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Few recognize the vast implications of materials science.
To build today’s smartphone in the 1980s, it would cost about $110 million, require nearly 200 kilowatts of energy (compared to 2kW per year today), and the device would be 14 meters tall, according to Applied Materials CTO Omkaram Nalamasu.
That’s the power of materials advances. Materials science has democratized smartphones, bringing the technology to the pockets of over 3.5 billion people. But far beyond devices and circuitry, materials science stands at the center of innumerable breakthroughs across energy, future cities, transit, and medicine. And at the forefront of Covid-19, materials scientists are forging ahead with biomaterials, nanotechnology, and other materials research to accelerate a solution.
As the name suggests, materials science is the branch devoted to the discovery and development of new materials. It’s an outgrowth of both physics and chemistry, using the periodic table as its grocery store and the laws of physics as its cookbook.
And today, we are in the middle of a materials science revolution. In this article, we’ll unpack the most important materials advancements happening now.
Let’s dive in.
The Materials Genome Initiative
In June 2011 at Carnegie Mellon University, President Obama announced the Materials Genome Initiative, a nationwide effort to use open source methods and AI to double the pace of innovation in materials science. Obama felt this acceleration was critical to the US’s global competitiveness, and held the key to solving significant challenges in clean energy, national security, and human welfare. And it worked.
By using AI to map the hundreds of millions of different possible combinations of elements—hydrogen, boron, lithium, carbon, etc.—the initiative created an enormous database that allows scientists to play a kind of improv jazz with the periodic table.
This new map of the physical world lets scientists combine elements faster than ever before and is helping them create all sorts of novel elements. And an array of new fabrication tools are further amplifying this process, allowing us to work at altogether new scales and sizes, including the atomic scale, where we’re now building materials one atom at a time.
Biggest Materials Science Breakthroughs
These tools have helped create the metamaterials used in carbon fiber composites for lighter-weight vehicles, advanced alloys for more durable jet engines, and biomaterials to replace human joints. We’re also seeing breakthroughs in energy storage and quantum computing. In robotics, new materials are helping us create the artificial muscles needed for humanoid, soft robots—think Westworld in your world.
Let’s unpack some of the leading materials science breakthroughs of the past decade.
(1) Lithium-ion batteries
The lithium-ion battery, which today powers everything from our smartphones to our autonomous cars, was first proposed in the 1970s. It couldn’t make it to market until the 1990s, and didn’t begin to reach maturity until the past few years.
An exponential technology, these batteries have been dropping in price for three decades, plummeting 90 percent between 1990 and 2010, and 80 percent since. Concurrently, they’ve seen an eleven-fold increase in capacity.
But producing enough of them to meet demand has been an ongoing problem. Tesla has stepped up to the challenge: one of the company’s Gigafactories in Nevada churns out 20 gigawatts of energy storage per year, marking the first time we’ve seen lithium-ion batteries produced at scale.
Musk predicts 100 Gigafactories could store the energy needs of the entire globe. Other companies are moving quickly to integrate this technology as well: Renault is building a home energy storage based on their Zoe batteries, BMW’s 500 i3 battery packs are being integrated into the UK’s national energy grid, and Toyota, Nissan, and Audi have all announced pilot projects.
Lithium-ion batteries will continue to play a major role in renewable energy storage, helping bring down solar and wind energy prices to compete with those of coal and gasoline.
Derived from the same graphite found in everyday pencils, graphene is a sheet of carbon just one atom thick. It is nearly weightless, but 200 times stronger than steel. Conducting electricity and dissipating heat faster than any other known substance, this super-material has transformative applications.
Graphene enables sensors, high-performance transistors, and even gel that helps neurons communicate in the spinal cord. Many flexible device screens, drug delivery systems, 3D printers, solar panels, and protective fabric use graphene.
As manufacturing costs decrease, this material has the power to accelerate advancements of all kinds.
Right now, the “conversion efficiency” of the average solar panel—a measure of how much captured sunlight can be turned into electricity—hovers around 16 percent, at a cost of roughly $3 per watt.
Perovskite, a light-sensitive crystal and one of our newer new materials, has the potential to get that up to 66 percent, which would double what silicon panels can muster.
Perovskite’s ingredients are widely available and inexpensive to combine. What do all these factors add up to? Affordable solar energy for everyone.
Materials of the Nano-World
Nanotechnology is the outer edge of materials science, the point where matter manipulation gets nano-small—that’s a million times smaller than an ant, 8,000 times smaller than a red blood cell, and 2.5 times smaller than a strand of DNA.
Nanobots are machines that can be directed to produce more of themselves, or more of whatever else you’d like. And because this takes place at an atomic scale, these nanobots can pull apart any kind of material—soil, water, air—atom by atom, and use these now raw materials to construct just about anything.
