Sunday, December 27, 2009

Advances in robotics

Robotics can be defined as the integration of sensors, computation, and machine systems to manipulate matter. Some of the most important current applications are in military use, factory automation, telepresence, entertainment, and human interaction. Some contemporary trends include bipedal robots, autonomous robotics, and swarm computing. Walking, instead of navigating around on wheeled or multi-legged bases, could open up a variety of new applications for robotics. Similarly, autonomous robotics could handle tasks at a higher level of abstraction with less of a control burden. Swarm computing could allow the efforts of multiple robots to be coordinated, for example in warehouse automation or RoboCup soccer.

Military robotics
The U.S. military’s current deployment of robots includes 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator drone and 12,000 unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) such as the PackBot (P.W. Singer, Wired for War). Boston Dynamics has developed several interesting robots for military use. One is the BigDog, a quadruped robot that can walk, run and climb on rough terrain and carry heavy loads. More recently, the company has been working on the PEDMAN bipedal robot which balances dynamically using a human-like walking motion and is to be used initially for testing chemical protection clothing by walking and climbing like a human. Another example of military robotics is the DARPA Grand Challenge, where there have been three rounds of competition for unmanned navigation vehicles, lastly in an urban environment.

Industrial robotics
A second important area is industrial robotics, extending automated machines by making them mobile. One leader in mobile robotic solutions for warehouse automation is Kiva Systems who uses robots to organize, manage and move inventory. The robots cooperate using swarm behavior by reading barcodes on the floor and other messaging systems. There are other examples of robots for potential use in corporate or health care environments. Willow Garage’s PR2 (Personal Robot 2) can autonomously open doors and locate and plug itself in to power outlets. AnyBots offers a corporate telepresence robot and a bipedal robot under development.

Personal robotics
There is also a research focus on creating robots with emotional intelligence for human interaction. Two notable examples are MIT’s Personal Robots Group and Hanson Robotics. MIT has robots such as Leonardo which has 50 independently controlled servo motors creating a full range of facial expressions. Hanson Robotics’ Zeno and other robots which have life-like skin created from frubber, a nanoporous materials advance in elastic polymers. For consumer use, robots are starting as small appliances such as the Roomba and Neato Robotics unit for home vacuuming and the Rovio for home security, and toys such as the Furby, Aibo, and Kondo.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Engineering life into technology

Information optimization, presently known as intelligence, is a centerpiece phenomenon in the universe. It arises from simplicity, then continuously breaks symmetry and cycles through instability on its progression to increasingly dense nodes of complexity and diversity.

A contemporary imbalance has arisen that exponentially growing technology is potentially poised to be a sole successor to human intelligence. A complex dynamical system is emerging in response, the engineering of life into technology. Numerous macroscopic and microscopic elements are under development which could together stimulate advancement to the next node of symmetry and stability, creating a phase transition in intelligence which could broadly include many varieties of sentience.

The macroscopic and microscopic network elements that comprise the complex adaptive system, engineering life into technology, are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Elements of engineering life into technology

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Progress in Aging: Secretome, mRNA and Nutrients

The U.S. National Institute on Aging held a Systems Biology of Human Aging conference in Baltimore, MD on December 8-9, 2009. Several interesting topics were considered including the complexities of modeling the process of aging, the role of RNA in gene regulation, neurodegenerative disease and vascular compromise, and gene expression and signaling networks.

Aging: break-down in signaling networks
Aging is a systems biology problem where signaling networks break down. As part of the signaling break down, senescent cells secrete inflammatory proteins which together can be thought of as the ‘secretome.’ Judy Campisi has found that the secretome, the senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP), can provide a common biological explanation for the related phenomena of aging, degenerative disease and cancer. Senescent cells produce the SASP, essentially inflammation, which can then trigger degenerative disease (aging) and hyper-prolific disease (cancer). A potential solution is to remove the 10-15% of senescent cells that are not naturally killed by the immune system. Some secretome research has been applied specifically to vascular smooth muscle cells which have the tendency to unhealthily proliferate and migrate with aging, in a process called the pro-inflammatory age associated arterial secretory phenotype (AAASP).

RNA and gene regulation
With mRNA analysis it is possible to obtain the transcriptome, the complement of DNA that has been synthesized into RNA and exists in a cell at any given time snapshot. This is starting to allow findings that the process of transcription and translation is probably more tightly coordinated than previously thought, and that translational control could be a dominant force in transcription. The norm is starting to be that RNA binding protein and non-coding mRNA expression should be identified too in analysis, not just protein expression. Generally, DNA is much more active than initially thought with perhaps 90% of the human genome being actively expressed in some cell of the body. The level of certain mRNAs can be an upstream pathway indicator of aging as mRNAs may increase or decrease with aging which can cause the level of damaging proteins to increase. For example, MKK4 increases with the overexpression of four mRNAs.

Alternate day fasting and nutrients
Alternate day fasting may potentially confer the same benefits as calorie restriction in animals and humans, both in physical and neurological health. Neurodegenerative disease and neurological decline are part of aging pathologies. A countermeasure may be to increase the levels of certain proteins, especially BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is neuroprotective, neurogenerative and important in plasticity and synaptic activity. Some nutrients that may help to increase BDNF levels are sulforphane (broccoli), curcumin (tumeric), catechins (green tea), allicin (garlic), hypericin (St. John’s Wort) and plumbagin.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Digital personas

There are more machines than humans on the internet, and more machine-to-machine traffic than human-to-human traffic despite the trillions of text messages sent every year. Perhaps the most interesting category of messaging is machine-to-human. There are many mundane examples of this such as RSS feeds, automated email notifications and status updates from entities (groups, companies and other organizations). Coming innovations in machine-human communication could be quite fun and life-enhancing.

There are already fan-run Twitter accounts, FaceBook parodies and other interaction sites for fictional characters, often contemporary television characters. The next step could be creating digital emulations that could automatically respond in character. For example, subscribing to the Ben Franklin feed – “ooh-zapped the heck out of myself with my kite last night.”

There could be many uses for digital personas in addition to entertaining status updates, for example, having kids hang out with Marie Curie and the Wright Brothers as role models. It could be interesting to have a society where dead or fictional characters become part of the conversation, having a voice and a lasting ongoing presence. Digital personas could be managed with sliding parameters (e.g.; amp up Churchill’s humor), and have add-on modules (get the early-adopter technophile package for the great-grandmother persona...”I’m off to text in my response to Dancing with the Stars.”)

Digital personas would not need to be exclusively reserved for dead or fictional characters, anyone could create one as a facsimile with some sort of fidelity from current digital content, data and other artifacts. Celebrities could possibly earn greater remuneration by renting their emulations rather than through live engagements involving their actual physical persona.

As robotics continue to advance, digital persona overlays could be applied so that Franklin Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry could walk around and discuss home renovation plans with you, Lady GaGa could be at your next soiree or Einstein and Feynman could join a scientific brainstorming session. A new field for productive and entertainment endeavor could emerge to create and bring together the digital personas of historical figures for problem-solving and fun. Would ‘Lost’ be better with Genghis Khan, Ella Fitzgerald, Moctezuma, Rosalind Franklin and Sherlock Holmes in the cast? Lawmakers could obtain measured input by running the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams personas simultaneously. The world’s great scientific and intellectual minds could be assembled to focus on current problems.