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#432021 Unleashing Some of the Most Ambitious ...

At Singularity University, we are unleashing a generation of women who are smashing through barriers and starting some of the most ambitious technology companies on the planet.

Singularity University was founded in 2008 to empower leaders to use exponential technologies to solve our world’s biggest challenges. Our flagship program, the Global Solutions Program, has historically brought 80 entrepreneurs from around the world to Silicon Valley for 10 weeks to learn about exponential technologies and create moonshot startups that improve the lives of a billion people within a decade.

After nearly 10 years of running this program, we can say that about 70 percent of our successful startups have been founded or co-founded by female entrepreneurs (see below for inspiring examples of their work). This is in sharp contrast to the typical 10–20 percent of venture-backed tech companies that have a female founder, as reported by TechCrunch.

How are we so dramatically changing the game? While 100 percent of the credit goes to these courageous women, as both an alumna of the Global Solutions Program and our current vice chair of Global Grand Challenges, I want to share my reflections on what has worked.

At the most basic level, it is essential to deeply believe in the inherent worth, intellectual genius, and profound entrepreneurial caliber of women. While this may seem obvious, this is not the way our world currently thinks—we live in a world that sees women’s ideas, contributions, work, and existence as inherently less valuable than men’s.

For example, a 2017 Harvard Business Review article noted that even when women engage in the same behaviors and work as men, their work is considered less valuable simply because a woman did the job. An additional 2017 Harvard Business Review article showed that venture capitalists are significantly less likely to invest in female entrepreneurs and are more likely to ask men questions about the potential success of their companies while grilling women about the potential downfalls of their companies.

This doubt and lack of recognition of the genius and caliber of women is also why women are still paid less than men for completing identical work. Further, it’s why women’s work often gets buried in “number two” support roles of men in leadership roles and why women are expected to take on second shifts at home managing tedious household chores in addition to their careers. I would also argue these views as well as the rampant sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women that exists today stems from stubborn, historical, patriarchal views of women as living for the benefit of men, rather than for their own sovereignty and inherent value.

As with any other business, Singularity University has not been immune to these biases but is resolutely focused on helping women achieve intellectual genius and global entrepreneurial caliber by harnessing powerful exponential technologies.

We create an environment where women can physically and intellectually thrive free of harassment to reach their full potential, and we are building a broader ecosystem of alumni and partners around the world who not only support our female entrepreneurs throughout their entrepreneurial journeys, but who are also sparking and leading systemic change in their own countries and communities.

Respecting the Intellectual Genius and Entrepreneurial Caliber of Women
The entrepreneurial legends of our time—Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—are men who have all built their empires using exponential technologies. Exponential technologies helped these men succeed faster and with greater impact due to Moore’s Law and the Law of Accelerating Returns which states that any digital technology (such as computing, software, artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc.) will become more sophisticated while dramatically falling in price, enabling rapid scaling.

Knowing this, an entrepreneur can plot her way to an ambitious global solution over time, releasing new applications just as the technology and market are ready. Furthermore, these rapidly advancing technologies often converge to create new tools and opportunities for innovators to come up with novel solutions to challenges that were previously impossible to solve in the past.

For various reasons, women have not pursued exponential technologies as aggressively as men (or were prevented or discouraged from doing so).

While more women are founding firms at a higher rate than ever in wealthy countries like the United States, the majority are small businesses in linear industries that have been around for hundreds of years, such as social assistance, health, education, administrative, or consulting services. In lower-income countries, international aid agencies and nonprofits often encourage women to pursue careers in traditional handicrafts, micro-enterprise, and micro-finance. While these jobs have historically helped women escape poverty and gain financial independence, they have done little to help women realize the enormous power, influence, wealth, and ability to transform the world for the better that comes from building companies, nonprofits, and solutions grounded in exponential technologies.

We need women to be working with exponential technologies today in order to be powerful leaders in the future.

Participants who enroll in our Global Solutions Program spend the first few weeks of the program learning about exponential technologies from the world’s experts and the final weeks launching new companies or nonprofits in their area of interest. We require that women (as well as men) utilize exponential technologies as a condition of the program.

