Judgement Day Update: Artificial Muscles for Robots

artificial-muscle-1It’s a science fiction staple, the android or humanoid robot opens up its insides to reveal a network of gears or brightly-lit cables running underneath. However, as the science behind making androids improves, we are moving farther and farther away from this sci-fi cliche. In fact, thanks to recent advancements, robots in the future may look a lot like us when you strip away their outer layers.

It’s what is known as biomimetics, the science of creating technology that mimics biology. And the latest breakthrough in this field comes from National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Engineering where researchers have developed the world’s first “robotic” muscle. Much like the real thing, this artificial tissue extends to five times its original length, has the potential to lift 80 times its own weight.

???????????????????????In addition to being a first in robotics, this new development is exciting because it resolves a central problem that has plagued robots since their inception. In the 1960s, John W. Campbell Jr, editor of Analog Science Fiction magazine, pointed out this problem when he outlined a scenario where a man is chased across rough country by a mad scientist’s horde of killer robots.

In this scenario, the various models that were chasing the man were stymied by obstacles that the he could easily overcome, such as sinking in mud, jumping over logs, getting around rocks, or tangled up in bushes. In the end, the only robots that were capable of keeping up with him were so light and underpowered that he was able to tear them apart with his bare hands.

robot_muscleThis is a far cry from another science fiction staple, the one which presents robots as powerful automatons that can bend steel girders and carry out immense feats of strength. While some robots certainly can do this, they are extremely heavy and use hydraulics for the heavy lifting. Pound for pound, they’re actually very weak compared to a human, being capable of lifting only half their weight.

Another problem is the fact that robots using gears and motors, pneumatics, or hydraulics lack fine control. They tend to move in jerky motions and have to pause between each move, giving rise to a form of motion that we like to call “the robot”. Basically, it is very difficult to make a robot that is capable of delicate, smooth movements, the kind humans and animals take for granted.

kenshiroFor some time now, scientists and researchers have been looking to biomimetics to achieve the long sought-after dream of smaller, stronger robots that are capable of more refined movements. And taken in tandem with other development – such as the Kenshiro robot developed by roboticists at the University of Tokyo – that time might finally be here.

Developed by a four-person team led by Dr. Adrian Koh – from the NUS Engineering Science Program and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering – the new artificial muscle is an example of an electroactive polymer. Basically, this is a combination dielectric elastomer and rubber that changes shape when stimulated by an electric field. In this respect, the artificial muscle is much like an organic one, using electrical stimulus to trigger movement.


robot-arm-wrestling-03-20-09Robots using artificial muscles would be a far cry from clanking mechanical men. They would be much more lifelike, capable of facial expression and precise, graceful movements. They would also have superhuman strength, yet weigh the same as a person. In addition, the polymer used to fabricate the muscles may have more general applications in machines, such as cranes.

An added bonus of the polymer is that is can convert and store energy, which means it’s possible to design robots that power themselves after charging for only minutes. In a statement released by his department, Dr. Koh highlighted the benefits of the design and what it is capable of doing:

Our novel muscles are not just strong and responsive. Their movements produce a by-product – energy. As the muscles contract and expand, they are capable of converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. Due to the nature of this material, it is capable of packing a large amount of energy in a small package. We calculated that if one were to build an electrical generator from these soft materials, a 10 kg (22 lb) system is capable of producing the same amount of energy of a one-ton electrical turbine.

AI_robotDr. Koh also indicated that robots equipped with these types of muscles “will be able to function in a more human-like manner – and outperform humans in strength.” Theoretically, such polymer-based tissues could extend to ten times their original length and lift up to 500 times its own weight, though the current version isn’t anywhere near that limit just yet.

In the meantime, Dr Koh and his team have applied for a patent for the artificial muscle and are continuing work on it. They predict that within five years they could have a robot arm that is half the size and weight of a human arm, yet could win an arm wrestling match. And the applications are limitless, ranging from robotic servants to search and rescue bots and heavy robot laborers. And let’s not forget that cybernetic arms that boast that kind of increased strength are also likely to become a popular prosthetic and enhancement item.

And for those who are naturally afraid of a future where super-human robots that have the strength to tear us limb from limb are walking among us, let me remind you that we still have Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” to fall back on. Never mind what happened in the terrible movie adaptation, those laws are incontrovertible and will work… I hope!

Sources: gizmag.com, engadget.com, 33rdsqaure.com

The Future is Here: The Telescopic Contact Lense

telescopic_contact_lensWhen it comes to enhancement technology, DARPA has its hands in many programs designed to augment a soldier’s senses. Their latest invention, the telescopic contact lens, is just one of many, but it may be the most impressive to date. Not only is it capable of giving soldiers the ability to spot and focus in on faraway objects, it may also have numerous civilian applications as well.

