SciTech Now Episode 532

In this episode of SciTech Now, robot human collaborations, the possibility of the invisibility cloak with CUNY Professor Andrea Alu, fifty years of space exploration and science fact & fiction.



Coming up, robot-human collaborations...

What we hope to see is even moving the ball forward even further to where the human and the machine can actually work more cooperatively together to solve tasks.

...the possibility of the invisibility cloak...

The idea of being able to manipulate the interaction of light with the object has been fascinating scientists and engineers for a long time.

...50 years of space exploration...

What do you hope will be your greatest legacy?

A space futurist. fact and fiction.

I'm what is known in the field as a writer of hard science fiction.

That's science fiction based on real science.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program, bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

Researchers at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, are using advanced technology to create a robot collaboration with human interaction.

These robots are programmed to work alongside humans to perform tasks together.

Follow along as the potential of these bots is being explored.

In the field of robotics, right, we now have this classification of robotics, or field or area of research, called collaborative robotics, and within that whole broad space of collaborate robotics where there's applications where basically the human and the machine are interacting, let's say, more richly.

In that, we're leveraging this type of hardware called the co-bot, it's commonly referred to, or power and force-limited collaborative robot, and that's what we've got here in the lab today.

Describe to us the difference between, you know, robots, a large-scale robot, and this one with human interaction.

What makes this revolutionary?

Well, what's a little bit different here, again, I touched a little bit before, is the idea that it's power and forced-limited.

Very common, like, be it this orange and silver version or silver and blue ones around the corner, they typically try to take consideration for how they align the joints to where we can actually eliminate, say, let's say, like, scissor connections, to where your fingers can actually be, let's say, caught in between a joint.

The pinch-point is eliminated in that way, so you see a lot of this basically off-setting of the joints.

Now, that being said, a robot with a knife is just as dangerous whether it's one of our big, heavy industrial friends or one of these smaller, so again, consideration of their application is still very important and requires its own risk considerations, but again, I'm using some advanced sensors to actually monitor what the person is doing, and I'm applying some sense of safety zone, so as I get closer, the robot will slow down.

I get closer, it slows down.

I get real close, the robot stops.

One of the goals with co-bots is ease of usage.

There might be a guy on the floor who needs to program the robot.

Now, I've only been in this collaborative robotics lab for just a few minutes, but I'm already prepared to program this robot.

You'll notice, again, little bit similar to some of the other hardware.

It has this ability to be taught through basically hand guiding.

Very much more of a bright, if you will, tablet-style user interface to make it more user-friendly.

By what you're doing with this hand guiding, the co-bot is learning that motion, and it can be replicated?

One of the nice things about here, compared to traditional robots, is that basically I can guide it to a position, and then I can actually save that point, right?

And I set it, and I've now saved that point, so basically as I guide it and I save the points, I can create new robot programs through this hand guiding.

You ready to take her for a spin?


All right.

All right.

So, okay.

You know, just get your hand in there.

So now as I'm...

If you engage the little safety switch on the back...


...and you are now a robot programmer.


[ Laughs ] Thank you.

What is being done in the lab?

What's the mission of the lab?

What types of things do you do day in, day out in this lab?


That's a great question.

It's actually very much a development space, so typically the Institute, actually we have a lot of direct-funded project work, be it from private industry, government application, but we also do advanced, cutting-edge work in our own internal research and development program to basically further what we can do with these capabilities in the collaborative robotic space, the idea of humans and people working closely together.

Can you talk about technology readiness?

What it is, why it's important, and how you address it?

Yeah, so as part of that when we talk about developing new and advanced applications, we need to be thinking about the technology readiness level, or TRL.

It's basically a spectrum that assesses how ready this is, if you will, to go into the factory, right?

So typically here, the Institute works in that TRL four to seven range.

We're basically taking it from, like, say a concept or idea that works well in a lab and getting it into that factory.

What we hope to see, obviously, and the reason we have this lab is even moving the ball forward even further to where the idea that the human and the machine can actually work more cooperatively together to solve tasks, right?

