Tiny programmable robots vs biological xenobots

FFFUTURES #5, September 14, 2020

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It's always fascinating to read about nanotechnology advances in robots capable of traveling our bloodstream. And although it feels like a futuristic scenario, this idea has been in the mind of researches since the 1950s.

The concept is attributed to Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who discussed it in a lecture on December 29, 1959. His vision of direct manipulation was ambitious: he suggested that, in principle, it should be possible to make nanomachines that "arrange the atoms the way we want" and do chemical synthesis by mechanical manipulation.

Fantastic Voyage was released in 1966, a sci-fi movie in which a submarine crew are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into the body of a comatose scientist. Both the film and Feynman's concept have been replicated and parodied many times in pop culture.

What's fascinating to see researchers dedicated to making it a reality and approaching the challenge from different perspectives. 

One way is the mechanical approach. Microscopic robotics applied to nanobots and manipulated by magnets or lasers. The core challenges of this path are integrating electronics with the moving parts and developing autonomous programmability.

Another way is the biological approach. "Robots" that are literally organisms made of living cells. The core challenges here are providing the right structure to the organism, and prediction and manipulation of their movements.

The biological approach is intriguing. These organisms are created with constraints set by the scientists, but the xenobots (the name they're giving to these organisms) have reactions of their own. In principle, they can be manipulated through controlled stimulation. But what type of worst-case scenarios are possible here?

We know AI poses the risk of uncontrolled superintelligence. How does that translate to nanobots moving through our body delivering medication? And how does it translate to xenobots swimming through our bloodstreams doing cell cleanup and tinkering with viruses?

If you need a trigger to write about speculative scenarios in medicine and health care, those two are as good as they come.

A brief list of potential fields and questions that could surface from these areas of exploration: Autonomous robotic surgery. Programmable bacteria. Human bio-hacking. What will be the new jobs created by these fields? Which jobs will be made obsolete by them? How can they be used for good? How can they be exploited for malicious intents? Which other questions do we need to ask?

👁️ Omnirealities

AR/VR in the Supply Chain

Supply chain companies across the globe are making increasing investments in AR/VR. Industry forecasts developed by Forbes show that AR/VR in the supply chain is one of the key factors for industry progress, especially when so many employees work remotely.

In the article, ARPost shares a list of current and future developments for AR and VR in the supply chain industry:

1. Inventory Management

2. Remote Collaboration in Data Visualization

3. VR Training for Employees

4. Real-Time Information for Merchandize in Transit

5. Product Traceability

VR Training is one that I’m constantly looking for reports that share observations, challenges, and outcomes. I see the potential in it, but the logistics around its implementation is a big challenge that I haven’t still seen solved in an efficient and scalable way.

🔮 Future Scenarios

Could injectable microrobots one day run in your veins?

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have created microscopic four-legged robots (too small to see with the naked eye) that could be injected into the body through hypodermic needles. When stimulated by laser light they can walk around.

Their study provides "a clear vision" for solving the challenge of creating a tiny robot that can both convert energy into motion and is able to be programmable.

Scientists create a robot made entirely of living cells

On a similar note, this is another really interesting research in which the robot is not a mechanical one, but an organism made of living cells. These are being called “Xenobots“, and among their primary functions, they could be used to clean up microplastics or to deliver medication in the body.

"The idea here is that you have these heart cells which basically increase and decrease in volume," said Bongard. "And if you put them all together they push and pull on each other and produce overall motion in the organism. We want obviously that motion to propel this new organism along the bottom of the petri dish."

💀 Not a Cylon

Michael E. Bennett, @mike.bennett.illustration

Michael E. Bennett, @mike.bennett.illustration

Michael E. Bennett, @mike.bennett.illustration

🧠 Common Enemy

Dopple-ganging up on Facial Recognition Systems

Biometrics are an increasingly relied-upon technology to authenticate or verify individuals that are effectively replacing passwords (and other potentially unreliable authentication methods). However, the reliance on automated systems and machine learning without considering the inherent security flaws present in the mysterious internal mechanics of face-recognition models could provide cybercriminals unique capabilities to bypass critical systems, such as automated passport enforcement.

As vulnerability researchers, we need to be able to look at how things work; both the intended method of operation as well as any oversights. […] we wanted to know if we could create “adversarial images” in a passport-style format, that would be incorrectly classified as a targeted individual.

Impact of Go AI on the Professional Go World – A Response

Here’s an intriguing closer look at the impact Go AI is having on the game and its professional players. This is a post written by Antti Törmänen, a professional Go player, which is a response to Hajin Lee’s take published on Medium last August. There are those who enjoy following celebrity drama on Twitter… and there are those who enjoy following the academic drama of AI implications on humanity.

I found myself disagreeing with many of her points, and so decided to write my own remarks on the topic. Note that my intention is not to attack or ‘bash’ Lee’s opinions, but rather to bring forth another point of view.


The state of XR and Immersive Learning

The Immersive Learning Research Network (iLRN) has partnered with different institutions (the Consortium for School Networking, and the eLearning Guild among them) to establish The State of XR and Immersive Learning, a multi-sector, cross-disciplinary initiative. Worth taking a look at their site, plans, and reports, to follow up on the outcomes of this initiative.

AI technology adapted for schools amid coronavirus pandemic

As schools reopen across the nation amid a global pandemic, companies are offering artificial intelligence technology that could help manage the logistics around social and health protocols: Thermal screening, Identifying whether students are wearing masks, measuring social distance, and contact-tracing apps.

Are you hacking with futures and other realities? Do you have comments, stories, or suggestions? I’d like to hear from you. Reach out: heyfffutures@gmail.com

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