New vistas in robotics | Sunday Observer

New vistas in robotics

In the 1980s when television was still a nascent medium in Sri Lanka, parents could not tear us away from the television set whenever programs such as Bionic Woman and Six Million Dollar Man (you can check them out on YouTube now) came on. They showed us a promising future when androids – organisms that are part robot, part human, would ensure justice for the helpless.

This circle was complete when the movie RoboCop came along in 1987, where Peter Weller’s ‘Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop’ took out the bad guys in style. We already do have a host of artificial organs from artificial knee caps to in-ear implants that help us lead better lives. It is thus not entirely implausible that we will one day have bionic men and women among us.

The truth is that we have always been fascinated by the possibility of fusing ourselves with robotic parts and abilities. At the other end of the scale, we are also fascinated by the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Today, robotics is an advance science and commercial robots that could serve us around the house are only around two decades away. For a start, we already have robotic vacuum cleaners that can skirt their way around obstacles and return to the charging point. There are also robotic dogs that can provide hours of entertainment – plus, they don’t need to eat and they never fall sick.

Science fiction writers have long wondered whether robots would self-replicate one day and even take over the world after killing humans en masse. Isaac Asimov even formulated the three laws of robotics that have now come to be accepted on an actual basis - a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

We are not there yet, but the following piece of news should give you food for thought - scientists have now created the world’s first living, self-healing robots using stem cells from frogs. Named xenobots after the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis) from which they take their stem cells, the machines are less than a millimeter (0.04 inches) wide -- small enough to travel inside human bodies. They can walk and swim, survive for weeks without food, and work together in groups.

These are ‘entirely new life-forms,’ said the University of Vermont, which conducted the research with Tufts University in the USA.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the ability to develop into different cell types. The researchers scraped living stem cells from frog embryos, and left them to incubate.

Then, the cells were cut and reshaped into specific ‘body forms’ designed by a supercomputer (itself an example of a rudimentary form of AI)-- forms ‘never seen in nature,’ according to a news release from the University of Vermont. “These are novel living machines,” said Joshua Bongard, one of the lead researchers at the University of Vermont, in the news release. “They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

Here is the most interesting part - the cells then began to work on their own -- skin cells bonded to form structure, while pulsing heart muscle cells allowed the robot to move on its own. They were found to be self-healing too - when scientists cut one robot, it healed by itself and kept moving.

Xenobots are certainly not traditional robots. They look like a tiny blob of moving pink flesh. But this has been done on purpose - this ‘biological machine’ can achieve things typical robots of steel and plastic cannot. Xenobots are more environmentally friendly and safer for human health, the study said.

The applications for such micro-bots are virtually endless. They could be used to deliver medicines inside the body, scrape out plaque inside arteries or to attack cancer cells. The xenobots can survive in aqueous environments without additional nutrients for days or weeks -- making them suitable for internal drug delivery.

They could even have defence applications – after all, the study and research was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a US Federal agency that oversees the development of technology for military use.

Among other uses, xenobots could be used to clean up radioactive waste and collect micro plastics in the oceans. But xenobots are only the start.

“If we could make 3D biological forms on demand, we could repair birth defects, reprogram tumours into normal tissue, regenerate after traumatic injury or degenerative disease, and defeat aging,” said the news release. This research could indeed have a massive impact on regenerative medicine (building body parts and inducing regeneration).

In case you thought that the xenobots could replicate and even take over a host’s body, fear not - the biological robotic organisms come pre-loaded with their own food source of lipid and protein deposits, allowing them to live for a little over a week -- but they cannot reproduce or evolve. However, if they ‘eat’ they can live for several weeks. They have no sight or other advanced senses, but they can get by in any environment which is an advantage, say, for data gathering in an oil spill.

Chances are that scientists will be able to create more complex organisms this way, which may have a combination of robotic and biological features. Robotics is a rapidly advancing field. There is already talk about fusing AI with Quantum Computing to create super-intelligent robots.

According to the research report ‘Quantum Computation in Robotic Science and Applications’ by Bernhard Dieber, we acknowledge that the possibilities, as well as new approaches to known problems, will enable the creation of even more powerful and intelligent robots that make use of quantum computing cloud services or co-processors. The report throws light on potential application areas in quantum computing for robotics.

Modern autonomous robots (such as driverless cars) need fast vision capabilities in order to perceive and assess their environment. Computer vision and image recognition algorithms are computationally expensive as they have to compute results on millions of pixels.

Therefore, the hopes lie with the quantum efficiency to better understand the nature of visual information, and to secure, store and process them efficiently with the help of quantum computing. At the speed with which things are happening in the robotics sector, we cannot even predict the applications that will be widely available just 10 years down the line. But these new technologies should be used wisely within ethical and moral guidelines for the betterment of humankind.