Robot developers adapt the behavior of worm "blobs".
- Researchers at Georgia Tech adapt the behavior of worm "blobs" to robotic swarms.
- The goal is to utilize useful aspects of living systems in human-created ones.
- When part of a "blob," worms tend to survive better and have more capabilities than individually.
A new study looked at how California black worms work together to form "worm blobs" in order to model their behavior in moving swarms of simple robots. The "blob" formation, which can range in size from 10 to 50,000 worms, serves to protect the creatures from drying out and withstanding threats like strong heat.
The researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology focused on how thousands of the worms (Lumbriculus variegatus), about a centimeter in length each, can intertwine into an "active matter," which behaves as one. This self-organized shape-shifting blob allows the worms to achieve much more complex outcomes together than they would without getting hitched up.
The work promises to help engineers working on swarm robots to understand and adapt the mechanics of how such blobs behave.
Saad Bhamla, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, highlighted that being in a group is beneficial to the worms' survival:
"We were curious about why these worms would form these living blobs," said Bhamla. "We have now shown through mathematical models and biological experiments that forming the blobs confers a kind of collective decision-making that enables worms in a larger blob to survive longer against desiccation."
The scientists also showed that the worms in a blob can move together, exhibiting unique collective behavior. The capabilities of the blob are much more than anything the individuals can do on their own. Studying these blobs helps researchers who are looking to transfer the key traits of living systems to ones designed by humans. Swarm robots, in particular, are built around the idea that individual robots must collaborate to be able to engage in complex actions.
Collective worm and robot "blobs" protect individuals, swarm together
The worms were studied closely by the research associate Yasemin Ozkan-Aydi, whose experiments included testing the blob's responsiveness to temperature and light changes and creating a "worm gymnasium", which allowed her to gauge the strength of the worms. To create a worm blob, she took the worms out of water. When they couldn't find the water, they came together in a ball-like blob. The worms would trade off on who would be on the outside of the blob, where most evaporation took place. This allowed the collective to suffer less of an effect from the lack of liquid. The researchers concluded that being in a blob helped the worms survive 10 times longer when being out of water, compared to individual worms.
Georgia Tech research associate Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin holds a smarticle blob as Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Saad Bhamla holds a worm blob.
Credit: Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech
Professor Daniel Goldman, in whose lab these experiments were carried out, pointed to the unexpected smartness of what the worms did.
"They would certainly want to reduce desiccation, but the way in which they would do this is not obvious and points to a kind of collective intelligence in the system," explained Goldman. "They are not just surface-minimizing machines. They are looking to exploit good conditions and resources."
This intelligence of the worms was also on display in heat experiments, where the cooperation between the worms in the blob allowed them to slink away from hot spots, dramatically improving their survival chances. Moving as a blob, 95% of the worms made it to the cold side.
Ozkan-Aydin incorporated the observations of worm behavior into small robotic blobs made of "smart active particles" or "smarticles." She pinned six 3D-printed robots which featured two arms and two light sensors in a mesh, essentially entangling them similarly to the worms. She then programmed and tested different movements the robots could perform, finding that the robot swarms "generate emergent behavior that is similar to what we saw in the worms."
You can check out the new study "Collective dynamics in entangled worm and robot blobs" published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Allergies might never be a concern again.
- University of Portsmouth researchers held play sessions with real dogs and their biomimetic counterparts.
- The more time school children spent with the robot dog, the higher their opinion of him.
- Robotic dogs could offer an entirely new line of emotional support animals.
In 2018 a woman tried to board a plane at Newark International Airport with her emotional support animal—a peacock. That didn't fly; well, neither of them flew that day. Still, the term "emotional support animal" has been exploited by travelers attempting to transport a variety of animals in the not-so-friendly skies, including pigs, turkeys, squirrels, baby kangaroos, and miniature horses.
The skies became even less friendly to this trend when the federal government recently limited pets on flights to dogs, giving the struggling airline industry a bit of good news in an otherwise devastating year.
But what if the kangaroo was a robot?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. If we're considering robot support "animals," we'll have to settle for dogs for the time being.
That's the consensus from a group of researchers at the University of Portsmouth. In a new study, published in the International Journal of Social Robotics, first author Olivia Barber and colleagues argue that robotic dogs could soon replace real canines as emotional support animals—and will likely have an easier time and get fewer malicious stares when boarding planes.
