Hacking Matter Really Matters: A New Programmable Material Has Been Developed

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

The sales receipt from The Strand Bookstore in New York is dated April 5, 2003. It still remains tucked into one of the most brain-bendingly different books I have ever bought and read called Hacking Matter: Levitating Chairs, Quantum Mirages, and the Infinite Weirdness of Programmable Atoms (Basic Books, 2003), by Wil McCarthy. It was a fascinating deep dive into what was then the nascent nanotechnology research on creating a form of “programmable atoms” called quantum dots. This technology has since found applications in the production of semiconductors.

Fast forward thirteen years to a recent article entitled Exoskin: A Programmable Hybrid Shape-Changing Material, by Evan Ackerman, posted on IEEE Spectrum on June 3, 2016. This is about an all-new and entirely different development, quite separate from quantum dots, but nonetheless a current variation on the concept that matter can be programmed for new applications. While we always think of programming as involving systems and software, this new story takes and literally stretches this long-established process into some entirely new directions.

I highly recommend reading this most interesting report in its entirety and viewing the two short video demos embedded within it. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose several questions of my own on this, well, matter. I also think it fits in well with these 10 Subway Fold posts on other recent developments in material science including, among others, such way cool stuff as Q-Carbon, self-healing concrete and metamaterials.

Matter of Fact

The science of programmable matter is still in its formative stages. The Tangible Media Group at MIT Media Lab is currently working on this challenge included in its scores of imaginative projects. A student pursuing his Master’s Degree in this group is Basheer Tome. Among his current research projects, he is working on a type of programmable material he calls “Exoskin” which he describes as “membrane-backed rigid material”. It is composed of “tessellated triangles of firm silicone mounted on top of a stack of flexible silicone bladders”. By inflating these bladders in specific ways, Exoskin can change its shape in reaction to the user’s touch. This activity can, in turn, be used to relay information and “change functionality”.

Although this might sound a bit abstract, the two accompanying videos make the Exoskin’s operations quite clear. For example, it can be applied to a steering wheel which, through “tactile feedback”, can inform the driver about direction-finding using GPS navigation and other relevant driving data. This is intended to lower driver distractions and “simplify previously complex multitasking” behind the wheel.

The Exoskin, in part, by its very nature makes use of haptics (using touch as a form of interface). One of the advantages of this approach is that it enables “fast reflexive motor responses to stimuli”. Moreover, the Exoskin actually involves inputs that “are both highly tactily perceptible and visually interpretable”.

Fabrication Issues

A gap still exists between the current prototype and a commercially viable product in the future in terms of the user’s degree of “granular control” over the Exoskin. The number of “bladders” underneath the rigid top materials will play a key role in this. Under existing fabrication methods, multiple bladders in certain configurations are “not practical” at this time.

However, this restriction might be changing. Soon it may be possible to produce bladders for each “individual Exoskin element” rather than a single bladder for all of them. (Again, the videos present this.) This would involve a system of “reversible electrolysis” that alternatively separates water into hydrogen and oxygen and then back again into water. Other options to solve this fabrication issue are also under consideration.

Mt. Tome hopes this line of research disrupts the distinction between what is “rigid and soft” as well as “animate and inanimate” to inspire Human-Computer Interaction researchers at MIT to create “more interfaces using physical materials”.

My Questions

  • In what other fields might this technology find viable applications? What about medicine, architecture, education and online gaming just to begin?
  • Might Exoskin present new opportunities to enhance users’ experience with the current and future releases virtual reality and augmented reality systems? (These 15 Subway Fold posts cover a sampling of trends and developments in VR and AR.)
  • How might such an Exoskin-embedded steering wheel possibly improve drivers’ and riders’ experiences with Uber and other ride-sharing services?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities in design, engineering, programming and manufacturing might present themselves if Exoskin becomes commercialized?

Charge of the Light Brigade: Faster and More Efficient New Chips Using Photons Instead of Electrons

"PACE - PEACE" Image by Etienne Valois

“PACE – PEACE” Image by Etienne Valois

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his immortal classic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, in 1854. It was to honor the dead heroes of a doomed infantry charge at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Moreover, it strikingly portrayed the horrors of war. In just six short verses, he created a monumental work that has endured ever since for 162 years.

