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#435224 Can AI Save the Internet from Fake News?

There’s an old proverb that says “seeing is believing.” But in the age of artificial intelligence, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to take anything at face value—literally.

The rise of so-called “deepfakes,” in which different types of AI-based techniques are used to manipulate video content, has reached the point where Congress held its first hearing last month on the potential abuses of the technology. The congressional investigation coincided with the release of a doctored video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivering what appeared to be a sinister speech.

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Scientists are scrambling for solutions on how to combat deepfakes, while at the same time others are continuing to refine the techniques for less nefarious purposes, such as automating video content for the film industry.

At one end of the spectrum, for example, researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering have proposed implanting a type of digital watermark using a neural network that can spot manipulated photos and videos.

The idea is to embed the system directly into a digital camera. Many smartphone cameras and other digital devices already use AI to boost image quality and make other corrections. The authors of the study out of NYU say their prototype platform increased the chances of detecting manipulation from about 45 percent to more than 90 percent without sacrificing image quality.

On the other hand, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently hit on a technique for automatically and rapidly converting large amounts of video content from one source into the style of another. In one example, the scientists transferred the facial expressions of comedian John Oliver onto the bespectacled face of late night show host Stephen Colbert.

The CMU team says the method could be a boon to the movie industry, such as by converting black and white films to color, though it also conceded that the technology could be used to develop deepfakes.

Words Matter with Fake News
While the current spotlight is on how to combat video and image manipulation, a prolonged trench warfare on fake news is being fought by academia, nonprofits, and the tech industry.

This isn’t the fake news that some have come to use as a knee-jerk reaction to fact-based information that might be less than flattering to the subject of the report. Rather, fake news is deliberately-created misinformation that is spread via the internet.

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, Americans said fake news is a bigger problem than violent crime, racism, and terrorism. Fortunately, many of the linguistic tools that have been applied to determine when people are being deliberately deceitful can be baked into algorithms for spotting fake news.

That’s the approach taken by a team at the University of Michigan (U-M) to develop an algorithm that was better than humans at identifying fake news—76 percent versus 70 percent—by focusing on linguistic cues like grammatical structure, word choice, and punctuation.

For example, fake news tends to be filled with hyperbole and exaggeration, using terms like “overwhelming” or “extraordinary.”

“I think that’s a way to make up for the fact that the news is not quite true, so trying to compensate with the language that’s being used,” Rada Mihalcea, a computer science and engineering professor at U-M, told Singularity Hub.

The paper “Automatic Detection of Fake News” was based on the team’s previous studies on how people lie in general, without necessarily having the intention of spreading fake news, she said.

“Deception is a complicated and complex phenomenon that requires brain power,” Mihalcea noted. “That often results in simpler language, where you have shorter sentences or shorter documents.”

AI Versus AI
While most fake news is still churned out by humans with identifiable patterns of lying, according to Mihalcea, other researchers are already anticipating how to detect misinformation manufactured by machines.

A group led by Yejin Choi, with the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence and the University of Washington in Seattle, is one such team. The researchers recently introduced the world to Grover, an AI platform that is particularly good at catching autonomously-generated fake news because it’s equally good at creating it.

“This is due to a finding that is perhaps counterintuitive: strong generators for neural fake news are themselves strong detectors of it,” wrote Rowan Zellers, a PhD student and team member, in a Medium blog post. “A generator of fake news will be most familiar with its own peculiarities, such as using overly common or predictable words, as well as the peculiarities of similar generators.”

The team found that the best current discriminators can classify neural fake news from real, human-created text with 73 percent accuracy. Grover clocks in with 92 percent accuracy based on a training set of 5,000 neural network-generated fake news samples. Zellers wrote that Grover got better at scale, identifying 97.5 percent of made-up machine mumbo jumbo when trained on 80,000 articles.

It performed almost as well against fake news created by a powerful new text-generation system called GPT-2 built by OpenAI, a nonprofit research lab founded by Elon Musk, classifying 96.1 percent of the machine-written articles.

OpenAI had so feared that the platform could be abused that it has only released limited versions of the software. The public can play with a scaled-down version posted by a machine learning engineer named Adam King, where the user types in a short prompt and GPT-2 bangs out a short story or poem based on the snippet of text.