This machine can actually be an effective partner on that factory floor with the worker, and that's a really exciting thing to think about.

It really changes both -- makes the idea of working in a production or a factory more appealing to a worker and obviously increases productivity and the value proposition for all the manufacturers here in the US and beyond.

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From 'Star Trek' to 'Harry Potter,' cloaking and invisibility devices have long been futuristic or mystical concepts.

However, with the right application of what are known as metamaterials, the concept of cloaking is becoming less theoretical.

Joining us is Andrea Alú, Einstein Professor of Physics at the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center at CUNY, who's been using these metamaterials to explore.

So, let's start talking a little bit about the notion that we have of invisibility, that is kind of what Hollywood has created.

I wrap myself in some sort of a sheet or some sort of magic, and I disappear, but it's actually a little bit more broad than that.


Invisibility and cloaking has been fascinating, I guess, the popular society in general and scientists, as well, for many decades, I would say.

We have known for 150 years how light propagates and interacts with materials, so since my graduate studies, we've been looking into ways of building activation materials, so structures that we can engineer at the nanoscale or the microscale to interact with light in different ways, in ways that natural materials don't.

So how do metamaterials work?

So, the class of metamaterials is quite broad and in general, artificial materials -- metamaterials are artificial materials, engineered materials that are microstructured.

The scale is smaller than the wavelength of light, of the electromagnetic waves that interact with it.


So these objects that you're designing are so tiny that they're smaller than the wavelength of light so that when light does hit them or they interact with it, our perception of that light would change?

The science of metamaterials is based on the fact that we want to exploit unusual interactions of light with small structures that make up an artificial material.

How do metamaterials increase the potential of creating a cloak, creating the illusion that something is invisible?


In the early 2000s, it was realized that by nano-structuring a material, it is possible to bend light in unusual ways.

So all materials, when they interact with a beam of light, refract it.

That means they change direction of propagation, as light enters the material.

And back in 2005, we proposed that suitably designed metamaterial layers could bend light in a way that would hide an object enclosed by metamaterials, so we could design a passive metamaterial layer that wraps an object and makes it essentially undetectable.

In the early days, this was just a theoretical proposal, but over the years, in the past, say, 15 years or so, we have been working on practical realizations of metamaterial layers, passive and active, that can take a beam of light or an electromagnetic wave and route it around an object in a way that the object becomes undetectable.

What's the difference between an active versus a passive cloaking device?

A passive metamaterial is simply a collection of very small objects that, on their own, scatter light in unusual ways.

To give an example, if we take a block of regular material, it's made of many molecules, atoms.


Each of them interacts very weakly with an impinging beam of light, and the collective interaction of all these elements together is responsible for the reflection of light or refraction.


We engineer them in a way that they scatter a form of negative light in such a way that they cancel the reflection from the object itself.

Have you built something already, or is this still theoretical?

Yes, so back actually in 2013, we had our first demonstration of a 3-D cloak that can cancel the scattering from an object, in this case, it was a cylinder, to radio waves, so we were able to monitor the disturbance of this object to the external fields, in this case, radio waves impinging the object, and show that whatever we monitor in the far field or very close to the object, at specific frequencies, this object would basically be undetectable.

What is the biggest or smallest object that we could make an invisible and under what circumstances?

Yeah, so our bound is derived for actually passive metamaterials, so metamaterials that don't draw energy from a battery or from other sources.


And under those conditions, for a human-sized object, let's say, if we want to suppress the visibility by 50%, so it's not even an ideal cloak, but some target reduction, the bandwidth or the range of colors with which we can make these invisible, or less detectable, to the human eye, would be actually only for the narrow laser line, so do not work for the whole range of colors that our eyes can detect.

Got it.

However, first of all, we're exploring ways of going beyond these bounds, and actually we have some interesting results that show that with active cloaks, so cloaks that draw energy from a battery or from other sources, we can go a little bit beyond these bounds.

