In 1800, Alessandro Volta made the first electro chemical battery. The 'voltaic pile' demonstrated that a moist, porous material sandwiched between two dissimilar metals can produce an electrical current. The scientist tested several metals and found that zinc and silver gave the best results.
In his experiment, Volta used a disk of copper, covered it with a disk of cloth soaked in brine (i.e., the electrolyte), and stacked that with a disk of zinc. He repeated the copper-cloth-zinc disks piling up until the pile reached a height of about 30 cm. The positive end of the pile is the bottom copper disk, and the negative end is the zinc disk on top.
Volta's experiment was re-enacted on a gigantic scale at the Age of Wonder festival a few weeks ago in Eindhoven. Or maybe i should write that Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty re-enacted the re-enactment of the voltaic pile discovery that media art pioneer Dick Raaijmakers realized in 1995. Raaijmakers (or Raaymakers) is regarded as one of the founders of the Dutch electronic music. He is also closely connected to Eindhoven through his research at the Natlab (Philips Research Laboratories) in the fifties.
Over the course of a several hour long performance, the Volta team built up a giant and foul-smelling pile that alternated copper plates, clothes drenched in acid and zinc.
I didn't stand and stare until the final moments of the performance but I wish i had. The goal was to use the oversized battery to produce enough energy for one light bulb, suspended from the ceiling. I might have missed the grand finale but i've nevertheless been impressed by this over-sized lesson in physics and by the calm, repetitive gestures required to light up a mundane bulb for a few seconds. Also, it's always good to be reminded what a genius Raaijmakers was.
Thus, the audience can experience the relation between the invested labor and the resulting electric energy. And also, how and why the original visual quality of this 'proto-element' has been lost in favor of the efficiency of the modern battery. 'Volta' intends to recreate this lost plasticity, if only for a single moment.
I already mentioned the festival Age of Wonder last week in my notes from Nick Bostrom's talk about (human and artificial) Super Intelligence. The festival attempted to reflect on the challenging but ultimately exciting techno-mediated times we are living with a series of performances, keynotes and art installations. BioArt Laboratories illustrated the essence of the festival with Tree Antenna, an installation and workshop that engaged with alternative wireless communication, ecology, DIY culture and historical knowledge.
The Eindhoven-based multidisciplinary art&design group recreated an early 20th Century experiment in which live trees are used as antennas for radio communication.
General George Owen Squier, the Chief Signal Officer at the U.S. army not only coined the word "muzak", in 1904 he also invented in 1904 a system that used living vegetable organisms such as trees to make radio contact across the Atlantic. The invention never really took off as the advent of more sophisticated means of communication made tree communication quickly look anachronistic.
Tree communication was briefly back in favour during the Vietnam War when U.S. troupes found themselves in the jungle and in need of a reliable and easy to transport system of communication but after that, only a few groups of hobbyists used tree antennas for wireless communication.
During the last afternoon of Age of Wonder, BioArt Laboratories invited members of the public of all ages and background to join them and bring back tree antennas to our attention. Participants of the workshop could craft simple and affordable devices that would allow anyone to use the tree in their backyard as a radio receiver (it is also possible to broadcast from your tree but the technology is slightly more expensive and it requires permits.)
Squier drove a nail into the tree, hung a wire, and connected it to the receiver. The BioArt Laboratory team used flexible metal spring that wrapped around the trunk as planting a nail into the tree would have damaged it. Their system definitely works as the team managed to communicate with amateurs radios from countries as distant as Italy and Ukraine.
Right now there are only a few amateurs using tree and other high plants for wireless communication but the BioArt Laboratory's objective is to spread the word about this simple and affordable technology and gradually build up a world-wide forest of antennas.
Obviously, in this experiment the tree is part and parcel of the functionality of the antenna. We're thus not speaking of questionable antennas disguised as tree.
Having previously given life to a robot that enables plants to move around as they please, Ivan Henriques has collaborated with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to develop the prototype of an autonomous bio-machine which harvests energy from photosynthetic organisms commonly found in ponds, canals, rivers and the sea.
