Category Archives: Nanotechnology

Suicidal Sensors: Darpa Wants Next-Gen Spy Hardware to Literally Dissolve

VAPR_image
Darpa wants to build small military hardware that can literally destroy itself according to pre-programmed instructions, as this demonstration image indicates. Image: Darpa

Wired | Jan 28, 2013

By Spencer Ackerman

Forget about a kill switch. Planned obsolescence? Already obsolete. The Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers want tomorrow’s military hardware to literally cease to exist at a predetermined point. Welcome to the age of suicidal sensors.

Darpa isn’t imagining planes or ships that melt into a metallic puddle when their replacements come off the production line. The research agency is thinking, in one sense, smaller: sensors and other “sophisticated electronic microsystems” that litter a warzone — and create enticing opportunities for adversaries to collect, study and reverse-engineer. Since it’s not practical to pick them all up when U.S. forces withdraw, Darpa wants to usher in the age of “transient electronics.”

If you’ve ever lost your phone and worried about random strangers sifting through your data, you have a sense of why the idea appeals to Darpa. But you probably never imagined Apple creating a piece of hardware “capable of physically disappearing in a controlled, triggerable manner.” That’s where Darpa comes in. Next month, it’s going to invite interested scientists and manufacturers to a Virginia conference to kick around ideas for creating what it calls “triggered degradation.” Oh, and some of that degradation will occur inside a soldier’s body.

The program to create transient electronics is called VAPR, for Vanishing Programmable Resources. Darpa’s going to say more about it in the coming weeks. But thus far, the idea is to make small hardware that performs just like current sensors, only fabricated from materials that can rapidly disintegrate on command.

“VAPR will focus on developing and establishing a basic set of materials, components, integration, and manufacturing capabilities to undergird this new class of electronics defined by their performance and transience,” its program manager, Dr. Alicia Jackson, tells Danger Room.

Sometimes the hardware will be pre-programmed to self-destruct. Other times a human should be able to step in and signal to the device that the cold grasp of oblivion beckons. All of this is supposed to go much, much farther than a circuit board rigged to explode if it falls into enemy hands. And it’s not totally mad science. Last year, Darpa researchers successfully demonstrated that super-thin electronics made out of silicon and magnesium could be fabricated to dissolve in liquid. “This program follows on that study and seeks to develop the technology through the demonstration of a basic circuit,” Jackson says.

“The efficacy of the technological capability developed through VAPR will be demonstrated by building transient sensors with RF links,” explains a Darpa announcement about the February VAPR confab, “representative of what might be used to sense environmental or biomedical conditions and communicate with a remote user.” Imagine throwing a bunch of sensors around a given swath of forest, ravine or desert that could impart “critical data for a specified duration, but no longer” — after which they “decompose in the natural environment.”

That natural environment might include you. Devices that “resorb into the body” might prove to be “promising transient electronic implants to aid in continuous health monitoring in the field.” That is, if Darpa can figure out a safe, “bioresorbable” material that can safely implant an electronic device, complete with transmitter, inside the most sensitive parts of your body. “One example of a possible biocompatible application for transient devices is a non-antibiotic bactericide for sterilization at surgery site,” Jackson says.

VAPR’s approach views the persistence of battlefield sensors as a problem to be solved. It’s worth noting that some defense companies view it as an opportunity to be exploited. Lockheed Martin is working on something called an Unattended Ground Sensor, a monitoring device designed to look like a rock and recharge with a solar battery, to collect and transmit data on a warzone for decades after most U.S. troops there have packed up and gone home. While there’s no reason those Unattended Ground Sensors couldn’t someday be built out of whatever “transient” materials VAPR ultimately favors, those sensors represent a different attitude toward the virtues of long-term monitoring.

Of course, all this is academic if Darpa can’t figure out what materials can actually make up its transient electronics. And there it concedes that “key technological breakthroughs are required across the entire electronics production process, from starting materials to components to finished products.” (That might be a concession that it’s old BioDesign project, which involved creating a “synthetic organism ‘self-destruct’ option” for artificial lifeforms, didn’t bear fruit.)

