Building the Future: 3D Printing and Silkworms

arcology_crystalWhen it comes to building the homes, apartment blocks and businesses headquarters of the future,  designers and urban planners are forced to contend with a few undeniable realities. No only are these buildings going to be need to be greener and more sustainable, they will need to be built in such a way that doesn’t unnecessarily burden the environment.

Currently, the methods for erecting a large city building are criminally inefficient. Between producing the building materials – concrete, steel, wood, granite – and putting it all together, a considerable amount of energy is expended in the form of emissions and electricity, and several tons of waste are produced.

anti-grav3d2Luckily, there are many concepts currently on the table that will alter this trend. Between using smarter materials, more energy-efficient design concepts, and environmentally-friendly processes, the future of construction and urban planning may someday become sustainable and clean.

At the moment, many such concepts involve advances made in 3-D printing, a technology that has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Between anti-gravity printers and sintering, there seems to be incredible potential for building everything from settlements on the moon to bridges and even buildings here on Earth.

bridge_3One case in particular comes to us from Spain, where four students from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia have created a revolutionary 3-D printing robot. It’s known as Stone Spray, a machine that can turn dirt and sand into finished objects such as chairs, walls, and even full-blown bridges.

The brainchild of Anna Kulik, Inder Prakash, Singh Shergill, and Petr Novikov, the robot takes sand or soil, adds a special binding agent, then spews out a fully formed architectural object of the designers’ choosing. As Novikov said in an interview with Co.Design:

The shape of the resulting object is created in 3-D CAD software and then transferred to the robot, defining its movements. So the designer has the full control of the shape.

robot-on-site_0So far, all the prototypes – which include miniature stools and sculptures – are just 20 inches long, about the size of a newborn. But the team is actively planning on increasing the sizes of the objects this robot can produce to architectural size. And they are currently working on their first full-scale engineering model: a bridge (pictured above).

If successful, the robot could represent a big leap forward in the field of sustainable design. Growing a structure from the earth at your feet circumvents one of the most resource-intensive aspects of architecture, which is the construction process.

And speaking of process, check out this video of the Stone Spray in action:


At the same time, however, there are plans to use biohacking to engineer tiny life forms and even bacteria that would be capable of assembling complex structures. In a field that closely resembles “swarm robotics” – where thousands of tiny drones are programmed to build thing – “swarm biologics” seeks to use thousands of little creatures for the same purpose.

silkpavilionMIT has taken a bold step in this arena, thanks to their creation by the Mediated Matter Group that has rebooted the entire concept of “printed structures”. It’s called the Silk Pavilion, a beautiful structures whose hexagonal framework was laid by a robot, but whose walls were shell was created by a swarm of 6,500 live silkworms.

It’s what researchers call a “biological swarm approach to 3-D printing”, but could also be the most innovate example of biohacking to date. While silkworms have been used for millennia to give us silk, that process has always required a level of harvesting. MIT has discovered how to manipulate the worms to shape silk for us natively.

silkpavilion-2The most immediate implications may be in the potential for a “templated swarm” approach, which could involve a factory making clothes just by releasing silkworms across a series of worm-hacking mannequins. But the silkworms’ greater potential may be in sheer scale.

As Mediated Matter’s director Neri Oxman told Co.Design, the real bonus to their silkworm swarm its that it embodies everything an additive fabrication system currently lacks. 

It’s small in size and mobile in movement, it produces natural material of variable mechanical properties, and it spins a non-homogeneous, non-woven textile-like structure.

What’s more, the sheer scale is something that could come in very handy down the road. By bringing 3-D printing together with artificial intelligence to generate printing swarms operating in architectural scales, we could break beyond the bounds of any 3-D printing device or robot, and build structures in their actual environments.

silkpavilion-1In addition, consider the fact that the 6,500 silkworms were still viable after they built the pavilion. Eventually, the silkworms could all pupate into moths on the structure, and those moths can produce 1.5 million eggs. That’s enough to theoretically supply what the worms need to create another 250 pavilions.

So on top of everything else, this silkworm fabrication process is self-propagating, but unlike plans that would involve nanorobots, no new resources need to be consumed to make this happen. Once again, it seems that when it comes to the future of technology, the line between organic and synthetic is once more blurred!

