Tag Archives: Michael Crichton

Westworld: a US television programme investigating AI (artificial intelligence) and consciousness

The US television network, Home Box Office (HBO) is getting ready to première Westworld, a new series based on a movie first released in 1973. Here’s more about the movie from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Westworld is a 1973 science fiction Western thriller film written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton and produced by Paul Lazarus III about amusement park robots that malfunction and begin killing visitors. It stars Yul Brynner as an android in a futuristic Western-themed amusement park, and Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as guests of the park.

Westworld was the first theatrical feature directed by Michael Crichton.[3] It was also the first feature film to use digital image processing, to pixellate photography to simulate an android point of view.[4] The film was nominated for Hugo, Nebula and Saturn awards, and was followed by a sequel film, Futureworld, and a short-lived television series, Beyond Westworld. In August 2013, HBO announced plans for a television series based on the original film.

The latest version is due to start broadcasting in the US on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 and as part of the publicity effort the producers are profiled by Sean Captain for Fast Company in a Sept. 30, 2016 article,

As Game of Thrones marches into its final seasons, HBO is debuting this Sunday what it hopes—and is betting millions of dollars on—will be its new blockbuster series: Westworld, a thorough reimagining of Michael Crichton’s 1973 cult classic film about a Western theme park populated by lifelike robot hosts. A philosophical prelude to Jurassic Park, Crichton’s Westworld is a cautionary tale about technology gone very wrong: the classic tale of robots that rise up and kill the humans. HBO’s new series, starring Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, and Ed Harris, is subtler and also darker: The humans are the scary ones.

“We subverted the entire premise of Westworld in that our sympathies are meant to be with the robots, the hosts,” says series co-creator Lisa Joy. She’s sitting on a couch in her Burbank office next to her partner in life and on the show—writer, director, producer, and husband Jonathan Nolan—who goes by Jonah. …

Their Westworld, which runs in the revered Sunday-night 9 p.m. time slot, combines present-day production values and futuristic technological visions—thoroughly revamping Crichton’s story with hybrid mechanical-biological robots [emphasis mine] fumbling along the blurry line between simulated and actual consciousness.

Captain never does explain the “hybrid mechanical-biological robots.” For example, do they have human skin or other organs grown for use in a robot? In other words, how are they hybrid?

That nitpick aside, the article provides some interesting nuggets of information and insight into the themes and ideas 2016 Westworld’s creators are exploring (Note: A link has been removed),

… Based on the four episodes I previewed (which get progressively more interesting), Westworld does a good job with the trope—which focused especially on the awakening of Dolores, an old soul of a robot played by Evan Rachel Wood. Dolores is also the catchall Spanish word for suffering, pain, grief, and other displeasures. “There are no coincidences in Westworld,” says Joy, noting that the name is also a play on Dolly, the first cloned mammal.

The show operates on a deeper, though hard-to-define level, that runs beneath the shoot-em and screw-em frontier adventure and robotic enlightenment narratives. It’s an allegory of how even today’s artificial intelligence is already taking over, by cataloging and monetizing our lives and identities. “Google and Facebook, their business is reading your mind in order to advertise shit to you,” says Jonah Nolan. …

“Exist free of rules, laws or judgment. No impulse is taboo,” reads a spoof home page for the resort that HBO launched a few weeks ago. That’s lived to the fullest by the park’s utterly sadistic loyal guest, played by Ed Harris and known only as the Man in Black.

The article also features some quotes from scientists on the topic of artificial intelligence (Note: Links have been removed),

“In some sense, being human, but less than human, it’s a good thing,” says Jon Gratch, professor of computer science and psychology at the University of Southern California [USC]. Gratch directs research at the university’s Institute for Creative Technologies on “virtual humans,” AI-driven onscreen avatars used in military-funded training programs. One of the projects, SimSensei, features an avatar of a sympathetic female therapist, Ellie. It uses AI and sensors to interpret facial expressions, posture, tension in the voice, and word choices by users in order to direct a conversation with them.

