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Tech for Autonomous Systems – Advanced Interaction Capabilities II

Using living cells, called bio-reporter, to create sensors. Credit: C. Roggo, JR van de Meer

Sensors technologies – part 2

The direct or indirect use of living cells and their manipulating to acquire specific characteristics has led to the creation of sensors leveraging on living material like bacteria and algae.  As an example blue-green algae are being used for sensing the presence of contaminant in marine and fresh water by measuring their density through fluorometers attuned to algae chlorophyll.

Live cells have also been integrated in microfluidic devices to act as “bio-reporters” with the aim of enabling autonomous environment monitoring.

A slightly different situation applies to bio-sensors for interfacing with living beings. Here the evolution is also impressive but there is no silver bullet in sight.

The sensing of activities going on in a living being is complicated by several factors:

  • the noise generated by concurrent, although unrelated activities (in a brain there is a flow of electrical/chemical activity related to, e.g., moving an arm that occurs in parallel with hundreds other electrical/chemical activities like seeing, earing, regulating breathing….)
  • the distribution of signals over a broad area (staying with the example of moving an arm there are several parts and hundreds/thousands of neurones involved) makes it difficult to pick up the signals at the point of origin. The further away the signal is picked up the more noisy it results.
  • the difficulty in keeping the sensing probe in place since the living matter is soft and keeps changing.
  • the possible change in the way communications is generate and changes in a living being (the process of learning changes the brain and in turns it changes the neurones involved in a given action/thought and their mutual communications).

Given the present status of knowledge it seems more likely that it will remain impossible to pinpoint the origin of single activities and the evolution in this area is towards a global understanding of the semantics, thus the sensing will generate basically non-specific data and these will have to be processed to derive specific information.

In a way the approach is to the mimic human way of “understanding” another human, by observing the external behaviour rather than by capturing what, internally, led to such behaviour. Clearly, this approach works when the understanding can be derived from “actions” but it does not work when there is a need to capture thoughts (such as the case of creating a symbiotic relation with a paralysed person who can only “think” about an action). In general, the approach of understanding through behaviour observation is best for autonomous systems since it is unlikely that they can get a direct hook into another system. More on this in a future post discussing Communications and Cooperative Support Technologies.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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