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Design, Naturally: Lateral lines provide a sixth sense for underwater robots

By Anwen Bowers

More little fish swimming in a school.
“We turning left now?” “Yeah, you do know we have a sophisticated biological mechanism for finding that out, right?” “I was just asking for a friend” | Image: Tom Thai

Have you ever seen two fish bump into each other?

The underwater world is an assault of sensory signals. Sound, for example from crashing waves, travels over twice as fast in water than it does in air. Smells, ranging from mating hormones to decaying organisms, clash against each other like instruments in an orchestra and would be overwhelming to us if we had noses sensitive enough to detect them. Light is changing constantly, with the different wavelengths becoming increasingly filtered out with depth until animals are left navigating waters so dark that they would be impossible to penetrate with human eyes.

But despite the chaos, fish are able to identify predators, prey and potential mates with lightning reflexes and take the appropriate action within milliseconds.  This is thanks to a super-human sensing mechanism called the lateral line, which gives the fish a sixth sense with which to navigate in their watery habitat.

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A subtle stripe of hair can tell fish everything they need to know about their environment | Image: Pogrebnoj Alexandroff

Sometimes visible as a dark strip running along the fish from fin to tail, the lateral line consists of minuscule bundles of hair that can be either attached to the surface of the scales or slightly submerged in channels below the skin. These hairs work similarly to whiskers on a cat, bending in response to any change in the flow of water around the fish. Cells at the base of the hairs then send messages to the brain, containing information on the scale, speed, and direction of the disturbance. This can then be interpreted to give information about the size and shape, and therefore species and likely friendliness, of anything moving in the local area. The ability to identify friend from foe by the flick of its tail is an invaluable tool of survival.

Seas and oceans are one of the least understood habitats on earth, with vast areas being simply too inaccessible to explore. As space on land is becoming rapidly exhausted, we are extending further and deeper into the oceans to source food, generate energy and hunt for new minerals and medicines. Faced with challenges such as the extreme pressure and low temperatures, increasingly we are depending on the work of underwater robots to bring us information on the chemistry, physics, and biology of the deep sea.  Engineers looking to improve the performance and capabilities of these underwater robots have found inspiration in the lateral line to improve the performance of these robots.

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Bass-ta la vista, Ray-by: artificial lateral lines have inspired highly sensitive robotic fish | Image: Titus 140

Researchers in Germany and the US have independently come up with two different systems that recreate the processes that take place in the lateral line hairs. Integrated into underwater robotic technology, these systems could create a robot with much greater perceptions of their surroundings. Traditionally, operators would rely on images from video and sonar to navigate and direct the actions of the robot underwater. Both of these technologies are limited, as they can only provide information on the small area that they are pointing at Imagine only being able to view the world through a toilet roll tube – it’s a bit like that.

Lateral lines could provide a much more detailed 3D picture of the surrounding environment, allowing more informed decisions about how the robot should proceed. The more information available about the surrounding area, including any obstacles, the greater the chance of the robot completing its mission as efficiently and safely as possible. For example, if the battery is running low, the lateral line would be able to identify nearby areas of low water movement where the robot can go to rest and conserve energy out of the current. Taking inspiration from nature, and building robots that can sense like fish, scientists can expect to soon be announcing plenty more exciting discoveries from the mysterious deep ocean.

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Asimov’s Amazing Assertions

by James Riley

“What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like? I don’t know, but I can guess.”

Could you predict the future? In the wake of the 1964 World’s Fair, Isaac Asimov, prolific sci-fi writer, made some startling predictions about life in 2014. Published in The New York Times on August 16, 1964, Asimov’s article “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014” gives us real pause for thought about our life in the Information Age. Let’s explore some of his scarily accurate speculations about the future, and today’s technologies which helped realise these prescient predictions.

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence [ . . . ] In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid.”

