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The bird demonstrates cutting-edge technology for devising self-folding nanoscale robots.
A minuscule swarm of helpers<p>The project is the result of a collaboration between physical scientist McEeuen and physicist <a href="http://physics.cornell.edu/itai-cohen" target="_blank">Itai Cohen</a>, both of Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. It's already resulted in a (very) small herd of nanoscale machines and devices.</p><p>Cohen explains, "We want to have robots that are microscopic but have brains on board. So that means you need to have appendages that are driven by complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) transistors, basically a computer chip on a robot that's 100 microns on a side."</p><p>The idea is that these minuscule workhorses—a metaphor, no nanoscale origami horses yet exist—are released from a wafer, fold themselves into the desired form factor, and then go on about their business. Additional folding would endow them with motion as they work, change shapes to move their limbs and manipulate microscopic objects. The researchers anticipate that these nanobots will eventually be able to achieve similar functionality to their larger brethren.</p><img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTg0ODQ0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODQzODk3OH0.vU41E6iQJPM7EO7uoNz8EiXL9Jj7De7Yqwv-Em-otZQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="55c93" width="1440" height="810" data-rm-shortcode-id="89ab19e036c9c02cb9a9e6beeac072dc" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: nobeastsofierce/Adobe Stock
How a tiny robot is made and works<p>The project combines materials science with chemistry, since the folding is achieved with the strategic deployment of electrochemical reactions. Liu explains, "At this small scale, it's not like traditional mechanical engineering, but rather chemistry, material science, and mechanical engineering all mixed together."</p><p>"The hard part," says Cohen, "is making the materials that respond to the CMOS circuits. And this is what Qingkun and his colleagues have done with this shape memory actuator that you can drive with voltage and make it hold a bent shape."</p><p>The bots are constructed from a nanometer-thick platinum layer that's coated with a titanium oxide film. Rigid panels of silicon oxide glass are affixed to the platinum. A positive voltage creates oxidation, forcing oxygen atoms into the platinum seams between the glass panels, and forcing platinum atoms out. This causes the platinum to expand, which bends the entire glass-platinum structure to a desired angle.</p><p>Because the oxygen atoms collect to form a barrier, a bend is retained even after the charge is switched off. To undo a fold, a negative charge can be applied that removes the oxygen atoms from the seam, allowing it to relax and unbend. </p><p>This all happens very quickly — a machine can fold itself within just 100 milliseconds. The process is also repeatable. The team reports that a bot can flatten and refold itself thousands of times, and all it takes is a single volt of electricity.</p><span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d392e28ae813b4ef74dc1cce6a4654a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/nNn4Lpd4uBM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Artistry after all<p>None of this really removes what one might consider the artistry. Working out how and where to apply voltages to effect the desired shape is not a simple thing to do. McEuen says, "One thing that's quite remarkable is that these little tiny layers are only about 30 atoms thick, compared to a sheet of paper, which might be 100,000 atoms thick. So it's an enormous engineering challenge to figure out how to make something like that have the kind of functionalities we want."</p><p>Still, the group is getting quite good at microscopic robotics, and has already been awarded the <a href="https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/634629-smallest-walking-robot" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Guinness World Record</a> for assembling the smallest-ever walking robot. The little 4-legged dude is 40 microns wide and between 40 and 70 microns long. They're angling for a new record with their 60-micron-wide origami bird.</p><p>Says Cohen, "These are major advances over current state-of-the-art devices. We're really in a class of our own."</p>
Creating an afterlife—or a simulation of one—would take vast amounts of energy. Some scientists think the best way to capture that energy is by building megastructures around stars.
- In a 2018 paper, researchers Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov published a paper outlining various ways humans might someday be able to achieve immortality or resurrection.
- One way involves creating a simulated afterlife, in which artificial intelligence would build simulations of past human lives.
- Getting the necessary power for the simulation might require building a Dyson sphere, which is a theoretical megastructure that orbits a star and captures its energy.
