As part of my irregular series on Improbable Robotics (such as my post a couple of weeks back on a robot that rocks you to sleep), today we peer into the mind of a creative roboticist from Switzerland, Auke Jan Ijspeert, who is leading a project to develop robotic furniture. I visited Ijspeert’s lab, and the astonishing Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne building, a few weeks ago. Ijspeert’s project, called Roombots, builds on the idea of “modular robotics.” Modular robotics is like roboticized LEGO: Instead of having to build every robot from scratch, we build modules that each have capabilities to sense and to move. These modules have built-in mechanisms to self-assemble into different robots. Here is a quick peek at where Roombots are headed:
Modular robotics is inspired by biology on two different levels:
1) The understanding that the secret of the dizzying diversity of life is modularity: having basic building blocks of the body that lead to mutations in which whole functional modules are duplicated or removed.
Eye-scanning technology, voice-print security, palm prints: Biometric security has almost become one of the basic signifers of existing in the future, like clean white walls and rounded surfaces. In Minority Report the biometrics extended to the point that Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, was easily identified by animated advertisements as he walked through a mall, and later on he had to actually replace his own eyeballs so he could avoid detection.
Ickiness aside, biometrics have become less futuristic and more now-istic. The entire town of León, in central Mexico, contracted with Global Rainmakers, Inc., to install iris scanning technology throughout the town. Locals will be able to use iris scanning to get on the bus, use ATMs, and get hospital care.
But the people of Leon might want to consider a report (free with registration) from the National Research Council before they go too far down that road, because there are some significant problems with going all biometric, all the time.
I have seen the future, and it is cilia. Yes, you read that right: those trillions of tiny hair-like extensions that carpet every inch of your body could bring scientists’ visions of a universal class of “smart” materials that change and adapt when subjected to various stimuli closer to reality. These artificial cilia could one day do everything from testing drugs and monitoring air quality to measuring glucose levels and detecting electromagnetic fields.
While largely ignored over the past century (or, at best, dismissed as being purely vestigial), scientists are finally beginning to appreciate the many vital functions they perform in and outside of our bodies. Much like an antenna or sensor, cilia gather information from their surroundings and react—by activating a cellular process or shutting down cell growth, for example—if something seems amiss. They can also act as miniature roads or railways, carrying dirt, bacteria and other noxious materials out of our lungs or shuttling a fertilized egg from the ovary to the uterus. And, perhaps most importantly, cilia make it possible for us to see, hear, smell, and otherwise feel the outside world.
Now some researchers believe that cilia-like structures could bring their sensory prowess to medicine, environmental monitoring and a number of other fields. Leading the charge is Marek Urban of the University of Southern Mississippi who has created a copolymer film with hair-like filaments that mimics the functions of normal cilia. Read More
I had hoped for a good response to “The Most Dangerous Idea in the World,” but I must admit I did not expect the slew of comments, responses, and the huge Reddit thread that it triggered. You critiqued my stance on religion, on economic equality, on the value of suffering and death, on the benefits of technology, and on the “you support eugenics? what!?” level. The value of any idea is how well it stands up to public scrutiny and debate. So allow me to put up my rhetorical dukes and see if I can’t land a few haymakers on your many counterpoints.
There were five big counterpoints to transhumanism that emerged from the comments. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I have paraphrased each.
1. Transhumanism is new-age, techno-utopian, “Rapture of the Nerds” pap.
2. Transhumanism will split society between rich transhumans and poor normals.
3. Without death, there will be overpopulation, insufficient resources, we’ll all get bored and bad old people will never go away.
4. Eugenics is bad. Period.
5. What if I don’t want to be transhuman?
And now, my answers:
Planets, in particular habitable planets, are so common in works of science fiction that there’s a tendency to assume that they’d be common in the real Universe. There is little hard data to support that notion–not yet anyway. Just 15 years ago, the only planets astronomers knew where the nine that orbited one star: Sol. (I’m not attempting to promote Pluto-back-to-full-fledged-planethood, but it was considered a planet back then, hence the inclusion.) We have now identified over 490 planets (and counting) orbiting other stars. So although stars with planets seem to be fairly ubiquitous, perhaps even the rule rather than the exception, that still raises the question of the abundance of habitable planets.
Until recently the detection methods astronomers used for finding extrasolar planets has had a distinct bias–the planets we’ve found tend to be large, Jupiter-like, and close to their parent stars. Now the Kepler spacecraft has just begun its search for extrasolar Earths and, in a very short time, has already found over 700 candidate stars that could have Earth-sized planets. As followup studies examine these candidate stars further, is it only a matter of time until another “Earth” is detected? Certainly, but we may have to sift through a lot of near-misses first.
The chasm between science and the humanities is nowhere more blatent than the lack of work on how science fiction is reprocessed and used by those of us securely strapped into the laboratory. It’s a topic that attracts some heat: Some scientists take to suggestions of inspiration between their creations and those in preceding Sci-Fi with the excitement of a freshman accused of buying their midterm essay off the internet. In Colin Milburn’s new work on ways of thinking about this interaction, he refers to Richard Feynman’s 1959 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” This lecture is a key event in the history of nanotechnology. In it, Feynman refers to a pantograph-inspired mechanism for manipulating molecules. It turns out that he most likely got this idea from the story “Waldo” by Robert Heinlein, who in turn probably got it from another science fiction story by Edmond Hamilton. Rejecting the suggestion of influence, chemist Pierre Laszlo writes: “Feynman’s fertile imagination had no need for an outside seed. This particular conjecture [about a link between Feynman and Heinlein] stands on its head Feynman’s whole argument. He proposed devices at the nanoscale as both rational and realistic, around the corner so to say. To propose instead that the technoscience, nanotechnology, belongs to the realm of science-fictional fantasy is gratuitous mythology, with a questionable purpose.”