The team brought two real dogs—a Jack Russell-Poodle mix and a Labrador retriever—alongside a biomimetic dog to visit a group of 34 children in West Sussex. The 11- and 12-year-olds had two sessions, one with the real-life canines, and a second with the robot, which was developed by Consequential Robotics. While the kids stroked animals equally, they actually interacted with the robot more.
Credit: goodmoments / Adobe Stock
Study supervisor, Dr Leanne Proops, knows the emotional impact that real dogs have on children and adults alike. Yet many people suffer from allergies, while others are on high alert for diseases transmitted across species. There's also liability concerns; lawsuits over biting dogs happen. And, of course, the expense of animals is prohibitive to some. Robots could fill a void.
"This preliminary study has found that biomimetic robots -- robots that mimic animal behaviours -- may be a suitable replacement in certain situations and there are some benefits to using them over a real dog."
Move over Animal Assisted Interventions. Welcome to Robot Assisted Interventions.
As the authors note, robot pets already exist. A robotic seal named Paro is designed to keep seniors company. Social robots help stroke victims during rehabilitation and have proven useful in communicating with autistic children.
Despite the fascination, this story doesn't end like the film "Her." The pre-teens preferred the real animals, not the metal imposter. That said, the more time they spent with the robot, the fonder they became of him. The team chose dogs for this pilot study given their ubiquity and our longstanding positive relationship with them.
As part of the study, each participant filled out a questionnaire about their biophilic beliefs. Interestingly, animistic beliefs played a role—how willing they were to ascribe agency to the robot. The "realer" the robot felt, the more positive the affect.
Moving forward, robot support animals could help people unable to care for or be around actual animals. As Proops concludes,
"This is a small-scale study, but the results show that interactive robotic animals could be used as a good comparison to live dogs in research, and a useful alternative to traditional animal therapy."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A new MIT report proposes how humans should prepare for the age of automation and artificial intelligence.
- A new report by MIT experts proposes what humans should do to prepare for the age of automation.
- The rise of intelligent machines is coming but it's important to resolve human issues first.
- Improving economic inequality, skills training, and investment in innovation are necessary steps.
Does the coming age of intelligent machines mean billions of humans are about to be out of work? Not necessarily, concludes a new report from MIT's Task Force on the Work of the Future. The two-and-a-half year study on technology and jobs concluded that while some jobs will disappear, innovations will also drive the creation of new jobs for the lower and middle class workers.
The report, "The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines," also highlighted growing economic inequalities and recommended specific policies governments should embrace to make sure the transition to a future rife with robots doesn't leave large segments of the population behind. Institutional changes must accompany the technological ones.
The Task Force that produced the document was co-chaired by MIT Professors David Autor and David Mindell and executive director Dr. Elisabeth Reynolds, while the expansive group of experts involved more than 20 faculty members from 12 departments, and over 20 graduate students.
One important note the study made is that while many expect automation to take over our lives in the near future, there is still time to prepare and make sure the transition to intelligent machines is in itself intelligent. Ultimately, it's not the machines we need to worry about, but the exacerbation of the existing human-made problems and deficiencies. Specific areas policy makers should focus on include investing into skills development and worker retraining, improving job quality, and expanding and shaping innovation.
Perhaps the central message of the study is that technology both takes away jobs and creates new ones. Around 63 percent of the jobs carried out in 2018 didn't even exist in 1940.
Here are the 10 ways humans should prepare for the rise of the role artificial intelligence will play in our lives:
1. Increase private sector investment in skills and training
The group pinpoints the importance of private sector investment in training employees, especially with the purpose of increasing the upward mobility for lower-wage and less-educated workers. This will particularly affect minority workers, who are overrepresented in this group. The report estimates only about half of employees get training from their employers in any given year.
2. Significantly increase federal funding for training programs
The report advocates getting the government to fund training programs that can help lead to middle-class jobs for workers who don't have a four-year college degree.
3. Support community colleges
The research team thinks community colleges should be supported by the federal government's money and policies to advance programs that connect employers to the education being received by students. The policies should be aimed at raising degree completion rates at community colleges.
4. Invest in innovative training methods
Demonstration and field testing programs that work out new retraining and reemployment ideas should be given particular focus, according to the MIT scientists.
"Innovation improves the quantity, quality, and variety of work that a worker can accomplish in a given time," wrote the report's authors. "This rising productivity, in turn, enables improving living standards and the flourishing of human endeavors. Indeed, in what should be a virtuous cycle, rising productivity provides society with the resources to invest in those whose livelihoods are disrupted by the changing structure of work.
