• Log In
  • Sign Up
    • That’s a really good question! So programmable matter is one of the more exotic ideas we got into. It's actually fairly hard to research, as it’s a small group of people who don’t agree on all the technical terms. So we called it “programmable matter.” One of the really useful books we found was a book by Springer Publishing (something that will mean something to a small group of people) called MORPHOGENETIC ENGINEERING. I don’t even remember how we found it! Sometimes it’s called Morphogenetic Engineering, sometimes it’s called “self-assembly,” there’s fields like swarm robotics that are deeply related.

      The most plausible case I think we saw with the idea of programmable matter, stuff that can re-shape itself, was one: in the book we talked about a proposal out of Daniela Rus’ lab out of MIT. Apparently something like 3,000 Americans a year get a watch battery lodged in their guts. I assume it is mostly children...but if you have enough people, things happen. And so the problem is most of the time you pass it through, but your body is not designed to deal with metals like that, it can lodge in your gut, irritate the skin, and is obviously dangerous. It would be nice to not have to do surgery to get it out.

      The basic idea would be to have a little bot, that folds up nicely into a little pill made of ice. It makes its way to your gut, and the little robot (made of sausage casing) unfolds itself, with a magnet that lodges onto the battery, the idea being that it swims its little origami fins and makes its way out through conventional means. And the robot isn’t too dangerous since its made of sausage casing. It’s solving a narrow problem. But imagine all these origami nanobots to do different tasks inside the body - to receive signals, to grab onto something, to have a compartment with medicine that could be delivered to targeted areas.

      So potentially , this is futuristic stuff, but imagine - if you have medicine and it flushes through your body, you might not want to receive it that way, versus if you had nanobots that delivered it to a targeted area to cut down on side effects. For things like cancer therapy, you could limit where it goes to help provide more benefits. There’s a contingent nature to technology - you never know what’s going to provide the breakthrough. It could be something unexpected in software or material science that makes this more feasible tomorrow. Google used to do statistical research methods to do translation, and then in 2010 they added machine learning stuff, and it got better overnight. So predicting is dangerous.

      The other thing to think about is: is there a market for improvements? For example, in the beginning of the book we talk about space elevators, a cable which goes to space hanging from an object suspended in space and you climb up the elevator, which would make space travel a whole lot cheaper if it works. The problem is the cable has to be made from really exotic material.

      The current top recommendation is carbon nanotubes - think of them as Superman’s hair. Smaller than superman’s hair, but extremely strong. They are both strong and lightweight (weight is another factor with a cable that long). So part of the reason is you’d want one perfect tube of carbon nanotube 100,000 km long - well, several perfect tubes. And part of the problem is economic. The longest carbon nanotube as of 2018 was about 1.5 feet, half a meter, long. Well-shy of 100,000 km. But you can imagine a world where there’s an economic motivator for better carbon nanotube development, and what you might see if that happens would be like what happened with personal computers - starting in the 1940s as ultra-primitive machines, but there’s an exponential growth rate of them getting better year after year.

      And so if you have that for nanotubes, without caring about space or space elevators, you can arrive at the right technology. We read a textbook about space elevators from 2013, and they had a graph showing “how good are we at growing good carbon nanotubes over time” and based on that graph’s rate of improvement, by maybe 2040 or so we’ll be able to have ultra-long carbon nanotubes? But so far we haven’t got any additional data points. So if you want to see a space elevator, find a use for ever-longer carbon nanotubes and maybe we’ll get it!

      So going back to your question about when we’ll have tiny nanobots, we don’t know the contingent nature of technology - obviously there’s a great market for slight improvements on it, but it looks like an “all or nothing” thing. What you have to find is a market for small improvements. If you’re looking at 2 phones, and one phone has a 5% battery life or a 5% better screen, you’ll buy it. You’ll pay an extra $20 for it. Similar to electric cars. People are willing to pay a LOT of money for a little range. So if you look at battery cost and range, they’ve both gone down drastically in the last 10 years. So for any given technology, you have to identify what the iterative improvement that makes money for a developer is.

    • Oh gosh, I haven’t seen it? Is it about mall robots that went crazy? That sounds like high quality. My friend said “The thing to be afraid of is not artificial intelligence, but natural stupidity.

      AI can do pretty unnerving stuff, like generating people’s faces from a composite data set. But on the other hand, if you try to talk to a chatbot and ask it the right questions, it will sound really smart - or you can trick it by asking it the wrong questions. So I’m skeptical of the robot revolution problem.

      Maybe I’ll be surprised? Maybe we all will be?

      But it’s funny you mention this section - if you remember the Terminator movies, I guess they’re still making them - the Terminator bots are all working REALLY hard to kill us. They have to build a time machine, they have programmable matter, and even the T-1000 (which isn’t even the best robot?) is liquid metal that can think.

      But then you find out there’s experiments that shows that humans will trust a trash can robot with cookies.

      So my view is that it’s human narcissism that robots have to work hard to kill us. The trashcan shaped robot with a box of cookies will fool humans into letting it in the building 3/4 of the time.