The Veggie team at Desert RATS
Creating a space farm is a such a common assumption that SciFi writers almost routinely include some kind of plant growth or space farm area in any show that involves long distance space travel or space-based colonies. Off the top of my head, I can think of an episode of Doctor Who, and the film Sunshine, and the New Yorker story Lostronaut.
But growing plants is hardly straightforward. Indeed, straightness is one of the problems: Plants rely on both light or gravity to orient themselves, so their roots grow down and their stems grow up. But then there’s the problem of providing the right levels of humidity, ensuring the water actually goes down to the roots in a zero-G environment, providing enough nutrients, and doing it all in a space- and energy-efficient way.
To solve the problems of growing plants in space, Orbital Technologies Corporation has been working on “deployable vegetable production units“ or, as they’re more affectionately called, Veggies. The latest iteration was based on astronaut food containers, and offers astronauts a way to grow plants as a hobby during their free time, as well as give NASA a chance to experiment on the problems of growing plants in microgravity.
The engineered ovary after 48 hours.
For many cancer patients, treatment can be a double-edged sword. While recent advances in chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery have brought relief to millions of sufferers, a significant fraction have had to sacrifice their ability to have children in return. Going under the knife or being bombarded by high-energy rays—though often critical for therapy—can sometimes irreparably damage a woman’s eggs or man’s testes, robbing them of their fertility. To say that this leaves young patients pondering therapy with an unenviable set of choices would be something of an understatement.
Fortunately, thanks to some groundbreaking work by researchers from Brown University, female patients may soon never have to make this most difficult of decisions. A team led by Sandra Carson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, has built the first synthetic human ovary from scratch by cobbling together the three cell lines involved in egg development—the theca cells, granulosa cells, and egg cells themselves—into a fully three-dimensional honeycomb-shaped structure.
Planets and moons do not give up their secrets willingly or easily — they make us work for every clue we get. That seems particularly true when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life. Even then, some bodies in the Solar System make us work harder than others.
Take Titan, for example. Two weeks ago, I wrote that observations of Titan from Cassini have been interpreted by some as possible signs of life, in particular:
Now it turns out that computer simulations based upon Cassini observations, simulations which hint at depletions of various chemical species at Titan’s surface may again hint at the possibility of life on Titan. The results are very preliminary, but fascinating nevertheless.
It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever be able to make a positive determination if there’s life on Titan based upon Cassini data alone. Cassini is, after all, an orbiter, and its observations of Titan’s surface come from hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers away–limited to those that can be attained during flybys. To ascertain the presence of life, we’ll need what scientists in the field of remote sensing call “ground truth”–we’ll have to wait until we are able to send a followup probe to the surface of Titan. Perhaps we’ll send a probe to Titan similar to Tiny–the Titan rover who has guest-starred in episodes of this season’s Eureka.
Even then it could turn out that, unless NASA’s version of Tiny returns samples to Earth for human examination, the results could remain ambiguous and leave scientists scratching their heads. That is what’s happening with Mars.
Titan hides its secrets beneath a thick photochemical haze, but when it comes to planets that jealously guard their secrets, Mars is the champion. The Great Galactic Ghoul of Mars destroys our spacecraft. Mars throws us curve balls; Mars lies to us. Mars even laughs at the spacecraft it does allow to explore it.
To think scientifically is to think dangerously. Scientists, from Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin, are among the many “Great spirits [who] have often encountered violent opposition from weak minds,” as Einstein so eloquently put it. Daniel Dennett, a prominent New Atheist and philosopher of science, aptly named one of his tomes on evolution Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Constantly challenging the status quo, science is the engine of the future. Science generates the ideas and science fiction gives us whole universes in which to explore them. Science fiction classics like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four, Slaughterhouse-Five, and A Wrinkle in Time are oft challenged on the premise that they are dangerous or harmful to the impressionable minds reading them. So science and sci-fi push the envelope, but among all of the guesses, theories, and what-ifs, is there an idea most dangerous?
This August, Big Think tried to answer the question with their “Month of Thinking Dangerously.” Max Miller did his best to offend his loyal readers, investigating ideas that are an affront to the common perspective – disband NATO? Control the weather? Cut special-ed? Max! for shame! Though many of the dangerous ideas were political, the preponderance of topics trended towards science of the future: eugenics, space colonization, selling organs, memory erasing, synthetic biology, and drug legalization, to name a few. As such, I was expecting one topic in particular to cap the list at the end of the month. Instead, the editors of Big Think invited their readers to “propose your own dangerous idea.”
So I thought, and considered, and pondered, and then remembered that the idea I’ve spent the past two years obsessing over always manages to raise ire and eyebrows. Thus, Big Think, I submit to you the most dangerous idea in the world: