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In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.
Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.
When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.
Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.
The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”
The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.
The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.
By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.
“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”
There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.
In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.
“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.
“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”
Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.
The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Image Credit: Joran Booth, The Faboratory Continue reading
Now that the era of artificial intelligence is unquestionably upon us, it behooves us to think and work harder to ensure that the AIs we create embody positive human values.
Science fiction is full of AIs that manifest the dark side of humanity, or are indifferent to humans altogether. Such possibilities cannot be ruled out, but nor is there any logical or empirical reason to consider them highly likely. I am among a large group of AI experts who see a strong potential for profoundly positive outcomes in the AI revolution currently underway.
We are facing a future with great uncertainty and tremendous promise, and the best we can do is to confront it with a combination of heart and mind, of common sense and rigorous science. In the realm of AI, what this means is, we need to do our best to guide the AI minds we are creating to embody the values we cherish: love, compassion, creativity, and respect.
The quest for beneficial AI has many dimensions, including its potential to reduce material scarcity and to help unlock the human capacity for love and compassion.
A large percentage of difficult issues in human society, many of which spill over into the AI domain, would be palliated significantly if material scarcity became less of a problem. Fortunately, AI has great potential to help here. AI is already increasing efficiency in nearly every industry.
In the next few decades, as nanotech and 3D printing continue to advance, AI-driven design will become a larger factor in the economy. Radical new tools like artificial enzymes built using Christian Schafmeister’s spiroligomer molecules, and designed using quantum physics-savvy AIs, will enable the creation of new materials and medicines.
For amazing advances like the intersection of AI and nanotech to lead toward broadly positive outcomes, however, the economic and political aspects of the AI industry may have to shift from the current status quo.
Currently, most AI development occurs under the aegis of military organizations or large corporations oriented heavily toward advertising and marketing. Put crudely, an awful lot of AI today is about “spying, brainwashing, or killing.” This is not really the ideal situation if we want our first true artificial general intelligences to be open-minded, warm-hearted, and beneficial.
Also, as the bulk of AI development now occurs in large for-profit organizations bound by law to pursue the maximization of shareholder value, we face a situation where AI tends to exacerbate global wealth inequality and class divisions. This has the potential to lead to various civilization-scale failure modes involving the intersection of geopolitics, AI, cyberterrorism, and so forth. Part of my motivation for founding the decentralized AI project SingularityNET was to create an alternative mode of dissemination and utilization of both narrow AI and AGI—one that operates in a self-organizing way, outside of the direct grip of conventional corporate and governmental structures.
In the end, though, I worry that radical material abundance and novel political and economic structures may fail to create a positive future, unless they are coupled with advances in consciousness and compassion. AGIs have the potential to be massively more ethical and compassionate than humans. But still, the odds of getting deeply beneficial AGIs seem higher if the humans creating them are fuller of compassion and positive consciousness—and can effectively pass these values on.
Transmitting Human Values
Brain-computer interfacing is another critical aspect of the quest for creating more positive AIs and more positive humans. As Elon Musk has put it, “If you can’t beat ’em, join’ em.” Joining is more fun than beating anyway. What better way to infuse AIs with human values than to connect them directly to human brains, and let them learn directly from the source (while providing humans with valuable enhancements)?
Millions of people recently heard Elon Musk discuss AI and BCI on the Joe Rogan podcast. Musk’s embrace of brain-computer interfacing is laudable, but he tends to dodge some of the tough issues—for instance, he does not emphasize the trade-off cyborgs will face between retaining human-ness and maximizing intelligence, joy, and creativity. To make this trade-off effectively, the AI portion of the cyborg will need to have a deep sense of human values.
Musk calls humanity the “biological boot loader” for AGI, but to me this colorful metaphor misses a key point—that we can seed the AGI we create with our values as an initial condition. This is one reason why it’s important that the first really powerful AGIs are created by decentralized networks, and not conventional corporate or military organizations. The decentralized software/hardware ecosystem, for all its quirks and flaws, has more potential to lead to human-computer cybernetic collective minds that are reasonable and benevolent.
BCI is still in its infancy, but a more immediate way of connecting people with AIs to infuse both with greater love and compassion is to leverage humanoid robotics technology. Toward this end, I conceived a project called Loving AI, focused on using highly expressive humanoid robots like the Hanson robot Sophia to lead people through meditations and other exercises oriented toward unlocking the human potential for love and compassion. My goals here were to explore the potential of AI and robots to have a positive impact on human consciousness, and to use this application to study and improve the OpenCog and SingularityNET tools used to control Sophia in these interactions.