The Symbiotic Machine uses the energy collected from micro organisms to move around in search for more photosynthetic organisms which it then collects and processes again.
The Symbiotic Machine is currently spending two months in an aquarium in the Glass House in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.
Short conversation with the artist:
Hi Ivan! How does Symbiotic Machine relate to Jurema Action Plant. Is this a continuation of that previous work? Did you learn something from JAP that you are applying to the Symbiotic Machine? Or is this a completely different exploration?
The research that started with Jurema Action Plant led to the development of the Symbiotic Machine (SM). I have created a range of works that explores such concepts as: the future (reinvention) of the environment; the acceleration of techno-scientific mutations; when nature becomes culture; the use of natural resources; where these hybrids of nature and technology will take place in the near future and reshape and redesign our tools to amalgamate and be more coherent with the natural environment (these concepts were discussed in the e-book Oritur). When JAP was being exhibited I noticed that as the interaction between the person and the plant enables the machine to move, people were envision a living entity, which was responding to them - i.e. it likes me!, when JAP was moving towards the person and It doesn't like me!, when it was moving away from the person touching it. That is the reason why I gave the Action Plant a first name: Jurema.
In the past years I have been creating machines that operates within the biological time combining different energy sources. In JAP, the variation of electrical signals inside the plant changes when someone touches it and in Symbiotic Machine it is a machine that makes photosynthesis to generate energy for itself, like a plant. In JAP the machine reads electrical signals and in SM the machine makes photosynthesis in order to have these electrical signals. It is a further research into plants electricity and development of a hybrid entity.
Could you talk to us about the collaboration with scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam? How did you start working with each other? And what was the working process like? Was it just you setting up instructions and telling scientists what to do? Or was it a more hands-on experience?
When I first met Raoul Frese, scientist from the Biophysics Lab from VU Amsterdam, (The Netherlands) I wanted to develop further JAP. I got very inspired after his speech in a symposium at the former NIMK in Amsterdam about photosynthesis. Later we did an appointment to discuss further our possible collaboration. To develop the Symbiotic Machine we had several meetings in my studio and in his lab. Soon, Vincent Friebe, PhD student from Biophysics lab also joined the team.
In this project I wanted to create an autonomous system, which is able to live by itself, as most of the living entities do. For me it is very poetic to create a hybrid living system that can move to search for its own energy source, process it and have energy to do its own life cycle.
We had lots of hands on experiences and exchanging ideas and techniques. The project started with the concept and the technology we could use, but this Beta version was designed according to the necessities and mechanisms the bio-machine required. The project also had collaborations with Michiel van Overbeek who developed the hard/software and the Mechanical Engineer lab from CEFET/RJ (Technological University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).
What are the photosynthetic organisms that the machine harvests? Could you give a few examples? What makes them interesting for the scientists you were working with?
For this prototype we focused in a specific algae: Spirogyra. It is a genus of filamentous green algae, which can be found in freshwater such as canals and ponds. Spirogyra grows under water, but when there is enough sunlight and warmth they produce large amounts of oxygen, adhering bubbles between the tangled filaments. The filamentous masses come to the surface and become visible as slimy green mats.
I asked Raoul Frese why he is interested in photosynthetic organisms: " Scientists are researching photosynthesis and photosynthetic organisms to learn how processes occur from the nanoscale and femtoseconds to the scale of the organism or ecosystem on days and years. It is an excellent example how a life process is interconnected from the molecules to organism to interrelated species. For biophysicists, the process exemplifies molecular interactions upon light absorption, energy transfer and electron and proton transfers. Such processes are researched with the entire experimental physics toolbox and described by theories such as thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. From a technological point of view, we can learn from the process how efficient solar energy conversion can take place, especially from the primary, light dependent reactions and how light absorption can result in the creation of a fuel (and not only electricity)."
Why were you interested in photosynthetic organisms, and in creating a machine that would feed on them and function a bit like them?