Dyson spheres<p>In 1960, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson published a <a href="http://www.islandone.org/LEOBiblio/SETI1.HTM" target="_blank">paper</a> describing a peculiar strategy scientists could use to detect signs of alien life: look for stars encompassed by gigantic megastructures.<br></p><p>Why? Dyson figured that if spacefaring alien civilizations do exist, then they must have figured out a way to generate vast amounts of energy. One theoretical way aliens could do that is through harnessing the power of stars: By surrounding a star with orbiting structures that capture solar energy, a civilization could theoretically generate far more energy than they could on a planet.</p><p>That's the basic idea behind Dyson spheres. Of course, modern science is far from being able to build such a complex megastructure, and it's unclear whether it'll ever be possible.</p><p>"An actual sphere around the sun is completely impractical," <a href="http://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/about/staff/" target="_blank">Stuart Armstrong</a>, a research fellow at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute who has studied megastructure concepts, <a href="https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/deep-space/a11098/dyson-sphere/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told Popular Mechanics</a> in 2020.</p><p>There are many questions about and arguments against the feasibility of Dyson spheres. Obviously, our modern engineering capabilities wouldn't enable us to build a structure that big and complex, and then transport it to the sun. And even if engineers <em>could</em> build an enormous sun shell, we don't have materials with enough tensile strength to hold together the structure once it's surrounding the sun.</p><p>Other potential problems: space debris colliding with the sphere, inefficiencies in transporting the energy back to Earth, and having to perform maintenance on a megastructure that's dangerously close to the sun. In short, the Dyson sphere is a very theoretical concept.</p>
Credit: vexworldwide via Adobe Stock<p>But some people think building a Dyson sphere is more feasible than it seems. In 2012, the bioethicist and transhumanist George Dvorsky published a blog post titled <a href="http://www.sentientdevelopments.com/2012/03/how-to-build-dyson-sphere-in-five.html" target="_blank">"How to build a Dyson sphere in five (relatively) easy steps."</a> His strategy, in short, calls for sending autonomous robots into space, where they would:</p><ol><li>Get energy</li><li>Mine Mercury</li><li>Get materials into orbit</li><li>Make solar collectors</li><li>Extract energy</li></ol><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The idea is to build the entire swarm in iterative steps and not all at once. We would only need to build a small section of the Dyson sphere to provide the energy requirements for the rest of the project. Thus, construction efficiency will increase over time as the project progresses," Dvorsky wrote.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We're going to have to mine materials from Mercury. Actually, we'll likely have to take the whole planet apart. The Dyson sphere will require a horrendous amount of material—so much so, in fact, that, should we want to completely envelope the sun, we are going to have to disassemble not just Mercury, but Venus, some of the outer planets, and any nearby asteroids as well."</p>
Credit: ALEXEY TURCHIN<p>Turchin <a href="https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a35788050/dyson-sphere-digital-resurrection-immortality/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">echoed</a> a similar idea to Popular Mechanics, acknowledging that while humans currently can't build a Dyson sphere, "nanorobots could do it."</p><p>Still, even if scientists someday manage to create a Dyson sphere that's able to power a resurrection simulation, there's a good chance many people won't take part: <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/may/16/dying-still-taboo-subject-poll" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Surveys</a> <a href="https://quillette.com/2018/03/02/would-you-opt-for-immortality/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">repeatedly</a> <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutesvanity-fair-poll-the-afterlife/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">show</a> that most people would not opt to live forever if given the choice.</p>
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Boston Dynamics' notorious robot goes on an interplanetary mission.
- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announces the deployment of a robotic "dog" for Mars exploration.
- The robot is a modified Boston Dynamics cyberdog familiar to the internet from YouTube videos over the last few years.
- The bot will be autonomous and smart enough to explore Martian caves that may one day provide shelter for human visitors to the Red Planet.