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Last year, a novelist went on a road trip across the USA. The trip was an attempt to emulate Jack Kerouac—to go out on the road and find something essential to write about in the experience. There is, however, a key difference between this writer and anyone else talking your ear off in the bar. This writer is just a microphone, a GPS, and a camera hooked up to a laptop and a whole bunch of linear algebra.
People who are optimistic that artificial intelligence and machine learning won’t put us all out of a job say that human ingenuity and creativity will be difficult to imitate. The classic argument is that, just as machines freed us from repetitive manual tasks, machine learning will free us from repetitive intellectual tasks.
This leaves us free to spend more time on the rewarding aspects of our work, pursuing creative hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and generally being human.
In this worldview, creative works like a great novel or symphony, and the emotions they evoke, cannot be reduced to lines of code. Humans retain a dimension of superiority over algorithms.
But is creativity a fundamentally human phenomenon? Or can it be learned by machines?
And if they learn to understand us better than we understand ourselves, could the great AI novel—tailored, of course, to your own predispositions in fiction—be the best you’ll ever read?
Maybe Not a Beach Read
This is the futurist’s view, of course. The reality, as the jury-rigged contraption in Ross Goodwin’s Cadillac for that road trip can attest, is some way off.
“This is very much an imperfect document, a rapid prototyping project. The output isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s a human novel, or anywhere near it,” Goodwin said of the novel that his machine created. 1 The Road is currently marketed as the first novel written by AI.
Once the neural network has been trained, it can generate any length of text that the author desires, either at random or working from a specific seed word or phrase. Goodwin used the sights and sounds of the road trip to provide these seeds: the novel is written one sentence at a time, based on images, locations, dialogue from the microphone, and even the computer’s own internal clock.
The results are… mixed.
The novel begins suitably enough, quoting the time: “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.” Descriptions of locations begin according to the Foursquare dataset fed into the algorithm, but rapidly veer off into the weeds, becoming surreal. While experimentation in literature is a wonderful thing, repeatedly quoting longitude and latitude coordinates verbatim is unlikely to win anyone the Booker Prize.
Data In, Art Out?
Neural networks as creative agents have some advantages. They excel at being trained on large datasets, identifying the patterns in those datasets, and producing output that follows those same rules. Music inspired by or written by AI has become a growing subgenre—there’s even a pop album by human-machine collaborators called the Songularity.
A neural network can “listen to” all of Bach and Mozart in hours, and train itself on the works of Shakespeare to produce passable pseudo-Bard. The idea of artificial creativity has become so widespread that there’s even a meme format about forcibly training neural network ‘bots’ on human writing samples, with hilarious consequences—although the best joke was undoubtedly human in origin.
The AI that roamed from New York to New Orleans was an LSTM (long short-term memory) neural net. By default, information contained in individual neurons is preserved, and only small parts can be “forgotten” or “learned” in an individual timestep, rather than neurons being entirely overwritten.
The LSTM architecture performs better than previous recurrent neural networks at tasks such as handwriting and speech recognition. The neural net—and its programmer—looked further in search of literary influences, ingesting 60 million words (360 MB) of raw literature according to Goodwin’s recipe: one third poetry, one third science fiction, and one third “bleak” literature.
In this way, Goodwin has some creative control over the project; the source material influences the machine’s vocabulary and sentence structuring, and hence the tone of the piece.
The Thoughts Beneath the Words
The problem with artificially intelligent novelists is the same problem with conversational artificial intelligence that computer scientists have been trying to solve from Turing’s day. The machines can understand and reproduce complex patterns increasingly better than humans can, but they have no understanding of what these patterns mean.
Goodwin’s neural network spits out sentences one letter at a time, on a tiny printer hooked up to the laptop. Statistical associations such as those tracked by neural nets can form words from letters, and sentences from words, but they know nothing of character or plot.
When talking to a chatbot, the code has no real understanding of what’s been said before, and there is no dataset large enough to train it through all of the billions of possible conversations.
Unless restricted to a predetermined set of options, it loses the thread of the conversation after a reply or two. In a similar way, the creative neural nets have no real grasp of what they’re writing, and no way to produce anything with any overarching coherence or narrative.
