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MC faculty discuss robots, 'replicator,' space elevator

Barry McNamara
01/16/2012
In the first installment of a response to ideas presented in theoretical physicist Michio Kaku’s book, “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100,” two Monmouth College biology professors expressed skepticism. Specifically, they rebutted Kaku’s predictions that the aging process could be stopped and that we would rely heavily on nuclear power.

Now, another group of MC science faculty has weighed in three more “game-changing” predictions by Kaku: intelligent machines, a “replicator” that can make “almost anything from nothing” and a space elevator. One believes Kaku may be on to something, but two others – physics professor Chris Fasano and assistant professor of mathematics and computer science Logan Mayfield – expressed doubts.

“Theoretical physicists are my people,” said Fasano, “but they will say almost anything.”

Fasano was asked to comment on the replicator, which Kaku says will be made possible through a “nanobot,” a molecule-sized robot that can arrange molecular bonds in the same way ribosomes work in our bodies.

Fasano calls the science “not forbidden,” or theoretically possible, but adds, “I wouldn’t buy stock in it.”

He continued, “An example of something that is ‘forbidden’ is going faster than the speed of light. You can’t do that. What this involves – starting with coal and placing atoms the right way so that you end up with a diamond – is theoretically possible. However, it took nature 4.5 million years by trial and error to get to where we are now. Doing this type of work is tremendously hard and complicated. Even if it were possible, would it be economically feasible to do it? Would it be better to take carbon and apply this complicated process and make diamonds, or should we just go out and mine diamonds? These are not at all trivial questions.”

Fasano is bullish on the future, but not quite the way Kaku has in mind.

“The manipulation of matter at the microscopic level will happen,” he said. “You are going to see designer materials that can be designed to do what you want, to have the properties you want. The tiles on the space shuttle are an example of this – a beautifully-engineered material.”

Fasano continued, “We may not be able to create anything we want, but we’ll create interesting things we want.”

Micro-machines will also become more mainstream, Fasano predicted.

“For example, if you have a clogged artery, a micro-machine will be able to go in and Roto-Rooter it out. There are already examples of this, and we will create smaller and smarter micro-machines. This is definitely a science that is viable and on the horizon.”

Fasano also spoke about engineering materials through biological processes.

“I read an article about how, pound-for-pound, spider silk is stronger than steel. The problem is, you can’t get enough silk. But genetically-engineered silkworms (embedded with spider-silk proteins) could produce it … A lot of these developments are very exciting to think about. But making anything you want out of nothing? I don’t think so.”

Also skeptical is Mayfield, who was asked his reaction to Kaku’s prediction of the rise of intelligent machines. While painting an optimistic vision, Kaku also refers to incorrect predictions made in the 1950s that by 2000, we would have “mechanical maids, butlers and companions,” similar to the robot Rosey from “The Jetsons.”

When thinking about artificial intelligence, Mayfield suggests our fascination is shifting away from robotics toward the type of technology that allows cars to parallel park themselves and toward voice and image recognition.

“I’ve read articles like this before, and they give me a lot of pause,” he said. “They say, ‘In 20 years, we’ll have this,’ and then five years later, the window moves again. It doesn’t give me a lot of cause for optimism. I think the focus has shifted from intelligent machines. We don’t know enough about our own intelligence to effectively model it.”

Speaking specifically about automatic parallel parking, Mayfield said, “Most people would be astounded by the amount of work that goes into developing something like that. And it’s a far step from a self-driving car to the research that would be needed for the type of robotics we commonly imagine.”

The makers of the movie “I, Robot” imagined a machine capable of murder, and Mayfield thinks that’s not far-fetched.

“The military uses autonomous drones,” he said. “There are also quadcopters that will fly through a hoop, completely on their own. It won’t be long before people are putting weapons on them and assigning targets.”

In his article, Kaku also suggests man “merging with our robotic creations.” While Mayfield doesn’t see that happening in the literal sense, he said that man is, in fact, merging with machines through such technology as pacemakers and artificial limbs developed for veterans.

“They are synched up with the electrical system in their bodies, allowing them to manipulate the fingers on their hands,” he explained.

