Judgement Day Update: Super-Strong Robotic Muscle

robot-arm-wrestling-03-20-09In their quest to build better, smarter and faster machines, researchers are looking to human biology for inspiration. As has been clear for some time, anthropomorphic robot designs cannot be expected to do the work of a person or replace human rescue workers if they are composed of gears, pullies, and hydraulics. Not only would they be too slow, but they would be prone to breakage.

Because of this, researchers have been working looking to create artificial muscles, synthetics tissues that respond to electrical stimuli, are flexible, and able to carry several times their own weight – just like the real thing. Such muscles will not only give robots the ability to move and perform tasks with the same ambulatory range as a human, they are likely to be far stronger than the flesh and blood variety.

micro_robot_muscleAnd of late, there have been two key developments on this front which may make this vision come true. The first comes from the US Department of Energy ’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where a team of researchers have demonstrated a new type of robotic muscle that is 1,000 times more powerful than that of a human’s, and has the ability to catapult an item 50 times its own weight.

The artificial muscle was constructed using vanadium dioxide, a material known for its ability to rapidly change size and shape. Combined with chromium and fashioned with a silicone substrate, the team formed a V-shaped ribbon which formed a coil when released from the substrate. The coil when heated turned into a micro-catapult with the ability to hurl objects – in this case, a proximity sensor.

micro_robot_muscle2pngVanadium dioxide boasts several useful qualities for creating miniaturized artificial muscles and motors. An insulator at low temperatures, it abruptly becomes a conductor at 67° Celsius (152.6° F), a quality which makes it an energy efficient option for electronic devices. In addition, the vanadium dioxide crystals undergo a change in their physical form when warmed, contracting along one dimension while expanding along the other two.

Junqiao Wu, the team’s project leader, had this to say about their invention in a press statement:

Using a simple design and inorganic materials, we achieve superior performance in power density and speed over the motors and actuators now used in integrated micro-systems… With its combination of power and multi-functionality, our micro-muscle shows great potential for applications that require a high level of functionality integration in a small space.

In short, the concept is a big improvement over existing gears and motors that are currently employed in electronic systems. However, since it is on the scale of nanometers, it’s not exactly Terminator-compliant. However, it does provide some very interesting possibilities for machines of the future, especially where the functionality of micro-systems are concerned.

graphene_flexibleAnother development with the potential to create robotic muscles comes from Duke University, where a team of engineers have found a possible way to turn graphene into a stretchable, retractable material. For years now, the miracle properties of graphene have made it an attractive option for batteries, circuits, capacitors, and transistors.

However, graphene’s tendency to stick together once crumpled has had a somewhat limiting effect on its applications. But by attacking the material to a stretchy polymer film, the Duke researchers were able to crumple and then unfold the material, resulting in a properties that lend it to a broader range of applications- including artificial muscles.

robot_muscle1Before adhering the graphene to the rubber film, the researchers first pre-stretched the film to multiple times its original size. The graphene was then attached and, as the rubber film relaxed, the graphene layer compressed and crumpled, forming a pattern where tiny sections were detached. It was this pattern that allowed the graphene to “unfold” when the rubber layer was stretched out again.

The researchers say that by crumpling and stretching, it is possible to tune the graphene from being opaque to transparent, and different polymer films can result in different properties. These include a “soft” material that acts like an artificial muscle. When electricity is applied, the material expands, and when the electricity is cut off, it contracts; the degree of which depends on the amount of voltage used.

robot_muscle2Xuanhe Zhao, an Assistant Professor at the Pratt School of Engineering, explained the implications of this discovery:

New artificial muscles are enabling diverse technologies ranging from robotics and drug delivery to energy harvesting and storage. In particular, they promise to greatly improve the quality of life for millions of disabled people by providing affordable devices such as lightweight prostheses and full-page Braille displays.

Currently, artificial muscles in robots are mostly of the pneumatic variety, relying on pressurized air to function. However, few robots use them because they can’t be controlled as precisely as electric motors. It’s possible then, that future robots may use this new rubberized graphene and other carbon-based alternatives as a kind of muscle tissue that would more closely replicate their biological counterparts.

artificial-muscle-1This would not only would this be a boon for robotics, but (as Zhao notes) for amputees and prosthetics as well. Already, bionic devices are restoring ability and even sensation to accident victims, veterans and people who suffer from physical disabilities. By incorporating carbon-based, piezoelectric muscles, these prosthetics could function just like the real thing, but with greater strength and carrying capacity.

And of course, there is the potential for cybernetic enhancement, at least in the long-term. As soon as such technology becomes commercially available, even affordable, people will have the option of swapping out their regular flesh and blood muscles for something a little more “sophisticated” and high-performance. So in addition to killer robots, we might want to keep an eye out for deranged cyborg people!