The poem came to mind last week after reading two recent articles on seemingly disparate topics. The first was posted on The New Yorker’s website on December 30, 2015 entitled In Silicon Valley Now, It’s Almost Always Winner Takes All by Om Malik. This is highly insightful analysis of how and why tech giants such as Google in search, Facebook in social networking, and Uber in transportation, have come to dominate their markets. In essence, competition is a fierce and relentless battle in the global digital economy. The second was an article on CNET.com posted on December 23, 2015 entitled Chip Promises Faster Computing with Light, Not Electrical Wires by Stephan Shankland. I highly recommend reading both of them in their entirety.

Taken together, the homonym of “light” both in historical poetry and in tech, seems to tie these two posted pieces together insofar as contemporary competition in tech markets is often described in military terms and metaphors. Focusing on that second story here for purposes of this blog post, about a tantalizing advance in chip design and fabrication, will this survive as it moves forward into the brutal and relentlessly “winner takes all” marketplace? I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own, hopefully en-light-ening questions.

Forward, the Light Brigade

A team of researchers, all of whom are university professors, including Vladimir Stojanovic from the University of California at Berkeley who led the development, Krste Asanovic also from Berkeley, Rajeev Ram from MIT, and Milos Popovic from the University of Colorado at Boulder, have created a new type of processing chip “that transmits data with light”. As well, its architecture significantly increases processing speed while reducing power consumption.  A report on the team’s work was published in an article in the December 24, 2015 issue of Nature (subscription required) entitled Single-chip Microprocessor That Communicates Directly Using Light by Chen Sun, Mark T. Wade, Yunsup Lee, et al.

This approach, according to Wikipedia, of “using silicon as an optical medium”, is called silicon photonics. IBM (see this link) and Intel (see this link)  have likewise been involved in R&D in this field, but have yet to introduce anything ready for the market.

However, this team of university researchers believes their new approach might be introduced commercially within a year. While their efforts do not make chips run faster per se, the photonic elements “keep chips supplied with data” which avoids them having to lose time by idling. Thus, they can process data faster.

Currently (no pun intended), electrical signals traverse metal wiring across the world on computing and communications devices and networks. For data traveling greater national and international distances, the electronic signals are transposed into light and sent along on high-speed fiber-optic cables. Nonetheless, this approach “isn’t cheap”.

Half a League Onward

What the university researchers’ team has done is create chips with “photonic components” built into them. If they succeed in scaling-up and commercializing their creation, consumers will be likely the beneficiaries. These advantages will probably manifest themselves first when used in data centers that, in turn, could speed up:

  • Google searches
  • Facebook image recognition
  • Other “performance-intensive features not economical today”
  • Remove processing bottlenecks and conserve battery life in smartphones and other personal computing platforms

Professor Stojanovic believes that one of their largest challenges if is to make this technology affordable before it can be later implemented in consumer level computing and communications devices. He is sanguine that such economies of scale can be reached. He anticipates further applications of this technology to enable chips’ onboard processing and memory components to communicate directly with each other.

Additional integrations of silicon photonics might be seen in the lidar remote sensing systems for self-driving cars¹, as well as brain imaging² and environmental sensors. It also holds the potential to alter the traditional methods that computers are assembled. For example, the length of cables is limited to the extent that data can pass through them quickly and efficiently before needed amplification along the way. Optical links may permit data to be transferred significant further along network cabling. The research team’s “prototype used 10-meter optical links”, but Professor Stojanovic believes this could eventually be lengthened to a kilometer. This could potentially result in meaningful savings in energy, hardware and processing efficiency.

Two startups that are also presently working in the silicon photonics space include:

My Questions:

  • Might another one of silicon photonics’ virtues be that it is partially fabricated from more sustainable materials, primarily silicon derived from sand rather than various metals?
  • Could silicon photonics chips and architectures be a solution to the very significant computing needs of the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems that will be coming onto the market in 2016? This issue was raised in a most interesting article posted on Bloomberg.com on December 30, 2015 entitled Few Computers Are Powerful Enough to Support Virtual Reality by Ian King. (See also these 13 Subway Fold posts on a range of VR and AR developments.)
  • What other new markets, technologies and opportunities for entrepreneurs and researchers might emerge if the university research team’s chips achieve their intended goals and succeed in making it to market?

May 17, 2017 UpdateFor an update on one of the latest developments in photonics with potential applications in advanced computing and materials science, see Photonic Hypercrystals Are Now a Reality and Light Will Never Be the Same, by Dexter Johnson, posted on May 10, 2017, on IEEESpectrum.com. 