Goodwin’s experiment is an attempt to add some coherent backbone to the AI “novel” by repeatedly grounding it with stimuli from the cameras or microphones—the thematic links and narrative provided by the American landscape the neural network drives through.
Goodwin feels that this approach (the car itself moving through the landscape, as if a character) borrows some continuity and coherence from the journey itself. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.”
AI Is Still No Kerouac
A coherent tone and semantic “style” might be enough to produce some vaguely-convincing teenage poetry, as Google did, and experimental fiction that uses neural networks can have intriguing results. But wading through the surreal AI prose of this era, searching for some meaning or motif beyond novelty value, can be a frustrating experience.
Maybe machines can learn the complexities of the human heart and brain, or how to write evocative or entertaining prose. But they’re a long way off, and somehow “more layers!” or a bigger corpus of data doesn’t feel like enough to bridge that gulf.
Real attempts by machines to write fiction have so far been broadly incoherent, but with flashes of poetry—dreamlike, hallucinatory ramblings.
Neural networks might not be capable of writing intricately-plotted works with charm and wit, like Dickens or Dostoevsky, but there’s still an eeriness to trying to decipher the surreal, Finnegans’ Wake mish-mash.
You might see, in the odd line, the flickering ghost of something like consciousness, a deeper understanding. Or you might just see fragments of meaning thrown into a neural network blender, full of hype and fury, obeying rules in an occasionally striking way, but ultimately signifying nothing. In that sense, at least, the RNN’s grappling with metaphor feels like a metaphor for the hype surrounding the latest AI summer as a whole.
Or, as the human author of On The Road put it: “You guys are going somewhere or just going?”
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It’s common to hear phrases like ‘machine learning’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ and believe that somehow, someone has managed to replicate a human mind inside a computer. This, of course, is untrue—but part of the reason this idea is so pervasive is because the metaphor of human learning and intelligence has been quite useful in explaining machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Indeed, some AI researchers maintain a close link with the neuroscience community, and inspiration runs in both directions. But the metaphor can be a hindrance to people trying to explain machine learning to those less familiar with it. One of the biggest risks of conflating human and machine intelligence is that we start to hand over too much agency to machines. For those of us working with software, it’s essential that we remember the agency is human—it’s humans who build these systems, after all.
It’s worth unpacking the key differences between machine and human intelligence. While there are certainly similarities, it’s by looking at what makes them different that we can better grasp how artificial intelligence works, and how we can build and use it effectively.
Central to the metaphor that links human and machine learning is the concept of a neural network. The biggest difference between a human brain and an artificial neural net is the sheer scale of the brain’s neural network. What’s crucial is that it’s not simply the number of neurons in the brain (which reach into the billions), but more precisely, the mind-boggling number of connections between them.
But the issue runs deeper than questions of scale. The human brain is qualitatively different from an artificial neural network for two other important reasons: the connections that power it are analogue, not digital, and the neurons themselves aren’t uniform (as they are in an artificial neural network).
This is why the brain is such a complex thing. Even the most complex artificial neural network, while often difficult to interpret and unpack, has an underlying architecture and principles guiding it (this is what we’re trying to do, so let’s construct the network like this…).
Intricate as they may be, neural networks in AIs are engineered with a specific outcome in mind. The human mind, however, doesn’t have the same degree of intentionality in its engineering. Yes, it should help us do all the things we need to do to stay alive, but it also allows us to think critically and creatively in a way that doesn’t need to be programmed.
The Beautiful Simplicity of AI
The fact that artificial intelligence systems are so much simpler than the human brain is, ironically, what enables AIs to deal with far greater computational complexity than we can.
Artificial neural networks can hold much more information and data than the human brain, largely due to the type of data that is stored and processed in a neural network. It is discrete and specific, like an entry on an excel spreadsheet.
In the human brain, data doesn’t have this same discrete quality. So while an artificial neural network can process very specific data at an incredible scale, it isn’t able to process information in the rich and multidimensional manner a human brain can. This is the key difference between an engineered system and the human mind.
