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Will robots have feelings?

By sdg 9, technology

Rob Nail shows up at our appointment in an interesting guise to share his views about the exponential evolution of robots that we will witness in the coming years.

CRISTINA: What is that? Hi, Rob. This is really cool. Where are you?

NAIL: Well, I’m actually at another meeting where they actually requested me show up in my flesh and wound body, and so I thought I would show up there in my being presence body.

C: What kind of robots do you think are going to creep into our lives?

N: You’re seeing right now the ability for me to show up in multiple places at once. I’ve been doing meetings and speaking engagements all over the world, and a platform like the being telepresence allows me to never miss a meeting at Singularity University because I can show up there while I could be physically located almost anywhere else in the world.

C: What “aha” moments have you had in the last year? Robots that you wouldn’t have expected?

N: Probably one of the coolest things that we had going is the first Phase 1 of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency, put up a $2 million prize for a robotic platform that can actually go to and save lives and the situation in a disaster scenario. It was inspired by the Fukushima nuclear power disaster. In December we had about 18 different teams competing in a live scenario action, where they had to navigate really complex terrain, they had to clear debris, they had to actually get into and drive vehicles out of the way, open doors, cut through walls, climb up stairs, do a lot of really complex things. April or June of 2015 we’re going to see the finals of this branch out. So Christina–question, do you think a robot will ever have emotion?

C: Who knows? They are self-taught at this point, so they could very well learn to empathize and have emotions. What do you think?

N: This is the point. Whether they will have real emotions, or whether we even understand what real emotions are, robots are able to completely empathize and recognize our emotional state and react to it. But also there’s lots of new capabilities with gauging your vocal reactions. So if my voice is really loud and excited, you might think I’m pretty excited. Or, if it’s slow and kind of depressed, maybe it means I’m depressed. And so take all of that in the context of the words I’m using; a robot can very accurately discern what my emotional states are. Having been at Singularity University as long as I have, I think I can honestly say I have almost no idea what the world will look like in 15 or 20 years. Some of the things that I’m absolutely certain of, however, is that I know my son would never have to learn how to drive a car. There are autonomous vehicles that are going to be on the market within five years, but I’m also really concerned about what he has to learn to keep up with this crazy pace of technology, right? It’s not about learning history, and it’s not about learning English and calculus. I think the educational system is really being transformed completely now.

Italians and self-driving cars

By sdg 11, sdg 3, sdg 9, technology

Conversation with Brad Templeton on the future of cars: “How to go from having no free time to having one hour everyday”.

TEMPLETON: We kill 1.2 million people every year around the world in car crashes. It’s like a major disease. The most dangerous city in all of Europe, by the way, is Roma. This is a terrible death toll, and just to stop that would be more than enough.

CRISTINA: Brad, how is traveling going to change?

T: Well, what’s exciting is the marriage of computer and car that’s coming. And so computers will be driving cars and becoming the most important part of cars. And that’s going to save a lot of lives. It’s going to change how much energy we use for transportation. And it’s going to change our cities. Now, unfortunately, the last country in Europe to probably get this is probably Italy, because people drive a little crazy there and they drive fast. And that’s a little bit more challenging. But in most of the world, we’re going to see this shift happen, starting in this decade and then really take over in the next decade. Everybody enjoys driving, but I know of very few people who enjoy commuting or enjoy being stuck in stop-and-go traffic. If you let their system drive, then that person is suddenly free. It’s going from zero free time to an extra hour a day because the average person spends almost an hour a day in their car. And you’ve probably seen the popularity of new online-summoned taxi services like Uber, which is spreading around the world, and showing that, in particular, the new generation is much less concerned with car ownership and is ready to try something new. It turns out we also spend a quarter of our energy on cars. A quarter of our greenhouse gases from the United States come from cars. So changing how people move, and making them move in smaller, lighter vehicles when they’re traveling alone, which is what they do most of the time, could have pretty dramatic effects.

C: And how are we going to fly?

T: You don’t think we’d like to elevate ourselves off the ground? We all have had dreams of flying cars, haven’t we? That requires a little bit of fancy physics and engineering that we don’t yet have. This just requires software; now, I say “just.” It’s not a simple problem. But the one reason you probably won’t have that helicopter is your neighbor’s not going to let you take off from your backyard with all the noise that it makes. Maybe once you get away from that, you might get something to fly. And delivery of very lightweight items will probably go through the air.

