The consequences of this new tech are stupendous, as the ability to pilot a single-celled biobot offers thrilling new promise to a wide range of biotechnology, from artificial insemination to internal drug delivery systems. The cyborg nature of this sperm-bot offers critical insight into the new flavors of commercial technology we’ll be seeing in the next decade. Hint: robots, robots, and more robots. (See Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics.)
This is just the tip of the iceberg in the nebulous borderlands where organic matter meets robotics; here lies a wealth of fascinating conflicts in humanity’s double-edged quest to make technology more human, and humans more efficient. Of course at this point in time, animals, are often used as a transitory testing ground for how robotics and artificial intelligence can be integrated safely and effectively with organic life. Organic matter is, in effect, spearheading the quest for better, more intuitive breeds of technology (although we haven’t quite made these happen yet). If you think about it, most of the developed world already functions with a device in one hand and their eyes on another – cyborg life is only going to escalate from here.
SPORTS, THE GREAT EQUALIZER
Athletics seems like an obvious area where cyborgs could run free – simple arithmetic goes something like: man plus machine equals medals. DARPA recently hosted the Robot Olympics (okay, it’s actually called the DARPA Robotics Challenge) in Florida, hoping to highlight the best and brightest robots to work alongside puny humans in disaster or emergency situations. Competing groups came from small businesses, universities, and two different teams from NASA. In related news, the first kick at the upcoming World Cup will be made by a paralyzed teen wearing a state-of-the-art, mind-controlled exoskeleton.
FUNGUS IS THE NEW FUEL
Back in 2008, fungal tech proponents like mycologist Paul Stamets prophesied that “mushrooms will save the world.” Five years on, we finally have a better idea of how and what we need to make this happen. Fungus already plays a quiet role in experimental biofuels and even wearables – harris tweed, for example, is one of the world’s oldest fungal textiles. Forward-thinking companies like Dell are already using biodegradable fungal packaging.
But fungus as fuel has yet to become mainstream, though enterprising minds are working to perfect a functioning “mycodiesel fuel,” a mix of dead leaf matter and other materials. Stamets’s company, Fungi Perfecti, has a catalogue of 30+ fungal patents that we have yet to see unleashed on the world – one idea involves “mycorestoration,” which uses specific types of fungi to clean and enhance soil, ultimately helping to stabilize climate change.
Researchers have discovered a way to use melanin, a natural pigment, to create biodegradable battery anodes that can be safely implanted in the human body. Melanin seems to be able to “hold’ many ions (i.e. charged particles) at the same time via complex polymer networks, offering an ideal natural ingredient in the recipe for a safe implantable power source. Current biotech implants use batteries with potentially hazardous materials that could leak out into the body, but since melanin is produced by the body, this could pave the way for a plethora of safe implants for medical and recreational purposes.
A cursory Google search yields several fascinating homemade solutions to our ongoing thirst for power, as we move into an era where green energy is of crucial importance to sustainability. Exhibit A: Malaysian teen Mohammed Dzarul Dol Malek created a functioning organic battery out of brown sugar and leaves.
CASH IN HAND
PulseWallet is a new method of biometric credit card payment that reads the vein patterns in the palm of your hand. After a one-time pairing with your credit card, you can wave your hand over a PulseWallet payment terminal to pay for items. The guys behind PulseWallet previously tried to work out a payment system with Hitachi’s VeinID technology, but it seems like PulseWallet is the most successful iteration of hands-free transactions so far. Of course, this raises questions about new forms of insidiously creepy biometric data-theft (hacking off arms, perhaps?), especially in light of the NSA’s omnipresence in our daily lives, not to mention a new sort of value paradigm in which we embody our own currencies.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY
As the “internet of things” expands to include, well, every object and gadget we interact with on a regular basis, it seems timely to think of new methods of communication beyond radio and electricity. Canadian scientists are taking theoretical research on molecular communication to the next step, creating a basic experiment that successfully transmitted a chemical message across a four-meter distance. Now, bacteria are being studied as vehicles for this new form of communication. A more well-known chemical communicator is the ant, which has long been observed for its fascinating methods of molecular communication; ants are able to sense, via chemicals, when their comrades need help. Apply bespoke bacterial messaging to medical robotics and emergency retrieval services, and within a decade, we could have intuitive nano-bots deployed to fight invasive cancerous cells or search cooperatively for earthquake victims.
The tattoo will work similarly to a Bluetooth headset, receiving and sending signals to/from tablets, gaming devices, phones, and god knows what other kind of mobile gadgets we’ll convince ourselves to need in the future.
Australia, home to a smorgasbord of animals who will seize any opportunity to bite, sting, and chew your face off, has tagged 300 sharks with acoustic transmitters to “ping” their locations around the coast. Western Australia, specifically, has been plagued by deadly great white shark attacks – six fatal incidents in just two years. Nonetheless, this reluctant army of borg sharks will automatically send a tweet to a designated account when they come within a kilometer of the beach, allowing beachgoers ample time to get away from the water. Now, if only this sort of avoidance tech was applicable to humans…
RISE OF THE BORGS
Cyborg telemarketing is a terrifically hot issue in the U.S. right now, but braver minds are taking this whole borg business further and unleashing open-source brain experiments on Kickstarter.
OpenBCI is developing a new brain-computer interface (BCI) that uses Bluetooth and EEG technology to extract brain wave data – in their words, it gives “anybody with a computer access to their brainwaves.” The developers, who initially tried crafting a “BrainCap,” are concerned with making DIY neuroscience accessible, understandable, and affordable to anyone and everyone, hoping to further the field with real neurodata from real people. BCI tech is already been used in Japan as a means of preventing carjacking and drunk driving. Next step: melding minds with your laptop – we can’t wait.
Drawing inspiration from the organic world doesn’t necessarily mean stealing materials and tangible objects from nature – biomimetics is a fascinating study of how we can copy animal or plant behavior. Thanks to advanced technology, it has become easier to explore biomimetic features in robotics. New research methods and advanced artificial intelligence all factor into how scientists can replicate the delicate structures and unique processes we see in the natural world. Most recently, the European Space Agency unveiled its six-legged prototype automaton, Abigaille, which it hopes to deploy in space to clean and maintain external parts of spacecraft. Abigaille uses footpads modeled after the gecko’s tiny setae (fine hairs on the pads of its feet), which create a special molecular attraction with the climbing surface called the van der waals force.
THE RISE OF THE HUMAN-ROBOT RELATIONS
If mainstream science fiction has done anything right, it’s convinced us that our future bedfellows are going to be robots, and we should just shut up and deal with it. In this light, human-robot relations, such as this meeting between Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and robot astronaut Kirobo, are becoming more relevant in predicting what life will eventually be like alongside quasi-sentient machines. Needless to say, fictional worlds presented in books and films like I, Robot and A.I. don’t seem very optimistic. Thought-controlled robot avatars aren’t exactly breaking news, but 2014 holds much promise for a world in which distinct A.I. personalities are emerging and embedding themselves into our daily routines. Most amusing was Siri’s negative opinion of Her, the new Spike Jonze film in which a man falls in love with an operating system.
Follow Alexis Ong on Twitter here @steppinlazer