Warning Signs from the Future

future-signs-02From bioenhancements becoming the norm, to people constantly wired into augmented reality; from synthetic organs to synthetic meat; driverless taxis to holograms and robot helpers – the future is likely to be an interesting-looking place. That’s the subject in a new Tumblr called Signs from the Near Future, where designer Fernando Barbella explores what signage will look like when we have to absorb all of these innovations into human culture.

Taking its cue from what eager startups and scientists predict, Barbella’s collection of photos looks a few decades into the future where dramatic, sci-fi inspired innovations have become everyday things. These include things like drones becoming a regular thing, driverless taxis (aka. robotaxis) and synthetic meat becoming available, high-tech classrooms servicing the post-humans amongst us, and enhancements and implants becoming so common they need to be regulated and monitored.

future-signs-01Barbella says that the project was inspired by articles he’s read on topics like nanomedicine, autonomous cars, and 3-D food printing, as well as classic books (Neuromancer, Fahrenheit 51), movies (Blade Runner, Gattaca), music (Rage Against The Machine), and TV shows (Fringe, Black Mirror). The designer chose to focus on signs because he figures that we’ll need a little guidance to speed up our learning curves with new technology. As he put it during an interview via email:

New materials, mashups between living organisms and nanotechnologies, improved capabilities for formerly ‘dumb’ and inanimate things . . . There’s lots of awesome things going on around us! And the fact is all these things are going to cease being just ‘projects’ to became part of our reality at any time soon. On the other hand, I chose to express these thing by signs deployed in ordinary places, featuring instructions and warnings because I feel that as we increasingly depend on technology, we will probably have less space for individual judgment to make decisions.

future-signs-07Some of the signs – including one thanking drivers for choosing to ride on a solar panel highway – can be traced back to specific news articles or announcements. The solar highway sign was inspired by a solar roadways crowdfunding campaign, which has so far raised over $2 million to build solar road panels. However, rather than focus on the buzz and how cool and modern such a development would be, Barbella chose to focus on what such a thing would look like.

At the same time, he wanted the pictures to serve as a sort of cautionary tale about the ups and down of the future. As he put it:

I feel that as we increasingly depend on technology, we will probably have less space for individual judgment to make decisions. …I’ve sticked to a more ‘mundane’ point of view, imagining that the people or authorities of any given county would be probably quite grateful for having the chance of transforming all that traffic into energy.

future-signs-03He says he wants his signs to not just depict that momentum and progress, but to reflect the potentially disturbing aspects of those advances as well. Beyond that, Barbella sees an interesting dynamic in the public’s push and pull against what new technology allows us to do. Though the technology grants people access to information and other cultures, it also poses issues of privacy and ethics that hold that back. As a result, privacy concerns are thus featured in the collection in a number of ways.

This includes warning people about “oversharing” via social media, how images snapped using contact display lenses will be shared in real-time with authorities, or how certain neighorhoods are drone patrolled. His images offer a look at why those issues are certain to keep coming — and at the same time, why many will ultimately fall aside. Barbella also stated that has more future signs in the queue, but he says that he’ll stop the moment they start to feel forced.

future-signs-05You have to admit, it does capture the sense of awe and wonder – not to mention fear and anxiety – of what our likely future promises. And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousands words”. In this case, those words present a future that has one foot in the fantastical and another in the fearful, but in such a way that it seems entirely frank and straighforward. But that does seem to be the way the future works, doesn’t it? Somehow, it doesn’t seem like science fiction once it becomes a regular part of “mundane” reality.

To see more of his photos, head on over to his Tumblr account.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, theverge.com

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