Tag Archives: thought

#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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Posted in Human Robots

#435046 The Challenge of Abundance: Boredom, ...

As technology continues to progress, the possibility of an abundant future seems more likely. Artificial intelligence is expected to drive down the cost of labor, infrastructure, and transport. Alternative energy systems are reducing the cost of a wide variety of goods. Poverty rates are falling around the world as more people are able to make a living, and resources that were once inaccessible to millions are becoming widely available.

But such a life presents fuel for the most common complaint against abundance: if robots take all the jobs, basic income provides us livable welfare for doing nothing, and healthcare is a guarantee free of charge, then what is the point of our lives? What would motivate us to work and excel if there are no real risks or rewards? If everything is simply given to us, how would we feel like we’ve ever earned anything?

Time has proven that humans inherently yearn to overcome challenges—in fact, this very desire likely exists as the root of most technological innovation. And the idea that struggling makes us stronger isn’t just anecdotal, it’s scientifically validated.

For instance, kids who use anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers too often tend to develop weak immune systems, causing them to get sick more frequently and more severely. People who work out purposely suffer through torn muscles so that after a few days of healing their muscles are stronger. And when patients visit a psychologist to handle a fear that is derailing their lives, one of the most common treatments is exposure therapy: a slow increase of exposure to the suffering so that the patient gets stronger and braver each time, able to take on an incrementally more potent manifestation of their fears.

Different Kinds of Struggle
It’s not hard to understand why people might fear an abundant future as a terribly mundane one. But there is one crucial mistake made in this assumption, and it was well summarized by Indian mystic and author Sadhguru, who said during a recent talk at Google:

Stomach empty, only one problem. Stomach full—one hundred problems; because what we refer to as human really begins only after survival is taken care of.

This idea is backed up by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was first presented in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow shows the steps required to build to higher and higher levels of the human experience. Not surprisingly, the first two levels deal with physiological needs and the need for safety—in other words, with the body. You need to have food, water, and sleep, or you die. After that, you need to be protected from threats, from the elements, from dangerous people, and from disease and pain.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Photo by Wikimedia User:Factoryjoe / CC BY-SA 3.0
The beauty of these first two levels is that they’re clear-cut problems with clear-cut solutions: if you’re hungry, then you eat; if you’re thirsty, then you drink; if you’re tired, then you sleep.

But what about the next tiers of the hierarchy? What of love and belonging, of self-esteem and self-actualization? If we’re lonely, can we just summon up an authentic friend or lover? If we feel neglected by society, can we demand it validate us? If we feel discouraged and disappointed in ourselves, can we simply dial up some confidence and self-esteem?

Of course not, and that’s because these psychological needs are nebulous; they don’t contain clear problems with clear solutions. They involve the external world and other people, and are complicated by the infinite flavors of nuance and compromise that are required to navigate human relationships and personal meaning.

These psychological difficulties are where we grow our personalities, outlooks, and beliefs. The truly defining characteristics of a person are dictated not by the physical situations they were forced into—like birth, socioeconomic class, or physical ailment—but instead by the things they choose. So a future of abundance helps to free us from the physical limitations so that we can truly commit to a life of purpose and meaning, rather than just feel like survival is our purpose.

The Greatest Challenge
And that’s the plot twist. This challenge to come to grips with our own individuality and freedom could actually be the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. Can you imagine waking up every day with infinite possibility? Every choice you make says no to the rest of reality, and so every decision carries with it truly life-defining purpose and meaning. That sounds overwhelming. And that’s probably because in our current socio-economic systems, it is.

Studies have shown that people in wealthier nations tend to experience more anxiety and depression. Ron Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard and World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, summarized his findings of global mental health by saying, “When you’re literally trying to survive, who has time for depression? Americans, on the other hand, many of whom lead relatively comfortable lives, blow other nations away in the depression factor, leading some to suggest that depression is a ‘luxury disorder.’”

This might explain why America scores in the top rankings for the most depressed and anxious country on the planet. We surpassed our survival needs, and instead became depressed because our jobs and relationships don’t fulfill our expectations for the next three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (belonging, esteem, and self-actualization).

But a future of abundance would mean we’d have to deal with these levels. This is the challenge for the future; this is what keeps things from being mundane.

As a society, we would be forced to come to grips with our emotional intelligence, to reckon with philosophy rather than simply contemplate it. Nearly every person you meet will be passionately on their own customized life journey, not following a routine simply because of financial limitations. Such a world seems far more vibrant and interesting than one where most wander sleep-deprived and numb while attempting to survive the rat race.