“One of the things that we’ve found is that people don’t feel like they’re being judged by this character,” says Gratch. In work with a National Guard unit, Ellie elicited more honest responses about their psychological stresses than a web form did, he says. Other data show that people are more honest when they know the avatar is controlled by an AI versus being told that it was controlled remotely by a human mental health clinician.

“If you build it like a human, and it can interact like a human. That solves a lot of the human-computer or human-robot interaction issues,” says professor Paul Rosenbloom, also with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. He works on artificial general intelligence, or AGI—the effort to create a human-like or human level of intellect.

Rosenbloom is building an AGI platform called Sigma that models human cognition, including emotions. These could make a more effective robotic tutor, for instance, “There are times you want the person to know you are unhappy with them, times you want them to know that you think they’re doing great,” he says, where “you” is the AI programmer. “And there’s an emotional component as well as the content.”

Achieving full AGI could take a long time, says Rosenbloom, perhaps a century. Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s chief innovation officer, is also circumspect in predicting if or when Watson could evolve into something like HAL or Her. “Boy, we are so far from that reality, or even that possibility, that it becomes ludicrous trying to get hung up there, when we’re trying to get something to reasonably deal with fact-based data,” he says.

Gratch, Rosenbloom, and Meyerson are talking about screen-based entities and concepts of consciousness and emotions. Then, there’s a scientist who’s talking about the difficulties with robots,

… Ken Goldberg, an artist and professor of engineering at UC [University of California] Berkeley, calls the notion of cyborg robots in Westworld “a pretty common trope in science fiction.” (Joy will take up the theme again, as the screenwriter for a new Battlestar Galactica movie.) Goldberg’s lab is struggling just to build and program a robotic hand that can reliably pick things up. But a sympathetic, somewhat believable Dolores in a virtual setting is not so farfetched.

Captain delves further into a thorny issue,

“Can simulations, at some point, become the real thing?” asks Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. “If we perfectly simulate a rainstorm on a computer, it’s still not a rainstorm. We won’t get wet. But is the mind or consciousness different? The jury is still out.”

While artificial consciousness is still in the dreamy phase, today’s level of AI is serious business. “What was sort of a highfalutin philosophical question a few years ago has become an urgent industrial need,” says Jonah Nolan. It’s not clear yet how the Delos management intends, beyond entrance fees, to monetize Westworld, although you get a hint when Ford tells Theresa Cullen “We know everything about our guests, don’t we? As we know everything about our employees.”

AI has a clear moneymaking model in this world, according to Nolan. “Facebook is monetizing your social graph, and Google is advertising to you.” Both companies (and others) are investing in AI to better understand users and find ways to make money off this knowledge. …

As my colleague David Bruggeman has often noted on his Pasco Phronesis blog, there’s a lot of science on television.

For anyone who’s interested in artificial intelligence and the effects it may have on urban life, see my Sept. 27, 2016 posting featuring the ‘One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100)’, hosted by Stanford University.

Points to anyone who recognized Jonah (Jonathan) Nolan as the producer for the US television series, Person of Interest, a programme based on the concept of a supercomputer with intelligence and personality and the ability to continuously monitor the population 24/7.

Not exactly ‘Prey’: self-organizing materials that can mimic swarm behaviour

Prey, a 2002 novel by Michael Crichton, focused on nanotechnology and other emerging technologies and how their development could lead to unleashing swarms of nanobots with agendas of their own. Crichton’s swarms had collective artificial intelligence, and could massive themselves together to take on different macroscale shapes to achieve their own ends. This latest development has nowhere near that potential—not yet and probably never. From a July 21, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A new study by an international team of researchers, affiliated with Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) [Korea] has announced that they have succeeded in demonstarting control over the interactions occurring among microscopic spheres, which cause them to self-propel into swarms, chains, and clusters.

The research published in the current online edition of Nature Materials takes lessons from cooperation in nature, including that observed in honey bee swarms and bacterial clusters. In the study, the team has successfully demonstrated the self-organizing pattern formation in active materials at microscale by modifying only one parameter.