And of course, MIT Media Lab was sure to produce a video of their silkworms creating the Silk Pavilion. Check it out:


Sources:
fastcodesign.com, (2)

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:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, emdl.mse.vt.edu

The Future is Here: Web-Based “Brain” for Robots

AI_robotMy gratitude once again to Nicola Higgins for beating me to the punch yet again! I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m totally posting a separate article, but something like this is just too good to reblog! In what is sure to excite Singularitarians and Futurists and scare the holy bejeezus out of technophobes and those fearing the Robopocalypse, a new web-based artificial brain went online recently, allowing robots to share information and seek help whenever they need it.

It’s called Rapyuta (or the The RoboEarth Cloud Engine), a part of the European Robo Earth project that began in 2011 with the hope of standardizing the way robots perceive the human world. Basically, it is an online database that robots can consult in order to get information about their world and help them make sense of their experiences, post-activation.

robot_internetThe name Rapyuta is taken from the Japanese film by Hayao Miyazaki known as Castle in the Sky, and refers to a place where all the robots live. The project, which involves researchers at five separate European research labs, has produced the database as well as software that robot owners can upload to their machines so that they can connect to the system at any time.

You might say the “brain” is an expression of sympathy for robots, who are no doubt likely to find the world intimidating and confusing once they come online. Now, instead of every robot building up their own idiosyncratic catalog of how to deal with the objects and situations it encounters, Rapyuta would be the place they ask for help when confronted with a novel situation, place or thing.

googlecarIn addition, the web-based service is able to do complicated computation on behalf of a robot. For example, if it needs to work out how to navigate a room, fold an item of clothing or understand human speech, it can simply do an online consultation rather than try to figure it out on its own. In addition, it is believed that robots will be cheaper thanks to this system since it will mean they won’t need to carry all their processing power on board.

Looking ahead, Mohanarajah Gajamohan, technical head of the project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, says that the designers believe the system could be particularly useful for drones, self-driving cars or other mobile robots who have to do a lot of number crunching just to get round.

internetDr Heico Sandee, Robo Earth program manager at the Dutch University of Technology in Eindhoven, also highlighted the economic benefits of this new concept. “On-board computation reduces mobility and increases cost,” he said, adding that as wireless data speeds increase, more and more robotic thinking could be offloaded to the web.

But above all, the aim here is about integration. As robots become more and more common and we human beings are forced to live with them amongst us, there could be difficulties. Without access to such a database, those involved in the project and roboticists at large fear that machines will remain on production lines and never live easily alongside humans.

robots_earthAs for those who support and await the Technological Singularity, this could be one such means through which it is achieved. The idea of machines that are capable of network and constantly upgrade their software is a step in the direction of machines that are capable of self-assembling, evolving and upgrading themselves constantly, which will basically result in a rate of progress that we can currently predict.

But on the other side of the debate, there are those who say this smacks of a Skynet-like supercomputer that could provide machines with the means to network, grow smarter, and think of ways of overthrowing their human masters. While I don’t consider myself the technophobic sort, I can certainly see how this invention could be perceived that way.

robots_ideaCreating a means for robots to communicate and contribute to a growing sense of knowledge, effectively letting them take ownership of their own world, does seem kinda like the first step in creating a world where robots no longer need human handlers. Then again, if we’re going to be creating AI, we might want to consider treating them like sentient, dignified beings beforehand, and avoiding any “controversy” when they begin to demand them later.

Gotta admit, when it comes to technophobes and paranoiacs, this kind of stuff is certainly fertile territory! For more information on the Rapyuta Engine, simply click here. And may God help us all!

terminator_judgement_daySource: bbc.co.uk

The Future is Here: Killer Robots!

Granted, robot drones have been in use for years, usually for diffusing bombs, reconnaissance, and other dirty, dangerous or dull work. But it seems militarized ones are now being pressed into production. 3000 to be exact! That’s the latest tally from developer Foster-Miller who produces the TALON (above left).

Apparently, this little tracked guy can is the fastest robot in production and is capable of traveling through sand, water, snow and can even climb stairs. It’s operators see what it sees courtesy of its mobile cam pod which can transmit live-feed video in color, black and white, infrared, and/or night vision, and from up to 1,000 m away.

But lately, the biggest development has been in adapting these things to become SWORDS – Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System. This is the weaponized version of the TALON, which is being produced in conjunction with Metal Storm, the makers of the most advanced guns in the world.

