Worrying about robots stealing our jobs? How silly

The digital age will free us up not only for leisure activities but also to take on caring roles that can only be filled by humans

So, we are doomed. Robots will steal our jobs. Algorithms will capture our children. Artificial intelligence will corrupt our free will. We are to be slaves to machines.

The Bank of England economist Andy Haldane warns today that “large swathes” of current labor will disappear as AI takes over. For a man who lives and breathes statistics, large swathes are a poor percentage. These jeremiads attended the invention of computers, combine harvesters, spinning jennies and probably iron-age axes. But no one gets on the Today programme for predicting that AI might be good news.

How is it then that elsewhere in the news, we hear of people frantic for staff? There are currently 90,000 vacancies in social care and 24,000 in nursing. A chronic labor shortage in British social services has risen from 7% six years ago to 11% today. Education is suffering likewise. Employers across the health, construction, agriculture, travel, and hospitality sectors are screaming that Brexit heralds an employment disaster, as the EU migrant tap is turned off.

Economists obsessed with manufacturing statistics would do better to welcome AI as releasing workers into the experience economy. They should discuss how we are going to pay for them, especially those concentrated in the public sector. They should stop grabbing easy headlines by encouraging those now suffering a Trump/Brexit retreat into chauvinist job protectionism.

4th International Conference on Innovative and Smart Materials Concentrates on Need and Importance of a Smarter Future

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Seed coats could lead to strong, tough, yet flexible materials

Inspired by elements found in nature, researchers at the University of New Hampshire say the puzzle-like wavy structure of the delicate seed coat, found in plants like succulents and some grasses, could hold the secret to creating new smart materials strong enough to be used in items like body Armor, screens, and airplane panels.

The building blocks of the seed coat are star-shaped epidermal cells which move by zigzag intercellular joints to form a compact, tiled exterior that protects the seed inside from mechanical damage and other environmental stresses, such as drought, freezing, and bacterial infection. To better understand the relationship between the structural attributes and functions of the seed coat’s unique microstructure, prototypes were designed and fabricated using multi-material 3D printing, and mechanical experiments and finite element simulations were performed on the models.

Researchers say that the design principles described show a promising approach for increasing the mechanical performance of tiled composites of human-made materials. Since the overall mechanical properties of the prototypes could be tuned over a very large range by simply varying the waviness of the mosaic-like structures

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The most important trends for self-healing materials

Several trends are emerging in the self-healing materials market. None of these are completely new, but they are important developments that market researchers from N-tech believe will shape the self-healing market going forward and are indicative of where future opportunities will be found.

The three trends that N-Tech is seeing as most notable in the smart materials space are the growing role of biomaterials and biomimetics in the design and creation of self-healing materials, improving performance from commercial products and the emergence of self-healing concrete as a real product. These are not entirely independent developments.

  • Self-healing trend 1: Biomaterials and biomimetics growing in importance
  • Self-healing trend 2: Performance is more in sync with applications needs
  • Self-healing trend 3: The rise of self-healing concrete

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How origami might reshape the future of everything

The next generation of solar panels and airbags will be shaped by the ancient Japanese art of paper folding.

At least, that’s how Northeastern researcher Soroush Kamrava sees it.

The third-year doctoral student in mechanical engineering uses 3-D printers in the Machine Shop on campus to create smart structures—objects that can collapse, absorb energy, and spring back into place using the geometric principles of origami.

“Origami is a branch of art that only uses geometry, which is the same base for mechanical structures,” said Kamrava.

Traditional origami uses paper. However, most engineering applications require materials with definitive thickness and enough strength and stiffness to properly perform. That’s where metamaterials come in. Substances that aren’t found in nature, such as plastic, metal, and rubber, metamaterials form the basis of Kamrava’s work.

An origami expert can turn a few basic folds into a complex design. The challenge for engineers is to create a system of folds that is structurally sound and can be reproduced.

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A bioinspired smart material that swells and contracts could be used to make optical lenses

Scientists in China have designed a biocompatible hydrogel based on the bilayer structure of plant organs. The material, which can swell and contract in response to pH changes, could be used to make optical lenses.

Plant organs like pine cones and wheat awns have inspired scientists to design smart materials that can undergo 3D shape transformations in response to external triggers, such as pH changes. However, these materials are often made from synthetic polymers, which can limit their biocompatibility.

Now, a team led by Lina Zhang at Wuhan University, China, has made a bioinspired smart hydrogel from two layers of natural polymers – chitosan (derived from shrimp shell chitin) and cellulose/carboxymethylcellulose (from plant cell walls). The two layers are held together by covalent bonds and electrostatic interactions between negatively charged carboxylate groups and positively charged ammonia groups, which make the material respond to pH changes.

The hydrogel’s bilayer structure resembles that of plant organs; by changing the material’s shape and size, the team can make different reconfigurable shapes with different movements in response to pH changes. Unlike many other smart materials, both layers are active in this hydrogel when responding to pH, so a strip of the hydrogel can bend both ways.

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Stretchable sweat-powered lactate sensors can now be worn on your feet

Joseph Wang and colleagues from the University of California, US, have attached biofuel cell devices directly onto wearable textiles.1 These self-powered sensors can detect levels of glucose or lactate in sweat, providing support for diabetes patients, or helping users to monitor their stamina and fitness.

Using a combination of stretchable carbon nanotube (CNT) based inks and a unique serpentine design,2 Wang’s team has overcome the problem of power loss resulting from continuous stretching and twisting that commonly occurs with wearable energy-harvesting devices.

The researchers applied layers of an elastomer, Ecoflex, and polyurethane, followed by the serpentine CNT electrodes. Both are printed directly onto textiles in a process whereby ink is transferred onto a material using a mesh screen and a stencil. The anode is functionalized by immobilizing an enzyme – either glucose oxidase or lactate oxidase – on its surface, enabling detection of either glucose or lactate, respectively, in the wearer’s sweat. Oxidation of the metabolites powers the sensor, their concentration determining the signal output.

Wang’s team tested their devices in socks worn by human subjects, confirming both their robustness and potential application in next-generation smart clothes.

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Shape-memory alloys linear actuators: A new option for positioning

Shape-memory alloys (SMAs) are those materials that respond to temperature changes by changing form factor. Originally funded by the U.S. Navy, SMA technologies were first commercialized by Raychem Corp. (now of TE Connectivity) during the 1950s. But the unpredictable nature of early material versions proved a challenge. So, over the decades, manufacturers investigated ways (with mixed success) to boost the durability, consistency, and applicability of SMA-based designs.

Now one new SMA-based linear-motion offering uses advanced SMA material for repeatable and predictable motion. The manufacturer bundles wires made of SMA and anchor them to an actuator housing. Current through the (electrically resistive) SMA generates this heat; when warmed past a transition temperature, the wires’ atoms realign to another crystalline structure. This results in wire contraction when heated and re-extension when cooled — which in turn makes for linear motion output.

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