5. Restore the real value of the federal minimum wage
The report spotlights the growing economic disparity between low-paid workers and the rest of society. Compared to Canadians, for example, low-paid Americans earn 26 percent less. Government policy should make sure people in traditionally low-paid service jobs like cleaning, groundskeeping, food service, entertainment, recreation, and health assistance get adequate pay and some economic security. To that end, the researchers propose that the minimum wage should be raised to at least 40 percent of the national median wage. This value should also be indexed to inflation.
6. Modernize and extend unemployment insurance (UI) benefits
Several measures are recommended to improve unemployment insurance and extend it to workers that aren't usually covered. The report suggests allowing workers to count their most recent earnings to determine eligibility, determining eligibility based on hours rather than earnings, dropping the requirement that unemployed seek full-time work (because many hold part-time jobs), and reforming partial UI benefits from the states.
7. Strengthen and adapt labor laws
Labor laws need to be both improved and better enforced, states the report. Contraction of private sector labor unions makes it harder for rank-and-file workers to bargain for wage growth that matches the growth of productivity growth. How workers are represented needs to be innovated as much as the technologies. Current U.S. laws "retard the development of alternative approaches," write the researchers. For example, due to racial politics during the New Deal, sectors of the American workforce like domestic workers and agricultural workers are unable to participate in collective bargaining.
8. Increase federal research spending
In a proposal aimed at fostering innovation and making sure its benefits are experienced by workers, the MIT group thinks it's key to increase government spending on research, especially in areas not addressed by the private sector. These tend to involve longer-term research that addresses the social impacts of new technologies, zeroing in on major national problems, climate change, human health and similar larger research topics. Investing into research on human-centered AI, collaborative robotics and the science of education should be a part of this approach.
Small and medium-sized businesses should receive targeted government assistance to allow them to increase productivity via the new tech, advises the MIT team.
9. Expand the geography of innovation in the United States
Innovation is increasingly "concentrated geographically," think the researchers. For a country that has so many universities, entrepreneurs, and workers that are spread throughout, the benefits of innovation should be made available not only to more workers, but also to more of the country's regions. Each state can have its own Silicon Valley.
10. Rebalance taxes on capital and labor
Innovation is necessary in the tax law as well, according to the report. It's important to change the manner in which the current tax code "unduly favors investments in capital" by eliminating accelerated depreciation allowances, applying corporate income tax equally to all corporations, and instituting an employer training tax credit.
They're made from stretchy, electroactive polymer films.
- The contact lens is made mainly from stretchy, electroactive polymer films.
- It's able to recognize subtle electrooculographic signals that we generate in the tissues near the eye.
- Samsung also recently filed a patent to develop what appear to be smart contact lenses.
A new type of soft contact lens could someday allow wearers to zoom in on distant objects just by blinking, or moving their eyes.
In a paper published in Advanced Functional Materials, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, describe how they developed a biomimetic soft lens that's able to expand instantly, changing the focal length and motion of the lens. The lens — it is made of stretchy, electro-active polymer films — uses electrodes to interpret the electro-oculographic signals that we generate in the tissues around the eye.
The goal is to make the lens sensitive enough to discern subtle changes in these signals, and to match the signals with actions: blink twice to zoom in, look down to focus on near objects, etc.
"Even if your eye cannot see anything, many people can still move their eyeball and generate this electro-oculographic signal," lead researcher Shengqiang Cai told New Scientist.
The researchers wrote:
"Because of the use of soft materials, the relative change of focal length of the lens could be as large as 32 percent through deformation. Due to the fast response of [dielectric elastomer films], the movements of the eyes and the soft lens could be easily synchronized."
Cai et al.
For now it's just a prototype — one that's too big to fit in the human eye, and which requires people wear conspicuous electrodes on their face. But the researchers suggested the system could someday be used "in visual prostheses, adjustable glasses, and remotely operated robotics in the future."
Samsung also appears interested in developing smart contacts. The South Korean company was recently granted a patent for lens technology that could include augmented reality, projecting light directly onto the user's retina, motion sensing and a camera. The patent also includes a tiny antenna, suggesting it might be able to pair with an external device like a smartphone.
But even if developers can surpass the technological hurdles, it'll take years before any smart contact lens proves safe enough to make it market.
Some say the proliferation of sex robots could lead to less demand for prostitution, but not all agree.