A July 21, 2016 UNIST press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

This breakthrough comes from a research, conducted by Dr. Steve Granick (School of Natural Science, UNIST) of IBS Center for Soft and Living Matter in collaboration with Dr. Erik Luijten from Northwestern University. Ming Han, a PhD student in Luijten’s laboratory, and Jing Yan, a former graduate student at the University of Illinois, served as co-first authors of the paper.

Researchers expect that such active particles could open a new class of technologies with applications in medicine, chemistry, and engineering as well as advance scientists’ fundamental understanding of collective, dynamic behavior in systems.

According to the research team, the significance of team work was stressed by both Dr. Luijten and Dr. Granick as this current breakthrough is part of a longtime partnership using a new class of soft-matter particles known as Janus colloids, which Dr. Granick had earlier created in his laboratory. The theoretical computer simulations were completed by the team, led by Dr. Luijten and Dr. Granick used these colloids to experimentally test the collective, dynamic behavior in the laboratory.

The micron-sized spheres, typically suspended in solution, were named after the Roman god with two faces as they have attractive interactions on one side and negative charges on the other side.

The electrostatic interactions between the two sides of the self-propelled spheres could be manipulated by subjecting the colloids to an electric field. Some experienced stronger repulsions between their forward-facing sides, while others went through the opposite. Along with them, another set remained completely neutral. This imbalance caused the self-propelled particles to swim and self-organize into one of the following patterns, which are swarms, chains, clusters and isotropic gases.

To avoid head-to-head collisions, head-repulsive particles swam side-by-side, forming into swarms. Depending on the electric-field frequency, tail-repulsive particles positioned their tails apart, thus encouraging them to face each other to form jammed clusters of high local density. Also, swimmers with equal-and-opposite charges attracted one another into connected chains.

Dr. Granick states, “This truly is a joint work of the technological know-how by the Korean IBS and the University of Illinois, as well as the computer simulations technology by Northwestern University.” He expects that this breakthrough has probable application in sensing, drug delivery, or even microrobotics.

With this discovery, a drug could be placed within particles, for instance, that cluster into the delivery spot. Moreover, alterations in the environment could be perceived if the system unexpectedly switches from swarming to forming chains.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Reconfiguring active particles by electrostatic imbalance by Jing Yan, Ming Han, Jie Zhang, Cong Xu, Erik Luijten, & Steve Granick. Nature Materials (2016)  doi:10.1038/nmat4696 Published online 11 July 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Canada has a nanotechnology industry? and an overview of the US situation

It’s always interesting to get some insight into how someone else sees the nanotechnology effort in Canada.

First, there have been two basic approaches internationally. Some countries have chosen to fund nanotechnology/nanoscience research through a national initiative/project/council/etc. Notably the US, the UK, China, and Russia, amongst others, have followed this model. For example, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)  (a type of hub for research, communication, and commercialization efforts) has been awarded a portion of the US budget every year since 2000. The money is then disbursed through the National Science Foundation.

Canada and its nanotechnology industry efforts

By contrast, Canada has no such line item in its national budget. There is a National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) but it is one of many institutes that help make up Canada’s National Research Council. I’m not sure if this is still true but when it was first founded, NINT was funded in part by the federal government and in part by the province of Alberta where it is located (specifically, in Edmonton at the University of Alberta). They claim the organization has grown since its early days although it looks like it’s been shrinking. Perhaps some organizational shuffles? In any event, support for the Canadian nanotechnology efforts are more provincial than federal. Alberta (NINT and other agencies) and Québec (NanoQuébec, a provincially funded nano effort) are the standouts, with Ontario (nano Ontario, a self-organized not-for-profit group) following closely. The scene in Canada has always seemed fragmented in comparison to the countries that have nanotechnology ‘hubs’.