In this sense, at Singularity University women start their endeavors with all of us believing and behaving in a way that assumes they can achieve global impact at the level of our world’s most legendary entrepreneurs.

Creating an Environment Where Woman Can Thrive
While challenging women to embrace exponential technologies is essential, it is also important to create an environment where women can thrive. In particular, this means ensuring women feel at home on our campus by ensuring gender diversity, aggressively addressing sexual harassment, and flipping the traditional culture from one that penalizes women, to one that values and supports them.

While women were initially only a small minority of our Global Solutions Program, in 2014, we achieved around 50% female attendance—a statistic that has since held over the years.

This is not due to a quota—every year we turn away extremely qualified women from our program (and are working on reformulating the program to allow more people to participate in the future.) While part of our recruiting success is due to the efforts of our marketing team, we also benefited from the efforts of some of our early female founders, staff, faculty, and alumnae including Susan Fonseca, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Kathryn Myronuk, Lajuanda Asemota, Chiara Giovenzana, and Barbara Silva Tronseca.

As early champions of Singularity University these women not only launched diversity initiatives and personally reached out to women, but were crucial role models holding leadership roles in our community. In addition, Fonseca and Silva also both created multiple organizations and initiatives outside of (or in conjunction with) the university that produced additional pipelines of female candidates. In particular, Fonseca founded Women@TheFrontier as well as other organizations focusing on women, technology and innovation, and Silva founded BestInnovation (a woman’s accelerator in Latin America), as well as led Singularity University’s Chilean Chapter and founded the first SingularityU Summit in Latin America.

These women’s efforts in globally scaling Singularity University have been critical in ensuring woman around the world now see Singularity University as a place where they can lead and shape the future.

Also, thanks to Google (Alphabet) and many of our alumni and partners, we were able to provide full scholarships to any woman (or man) to attend our program regardless of their economic status. Google committed significant funding for full scholarships while our partners around the world also hosted numerous Global Impact Competitions, where entrepreneurs pitched their solutions to their local communities with the winners earning a full scholarship funded by our partners to attend the Global Solution Program as their prize.

Google and our partners’ support helped individuals attend our program and created a wider buzz around exponential technology and social change around the world in local communities. It led to the founding of 110 SU chapters in 55 countries.

Another vital aspect of our work in supporting women has been trying to create a harassment-free environment. Throughout the Silicon Valley, more than 60% of women convey that while they are trying to build their companies or get their work done, they are also dealing with physical and sexual harassment while being demeaned and excluded in other ways in the workplace. We have taken actions to educate and train our staff on how to deal with situations should they occur. All staff receives training on harassment when they join Singularity University, and all Global Solutions Program participants attend mandatory trainings on sexual harassment when they first arrive on campus. We also have male and female wellness counselors available that can offer support to both individuals and teams of entrepreneurs throughout the entire program.

While at a minimum our campus must be physically safe for women, we also strive to create a culture that values women and supports them in the additional challenges and expectations they face. For example, one of our 2016 female participants, Van Duesterberg, was pregnant during the program and said that instead of having people doubt her commitment to her startup or make her prove she could handle having a child and running a start-up at the same time, people went out of their way to help her.

“I was the epitome of a person not supposed to be doing a startup,” she said. “I was pregnant and would need to take care of my child. But Singularity University was supportive and encouraging. They made me feel super-included and that it was possible to do both. I continue to come back to campus even though the program is over because the network welcomes me and supports me rather than shuts me out because of my physical limitations. Rather than making me feel I had to prove myself, everyone just understood me and supported me, whether it was bringing me healthy food or recommending funders.”

Another strength that we have in supporting women is that after the Global Solutions Program, entrepreneurs have access to a much larger ecosystem.

Many entrepreneurs partake in SU Ventures, which can provide further support to startups as they develop, and we now have a larger community of over 200,000 people in almost every country. These members have often attended other Singularity University programs, events and are committed to our vision of the future. These women and men consist of business executives, Fortune 500 companies, investors, nonprofit and government leaders, technologists, members of the media, and other movers and shakers in the world. They have made introductions for our founders, collaborated with them on business ventures, invested in them and showcased their work at high profile events around the world.