1.  See these six Subway Fold posts for references to autonomous cars.

2.  See these four Subway Fold posts concerning certain developments in brain imaging technology.

How Robots and Computer Algorithms are Challenging Jobs and the Economy

"p8nderInG exIstence",  Image by JD Hancock

“p8nderInG exIstence”, Image by JD Hancock

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Martin Ford (@MFordFuture) has written a very timely new book entitled Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015), which is currently receiving much attention in the media. The depth and significance of the critical issues it raises is responsible for this wide-beam spotlight.*

On May 27, 2015 the author was interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show on radio station WNYC in New York. The result is available as a truly captivating 30-minute podcast entitled When Will Robots Take Your Job?  I highly recommend listening to this in its entirety. I will sum up. annotate and add some questions of mine own to this.

The show’s host, Brian Lehrer, expertly guided Mr. Ford through the key complexities and subtleties of the thesis of his provocative new book. First, for now and increasingly in the future, robots and AI algorithms are taking on increasingly difficult task that are displacing human workers. Especially for those jobs that involve more repetitive and routine tasks, the more likely it will be that machines will replace human workers. This will not occur in just one sector, but rather, “across the board” in all areas of the marketplace.  For example, IBM’s Watson technology can be accessed using natural language which, in the future, might result in humans no longer being able to recognize its responses as coming from a machine.

Mr. Ford believes we are moving towards an economic model where productivity is increasing but jobs and income are decreasing. He asserts that solving this dilemma will be critical. Consequently, his second key point was the challenge of detaching work from income. He is proposing the establishment of some form of system where income is guaranteed. He believes this would still support Capitalism and would “produce plenty of income that could be taxed”. No nation is yet moving in this direction, but he thinks that Europe might be more amenable to it in the future.

He further believes that the US will be most vulnerable to displacement of workers because it leads the world in the use of technology but “has no safety net” for those who will be put out by this phenomenon. (For a more positive perspective on this, see the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World.)

Brian Lehrer asked his listeners to go to a specific page on the site of the regular podcast called Planet Money on National Public Radio. (“NPR” is the network of publicly supported radio stations that includes WNYC). This page entitled Will Your Job be Done by a Machine? displays a searchable database of job titles and the corresponding chance that each will be replaced by automation. Some examples that were discussed included:

  • Real estate agents with a 86.4% chance
  • Financial services workers with a 23% chance
  • Software developers with a 12.8% chance

Then the following six listeners called in to speak with Mr. Ford:

  • Caller 1 asked about finding a better way to get income to the population beyond the job market. This was squarely on point with Mr. Ford’s first main point about decoupling income and jobs. He was not advocating for somehow trying to stop technological progress. However, he reiterated how machines are “becoming autonomous workers, no longer just tools”.
  • Caller 2 asked whether Mr. Ford had seen a YouTube video entitled Humans Need Not Apply. Mr. Ford had seen it and recommended it. The caller said that the most common reply to this video (which tracks very closely with many of Mr. Ford’s themes), he has heard was, wrongly in his opinion, that “People will do something else”. Mr. Ford replied that people must find other things that they can get paid to do. The caller also said that machine had made it much easier and more economical for his to compose and record his own music.
  • Caller 3 raised the topic of automation in the medical profession. Specifically, whether IBM’s Watson could one day soon replace doctors. Mr. Ford believes that Watson will have an increasing effect here, particularly in fields such as radiology. However, it will have a lesser impact in those specialties where doctors and patients need to interact more with each other. (See also these three recent Subway Fold posts on the applications of Watson to TED Talks, business apps and the legal profession.)
  • Caller 4 posited that only humans can conceive ideas and be original. He asked about how can computers identify patterns for which they have not been programmed. He cited the example of the accidental discovery of penicillin. Mr. Ford replied that machines will not replace scientists but they can replace service workers. Therefore, he is “more worried about the average person”. Brian Lehrer then asked him about driverless cars and, perhaps, even driverless Uber cabs one day. Mr. answered that although expectations were high that this will eventually happen. He is concerned that taxi drivers will lose jobs. (See this September 15, 2014 Subway Fold post on Uber and the “sharing economy”.)  Which led to …
  • Caller 5 who is currently a taxi driver in New York. They discussed how, in particular, many types of drivers who drive for commerce are facing this possibility. Brian Lehrer followed-up by asking whether this may somehow lead to the end of Capitalism. Mr. Ford that Capitalism “can continue to work” but it must somehow “adapt to new laws and circumstances”.
  • Caller 6 inquired whether one of the proposals raised in VR pioneer Jaron Lanier’s book entitled Who Owns the Future (Simon & Schuster, 2013), whereby people could perhaps be paid for the information they provide online. This might be a possible means to financially assist people in the future. Mr. Ford’s response was that while it was “an interesting idea” it would be “difficult to implement”. As well, he believes that Google would resist this. He made a further distinction between his concept of guaranteed income and Lanier’s proposal insofar he believes that “Capitalism can adapt” more readily to his concept. (I also highly recommend Lanier’s book for its originality and deep insights.)

