Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Biological-Robotic Hybrids

In previous posts, both asymptotic robotics and asymptotic genetics were discussed. The former covered what might be expected if the promise of robotics was fulfilled: autonomous robots capable of a wide-range of tasks, able to communicate in a variety of ways with their alien creators, and of course deeply connected with the re-cycling paradigm that dominates the material movements within alien cities. But non-autonomous robots, both in controlling functions and in handling functions, such as manufacturing, sorting, transporting, growing, and countless other tasks, would likely predominate in numbers. They could be considered one of the principal contributors to the high standard of living of alien citizens; work could be done by robots, leaving alien citizens to do what they chose to.

The latter category was less familiar to us, but equally diverse. Biology would be brought under the same level of control as mechanics and chemistry, and wherever an organic chemical processing function was needed, a biological solution might be found. Nutrition might be taken care of in ways not contemplated by us, with food generated by a combination of synthetic biological paths and industrial paths, with agriculture disappearing except for novelties and interests. Animals and plants of any description would be available for production. But at the top of the biological synthesis heap were intellos, this blog’s name for synthetic organisms with high intelligence. These were creatures of any shape or variety, possessing brains able to think. They would have the thinking ability of any level desired. A pet could be produced which would understand spoken language, if some alien wanted one. Servants could be produced to perform any function. Tasks in the alien civilization could be perfomed by intellos, if they were more efficient at the task, or if they make the interface between alien citizens and the city infrastructure more appealing to the average alien citizen.

This led to the conclusion that, if an alien visit ever did take place on Earth, what stepped off the starship might not be the aliens who created the civilization. It could be highly intelligent and networked robots or even synthetic organisms, intellos, built for star traveling. But there are more, intermediate options.

Robots might have brains, if one can call their computing system a brain, that are sequential processors similar but much more advanced that what we do with computers nowadays on Earth. It is not clear that it would be possible to have associative processors, which are what we and other animals on Earth have, efficiently built in any type of mechanical equivalent. It might be theoretically possible, but practically very inefficient, compared to growing a biological brain with hundreds of types of neurons with thousands of synapses each. Thus, it might be more efficient to build a hybrid device, with external mechanisms robotic and the controller biological.

Such a hybrid has some grave negative aspects that must be overcome before it would be efficient. Both biologics and mechanics take power sources and fuel supplies, but different ones. There would have to be both of them available within any autonomous hybrid device. Creativity on the part of alien designers might overcome this obstacle, by finding ways to power biological cells with electricity. This type of common fuel source might reduce some of the inefficiency, but would not remove all of it. Having a wholly mechanical device which simply runs on electricity or by some alien equivalent of a fuel cell means the power units would be simpler, and more of the mass of the device could be devoted to other functions.

The power dilemma could be solved a different way, with some sort of chemical fuel being taken in that would serve as a power source for the biological components, and which would feed into a power converter that produced electric power. With even more creativity, some other mechanical functions might be powered directly with the fuel chemical, although some electricity for sensors and signaling would likely be required. Or with even more creativity, there could be hybrids which have more biological components than just the brain. Perhaps sensors, such as vision or audio sensors, being biological more simply communicate with a biological brain, so incorporating them into a hybrid creature would make good engineering sense.

The next step in designing a hybrid creature would involve extending the neural system past the brain and possible sensors to serve as a communication channel within the hybrid creature’s body. This might only make sense if it proved to be a difficult engineering problem to develop neural to electronic connections sufficiently high bandwidth to enable the biological brain to control the motion mechanisms of the device and get back the robotic equivalent of proprioceptive sensors. If low bandwidth is all that can be efficiently accomplished, doing the conversion at the end of a neural channel might be the best bet. But this comes with all types of overhead. Somehow the neural communication channels have to be fed and otherwise maintained. This is not exactly an easy biological engineering feat.

If hybrids were considered for non-autonomous devices, some of these problems evaporate. For example, a spaceship controller might be biological, and have the necessary apparatus for sustaining it packaged separately. There would be no need to figure out the layout of the device to the detail needed for an autonomous device, where balance, resilience to vibration and shock, flexibility, and other attributes need to be taken into account. Everything could be hard-mounted and designed individually without taking into account interactions, except at the designed interfaces. Perhaps not just spaceships, but vehicles of many types could be semi-autonomous, with hybrid controllers and a combination of biological and mechanical sensors, with appropriate conversion devices attached near to each sensor as necessary.

Besides vehicles, manufacturing or recycling facilities might benefit from hybrid controllers. Here, there is even less concern that in vehicles and autonomous devices about layout, dual fuel systems, conversion systems, interfaces, and so on. One’s imagination can run wild in devising hybrid systems for different functions in the city infrastructure. Even what this blog has termed the master computer needed as a computational overlord of each city’s infrastructure might be a hybrid device. This might make interaction with the alien citizens easier to implement.

Since we are so far from asymptotic genetics, it is difficult to conceive of whether the engineering problems of creating hybrid devices will simply melt away, and if the proposed advantages would emerge. At this point, there is nothing that we can envisage that would prevent the first thing that steps off an alien-originated starship which arrived at Earth from being a hybrid creature.

In a sense, this could be speciation taken far past the limits previously contemplated. Could an alien species eliminate itself, with no other species there to replace it, only hybrids, or cyborgs as they have been called in other places? This is a large topic that deserves to be examined separately.

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