Patrick Johnson in a Dec. 22, 2015 article for Geopolitical Monitor offers a view which provides an overview of nanotechnology in the US and Canada,  adds to the perspective offered here, and, at times, challenges it (Note: A link has been added),

The term ‘nanotechnology’ entered into the public vernacular quite suddenly around the turn of the century, right around the same time that, when announcing the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2001 [2000; see the American Association for the Advancement of Science webpage on Historical Trends in Federal R&D, scroll down to the National Nanotechnology Initiative and click on the Jpg or Excel links], President Bill Clinton declared that it would one day build materials stronger than steel, detect cancer at its inception, and store the vast records of the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube. The world of science fiction took matters even further. In his 2002 book Prey, Michael Creighton [Michael Crichton; see Wikipedia entry] wrote of a cloud of self-replicating nanorobots [also known as, nanobots or self-assemblers] that terrorize the good people of Nevada when a science experiment goes terribly wrong.

Back then the hype was palpable. Federal money was funneled to promising nanotech projects as not to fall behind in the race to master this new frontier of science. And industry analysts began to shoot for the moon in their projections. The National Science Foundation famously predicted that the nanotechnology industry would be worth $1 trillion by the year 2015.

Well here we are in 2015 and the nanotechnology market was worth around $26 billion in [sic] last year, and there hasn’t even been one case of a murderous swarm of nanomachines terrorizing the American heartland. [emphasis mine]

Is this a failure of vision? No. If anything it’s only a failure of timing.

The nanotechnology industry is still well on its way to accomplishing the goals set out at the founding of the NNI, goals which at the time sounded utterly quixotic, and this fact is increasingly being reflected in year-on-year growth numbers. In other words, nanotechnology is still a game-changer in global innovation, it’s just taking a little longer than first expected.

The Canadian Connection

Although the Canadian government is not among the world’s top spenders on nanotechnology research, the industry still represents a bright spot in the future of the Canadian economy. The public-private engine [emphasis mine] at the center of Canada’s nanotech industry, the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), was founded in 2001 with the stated goal of “increasing the competitiveness of Canadian companies; creating technology solutions to meet the needs of society; expanding training programs for researchers and entrepreneurs; and enhancing Canada’s stature in the world of nanotechnology.” This ambitious mandate that NINT set out for itself was to be accomplished over the course of two broad stages: first a ‘seeding’ phase of attracting promising personnel and coordinating basic research, and the then a ‘harvesting’ phase of putting the resulting nanotechnologies to the service of Canadian industry.

Recent developments in Canadian nanotechnology [emphasis mine] show that we have already entered that second stage where the concept of nanotechnology transitions from hopeful hypothetical to real-world economic driver

I’d dearly like to know which recent developments indicate Canada’s industry has entered a serious commercialization phase. (It’s one of the shortcomings of our effort that communication is not well supported.) As well, I’d like to know more about the  “… public-private engine at the center of Canada’s nanotech industry …” as Johnson seems to be referring to the NINT, which is jointly funded (I believe) by the federal government and the province of Alberta. There is no mention of private funding on their National Research Council webpage but it does include the University of Alberta as a major supporter.

I am intrigued and I hope there is more information to come.

US and its nanotechnology industry efforts

Dr. Ambika Bumb has written a Dec. 23, 2015 article for Tech Crunch which reflects on her experience as a researcher and entrepreneur in the context of the US NNI effort and includes a plea for future NNI funding [Note: One link added and one link removed],

Indeed, I am fortunate to be the CEO of a nanomedicine technology developer that extends the hands of doctors and scientists to the cellular and molecular level.

The first seeds of interest in bringing effective nano-tools into the hands of doctors and patients were planted in my mind when I did undergrad research at Georgia Tech.  That initial interest led to me pursuing a PhD at Oxford University to develop a tri-modal nanoparticle for imaging a variety of diseases ranging from cancers to autoimmune disorders.

My graduate research only served to increase my curiosity so I then did a pair of post-doctoral fellowships at the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.  When it seemed that I was a shoe-in for a life-long academic career, our technology garnered much attention and I found myself in the Bay Area founding the now award-winning Bikanta [bikanta.com].