Robotics has snowballed in the last decade, but the discipline is still in its infancy. What is really interesting here is the housemaid that Asimov speaks of. One such example would be the Roomba autonomous robot vacuum cleaner, sold by iRobotics, which detects dirty spots of floor, avoids falling down the stairs by detecting steep drops and actively avoids obstacles. However there are more novel robots, like TOPIO, made by TOSY, which (/who?) played ping pong at the Tokyo International Robot Exhibition in 2009.

Isaac Asimov predicts future 2014 1964

(Isaac Asimov. Image Credit: “New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection”/Taken by Phillip Leonian)

“General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” [ . . . ] (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)”

This one is scary. Not only did Asimov predict 3D cinema becoming commonplace (the original 3D film technology being patented in the 1890s), but by a strange act of fate it happens that General Electric bought the controlling stake of Universal Studios in 2004. Universal being the company responsible for the last film in The Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, depicting ‘robots’ taking over the world, available in 3D. Of course, the film came out last year, and the invaders weren’t really robots (according to themselves), but it’s still a remarkable prediction.

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible.”

This two-fold prediction is an extension on the last. The wall screens Asimov speaks of have become common place across developed nations with newer variants of screen, such as LCD, taking over the clumpy cathode ray tube displays of the past. Many of these new variants are available with 3D technology.

“Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”

The emergence of Skype and FaceTime have revolutionised the way in which we communicate, but the end of this statement is really quite startling. I’m sat in a coffee shop, using a tablet computer screen to read Asimov’s 50-year-old passages of predictions about me sitting here in 2014 using a screen to read passages; and simultaneously writing a document about the predictions, on the same screen which I am studying the documents containing the predictions which Asimov made. The very act of writing this article is one of validating Asimov’s claim. Baffling.

“Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains”*vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

The Google driverless car project is doing just that. Using sophisticated laser radar technology, the car’s software creates a detailed 3D map of its environment. Many other companies have created road-worthy driverless cars. In 2010, a European Union backed initiative took four prototype electronic autonomous vans 8000 Miles, from Italy to China, proving that this technology is close to commercialisation.

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(Google Driverless Car. Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson)

“Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare automeals, [ . . . ] Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.”

Microwave ready meals and frozen pizza: who’d have thought the future would taste so bland? Although, he didn’t predict the obesity epidemics that this would contribute to.

“In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000.”

Asimov underestimated the size of the population (only(?) by around 600 million), but he did foresee the potentially disastrous effects of this exponential rise.

“There are only two general ways of preventing [civilisation’s collapse due to overpopulation]: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A>D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.”

The end of last year brought about an easing of China’s one-child policy. A policy originally implemented to curb a population explosion. Asimov does correctly predict the great leaps forward that medicine has taken, furthering life expectancy in some places, such as Monaco, to almost 90 years old.

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(Photobioreactor producing microalgae, can be used for food or biofuel production. Image Credit: IGV Biotech)

“Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be “farms” turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which “mock-turkey” and “pseudosteak” will be served. It won’t be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.”

A trip to any high street health store will confirm the use of algae as a food product, though it is not yet an international dietary staple. As for the “pseudosteak”, products such as fungi based Quorn and other meat replacements have been around for years. Last year, however, brought us the World’s first lab-grown burger; and Asimov was right about the price, with the patty coming in at £215,000. Would you like supersize?

“The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. [ . . . ] Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.”

Asimov foreshadows our seemingly inevitable path towards unskilled labour here, and also to mentally unstimulating work. He would probably be right about the psychiatry part as well, if it wasn’t for the overwhelming abundance of cat videos on the internet (which was one thing he did fail to predict). But on a more serious note, the field of psychiatry is en route for greater leaps forward, and larger public dependence, with more and more people being diagnosed with mental health issues each year.

Asimov leaves us with a salient warning about nuclear warfare, a warning that still applies today. Let’s hope that today’s predictions of the next 50 years are allowed to be realised just as Asimov’s were, without the threat of total annihilation.

“The New York World’s Fair of 1964 is dedicated to “Peace Through Understanding.” Its glimpses of the world of tomorrow rule out thermonuclear warfare. And why not? If a thermonuclear war takes place, the future will not be worth discussing. So let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads and let us observe what may come in the nonatomized world of the future.”