My interest in photosynthetic organisms started when I wanted to develop further JAP in a way that a hybrid organism could harvest its own energy to live like a plant. In April 2013, during the residency in NY I had the opportunity to research these microorganisms when I created the installation Microscopic Chamber #1, using a laser pointer to magnify these microorganisms, where people could see in naked eyes projected on a wall different kinds of microorganisms swimming. These living organisms were collected at Belmar beach, in New Jersey and were displayed in the installation in an aquarium where I cultivated them.
The algae Spirogyra is very common in The Netherlands. The choices of the organisms presented in my works are based on the concept, their own technology and location of the specimen. One of the ideas is to adapt the mechanics and electrical system in the machine to be capable to function with the mili-voltages that plants, animals and us have. Create an autonomous system that could use such small scale of electricity to operate. After the residency I had several meetings with scientists from VU Amsterdam where I had the opportunity to research further the Spirogyra and other photosynthetic creatures.
In this research about plant and machines I want to find a way of coexistence between living organisms and machines more integrated, and inspire people for a possible different future.
Could you explain us the shape of the floating mobile robotic structure? Because it looks much more 'organic' than typically robotic. Could you describe the various elements that constitute the robotic structure and what their role is?
The machine is designed to communicate with the environment. For this first model the machine is planned to process the algae from specimen Spirogyra to generate electricity. As this specimen is a filamentous floating organism, the robot has to be in water, floating together with the algae.
The structure is composed by an ellipsoid of revolution with 3 conical shaped arms. Attached to the arms tentacles equipped with sensors. The structure is transparent to catch sunlight at any angle. The choice for an ellipsoid of revolution is to create more surface area for the electrodes (photocells) and to use more of the sun rays onto the photocells when the light reflects in the golden electrodes - using more sunlight by consequence. The tentacles make the robot extend its senses to search for algae. The arms create closed chambers to place electronics.
The machine has a complete digestive system: mouth, stomach and anus. See the video:
Sealed with a transparent cylinder a motor, an endless worm and a pepper grinder aligned and connected by one single axis compose the mouth/anus, like a jellyfish. This cylinder has a liquid inlet/outlet (for water and algae spirogyra) placed at the end part of the endless worm. The endless worm has an important function to pump liquid in and out and to give small propulsion for the machine.
In order to "hack" the algae spirogyra photosynthesis' and apply it as an energy source, the algae cell's membrane has to be broken. The pepper grinder that is connected at the end of the endless worm can grind the algae breaking the membrane cell, releasing micro particles.
These micro particles in naked eyes looks like a "green juice" which is flushed inside the machine: the stomach.
A tube that comes from the end of the mouth with grinded algae goes though the stomach, inside the ellipsoid of revolution. This tube is fastened on a 2-way valve placed in the center of the spherical shape. Inside the ellipsoid of revolution there is another bowl, just one centimeter smaller aligned in the center. Placing this bowl inside, it creates two chambers: 1] the space between the outer skin and the bowl and 2] inside the smaller bowl. In chamber 1 the photocells are placed in parallel and in series. The photocell is composed by a plate covered with gold, a spacer in the middle covered with a copper mesh. This set up allows the "green juice" rest between the gold and copper.
After the light is shed on the electrons of the grinded algae they flow to one of these metals, like a lemon battery. As all the photocells are connected, with the help from the electronic chip LTC 3108 Energy Harvester is possible to store these mili-voltages in two AA rechargeable batteries. A life cycle with functions was idealized in order to program the machine and activate independent mechanical parts of the stomach: it has to eat, move, sunbath, rest, search for food, wash itself, in loop.
The 2-way valve mentioned above is connected as: valve 1 hooked up with chamber 1 and valve 2 with chamber 2. When the stomach works is sent information to the machine that the valve 1 has to be opened. The algae flow to this chamber and the machine uses a light sensor to go towards where there is more luminescence to make photosynthesis. After the 10 min sunbathing (photosynthesis) the machine has to clean its stomach - and the photocells - to be able to eat again. Water is sucked in again with the mouth, and via the same valve from the algae, it pumps more water inside chamber 1 in order to have an overflow of this liquid in chamber 2. The liquid, which is now in chamber 2 is flushed out by the motor turning the endless worm and having the valve 2 opened. Fixed on the edge of the structure opposite the mouth, an underwater pump connected by a vertical axis with a servo powers the movement of the structure giving possibilities to steer 0, 45 and minus 45 degrees. The movement programmed for this machine was written concerned about the duration/time, space and energy.