And be sure to check out this video from the Berkley Lab showing the vanadium dioxide muscle in action:


Source:
gizmag.com, (2)
, extremetech.com, pratt.duke.edu

The Future is Weird: Cyborg Sperm!

cyborg_sperm1Finding ways to merge the biological and the technological, thus creating the best of both worlds, is one of the hallmarks of our new age. Already, we have seen how bionic appendages that connect and calibrate to people’s nerve signals can restore mobility and sensation to injured patients. And EEG devices that can read and interpret brainwaves are allowing man-machine interface like never before.

But cyborg sperm? That is something that might require an explanation. You see, sperm cells have an awesome swimming ability. And wanting to take advantage of this, Oliver Schmidt and a team researchers at the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences in Dresden, Germany, combined individual sperm cells with tiny magnetic metal tubes to create the first sperm-based biobots.

Cyborg_Sperm3This means we now have a way to control a cell’s direction inside the body, a breakthrough that could lead to efficient microscopic robots – one which are not entirely mechanical. To make the “biohybrid micro-robot,” Schmidt and his colleagues captured and trapped bull sperm inside magnetic microtubes, leaving the tail outside.

To create the spermbots, the team made microtubes 50 microns long, by 5 to 8 microns in diameter from iron and titanium nanoparticles. They added the tubes to a fluid containing thawed bull sperm. Because one end of each tube was slightly narrower than the other, sperm that swam into the wider end become trapped, headfirst, with their flagella still free.

cyborg_sperm2With mobility taken care of, the team moved on to the matter of how to control and direct the microtubes. For this, they chose to rely on a system of external magnetic fields which work the same way as a compass needle does, by aligning with the Earth’s magnetic field. This enabled the team to control the direction in which the sperm swam, adjusting their speed through the application of heat.

According to the researchers, the option of using sperm as the basis for a biohybrid micro-robot is attractive because they are harmless to the human body, they provide their own power, and they can swim through viscous liquids – such as blood and other bodily fluids. As the researchers said in their paper:

The combination of a biological power source and a microdevice is a compelling approach to the development of new microrobotic devices with fascinating future application.

cyborg_spermGranted, the idea of cybernetic sperm swimming through our systems might not seem too appealing. But think of the benefits for fertility treatments and inter-uteran health. In the future, tiny biohybrid robots like these could be used to shepherd individual sperm to eggs, making for more effective artificial insemination. They could also  deliver targeted doses of drugs to uteran tissue that is either infected or cancerous.

And if nothing else, it helps to demonstrate the leaps and bounds that are being made in the field of  biotechnology and nanotechnology of late. At its current rate of development, we could be seeing advanced medimachines and DNA-based nanobots becoming a part of regular medical procedures in just a few years time.

And while we’re waiting, check out this video of the “cyborg sperm” in action, courtesy of New Scientist:


Sources:
IO9, newscientist.com

The First Government-Recognized Cyborg

harbisson_cyborgThose who follow tech news are probably familiar with the name Neil Harbisson. As a futurist, and someone who was born with a condition known as achromatopsia – which means he sees everything in shades in gray – he spent much of his life looking to augment himself so that he could see what other people see. And roughly ten years ago, he succeeded by creating a device known as the “eyeborg”.

Also known as a cybernetic “third eye”, this device – which is permanently integrated to his person – allows Harbisson to “hear” colors by translating the visual information into specific sounds. After years of use, he is able to discern different colors based on their sounds with ease. But what’s especially interesting about this device is that it makes Harbisson a bona fide cyborg.

neil_harbisson1What’s more, Neil Harbisson is now the first person on the planet to have a passport photo that shows his cyborg nature. After a long battle with UK authorities, his passport now features a photo of him, eyeborg and all. And now, he is looking to help other cyborgs like himself gain more rights, mainly because of the difficulties such people have been facing in recent years.

Consider the case of Steve Mann, the man recognized as the “father of wearable computers”. Since the 1970’s, he has been working towards the creation of fully-portable, ergonomic computers that people can carry with them wherever they go. The result of this was the EyeTap, a wearable computer he invented in 1998 and then had grafted to his head.

steve-mann1And then in July of 2012, he was ejected from a McDonald’s in Paris after several staff members tried to forcibly remove the wearable device. And then in April of 2013, a bar in Seattle banned patrons from using Google Glass, declaring that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.” Other businesses across the world have followed, fearing that people wearing these devices may be taking photos or video and posting it to the internet.

Essentially, Harbisson believes that recent technological advances mean there will be a rapid growth in the number of people with cybernetic implants in the near future, implants that can will either assist them or give them enhanced abilities. As he put it in a recent interview:

Our instincts and our bodies will change. When you incorporate technology into the body, the body will need to change to accommodate; it modifies and adapts to new inputs. How we adapt to this change will be very interesting.

cyborg_foundationOther human cyborgs include Stelarc, a performance artist who has implanted a hearing ear on his forearm; Kevin Warwick, the “world’s first human cyborg” who has an RFID chip embedded beneath his skin, allowing him to control devices such as lights, doors and heaters; and “DIY cyborg” Tim Cannon, who has a self-administered body-monitoring device in his arm.