Building for the Future
While our Global Solutions Program is making great strides in supporting female entrepreneurs, there is always more work to do. We are now focused on achieving the same degree of female participation across all of our programs and actively working to recruit and feature more female faculty and speakers on stage. As our community grows and scales around the world, we are also intent at how to best uphold our values and policies around sexual harassment across diverse locations and cultures. And like all businesses everywhere, we are focused on recruiting more women to serve at senior leadership levels within SU. As we make our way forward, we hope that you will join us in boldly leading this change and recognizing the genius and power of female entrepreneurs.

Meet Some of Our Female Moonshots
While we have many remarkable female entrepreneurs in the Singularity University community, the list below features a few of the women who have founded or co-founded companies at the Global Solutions Program that have launched new industries and are on their way to changing the way our world works for millions if not billions of people.

Jessica Scorpio co-founded Getaround in 2009. Getaround was one of the first car-sharing service platforms allowing anyone to rent out their car using a smartphone app. GetAround was a revolutionary idea in 2009, not only because smartphones and apps were still in their infancy, but because it was unthinkable that a technology startup could disrupt the major entrenched car, transport, and logistics companies. Scorpio’s early insights and pioneering entrepreneurial work brought to life new ways that humans relate to car sharing and the future self-driving car industry. Scorpio and Getaround have won numerous awards, and Getaround now serves over 200,000 members.

Paola Santana co-founded Matternet in 2011, which pioneered the commercial drone transport industry. In 2011, only military, hobbyists or the film industry used drones. Matternet demonstrated that drones could be used for commercial transport in short point-to-point deliveries for high-value goods laying the groundwork for drone transport around the world as well as some of the early thinking behind the future flying car industry. Santana was also instrumental in shaping regulations for the use of commercial drones around the world, making the industry possible.

Sara Naseri co-founded Qurasense in 2014, a life sciences start-up that analyzes women’s health through menstrual blood allowing women to track their health every month. Naseri is shifting our understanding of women’s menstrual blood as a waste product and something “not to be talked about,” to a rich, non-invasive, abundant source of information about women’s health.

Abi Ramanan co-founded ImpactVision in 2015, a software company that rapidly analyzes the quality and characteristics of food through hyperspectral images. Her long-term vision is to digitize food supply chains to reduce waste and fraud, given that one-third of all food is currently wasted before it reaches our plates. Ramanan is also helping the world understand that hyperspectral technology can be used in many industries to help us “see the unseen” and augment our ability to sense and understand what is happening around us in a much more sophisticated way.

Anita Schjøll Brede and Maria Ritola co-founded Iris AI in 2015, an artificial intelligence company that is building an AI research assistant that drastically improves the efficiency of R&D research and breaks down silos between different industries. Their long-term vision is for Iris AI to become smart enough that she will become a scientist herself. Fast Company named Iris AI one of the 10 most innovative artificial intelligence companies for 2017.

Hla Hla Win co-founded 360ed in 2016, a startup that conducts teacher training and student education through virtual reality and augmented reality in Myanmar. They have already connected teachers from 128 private schools in Myanmar with schools teaching 21st-century skills in Silicon Valley and around the world. Their moonshot is to build a platform where any teacher in the world can share best practices in teachers’ training. As they succeed, millions of children in some of the poorest parts of the world will have access to a 21st-century education.

Min FitzGerald and Van Duesterberg cofounded Nutrigene in 2017, a startup that ships freshly formulated, tailor-made supplement elixirs directly to consumers. Their long-term vision is to help people optimize their health using actionable data insights, so people can take a guided, tailored approaching to thriving into longevity.

Anna Skaya co-founded Basepaws in 2016, which created the first genetic test for cats and is building a community of citizen scientist pet owners. They are creating personalized pet products such as supplements, therapeutics, treats, and toys while also developing a database of genetic data for future research that will help both humans and pets over the long term.