We can already see the forceful hand of this paradigm shift as self-driving cars become ubiquitous. For example, consider the famous psychological and philosophical “trolley problem.” In this thought experiment, a person sees a trolley car heading towards five people on the train tracks; they see a lever that will allow them to switch the trolley car to a track that instead only has one person on it. Do you switch the lever and have a hand in killing one person, or do you let fate continue and kill five people instead?

For the longest time, this was just an interesting quandary to consider. But now, massive corporations have to have an answer, so they can program their self-driving cars with the ability to choose between hitting a kid who runs into the road or swerving into an oncoming car carrying a family of five. When companies need philosophers to make business decisions, it’s a good sign of what’s to come.

Luckily, it’s possible this forceful reckoning with philosophy and our own consciousness may be exactly what humanity needs. Perhaps our great failure as a species has been a result of advanced cognition still trapped in the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy due to a long history of scarcity.

As suggested in the opening scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, our ape-like proclivity for violence has long stayed the same while the technology we fight with and live amongst has progressed. So while well-off Americans may have comfortable lives, they still know they live in a system where there is no safety net, where a single tragic failure could still mean hunger and homelessness. And because of this, that evolutionarily hard-wired neurotic part of our brain that fears for our survival has never been able to fully relax, and so that anxiety and depression that come with too much freedom but not enough security stays ever present.

Not only might this shift in consciousness help liberate humanity, but it may be vital if we’re to survive our future creations as well. Whatever values we hold dear as a species are the ones we will imbue into the sentient robots we create. If machine learning is going to take its guidance from humanity, we need to level up humanity’s emotional maturity.

While the physical struggles of the future may indeed fall to the wayside amongst abundance, it’s unlikely to become a mundane world; instead, it will become a vibrant culture where each individual is striving against the most important struggle that affects all of us: the challenge to find inner peace, to find fulfillment, to build meaningful relationships, and ultimately, the challenge to find ourselves.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434854 New Lifelike Biomaterial Self-Reproduces ...

Life demands flux.

Every living organism is constantly changing: cells divide and die, proteins build and disintegrate, DNA breaks and heals. Life demands metabolism—the simultaneous builder and destroyer of living materials—to continuously upgrade our bodies. That’s how we heal and grow, how we propagate and survive.

What if we could endow cold, static, lifeless robots with the gift of metabolism?

In a study published this month in Science Robotics, an international team developed a DNA-based method that gives raw biomaterials an artificial metabolism. Dubbed DASH—DNA-based assembly and synthesis of hierarchical materials—the method automatically generates “slime”-like nanobots that dynamically move and navigate their environments.

Like humans, the artificial lifelike material used external energy to constantly change the nanobots’ bodies in pre-programmed ways, recycling their DNA-based parts as both waste and raw material for further use. Some “grew” into the shape of molecular double-helixes; others “wrote” the DNA letters inside micro-chips.

The artificial life forms were also rather “competitive”—in quotes, because these molecular machines are not conscious. Yet when pitted against each other, two DASH bots automatically raced forward, crawling in typical slime-mold fashion at a scale easily seen under the microscope—and with some iterations, with the naked human eye.

“Fundamentally, we may be able to change how we create and use the materials with lifelike characteristics. Typically materials and objects we create in general are basically static… one day, we may be able to ‘grow’ objects like houses and maintain their forms and functions autonomously,” said study author Dr. Shogo Hamada to Singularity Hub.

“This is a great study that combines the versatility of DNA nanotechnology with the dynamics of living materials,” said Dr. Job Boekhoven at the Technical University of Munich, who was not involved in the work.

Dissipative Assembly
The study builds on previous ideas on how to make molecular Lego blocks that essentially assemble—and destroy—themselves.

Although the inspiration came from biological metabolism, scientists have long hoped to cut their reliance on nature. At its core, metabolism is just a bunch of well-coordinated chemical reactions, programmed by eons of evolution. So why build artificial lifelike materials still tethered by evolution when we can use chemistry to engineer completely new forms of artificial life?

Back in 2015, for example, a team led by Boekhoven described a way to mimic how our cells build their internal “structural beams,” aptly called the cytoskeleton. The key here, unlike many processes in nature, isn’t balance or equilibrium; rather, the team engineered an extremely unstable system that automatically builds—and sustains—assemblies from molecular building blocks when given an external source of chemical energy.