The lens is the result of collaboration between researchers from the University of California San Diego, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and the Pacific Science & Engineering Group, with the financial assistance of DARPA. Led by Joseph Ford of UCSD and Eric Tremblay of EPFL, the development of the lens was announced in a recent article entitled “Switchable telescopic contact lens” that appeared in the Optics Express journal.


In addition to being just over a millimeter thick, the lens works by using a series of tiny mirrors to magnify light, and can be switched between normal and telescopic vision, which is due to the lens having two distinct regions. The first The center of the lens allows light to pass straight through, providing normal vision. The outside edge, however, acts as a telescope capable of magnifying your sight by close to a factor of three.

Above all, the main breakthrough here is that this telescopic contact lens is just 1.17mm thick, allowing it to be comfortably worn. Other attempts at granting telescopic vision have included a 4.4mm-thick contact lens (too thick for real-world use), telescopic spectacles (cumbersome and ugly), and most recently a telescopic lens implanted into the eye itself. The latter is currently the best option currently available, but it requires surgery and the image quality isn’t excellent.

Telescopic-Contact-Lens-3To accomplish this feet of micro-engineering, the researchers had to be rather creative. The light that will be magnified enters the edge of the contact lens, is bounced around four times inside the lens using patterned aluminum mirrors, and then beamed to the edge of the retina at the back of your eyeball. Or as the research team put it in their article:

The magnified optical path incorporates a telescopic arrangement of positive and negative annular concentric reflectors to achieve 2.8x magnification on the eye, while light passing through a central clear aperture provides unmagnified vision.

To switch between normal and telescopic vision, the central, unmagnified region of the contact lens has a polarizing filter in front of it — which works in tandem with a pair of 3D TV spectacles. By switching the polarizing state of the spectacles – a pair of active, liquid crystal Samsung 3D specs in this case – the user can choose between normal and magnified vision.

AR_glassesThough the project is being funded by DARPA for military use, the research team also indicated that the real long-term benefits of a device like this one come in the form of civilian and commercial applications. For those people suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – a leading cause of blindness for older adults – this lens could be used to correct for vision loss.

As always, enhancement technology is a two-edged sword. Devices and systems that are created to address disabilities and limitations have the added benefit of augmenting people who are otherwise healthy and ambulatory. The reverse is also true, with specialized machines that can make a person stronger, faster, and more aware providing amputees and physically challenged people the ability to overcome these imposed limitations.

telescopic-contact-lens-5However, before anyone starts thinking that all they need to slip on a pair of these to get superhero-like vision, there are certain limitations. As already stated, the lens doesn’t work on its own but needs to be paired with a modified set of 3D television glasses for it to work. Simply placing it on the pupil and expecting magnified vision is yet not an option.

Also, though the device has been tested using computer modeling and by attaching a prototype lens to a optomechanical model eye, it has not been tested on a set of human eyes just yet. As always, there is still a lot of work to do with refining the technology and improving the image quality, but it’s clear at this early juncture that the work holds a lot of promise.

It’s the age of bionic enhancements people, are we find ourselves at the forefront of it. As time goes on, we can expect such devices to become a regular feature of our society.

Sources: news.cnet.com, extremetech.com

The Future is Here: Bionic Eye Approved by FDA!

Argus-IIAfter more than 20 years in the making, the Argus II bionic eye was finally approved this past February by the Food and Drug Administration for commercial sale in the US. For people suffering from the rare genetic condition known as retinitis pigmentosa – an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and often blindness – this is certainly good news indeed.

Developed by Second Sight, the Argus II is what is known as a “Retinal Prosthesis System” (RPS) that corrects the main effect of retinitis pigmentosa, which is the diminished ability to distinguish light from dark. While it doesn’t actually restore vision to people who suffer from this condition, it can improve their perceptions of light and dark, and thus identify the movement or location of objects.

argusII_1The Argus II works by using a series of electrodes implanted onto the retina that are wirelessly connected to a video camera mounted on the eyeglasses. The eye-electrodes use electrical impulses transmitted from the camera to stimulate the part of the retina that allows for image perception. By circumventing the parts of the eye effected by the disease, the bionic device is a prosthetic in every sense of the word.

According to Suber S. Huang, director of the University Hospital Eye Institute’s Center for Retina and Macular Disease, the breakthrough treatment is:

 [R]emarkable. The system offers a profound benefit for people who are blind from RP and who currently have no therapy available to them. Argus II allows patients to reclaim their independence and improve their lives.

ArgusIIArgus II boasts 20-plus years of research, three clinical trials, and more than $200 million in private and public investment behind it. Still, the system has been categorized by the FDA as a humanitarian use device, meaning there is a “reasonable assurance” that the device is safe and its “probable benefit outweighs the risk of illness or injury.”