I would say we can increase the bandwidth or the range of colors over which this functionality can happen by a few times.

All right, Andrea Alú, Einstein Professor of Physics at CUNY Graduate Center.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

He's been to the moon and back.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin continues to explore and advocate for space travel 50 years after landing on the moon.

In celebration of PBS' 'Summer of Space,' Aldrin opened up about his famous Apollo 11 mission and shared lessons from his new book with Rafael Pi Roman of our partner, MetroFocus.

You wrote the book because you wanted, well...

Well, it was a way to put disjointed thoughts, ideas, that have come to mind.

Let's talk about you and Neil Armstrong.

I mean, you guys couldn't have been more different, but the way you write about him in the book is as a brother would write about another brother.

I first met him, I was visiting Ed White because Ed had a house next to Neil's, and I go over to see Ed, and here's this guy roller skating around.

'Who's that?'

'Oh, that's Neil Armstrong.'

Well, he was unusual, not that easy to get to know, according to other test pilots that I talked to, but when we were put together as the backup crew for Apollo 8, we worked very closely together.

Instead of him sitting on the left and I'd be on the right, we sat -- I sat in the center.


So we could go over the things for lift off and the mission, but Neil and I worked quite close together.

It's funny because a lot of people make, and you yourself talk about it in the book, about who was the first one to step on the moon and who was the second one.

For a period of time, you didn't like being referred to as the second guy on the moon.

Always, the junior person had been the one that went outside, as I was on Gemini 12.


So there was the people that thought that's the way it should start, with the outside activities, that were relatively complex with a short period of time.

But that's not the symbolic --

Because of the symbolism, the old protocol where the second in command would go down was changed so that Armstrong, who was in command, was the guy who walked out, made the first --

Well, yeah, it was never that firm, but there was a movement either way.

It's almost 50 years since you set foot on the moon.

I can't believe that you didn't think that by now we would be much farther ahead on space exploration and space travel.

Am I wrong?

There was, in 1969, a space task group that looked at the future.

The Vice President was in charge of this, and there was a strong intensity of space travel, a medium, and a not-so-strong.

Even the not-so-strong, reach Mars before the year 2000.



Wow. So what happened?

We didn't know that much about going there, but there was this spirit, see.

The spirit then.

Why did the spirit leave us?

Public apathy, I got to say that.

There were other things.

So you think somehow the space program was somehow associated or tainted with all things that military, and not just in apathy, but a certain hostility developed towards it?

If we can go to the moon, why can't we go to the moon?

We couldn't because the management of the program of President Bush to go to the moon made some bad decisions, and they weren't helped by others.

Now, some of your fellow astronauts were proponents of going back to the moon.

Well, of course they are.

Their life, their career was getting into a space program and retiring doing their thing, and it wasn't, 'How do we get to Mars?'


Mine is, 'How do we do that?'

So let's assume things change drastically, the mentalities change, and there's a new movement for a Mars program.

Got to get it going.

If it were to happen today, if today the decision was made like Kennedy made the decision to go to the moon, if the decision was made that strongly, when's the earliest that we could have somebody walking on Mars?

Well, I don't think the rush would be that important.

Mars has been there a long time, and we need to build up or it'll...


If somehow the opportunity arose for you to be able to go to Mars --


...would you?

No? You wouldn't go?

You know, I wasn't much of a Boy Scout, but I did go to summer camp, and I learned to do things here and there.

I'm a scuba diver, but there's not that much liquid water on Mars.

So, final question.

Final question.

What do you hope will be your greatest legacy?

A space futurist or a futurist in space, a statesman for space.

I'm a global statesman for space.

Not just the US.

We don't want to compete with China especially.

Not just cooperate, we want to bring together, to help the nations.

Well, Buzz, thank you so much.

It's been an honor and a pleasure.

Thank you, sir.

Well, thank you.

Thank you.

♪♪ ♪♪

Have you ever wondered how science fiction writers sometimes wind up predicting the future?