Progress has been surprisingly swift in the nano-world, with a bevy of nano-products now on the market. Never want to fold clothes again? Nanoscale additives to fabrics help them resist wrinkling and staining. Don’t do windows? Not a problem! Nano-films make windows self-cleaning, anti-reflective, and capable of conducting electricity. Want to add solar to your house? We’ve got nano-coatings that capture the sun’s energy.
Nanomaterials make lighter automobiles, airplanes, baseball bats, helmets, bicycles, luggage, power tools—the list goes on. Researchers at Harvard built a nanoscale 3D printer capable of producing miniature batteries less than one millimeter wide. And if you don’t like those bulky VR goggles, researchers are now using nanotech to create smart contact lenses with a resolution six times greater than that of today’s smartphones.
And even more is coming. Right now, in medicine, drug delivery nanobots are proving especially useful in fighting cancer. Computing is a stranger story, as a bioengineer at Harvard recently stored 700 terabytes of data in a single gram of DNA.
On the environmental front, scientists can take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into super-strong carbon nanofibers for use in manufacturing. If we can do this at scale—powered by solar—a system one-tenth the size of the Sahara Desert could reduce CO2 in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels in about a decade.
The applications are endless. And coming fast. Over the next decade, the impact of the very, very small is about to get very, very large.
With the help of artificial intelligence and quantum computing over the next decade, the discovery of new materials will accelerate exponentially.
And with these new discoveries, customized materials will grow commonplace. Future knee implants will be personalized to meet the exact needs of each body, both in terms of structure and composition.
Though invisible to the naked eye, nanoscale materials will integrate into our everyday lives, seamlessly improving medicine, energy, smartphones, and more.
Ultimately, the path to demonetization and democratization of advanced technologies starts with re-designing materials— the invisible enabler and catalyst. Our future depends on the materials we create.
(Note: This article is an excerpt from The Future Is Faster Than You Think—my new book, just released on January 28th! To get your own copy, click here!)
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This article originally appeared on diamandis.com. Read the original article here.
Image Credit: Anand Kumar from Pixabay Continue reading
Penicillin, one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine, was a product of chance.
After returning from summer vacation in September 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming found a colony of bacteria he’d left in his London lab had sprouted a fungus. Curiously, wherever the bacteria contacted the fungus, their cell walls broke down and they died. Fleming guessed the fungus was secreting something lethal to the bacteria—and the rest is history.
Fleming’s discovery of penicillin and its later isolation, synthesis, and scaling in the 1940s released a flood of antibiotic discoveries in the next few decades. Bacteria and fungi had been waging an ancient war against each other, and the weapons they’d evolved over eons turned out to be humanity’s best defense against bacterial infection and disease.
In recent decades, however, the flood of new antibiotics has slowed to a trickle.
Their development is uneconomical for drug companies, and the low-hanging fruit has long been picked. We’re now facing the emergence of strains of super bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics and an aging arsenal to fight them with. Gone unchallenged, an estimated 700,000 deaths worldwide due to drug resistance could rise to as many as 10 million in 2050.
Increasingly, scientists warn the tide is turning, and we need a new strategy to keep pace with the remarkably quick and boundlessly creative tactics of bacterial evolution.
But where the golden age of antibiotics was sparked by serendipity, human intelligence, and natural molecular weapons, its sequel may lean on the uncanny eye of artificial intelligence to screen millions of compounds—and even design new ones—in search of the next penicillin.
Hal Discovers a Powerful Antibiotic
In a paper published this week in the journal, Cell, MIT researchers took a step in this direction. The team says their machine learning algorithm discovered a powerful new antibiotic.
Named for the AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the antibiotic, halicin, successfully wiped out dozens of bacterial strains, including some of the most dangerous drug-resistant bacteria on the World Health Organization’s most wanted list. The bacteria also failed to develop resistance to E. coli during a month of observation, in stark contrast to existing antibiotic ciprofloxacin.
“In terms of antibiotic discovery, this is absolutely a first,” Regina Barzilay, a senior author on the study and computer science professor at MIT, told The Guardian.
The algorithm that discovered halicin was trained on the molecular features of 2,500 compounds. Nearly half were FDA-approved drugs, and another 800 naturally occurring. The researchers specifically tuned the algorithm to look for molecules with antibiotic properties but whose structures would differ from existing antibiotics (as halicin’s does). Using another machine learning program, they screened the results for those likely to be safe for humans.
Early study suggests halicin attacks the bacteria’s cell membranes, disrupting their ability to produce energy. Protecting the cell membrane from halicin might take more than one or two genetic mutations, which could account for its impressive ability to prevent resistance.
“I think this is one of the more powerful antibiotics that has been discovered to date,” James Collins, an MIT professor of bioengineering and senior author told The Guardian. “It has remarkable activity against a broad range of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.”