In addition, the military has already field tested SWORDS with a variety of smaller weapons. These include the M16 rifle, the M249 SAW, the M240 machine gun, the .50 cal M82 Barrett sniper rifle, the six barreled 40 mm grenade launcher and the quad M202A1 flame thrower. The one pictured above is the Maars variant of the SWORD, which carries a M249 on one arm, and a quad 40mm grenade launcher.

And of course just about every advanced nation in the world is producing their own. Israel and Russia are two top contenders for weaponized robots, which include Israel’s automated “Killzone” towers and Russia developing tracked vehicles that can fire anti-tank rockets from concealed positions.

So basically, military forces around the world could find themselves facing an enemy that can kill them from up to a km away without fear, beyond the possibility of losing a drone. And it predicts a renewed arms race if in fact the militaries of the world begin adopting the technology en masse and using it for previously manned missions. Oy, I smell a sci-fi concept here!

For a demonstration of the TALON in action, check out the video below:

AI Graph

Inspired by what I learned from my little romp through the world of AI, I’ve come up with a graph that depicts the general rules I observed. Basically, there are two guiding principles to the world of AI’s and science fiction. On the one hand, there’s their capacity for emotion and second, there is their level of benevolence/malevolence towards humanity. As I noted in the last post, the two are very much interlinked and pretty much determine what purpose they serve to the larger story.

So… if one were to plot their regard for humanity as the x axis and their emotions as the y axis, you’d get a matrix that would look pretty much like this:

As usual, not a complete mock-up, just the examples that I could think of. I made sure to include the ones that didn’t make it into my previous posts (like HAL, how could I forget him?!) And even though I had no real respect for them as characters, I also included the evil robots Erasmus and Omnius from the Dune prequels.

P.S. Notice how the examples are pretty much evenly distributed? Unlike the Alien Graph where examples were concentrated in two quadrants (evil and advanced or good and advanced), here we have robots that run the gambit from emotional to stoic and evil to good in a nearly uniform pattern. Interesting…

Robots, Androids and AI’s

Let’s talk artificial life forms, shall we? Lord knows they are a common enough feature in science fiction, aren’t they? In many cases, they take the form of cold, calculating machines that chill audiences to the bones with their “kill all humans” kind of vibe. In others, they were the solid-state beings with synthetic parts but hearts of gold and who stole ours in the process. Either way, AI’s are a cornerstone to the world of modern sci-fi. And over the past few decades, they’ve gone through countless renditions and re-imaginings, each with their own point to make about humanity, technology, and the line that separates natural and artificial.

But in the end, its really just the hardware that’s changed. Whether we were talking about Daleks, Terminators, or “Synthetics”, the core principle has remained the same. Based on mathematician and legendary cryptographer Alan Turing’s speculations, an Artificial Intelligence is essentially a being that can fool the judges in a double-blind test. Working extensively with machines that were primarily designed for solving massive mathematical equations, Turing believed that some day, we would be able to construct a machine that would be able to perform higher reasoning, surpassing even humans.

Arny (Da Terminator):
Who knew robots from the future would have Austrian accents? For that matter, who knew they’d all look like bodybuilders? Originally, when Arny was presented with the script for Cameron’s seminal time traveling sci-fi flick, he was being asked to play the role of Kyle Reese, the human hero. But Arny very quickly found himself identifying with the role of the Terminator, and a franchise was born!

Originally, the Terminator was the type of cold, unfeeling and ruthless machine that haunted our nightmares, a cyberpunk commentary on the dangers of run-away technology and human vanity. Much like its creator, the Skynet supercomputer, the T101 was part of a race of machines that decided it could do without humanity and was sent out to exterminate them. As Reese himself said in the original: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

The second Terminator, by contrast, was a game changer. Captured in the future and reprogrammed to protect John Conner, he became the sort of surrogate father that John never had. Sarah reflected on this irony during a moment of internal monologue during movie two: “Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The terminator, would never stop. It would never leave him, and it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die, to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.”