Where Mayfield sees perhaps the largest area for widespread, accessible developments is in the area of voice-enabled technology.

“The Siri technology on the iPhone is just going to keep getting better and better,” he predicted. “There are probably people who can afford it who already have that technology in the homes – you’d walk in and say, ‘Lights on,’ and that type of thing. What’s going to happen is that technology will become more affordable, so it will become more commonplace, and the quality will improve. It’s just like the way we learn; we make mistakes, but the more we do something, the more we learn and the better we become at it. That is what is happening with the communication between man and machine. The quality will increase at a high rate.”

Similarly, Mayfield said, we should also see rapid developments in translating languages and in image technology.

“There are lots of cool techniques that are enabled by improved computer vision and by getting computers to process an image the way we do,” he said. “The intersection of voice-enabled capacity and image-based search and query-type things – they’ll all come together to help us achieve some sci-fi movie-type things.”

Mayfield didn’t address whether we will ever see the “Beam me up, Scotty” technology from “Star Trek,” but he did say that parts of the series’ futuristic vision are coming true.

“In ‘Star Trek,’ they talk to computers. Well, what do you think we’re doing right now with voice-enabled technology? And as computers get smaller and can be in more places, you’re going to see it even more.”

Skepticism abounded from MC faculty about Kaku’s “game-changing” ideas, but not from all of them. Assistant professor of physics Ashwani Kumar said he is “very optimistic” about Kaku’s prediction of a space elevator by 2100.

The idea of building space elevator was raised in 1960 by Russian engineer Yuri Artsutanov and rehashed several times in the years that followed. But the idea went largely unnoticed until 1979, when Arthur Clarke used it as the centerpiece of his novel, “The Fountains of Paradise.”

The main technological challenge was a lack of strong enough materials, but now we have materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene that are much stronger than steel. Kaku reported that the new hurdle to clear is producing mass quantities of graphene, which he called the “strongest substance known to science,” and which also happens to be extremely light. He wrote, “we can only produce millimeter-sized portions of this pure carbon,” but Kumar has learned from his communication with Purdue University nanoscientist professor Yong Chen that much larger units of graphene are now being produced.

“That’s pretty good, actually,” Kumar said. “The problem is what we call ‘grain-boundary’ – the area where two pieces of this substance come together. The mechanical properties are significantly reduced when they are placed side by side.

“But,” he continued, “recent simulation shows that we can fold graphene ribbon in certain ways to enhance their mechanical properties, therefore compensating for grain-boundary effect.” He said it is also interesting to note that, during the past decade alone, scientists have been able to produce graphene from a size not visible to our naked eyes to 30-inch (diagonal) sheets useful for making touch screens.

On a whiteboard in his office, Kumar illustrated how the elevator would work. The non-rocket launch structure would be linked to a “geostationary” satellite that remains in a fixed location above Earth at all times due to its 24-hour orbit time period. This occurs roughly 22,000 miles into space, he said. The space elevator would not require a dramatic, fiery launch, but rather a simple nudge up the “beanstalk.” In addition, you don’t have to be super-fit astronaut to make a space trip.

Kaku points out that putting humans into space now is a costly endeavor, with a price tag of approximately $1 million per pound to travel to Mars. The space elevator would greatly reduce the cost, assuming that creating miles upon miles of graphene is possible and not cost-prohibitive. Kumar said the price could drop as low as $500 per pound to reach space.

“If built, this would be the largest manmade structure ever conceived with a height of about 22,000 to 30, 000 miles,” said Kumar. “In order to build this, a rocket would be needed to lift the initial cable spool into space.”

Around the globe, several government agencies and private companies are building rocket-based space shuttles. An American company, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), is developing complementary technology involving a capsule and propeller and Kumaer said “we can expect good things” from their work.

“Conceptually, the space elevator is possible,” he said, before adding another prediction. “I’m very optimistic it could be developed within the next 100 years. Space tourism will be reality in the next 20 years, initially for wealthy and healthy people, and then for the mass.”

Kumar would actually prefer that it be developed even sooner.

“Before I die, I would love to be in space once,” he said with a grin.