In this segment, writer Ben Bova tells us how science fiction sometimes becomes a reality.

Ben Bova has been writing science fiction novels for nearly 60 years.

It's in his blood.

He was bitten with the science fiction bug at an early age.

When I was a kid, I think the first episode of the Superman comic strip got me.

With the Planet Krypton exploding and the young Superman flying in a spaceship to Earth, that set me off, and I went into journalism because it seemed like someplace where I could use whatever writing skills I had to good use.

Do you think that maybe realizing that and kind of thinking about how Superman influenced you when you were younger, maybe your writings, that was a part of your inspiration for your writing science fiction?

It got me interested in the subject.

Doing the writing was a tough business.

It took years for me to learn how to write something that somebody would want to read.

When did you publish your first novel, and what was that process like for you?

First novel was called 'The Star Conquerors.'

It was published in 1959.

Very loosely based on Alexander the Great.

Here's Earth with its little colonies in the Solar System.

This tremendous invading force that has conquered most of the galaxy, they're going to wipe us out.

Well, we wipe them out instead.

Along the way, do you have favorite novels that stick out in your mind?

The one I'm working on now.

That's always my favorite.

Ben's career has included numerous awards as a writer of novels and an editor of science fiction publications.

His work has always been based on real science.

I'm what is known in the field as a writer of hard science fiction, which I say hard, it's almost impossible.

[ Chuckles ] But that's science fiction based on real science, on what we know of the world today.

You know, I feel free to go into the future and pose new discoveries, new possibilities, but my fiction is based on known science.

The science is the background.

The story is about the people, how they react to the background they're in, how they push forward, how some are explorers.

Some are politicians.

Some don't want to expand.

Some want to keep things just the way they are, but others do want to expand, and they change the world.

I should say worlds, plural.

So what we're going through in history, that definitely weaves its way into your novels?

Yes, I think good science fiction is history that hasn't been written yet.


But wait a while, and it happens.

I have read some news articles and some books where I will stumble across inaccuracies when it comes to bacteria and viruses, and as a microbiologist and an educator, I feel motivated to reach out and contact the authors of those articles.

Do you get feedback from the scientific community regarding your books?

Oh, yes.

Oh, it's a very close-knit community, the science fiction world, and you make a mistake in your science, and you hear about it, but it's good to have a kind of readership that does react, right or wrong.

You know you've hit them.

And would you say there's one area where you find most of your inspiration day-to-day?


The American Express Company.

They send me an inspiration every month.

That would be your bill?


So it seems we are both motivated to pay the bills, but that is not all we have in common.

While I love to explore the inner world of microbiology, Ben searches out the extraterrestrial world.

From his beachfront condo, he sees a new world to be explored.

You know, it's been 600 years since Columbus.

The ships he went on were the most technologically brilliant and up-to-date ships that European minds could conceive, and we're building the most technologically sophisticated ships to go to the moon and Mars.

We are an expansive race.

We have reached the limits of this Earth, but this Earth isn't the only planet or potential habitat for the human race.

What would you say to any young writers that want to get into science fiction today?



You cannot be a writer without writing.

You can be a talker, you can be a procrastinator, but if you want to be a writer, then you have to write, and to write well, you have to read a lot.

You have to learn.

You have to understand, and the thing you need to understand most is how a human being works.

Doesn't matter what the background of your story is.

Stories are about human beings, and in science fiction, they may not look human.

They may look like aliens.

They may look like sentient trees, but they have to have human problems and work to solve them.

My visit with Ben was an opportunity to share ideas and the value of science, even if it is shrouded in fiction.

We are on the threshold of becoming an interplanetary species.

It's the most important thing that's happening today.

All the stuff you see in the news is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

We have the opportunity to expand through the Solar System to bring new wealth and new freedoms to the people of Earth.

The sooner we become an interplanetary species, the better off we'll be.

As they say, travel makes us wiser.

And poorer.

And poorer.

[ Laughs ]

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