Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rachel Armstrong: Beyond Sustainability 25 Points 4

We continue with Dr. Armstrong's lecture, Beyond Sustainability, delivered at the Swedish Twitter University.

12. Life possesses unique properties such as flexibility, robustness, unpredictability & can deal with the unforeseen
This is a very important point.  Machines are designed (at least for the present time) from the top down.  They are designed with a purpose.  If the situation they are in changes enough to reduce that purpose either obsolete or only performable in a manner which is radically different from the way the machine was designed to carry the purpose out, the machine cannot adapt to the new situation.  In the world of the real natural environment, these situations often develop.  Living things adjust to the changes and survive, machines cease to function.  We post two videos on emergence: the process of complexity from simplicity.  If you cannot see the embedded videos, here is the link:

13. Technology is the way that the mind becomes embodied in the process of problem solving. Thinking differently generates novel technology
This definition of technology is rather unique one.  It of necessity involves the mind (our brains) and embodies it in a problem solving process.  One example of thinking differently, involves the use of 3D printers.  Fab@home, the describe themselves as,
...platform of printers and programs which can produce functional 3D objects. It is designed to fit on your desktop and within your budget. Fab@Home is supported by a global, open-source community of professionals and hobbyists, innovating tomorrow, today.
Dr. Armstrong provides a possible application towards architectural solutions, would be possible to print custom-made technologies, such as bioreactors, which harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide to make liquid fuel using locally harvested algae. A complete unit could be specially made from its basic ingredients complete with connectors that enable the bioreactor to draw resources from local supplies of water, sunlight, and air.
This approach just cited by Armstrong, is very relevant to her project to attempt to save the city of Venice through natural adaptable systems, rather than mega engineering projects which will create a host of other environmental problems, some foreseen, others unforeseen. The approach championed by Dr. Armstrong, would create "synthetic soils," which would behave like living things and be able to adjust to the ever changing situations in nature.

Another application mentioned by Armstrong is the "...upgrading the environmental performance of entire buildings..." without moving them or gutting them.  In the words of EmilyLo,
Rather than relying on cumbersome mechanical systems and impermeable walls to regulate our indoor environments, the project seeks to create a more mutual – and self-renewing – relationship of exchange between humans and their surroundings. Much like gardening or cooking, the innovations employed become part of a cycle in which human input actually nourishes the architecture that then, in turn, nourishes our own experience.
We provide an interview with Philip Beesley, the architect working with Armstrong  on this new bionic and adaptable, evolving architecture.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

Via: Wired
use of a 3D printer produced by Fab@home for producing
chemical solutions which could then mix with other
architectural materials

14.  Can the technology of life be harnessed in cities & elsewhere to produce evolvable systems that deal with ongoing environmental changes
The answer is yes according to Dr. Armstrong.  One example of this is her concept of a "protocell."  What is a protocell? Dr. Armstrong explains,
Self assembling chemical systems without DNA, which is generally thought of as the molecule that programs all aspects of the behaviors of natural cells. These simple ‘protocells’ are made up of a very small number of chemicals, yet they are able to sense their environment, modify it, and exhibit complex life-like behavior such as shedding skins.
We provide once again a brief explanation by Rachel Armstrong and Michael Toon of the concept of protocells visually.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

15.  Living Technologies behave like living things but aren’t alive. They offer different problem-solving approaches to industrial systems
We include a short video which is a trailer to an upcoming film titled, Earth 2.0.  It features Dr. Armstrong.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

16.  Morphological computing, smart chemistry & synthetic biology are living technologies that work differently to machines
Although morphological computing is often applied to the area of robotics, Dr. Armstrong is using it in a different sense here.  A perfect example of what Armstrong is referring to can be found in the final public report by PACE (Programmable Artificial Cell Evolution), a research project funded by the European Union from 2004-2008.  This project as based on a consortium of 13 partners and 2 cooperating groups from 8 European countries as well several leading USA organizations.  There is as of yet, no concise definition for morphological computation.  Much of the field got its beginnings from the realization that visual, auditory, and other processing is done outside the brain by the human body.  The final report states:
More recently there has been an increasing interest in the notion of embodiment which is about the relation between the body (morphology and materials), the brain (the control), and the environment. It turns out that part of the desired functionality can be "outsourced" to morphological and material aspects of a system, or the interaction with the environment. For example, the non-homogeneous arrangement of the facets in an insect eye perform a kind of "pre-processing" of the sensory stimulation which facilitates later processing by the brain. An example on the actuator side are the intrinsic material properties of the muscle-tendon system: if I twist my arm and I let it go, it will turn back into its natural position, but not so much because of neural control (although in humans, the brain is always at least to some extent involved), but due to the properties of the muscle-tendon system as a damped spring system. Again, the brain is outsourcing some of its computation (control) to the morphological and material properties of the limbs. In the passive dynamic walker, a robot that walks down a ramp without control and actuation, the "computation" is performed by the mechanical feedback generated as the walker interacts with the environment (an instance of morphological computation called self-stabilization) (Pfeifer et al., 2007).

Morphological computation also bears in Dr. Armstrong's research into the self-assembly of non living matter with other forms of non-living matter to form a life-like behavior.  This was observed by the PACE report.
Morphological computation happens when some computational functionality is realized purely through the physical (and chemical) interaction of system components...PACE investigated two forms of morphological computing through self-assembly: self assembly and movement of micelles, vesicles, and oil droplets.
"Smart Chemistry refers to to the use of known chemical reactions to create new materials, in Dr. Armstrong's particular area these would be bio materials.  If this still confuses our readers we can cite an example by ISIS, a part of Oxford University and their development of a technique for capturing and storing CO2.

Another example is Dr. Armstrong's own work which she described in a series of articles published in,
20th century technologies are equated with machines, whose systematized mass-production caused the ecological crisis in the first place and modern technology has more limitations than just its environmental credentials. Although computers can process data at phenomenal rates, their ability to act on this information is grossly limited by the performance of their bodies, which are simple and inert, not complex and responsive and DARPA is looking to soft materials to build information directly into the bodies of the their next generation of robots. Embodiment appears to be at the heart of understanding how smarter, more environmentally responsive technologies can be developed. In 2007, Martin Hanczyc and his colleagues created a chemically programmable oil droplet with some of the properties of living systems that did not need a central controller, like DNA, to govern its behavior. The life-like abilities of these droplets are caused by chemical emergence interacting with the environment and—owing to their remarkable likeness to living things—these strange, soft technologies can be thought of as an example of Living Technology. This kind of Living Technology is important as it has the ability to connect with nature using a common language based in the laws of physics and chemistry. Intelligent bodied technologies can also plug into the planetary systems of natural energy flow, which is shared by all living creatures and can be manipulated using the tools of Synthetic Biology, the rational design and engineering of living systems. Living Technology is qualitatively different to industrial machines, so it comes with new expectations, where smart-bodied technologies can combine ecological thinking with human development, providing successive generations with the potential to enrich the wealth of the earth, rather than progressively diminish it as industrialization has done.
We will continue with more of the 25 points delivered by Dr. Armstrong, in our next installment in this series. 

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