C: But the roads will need to be modified, right?

T: No, that’s the neat trick about computers and software, which is you make things virtual rather than physical. So instead of having all these rules and having all these lanes and so on, eventually I think that’ll all just be a soft layer that sits on top. Keep the infrastructure simple actually and put the smarts in the cars; don’t put the smarts in the city.

C: Do you think legislation will change fast enough?

T: A while ago, I would have said maybe not, because people would be afraid of it, but we’re actually seeing the reverse. We’re seeing competition from jurisdictions all hoping to be the seat of a new automobile industry. Insurance companies, on the other hand, they have a concern, because if accidents go down, their revenues go down. But they’re not ghouls; they’re not hoping that more people can die so that they can have a business. They’ll find other things to insure. For the United States, I’ve calculated that Americans drive about 50 billion hours every year. And they work about 240 billion hours. So that’s a pretty large fraction of the total productive time of that country. And I expect the number is pretty similar for most western European countries.

Scott Summit & 3D printing

By sdg 9, technology

Scott Summit gives a fascinating overview of 3D printing, from orthopedic devices to furniture, from clothes to food.

SUMMIT: I think what people don’t realize is 3D printing is already in our lives. It’s in every aspect of our life. It’s in the car that you drove here in, it’s in the airplane you flew in, it helped design the toothbrush that you used this morning. It’s already there. We’re seeing over time as things progress we’re seeing it in more and more places that we never would have expected before. We’re looking at 3D printing hands. You can 3D print a hand for $15 for anyone in the Sudan, Africa, India, Asia. Anyone who needs a hand can simply measure what they need, enter it into a file and 3D print it if they have one. If not, send it to somebody who does have a printer and for $15 they can have a new hand. Prosthetic legs are a little more complex than hands in the sense that they have to be stronger. The impact we subject our legs to is much, much higher than what we subject the hand to. That said, we can certainly print a fairly affordable leg, $2,000-$3,000, that is very effective, very efficient, very high quality. One of my favorite new products is the scoliosis brace that we just introduced onto the market. It’s still in testing, but we’re starting to take patients. The patient who wears it, 90% of them are girls. She feels beautiful in it. She doesn’t feel like she’s part of a medical experiment. She feels like she’s wearing something that complements her, makes her look better. One example of that would be Invisalign. It’s the way people get their teeth straightened in the US and perhaps worldwide more and more now. That used to be something that was a difficult, painful process. It was done by hand by a doctor with plenty of error. Now it’s done entirely digitally. It’s entirely 3D printed. We print around 18 million individual units per year for these people, and it’s entirely revolutionized that industry.

CRISTINA: Are there areas that, wow, will astonish us?

S: There’s 3D printed musical instruments, 3D printing in fashion more and more, 3D printing in entertainment certainly. I think certain things will naturally be printed at the home, and that’s what’s going to be shaking things up. You’re no longer going to get price benefits by going off overseas to have your manufacturing done because it’s better to do it right here. In the early days it was all about printing photopolymer, and then it went to engineering thermoplastics, but now it’s thousands of materials. Pretty much every metal, gold, silver, titanium, nickel, you name it, all the polymers from the expensive ones, the engineered thermoplastics like polyamide, down to the cheaper ones like ABS, it’s ceramic, it’s glass, it’s food. We’re printing in sugar and chocolate.

C: What about jobs? You can see the millions losing their jobs, and how instead are they going to be replaced?

S: Certain jobs might be displaced in traditional manufacturing. But I think we’re going to see a real explosion in the kind of jobs that come about from this new wave of innovation. We had a designer ask us questions about this water filter that he was designing, so we helped him with some ideas and printed some prototypes and went back and forth and got to know him a little bit. Then we at one point said, “Hey, if you’re ever in San Francisco, “please track us down. We’d love to talk more.” And he said, “Yeah, I’d love to come, but I’ll have to ask my mom because she’ll have to drive me.” We realized he was something like 10 years old. That really let us onto the fact that the next generation is full of ideas. Now they have the tool that they can actually bring them into the world.