Beyond tests in petri-dish bacterial colonies, the team also tested halicin in mice. The antibiotic cleared up infections of a strain of bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics in a day. The team plans further study in partnership with a pharmaceutical company or nonprofit, and they hope to eventually prove it safe and effective for use in humans.
This last bit remains the trickiest step, given the cost of getting a new drug approved. But Collins hopes algorithms like theirs will help. “We could dramatically reduce the cost required to get through clinical trials,” he told the Financial Times.
A Universe of Drugs Awaits
The bigger story may be what happens next.
How many novel antibiotics await discovery, and how far can AI screening take us? The initial 6,000 compounds scanned by Barzilay and Collins’s team is a drop in the bucket.
They’ve already begun digging deeper by setting the algorithm loose on 100 million molecules from an online library of 1.5 billion compounds called the ZINC15 database. This first search took three days and turned up 23 more candidates that, like halicin, differ structurally from existing antibiotics and may be safe for humans. Two of these—which the team will study further—appear to be especially powerful.
Even more ambitiously, Barzilay hopes the approach can find or even design novel antibiotics that kill bad bacteria with alacrity while sparing the good guys. In this way, a round of antibiotics would cure whatever ails you without taking out your whole gut microbiome in the process.
All this is part of a larger movement to use machine learning algorithms in the long, expensive process of drug discovery. Other players in the area are also training AI on the vast possibility space of drug-like compounds. Last fall, one of the leaders in the area, Insilico, was challenged by a partner to see just how fast their method could do the job. The company turned out a new a proof-of-concept drug candidate in only 46 days.
The field is still developing, however, and it has yet to be seen exactly how valuable these approaches will be in practice. Barzilay is optimistic though.
“There is still a question of whether machine-learning tools are really doing something intelligent in healthcare, and how we can develop them to be workhorses in the pharmaceuticals industry,” she said. “This shows how far you can adapt this tool.”
Image Credit: Halicin (top row) prevented the development of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, while ciprofloxacin (bottom row) did not. Collins Lab at MIT Continue reading
When mobile manipulators eventually make it into our homes, self-repair is going to be a very important function. Hopefully, these robots will be durable enough that they won’t need to be repaired very often, but from time to time they’ll almost certainly need minor maintenance. At Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, researchers from the University of Tokyo showed how they taught a PR2 to perform simple repairs on itself by tightening its own screws. And using that skill, the robot was also able to augment itself, adding accessories like hooks to help it carry more stuff. Clever robot!
To keep things simple, the researchers provided the robot with CAD data that tells it exactly where all of its screws are.
At the moment, the robot can’t directly detect on its own whether a particular screw needs tightening, although it can tell if its physical pose doesn’t match its digital model, which suggests that something has gone wonky. It can also check its screws autonomously from time to time, or rely on a human physically pointing out that it has a screw loose, using the human’s finger location to identify which screw it is. Another challenge is that most robots, like most humans, are limited in the areas on themselves that they can comfortably reach. So to tighten up everything, they might have to find themselves a robot friend to help, just like humans help each other put on sunblock.
The actual tightening is either super easy or quite complicated, depending on the location and orientation of the screw. If the robot is lucky, it can just use its continuous wrist rotation for tightening, but if a screw is located in a tight position that requires an Allen wrench, the robot has to regrasp the tool over and over as it incrementally tightens the screw.
Image: University of Tokyo
In one experiment, the researchers taught a PR2 robot to attach a hook to one of its shoulders. The robot uses one hand to grasp the hook and another hand to grasp a screwdriver. The researchers tested the hook by hanging a tote bag on it.
The other neat trick that a robot can do once it can tighten screws on its own body is to add new bits of hardware to itself. PR2 was thoughtfully designed with mounting points on its shoulders (or maybe technically its neck) and head, and it turns out that it can reach these points with its manipulators, allowing to modify itself, as the researchers explain:
When PR2 wants to have a lot of things, the only two hands are not enough to realize that. So we let PR2 to use a bag the same as we put it on our shoulder. PR2 started attaching the hook whose pose is calculated with self CAD data with a driver on his shoulder in order to put a bag on his shoulder. PR2 finished attaching the hook, and the people put a lot of cans in a tote bag and put it on PR2’s shoulder.
“Self-Repair and Self-Extension by Tightening Screws based on Precise Calculation of Screw Pose of Self-Body with CAD Data and Graph Search with Regrasping a Driver,” by Takayuki Murooka, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, was presented at Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, Canada. Continue reading
Welcome to the eighth edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide!
This year we’re featuring 15 robotic products that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. As always, we tried to include a broad range of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on items released this year. (A reminder: While we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of research may result in better deals.)
If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and might be way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And if you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment below to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.