Despite years of research, the human mind still remains somewhat opaque. This is because the analog synaptic connections between neurons are almost impenetrable to the digital connections within an artificial neural network.
Speed and Scale
Consider what this means in practice. The relative simplicity of an AI allows it to do a very complex task very well, and very quickly. A human brain simply can’t process data at scale and speed in the way AIs need to if they’re, say, translating speech to text, or processing a huge set of oncology reports.
Essential to the way AI works in both these contexts is that it breaks data and information down into tiny constituent parts. For example, it could break sounds down into phonetic text, which could then be translated into full sentences, or break images into pieces to understand the rules of how a huge set of them is composed.
Humans often do a similar thing, and this is the point at which machine learning is most like human learning; like algorithms, humans break data or information into smaller chunks in order to process it.
But there’s a reason for this similarity. This breakdown process is engineered into every neural network by a human engineer. What’s more, the way this process is designed will be down to the problem at hand. How an artificial intelligence system breaks down a data set is its own way of ‘understanding’ it.
Even while running a highly complex algorithm unsupervised, the parameters of how an AI learns—how it breaks data down in order to process it—are always set from the start.
Human Intelligence: Defining Problems
Human intelligence doesn’t have this set of limitations, which is what makes us so much more effective at problem-solving. It’s the human ability to ‘create’ problems that makes us so good at solving them. There’s an element of contextual understanding and decision-making in the way humans approach problems.
AIs might be able to unpack problems or find new ways into them, but they can’t define the problem they’re trying to solve.
Algorithmic insensitivity has come into focus in recent years, with an increasing number of scandals around bias in AI systems. Of course, this is caused by the biases of those making the algorithms, but underlines the point that algorithmic biases can only be identified by human intelligence.
Human and Artificial Intelligence Should Complement Each Other
We must remember that artificial intelligence and machine learning aren’t simply things that ‘exist’ that we can no longer control. They are built, engineered, and designed by us. This mindset puts us in control of the future, and makes algorithms even more elegant and remarkable.
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In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.
Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.
When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.
Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.
The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”
The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.
The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.
By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.
“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”
There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.
In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.
“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.
“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”
Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.
The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
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Superconductors are among the most bizarre and exciting materials yet discovered. Counterintuitive quantum-mechanical effects mean that, below a critical temperature, they have zero electrical resistance. This property alone is more than enough to spark the imagination.
A current that could flow forever without losing any energy means transmission of power with virtually no losses in the cables. When renewable energy sources start to dominate the grid and high-voltage transmission across continents becomes important to overcome intermittency, lossless cables will result in substantial savings.
What’s more, a superconducting wire carrying a current that never, ever diminishes would act as a perfect store of electrical energy. Unlike batteries, which degrade over time, if the resistance is truly zero, you could return to the superconductor in a billion years and find that same old current flowing through it. Energy could be captured and stored indefinitely!
With no resistance, a huge current could be passed through the superconducting wire and, in turn, produce magnetic fields of incredible power.
You could use them to levitate trains and produce astonishing accelerations, thereby revolutionizing the transport system. You could use them in power plants—replacing conventional methods which spin turbines in magnetic fields to generate electricity—and in quantum computers as the two-level system required for a “qubit,” in which the zeros and ones are replaced by current flowing clockwise or counterclockwise in a superconductor.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; superconductors can certainly seem like magical devices. So, why aren’t they busy remaking the world? There’s a problem—that critical temperature.
For all known materials, it’s hundreds of degrees below freezing. Superconductors also have a critical magnetic field; beyond a certain magnetic field strength, they cease to work. There’s a tradeoff: materials with an intrinsically high critical temperature can also often provide the largest magnetic fields when cooled well below that temperature.
This has meant that superconductor applications so far have been limited to situations where you can afford to cool the components of your system to close to absolute zero: in particle accelerators and experimental nuclear fusion reactors, for example.
But even as some aspects of superconductor technology become mature in limited applications, the search for higher temperature superconductors moves on. Many physicists still believe a room-temperature superconductor could exist. Such a discovery would unleash amazing new technologies.