Through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, our federal government has invested $20 billion in nanoresearch in the past 13 years.  The return on that investment has resulted in 628 agency‐to‐agency collaborations, hundreds of thousands of publications, and more than $1 trillion in revenue generated from nano‐enabled products. [emphasis mine]

Given that medical innovations take a minimum of 10 years before they translate into a clinical product, already realizing a 50X return is an astounding achievement.  Slowing down would be counter-intuitive from an academic and business perspective.

Yet, that is what is happening.  Federal funding peaked half a decade ago in 2010.  [emphasis mine] NNI investments went from $1.58B in 2010 to $1.170B in 2015 (in constant dollars), a 26% drop.  The number of nano-related papers published in the US were roughly 25 thousand in 2013, while the EU and China produced 33 and 35 thousand, respectively.

History has shown repeatedly how the United States has lost an early competitive advantage in developing high‐value technologies to international competition when commercialization infrastructure was not adequately supported.

Examples include semiconductors, advanced batteries for vehicles, and cement‐based construction materials, all of which were originally developed in the United States, but are now manufactured elsewhere.

It is now time for a second era – NNI 2.0.  A return to higher and sustained investment, the purpose of NNI 2.0 should be not just foundational research but also necessary support for rapid commercialization of nanotechnology. The translation of bench science into commercial reality requires the partnership of academic, industrial, federal, and philanthropic players.

I’m not sure why there’s a difference between Johnson’s ” … worth around $26 billion in [sic] last year …] and Bumb’s “… return on that investment has resulted … more than $1 trillion in revenue generated from nano‐enabled products.” I do know there is some controversy as to what should or should not be included when estimating the value of the ‘nanotechnology enterprise’, for example, products that are only possible due to nanotechnology as opposed to products that already existed, such as golf clubs, but are enhanced by nanotechnology.

Bumb goes on to provide a specific example from her own experience to support the plea,

When I moved from the renowned NIH [US National Institutes of Health] on the east coast to the west coast to start Bikanta, one of the highest priority concerns was how we were going to develop nanodiamond technology without access to high-end characterization instrumentation to analyze the quality of our material.  Purchasing all that equipment was not financially viable or even wise for a startup.

We were extremely lucky because our proposal was accepted by the Molecular Foundry, one of five DOE [US Department of Energy]-funded nanoscience user facilities.  While the Foundry primarily facilitates basic nanoscience projects from academic and national laboratory users, Fortune 500 companies and startups like ours also take advantage of its capabilities to answer fundamental questions and conduct proof of concept studies (~10%).

Disregarding the dynamic intellectual community for a minute, there is probably more than $150M worth of instrumentation at the Foundry.  An early startup would never be able to dream of raising a first round that large.

One of the factors of Bikanta’s success is that the Molecular Foundry enabled us to make tremendous strides in R&D in just months instead of years.  More user facilities, incubator centers, and funding for commercializing nanotech are greatly needed.

Final comments

I have to thank Dr. Bumb for pointing out that 2010 was the peak for NNI funding (see the American Association for the Advancement of Science webpage on Historical Trends in Federal R&D, scroll down to the National Nanotechnology Initiative and click on the Jpg or Excel links). I erroneously believed (although I don’t appear to have written up my belief; if you find any such statement, please let me know so I can correct it) that the 2015 US budget was the first time the NNI experienced a drop in funding.

While I found Johnson’s article interesting I wasn’t able to determine the source for his numbers and some of his material had errors that can be identified immediately, e.g., Michael Creighton instead of Michael Crichton.

Harvard University researcher Chirarattananom’s Flight of the RoboBee

The flight of  Chirarattananom’s RoboBee took place last summer but the research has only now been published. There’s a May 2, 2013 news release on EurekAlert heralding this robotic first from 2012,

In the very early hours of the morning, in a Harvard robotics laboratory last summer, an insect took flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leapt a few inches, hovered for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then sped along a preset route through the air.

Like a proud parent watching a child take its first steps, graduate student Pakpong Chirarattananon immediately captured a video of the fledgling and emailed it to his adviser and colleagues at 3 a.m.—subject line, “Flight of the RoboBee.”

“I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep,” recalls Chirarattananon, co-lead author of a paper published this week in Science.