No Silver AI Bullet
While real progress is being made against fake news, the challenges of using AI to detect and correct misinformation are abundant, according to Hugo Williams, outreach manager for Logically, a UK-based startup that is developing different detectors using elements of deep learning and natural language processing, among others. He explained that the Logically models analyze information based on a three-pronged approach.

Publisher metadata: Is the article from a known, reliable, and trustworthy publisher with a history of credible journalism?
Network behavior: Is the article proliferating through social platforms and networks in ways typically associated with misinformation?
Content: The AI scans articles for hundreds of known indicators typically found in misinformation.

“There is no single algorithm which is capable of doing this,” Williams wrote in an email to Singularity Hub. “Even when you have a collection of different algorithms which—when combined—can give you relatively decent indications of what is unreliable or outright false, there will always need to be a human layer in the pipeline.”

The company released a consumer app in India back in February just before that country’s election cycle that was a “great testing ground” to refine its technology for the next app release, which is scheduled in the UK later this year. Users can submit articles for further scrutiny by a real person.

“We see our technology not as replacing traditional verification work, but as a method of simplifying and streamlining a very manual process,” Williams said. “In doing so, we’re able to publish more fact checks at a far quicker pace than other organizations.”

“With heightened analysis and the addition of more contextual information around the stories that our users are reading, we are not telling our users what they should or should not believe, but encouraging critical thinking based upon reliable, credible, and verified content,” he added.

AI may never be able to detect fake news entirely on its own, but it can help us be smarter about what we read on the internet.

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Posted in Human Robots

#435174 Revolt on the Horizon? How Young People ...

As digital technologies facilitate the growth of both new and incumbent organizations, we have started to see the darker sides of the digital economy unravel. In recent years, many unethical business practices have been exposed, including the capture and use of consumers’ data, anticompetitive activities, and covert social experiments.

But what do young people who grew up with the internet think about this development? Our research with 400 digital natives—19- to 24-year-olds—shows that this generation, dubbed “GenTech,” may be the one to turn the digital revolution on its head. Our findings point to a frustration and disillusionment with the way organizations have accumulated real-time information about consumers without their knowledge and often without their explicit consent.

Many from GenTech now understand that their online lives are of commercial value to an array of organizations that use this insight for the targeting and personalization of products, services, and experiences.

This era of accumulation and commercialization of user data through real-time monitoring has been coined “surveillance capitalism” and signifies a new economic system.

Artificial Intelligence
A central pillar of the modern digital economy is our interaction with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms. We found that 47 percent of GenTech do not want AI technology to monitor their lifestyle, purchases, and financial situation in order to recommend them particular things to buy.

In fact, only 29 percent see this as a positive intervention. Instead, they wish to maintain a sense of autonomy in their decision making and have the opportunity to freely explore new products, services, and experiences.

As individuals living in the digital age, we constantly negotiate with technology to let go of or retain control. This pendulum-like effect reflects the ongoing battle between humans and technology.

My Life, My Data?
Our research also reveals that 54 percent of GenTech are very concerned about the access organizations have to their data, while only 19 percent were not worried. Despite the EU General Data Protection Regulation being introduced in May 2018, this is still a major concern, grounded in a belief that too much of their data is in the possession of a small group of global companies, including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Some 70 percent felt this way.

In recent weeks, both Facebook and Google have vowed to make privacy a top priority in the way they interact with users. Both companies have faced public outcry for their lack of openness and transparency when it comes to how they collect and store user data. It wasn’t long ago that a hidden microphone was found in one of Google’s home alarm products.

Google now plans to offer auto-deletion of users’ location history data, browsing, and app activity as well as extend its “incognito mode” to Google Maps and search. This will enable users to turn off tracking.

At Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is keen to reposition the platform as a “privacy focused communications platform” built on principles such as private interactions, encryption, safety, interoperability (communications across Facebook-owned apps and platforms), and secure data storage. This will be a tough turnaround for the company that is fundamentally dependent on turning user data into opportunities for highly individualized advertising.

Privacy and transparency are critically important themes for organizations today, both for those that have “grown up” online as well as the incumbents. While GenTech want organizations to be more transparent and responsible, 64 percent also believe that they cannot do much to keep their data private. Being tracked and monitored online by organizations is seen as part and parcel of being a digital consumer.

Despite these views, there is a growing revolt simmering under the surface. GenTech want to take ownership of their own data. They see this as a valuable commodity, which they should be given the opportunity to trade with organizations. Some 50 percent would willingly share their data with companies if they got something in return, for example a financial incentive.