Transience can’t mean poor performance while the device still exists. Nor can it mean destruction before a human programmer extracts all the necessary data from the device. Makers can talk this all through at the Darpa “Proposer’s Day,” on Valentine’s Day at the Capitol Conference Center in Arlington, Virginia. A more elaborate description of the VAPR program is supposed to follow.

If it works, transient electronics could provide “fundamental and practical insight into the development of transient electronics of arbitrary complexity” — such as, perhaps, the self-destructing plane or ship of the far, far future. (That might have come in handy in 2011, when the U.S. lost an advanced stealth drone over Iran.) For now, Darpa will have enough of a challenge building a sensor that accepts its days on this Earth are tragically numbered.

Risk of a Terminator Style Robot Uprising to be Studied

terminator

technorati.com | Nov 27, 2012

by Adi Gaskell

In the movie Terminator, machines had grown so intelligent that by 2029 they had effectively taken over the planet, seeking to exterminate what remained of the human race along the way.

While that is firmly in the camp of science fiction, a team of researchers from Cambridge, England, are investigating what risk, if any, technology poses to mankind.

The research, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CESR), will look at the threat posed by technologies such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and climate change.

While many of us may think it unlikely that robots will take over Earth, the scientists at the center said that dismissing such possibilities would in itself be ‘dangerous’.

“The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake,” the researchers wrote on a website set up for the center.

The CSER project has been co-founded by Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, cosmology and astrophysics professor Martin Rees and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn.

“It seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Prof Price told the AFP news agency.

“What we’re trying to do is to push it forward in the respectable scientific community.”

Micro-Drones Combined With DNA Hacking Could Create A Very Scary Future

businessinsider.com | Oct 28, 2012

by Robert Johnson

Sightings of insect-sized micro drones have been occurring for years, but combined with the direction of genome sequencing outlined in this Atlantic piece — the pair make for a futuristic and potentially deadly mix.

Even back in 2007, when Vanessa Alarcon was a college student attending an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. she heard someone shout, “Oh my God, look at those.”

“I look up and I’m like, ‘What the hell is that?'” she told The Washington Post. “They looked like dragonflies or little helicopters. But I mean, those are not insects,” she continued.

A lawyer there at the time confirmed they looked like dragonflies, but that they “definitely weren’t insects”.

And he’s probably right. In 2006 Flight International reported that the CIA had been developing micro UAVs as far back as the 1970s and had a mock-up in its Langley headquarters since 2003.

While we can go on listing roachbots, swarming nano drones, and synchronized MIT robots — private trader and former software engineer Alan Lovejoy points out that the future of nano drones could become even more unsettling.

Lovejoy says “Such a device could be controlled from a great distance and is equipped with a camera, microphone. It could land on you and then use its needle to take a DNA sample.”

Assuming all that to be possible, the Atlantic  paints a complimentary scenario.

Authors Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman, and Steven Kotler outline futuristic human genome work that evolves from the very real GE $100 million breast cancer challenge.

In the group’s scenario a bunch of brilliant freelancers receive bids to design personalized virus’ offering customized cures for the sick.

Say you get pancreatic cancer, instead of chemo’ — the first step in treatment will be decoding your genome — which costs about $1,000 right now and takes a couple of days.

An eternity when you’re rife with cancer, no doubt, but a far cry from the two years and $300 million it required less than a decade-and-a-half ago.

But imagine, the three writers ask: it’s 2015, and with information about the disease and your exclusive genome sequence, tomorrow’s virologists will have only a simple design problem on their hands.

The problem will be freelanced out for bids, like a brochure design on Elance, and the winning design will be a formula that’ll rid your body of the cancer.

All of this is pretty plausible, if not a bit short on the timeline, but imagine the request for proposal of your pancreatic cancer cure was something else.

Imagine it was the genome of a particular African leader recruiting children to fight his wars, and that his DNA had been high-jacked in 2009 at the UN by order of Hillary Clinton.

Same scenario applies. The request for a drug tailored to that particular genome is accepted. It’s paid for and forwarded to an online bio-marketplace, which sends it to a synthesis start-up that turns “the 5,984 base-pair blueprint into actual genetic material.”

Here the future of drones and virology could intersect.

A few days later tablets are delivered to a group that dissolves them and injects the liquid into a handful of micro-drones. The team releases the drones and infects the people in the African leader’s circle of advisors or family.