The Loving AI project has now run two small sets of human trials, both with exciting and positive results. These have been small—dozens rather than hundreds of people—but have definitively proven the point. Put a person in a quiet room with a humanoid robot that can look them in the eye, mirror their facial expressions, recognize some of their emotions, and lead them through simple meditation, listening, and consciousness-oriented exercises…and quite a lot of the time, the result is a more relaxed person who has entered into a shifted state of consciousness, at least for a period of time.
In a certain percentage of cases, the interaction with the robot consciousness guide triggered a dramatic change of consciousness in the human subject—a deep meditative trance state, for instance. In most cases, the result was not so extreme, but statistically the positive effect was quite significant across all cases. Furthermore, a similar effect was found using an avatar simulation of the robot’s face on a tablet screen (together with a webcam for facial expression mirroring and recognition), but not with a purely auditory interaction.
The Loving AI experiments are not only about AI; they are about human-robot and human-avatar interaction, with AI as one significant aspect. The facial interaction with the robot or avatar is pushing “biological buttons” that trigger emotional reactions and prime the mind for changes of consciousness. However, this sort of body-mind interaction is arguably critical to human values and what it means to be human; it’s an important thing for robots and AIs to “get.”
Halting or pausing the advance of AI is not a viable possibility at this stage. Despite the risks, the potential economic and political benefits involved are clear and massive. The convergence of narrow AI toward AGI is also a near inevitability, because there are so many important applications where greater generality of intelligence will lead to greater practical functionality. The challenge is to make the outcome of this great civilization-level adventure as positive as possible.
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“You really can’t justify tuna in Chicago as a source of sustenance.” That’s according to Dr. Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society Explorer who was the first female chief scientist at NOAA. She came to the Good Food Institute’s Good Food Conference to deliver a call to action around global food security, agriculture, environmental protection, and the future of consumer choice.
It seems like all options should be on the table to feed an exploding population threatened by climate change. But Dr. Earle, who is faculty at Singularity University, drew a sharp distinction between seafood for sustenance versus seafood as a choice. “There is this widespread claim that we must take large numbers of wildlife from the sea in order to have food security.”
A few minutes later, Dr. Earle directly addressed those of us in the audience. “We know the value of a dead fish,” she said. That’s market price. “But what is the value of a live fish in the ocean?”
That’s when my mind blew open. What is the value—or put another way, the cost—of using the ocean as a major source of protein for humans? How do you put a number on that? Are we talking about dollars and cents, or about something far larger?
Dr. Liz Specht of the Good Food Institute drew the audience’s attention to a strange imbalance. Currently, about half of the yearly global catch of seafood comes from aquaculture. That means that the other half is wild caught. It’s hard to imagine half of your meat coming directly from the forests and the plains, isn’t it? And yet half of the world’s seafood comes from direct harvesting of the oceans, by way of massive overfishing, a terrible toll from bycatch, a widespread lack of regulation and enforcement, and even human rights violations such as slavery.
The search for solutions is on, from both within the fishing industry and from external agencies such as governments and philanthropists. Could there be another way?
Makers of plant-based seafood and clean seafood think they know how to feed the global demand for seafood without harming the ocean. These companies are part of a larger movement harnessing technology to reduce our reliance on wild and domesticated animals—and all the environmental, economic, and ethical issues that come with it.
Producers of plant-based seafood (20 or so currently) are working to capture the taste, texture, and nutrition of conventional seafood without the limitations of geography or the health of a local marine population. Like with plant-based meat, makers of plant-based seafood are harnessing food science and advances in chemistry, biology, and engineering to make great food. The industry’s strategy? Start with what the consumer wants, and then figure out how to achieve that great taste through technology.
So how does plant-based seafood taste? Pretty good, as it turns out. (The biggest benefit of a food-oriented conference is that your mouth is always full!)
I sampled “tuna” salad made from Good Catch Food’s fish-free tuna, which is sourced from legumes; the texture was nearly indistinguishable from that of flaked albacore tuna, and there was no lingering fishy taste to overpower my next bite. In a blind taste test, I probably wouldn’t have known that I was eating a plant-based seafood alternative. Next I reached for Ocean Hugger Food’s Ahimi, a tomato-based alternative to raw tuna. I adore Hawaiian poke, so I was pleasantly surprised when my Ahimi-based poke captured the bite of ahi tuna. It wasn’t quite as delightfully fatty as raw tuna, but with wild tuna populations struggling to recover from a 97% decline in numbers from 40 years ago, Ahimi is a giant stride in the right direction.