Good news for people with vision impairment, and a big step in the direction of restoring sight. And of course, a possible step on the road to human enhancement and augmentation. As always, every development that is made in the direction of correcting human impairment offers the future possibility of augmenting otherwise unimpaired human beings.

infraredAs such, it might not be long before there are devices that can give the average human the ability to see in the invisible spectrum, such as IR and ultra-violet frequencies. Perhaps also something that can detect x-rays, gamma ray radiation, and other harmful particles. Given that the very definition of cyborg is “a being with both organic and cybernetic parts”, the integration of this device means the birth of the cybernetic age.

And be sure to check out this promotional video by Second Sight showing how the device works:

Source: news.cnet.com

The Future is Here: The Cybernetic “Third Eye”

neil_harbissonAchromatopsia is a rare form of color blindness that effects one in thirty-five thousand people. One such individual is Neil Harbisson, who was born with the genetic mutation that rob him of the ability to see the world in anything other than black and white. But since 2004, he has been able to “hear” color, thanks to a body modification that has provided with him with a cybernetic third eye.

EyeborgThis device is known as the “eyeborg”, and given that it constitutes a cybernetic enhancement, some have taken to calling Harbisson a genuine cyborg. For others, he’s an example of a posthuman era where cybernetic enhancements will be the norm. In either case, the function of the eyeborg works was described in the following way in an article by Nautilus entitled “Encounters with the Posthuman”:

It transposes color into a continuous electronic beep, exploiting the fact that both light and sound are made up of waves of various frequencies. Red, at the bottom of the visual spectrum and with the lowest frequency, sounds the lowest, and violet, at the top, sounds highest. A chip at the back of Harbisson’s head performs the necessary computations, and a pressure-pad allows color-related sound to be conducted to Harbisson’s inner ear through the vibration of his skull, leaving his outer ears free for normal noise. Harbisson, who has perfect pitch, has learned to link these notes back to the colors that produced them.

Harbisson’s brain doesn’t convert those sounds back into visual information, so he still doesn’t know exactly what the color blue looks like. But he knows what it sounds like. As he explained to an audience at a TED Talks segment, he used to dress based on appearances. Now, he dresses in a way that sounds good. For example, the pink blazer, blue shirt and yellow pants he was wearing for the talk formed a C Major chord.

neil_harbisson1This may sound like an abstract replacement for actual color perception, but in many ways, the eyeborg surpasses human chromatic perception. For example, the device is capable of distinguishing 360 different hues, he can hear ultraviolet and infrared. So basically, you don’t need a UV index when you have the cybernetic third eye. All you need to do is take a look outside and instantly know if you need sunblock or not.

These and other extension of human abilities are what led Harbisson to found the Cyborg Foundation, a society that is working to create cybernetic devices that compensate for and augment human senses. These include the “fingerborg” that replaces a finger with a camera, a “speedborg” that conveys how fast an object is moving with earlobe vibrations and–according to a promotional film–a “cybernetic nose” that allows people to perceive smells through electromagnetic signals.

steve-mann1In addition to helping people become cyborgs, the foundation claims to fight for cyborg rights. While this might sounds like something out of science fiction, the recent backlash against wearers of Google glasses and the assault on Steve Mann are indications that such a society is increasingly necessary. In addition, Harbisson wants to find ways to fix devices like his eyeborg permanently to his skull, and recharge it with his blood.

For more information on the eyeborg and Project Cyborg, check out Harbisson’s website here. Neil Harbisson’s Project Cyborg promotional video is also available on Vimeo. And be sure to watch the video of Neil Harbisson at the TED Talks lecture:

fastcoexist.com, nautil.us, eyeborgproject.com

The Future is Here: The Autonomous Robotic Jellyfish!

Matt Russiello submerges the RoboJelly. Remember the Medusoid, that creepy robot jellyfish creature that debuted in July of 2012? Well, it seems that Virginia Tech was working on their own, with help from the military. Yes, whereas the medusoid was a project in organic-synthetic interfacing, a collaborative effort between Harvard University and Caltech researchers, this one is the result of ongoing work by the United States Navy.

After years of working on their own model for a robot jellyfish, they unveiled the fruits of that labor earlier this month. Named Cyro – a contraction of robot and Cyanea capillata (the species name for the lion’s mane jellyfish) – this 170 pound biomimetic machine looks and act like a jellyfish, but is in fact an autonomous robot.

cyro1And much the Medusoid and Robojelly – Cyro’s hand-sized predecessor – this second-generation model utilizes what is called “Bio-Inspired Shape memory Alloy Composites (BISMAC)” in order to mimic the motions of the real thing. This consists of a
layer of smart materials (aka. shape memory alloy) that is soft and shaped in such a way to maximize deformation and propulsion.