      When GPS was a thing in my early 20’s, I remember thinking “the robot is not always right with these directions” - and every time I tried to find directions on my own it was wrong. There’s a lady named Janelle Shane, she has a book that’s coming out soon, and she was describing an incident where people were directed by their GPS to drive into fire. So there’s actually a valuable lesson in this.

      You might be thinking OMG ROBOTS DIRECT PEOPLE TO DRIVE INTO FIRE! But what actually happened was there was no traffic in the fire! So the robot was trying to help by directing people to drive into the fire. The robots were trying to help!

    • They basically don’t? Contour Crafting is in proof-of-concept phase, but the idea is, imagine a 3D printer bigger than a house. It has 2 things it can do: it has an extruder, like a plastic 3D printer, with a substance designed to be extrudable but which will behave like concrete when it’s laid down. And there’s a little gripper. So ideally what happens is the machine lays down an outer structure, the same way humans would lay an outside structure of a house - laying down part of a wall, then sticks in a window, then lays down the rest of the wall. So it won’t 3D print a window, because it’s almost certainly not worth it to 3D print that onsite. The structure of the house responds to the environment. For example, the foundation of our new house is bespoke to that hill, but windows are always windows. You can have the extruder fire up, the gripper put pieces in place, and the fantasy is you’ll have a house in a few days without expensive humans to do the labor. 

    • Oh gosh! I don’t think we did. Now I’m sad about it. We interviewed a guy for the book named Jordan Miller. Jordan’s big deal is 3D printing organs, and part of that was developing a machine that 3D prints sugar. Sugar’s a great substance to allow you to interior print veins, and then be able to overlay on that. If you have an organ without vascular structure, it’s like a city without roads.

      But I wish we had tried some 3D printed food.

      One of the problems is that we got a sense about 3D printed food that it almost always tastes terrible. There’s a tradeoff where if you make a cookie, and if you ship them, they have to be shelf-stable, which is why a bakery cookie tastes better. And with 3D printing, it has to be made of material that can be extruded as glop, it can’t have anything that would clog the extruder like chocolate chips, and nothing that separates in that extruder, so once you’ve adjusted to all these constraints that have nothing to do with the taste, by the time you’re done the cookie doesn’t taste right.

      So we’re probably lucky we didn’t taste anything! We were intrigued by 3D printed frosting, the 3D printing “frostruder” frosting extruder attachment. But we’ll probably get around to it at some point. 

    • Augmented Reality is here (not SOONISH, but actually here) and I was fascinated to learn thanks to the book was Morton Heilig’s 1962 “Sensorama” was the first-ever AR - it made me think of Smell-O-Rama from 3 years earlier in 1959!

      The book shares an overview of how AR works: how AR is doing, and that “A few scientists and engineers are working on audio, smell, and touch technologies.” Did you get to test out any AR technologies while working on the book firsthand like Magic Leap?

    • I got to fiddle with some systems after the book was out, but our general deal was we tried to just read dorky stuff versus going out in the field so much.

      And also with AR or VR, doing it is a very good description of how it feels, and then describing it doesn’t work very well. A lot of our friends have taken their kids to play Pokemon Go! But we’re mostly noses in books, I’m afraid.

    • Thank you for sharing with us, Zach, your learnings about the “Nasal Cycle.” How would you summarize this for unsuspecting readers who haven’t had the chance to check out the book yet?

    • Sure! So I honestly can’t remember how we got into it. When you’re researching AR, a lot of it is about to trick human senses. And somehow we got into research about smell in general. You have an idea of how your senses work, but it’s oftentimes different, which is how optical illusions work.

      There have been a lot of people doing research on how smell works: your body takes in air, extracts chemicals from it to analyze, and to facilitate that, you have mucus that’s constantly elevator-ing around your body. There’s all this research we bumped into - and I won’t make any claims as to how true or not it is, or whether it will hold up in the future - BUT there were all these experiments where, like any good psychology experiment, you offer undergraduates course credit to get them to do stuff.

      And so these experiments are showing that there’s a “dominant nostril” at any given point. I you’ve ever had a bad cold, you’re lucky to have one nostril you can breathe through. And so that’s your nasal cycle.

      And so in these experiments, these undergraduates were compelled to breathe through their non-dominant nostril while doing tests, and apparently there’s a negative impact from that. What in the world that means for anything, I don’t know, but just knowing that the level of abuse was heaped on psych students for course credit was kind of gratifying.

    • In the “Synthetic Biology” section, it blew my mind to learn (thanks to SOONISH) that Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and collard greens are all descended from the SAME SPECIES. They’re all Brassica oleracea! How did you react when you found that out?

    • Brassica! I forget why I knew it for some reasons, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I told Kelly, I don’t think she believed me. But what’s funny is, for the mega-dorks in your audience, there’s an etymology in these words - colus, which is the latin word for cabbage. And a lot of these species still have that in their name. Bro-COL-li, COL-iflower, even the “Cole” in “coleslaw.” So if that helps convince the skeptical. 