The infected come down with flu like symptoms, coughs and sneezes that release billions of harmless virus particles — but when they bring their symptoms in the vicinity of the African leader — the particles change.

Once the virus particles are exposed to that very specific DNA sequence, a secondary function within their design unlocks. In the Atlantic piece the target is the U.S. president via sneezing Harvard students, but the effect would be the same. In that case it was a “fast-acting neuro-destructive disease that produced memory loss and, eventually, death.”

Same for the African leader, though the symptoms could be tailored an infinite number of ways. Designed to reflect a uniquely local affliction like Dengue Fever, or to appear like symptoms of a genetic condition.

The drone and bio-technologies are approaching the point where something like this is theoretically possible, even if for now, it’s only imagination.

FDA proposes rules for nanotechnology in food

Associated Press | Apr 21, 2012

by MATTHEW PERRONE

WASHINGTON – (AP) — Regulators are proposing that food companies that want to use tiny engineered particles in their packaging may have to provide extra testing data to show the products are safe.

The Food and Drug Administration issued tentative guidelines Friday for food and cosmetic companies interested in using nanoparticles, which are measured in billionths of a meter. Nanoscale materials are generally less than 100 nanometers in diameter. A sheet of paper, in comparison, is 100,000 nanometers thick. A human hair is 80,000 nanometers thick.

The submicroscopic particles are increasingly showing up in FDA-regulated products like sunscreens, skin lotions and glare-reducing eyeglass coatings. Some scientists believe the technology will one day be used in medicine, but the FDA’s announcement did not address that use.

The draft guidance suggests the FDA may require food companies to provide data establishing the safety of any packaging using nanotechnology.

Under longstanding regulations, companies aren’t required to seek regulatory approval before launching products containing established ingredients and materials, such as caffeine, spices and various preservatives.

But FDA officials said Friday that foods and packaging containing nanoparticles may require more scrutiny.

“At this point, in terms of the science, we think it’s likely the exemption does not apply and we would encourage folks to come in and talk to us,” said Dennis Keefe, director of FDA’s office of food additive safety.

Keefe said companies are studying whether nanoparticles can reduce the risk of bacterial contamination in certain foods. He said the agency is aware of just one food package currently on the market that uses nanoparticles but did not identify it. He said more are expected in coming years.

The FDA has previously stated its position that nanotechnology is not inherently unsafe; however, materials at the nano scale can pose different safety issues than do things that are far larger.

“This is an emerging, evolving technology and we’re trying to get ahead of the curb to ensure the ingredients and substances are safe,” Keefe said.

In a separate guidance, the FDA laid out suggestions for the use of nanotechnology in cosmetics, a practice which has been in use since the 1990s. Nanoparticles are used in skin moisturizer, mineral make up and other cosmetics.

The FDA has less authority over cosmetics than food additives. Generally, the FDA does not review cosmetics before they launch, and companies are responsible for assuring the safety of their products.

The FDA will take comments on both proposals for 90 days. There is no deadline for finalizing the documents.

“Super-Soldiers” Fight Disease With Bionic Implants

mobiledia.com | Mar 21, 2012

By Kate Knibbs

The U.S. military plans to implant soldiers with medical devices, making them harder to kill with diseases.

The military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, announced plans to create nanosensors that monitor soldiers’ health on the battlefield and keep doctors constantly abreast about potential health problems.

DARPA’s plan for nanosensors reflects a larger trend, as scientists are trying to harness technology to improve health care across the globe. Doctors are already quickly adopting mobile technology to improve patient care, carrying around iPads to better explain procedures and inventing smartphone apps to oversee drug users’ progress and watch for signs of stress in at-risk patients.

DARPA called the implants “a truly disruptive innovation,” highlighting how healthier soldiers would change the state of modern warfare because most medical evacuations occur due to ordinary illnesses and disease, not injuries. If the U.S. can lead the way in this kind of high-tech monitoring, it could give the military another leg up on adversaries still beset by everyday illness.

Nanotechnology continues to find a place in the medical field as well. Stanford University researchers are developing tiny robotic monitors that can diagnose illnesses, monitor vital stats and even deliver medicine into the bloodstream, similar to the devices that the military plans to create.

