Thursday, July 30, 2020

Xenobots: The first ever ‘living’ robots

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Charvi Trivedi

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Xenobots: The first ever ‘living’ robots

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

July 30, 2020

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A xenobot in simulation and reality

A xenobot in simulation and reality | Source: Sam Kriegman via Computer-Designed Organisms

Creating robots using artificial intelligence has become quite normal in this century. But a robot built with an amalgamation of artificial intelligence and biology is quite enthralling. Researchers from University of Vermont and Tufts University collaborated to conceive a living robot called ‘Xenobot’.

This astounding, millimeter-wide chunk of technology is considered to be ‘living’ as it is created by stem cells from the embryo of Xenopus laevis, an African frog species. These stem cells were selected in such a way that they grew out to be heart and skin cells.

Prior to this, computer scientists at the University of Vermont ran an evolutionary algorithm, which imitates natural selection, on their supercomputer, which yielded the most suitable structures of the robot. After selecting the best designs, biologists at the Tufts University moulded the skin and heart cells into the forms which closely resembled the outputs of the algorithm, through microsurgery.

The resulting biological bodies looked like tiny aliens. "They're neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It's a new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism" said Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, who was involved in the research. Detailed results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) research paper on January 13, 2020.

Newly created xenobots were found to swim in any liquid medium for at least 10 days (or more if put in a nutrient-rich environment) without being fed with any nourishment, since the cells have a reserve of embryonic energy.

Another incredible facet of this technology is that it can revamp any of its parts efficiently upon damage. While technological pieces made out of plastic and metal might cause a lot of pollution after they are disposed of, xenobots are completely biodegradable, causing no harm to the environment. "These xenobots are fully biodegradable, when they're done with their job after seven days, they're just dead skin cells" said Bongard.

One might wonder how these miniscule cell blotches are helpful to us. Well, Xenobots may be very small in size but they can achieve feats which almost no huge, metal-made robot can.

These living robots will be useful in certain fields like medicine wherein they could be utilized to clear plague from our arteries. They can also be modelled with pouches which enables them to carry certain substances. This property can be used for delivering drugs in specific parts of our bodies. Xenobots can also be a boon in the field of cancer biology as they can help reprogramming tumors into normal cells.

Additionally, these tiny biological bodies can be oceans’ best friends. With contaminants like radioactive chemicals, plastics and microplastics creating havoc in the marine world, an immediate need to clean up our water bodies arises. Many xenobots were observed to be moving in circles (an attribute of the beating heart cells), which resembled a ‘clean-up’ motion. Hence, these tiny robots can be a perfect tool to eradicate microplastics from the oceans as well as eliminating nuclear wastes.

Although this technology may be promising, certain ethical questions arise with every technological development, especially those involving biological manipulations. If programmed in a certain way, xenobots can also take over natural biological functions (maybe nerve cells to hamper brain function) and this can be used for nasty purposes.

Michael Levin who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts said, “That fear is not unreasonable. When we start to mess around with complex systems that we don't understand, we're going to get unintended consequences”. Levin and Bongard are extensively working towards understanding how complex systems work. "There's all of this innate creativity in life. We want to understand that more deeply—and how we can direct and push it toward new forms" said UVM's Josh Bongard.

Like any new disruptive technological innovation, the Xenobots also have the potential to prove boon or bane for the humankind. Let's hope it turns out more boon than bane.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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