The demonstration of the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot is the culmination of more than a decade’s work, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

Here’s what it looks like,

The tiny robot flaps its wings 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators -- strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time. Credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

The tiny robot flaps its wings 120 times per second using piezoelectric actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real-time.
Credit: Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon, Harvard University.

The Harvard [University] Gazette May 2, 2013 article by Caroline Perry, which originated the news release, provides more detail about what makes this particular robotic work unique,

“We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” explains Wood [Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Wyss core faculty member, and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project]. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”

Flight muscles, for instance, don’t come prepackaged for robots the size of a fingertip.

“Large robots can run on electromagnetic motors, but at this small scale you have to come up with an alternative, and there wasn’t one,” says co-lead author Kevin Y. Ma, a graduate student at SEAS.

The tiny robot flaps its wings with piezoelectric actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. Thin hinges of plastic embedded within the carbon fiber body frame serve as joints, and a delicately balanced control system commands the rotational motions in the flapping-wing robot, with each wing controlled independently in real time.

At tiny scales, small changes in airflow can have an outsized effect on flight dynamics, and the control system has to react that much faster to remain stable.

While it’s called the RoboBee project, the researchers’ inspiration for this prototype is a fly. Unlike most flies, this one is tethered, at least for now (from Perry’s article),

The prototypes are still tethered by a very thin power cable because there are no off-the-shelf solutions for energy storage that are small enough to be mounted on the robot’s body. High-energy-density fuel cells must be developed before the RoboBees will be able to fly with much independence.

Future research plans include (from Perry’s article),

… integrating the parallel work of many different research teams that are working on the brain, the colony coordination behavior, the power source, and so on, until the robotic insects are fully autonomous and wireless.

Here’s a citation for and a link to the research paper,

Controlled Flight of a Biologically Inspired, Insect-Scale Robot by Kevin Y. Ma,  Pakpong Chirarattananon,  Sawyer B. Fuller, and Robert J. Wood. Science 3 May 2013: Vol. 340 no. 6132 pp. 603-607 DOI: 10.1126/science.1231806

The paper is behind a paywall.

On reading about the RoboBee project I was reminded of Michael Crichton’s 2002 cautionary tale, Prey, which focuses on a possible future where small, swarming bots that fly threaten to take over the world. More happily, I was also inspired musically and found this rendition of the Flight of the Bumblebee,

Have a nice Friday, May 3, 2013!

Swarming robot droplets

The robot droplets are a bit bigger than you might expect, the size of ping pong balls, but the idea is intriguing and for those who’ve read Michael Crichton’s book, Prey, it could seem quite disturbing (from the University of Colorado Boulder multimedia page for ‘tiny robots’),

For anyone unfamiliar with Crichton’s Prey, here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about the book which features nanobots operating as a swarm,

… As a result, hazardous elements such as the assemblers, the bacteria, and the nanobots were blown into the desert, evolving and eventually forming autonomous swarms. These swarms appear to be solar-powered and self-sufficient, reproducing and evolving rapidly. The swarms exhibit predatory behavior, attacking and killing animals in the wild, using code that Jack himself worked on. Most alarmingly, the swarms seem to possess rudimentary intelligence, the ability to quickly learn and to innovate. The swarms tend to wander around the fab plant during the day but quickly leave when strong winds blow or night falls.

The Dec. 14, 2012 posting by Alan on the Science Business website describes,

A computer science lab at University of Colorado in Boulder is building a miniature, limited-function robot designed to work in a swarm of similar devices. Computer science professor Nikolaus Correll and colleagues are building these small devices that they call droplets as building blocks for increasingly complex systems.

A University of Colorado Boulder Dec. 14, 2012 news release provides more details,

Correll and his computer science research team, including research associate Dustin Reishus and professional research assistant Nick Farrow, have developed a basic robotic building block, which he hopes to reproduce in large quantities to develop increasingly complex systems.

Recently the team created a swarm of 20 robots, each the size of a pingpong ball, which they call “droplets.” When the droplets swarm together, Correll said, they form a “liquid that thinks.”