    • OH my gosh! It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever worked on. It started as a joke, obviously, that you have a condom wrapper but you open it up and it’s a monocle for your emergency monocle needs. I get an update from our store that we’ve sold a few today. or

      We actually sell a decent amount to bachelor or bachelorette parties as the dorkiest gifts you can get! The lens is just a piece of acrylic plastic, but it’s nicer than a $2 costume monocle. We say “single use” but it’s actually re-usable. We did it as a joke, and the sweetest plum is that my wife thought it was a dumb idea but then we made a nice profit. That was a good day for me.

    • You learn so much throughout the book: “it’s about 10 cents or less per letter” to write custom strings of DNA. Of course, “the human genome has about three billion letters.” On page 221, we learn that we don’t have to stick with 20 kinds of amino acids anymore - with new DNA, we can make 172. Was there anything that you learned along the way that blew your mind?

    • Oh, almost everything! I’m a nerdy person. My wife is a research scientist, and she studies brain-manipulating parasites (she would say she studies “parasites that manipulate host behavior), which we don’t get into in the book - very tangentially, some of her knowledge was useful in our biology chapter, and by being who we are we have a great connection network to help us find out about obscure things.

      But none of this stuff is stuff we have expertise in. So part of why this was so much work was so we could become as expert as possible, or talk to someone who is, so we don’t say anything too wrong.

      For me, the most mind-blowing thing as far as creep factor was the brain-interface stuff. We cannot do this yet, but there’s no reason to suppose you couldn’t make a machine that enhances memory, possibly intelligence (that’s a tougher question I think), but the stuff like detecting lapse in focus is entirely possible. If you’re at your job, and you’re supposed to be focusing on work but you’re on Facebook or you’re thinking about your mother in law coming by - you’re lapsing - your boss could detect that using this technology and say “You’re not utterly focused.”

      Which sounds like a pure unbridled nightmare. There’s a not-entirely-negative version of that, which would be for a jet pilot or a surgeon, where you might recognize the the person buying your services has a right to insist you’re focused. BUT - here’s the mind-blowing creepy part - in a world where this is a thing, there’s an incentive to be that employee who’s totally cool with their boss monitoring their brain. So imagine you’re a boss, you don’t even have to imagine this is an evil boss, but someone who’s just trying to do their best job or make money, and that boss is presented with 2 employees - employee A who refuses to have their focus monitored by an external apparatus, and employee B accepts. And now you have an arms race, especially as the technology develops. You could argue that this is already happening. Something like 20% of elite academic researches are already admitting to using brain-enhancing drugs so they could work 16 hours a day or more. It’s already an arms race - who gets tenure, the person who works 16 hours a day or not? So you’re talking about a world where you can’t opt out without serious consequences. And that, to me, is creepy.

    • So a guy named Kennedy invented these. The idea is you have a tiny piece of glass, you connect wires to it, and next to the wires are nutrients for neurons, and you implant this in someone’s head. And why would you do this, you ask? So instead of sticking a probe into someone’s brain, the neurons grow over and into it. So in theory it’s a better way to get data on a small number of neurons.

      Obviously it’s quite invasive - there’s a story in the book about the guy who invented it getting it implanted in his own head, because he couldn’t get funding or research patients. The general case with a lot of this brain stuff is that the brain is not a computer - a computer doesn’t have a physical immune system that doesn’t like having stuff stuck in it, which worsens the signal and also causes brains to inflame.

      But it’s a wonderful story. This guy can’t get subjects, or funding, so he goes to Belize, and they put in these neurotropic implants he designed. How he found a surgeon to convince is incredible to me, and I guess he got interesting data, and like most neural implants, the data faded over time. He did lose his ability to read for a little while, but the weirdest part of his story was he needed it removed and he was able to get insurance to cover it?!?! So insurance won’t cover birth control, but it will cover the cost of having an illegal brain implant removed. 

    • If you can believe that, the more time I have, the nerdier I get! My brother and I Marty were teenagers, and we bumped into this word, “phosphenes” - when you pressure your eyes and you trigger your optic nerve. Be careful with the pressure! So my brother and I used to do this thing where you’d run up behind someone, softly but insistently press on their eyeballs, and yell “PHOSPHENES!” I did that to my wife for a while, but it didn’t go over as well. I didn’t trust she would have a proportionate level of response. 

    • Not as much as I’d think people would guess. I’ll tel you why: speaking for Kelly, we do read some pop science, she’s just not as into the sci-fi scene, as a thing. She enjoys Black Mirror, that sort of thing. I do like some classic science fiction, but I’m an English major. I like reading old poetry, and literary things. So if I can get some good literary science fiction, old Frederik Pohl or Stanislav Lem or the Strugatsky Brothers. Fundamentally at my deepest level I’m a profound snob, so I’m not into high fantasy type stuff. I’m not a sci-fi geek. I do enjoy it, I liked Star Wars as a kid, but I’m not an encyclopedia of science fiction.

    • Page 332 was another exclaiming “WTF” moment out loud for me with this idea of mirror versions of organisms. Are you working with the Marvel Universe team yet? Also, caraway or spearmint?