Sound familiar? The team basically built molecular devices that “die” without “food.” Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics (hey ya, Newton!), that energy eventually dissipates, and the shapes automatically begin to break down, completing an artificial “circle of life.”

The new study took the system one step further: rather than just mimicking synthesis, they completed the circle by coupling the building process with dissipative assembly.

Here, the “assembling units themselves are also autonomously created from scratch,” said Hamada.

DNA Nanobots
The process of building DNA nanobots starts on a microfluidic chip.

Decades of research have allowed researchers to optimize DNA assembly outside the body. With the help of catalysts, which help “bind” individual molecules together, the team found that they could easily alter the shape of the self-assembling DNA bots—which formed fiber-like shapes—by changing the structure of the microfluidic chambers.

Computer simulations played a role here too: through both digital simulations and observations under the microscope, the team was able to identify a few critical rules that helped them predict how their molecules self-assemble while navigating a maze of blocking “pillars” and channels carved onto the microchips.

This “enabled a general design strategy for the DASH patterns,” they said.

In particular, the whirling motion of the fluids as they coursed through—and bumped into—ridges in the chips seems to help the DNA molecules “entangle into networks,” the team explained.

These insights helped the team further develop the “destroying” part of metabolism. Similar to linking molecules into DNA chains, their destruction also relies on enzymes.

Once the team pumped both “generation” and “degeneration” enzymes into the microchips, along with raw building blocks, the process was completely autonomous. The simultaneous processes were so lifelike that the team used a metric commonly used in robotics, finite-state automation, to measure the behavior of their DNA nanobots from growth to eventual decay.

“The result is a synthetic structure with features associated with life. These behaviors include locomotion, self-regeneration, and spatiotemporal regulation,” said Boekhoven.

Molecular Slime Molds
Just witnessing lifelike molecules grow in place like the dance move running man wasn’t enough.

In their next experiments, the team took inspiration from slugs to program undulating movements into their DNA bots. Here, “movement” is actually a sort of illusion: the machines “moved” because their front ends kept regenerating, whereas their back ends degenerated. In essence, the molecular slime was built from linking multiple individual “DNA robot-like” units together: each unit receives a delayed “decay” signal from the head of the slime in a way that allowed the whole artificial “organism” to crawl forward, against the steam of fluid flow.

Here’s the fun part: the team eventually engineered two molecular slime bots and pitted them against each other, Mario Kart-style. In these experiments, the faster moving bot alters the state of its competitor to promote “decay.” This slows down the competitor, allowing the dominant DNA nanoslug to win in a race.

Of course, the end goal isn’t molecular podracing. Rather, the DNA-based bots could easily amplify a given DNA or RNA sequence, making them efficient nano-diagnosticians for viral and other infections.

The lifelike material can basically generate patterns that doctors can directly ‘see’ with their eyes, which makes DNA or RNA molecules from bacteria and viruses extremely easy to detect, the team said.

In the short run, “the detection device with this self-generating material could be applied to many places and help people on site, from farmers to clinics, by providing an easy and accurate way to detect pathogens,” explained Hamaga.

A Futuristic Iron Man Nanosuit?
I’m letting my nerd flag fly here. In Avengers: Infinity Wars, the scientist-engineer-philanthropist-playboy Tony Stark unveiled a nanosuit that grew to his contours when needed and automatically healed when damaged.

DASH may one day realize that vision. For now, the team isn’t focused on using the technology for regenerating armor—rather, the dynamic materials could create new protein assemblies or chemical pathways inside living organisms, for example. The team also envisions adding simple sensing and computing mechanisms into the material, which can then easily be thought of as a robot.

Unlike synthetic biology, the goal isn’t to create artificial life. Rather, the team hopes to give lifelike properties to otherwise static materials.

“We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before,” said lead author Dr. Dan Luo.

“Ultimately, our material may allow the construction of self-reproducing machines… artificial metabolism is an important step toward the creation of ‘artificial’ biological systems with dynamic, lifelike capabilities,” added Hamada. “It could open a new frontier in robotics.”

Image Credit: A timelapse image of DASH, by Jeff Tyson at Cornell University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434837 In Defense of Black Box AI

Deep learning is powering some amazing new capabilities, but we find it hard to scrutinize the workings of these algorithms. Lack of interpretability in AI is a common concern and many are trying to fix it, but is it really always necessary to know what’s going on inside these “black boxes”?

In a recent perspective piece for Science, Elizabeth Holm, a professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, argued in defense of the black box algorithm. I caught up with her last week to find out more.