Olivia Ramos co-founded Deep Blocks in 2016, a startup using artificial intelligence to integrate and streamline the processes of architecture, pre-construction, and real estate. As digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and robotics advance, it no longer makes sense for these industries to exist separately. Ramos recognized the tremendous value and efficiency that it is now possible to unlock with exponential technologies and creating an integrated industry in the future.

Please also visit our website to learn more about other female entrepreneurs, staff and faculty who are pioneering the future through exponential technologies. Continue reading

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#431920 If We Could Engineer Animals to Be as ...

Advances in neural implants and genetic engineering suggest that in the not–too–distant future we may be able to boost human intelligence. If that’s true, could we—and should we—bring our animal cousins along for the ride?
Human brain augmentation made headlines last year after several tech firms announced ambitious efforts to build neural implant technology. Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev told me in July it could be decades before these devices have applications beyond the strictly medical.
But he said the technology, as well as other pharmacological and genetic engineering approaches, will almost certainly allow us to boost our mental capacities at some point in the next few decades.
Whether this kind of cognitive enhancement is a good idea or not, and how we should regulate it, are matters of heated debate among philosophers, futurists, and bioethicists, but for some it has raised the question of whether we could do the same for animals.
There’s already tantalizing evidence of the idea’s feasibility. As detailed in BBC Future, a group from MIT found that mice that were genetically engineered to express the human FOXP2 gene linked to learning and speech processing picked up maze routes faster. Another group at Wake Forest University studying Alzheimer’s found that neural implants could boost rhesus monkeys’ scores on intelligence tests.
The concept of “animal uplift” is most famously depicted in the Planet of the Apes movie series, whose planet–conquering protagonists are likely to put most people off the idea. But proponents are less pessimistic about the outcomes.
Science fiction author David Brin popularized the concept in his “Uplift” series of novels, in which humans share the world with various other intelligent animals that all bring their own unique skills, perspectives, and innovations to the table. “The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing,” he told Scientific American.
Others, like George Dvorsky, the director of the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, go further and claim there is a moral imperative. He told the Boston Globe that denying augmentation technology to animals would be just as unethical as excluding certain groups of humans.
Others are less convinced. Forbes’ Alex Knapp points out that developing the technology to uplift animals will likely require lots of very invasive animal research that will cause huge suffering to the animals it purports to help. This is problematic enough with normal animals, but could be even more morally dubious when applied to ones whose cognitive capacities have been enhanced.
The whole concept could also be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Humans are prone to seeing intelligence as a single, self-contained metric that progresses in a linear way with humans at the pinnacle.
In an opinion piece in Wired arguing against the likelihood of superhuman artificial intelligence, Kevin Kelly points out that science has no such single dimension with which to rank the intelligence of different species. Each one combines a bundle of cognitive capabilities, some of which are well below our own capabilities and others which are superhuman. He uses the example of the squirrel, which can remember the precise location of thousands of acorns for years.
Uplift efforts may end up being less about boosting intelligence and more about making animals more human-like. That represents “a kind of benevolent colonialism” that assumes being more human-like is a good thing, Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, told the Boston Globe. There’s scant evidence that’s the case, and it’s easy to see how a chimpanzee with the mind of a human might struggle to adjust.
There are also fundamental barriers that may make it difficult to achieve human-level cognitive capabilities in animals, no matter how advanced brain augmentation technology gets. In 2013 Swedish researchers selectively bred small fish called guppies for bigger brains. This made them smarter, but growing the energy-intensive organ meant the guppies developed smaller guts and produced fewer offspring to compensate.
This highlights the fact that uplifting animals may require more than just changes to their brains, possibly a complete rewiring of their physiology that could prove far more technically challenging than human brain augmentation.
Our intelligence is intimately tied to our evolutionary history—our brains are bigger than other animals’; opposable thumbs allow us to use tools; our vocal chords make complex communication possible. No matter how much you augment a cow’s brain, it still couldn’t use a screwdriver or talk to you in English because it simply doesn’t have the machinery.
Finally, from a purely selfish point of view, even if it does become possible to create a level playing field between us and other animals, it may not be a smart move for humanity. There’s no reason to assume animals would be any more benevolent than we are, having evolved in the same ‘survival of the fittest’ crucible that we have. And given our already endless capacity to divide ourselves along national, religious, or ethnic lines, conflict between species seems inevitable.
We’re already likely to face considerable competition from smart machines in the coming decades if you believe the hype around AI. So maybe adding a few more intelligent species to the mix isn’t the best idea.
Image Credit: Ron Meijer / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#431900 Artificial muscles power up with new ...