What makes robots so compelling is their autonomy, and the Skydio 2 is one of the most autonomous robots we’ve ever seen. It uses an array of cameras to map its environment and avoid obstacles in real-time, making flight safe and effortless and enabling the kinds of shots that would be impossible otherwise. Seriously, this thing is magical, and it’s amazing that you can actually buy one.
UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2
The Jimu MeeBot 2.0 from UBTECH is a STEM education robot designed to be easy to build and program. It includes six servo motors, a color sensor, and LED lights. An app for iPhone or iPad provides step-by-step 3D instructions, and helps you code different behaviors for the robot. It’s available exclusively from Apple.
iRobot Roomba s9+
We know that $1,400 is a crazy amount of money to spend on a robot vacuum, but the Roomba s9+ is a crazy robot vacuum. As if all of its sensors and mapping intelligence wasn’t enough, it empties itself, which means that you can have your floors vacuumed every single day for a month and you don’t have to even think about it. This is what home robots are supposed to be.
Photo: Piaggio Fast Forward
Nobody likes carrying things, which is why Gita is perfect for everyone with an extra $3,000 lying around. Developed by Piaggio Fast Forward, this autonomous robot will follow you around with a cargo hold full of your most important stuff, and do it in a way guaranteed to attract as much attention as possible.
DJI Mavic Mini
It’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it takes good pictures—what more could you ask for from a drone? And for $400, this is an excellent drone to get if you’re on a budget and comfortable with manual flight. Keep in mind that while the Mavic Mini is small enough that you don’t need to register it with the FAA, you do still need to follow all the same rules and regulations.
LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander
Designed for kids ages 8+, this LEGO set includes more than 1,000 pieces, enough to build three different droids: R2-D2, Gonk Droid, and Mouse Droid. Using a Bluetooth-controlled robotic brick called Move Hub, which connects to the LEGO BOOST Star Wars app, kids can change how the robots behave and solve challenges, learning basic robotics and coding skills.
Robot pets don’t get much more sophisticated (or expensive) than Sony’s Aibo. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the most complex consumer robots you can buy, and Sony continues to add to Aibo’s software. Recent new features include user programmability, and the ability to “feed” it.
$2,900 (free aibone and paw pads until 12/29/2019)
Neato Botvac D4 Connected
The Neato Botvac D4 may not have all of the features of its fancier and more expensive siblings, but it does have the features that you probably care the most about: The ability to make maps of its environment for intelligent cleaning (using lasers!), along with user-defined no-go lines that keep it where you want it. And it cleans quite well, too.
$530 $350 (sale)
Cubelets Curiosity Set
Photo: Modular Robotics
Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The newest set, called Curiosity, is designed for kids ages 4+ and comes with 10 robotic cubes. These include light and distance sensors, motors, and a Bluetooth module, which connects the robot constructions to the Cubelets app.
Photo: Franklin Robotics
Tertill does one simple job: It weeds your garden. It’s waterproof, dirt proof, solar powered, and fully autonomous, meaning that you can leave it out in your garden all summer and just enjoy eating your plants rather than taking care of them.
Root was originally developed by Harvard University as a tool to help kids progressively learn to code. iRobot has taken over Root and is now supporting the curriculum, which starts for kids before they even know how to read and should keep them busy for years afterwards.
Let’s be honest: Nobody is really quite sure what LOVOT is. We can all agree that it’s kinda cute, though. And kinda weird. But cute. Created by Japanese robotics startup Groove X, LOVOT does have a whole bunch of tech packed into its bizarre little body and it will do its best to get you to love it.
RVR is a rugged, versatile, easy to program mobile robot. It’s a development platform designed to be a bridge between educational robots like Sphero and more sophisticated and expensive systems like Misty. It’s mostly affordable, very expandable, and comes from a company with a lot of experience making robots.
“How to Train Your Robot”
Image: Lawrence Hall of Science
Aimed at 4th and 5th graders, “How to Train Your Robot,” written by Blooma Goldberg, Ken Goldberg, and Ashley Chase, and illustrated by Dave Clegg, is a perfect introduction to robotics for kids who want to get started with designing and building robots. But the book isn’t just for beginners: It’s also a fun, inspiring read for kids who are already into robotics and want to go further—it even introduces concepts like computer simulations and deep learning. You can download a free digital copy or request hardcopies here.
MIT Mini Cheetah
Yes, Boston Dynamics’ Spot, now available for lease, is probably the world’s most famous quadruped, but MIT is starting to pump out Mini Cheetahs en masse for researchers, and while we’re not exactly sure how you’d manage to get one of these things short of stealing one directly for MIT, a Mini Cheetah is our fantasy robotics gift this year. Mini Cheetah looks like a ton of fun—it’s portable, highly dynamic, super rugged, and easy to control. We want one!
MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide. Continue reading