C: We hear people say we’ll be 3D printing our homes soon. Will we really?

S: We’re already seeing that now. An architect named Ronald Rael is doing stunning work in that area. To build a home you can do 1 of 2 things. You can either have a large gantry that rolls into place and it has a big arm, and it prints out your home just like a large version of one of these machines, or you can print out individual bricks, the difference being that each brick is individually printed for exactly where it’s going to go. This was created by a guy named Janne Kyttanen. He wanted to create a lighting company. There are many millions of dollars that have to go into your manufacturing, your assembly costs, your labor, and he didn’t have that. He was living on his friend’s couch, so what he did is he started designing beautiful lamps that he could sell online, and when people bought them he simply printed it. Creativity was not limited. He didn’t have to worry about a design failing, because if nobody bought it he didn’t lose anything. He was able to create these shapes that are really complex and beautiful that nobody has ever seen before.

Technological progress: who will benefit?

By sdg 9, technology

Technologies are evolving at an astounding pace. “Automation allows us to generate major gain from minimal work. I think this is a good thing.” says Kathryn Myronuk, “but where this will go and how the people will benefit from is not a technological choice. It’s a social choice.” Myronuk is a Synthesis and Convergence teacher at Singularity University. Her role is to analyse the exponential trends and to place them in our time. In this enlightening conversation we imagined possible scenarios for the upcoming future.

CRISTINA: In these times of exponential technologies many jobs are going to be replaced. What scenario do you see?

MYRONUK: I see a scenario where some places are going to be surprised by job losses. And other ones they see that fifteen or twenty years from now certain jobs aren’t going to exist, and they start planning early on. For example, you might not tell your children to become dentists if you understand that there’s going to be a vaccine against cavities. I mean, society overall is better off if we don’t have as much tooth decay and existing dentists can retire, but what we’re saying is maybe don’t have quite as many going into that job. It takes a lot of foresight and planning. I see it happening in the schools. I think parents who see what could be changing will start asking the schools to teach children what they need for the twenty-first century and not for the twentieth century. I see that politicians could start having difficult conversations about how can a society adapt to what would be considered the higher rate of unemployment, but is also a higher rate of people having time for other activities. I mean we—automation allows us to be able to generate more wealth for less labor. I think that is a good thing. Where that wealth goes to and how people benefit from it that is not a technological decision. That is a social decision. A hundred years ago, many people worked sixty or seventy hours a week. Now, many people work forty hours a week for thirty-five hours a week. We could overall decide that we’re going to go from an expectation of forty hours a week thirty or thirty to twenty-five. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Again, if it’s something that we talk about ahead of time. What we don’t want to happen is where some people are working fifty hours a week and other people are working twenty hours a week.

C: Could technologies have an impact on that, or is it more a moral issue?

M: It’s both. I mean, how you use the technology—if you have a video tape, you can use video tape to fight against human right abuses, and to educate and to teach, or you could use it for trivial or even harmful activities. How we use technology isn’t necessarily one way or the other. We have to make choices about how we’re using it and what we emphasis.

C: What makes you most excited about the future that lies ahead?

M: My greatest point of optimism right now is that this decade is a decade where we can have a dialogue of all seven billion people on Earth. And I don’t mean this in a poetic sense. I mean it in the sense of that our ability to talk to with each other, which means you have to have a connection to talk; you have to be able to have a cell phone; you have to have access information. Access to the cloud has gone from less than a billion people to nearly or even more than half of the population of the Earth depending on how you measure it over a relatively short period of time. Now we’re able to get translation software and other things which democratize the ability to talk to each other. Slightly in the future we will be able to start having a dialogue where when we’re talking about a place, people in that place will be joining in the conversation. They’ll be the one starting the conversation. I’m excited about science projects where there’s going to be no gaps between a researcher and the people who are doing the research. And if people are looking at a local river, which was polluted, they don’t necessarily have to wait for a government official or a science lab to come and test it. They will be able to do the testing themselves. They’ll be able to find people who analyze the data themselves. They will be able to put a report together and get it out to the world and talk about themselves. This is an amazing set of developments that we have huge problems, but living in a world of seven billion people are working on the problem rather than living in the world where only 5,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 people are working on the problem is a very abundant world.