Scientists are one step closer to artificial muscles. Orthotics have come a long way since their initial wood and strap designs, yet innovation lapsed when it came to compensating for muscle power—until now. A collaborative research team has designed a wearable robot to support a person's hip joint while walking. The team, led by Minoru Hashimoto, a professor of textile science and technology at Shinshu University in Japan, published the details of their prototype in Smart Materials and Structures, a journal published by the Institute of Physics. Continue reading

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#431873 Why the World Is Still Getting ...

If you read or watch the news, you’ll likely think the world is falling to pieces. Trends like terrorism, climate change, and a growing population straining the planet’s finite resources can easily lead you to think our world is in crisis.
But there’s another story, a story the news doesn’t often report. This story is backed by data, and it says we’re actually living in the most peaceful, abundant time in history, and things are likely to continue getting better.
The News vs. the Data
The reality that’s often clouded by a constant stream of bad news is we’re actually seeing a massive drop in poverty, fewer deaths from violent crime and preventable diseases. On top of that, we’re the most educated populace to ever walk the planet.
“Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceful era in the existence of our species.” –Steven Pinker
In the last hundred years, we’ve seen the average human life expectancy nearly double, the global GDP per capita rise exponentially, and childhood mortality drop 10-fold.

That’s pretty good progress! Maybe the world isn’t all gloom and doom.If you’re still not convinced the world is getting better, check out the charts in this article from Vox and on Peter Diamandis’ website for a lot more data.
Abundance for All Is Possible
So now that you know the world isn’t so bad after all, here’s another thing to think about: it can get much better, very soon.
In their book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis suggest it may be possible for us to meet and even exceed the basic needs of all the people living on the planet today.
“In the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.”
This means making sure every single person in the world has adequate food, water and shelter, as well as a good education, access to healthcare, and personal freedom.
This might seem unimaginable, especially if you tend to think the world is only getting worse. But given how much progress we’ve already made in the last few hundred years, coupled with the recent explosion of information sharing and new, powerful technologies, abundance for all is not as out of reach as you might believe.
Throughout history, we’ve seen that in the hands of smart and driven innovators, science and technology take things which were once scarce and make them abundant and accessible to all.
Napoleon III
In Abundance, Diamandis and Kotler tell the story of how aluminum went from being one of the rarest metals on the planet to being one of the most abundant…
In the 1800s, aluminum was more valuable than silver and gold because it was rarer. So when Napoleon III entertained the King of Siam, the king and his guests were honored by being given aluminum utensils, while the rest of the dinner party ate with gold.
But aluminum is not really rare.
In fact, aluminum is the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 8.3% of the weight of our planet. But it wasn’t until chemists Charles Martin Hall and Paul Héroult discovered how to use electrolysis to cheaply separate aluminum from surrounding materials that the element became suddenly abundant.
The problems keeping us from achieving a world where everyone’s basic needs are met may seem like resource problems — when in reality, many are accessibility problems.
The Engine Driving Us Toward Abundance: Exponential Technology
History is full of examples like the aluminum story. The most powerful one of the last few decades is information technology. Think about all the things that computers and the internet made abundant that were previously far less accessible because of cost or availability … Here are just a few examples:

Easy access to the world’s information
Ability to share information freely with anyone and everyone
Free/cheap long-distance communication
Buying and selling goods/services regardless of location

Less than two decades ago, when someone reached a certain level of economic stability, they could spend somewhere around $10K on stereos, cameras, entertainment systems, etc — today, we have all that equipment in the palm of our hand.
Now, there is a new generation of technologies heavily dependant on information technology and, therefore, similarly riding the wave of exponential growth. When put to the right use, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing, nano-materials and digital biology make it possible for us to drastically raise the standard of living for every person on the planet.

