Now that smart machines are reaching their limits, humans are working on smart materials.
Think of artificial skin, which not only has the right mechanical properties to close a wound, but can also regulate its temperature and water balance on its own. Or clothes that, depending on the weather, warm or cool the body. These are possible applications of smart materials, materials with artificial intelligence
The science of smart materials is still a young field. Twente professor Wilfred van der Wiel, one of the leading researchers in this field, and several colleagues from Münster published this week in a professional journal Nature a Overview results to date and prospects for the future. It’s a broad view: smart materials extend from soft robotics to computing and nanotechnology, Van der Wiel’s area of expertise.
Man builds many useful systems from parts with different functions and often from different materials. It has come a long way with this, but it also runs into limits, for example in terms of computing power and speed. Van der Wiel: “Machines like computers today are reaching their limits. With this conventional architecture, you run into physical limits, for example in power consumption, which becomes an acute problem. If we can build intelligence into the material itself, it will dramatically increase computing power and significantly reduce power consumption. ”
The transition from a computer built from parts to a material that can calculate is as large as the step from the radio tube to the transistor. You come to a completely different level. Van der Wiel’s research group in Brains – the Center for Brain-Inspired Nano Systems – gave an example last year with an array of boron atoms in silicon. A network at the atomic scale, “on which we can apply small voltages and measure currents,” says Professor de Twente. The tiny network can be used for artificial intelligence; he can learn to recognize patterns, like these letters.
Van der Wiel: “Intelligent material manufacturers take inspiration from nature to create the desired material properties. The advantage is, for example, that smart materials are much more economical than the machines we have today. Or think about maintenance: now we need to keep an eye on the materials we made to prevent them from breaking down. It would be useful if a material self-heals.
These are the goals of engineering, says Van der Wiel. And there is also the scientific fascination: “We want to understand matter. The scientific exploration of man began with the club: what can you do with it? And now we are thinking about how we can create smart properties in materials. ”
Van der Wiel and his colleagues received a substantial grant for this scientific quest. Not in the Netherlands, but in Germany. He teaches not only at the University of Twente but also at the University of Münster, just across the border. The two universities have set up a joint research center on intelligent materials. For this, 10 million euros have been made available by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the research funder of the German government, for the next four years, with the prospect of funding for an additional eight years.
Six years from now, the research program will develop materials that could be described as truly intelligent, Van der Wiel hopes. There is no generally accepted definition of intelligence, but in this science, a material is called intelligent if it can absorb information, store it for a long time, and use that knowledge to adapt to a changing environment.
The materials developed are not yet that far. There are materials that can react to the environment, or adapt, but these are only the first steps towards true materials intelligence.
For now, smart material makers can only look longingly at what nature has produced, say in the form of the brain. We try to adopt its properties, explains Van der Wiel: “The great power of the brain is that it can do a lot of things at the same time. Neurons have thousands of connections between them, which can do a lot of math at the same time. No computer can do that now.
And the brain can do it with very little energy: “The brain owes this efficiency in part to a structure in which the processing and storage of information takes place in the same place, namely in the synapses, the connections between neurons. . A typical computer has a computing unit and a memory and always has to retrieve information from memory and store it again. It takes energy and time.
A third property of the brain that scientists want to incorporate into intelligent materials is its plasticity. In the brain, the connections between neurons are constantly changed. He owes his ability to learn to this.
Van der Wiel: “Even if we manage to use these properties in materials, we have not yet achieved the cognitive abilities, consciousness and free will of humans. We are still at the lowest level of intelligence. We also don’t want to create self-thinking beings, you don’t have to be afraid of them. We couldn’t even do it. But it would be wonderful if, for example, we could make implants that sympathize with the body, or materials that can support brain functions after brain injury.
In four steps to intelligence
The road to smart materials begins with a brick (far left), or materials with a fixed shape and structure that, once created, do not change.
The second step involves materials that can respond to an environmental stimulus (the red flash) and thus change shape. A change that is also reversible if there is a counter-stimulation (the purple flash). These materials contain a sort of ‘sensor’ and an ‘engine’. An example are materials that bend under the influence of light and then stretch again. They can literally move forward with the right flashes of light.
Materials that not only react, but can also adapt to their environment is the third step. In addition to a sensor and a motor power supply, they also have a network that controls their behavior. For example, there are microrobots that can move in patterns, like a flock of birds, because each robot is guided by its closest neighbor.
In the fourth and final step, long-term memory is added, with which a material can not only adapt, but also remember adaptations and learn from them. These smart materials have not yet been made in the lab. For now, they are the exclusive domain of life and are common in nature, for example in the arms of an octopus.
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