Rewiring the Power Shift
GenTech are looking to enter into a transactional relationship with organizations. This reflects a significant change in attitudes from perceiving the free access to digital platforms as the “product” in itself (in exchange for user data), to now wishing to use that data to trade for explicit benefits.

This has created an opportunity for companies that seek to empower consumers and give them back control of their data. Several companies now offer consumers the opportunity to sell the data they are comfortable sharing or take part in research that they get paid for. More and more companies are joining this space, including People.io, Killi, and Ocean Protocol.

Sir Tim Berners Lee, the creator of the world wide web, has also been working on a way to shift the power from organizations and institutions back to citizens and consumers. The platform, Solid, offers users the opportunity to be in charge of where they store their data and who can access it. It is a form of re-decentralization.

The Solid POD (Personal Online Data storage) is a secure place on a hosted server or the individual’s own server. Users can grant apps access to their POD as a person’s data is stored centrally and not by an app developer or on an organization’s server. We see this as potentially being a way to let people take back control from technology and other companies.

GenTech have woken up to a reality where a life lived “plugged in” has significant consequences for their individual privacy and are starting to push back, questioning those organizations that have shown limited concern and continue to exercise exploitative practices.

It’s no wonder that we see these signs of revolt. GenTech is the generation with the most to lose. They face a life ahead intertwined with digital technology as part of their personal and private lives. With continued pressure on organizations to become more transparent, the time is now for young people to make their move.

Dr Mike Cooray, Professor of Practice, Hult International Business School and Dr Rikke Duus, Research Associate and Senior Teaching Fellow, UCL

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

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#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.

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Posted in Human Robots

#435056 How Researchers Used AI to Better ...

A few years back, DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis famously prophesized that AI and neuroscience will positively feed into each other in a “virtuous circle.” If realized, this would fundamentally expand our insight into intelligence, both machine and human.

We’ve already seen some proofs of concept, at least in the brain-to-AI direction. For example, memory replay, a biological mechanism that fortifies our memories during sleep, also boosted AI learning when abstractly appropriated into deep learning models. Reinforcement learning, loosely based on our motivation circuits, is now behind some of AI’s most powerful tools.

Hassabis is about to be proven right again.

Last week, two studies independently tapped into the power of ANNs to solve a 70-year-old neuroscience mystery: how does our visual system perceive reality?

The first, published in Cell, used generative networks to evolve DeepDream-like images that hyper-activate complex visual neurons in monkeys. These machine artworks are pure nightmare fuel to the human eye; but together, they revealed a fundamental “visual hieroglyph” that may form a basic rule for how we piece together visual stimuli to process sight into perception.

In the second study, a team used a deep ANN model—one thought to mimic biological vision—to synthesize new patterns tailored to control certain networks of visual neurons in the monkey brain. When directly shown to monkeys, the team found that the machine-generated artworks could reliably activate predicted populations of neurons. Future improved ANN models could allow even better control, giving neuroscientists a powerful noninvasive tool to study the brain. The work was published in Science.

The individual results, though fascinating, aren’t necessarily the point. Rather, they illustrate how scientists are now striving to complete the virtuous circle: tapping AI to probe natural intelligence. Vision is only the beginning—the tools can potentially be expanded into other sensory domains. And the more we understand about natural brains, the better we can engineer artificial ones.

It’s a “great example of leveraging artificial intelligence to study organic intelligence,” commented Dr. Roman Sandler at Kernel.co on Twitter.

Why Vision?
ANNs and biological vision have quite the history.

In the late 1950s, the legendary neuroscientist duo David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel became some of the first to use mathematical equations to understand how neurons in the brain work together.

In a series of experiments—many using cats—the team carefully dissected the structure and function of the visual cortex. Using myriads of images, they revealed that vision is processed in a hierarchy: neurons in “earlier” brain regions, those closer to the eyes, tend to activate when they “see” simple patterns such as lines. As we move deeper into the brain, from the early V1 to a nub located slightly behind our ears, the IT cortex, neurons increasingly respond to more complex or abstract patterns, including faces, animals, and objects. The discovery led some scientists to call certain IT neurons “Jennifer Aniston cells,” which fire in response to pictures of the actress regardless of lighting, angle, or haircut. That is, IT neurons somehow extract visual information into the “gist” of things.