Time Magazine: Matrix cyborgs coming to replace humans in 2045

2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal

Time | Feb 10, 2011

By  Lev Grossman

On Feb. 15, 1965, a diffident but self-possessed high school student named Raymond Kurzweil appeared as a guest on a game show called I’ve Got a Secret. He was introduced by the host, Steve Allen, then he played a short musical composition on a piano. The idea was that Kurzweil was hiding an unusual fact and the panelists — they included a comedian and a former Miss America — had to guess what it was.

On the show (see the clip on YouTube), the beauty queen did a good job of grilling Kurzweil, but the comedian got the win: the music was composed by a computer. Kurzweil got $200.

Kurzweil then demonstrated the computer, which he built himself — a desk-size affair with loudly clacking relays, hooked up to a typewriter. The panelists were pretty blasé about it; they were more impressed by Kurzweil’s age than by anything he’d actually done. They were ready to move on to Mrs. Chester Loney of Rough and Ready, Calif., whose secret was that she’d been President Lyndon Johnson’s first-grade teacher.

But Kurzweil would spend much of the rest of his career working out what his demonstration meant. Creating a work of art is one of those activities we reserve for humans and humans only. It’s an act of self-expression; you’re not supposed to be able to do it if you don’t have a self. To see creativity, the exclusive domain of humans, usurped by a computer built by a 17-year-old is to watch a line blur that cannot be unblurred, the line between organic intelligence and artificial intelligence.

That was Kurzweil’s real secret, and back in 1965 nobody guessed it. Maybe not even him, not yet. But now, 46 years later, Kurzweil believes that we’re approaching a moment when computers will become intelligent, and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans. When that happens, humanity — our bodies, our minds, our civilization — will be completely and irreversibly transformed. He believes that this moment is not only inevitable but imminent. According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 35 years away.
Computers are getting faster. Everybody knows that. Also, computers are getting faster faster — that is, the rate at which they’re getting faster is increasing.

True? True.

So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness — not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.

If you can swallow that idea, and Kurzweil and a lot of other very smart people can, then all bets are off. From that point on, there’s no reason to think computers would stop getting more powerful. They would keep on developing until they were far more intelligent than we are. Their rate of development would also continue to increase, because they would take over their own development from their slower-thinking human creators. Imagine a computer scientist that was itself a super-intelligent computer. It would work incredibly quickly. It could draw on huge amounts of data effortlessly. It wouldn’t even take breaks to play Farmville.

Probably. It’s impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you’d be as smart as they would be. But there are a lot of theories about it. Maybe we’ll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we’ll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity.

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Artificial ‘nano-food’ could soon show up at a store near you

Natural News | Dec 6, 2010

by Ethan A. Huff

(NaturalNews) The scientific community has once again caught food-tampering fever. Recent reports indicate that food scientists are busy developing nanoparticle-modified (NM) food that could one day end up on your dinner plate — and you may never even know about it. By shifting around nanoparticles, food scientists say that fat-free foods can taste like full-fat foods, and they can be programmed to digest more slowly–two changes that some say may help reverse the obesity epidemic.

But most of this research is going on in secret because of fears over how the public will respond. Like genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), nano-modifying food involves literally changing its molecular properties, which has never been proven safe. So naturally, consumers are likely to reject NM food if given the choice.

“These particles could be hazardous and we need to know more about their effects both in the body and in the environment,” said Frans Kampers, coordinator of research on food nanotechnology at Wageningen and Research Center in the Netherlands. “Since these particles are very small, they can…enter cells or even the nucleus of a cell if they have the right characteristics.”

The stated goal of nanotechnology research in food is to create foods that behave differently than real ones in terms of digestion, assimilation, taste and nutritional value. By altering the “nano-structure” of food, so to speak, NM food can be programmed to make people feel fuller faster, for instance. And nutrients in food can also be nano-encapsulated to release at timed intervals to specific parts of the body.

Even though NM food has yet to see the light day, the European Union (EU) is already taking proactive steps to make sure that, if it does make it to consumers, NM food will at least be regulated and labeled. Thus, the EU has developed a research project called NanoLyse to address the “very limited knowledge [that is] available on the potential impact of engineered nanoparticles on consumers’ health.”