And though they are still in the minority, the number of people who live with integrated electronic or bionic devices is growing. In order to ensure that the transition Harbisson foresees is accomplished as painlessly as possible, he created the Cyborg Foundation in 2010. According to their website, the organization’s mission statement is to:

help humans become cyborgs, to promote the use of cybernetics as part of the human body and to defend cyborg rights [whilst] encouraging people to create their own sensory extensions.

transhumanism1And as mind-controlled prosthetics, implants, and other devices meant to augment a person’s senses, faculties, and ambulatory ability are introduced, we can expect people to begin to actively integrate them into their bodies. Beyond correcting for injuries or disabilities, the increasing availability of such technology is also likely to draw people looking to enhance their natural abilities.

In short, the future is likely to be a place in which cyborgs are a common features of our society. The size and shape of that society is difficult to predict, but given that its existence is all but certain, we as individuals need to be able to address it. Not only is it an issue of tolerance, there’s also the need for informed decision-making when it comes whether or not individuals need to make cybernetic enhancements a part of their lives.

Basically, there are some tough issues that need to be considered as we make our way into the future. And having a forum where they can be discussed in a civilized fashion may be the only recourse to a world permeated by prejudice and intolerance on the one hand, and runaway augmentation on the other.

johnnymnemonic04In the meantime, it might not be too soon to look into introducing some regulations, just to make sure we don’t have any yahoos turning themselves into killer cyborgs in the near future! *PS: Bonus points for anyone who can identify which movie the photo above is taken from…

Sources: IO9.com, dezeen.com, eyeborg.wix.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.

telescopic-contact-lens-2

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 Hands!

Behold, the latest in bionic technology! The bebionic 3 model prosthetic hand, by the RSL Steeper company! Encased in an aluminum chassis, boasting improved electronics, a redesigned thumb, and new motors that increase the power grip, this hand was first unveiled at the American Orthotic Prosthetic Association (AOPA) Conference in Boston this past September. Since that time, amputees have been obtaining the hand and incorporating it into their daily lives. And the results are quite encouraging!

In addition to being able to do delicate work, like handle eggs and fine china without breaking them, the hand is also capable of performing a power grip that is capable of generating 31.5 pounds of force. That’s quite the Kung Fu grip, just in case you were wondering. And in “hook” mode, the hand is able to bear a load of 99 pounds. So, though it doesn’t have quite the same dexterity or free range of motion as an organic hand, the bebionic is capable of performing all the basic tasks, and is pretty powerful to boot!

Much like the bionic leg which was popularized by Zak Vawter’s historic climb last weekend, the bebionic works by reading the nerve impulses from the wearer’s arm skin. These are amplified by the arm’s electronics and translated into one of 14 possible grip configurations. These different grips are uploaded to the hands internal memory and users are able to cycle through them to determine which grip they want for which purpose. For instance, a mouse-clicking action makes the thumb grip a mouse, while the index finger clicks the left button. The “precision open grip” can be used to grab small objects and the “tripod grip” can be used to write with a pen.

Currently, and depending on its configuration, the hand costs clinical centers between $25,000 and $35,000. In time, and as it becomes available for public purchase, the price is likely to come down somewhat. Still, such a revolutionary device will not come cheap for many years to come. It also comes available in a range of colors and designs, including snow and jungle camouflage and tiger stripes, as well as realistic silicone skin coverings. See the video below for some examples.

Combined with other advances in the field of bionics and prosthetic devices, the bionic hand presents some new and very exciting possibilities. For one, technologies like ReWalk and other exoskeletons are making it possible for paraplegics to walk again, while sophisticated wheelchairs like the wheelchairbot are making stairs and obstacles passable. Coupled with bionic limbs that are giving full ambulatory motion back to amputees, we could be looking at a future where robotic enhancements can restore any and all ability to accident victims, combat veterans and people born with physical deformities.

In addition, the most audacious developments, such as bionic enhancements or robot chairs that read brain waves directly, giving full motion to quadriplegics and the ability to communicate fully to people with degenerative conditions is still yet to come! Once such technologies are readily available and commercially viable, we might even be seeing the emergence of a cybernetics industry, where people can receive enhancements that not only restore abilities, but greatly enhance them. Artificial limbs the enhance strenght and speed, artificial eyes that enhance vision and provide projected images and augmented reality displays, and even silicate implants that enhance brain function and make people smarter.

Homo Superior people… I just got goosebumps!

And while we’re waiting on all that to happen, check out this promo video for the latest bebionic model:


And here’s a video of the bebionic going through a battery grip pattern tests: