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Reliable communications are almost as critical to the modern soldier as their weapons and ammunition. Conventional whip-antennas are not only cumbersome and conspicuous, but they don’t always provide a reliable link between a soldier laying on the ground and one standing up. Meanwhile, the short antenna of a portable radio can mean the signal is masked by the user’s body. To provide more reliable, continuous 360-degree radio coverage, BAE Systems has developed a series of Body Wearable Antennas (BWAs) that, like the experimental antenna system recently developed at Ohio State University, sees the antennas weaved into the fibers of a uniform.
The concept demonstrator developed by BAE not only provides 360-degree communications coverage whilst improving the agility of the soldier, it also transmits voice, video data from a helmet-mounted camera and GPS location information via the same antenna. BAE says such capabilities would improve the situational awareness of a military team as a whole by allowing soldiers to see through the eyes of their teammates in real time.
The demonstration system developed by BAE also includes a commercially available touchscreen smartphone that is mounted on the wrist. Using the smartphone’s GPS sensor, the positions on the various team members can be overlaid on a moving map. The team can also tag objects, such as potential hazards, that will appear highlighted on the phone’s display.
“Frontline soldiers carry a huge amount of weight when on patrol. Research into body wearable antennas has shown we could reduce this burden and in the future give forces improved communication capabilities and a significant advantage on the battlefield,” says Jon Pinto, Antennas and Electromagnetics Group Leader from BAE Systems Advanced Technology Centre.
BAE Systems is also exploring non-military uses of the technology. It is currently looking at the potential to incorporate BWAs into the suits of fire-fighters for use in search and rescue operations, for police patrol members to keep a track of colleagues on the street, and in other hazardous industries, such as mining, oil and gas.
Darwin’s robots: Survival of the fittest digital brain
A holistic, evolutionary approach means that robots could learn to design themselves
WHAT if a robot - brain, body and all - could be born and then develop in a similar way to a human baby?
Instead of a mother, the robot would come out of a printer, in its entirety. “The end game is to evolve robots in simulation, hit print, and watch them walk out of a 3D printer,” says Jeffrey Clune, who heads the HyperNEAT project at Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab in Ithaca, New York.
Before he can do that, though, Clune needs the right design. His team had already evolved digital brains using neural networks that mimic biological evolutionary processes, and the researchers are now connecting these brains to a body, to find ones that can make the body walk right away.
The neural networks, essentially a series of algorithms, enable the brain to learn how to control physical robotic bodies, either simulated or physical. The brains receive sensory inputs from the body telling them what to learn to control - whether it has two legs or four, for example - then evolve the neural patterns needed to control it.
Each brain was given control of a physical body for a period of time. Some were abject failures, and could only muster enough control to flail about, fall over or twitch.
The best-performing brains were allowed to reproduce to create the next generation and the entire process was then repeated until the team obtained a brain that could control the robot and walk around the lab. So far, Clune’s team has evolved a brain that is able to make a four-legged robot walk within a few hours of the brain being plugged into the body. The results were presented last month at the European Conference on Artificial Life in Paris, France.
“From an observer’s perspective, it looks like a robot that ‘wakes up’, tries out a new gait, and then ‘thinks about it’ for a few seconds, before waking up again and trying a new gait,” says Clune. “Over time you see that the robot learns how to walk better and better.”
As the robot brains can adapt according to the information given them from the body, they can learn continually and transfer acquired skills from one task to another. For example, a robotic brain evolved to control a four-legged robot would still function if hooked up to a six-legged robot. A small amount of damage shouldn’t cripple these robots as they would be able to adapt.
Clune’s team is now evolving simulated bodies and brains with theirEndlessForms website, also developed at Cornell. This uses evolutionary algorithms to gradually modify designs before bringing them into the real world with 3D printing. Clune hopes to use EndlessForms to design soft-bodied robots using printable materials that act as muscles, bones, batteries, wires and even computers.
The lab has 3D-printed many of these components already, including wires and artificial muscles, which move when a current is passed through them. However, they have yet to find a way to print structural material with different levels of stiffness - harder materials for bone, for instance - as well as some of the softer, more flexible tissues. “Eventually, the entire thing will be printed, brains and all,” says Clune.
The team uses neural networks known as compositional pattern-producing networks (CPPNs) to mimic how natural organisms develop. This produces designs that share important properties with natural organisms, such as symmetry and the repetition of modules.
Josh Bongard, who works on robot evolution at the University of Vermont in Burlington, says Clune’s approach is exciting because it explores how a robot’s body affects its behaviour and offers control over the evolution of every aspect of a robot - brain, body and behaviour.
“If CPPNs are used to evolve robot bodies along with brains, he may be able to evolve robots with complex bodies as well as complex brains,” Bongard says.
Using evolutionary methods to build whole robotic entities opens up an even more intriguing possibility - that robots could evolve new and entirely different structures. “It may well be that the neural networks and bodies that we create for the system are not those that the system would develop for itself,” says James Giordano, who directs the Center for Neurotechnology Studies in Arlington, Virginia.
Better robotic bodies that can handle the brain’s demands are certainly needed: the test robot broke down because it was unable to cope with the running motions that the brain had evolved after a number of generations.
Eventually, the brain and body should work in concert, with the brain’s evolution dependent upon what tasks the robot carries out during its lifetime, says Jean-Baptiste Mouret of the Intelligent Systems and Robotics Institute in Paris, France.
“The brain will depend on the body and on the ‘life’ of the robot, in the same way as birds’ brains are different from rats’ brains,” says Mouret. Breeding robots that can do more than walk is the next big step. The software-based brains that are best at performing a desired behaviour in simulation, such as climbing a wall or getting close to a person, will be allowed to reproduce until the final generation has hard-wired instincts to perform the task.
Could living things that evolved from metals be clunking about somewhere in the universe? Perhaps. In a lab in Glasgow, UK, one man is intent on proving that metal-based life is possible.
He has managed to build cell-like bubbles from giant metal-containing molecules and has given them some life-like properties. He now hopes to induce them to evolve into fully inorganic self-replicating entities.
“I am 100 per cent positive that we can get evolution to work outside organic biology,” says Lee Cronin (see photo, right) at the University of Glasgow. His building blocks are large “polyoxometalates” made of a range of metal atoms – most recently tungsten – linked to oxygen and phosphorus. By simply mixing them in solution, he can get them to self-assemble into cell-like spheres.
Cronin and his team begin by creating salts from negatively charged ions of the large metal oxides bound to a small positively charged ion such as hydrogen or sodium. A solution of this salt is squirted into another salt solution made of large, positively charged organic ions bound to small negative ones.
When the two salts meet, they swap parts and the large metal oxides end up partnered with the large organic ions. The new salt is insoluble in water: it precipitates as a shell around the injected solution.
Cronin calls the resulting bubbles inorganic chemical cells, or iCHELLs, and says they are far more than mere curiosities. By modifying their metal oxide backbone he can give the bubbles some of the characteristics of the membranes of natural cells. For example, an oxide with a hole as part of its structure becomes a porous membrane, selectively allowing chemicals in and out of the cell according to size, just like the walls of biological cells. This property gives the membrane control over the range of chemical reactions that can happen within – a key feature of specialised cells (Angewandte Chemie, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201105068).
The team has also made bubbles within bubbles (see images), creating compartments that mimic the internal structure of biological cells. Better yet, they have started imbuing the iCHELLs with the equipment for photosynthesis by linking some oxide molecules to light-sensitive dyes. Cronin says early results suggest he can create a membrane that splits water into hydrogen ions, electrons and oxygen when illuminated – the initial step of photosynthesis.
“We’ve [also] got an indication that we can pump protons across the membrane” to set up a proton gradient, says Cronin – another key stage in harnessing energy from light. If he can assemble all these steps, Cronin could create a self-powered cell with elements of plant-like metabolism.
It’s early days; other synthetic biologists are reserving judgement for now. Cronin’s bubbles are never going to be truly life-like until they carry something like DNA to drive self-replication and evolution, says Manuel Porcar of the University of Valencia in Spain. That is theoretically possible, he says, “but I cannot imagine what kind of system they would implement”. Cronin isn’t sure yet either, but last year he showed that he could get polyoxometalates to use each other as templates to self-replicate (Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1181735).
In an ambitious seven-month experiment, Cronin is now mass-producing bubbles and injecting them into an array of tubes and flasks filled with different chemicals at different pH levels. He hopes that the mix of environments will allow only the fittest bubbles to survive. “If the pH is too low and [some bubbles] dissolve then those droplets will have died.” Others may persist and accumulate. In the long run, the real test will be whether the cells can modify their own chemistry to adapt to different environments. Cronin hints that his latest work may show this, but is unwilling to give details as yet. “I think we have just shown the first droplets that can evolve” is all he will say.
If Cronin is right, then the possible range of extraterrestrial life is blown wide open. “There is every possibility that there are life forms out there which aren’t based on carbon,” he says. Tadashi Sugawara of the University of Tokyo, Japan, doesn’t see why not. “On Mercury, the materials are all different. There might be a creature made of inorganic elements.” Cronin may be some way from proving this, says Sugawara, but “he has pointed out a new direction”.