Robot hop

Tom James @ 15-09-2009

military-robotIn the latest of your monthly dose of robot drones coming to a theatre of war hopefully-some-distance-from-you we have news that DARPA have developed a remote military robot with the capability to jump over walls:

Most of the time, the shoebox-sized robot – which is being developed for the US military – uses its four wheels to get around.

But the Precision Urban Hopper can use a piston-actuated “leg” to launch it over obstacles such as walls or fences.

The robot could boost the capabilities of troops and special forces engaged in urban warfare, say researchers.

It occurs to me that in a couple of decades this kind of robot could have developed into a truly terrifying war machine. Imagine thousands of tank-sized versions of these, each containing a really pissed-off synthetic cat brain programmed to zap humans with a tactical high-energy laser.


[from the BBC, via h+ Magazine][image from h+ Magazine]

Swarming to it

Tom James @ 28-08-2009

iswarm4One of my favourite[1] plausible science fictional tropes is that of tiny robotic insects. The latest step towards their instantiation has been taken by researchers in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland as they put forward their conception of how swarms of mass-produced robotic fleas could be used for surveillance, cleaning, and medical applications:

The technique involves integrating an entire robot – with communication, locomotion, energy storage, and electronics – in different modules on a single circuit board.

In the past, the single-chip robot concept has presented significant limitations in design and manufacturing. However, instead of using solder to mount electrical components on a printed circuit board as in the conventional method, the researchers use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology.

The circuit board is then folded to create a three-dimensional robot.

I can imagine that once this sort of technology matures it will herald a profound change for society. An Orwellian Panopticon where everyone and everything is traced and followed and tracked will become a practicable possibility. Privacy will become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet, with the richest and most powerful people cowering in enclaves sterilized against micro-invaders.

[1]: In that I enjoy them as part of a story and am not entirely ambivalent to their actuality.

[from Physorg][image from Physorg]

The ethics of autonomous devices

Tom James @ 20-08-2009

heart_surgeonThe Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK says that the imminent rise of autonomous and semi-autonomous cars, robotic surgeons, planes, war machines, software agents, and public transport systems raises important ethical and legal questions:

Professor Stewart and report co-author Chris Elliott remain convinced that autonomous systems will prove, on average, to be better surgeons and better lorry drivers than humans are.

But when they are not, it could lead to a legal morass, they said.

“If a robot surgeon is actually better than a human one, most times you’re going to be better off with a robot surgeon,” Dr Elliott said. “But occasionally it might do something that a human being would never be so stupid as to do.”

Professor Stewart concluded: “It is fundamentally a big issue that we think the public ought to think through before we start trying to imprison a truck.”

And when and if true AI or artificial general human-level intelligences show up, will they commit crimes, and if so, who will be responsible?

[from the BBC][image from Wonderlane on flickr]

Re-engineering biology

Tom James @ 31-07-2009

roboticsinsiAs I’ve mentioned before, we’re entering a new phase of technological progress: engineers and technologists are not just seeking inspiration in the mechanisms of the natural world, but are actually reverse- and re-engineering biology to improve synthetic technology. In this case researchers in Germany are studying how bow flies perform their incredible feats of aerial acrobatics by creating a wind tunnel for blow flies (pictured):

A fly’s brain enables the unbelievable – the animal’s easy negotiation of obstacles in rapid flight, split-second reaction to the hand that would catch it, and unerring navigation to the smelly delicacies it lives on.

Yet the fly’s brain is hardly bigger than a pinhead, too small by far to enable the fly’s feats if it functioned exactly the way the human brain does. It must have a simpler and more efficient way of processing images from the eyes into visual perception, and that is a subject of intense interest for robot builders.

While researchers use biomimetic inspiration for the development of flying robots other scientists are working to reprogram existing biological technology, in this case altering bone marrow stem cells so that they function as retinal cells:

University of Florida researchers were able to program bone marrow stem cells to repair damaged retinas in mice, suggesting a potential treatment for one of the most common causes of vision loss in older people.

The success in repairing a damaged layer of retinal cells in mice implies that blood stem cells taken from bone marrow can be programmed to restore a variety of cells and tissues, including ones involved in cardiovascular disorders such as atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease.

For all the pessimism about the future of human civilisation, it is exhilerating to live in an era with so many opportunities and challenges.

[both from Physorg][image from Physorg]

Remake your world with Claytronics

Tom James @ 27-07-2009

catom-prototypeResearchers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon are developing programmable matter: material consisting of tiny machines that can be reconfigured into many different shapes:

How can a material be intelligent? By being made up of particle-sized machines. At Carnegie Mellon, with support from Intel, the project is called Claytronics. The idea is simple: make basic computers housed in tiny spheres that can connect to each other and rearrange themselves.

Wach particle, called a Claytronics atom or Catom, is less than a millimeter in diameter. With billions you could make almost any object you wanted.

The concept sounds like a macroscopic version of nanotechnological utility fog. The image is of the most up to date Catom, which is still in the centimetre size range.

The challenges and opportunities presented by this technology are immense. One of the opportunities lies with the promise of fungible computing, where you can split the hardware into smaller units but you still have functional items:

Right now, computers are not fungible. With programmable matter, they would be. That same cubic meter of a billion catoms is essentially a network of a billion computers. That’s a lot of computational power – more than enough to organize it into different shapes. And if the computer was separated into sections, the overall computing power would still be the same.

By making “tech” modular in this way the notion of discrete machines for different tasks goes away – you have a generic, all-purpose substance that you can lump together (like clay) to make the things you want.

[from Singularity Hub][image from Singularity Hub]

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