The X Prize

By sdg 9, technology

Are you curious to understand why big competitions can accelerate change, harnessing intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness?

If you have a good idea to teach illiterate children to read and write in 18 months, join the competition. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of X Prize and of Singularity University, talks about a winning strategy to face humanity’s grand challenges and takes us to a time when nothing will be impossible.

CRISTINA: Peter Diamandis is a celebrity in relation of the future, the future that is already present. Everything that he makes tends to connect these two concepts, expecially through the X prize, an organization that assigns big prizes to anyone who can solve the big challenges of mankind. He is also cofounder of the Singularity University… and he is here with us.

C: What of the grand challenges do you think will be solved by the Xprize?

DIAMANDIS: Every year I get together and talk about what are the world’s biggest problems. What are the problems that have not been solved that should be solved? and we try to attack those. You know, should we create a thousand dollar home to get rid of homelessness. Should we create a… We just launched a global learning Xprize to be able to create a piece of software that can operate on any cellphone and take a child who is illiterate to basic reading, writing, and numeracy 18 months. Now I believe we’re living in an extraordinary time were there is no problem we cannot solve. Energy is a critical one, clearly. We’re working on a battery Xprize to increase the amount of energy you can store in batteries by threefold. That would transform automobiles, aviation. So, energy then gives us clean drinking water, which gives us health, so that’s one of them.

C: What do you tell your children the future will look like?

D: We’re gonna live into a world where people are connected in a way we can’t even understand now. Intimately connected through technology. A world where people are living longer and healthier lives. So I’m excited about creating this world I call it a world of abundance. That was my last book.

C: We make food for 12 billion people, though we’re just over half. Many things abound already but they just don’t get to the right places.

D: Sure, so one of the questions is, can you produce food where it’s used. So today, when I go and have a meal here is San Francisco, my wine may come from Italy, my salmon from Chile. My average meal is traveling almost 2,000 miles to get to my dinner plate. Can you instead use technology to literally farm everything you need in downtown, in a skyscraper, in which the environment. It’s things are growing 24/7, and the PH of the water, the nutrients of the water, everything is controlled perfectly where the food is not moving thousands of miles, it’s moving a few miles. So that’s one thing. The other is the use of genetics to grow new types of food that are more nutritious. There’s a company here out of Singular University called Modern Meadow that looks at growing meats and leathers using stem cells versus taking a whole cow and killing it into pieces. Now you just grow the meat in the lab and making that meat even taste better and be more nutritious. People say that’s crazy. But, you know, what we think of as crazy today, will be accepted by all in the future.

C: You often talk about the importance of mindset. Do you think there will be a technology that can zap Peter Diamandis’s mindset and help all the fearful, doubtful people overcome their obstacles?

D: I think mindset is going to come from more and more examples of people making their dreams come true and feeling enabled for knowing the capability. And so I think in this hyper-connected world, you know, my goal is most of the news media is feeding us negative news constantly. Every murder around the planet, and it just gives us this negative mindset. And my view is there is other mechanisms to learn what’s going on in the world and the tremendous progress we’re making. And I want kids to not only be excited about movie stars and sports stars but the innovators who are creating huge wealth, huge capability for humanity.

Nano-robotics and the eternal life of organs

By sdg 3, sdg 9, technology

Doctor Ralph Merkle introduces us to a family of medical nano-bots capable of operating inside our bodies and repairing damages at the cellular level. A matter of decades, he says, and he plans to be around for it. During our conversation we noticed he was wearing a bracelet. And we asked him about it…..Sit down before you watch this.


MERKLE: What we are talking about is a medical technology that can intervene at the level where the damage has occured and repair that damage. One of the examples of a medical nanorobot would be a respirocite. This would simply be a device, it would be maybe a micron in size, that’s very very small, and it would be injected along with billions and billions of others into your circulatory system and it would carry oxygen. Like your ordinary red blood cells it’s an artificial red blood cell. And an artificial white blood cell would be in the circulatory system and when it identified a pathogen, a bacteria that shouldn’t be there, it could sweep it in and crunch it up, digest it and spit out the remains, and the remains would be in this case, harmless small molecules that would not irritate the body. It could do this very much faster than ordinary white blood cells, So it could deal with infections more rapidly, and more effectively. There are things like cancer, where the question is how do you identify cancer cells? One of the things that the medical nanorobots provide is an on-board computer, then you can use very complex decision-making to say that’s a cancer cell. We’re some decades, how many decades depends on how much focused effort we put into developing the core technology required to manufacture respirocites. What we would need to build would be a nano factory, in other words, we need to build the manufacturing facilities to build respirocites.