In short, Cameron gave us two visions of technology with these first two installments in the series. In the first, we got the dangers of worshiping high-technology at the expense of humanity. In movie two, we witnessed the reconciliation of humans with technology, showing how an artificial life form could actually be capable of more humanity than a human being. To quote one last line from the franchise: “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”

Bender:
No list of AI’s and the like would ever be complete without mentioning Futurama’s Bender. That dude put’s the funk in funky robot! Originally designed to be a bending unit, hence his name, he seems more adept at wisecracking, alcoholism, chain-smoking and comedicaly plotting the demise of humanity. But its quickly made clear that he doesn’t really mean it. While he may hold humans in pretty low esteem, laughing at tragedy and failing to empathize with anything that isn’t him, he also loves his best friend Fry whom he refers to affectionately as “meat-bag”.

In addition, he’s got some aspirations that point to a creative soul. Early on in the show, it was revealed that any time he gets around something magnetic, he begins singing folk and country western tunes. This is apparently because he always wanted to be a singer, and after a crippling accident in season 3, he got to do just that – touring the country with Beck and a show called “Bend-aid” which raised awareness about the plight of broken robots.

He also wanted to be a cook, which was difficult considering he had no sense of taste or seemed to care about lethally poisoning humans! However, after learning at the feet of legendary Helmut Spargle, he learned the secret of “Ultimate Flavor”, which he then used to challenge and humiliate his idol chef Elzar on the Iron Chef. Apparently the secret was confidence, and a vial of water laced with LSD!

Other than that, there’s really not that much going on with Bender. Up front, he’s a chain smoking, alcoholic robot with loose morals or a total lack thereof. When one gets to know him better, they pretty much conclude that what you see is what you get! An endless source of sardonic humor, weird fashion sense, and dry one-liners. Of them all “Bite my shiny metal ass”, “Pimpmobile”, “We’re boned!” and “Up yours chump” seems to rank the highest.

Ash/Bishop:
Here we have yet another case of robots giving us mixed messages, and comes to us direct from the Alien franchise. In the original movie, we were confronted with Ash, an obedient corporate mole who did the company’s bidding at the expense of human life. His cold, misguided priorities were only heightened when he revealed that he admired the xenomorph because of its “purity”. “A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

After going nuts and trying to kill Ripley, he was even kind enough to smile and say in that disembodied tinny voice of his, “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.” What an asshole! And the perfect representation for an inhuman, calculating robot. The result of unimpeded aspirations, no doubt the same thing which was motivating his corporate masters to get their hands on a hostile alien, even if it meant sacrificing a crew or two.

But, as with Terminator, Cameron pulled a switch-up in movie two with the Synthetic known as Bishop (or “artificial human” as he preferred to be called). In the beginning, Ripley was hostile towards him, rebuffing his attempts to assure her that he was incapable of killing people thanks to the addition of his behavioral inhibitors. Because of these, he could not harm, or through inaction allow to be harmed, a human being (otherwise known as an “Asimov”). But in the end, Bishop’s constant concern for the crew and the way he was willing to sacrifice himself to save Newt won her over.

Too bad he had to get ripped in half to earn her trust. But I guess when a earlier model tries to shove a magazine down your throat, you kind of have to go above and beyond to make someone put their life in your hands again. Now if only all synthetics were willing to get themselves ripped in half for Ripley’s sake, she’d be set!

C3P0/R2D2:
For that matter, who knew robots from the future would be fay, effeminate and possibly homosexual? Not that there’s anything wrong with that last one… But as audiences are sure to agree, the other characteristics could get quite annoying after awhile. C3P0’s constant complaining, griping, moaning and citing of statistical probabilities were at once too human and too robotic! Kind of brilliant really… You could say he was the Sheldon of the Star Wars universe!

Still, C3P0 if nothing if not useful when characters found themselves in diplomatic situations, or facing a species of aliens who’s language they couldn’t possibly fathom. He could even interface with machinery, which was helpful when the hyperdrive was out or the moisture condensers weren’t working. Gotta bring in that “Blue Harvest” after all! And given that R2D2 could do nothing but bleep and blurp, someone had to be around to translate for him.

Speaking of which, R2D2 was the perfect counterpart to C3P0. As the astromech droid of the pair, he was the engineer and a real nuts and bolts kind of guy, whereas C3P0 was the diplomat and expert in protocol.  Whereas 3P0 was sure to give up at the first sign of trouble, R2 would always soldier on and put himself in harm’s way to get things done. This difference in personality was also made evident in their differences in height and structure. Whereas C3P0 was tall, lanky and looked quite fragile, R2D2 was short, stocky, and looked like he could take a licking and keep on ticking!