To accelerate the pace of innovation, he has created a lab where students can explore and develop new applications of robotics with basic, inexpensive tools.

Similar to the fictional “nanomorphs” depicted in the “Terminator” films, large swarms of intelligent robotic devices could be used for a range of tasks. Swarms of robots could be unleashed to contain an oil spill or to self-assemble into a piece of hardware after being launched separately into space, Correll said.

Correll plans to use the droplets to demonstrate self-assembly and swarm-intelligent behaviors such as pattern recognition, sensor-based motion and adaptive shape change. These behaviors could then be transferred to large swarms for water- or air-based tasks.

Correll hopes to create a design methodology for aggregating the droplets into more complex behaviors such as assembling parts of a large space telescope or an aircraft.

There’s also talk about creating gardens in space,

He [Correll] also is continuing work on robotic garden technology he developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009. Correll has been working with Joseph Tanner in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department to further develop the technology, involving autonomous sensors and robots that can tend gardens, in conjunction with a model of a long-term space habitat being built by students.

Correll says there is virtually no limit to what might be created through distributed intelligence systems.

“Every living organism is made from a swarm of collaborating cells,” he said. “Perhaps some day, our swarms will colonize space where they will assemble habitats and lush gardens for future space explorers.”

The scientists don’t seem to harbour any trepidations, I guess they’re leaving that to the writers.

Michael Crichton publishes nano novel from beyond the grave

Michael Crichton died in Nov. 2008 and his latest book, published Nov. 22, 2011, is titled Micro. It’s being billed as a nanotechnology thriller. From the Nov. 27, 2011 article by Philip Sherwell for The Telegraph,

The result is Mr Crichton’s 17th novel, Micro. About the first third of the 424 pages were written by the best-selling science fiction author himself, the rest by Richard Preston, a former veterinarian turned novelist [best known for Hot Zone].

Set in the rainforest of Hawaii, the techno-thriller features murderous micro-robots, a villainous nanotechnology entrepreneur and Harvard biology students shrunk to less than an inch tall, then exposed to the terrors of killer bugs, among other lethal threats of the natural world. It is, in many ways, a miniature version of the man-versus-dinosaur scenario of the Crichton classic, Jurassic Park.

Crichton did write an earlier ‘nano’ thriller, Prey. (I read it but was not especially impressed.)

If you are interested in the writing aspect, i.e., what is it like to collaborate with someone when all you have are the notes, then Sherwell’s article provides some good insight. Hint: Having the dead author’s longtime personal assistant ready to help is a great advantage.

I did find a Nov. 28, 2011 review of Micro by Jeff VanderMeer for the Los Angeles Times,

What if we had the technology to miniaturize people and objects? That’s the central premise behind “Micro” by “Jurassic Park’s” Michael Crichton and “The Hot Zone’s” Richard Preston. Crichton wrote one-third of “Micro” before his death in 2008 — which third seems largely irrelevant, as the entire novel functions as a well-oiled but oddly soulless machine. All of the edges have been sanded off of prose that is supremely functional and most of the workmanlike characters seem resigned to being transformed into actors on a movie screen

The premise bears a resemblance to the  one they used for the 1989 movie,  Honey, I shrunk the kids. From the Internet Movie Database page for the movie,

The scientist father of two teenage boys accidentally shrinks his and two other neighborhood teens to the size of insects. Now the teens must fight diminutive dangers as the father searches for them.

Of course, Honey, … was a comedy while Crichton specialized in thrillers.

ICON database and Michael Crichton, RIP

The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) has announced a new tool for researchers. ICON has a nano-environment, health, and safety search function that will allow researchers to analyze ICON’s database of citations. The tool, which looks nifty, is located here.  For more details about tool capabilities and about the possibilities opened up to researchers, there’s the Nanowerk article.

I saw this reprint of an interview with Michael Crichton, a writer who died last week, discussing his then-new novel Prey. It’s illuminating to discover just what he thought of nanotechnology (one of the emerging technologies dramatised in Prey) and roles of the sciences, technology, and the humanities in society. The interview is here.