- A Toronto-based sex robot brothel plans to open another location in Houston.
- Some critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would lead to increases in prostitution and sex trafficking.
- Others say that such technology could help some people find a degree of much-needed companionship.
There are currently no laws against opening a sex robot brothel in Houston, but recently announced plans to open one have some residents saying there should be.
The owner of Kinky S Dolls, a Toronto-based company where $120 gets customers 80 minutes alone with a robotic sex doll that moves and talks, plans to open another location in the Houston area. It would be the first sex robot brothel in the U.S.
On advice from counsel, owner Yuval Gavriel doesn't call his business a 'sex robot brothel' but rather a kind of try-it-before-you-buy-it shop for realistic sex dolls, which he sells for $2,000 to $5,000.
"I consulted with a lawyer and the lawyer said, 'Listen, there are no rules to it, but if you are smart you don't go out and say you are operating a brothel,'" Gavriel told the Washington Examiner. "He went through all the laws and all of the regulations and currently there are no regulations for this kind of service. The States is a bigger market, and a healthier market, and God bless Trump."
A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls for about $3,500.
Sex dolls and robots may be legal in the U.S., but some believe that establishing what's essentially a robot sex brothel would cross a line. In response to Gavriel's plans, Elijah Rising, a Christian organization in Houston that combats sex trafficking, published a petition titled 'Keep Robot Brothels Out Of Houston'.
"As a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking we have seen the progression as sex buyers go from pornography to strip clubs to purchasing sex—robot brothels will ultimately harm men, their understanding of healthy sexuality, and increase the demand for the prostitution and sexual exploitation of women and children," reads the petition, which currently has nearly 6,000 signatures.
Elijah Rising's argument is based on a paper written by Kathleen Richardson, a professor of ethics and culture of robots at De Montfort University.
"I propose that extending relations of prostitution into machines is neither ethical, nor is it safe," Richardson argues in the paper. "If anything the development of sex robots will further reinforce relations of power that do not recognise both parties as human subjects. Only the buyer of sex is recognised as a subject, the seller of sex (and by virtue the sex-robot) is merely a thing to have sex with."
How would sex robots affect rates of prostitution?
One argument, to which Gavriel subscribes, says that increased availability of sex robots would reduce the demand for human prostitutes. It's an idea tangentially related to the longstanding body of research that shows countries tend to see decreases in sexual assaults and rape after they legalize porn.
In his bestselling book Love and Sex with Robots, A.I. researcher David Levy explores the future of human relationships with robots and suggests that sex robots could reduce prostitution rates, or even someday render it obsolete.
But that's "highly speculative philosophy," according to Richardson.
"The reality is that it will just become a new niche market within the pornography industry and within the prostitution trade," she said in an interview with Feminist Current. "If people buy into the idea that you can have these dolls as part of your sexual fetish, it will become another burden that actual living human beings will have to undergo in the commercial sex trade."
A sex doll sold by Kinky S Dolls.
Richardson elaborated on this idea in her paper.
"...studies have found that the introduction of new technology supports and contributes to the expansion of the sex industry," she wrote. "Prostitution and pornography production also rises with the growth of the internet. In 1990, 5.6 percent of men reported paying for sex in their lifetime, by 2000, this had increased to 8.8 percent."
However, those rates aren't necessarily causally linked.
Richardson also wrote that if sex toys, such as RealDolls and blow-up dolls, actually led to lower prostitution demand then we would have already seen decreases, but "no such correlation is found."
Still, that last point might soon become invalid as a sort of apples-to-oranges comparison if technology can produce artificially intelligent and lifelike sex robots unlike anything the industry has seen before.
An illusion of companionship
Image: Film4, from the 2015 film 'Ex Machina'
Critics argue that the proliferation of sex robots would serve to reinforce the objectification of women in men's minds, and also reduce the ability for some men to empathize, a necessary component of healthy social interaction.
Houstonian Andrea Paul voiced a simpler objection to the brothel:
"There's kids around here and it's a family-oriented neighborhood and I live right here and to have that here is just gross."
Gross, sure. But to Matt McMullen, creator of the RealDoll, the future of sex robots looks a bit more uplifting.
"My goal, in a very simple way, is to make people happy," McMullen told CNET. "There are a lot of people out there, for one reason or another, who have difficulty forming traditional relationships with other people. It's really all about giving those people some level of companionship—or the illusion of companionship."