Naturally, it was this combination of talents that made them comically entertaining during their many adventures and hijinks together. The one would always complain and be negative, the other would be positive and stubborn. And in the end, despite their differences, they couldn’t possibly imagine a life without the other. This became especially evident whenever they were separated or one of them was injured.

Hmmm, all of this is starting to sound familiar to me somehow. I’m reminded of another, mismatched, and possibly homosexual duo. One with a possible fetish for rubber… Not that there’s anything wrong with that! 😉

Cameron:
Some might accuse me of smuggling her in here just to get some eye-candy in the mix. Some might say that this list already has an example from the Terminator franchise and doesn’t need another. They would probably be right…

But you know what, screw that, it’s Summer Glau! And the fact of the matter is, she did a way better job than Kristanna Loken at showing that these killing/protective machines can be played by women. Making her appearance in the series Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles, she worked alongside acting great Lena Headey of 300 and Game of Thrones fame.

And in all fairness, she and Lokken did bring some variety to the franchise. For instance, in the show, she portrayed yet another reprogrammed machine from the future, but represented a model different from the T101’s. The purpose of these latter models appeared to be versatility, the smaller chassis and articulate appendages now able to fit inside a smaller frame, making a woman’s body available as a potential disguise. Quite smart really. If you think about it, people are a lot more likely to trust a smaller woman than a bulked-out Arny bot any day (especially men!) It also opened up the series to more female characters other than Sarah.

And dammit, it’s Summer Glau! If she didn’t earn her keep from portraying River Tam in Firefly and Serenity, then what hope is there for the rest of us!

Cortana:
Here we have another female AI, and one who is pretty attractive despite her lack of a body. In this case, she comes to us from the Halo universe. In addition to being hailed by critics for her believability, depth of character, and attractive appearance, she was ranked as one of the most disturbingly sexual game characters by Games.net. No surprises there, really. Originally, the designers of her character used Egyptian Queen Nefertiti as a model, and her half-naked appearance throughout the game has been known to get the average gamer to stand up and salute!

Though she serves ostensibly as the ship’s AI for the UNSC Pillar of Autumn, Cortana ends up having a role that far exceeds her original programming. Constructed from the cloned brain of Dr. Catherine Elizabeth Halsey, creator of the SPARTAN project, she has an evolving matrix, and hence is capable of learning and adapting as time goes on. Due to this and their shared experiences as the series goes on, she and the Master Chief form a bond and even become something akin to friends.

Although she has no physical appearance, Cortana’ program is mobile and makes several appearances throughout the series, and always in different spots. She is able to travel around with the Master Chief, commandeer Covenant vessels, and interface with a variety of machines. And aside from her feminine appearance, he soft, melodic voice is a soothing change of pace from the Chief’s gruff tone and the racket of gunfire and dead aliens!

Data:
The stoic, stalwart and socially awkward android of Star Trek: TNG. Built to resemble his maker, Dr. Noonian Soong, Data is a first-generation positronic android – a concept borrowed from Asimov’s I, Robot. He later enlisted in Star Fleet in order to be of service to humanity and explore the universe. In addition to his unsurpassed computational abilities, he also possesses incredible strength, reflexes, and even knows how to pleasure the ladies. No joke, he’s apparently got all kind of files on how to do… stuff, and he even got to use them! 😉

Unfortunately, Data’s programming does not include emotions. Initially, this seemed to serve the obvious purpose of making his character a foil for humanity, much like Spock was in the original series. However, as the show progressed, it was revealed that Soong had created an android very much like Data who also possessed the capacity for emotions. But of course, things went terribly wrong when this model, named Lor, became terribly ambitious and misanthropic. There were some deaths…

Throughout the original series, Data finds himself seeking to understand humanity, frequently coming up short, but always learning from the experience. His attempts at humor and failure to grasp social cues and innuendo are also a constant source of comic relief, as are his attempts to mimic these very things. And though he eventually was able to procure an “emotion chip” from his brother, Data remains the straight man of the TNG universe, responding to every situation with a blank look or a confused and fascinated expression.

More coming in installment two. Just give me some time to do all the write ups and find some pics :)…