Underneath this layer of composite material are a number of actuators (i.e. robotic arms) that control the movements of the Cyro. These in turn are mounted on a central body that contains enough hardware to allow the robot to communicate, gather information, and make decisions. What’s more, the developers envisage a fleet of networked Cyros, conducting surveillance and research and sharing the results with each other.

cyro2And as the video below explains, this robot jellyfish is likely to have numerous applications. These included environmental monitoring, cleaning up oil spills, or conducting military surveillance. Of course, it seems pretty obvious what the primary use of the Cyro is going to be, given that the ONR and the U.S. Naval Undersea Warfare Center are responsible for funding it!

No telling how Human Right Watch will react to this, though. How safe would you feel, knowing that the next time you’re snorkeling, swimming or ocean kayaking that a perfectly innocent looking Man-of-War could be spying on you? Check out the video of the Cyro being tested below:

fastcoexist.com, emdl.mse.vt.edu

Movie Trailer Monday: Elysium

ElysiumHello people and welcome back to another installment of MTM! Today, its a full-length trailer for the upcoming movie Elysium, a dystopian tale that takes place in the year 2159, where the class divide between rich and poor extends into orbit. The very wealthy live on a man-made space station (named Elysium) while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth.

Into this, a cybernetically-enhanced man from Earth takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds. Written and directed by Neil Blomkamp, who wrote District 9, and starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley (who played the protagonist of District 9), the sci-fi makes use of a lot of classic dystopian themes and showcases some very impressive looking sets.

I for one shall bookmark this movie as a must-see/must rent/catch on Netflix/worst-case-scenario must download. Stuff happens, what can I say?

Of Cybernetic Hate Crimes

Google Glass_CalaLast week, a bar in Seattle banned the use of Google Glass. The pub declared on their Facebook page that if anyone wanted to order a pint, they had better remove their $1500 pair of augmented reality display glasses beforehand. Citing the glasses potential to film or take pictures and post them on the internet, the bar owner unflinchingly declared that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.”

This is the second case of what some are dubbing a new wave of “Cybernetic hate crimes”. The first took place back in July 2012 when Steve Mann, a Canadian university professor known as the “father of wearable computing”, was physically assaulted at a McDonalds in Paris, France. In this case, three employees took exception with his wearable computer and tried to physically remove it, an impossibility since it is permanent screwed into his head, and then three him out of the restaurant.

steve-mann1Taken together, these two incidents highlight a possible trend which could become commonplace as the technology grows in use. In some ways, this is a reflection of the fears critics have raised about the ways in which these new technologies could be abused. However, there are those who worry that these kinds of fears are likely to lead to people banning these devices and becoming intolerant to those who use them.

By targeting people who employ augmented reality, bionic eyes, or wearable computers, we are effectively stigmatizing a practice which may become the norm in the not too distant future. But Google responded to the incident with optimism and released a statement that cited shifting attitudes over time:

It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time.

smartphonesYes, one can remember without much effort how similar worries were raised about smartphones and camera phones not that long ago, and their use has become so widespread that virtually all doubts about how they might be abused and what effect they would have on social norms have gone quiet. Still, doubts remain that with the availability of technologies that make it easier to monitor people, society is becoming more and more invasive.

But to this, Mann, responds by raising what he had always hoped portable computing would result in. Back in the 1970’s when he first began working on the concept for his EyeTap, he believed that camera-embedded wearables could be both liberating and empowering. In a world permeated by security cameras and a sensory-sphere dominated by corporate memes, he foresaw these devices a means for individuals to re-take control of their environment and protect themselves.

EyeTapThis was all in keeping with Mann’s vision of a future where wearable cameras and portable computers could allow for what he calls sousveillance — a way for people to watch the watchers and be at the ready to chronicle any physical assaults or threats. How ironic that his own invention allowed him to do just that when he himself was assaulted!

And in the current day and age, this vision may be even more important and relevant, given the rise in surveillance and repressive measures brought on in the wake of the “War on Terror”. As Mann himself has written:

Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that is self-balancing. Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance) as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.

Raises a whole bunch of questions, doesn’t it? As the issue of dwindling privacy becomes more and more of an issue, and where most people respond to such concerns by dredging up dystopian scenarios, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that this is a form of technology that rests firmly in our hands, the consumers, not those of an overbearing government.

google_glass_banBut then again, that doesn’t exactly ease the fears of a privacy invasion much, does it? Whether it is a few functionaries and bureaucrats monitoring us for the sake of detecting criminal behavior or acts of “sedition”, or a legion of cyberbullies and gawking masses scrutinizing our every move, being filmed and photographed against our will and having it posted is still pretty creepy.

But does that necessitate banning the use of this technology outright? Are we within our rights, as a society, to deny service to people sporting AR glasses, or to physically threaten them if they are unable or unwilling to remove them? And is this something that will only get better, or worse, with time?

Sources: IO9, (2), news.cnet.com, eecg.toronto.edu