dissimilar to brewing beer, but using genetically modified bacteria to make the desired spider silk proteins. A similar technique has been used for years to make a key enzyme in cheese production. More recently, companies are using transgenic bacteria to make meat and milk proteins, entirely bypassing animals in the process.
The same fermentation technology is used by a chic startup called Bolt Threads outside of San Francisco that has raised more than $200 million for fashionable fibers made out of synthetic spider silk it calls Microsilk. (The company is also developing a second leather-like material, Mylo, using the underground root structure of mushrooms known as mycelium.)
Lewis’ lab also uses transgenic silkworms to produce a kind of composite material made up of the domesticated insect’s own silk proteins and those of spider silk. “Those have some fairly impressive properties,” Lewis said.
The researchers are even experimenting with genetically modified alfalfa. One of the big advantages there is that once the spider silk protein has been extracted, the remaining protein could be sold as livestock feed. “That would bring the cost of spider silk protein production down significantly,” Lewis said.
Building a Better Web
Producing synthetic spider silk isn’t the problem, according to Lewis, but the ability to do it at scale commercially remains a sticking point.
Another challenge is “weaving” the synthetic spider silk into usable products that can take advantage of the material’s marvelous properties.
“It is possible to make silk proteins synthetically, but it is very hard to assemble the individual proteins into a fiber or other material forms,” said Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT, in an email to Singularity Hub. “The spider has a complex spinning duct in which silk proteins are exposed to physical forces, chemical gradients, the combination of which generates the assembly of molecules that leads to silk fibers.”
Buehler recently co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances that found dragline spider silk exhibits different properties in response to changes in humidity that could eventually have applications in robotics.
Specifically, spider silk suddenly contracts and twists above a certain level of relative humidity, exerting enough force to “potentially be competitive with other materials being explored as actuators—devices that move to perform some activity such as controlling a valve,” according to a press release.
Studying Spider Silk Up Close
Recent studies at the molecular level are helping scientists learn more about the unique properties of spider silk, which may help researchers develop materials with extraordinary capabilities.
For example, scientists at Arizona State University used magnetic resonance tools and other instruments to image the abdomen of a black widow spider. They produced what they called the first molecular-level model of spider silk protein fiber formation, providing insights on the nanoparticle structure. The research was published last October in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A cross section of the abdomen of a black widow (Latrodectus Hesperus) spider used in this study at Arizona State University. Image Credit: Samrat Amin.
Also in 2018, a study presented in Nature Communications described a sort of molecular clamp that binds the silk protein building blocks, which are called spidroins. The researchers observed for the first time that the clamp self-assembles in a two-step process, contributing to the extensibility, or stretchiness, of spider silk.
Another team put the spider silk of a brown recluse under an atomic force microscope, discovering that each strand, already 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, is made up of thousands of nanostrands. That helps explain its extraordinary tensile strength, though technique is also a factor, as the brown recluse uses a special looping method to reinforce its silk strands. The study also appeared last year in the journal ACS Macro Letters.
Making Spider Silk Stick
Buehler said his team is now trying to develop better and faster predictive methods to design silk proteins using artificial intelligence.
“These new methods allow us to generate new protein designs that do not naturally exist and which can be explored to optimize certain desirable properties like torsional actuation, strength, bioactivity—for example, tissue engineering—and others,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lewis’ lab has discovered a method that allows it to solubilize spider silk protein in what is essentially a water-based solution, eschewing acids or other toxic compounds that are normally used in the process.
That enables the researchers to develop materials beyond fiber, including adhesives that “are better than an awful lot of the current commercial adhesives,” Lewis said, as well as coatings that could be used to dampen vibrations, for example.
“We’re making gels for various kinds of of tissue regeneration, as well as drug delivery, and things like that,” he added. “So we’ve expanded the use profile from something beyond fibers to something that is a much more extensive portfolio of possible kinds of materials.”
And, yes, there’s even designs at the Synthetic Spider Silk Lab for developing a Spider-Man web-slinger material. The US Navy is interested in non-destructive ways of disabling an enemy vessel, such as fouling its propeller. The project also includes producing synthetic proteins from the hagfish, an eel-like critter that exudes a gelatinous slime when threatened.
Lewis said that while the potential for spider silk is certainly headline-grabbing, he cautioned that much of the hype is not focused on the unique mechanical properties that could lead to advances in healthcare and other industries.
“We want to see spider silk out there because it’s a unique material, not because it’s got marketing appeal,” he said.
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