Edd Gent: What’s your experience with black box algorithms?

Elizabeth Holm: I got a dual PhD in materials science and engineering and scientific computing. I came to academia about six years ago and part of what I wanted to do in making this career change was to refresh and revitalize my computer science side.

I realized that computer science had changed completely. It used to be about algorithms and making codes run fast, but now it’s about data and artificial intelligence. There are the interpretable methods like random forest algorithms, where we can tell how the machine is making its decisions. And then there are the black box methods, like convolutional neural networks.

Once in a while we can find some information about their inner workings, but most of the time we have to accept their answers and kind of probe around the edges to figure out the space in which we can use them and how reliable and accurate they are.

EG: What made you feel like you had to mount a defense of these black box algorithms?

EH: When I started talking with my colleagues, I found that the black box nature of many of these algorithms was a real problem for them. I could understand that because we’re scientists, we always want to know why and how.

It got me thinking as a bit of a contrarian, “Are black boxes all bad? Must we reject them?” Surely not, because human thought processes are fairly black box. We often rely on human thought processes that the thinker can’t necessarily explain.

It’s looking like we’re going to be stuck with these methods for a while, because they’re really helpful. They do amazing things. And so there’s a very pragmatic realization that these are the best methods we’ve got to do some really important problems, and we’re not right now seeing alternatives that are interpretable. We’re going to have to use them, so we better figure out how.

EG: In what situations do you think we should be using black box algorithms?

EH: I came up with three rules. The simplest rule is: when the cost of a bad decision is small and the value of a good decision is high, it’s worth it. The example I gave in the paper is targeted advertising. If you send an ad no one wants it doesn’t cost a lot. If you’re the receiver it doesn’t cost a lot to get rid of it.

There are cases where the cost is high, and that’s then we choose the black box if it’s the best option to do the job. Things get a little trickier here because we have to ask “what are the costs of bad decisions, and do we really have them fully characterized?” We also have to be very careful knowing that our systems may have biases, they may have limitations in where you can apply them, they may be breakable.

But at the same time, there are certainly domains where we’re going to test these systems so extensively that we know their performance in virtually every situation. And if their performance is better than the other methods, we need to do it. Self driving vehicles are a significant example—it’s almost certain they’re going to have to use black box methods, and that they’re going to end up being better drivers than humans.

The third rule is the more fun one for me as a scientist, and that’s the case where the black box really enlightens us as to a new way to look at something. We have trained a black box to recognize the fracture energy of breaking a piece of metal from a picture of the broken surface. It did a really good job, and humans can’t do this and we don’t know why.

What the computer seems to be seeing is noise. There’s a signal in that noise, and finding it is very difficult, but if we do we may find something significant to the fracture process, and that would be an awesome scientific discovery.

EG: Do you think there’s been too much emphasis on interpretability?

EH: I think the interpretability problem is a fundamental, fascinating computer science grand challenge and there are significant issues where we need to have an interpretable model. But how I would frame it is not that there’s too much emphasis on interpretability, but rather that there’s too much dismissiveness of uninterpretable models.

I think that some of the current social and political issues surrounding some very bad black box outcomes have convinced people that all machine learning and AI should be interpretable because that will somehow solve those problems.

Asking humans to explain their rationale has not eliminated bias, or stereotyping, or bad decision-making in humans. Relying too much on interpreted ability perhaps puts the responsibility in the wrong place for getting better results. I can make a better black box without knowing exactly in what way the first one was bad.

EG: Looking further into the future, do you think there will be situations where humans will have to rely on black box algorithms to solve problems we can’t get our heads around?

EH: I do think so, and it’s not as much of a stretch as we think it is. For example, humans don’t design the circuit map of computer chips anymore. We haven’t for years. It’s not a black box algorithm that designs those circuit boards, but we’ve long since given up trying to understand a particular computer chip’s design.

With the billions of circuits in every computer chip, the human mind can’t encompass it, either in scope or just the pure time that it would take to trace every circuit. There are going to be cases where we want a system so complex that only the patience that computers have and their ability to work in very high-dimensional spaces is going to be able to do it.

So we can continue to argue about interpretability, but we need to acknowledge that we’re going to need to use black boxes. And this is our opportunity to do our due diligence to understand how to use them responsibly, ethically, and with benefits rather than harm. And that’s going to be a social conversation as well as as a scientific one.

*Responses have been edited for length and style

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Posted in Human Robots

#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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