Brian Lehrer concluded by raising the prospect of self-aware machines. He noted that Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking had recently warned about this possibility. Mr. Ford responded that “we are too far from this now”. For him, today’s concern is on automation’s threat to jobs, many of which are becoming easier to reduce to a program.

To say the very least, to my own organic and non-programmatic way of thinking, this was an absolutely mind-boggling discussion. I greatly look forward to this topic will continue to gather momentum and expanded media coverage.

My own questions include:

  • How should people at the beginning, middle and end of their careers be advised and educated to adapt to these rapid changes so that they can not only survive, but rather, thrive within them?
  • What role should employers, employees, educators and the government take, in any and all fields, to keep the workforce up-to-date in the competencies they will need to continue to be valuable contributors?
  • Are the challenges of automation most efficiently met on the global, national and/or local levels by all interested contingencies working together? What forms should their cooperation take?

*  For two additional book reviews I recommend reading ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ by Barbara Ehrenreich in the May 11, 2015 edition of The New York Times, and Soon They’ll Be Driving It, Too by Sumit Paul-Choudhury in the May 15, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

New Study About Taxi Ride Sharing and Its Implications for the Emergence of the “Sharing Economy”

Adding one of the more compelling scientific studies to the ongoing and rapidly developing saga of urban car ride-sharing services, the September 2, 2014 edition of The New York Times published a summary and analysis of a study of what would happen, as the titles states, If 2 New Yorkers Shared a Cab … , by Kenneth Chang and Joshua A. Kirsch. In the findings’ simplest terms, there would be a 40% reduction on the cab fleet and corresponding improvements in traffic flows, energy consumption and the environment.

The author of this fascinating study are Steven Strogatz*, a mathematics professor at Cornell, whose team included Carlo Ratti of MIT. This article contains links to their recently published paper, an accompanying graphic of the data points overlaid upon a street map of NYC, and a link to a site they have set established enabling anyone to peruse a massive database of taxi ride info.

This article also expertly explores:

  • The scientific methods used to obtain these results, balanced against the reality of the fact that New Yorkers are very reluctant to voluntarily share cab rides
  • How the recent introductions here of Uber and Lyft are impacting the economics and dynamics of the city’s taxi industry
  • Whether and how the possible introduction of self-driving cars might affect the study’s findings
  • The concerns of a scientist who is skeptical of the study’s conclusions

The day following day, on September 3rd, Strogatz and Ratti were interviewed about their report on the Brian Lehrer Show** on WNYC in New York. They covered more of the details concerning their methods, conclusions and predictions. But what really enlivened this show were the live calls from the listeners with remarkable stories of their cab rides in NYC as passengers and from an actual driver as they related to the prospect and realities of ride sharing. I highly recommend this 23 minute podcast entitled Should We Start Sharing Taxis? for these reports from the front lines of this story.

For additional original perspectives, commentary and insights into the emergence of the new sharing economy that I found to be quite relevant to this story, I further recommend the following three articles that were published during same week:

Will this sharing trend gain further traction in other sectors of the service economy? If so, what sectors and job types might be sucsceptible? If not, is this just a trend that will quickly run its course or perhaps morph into something more enduring?

___________________________

* Professor Strogatz has written a number of highly acclaimed books on science and math. Ten years ago I had the great pleasure of reading one of them entitled Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life (Hyperion, 2004). This is a strikingly original work about how synchrony emerges from within a wide diversity of biological and environmental systems. I found his writing to be highly engaging and accessible about what otherwise would appear to be a highly complex topic for a general audience. He has done a masterful job here of explaining the concepts and examples with great clarity. I highly recommend it for any reader looking for something entirely new and different.

** X-ref to the August 1, 2014 post here entitled Discussion re: Faster Web Service, Media Mergers and Net Neutrality about another interesting segment of this show, including a link to its podcast.