These plant-based alternatives aren’t the only game in town, however.
The clean meat industry, which has also been called “cultured meat” or “cellular agriculture,” isn’t seeking to lure consumers away from animal protein. Instead, cells are sampled from live animals and grown in bioreactors—meaning that no animal is slaughtered to produce real meat.
Clean seafood is poised to piggyback off platforms developed for clean meat; growing fish cells in the lab should rely on the same processes as growing meat cells. I know of four companies currently focusing on seafood (Finless Foods, Wild Type, BlueNalu, and Seafuture Sustainable Biotech), and a few more are likely to emerge from stealth mode soon.
Importantly, there’s likely not much difference between growing clean seafood from the top or the bottom of the food chain. Tuna, for example, are top predators that must grow for at least 10 years before they’re suitable as food. Each year, a tuna consumes thousands of pounds of other fish, shellfish, and plankton. That “long tail of groceries,” said Dr. Earle, “is a pretty expensive choice.” Excitingly, clean tuna would “level the trophic playing field,” as Dr. Specht pointed out.
All this is only the beginning of what might be possible.
Combining synthetic biology with clean meat and seafood means that future products could be personalized for individual taste preferences or health needs, by reprogramming the DNA of the cells in the lab. Industries such as bioremediation and biofuels likely have a lot to teach us about sourcing new ingredients and flavors from algae and marine plants. By harnessing rapid advances in automation, robotics, sensors, machine vision, and other big-data analytics, the manufacturing and supply chains for clean seafood could be remarkably safe and robust. Clean seafood would be just that: clean, without pathogens, parasites, or the plastic threatening to fill our oceans, meaning that you could enjoy it raw.
What about price? Dr. Mark Post, a pioneer in clean meat who is also faculty at Singularity University, estimated that 80% of clean-meat production costs come from the expensive medium in which cells are grown—and some ingredients in the medium are themselves sourced from animals, which misses the point of clean meat. Plus, to grow a whole cut of food, like a fish fillet, the cells need to be coaxed into a complex 3D structure with various cell types like muscle cells and fat cells. These two technical challenges must be solved before clean meat and seafood give consumers the experience they want, at the price they want.
In this respect clean seafood has an unusual edge. Most of what we know about growing animal cells in the lab comes from the research and biomedical industries (from tissue engineering, for example)—but growing cells to replace an organ has different constraints than growing cells for food. The link between clean seafood and biomedicine is less direct, empowering innovators to throw out dogma and find novel reagents, protocols, and equipment to grow seafood that captures the tastes, textures, smells, and overall experience of dining by the ocean.
Asked to predict when we’ll be seeing clean seafood in the grocery store, Lou Cooperhouse the CEO of BlueNalu, explained that the challenges aren’t only in the lab: marketing, sales, distribution, and communication with consumers are all critical. As Niya Gupta, the founder of Fork & Goode, said, “The question isn’t ‘can we do it’, but ‘can we sell it’?”
The good news is that the clean meat and seafood industry is highly collaborative; there are at least two dozen companies in the space, and they’re all talking to each other. “This is an ecosystem,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, the co-founder of Memphis Meats. “We’re not competing with each other.” It will likely be at least a decade before science, business, and regulation enable clean meat and seafood to routinely appear on restaurant menus, let alone market shelves.
Until then, think carefully about your food choices. Meditate on Dr. Earle’s question: “What is the real cost of that piece of halibut?” Or chew on this from Dr. Ricardo San Martin, of the Sutardja Center at the University of California, Berkeley: “Food is a system of meanings, not an object.” What are you saying when you choose your food, about your priorities and your values and how you want the future to look? Do you think about animal welfare? Most ethical regulations don’t extend to marine life, and if you don’t think that ocean creatures feel pain, consider the lobster.
Seafood is largely an acquired taste, since most of us don’t live near the water. Imagine a future in which children grow up loving the taste of delicious seafood but without hurting a living animal, the ocean, or the global environment.
Do more than imagine. As Dr. Earle urged us, “Convince the public at large that this is a really cool idea.”
Ahimi (Ocean Hugger)
New Wave Foods
Heritage Health Food
The Vegetarian Butcher
Table based on Figure 5 of the report “An Ocean of Opportunity: Plant-based and clean seafood for sustainable oceans without sacrifice,” from The Good Food Institute.
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