The Quest for Room-Temperature Superconductors
After Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity by accident while attempting to prove Lord Kelvin’s theory that resistance would increase with decreasing temperature, theorists scrambled to explain the new property in the hope that understanding it might allow for room-temperature superconductors to be synthesized.
They came up with the BCS theory, which explained some of the properties of superconductors. It also predicted that the dream of technologists, a room-temperature superconductor, could not exist; the maximum temperature for superconductivity according to BCS theory was just 30 K.
Then, in the 1980s, the field changed again with the discovery of unconventional, or high-temperature, superconductivity. “High temperature” is still very cold: the highest temperature for superconductivity achieved was -70°C for hydrogen sulphide at extremely high pressures. For normal pressures, -140°C is near the upper limit. Unfortunately, high-temperature superconductors—which require relatively cheap liquid nitrogen, rather than liquid helium, to cool—are mostly brittle ceramics, which are expensive to form into wires and have limited application.
Given the limitations of high-temperature superconductors, researchers continue to believe there’s a better option awaiting discovery—an incredible new material that checks boxes like superconductivity approaching room temperature, affordability, and practicality.
Without a detailed theoretical understanding of how this phenomenon occurs—although incremental progress happens all the time—scientists can occasionally feel like they’re taking educated guesses at materials that might be likely candidates. It’s a little like trying to guess a phone number, but with the periodic table of elements instead of digits.
Yet the prospect remains, in the words of one researcher, tantalizing. A Nobel Prize and potentially changing the world of energy and electricity is not bad for a day’s work.
Some research focuses on cuprates, complex crystals that contain layers of copper and oxygen atoms. Doping cuprates with various different elements, such exotic compounds as mercury barium calcium copper oxide, are amongst the best superconductors known today.
Research also continues into some anomalous but unexplained reports that graphite soaked in water can act as a room-temperature superconductor, but there’s no indication that this could be used for technological applications yet.
In early 2017, as part of the ongoing effort to explore the most extreme and exotic forms of matter we can create on Earth, researchers managed to compress hydrogen into a metal.
The pressure required to do this was more than that at the core of the Earth and thousands of times higher than that at the bottom of the ocean. Some researchers in the field, called condensed-matter physics, doubt that metallic hydrogen was produced at all.
It’s considered possible that metallic hydrogen could be a room-temperature superconductor. But getting the samples to stick around long enough for detailed testing has proved tricky, with the diamonds containing the metallic hydrogen suffering a “catastrophic failure” under the pressure.
Superconductivity—or behavior that strongly resembles it—was also observed in yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) at room temperature in 2014. The only catch was that this electron transport lasted for a tiny fraction of a second and required the material to be bombarded with pulsed lasers.
Not very practical, you might say, but tantalizing nonetheless.
Other new materials display enticing properties too. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the theoretical work that characterizes topological insulators—materials that exhibit similarly strange quantum behaviors. They can be considered perfect insulators for the bulk of the material but extraordinarily good conductors in a thin layer on the surface.
Microsoft is betting on topological insulators as the key component in their attempt at a quantum computer. They’ve also been considered potentially important components in miniaturized circuitry.
A number of remarkable electronic transport properties have also been observed in new, “2D” structures—like graphene, these are materials synthesized to be as thick as a single atom or molecule. And research continues into how we can utilize the superconductors we’ve already discovered; for example, some teams are trying to develop insulating material that prevents superconducting HVDC cable from overheating.
Room-temperature superconductivity remains as elusive and exciting as it has been for over a century. It is unclear whether a room-temperature superconductor can exist, but the discovery of high-temperature superconductors is a promising indicator that unconventional and highly useful quantum effects may be discovered in completely unexpected materials.
Perhaps in the future—through artificial intelligence simulations or the serendipitous discoveries of a 21st century Kamerlingh Onnes—this little piece of magic could move into the realm of reality.
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It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.
In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?
This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”
In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.
Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.
Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.
Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.
Such are the dreams, anyway.
But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”
Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.
For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.
One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.
Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.
Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.
In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.
You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).
Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.
Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.
Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?
We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.
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