The search for intelligent materials: the ideal lies in the arms of an octopus

Now that intelligent machines have reached their limits, humans are working on smart materials.

Consider artificial leather, which not only has good mechanical properties for wound closure, but can also regulate its temperature and moisture balance. Or clothing that warms or cools the body depending on the weather. These are the possible applications of smart materials and AI-equipped materials

The science of smart materials is still a new field. Professor Twente Wilfred van der Wiel, one of the leading researchers in the field, and several colleagues from Münster, have published in a professional journal this week. nature a Overview From results to date and future prospects. It’s a broad vision: Smart materials span from soft robotics to computer science and nanotechnology, which is Van der Wiel’s area of ​​expertise.

Humans build many of the systems that come in handy from parts with different functions and often from different materials. It has come a long way with this, but it has also faced limitations, for example in computing power and speed. Van der Wiel: “Machines like today’s computers have reached the limits of their capabilities. With this traditional architecture, they face physical limits, for example in energy consumption, which becomes a severe problem. If we can build intelligence into the material itself, it will lead to increased strength computing significantly and significantly reducing energy consumption.”

The transition from a computer built from parts to a material that can calculate is as large as the step from a radio tube to a transistor. You reach a completely different level. The Van der Wiel research group at Brains – the center for brain-inspired nanosystems – provided an example last year with a network of boron atoms in silicon. A network at the atomic level, “in which we can apply small voltages and measure currents,” says the professor at Twente. The microgrid can be used for artificial intelligence. He can learn to recognize patterns, like these letters.

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self healing

Van der Wiel: “Makers of smart materials are inspired by nature to build desired properties in materials. The advantage is, for example, that smart materials are more economical than the machines we have now. Or think about maintenance: now we have to monitor the materials we make to prevent them from breaking down It would be beneficial if the substance was self-healing.”

These are engineering goals, says van der Wael. There is also the scientific infatuation: “We want to understand. The scientific exploration of humans began with the club: what can you do with it? And now we’re thinking about how to build intelligent properties into the materials.”

Van der Weel and colleagues have received significant support for this scientific research. Not in Holland, but in Germany. He teaches not only at the University of Twente but also at the University of Münster, across the border. The two universities set up a joint research center for smart materials. For this purpose, €10 million has been made available from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the German government’s research funder, for the next four years, with possible funding for another eight years.

learning ability

Within six years, the research program will develop materials that you can call truly smart, van der Weel predicts. There is no generally accepted definition of intelligence, but in this science a substance is called intelligence if it can absorb information, store it for a long time, and use that knowledge to adapt to a changing environment.

Developed material is not far away. There are materials that can interact with the environment, or adapt, but these are only the first steps toward true materials intelligence.

At the moment, the makers of smart materials can only look with envy at what nature has produced, for example in the shape of the brain. We are trying to embrace its properties, says van der Weel: “The great strength of the brain is that it can do many things at the same time. Neurons have thousands of connections to each other, which can do a lot of calculations at the same time. There is no device A computer can do that now.”

And the brain can do this with very little energy: “The brain owes this efficiency in part to a structure in which information is processed and stored in the same place, that is, at synapses, the connections between neurons. A classical computer has a computation and memory unit and must always retrieve information from memory And store them again. That takes energy and time.”

The third property of the brain that scientists want to introduce into smart materials is plasticity. In the brain, the connections between neurons are constantly changing. He owes his ability to learn to this.

Van der Wiel: “Even if we can make use of these properties in materials, we have not yet reached the cognitive abilities, consciousness and free will of humans. We are still at the lowest level of intelligence. We also do not want to create self-reflection beings, we need not be afraid of that. We couldn’t even do that. But it would be great, for example, to make implants that sympathize with the body, or materials that could take over the functions of the brain after it’s been damaged.”

Louman & Friso’s photo

In four steps to intelligence

The path to smart materials begins with bricks (far left), or materials with a consistent shape and structure that do not change once created.

The second step involves materials that can respond to a stimulus from the environment (flashing red) and thus change their shape. A change that is also reversible if there is counterstimulation (purple flashing). These materials contain something like a ‘sensor’ and something like an ‘actuator’. An example is materials that bend under the influence of light and then expand again. They can literally go ahead with the right flashes of light.

The third step is materials that not only interact, but can also adapt to their environment. In addition to the sensor and engine power, they also have a grid that controls their behavior. For example, there are small robots that can move in patterns, like a flock of birds, because each robot is directed by its closest neighbor.

In the fourth and final step, long-term memory is added, to which the subject can not only adapt, but also remember and learn from the processes of adaptation. This smart material has not yet been synthesized in a laboratory. At the moment, they are the exclusive sphere of life and are common in nature, for example in the arms of an octopus.

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