What is next for the Symbiotic Machine and for you?
This version of the Symbiotic Machine still has to be improved and I would like to continue the research and develop this bio-machine further. I want to keep working to improve what was done. The exhibition is from March 9th until 27th April at the Glazen Huis in Amstelpark, Amsterdam.
Previously by the same artist: Jurema Action Plant.
A visit of the exhibition Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology yesterday made me realize, once again, that i should be grateful to live here and now and not at a time when melancholia was treated with a 'healthy' dose of electric shocks and nerves were supplied with a 'vital energy' by wearing an electrical belt previously soaked in vinegar. This ancient cure looked like jolly good fun though.
Mind Maps explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years. Divided into four episodes between 1780 and 2014, this exhibition looks at key breakthroughs in scientists' understanding of the mind and the tools and methods of treatment that have been developed, from Mesmerism to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) bringing visitors up to date with the latest cutting edge research and its applications.
The small show is everything but dull and scholarly: controversial treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy and poisonous nerve 'tonics' are followed by pendulum measuring the speed of thoughts, Pavlov's experiments on conditional reflexes and by Freud and his couch.
Every single object in the exhibition comes with a fascinating and at times chilling story. The only criticism i'm ready to make about Mind Maps is that ongoing journey into the mysteries of the brain and the nervous system would benefit from a less dim and confined exhibition space.
Highlights from the exhibition:
The artefact i found most puzzling was the 'frog pistol' developed by German scientist Emil du Bois-Reymond to demontrate 'animal electricity' to his students.
A fresh frog leg was placed on the glass plate inside the tube, with the nerve ends connected to the keys on the top of the pistol grip. When these keys were depressed, a contact was made and the leg kicked back as it if had been electrified.
The small pistol instrument was of course inspired by the work of Luigi Galvani. In the 1780s, the Italian doctor discovered that sparks of electricity caused dead frogs' legs to twitch, leading him to propose that electrical energy was intrinsic to biological matter. Some of the instruments used by Galvani in his pioneering studies of nerve activity are presented in the exhibition, they haven't been displayed in public for more than a century.
The nerve/frog connection doesn't stop here. A dried frog inside a silk pouch is a testimony to the resilience of folk medicine in the 20th century, the essicated amphibian was carried around the neck 'to prevent fits and seizures.'
Let's keep on the macabre mood with this 17th century dissection table from Padua with all the nerves of (presumably) an executed criminal laid out on it to form a map of the nervous system on a varnished wooden panel.
Tiberius Cavallo, a leading European authority on medical electricity, designed this compact electrical generator and its accessories, including the 'medical bottle' that regulated the shocks it administered. Turning the glass cylinder built up a static electric charge in the metal collector on the side of the machine.
The patient stood inside the D'Arsonval cage while harmless high-frequency alternating current from the tesla coil on a desk pulsed around the metal framework, generating powerful electromagnetic fields inside the body. The treatment was claimed to stimulate metabolism, reduce obesity and eczema, and temporarily relieve nervous pains.
The cage was only one of the many devices that Dr J-A Rivière, "electrotherapist and pacifist", used in the 1890s. His Paris clinic specialized in 'physical' treatments involving water, air, heat, light, electricity and after 1895, the newly discovered X-rays. Patients were seated in electric chairs, flooded with electric light or plunged into electrified bathtubs.
Huxley's 'Ner-Vigor' was used between 1892-1943 for "strengthening the nerves." Like some other medical products of the period, it contains a very small measure of the strychnine poison.
The Nervone 'nerve nutrient' was launched in the 1920s as an alternative to harmful nerve tonics and was still being sold in the 1960s when it was replaced by new anti-anxiety and depression drugs such as Valium.
Nerve scientist and Nobel Prize winner Charles Sherrington was fascinated by the way cats kept their balance while negotiating obstacles at speed. This model was used to illustrate how the cat's eyes, whiskers, neck, legs and tail continued to work together even when the 'highest' portion of its brain had been removed.