That’s not trivial. The complex neural connections that lead to increasing abstraction of what we see into what we think we see—what we perceive—is a central question in machine vision: how can we teach machines to transform numbers encoding stimuli into dots, lines, and angles that eventually form “perceptions” and “gists”? The answer could transform self-driving cars, facial recognition, and other computer vision applications as they learn to better generalize.

Hubel and Wiesel’s Nobel-prize-winning studies heavily influenced the birth of ANNs and deep learning. Much of earlier ANN “feed-forward” model structures are based on our visual system; even today, the idea of increasing layers of abstraction—for perception or reasoning—guide computer scientists to build AI that can better generalize. The early romance between vision and deep learning is perhaps the bond that kicked off our current AI revolution.

It only seems fair that AI would feed back into vision neuroscience.

Hieroglyphs and Controllers
In the Cell study, a team led by Dr. Margaret Livingstone at Harvard Medical School tapped into generative networks to unravel IT neurons’ complex visual alphabet.

Scientists have long known that neurons in earlier visual regions (V1) tend to fire in response to “grating patches” oriented in certain ways. Using a limited set of these patches like letters, V1 neurons can “express a visual sentence” and represent any image, said Dr. Arash Afraz at the National Institute of Health, who was not involved in the study.

But how IT neurons operate remained a mystery. Here, the team used a combination of genetic algorithms and deep generative networks to “evolve” computer art for every studied neuron. In seven monkeys, the team implanted electrodes into various parts of the visual IT region so that they could monitor the activity of a single neuron.

The team showed each monkey an initial set of 40 images. They then picked the top 10 images that stimulated the highest neural activity, and married them to 30 new images to “evolve” the next generation of images. After 250 generations, the technique, XDREAM, generated a slew of images that mashed up contorted face-like shapes with lines, gratings, and abstract shapes.

This image shows the evolution of an optimum image for stimulating a visual neuron in a monkey. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“The evolved images look quite counter-intuitive,” explained Afraz. Some clearly show detailed structures that resemble natural images, while others show complex structures that can’t be characterized by our puny human brains.

This figure shows natural images (right) and images evolved by neurons in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey (left). Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
“What started to emerge during each experiment were pictures that were reminiscent of shapes in the world but were not actual objects in the world,” said study author Carlos Ponce. “We were seeing something that was more like the language cells use with each other.”

This image was evolved by a neuron in the inferotemporal cortex of a monkey using AI. Image Credit: Ponce, Xiao, and Schade et al. – Cell.
Although IT neurons don’t seem to use a simple letter alphabet, it does rely on a vast array of characters like hieroglyphs or Chinese characters, “each loaded with more information,” said Afraz.

The adaptive nature of XDREAM turns it into a powerful tool to probe the inner workings of our brains—particularly for revealing discrepancies between biology and models.

The Science study, led by Dr. James DiCarlo at MIT, takes a similar approach. Using ANNs to generate new patterns and images, the team was able to selectively predict and independently control neuron populations in a high-level visual region called V4.

“So far, what has been done with these models is predicting what the neural responses would be to other stimuli that they have not seen before,” said study author Dr. Pouya Bashivan. “The main difference here is that we are going one step further and using the models to drive the neurons into desired states.”

It suggests that our current ANN models for visual computation “implicitly capture a great deal of visual knowledge” which we can’t really describe, but which the brain uses to turn vision information into perception, the authors said. By testing AI-generated images on biological vision, however, the team concluded that today’s ANNs have a degree of understanding and generalization. The results could potentially help engineer even more accurate ANN models of biological vision, which in turn could feed back into machine vision.

“One thing is clear already: Improved ANN models … have led to control of a high-level neural population that was previously out of reach,” the authors said. “The results presented here have likely only scratched the surface of what is possible with such implemented characterizations of the brain’s neural networks.”

To Afraz, the power of AI here is to find cracks in human perception—both our computational models of sensory processes, as well as our evolved biological software itself. AI can be used “as a perfect adversarial tool to discover design cracks” of IT, said Afraz, such as finding computer art that “fools” a neuron into thinking the object is something else.

“As artificial intelligence researchers develop models that work as well as the brain does—or even better—we will still need to understand which networks are more likely to behave safely and further human goals,” said Ponce. “More efficient AI can be grounded by knowledge of how the brain works.”

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#434823 The Tangled Web of Turning Spider Silk ...

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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