Energy independence for sewage-eating robot

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2010

This story’s all over the place, at venues as diverse as Hack-A-Day and Mike Anissimov’s blog… and with good reason. Here’s the lede from PhysOrg:

UK researchers have developed an autonomous robot with an artificial gut that enables it to fuel itself by eating and excreting. The robot is the first bot powered by biomass to be demonstrated operating without assistance for several days. Being self-sustaining would enable robots of the future to function unaided for long periods.

Yup, you read that right – this machine eats a kind of organic slurry, digests the nutrients in it and then craps out the waste. Not quite so elegant (or do I mean sinister?) as the proposed rat-eating household bot we mentioned a while back, eh?

Joking aside, this is quite a big deal – energy-autonomous machines could do all sorts of amazing things, and some scary ones too. It also stirs up the same arguments about “artificial life” as the Venter announcement, albeit coming from a very different angle: if I remember my GCSE biology right, eating and excreting are two pillars of the scientific definition of biological life, and there’s a machine that does both as well as being capable of independent movement. Interesting times, people, interesting times.

Speaking of sewage and energy, we could probably be getting some of our household wattage from human waste, and there’s a pilot scheme for biomethane recapture from sewage here in the UK at the moment. But gas is tricky and dangerous to store and pipe – why not cut out the middle man and just get the energy out of the sewage directly? To be truthful, there’s still a middle man… billions of them, in fact. Apparently certain nanoparticle coatings applied to graphite anodes in sewage tanks encourage certain bacteria to proliferate, eating sewage and releasing electrons all the while. Your biowaste gets cleaned up, and you produce electricty at the same time! Sounds almost too good to be true… but they’ve got it working in a lab environment, so you never know.


Stoned neural networks, wet computers and audio Darwinsim

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2010

Here’s a handful of links from the weird and wonderful world of computer science…

First of all, Telepathic-critterdrug is described as “a controversial fork of the open source artificial-life sim Critterding, a physics sandbox where blocky creatures evolve neural nets in a survival contest. What we’ve done is to give these animals an extra retina which is shared with the whole population. It’s extended through time like a movie and they can write to it for communication or pleasure. Since this introduces the possibility of the creation of art, we decided to give them a selection of narcotics, stimulants and psychedelics. This is not in Critterding. The end result is a high-color cellular automaton running on a substrate that thinks and evolves, and may actually produce hallucinations in the user.

You can download your own copy of this bizarre experiment to play with. Quite what it’s supposed to achieve (other than entertaining its creators) I’m not entirely sure… but then again, that’s what we tend to think about the reality we inhabit, so maybe there’s some sort of simulation-theory microcosm metaphor that could be applied here, eh?

Next up, wetware is about to make the transition from science fictional neologism to genuine branch of technological research; boffins at the University of Southampton are hosting an international collaboration aimed at making a chemical computer based on biological principles [via SlashDot].

The goal is not to make a better computer than conventional ones, said project collaborator Klaus-Peter Zauner […] but rather to be able to compute in new environments.

“The type of wet information technology we are working towards will not find its near-term application in running business software,” Dr Zauner told BBC News.

“But it will open up application domains where current IT does not offer any solutions – controlling molecular robots, fine-grained control of chemical assembly, and intelligent drugs that process the chemical signals of the human body and act according to the local biochemical state of the cell.

And last but not least, DarwinTunes is an experiment by two ICL professors to see whether they can use genetic algorithms to “evolve” enjoyable music from chaos, using the feedback of human listeners [via MetaFilter]. The DarwinTunes project website is sadly lacking a page that explains the project in a nutshell (or at least one that’s easily located by a first-time visitor), but a bit of poking around in the early blog entries should reveal the details. Or you can just listen to their 500th-generation riffs and loops from the project, which is still running.


Genesis2.0

Paul Raven @ 14-03-2009

The goal of engineered-from-scratch custom life-forms is still a long way over the event horizon, but bioengineering research is moving slowly and steadily in the right direction:

Many of the components of this minimal cell already work well together. Biotechnology companies routinely sell commercial kits to synthesise DNA, RNA or proteins to order in a test tube. But these kits only work for a few hours or days before the components are used up and the reaction grinds to a halt. To create a system that runs indefinitely, Forster and Church will also need to add a DNA molecule that encodes all 151 components, so that the system can make new ones as needed. Once they have combined this DNA with a starting set of components, they should in theory end up with a replicating, evolving – in short, living – system.

Good stuff, myriad potential medical uses, yaddah yaddah yaddah. But surely some long-run risks similar to those associated with self-replicating nanotech must be considered – green goo instead of grey, perhaps?


It’s alive! – BT looking to artificial life

JustinP @ 07-08-2008

rhizomeQ: What do the Nuer, social insects, and BT have in common?

A: The first two are organised along acephalous (‘headless’) principles, while researchers working for the third have begun to hail the advantages of following suit.

At this week’s Artificial Life XI conference in Winchester, BT researchers explained how ‘[i]nsights from artificial life could soon be helping run [the firm’s] networks’

“If we look at the biological world, there is a huge amount of change, complexity, and adaptation,” said former biologist Paul Marrow who works in BT’s Broadband Applications Research Centre.

“These artificial life ideas are a very useful source of inspiration as the products and services we provide become increasingly complex and demanding in terms of resources.

In stark contrast to the heirarchical structures of traditional network architecture,

BT hopes to tap the secrets of another of life’s defining features called self-organisation

“With self-organisation, you have very simple rules governing individual units that together perform a bigger task – a typical example is ant colonies,” said Fabrice Saffre, principal researcher at BT’s Pervasive ICT Research Centre.

The simplicity of the rules makes for less computation, and therefore is easier on the network. “It’s a very economical solution – especially for problems that are very dynamic. Anything you can do with self-organisation is basically a ‘free lunch’,” said Dr Saffre.

Mmm … rhizomatic! 🙂

[story via the BBC / image by kevindooley, via flickr / for more on the Nuer, see the work of anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard]


Craig Venter invents artificial life?

Stephen Years @ 06-10-2007

gene.jpg

I’ve posted about developments in synthetic life before, here and here. It now appears the human genome pioneer Craig Venter has invented an artificial life form:

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.