CRISTINA: Now what about what we consider the end of life is it truly the end of life?

M: Years ago, people said, ‘you’ve stopped breathing, you must be dead’. Then we said, ‘oh, your heart stopped, you must be dead’. ‘Oh, your brainwave stopped, you must be dead’. This is all, not really quite accurate. When we start looking at medical nanorobots, when we look at this new technology we start to say, you know, we could really repair tissue even when that tissue is not functioning. As a consequence, our definition of what is living and what is non-living changes over time. We could even revive people who have been cryopreserved using today’s technology. There are at least two organizations in the U.S., I happen to be a member of one, which is Alcor. If in fact I should suffer a heart attack or if I should be found in unhealthy condition why, Alcor would be promptly notified and I would be cryopreserved. Then I would awaken in a future where there would be very advanced technology and hopefully there would be an opportunity to find out what has happened to all of this science and all of this technology which I hope is going to be developed.

Science Hack Day

By sdg 9, technology

«To hack», means to illegally infiltrate an informatic system, but the term is also used by those who want to subvert a system with good actions, and this is the case of Science Hack Day. The gathering, which welcomes anyone open to team up and play with science, is a consecutive 24 hour laboratory. Events like this are conquering the world. So far there have been 25, with 5 in the San Francisco area. We did not camp out but we did spend a full long day talking to many “hackers”, watching their projects evolve and feeling the energy of collective quirkiness grow, under the creative spell of  Ariel Waldman, who created and animated this science hack day. In  2013 she was nominated  “Champion of Change in citizen science” by the White House. Waldman is  a member of the National Academy of Science council for studies on the future of space flights and member of the external council at NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts.

Our goal for this Science Hack Day was to develop a way that people could do DNA sequencing at home. I’ve been running this machine as a print service for the whole weekend Hack-a-thon and we just print whatever anybody wants. We’re working on Mind Sumo, a battle of the wits, two laser beams posed against each other and the person who is more Zen, whoever can meditate the best will win. Making a dinosaur, a robotic dinosaur, dance based on crowd movements using lasers. If everyone dances together, the dinosaur’s happy, and it dances. If everyone dances in a different way, then the dinosaur is sad.

CRISTINA: So Ariel, what is the goal of the Science Hack Day?

W: It is essentially to just get excited and make things with science. It’s really an event about getting all different types of people together from all different types of backgrounds to really see what you can prototype within 24 consecutive hours. So it’s not necessarily about having a formal background in science, but it’s about just feeling that science is something that you can play with whenever you want.

C: What are your favorite ones?

W: Someone created a device that was to detect when he needed to shave that was this USB microscope. And they held it up to his face and they figured out when they needed to shave. Really silly, but a particle physicist saw the hack and thought it was really genius and wrote an entire proposal for how to detect cosmic rays in a cloud chamber using the original hack somebody had used to detect if they needed to shave or not. And so that’s the other cool thing about Science Hack days. It’s not only about people without science backgrounds contributing to science, but it’s also about getting scientists to play with new ideas and new forms and letting them explore and play with things as well. Science Hack Days started in 2010. It started because I put together a panel at South by Southwest about open science. And we were talking on this panel about how we were very frustrated that there’s a lot of open science stuff already out there but nobody was really doing anything with it. And so sitting in the audience was my friend, Jeremy Keith who lives in England, and he decided that it would be great to do a Science Hack Day to sort of get people to play with open science stuff. I think why it came about when it did is because I think there was a large movement to make science open. And everyone was like, “Yes, we need to make science open.”

C: How much has science fiction inspired you?