The period that followed the Second World War saw the rise of several controversial treatments, including electro-convulsive therapy (where electricity is used to induce a brain seizure) and lobotomy.
The machine was designed to deliver just enough current to a gold electrode to make a peppercorn sized hole in the brain. This technique, also known as leucotomy, was a more precise form of lobotomy. It was used from the early 1960s to treat patients with uncontrollable anxiety.
Electroencephalography (EEG) remains an essential element of the psychology laboratory. It is frequently used in conjunction with brain scanning.
Batteries to stimulate nervous energy sometimes also featured religious symbols, because mental health needs all the help it can get, right?
Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology is free and runs at the Science Museum in London until 10 June.
I spent the weekend in Eindhoven for Age of Wonder, a festival which turned up to be even more exciting and engaging than its name promised. I'll get back with images and posts later but right now i felt like blogging my notes from Nick Bostrom's keynote about Superintelligence. Bostrom is a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and the director of The Future of Humanity Institute. He talked about the ultra fast pace of innovation, hazardous future technologies, artificial intelligence that will one day surpass the one of human beings and might even take over our future.
Bostrom is worried about the way humanity is rushing forward. The time between having an idea and developing it is getting increasingly shorter. This gives less space to reflect on the safety of innovation. Bostrom believes that humans cannot see the existential danger this entails. If the future is a place where we really want to live, then we will have to think in different and better-targeted ways about ourselves and about technological developments.
Bostrom's talk started on a high and slightly worrying note with a few words on existential risk. An existential risk is one that endangers the survival of intelligent life on Earth or that threatens to severely destroy our potential for development. So far, humanity has survived the worst natural or man-caused catastrophes (genocide, tsunami, nuclear explosion, etc.) but an existential catastrophe would be so lethal that it would ruin all future for all mankind. An analogy on an individual scale would be if you find yourself facing a life sentence in prison or in a coma you don't wake up from.
So far we've survived all natural catastrophes but we need to beware of anthropogenic risks. New technologies haven't yet managed to spread doom. Nuclear weapons, for example, are very destructive but they are also very difficult to make. Now imagine if a destructive technology was easy to make in your garage, It could end in the hands of a lunatic who plots the end of human civilization.
Potentially hazardous future technologies such as machine intelligence, synthetic biology, molecular technology, totalitarism-enabling technologies, geoengineering, human modification, etc. had not been invented 100 years ago. Imagine what might emerge within the next 100 years.
So if you care about the future of human civilization and if your goal is to do some good, you need to look at how to reduce existential risk. You would need to influence when and by whom technologies can be developed. You would need to speed up the development of 'good' technologies and retard the development of others such as designer pathogens for example.
How does this play out with a rise of machine intelligence which could result in Super Intelligence?
Machine intelligence will radically surpass biological intelligence (even if it is enhanced through genetic selection for example) one day. Experts find it difficult to agree on when exactly machines will reach the level of human intelligence. They estimate that there is 90% probability that human level artificial intelligence might arise around 2075. Once machine intelligence roughly matches human's in general intelligence, a machine intelligence takeoff could take place extremely fast.
But how can you control a Super Intelligent machine? What will happen when we develop something that radically surpass our intelligence and might have the capability to shape our future? Any plan we might have to control the super intelligence will probably be easily thwarted by it. Is it possible to have any gatekeeper that/who will make sure that the artificial intelligence will not do anything detrimental to us? The Super Intelligence would probably be capable of figuring out how to escape any confinement we might impose upon it. It might even kill us to prevent us from interfering with its own plans. We should also think about any ultimate goal that a Super Intelligence might have. What if its own goal is to dedicate all the resources of the universe to producing as many paper clips as possible?
How can we build an artificial Super Intelligence with human-friendly values? How can we control it and avoid some existential risks that might arise down the road?
The forms of artificial intelligence we are familiar with can solve one problem: speech recognition, face recognition, route-finding software, spam filters, search engines, etc. A general artificial intelligence will be able to carry out a variety of challenges and goals. How can we male sure that it learns humanly meaningful values?