Tag Archives: Terminator

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.

Pop culture, science communication, and nanotechnology

A few years back I wrote a paper for the  Cascadia Nanotech Symposium (March 2007 held in Vancouver) called: Engaging Nanotechnology: pop culture, media, and public awareness. I was reminded it of a few days ago when I saw a mention on Andrew Maynard’s, 2020 Science blog about a seminar titled, Biopolitics of Popular Culture being held in Irvine, California on Dec. 4, 2009 by the Institute of Ethics for Emerging Technologies. (You can read more of Andrew’s comments here or you can check out the meeting details here.) From the meeting website,

Popular culture is full of tropes and cliches that shape our debates about emerging technologies. Our most transcendent expectations for technology come from pop culture, and the most common objections to emerging technologies come from science fiction and horror, from Frankenstein and Brave New World to Gattaca and the Terminator.

Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?

Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?

During this day long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television.

I’m not sure what they mean by biopolitics, especially after the lecture I attended at Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus last night (Nov. 12, 2009), Liminal Livestock. Last night’s lecture by Susan Squier highlighted (this is oversimplified) the relationship between women and chickens in the light of reproductive technologies.  From the lecture description,

Adapting SubRosa Art Collective’s memorable question, this talk asks: “What does it mean, to feminism and to agriculture, that women are like chickens and chickens are like women?” As liminal livestock, chickens play a central role in our gendered agricultural imaginary: the zone where we find the “speculative, propositional fabric of agricultural thought.” Analyzing several children’s stories, a novel, and a documentary film, the talk seeks to discover some of the factors that help to shape the role of women in agriculture, and the role of agriculture in women’s lives.

Squier did also discuss reproductive technologies at some length although it’s not obvious from the description that the topic will arise. She discussed the transition of chicken raising as a woman’s job to a man’s job which coincided with the rise of  chicken factory farms. Squier also noted the current interest in raising chickens in city and suburban areas without speculating on possible cultural impacts.

The lecture covered  selective breeding and the shift of university  poultry science departments from the study of science to the study of increasing chicken productivity, which led to tampering with genes and other reproductive technologies. One thing I didn’t realize is that chicken eggs are used for studies on human reproduction. Disturbingly, Squier talked to an American scientist, whose work concerns human reproduction, who moved to Britain because the chicken eggs are of such poor quality in the US.

The relationship between women and chickens was metaphorical and illustrated through popular children’s stories and pop culture artifacts (i.e. poultry beauty pageants featuring women not chickens) in a way that would require reproducing far more of the lecture than I can here. So if you are interested, I understand that Squier does have a book about women and chickens being published although I can’t find a publication date.

Squier’s lecture and the meeting for the Institute of Ethics for Emerging Technologies present different ways of integrating pop culture elements into the discussion about science and emerging technologies. Since I’m tooting my horn, I’m going to finish with my thoughts on the matter as written in my Cascadia Nanotechnology Symposium paper,

The process of accepting, rejecting, or changing new sciences and new technologies seems more akin to a freewheeling, creative conversation with competing narratives than a transfer of information from experts to nonexperts as per the science literacy model.

The focus on establishing how much awareness the public has about nanotechnology by measuring the number of articles in the newspaper or items in the broadcast media or even tracking the topic in the blogosphere is useful as one of a set of tools.

Disturbing as it is to think that it could be used for purely manipulative purposes, finding out how people develop their attitudes towards new technologies and the interplay between cognition, affect, and values has the potential to help us better understand ourselves and our relationship to the sciences. (In this paper, the terms science and technology are being used interchangeably, as is often the case with nanotechnology.)

Pop culture provides a valuable view into how nonexperts learn about science (books, television, etc.) and accept technological innovations (e.g. rejecting the phonograph as a talking book technology but accepting it for music listening).

There is a collaborative and interactive process at the heart of the nanotechnology ‘discussion’. For example, Drexler appears to be responding to some of his critics by revising some of his earlier suppositions about how nanotechnology would work. Interestingly, he also appears to be downplaying his earlier concerns about nanoassemblers running amok and unleashing the ‘goo’ scenario on us all. (BBC News, June 9, 2004)

In reviewing all of the material about communicating science, public attitudes, and values, one thing stands out: time. Electricity was seen by some as deeply disturbing to the cosmic forces of the universe. There was resistance to the idea for decades and, in some cases (the Amish), that resistance lives on. Despite all this, there is not a country in the world today that doesn’t have electricity.

One final note: I didn’t mean to suggest the inexorable adoption of any and all technologies, my intent was to point out the impossibility of determining a technology’s future adoption or rejection by measuring contemporary attitudes, hostile or otherwise.

’nuff said for today. Happy weekend!