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.
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.
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
That’s right, e-skin. A group of scientists at UC-Berkeley devised a flexible mesh using nanowires to create a substance that reacts to pressure, and, as their paper in Nature Materials said, “effectively functions as an artificial electronic skin.” In the same issue, a team from Stanford University announced it had devised a kind of skin so sensitive, it can detect the weight of a bluebottle fly. All of which means for one shining issue, a scientific journal was a skin mag.
Anyway, Stanford offered a fine video of its invention:
Devised by a team lead by Zhenan Bao, puts highly specialized rubber between two electrodes. The rubber holds the electric charge until something alights on it (or has its dessicated corpse plunked on it). The rubber distorts, changing the amount of charge its holding, which is picked up by the electrodes and transmitted as a signal.
In a recent article, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) astronomer Seth Shostak makes an intriguing claim: SETI should start pointing its telescopes toward corners of the known universe that would be friendly not just to intelligent aliens but to artificial alien intelligence. The basis of his suggestion is that any form of life intelligent enough to generate the kinds of radio signals that SETI is looking for would be “quickly” superseded by an artificial intelligence of their creation. Here, going on our own rate of progress toward AI, Shostak suggests that this radio-to-AI delay is a small handful of centuries.
These artificial intelligences, not likely to have had the “nostalgia module” installed, may quickly flee the home planet like a teenager trying to pretend it isn’t related to its parents. If nothing else, they will likely need to do this to find further resources such as materials and energy. Where would they want to go? Shostak speculates they may go to places where large amounts of energy can be obtained, such as near large stars or black holes.
Stephen Hawking imagines aliens covering stars with mirrors
to generate enough power for worm holes
Stephen Hawking has suggested one reason to go to high-energy regions would be to make worm holes through space-time to travel vast distances quickly. These areas are not hospitable to life as we know it, and so are not currently the target of SETI’s telescopes searching for signals of such life.
While it’s clear that we have a lot going for ourselves right out of the womb, it’s equally clear that one of our most admirable qualities is that we rapidly “get it” – we learn languages, skills for manipulating objects, hip hop dance moves, recipes for coconut mojitos, and how to charm people into liking us (ideally, in that order). Rather than experiential learning like this, early AI work focused on sophisticated reasoning problems. The touchstone for these efforts was Alan Turing’s original effort to mimic the reasoning processes of mathematicians engaged in solving a math problem – an effort that gave us many great things, particularly a distillation of what it means for something to be computable that stands as one of the great intellectual accomplishments of the twentieth century. That form of AI, while successful in particular domains — chess playing and expert systems, for example — has been less successful in solving problems of ongoing embodied activity, such as the aforementioned coconut mojito making. What if, instead of mimicking a mathematician trying to solve a math problem, Alan Turing had decided to mimic a scientist trying to determine the validity of a hypothesis? According to some developmental psychologists, in doing so we’d actually be emulating the reasoning processes of an infant, and thus, potentially, we’d be unlocking the great power of experiential learning.
Having robots with minds implementing the scientific process rather than math problem solving is essentially what’s happening in a few corners of robotics, most recently with the Xpero project, an effort to develop an embodied cognitive system that learns about its world much like an infant would. It’s one of a host of robo-infants being worked on (here’s a nice overview graphic). This approach has led to some very impressive achievements including an “evil starfish” robot that can quickly learn how to control its body after several of its “limbs” have been chopped off.
First, in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, it was a T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego munching on house pets. Now aliens have stealthily invaded the San Diego Air & Space Museum. This particular invasion, however, was invited–the Air & Space Museum is hosting the Science of Aliens traveling exhibit: a fun mix of science and science fiction.
The exhibit is broken down into four areas:
The alien fiction section was small, and had a collection of movie props, videos, and sections devoted to Roswell and the Alien Autopsy video. Interestingly the content in the Roswell section was donated by the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM, so I felt it was slightly skewed in favor of the object that crashed at Roswell being of an extraterrestrial nature, while the content provided for the Alien Autopsy video practically screamed “THIS WAS A HOAX!”
Star Wars, A.I., The Six Million Dollar Man, Star Trek and a host of other science-fiction films all share a particular futurist’s dream: a broken body is repaired with artificial replacements. Reality is finally catching up with our imaginations. Stem cells, mind-controlled arms, osso-integrated prostheses, exoskeletons, and xenotransplants are here. It’s important to note that most of these innovations are right on the cutting edge, either experimental, prohibitively expensive, or both. Individually they each may seem like small or too esoteric to matter, but as a whole, it looks like we’re on our way to a very cyborg future.
Rex Bionics has created what will be a commercially available set of robotic exoskeleton legs. The only currently existing set, custom built for Hayden Allen, allow him to walk up and down stairs and take awesome, super-mecha pictures like the one above. In an interview, he talks about basic quality of life issues (blood circulation, knowing when you have to go to the bathroom) that come from being ambulatory. Take that, paralysis!
Colonel Quaritch and his exoskeleton from Avatar
Science fiction is sometimes a playground to explore what it would be like to have a different body. Most recently, in Avatar and Iron Man 2 we saw people joined to exoskeletons, which are being developed in real life for the military and for rehabilitation. The biomechanics of these exoskeletons are a close mimic of our own but with much more power or size. In Avatar, we also witnessed people experience the novelty of inhabiting a three-meter-tall blue body with movable ears and a neural interface that conveniently doubles as a tail.
But why wait for the shapeshifting future? Corsets and girdles are the best known types of “foundation garments” or “shapewear,” but for me at least, they are more Jane Eyre than Madonna, despite the latter’s use of them in her performances over the past twenty years.
For those who actually use shapewear on a day-to-day basis, the most common types must be the padded bra and shoulder pads. But the past week highlighted two new ways of changing the shape of our body. The first was in a Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Dodes on padded panties that promise to give Beyoncé-level gluteus maximi to the large behind-inclined; the second is from Sylvester Stallone’s comment that “action movies changed radically when it became possible to Velcro your muscles on.”
Athanasius (b. 293) was an ascetic known not only for his piety but—like many ascetics– for his penchant for wearing hairshirts (these were also available as underwear for the truly hard core). Hairshirts are made from goats’ hair, and they are as itchy as they sound, although the true test of your fealty to God was to wear one that was flea infested. Thanks to a new study on the cognitive effects of the feel of everyday objects, we now have some science to help us understand what effect wearing a hairshirt had on the way Athanasius thought. Ackerman, Nocera, and Bargh have discovered that people are more likely to judge an ambiguous passage as difficult and harsh after they have completed a jigsaw-puzzle covered in rough sandpaper, compared to folks who read the same passage after completing the same puzzle that was smooth to the touch. They also explored a few other examples of bleed-through from the way things feel to the way we think. Participants evaluating resumes judged ones that were on heavier clipboards to be better than ones on light clipboards. Sitting on hard chairs versus soft cushioned chairs caused negotiations to be more rigid in character, with less flexibility in a negotiation task.
These are remarkable effects with many potential implications, and applications (next time you’re trying to sell something, make sure you’re seated in a hard chair, and your buyer is in soft chair, for example; and clothes designers have a whole new dimension to consider). What is their underlying basis? The researchers hypothesize that our experiences with touch early in our development provides a scaffold for the development of conceptual knowledge. In adult life, these same touch experiences activate the scaffold in the same way, and lead to unconscious influences on our attitudes and decision making. The experience of weight gets metaphorically associated with seriousness and importance. Idioms like “that’s heavy” reflect this association. Similarly, rough textures get associated with difficulty, and we say “having a rough day.”