These are just some of the innovations which are unlocking currently scarce resources:

IBM’s Watson Health is being trained and used in medical facilities like the Cleveland Clinic to help doctors diagnose disease. In the future, it’s likely we’ll trust AI just as much, if not more than humans to diagnose disease, allowing people all over the world to have access to great diagnostic tools regardless of whether there is a well-trained doctor near them.

Solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels in some parts of the world, and with advances in new materials and storage, the cost may decrease further. This could eventually lead to nearly-free, clean energy for people across the world.

Google’s GMNT network can now translate languages as well as a human, unlocking the ability for people to communicate globally as we never have before.

Self-driving cars are already on the roads of several American cities and will be coming to a road near you in the next couple years. Considering the average American spends nearly two hours driving every day, not having to drive would free up an increasingly scarce resource: time.

The Change-Makers
Today’s innovators can create enormous change because they have these incredible tools—which would have once been available only to big organizations—at their fingertips. And, as a result of our hyper-connected world, there is an unprecedented ability for people across the planet to work together to create solutions to some of our most pressing problems today.
“In today’s hyperlinked world, solving problems anywhere, solves problems everywhere.” –Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance
According to Diamandis and Kotler, there are three groups of people accelerating positive change.

DIY InnovatorsIn the 1970s and 1980s, the Homebrew Computer Club was a meeting place of “do-it-yourself” computer enthusiasts who shared ideas and spare parts. By the 1990s and 2000s, that little club became known as an inception point for the personal computer industry — dozens of companies, including Apple Computer, can directly trace their origins back to Homebrew. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of the social entrepreneur, the Maker Movement and the DIY Bio movement, which have similar ambitions to democratize social reform, manufacturing, and biology, the way Homebrew democratized computers. These are the people who look for new opportunities and aren’t afraid to take risks to create something new that will change the status-quo.
Techno-PhilanthropistsUnlike the robber barons of the 19th and early 20th centuries, today’s “techno-philanthropists” are not just giving away some of their wealth for a new museum, they are using their wealth to solve global problems and investing in social entrepreneurs aiming to do the same. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given away at least $28 billion, with a strong focus on ending diseases like polio, malaria, and measles for good. Jeff Skoll, after cashing out of eBay with $2 billion in 1998, went on to create the Skoll Foundation, which funds social entrepreneurs across the world. And last year, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan pledged to give away 99% of their $46 billion in Facebook stock during their lifetimes.
The Rising BillionCisco estimates that by 2020, there will be 4.1 billion people connected to the internet, up from 3 billion in 2015. This number might even be higher, given the efforts of companies like Facebook, Google, Virgin Group, and SpaceX to bring internet access to the world. That’s a billion new people in the next several years who will be connected to the global conversation, looking to learn, create and better their own lives and communities.In his book, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C.K. Pahalad writes that finding co-creative ways to serve this rising market can help lift people out of poverty while creating viable businesses for inventive companies.

The Path to Abundance
Eager to create change, innovators armed with powerful technologies can accomplish incredible feats. Kotler and Diamandis imagine that the path to abundance occurs in three tiers:

Basic Needs (food, water, shelter)
Tools of Growth (energy, education, access to information)
Ideal Health and Freedom

Of course, progress doesn’t always happen in a straight, logical way, but having a framework to visualize the needs is helpful.
Many people don’t believe it’s possible to end the persistent global problems we’re facing. However, looking at history, we can see many examples where technological tools have unlocked resources that previously seemed scarce.
Technological solutions are not always the answer, and we need social change and policy solutions as much as we need technology solutions. But we have seen time and time again, that powerful tools in the hands of innovative, driven change-makers can make the seemingly impossible happen.

You can download the full “Path to Abundance” infographic here. It was created under a CC BY-NC-ND license. If you share, please attribute to Singularity University.
Image Credit: janez volmajer / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#431689 Robotic Materials Will Distribute ...

The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
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