W: To me science fiction is always just sort of a low level backdrop to everything. So when you’re thinking about why is this interesting or cool, why space exploration is interesting or cool, inherently you’re influenced by some amount of science fiction because science fiction is so great at communicating what if. What if we did this really cool thing? Or what if we took science that existed today and just pushed it a little bit farther?

The People’s Choice Award goes to Dinosaurs and lasers!

C: Is there one that you think will actually break into the world and become a practical tool that can reach many people?

W: Oh, I saw tons of hacks that could be actual tools. Everything from medical tests to a field guide that people could use. So many of them seem to actually have real applications, which was just great.

Glowing Plant: our plants will replace street lights

By sdg 9, technology

The luminescent plants of Avatar could become a reality. This gripping and eerie story is a glimpse into the quick evolution of synthetic biology.

EVANS: We take some genes that we’ve sourced from marine bacteria called Vibrio fischeri. We rejiggered those genes using some clever software that we downloaded from the Internet. And then we synthesized, i.e. we print the design that we made on the computer. We put that into a plant, and when we grow up the plant it glows in the dark.

CRISTINA: So what has happened in this lab?

EVANS: This is the lab where we are engineering some new DNA that we’ve designed on a computer and printed and put into a plant that makes the plant glow in the dark, real natural lighting without any electricity. In the wild Vibrio fischeri has a symbiotic relationship with squids and some other organisms. It helps the squid conceal itself by having a light pocket underneath it that stops the squids shadow from scaring prey when it’s hunting under a fool moon.

C: How did you fund the project?

E: Yeah, that’s probably the most interesting, novel thing we did at the beginning of the project anyway. You know, we realized the potential of growing plants as a consumer product and so we turned to Kickstarter. And Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform in the United States that you put up a cool, financing project; and if people believe in your dream and your vision then they support it. We raised just under a half million dollars, $484,000.

C: What kind of plant are you using?

E: We’re working on Arabidopsis. It’s quite well organized, you know. So it became a model organism for scientists to study. As a result, there’s more data accumulated on the genetic structure, the metabolic pathways, in Arabidopsis than for any other plant.

C: Does it harm the plant?

E: I kind of think of the example as like if someone gave you lead boots, and asked you to walk around all day. Does it harm it? No, but it definitely will have some fitness impact on the plant.

C: What would it do to its reproductive life cycle?

E: Nothing; no, the plant is healthy and fertile and passes the genes on to its offspring.

C: Oh, so it will have glowing babies?

E: It will have glowing babies, yeah.

C: What are your goals? What do you expect this plant to do?

E: First and perhaps biggest goal is to really educate and inspire the public about the amazing things that are happening with synthetic biology. It is us. It’s our food. It’s the source of all the energy that we use around the world, our medicines; everything is dependent on this code of A, T, C, and G that we call DNA. But people don’t understand it. People are afraid of it. There’s enormous backlash against genetically-modified foods, and we don’t think that’s right. We don’t think it’s right that large corporations have dominated this market space for a long time. The other goal we’d like is to get these plants bright enough to be usable for useful lighting where the goal may be one day of being able to replace electric street lights with natural glowing trees in the street. When we’ve got plants that are that bright, there are potentially other ecological questions that will come in, but we’ll cross those bridges as and when we get to them.

C: When you say big companies monopolize, you mean they actually own the patent. How do you operate?

E: We’re taking a more open approach. And we’re doing that for a few reasons, one I think fundamentally life is life. And I’m not convinced that you can own life. But second, we really see this as a way to accelerate progress in the field. When things are locked down in patented silos, all of the interesting things that can happen on the edge of that creativity get blocked. And, you know, in wave after wave of technological innovation we see that when the technology becomes open and available for people to mod on and create changes to and improvements too, then the benefit of the crowd really takes over. And we see an exponentially different acceleration in the whole field.

C: Are there any concerns about when those seeds will be in the wild?

E: We participated in a number of panels of the leading ecologists, and no one has really identified any clear risks that we can see that will come from that plant. And again, you’ve got to remember this is a non-food plant, we’re inserting a gene that imposes a high metabolic cost on the plant and provides no selectable advantage and we believe is non-toxic. So really this is as low risk as you can get. Now, will there be unknown unknowns that we don’t know? Perhaps, but there always are with the introduction of anything new.