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Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.
Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
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It is one of the top 10 deadliest diseases in the United States, and it cannot be cured or prevented. But new studies are finding ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages, while some of the latest research says technologies like artificial intelligence can detect dementia years before the first symptoms occur.
These advances, in turn, will help bolster clinical trials seeking a cure or therapies to slow or prevent the disease. Catching Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia early in their progression can help ease symptoms in some cases.
“Often neurodegeneration is diagnosed late when massive brain damage has already occurred,” says professor Francis L Martin at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, in an email to Singularity Hub. “As we know more about the molecular basis of the disease, there is the possibility of clinical interventions that might slow or halt the progress of the disease, i.e., before brain damage. Extending cognitive ability for even a number of years would have huge benefit.”
Martin is the principal investigator on a project that has developed a technique to analyze blood samples to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and distinguish between other forms of dementia.
The researchers used sensor-based technology with a diamond core to analyze about 550 blood samples. They identified specific chemical bonds within the blood after passing light through the diamond core and recording its interaction with the sample. The results were then compared against blood samples from cases of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, along with those from healthy individuals.
“From a small drop of blood, we derive a fingerprint spectrum. That fingerprint spectrum contains numerical data, which can be inputted into a computational algorithm we have developed,” Martin explains. “This algorithm is validated for prediction of unknown samples. From this we determine sensitivity and specificity. Although not perfect, my clinical colleagues reliably tell me our results are far better than anything else they have seen.”
Martin says the breakthrough is the result of more than 10 years developing sensor-based technologies for routine screening, monitoring, or diagnosing neurodegenerative diseases and cancers.
“My vision was to develop something low-cost that could be readily applied in a typical clinical setting to handle thousands of samples potentially per day or per week,” he says, adding that the technology also has applications in environmental science and food security.
The new test can also distinguish accurately between Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of neurodegeneration, such as Lewy body dementia, which is one of the most common causes of dementia after Alzheimer’s.
“To this point, other than at post-mortem, there has been no single approach towards classifying these pathologies,” Martin notes. “MRI scanning is often used but is labor-intensive, costly, difficult to apply to dementia patients, and not a routine point-of-care test.”
Canadian researchers at McGill University believe they can predict Alzheimer’s disease up to two years before its onset using big data and artificial intelligence. They developed an algorithm capable of recognizing the signatures of dementia using a single amyloid PET scan of the brain of patients at risk of developing the disease.
Alzheimer’s is caused by the accumulation of two proteins—amyloid beta and tau. The latest research suggests that amyloid beta leads to the buildup of tau, which is responsible for damaging nerve cells and connections between cells called synapses.
The work was recently published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.
“Despite the availability of biomarkers capable of identifying the proteins causative of Alzheimer’s disease in living individuals, the current technologies cannot predict whether carriers of AD pathology in the brain will progress to dementia,” Sulantha Mathotaarachchi, lead author on the paper and an expert in artificial neural networks, tells Singularity Hub by email.
The algorithm, trained on a population with amnestic mild cognitive impairment observed over 24 months, proved accurate 84.5 percent of the time. Mathotaarachchi says the algorithm can be trained on different populations for different observational periods, meaning the system can grow more comprehensive with more data.
“The more biomarkers we incorporate, the more accurate the prediction could be,” Mathotaarachchi adds. “However, right now, acquiring [the] required amount of training data is the biggest challenge. … In Alzheimer’s disease, it is known that the amyloid protein deposition occurs decades before symptoms onset.”
Unfortunately, the same process occurs in normal aging as well. “The challenge is to identify the abnormal patterns of deposition that lead to the disease later on,” he says
One of the key goals of the project is to improve the research in Alzheimer’s disease by ensuring those patients with the highest probability to develop dementia are enrolled in clinical trials. That will increase the efficiency of clinical programs, according to Mathotaarachchi.
“One of the most important outcomes from our study was the pilot, online, real-time prediction tool,” he says. “This can be used as a framework for patient screening before recruiting for clinical trials. … If a disease-modifying therapy becomes available for patients, a predictive tool might have clinical applications as well, by providing to the physician information regarding clinical progression.”
Pixel by Pixel Prediction
Private industry is also working toward improving science’s predictive powers when it comes to detecting dementia early. One startup called Darmiyan out of San Francisco claims its proprietary software can pick up signals before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 15 years.
Darmiyan didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. Venture Beat reported that the company’s MRI-analyzing software “detects cell abnormalities at a microscopic level to reveal what a standard MRI scan cannot” and that the “software measures and highlights subtle microscopic changes in the brain tissue represented in every pixel of the MRI image long before any symptoms arise.”
Darmiyan claims to have a 90 percent accuracy rate and says its software has been vetted by top academic institutions like New York University, Rockefeller University, and Stanford, according to Venture Beat. The startup is awaiting FDA approval to proceed further but is reportedly working with pharmaceutical companies like Amgen, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer on pilot programs.
“Our technology enables smarter drug selection in preclinical animal studies, better patient selection for clinical trials, and much better drug-effect monitoring,” Darmiyan cofounder and CEO Padideh Kamali-Zare told Venture Beat.
An estimated 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and one in 10 people over age 65 have been diagnosed with the disease. By mid-century, the number of Alzheimer’s patients could rise to 16 million. Health care costs in 2017 alone are estimated to be $259 billion, and by 2050 the annual price tag could be more than $1 trillion.
In sum, it’s a disease that cripples people and the economy.
Researchers are always after more data as they look to improve outcomes, with the hope of one day developing a cure or preventing the onset of neurodegeneration altogether. If interested in seeing this medical research progress, you can help by signing up on the Brain Health Registry to improve the quality of clinical trials.
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In an interview at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco, Anita Schjøll Brede talked about how artificial intelligence can help make scientific research accessible to anyone working on a complex problem.
Anita Schjøll Brede is the CEO and co-founder of Iris AI, a startup that’s building an artificially intelligent research assistant, which was recently named one of the most innovative AI startups of 2017 by Fast Company. Schjøll Brede is also faculty at Singularity University Denmark and a 2015 alumni of the Global Solutions Program.
“Ultimately, we’re building an AI that can read, understand, and connect the dots,” Schjøll Brede said. “But zooming that back into today, we’re building a tool for R&D, research institutions, and entrepreneurs who have big hairy problems to solve and need to apply research and science to solve them. We’re semi-automating the process of mapping out what you should read to solve the problem or to see what research you need to do to solve the problem.”
Watch the interview for more on Iris AI’s technology and to hear Schjøll Brede’s take on whether AI researchers share a moral responsibility for the systems they build.
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Quantum computers could give the machine learning algorithms at the heart of modern artificial intelligence a dramatic speed up, but how far off are we? An international group of researchers has outlined the barriers that still need to be overcome.
This year has seen a surge of interest in quantum computing, driven in part by Google’s announcement that it will demonstrate “quantum supremacy” by the end of 2017. That means solving a problem beyond the capabilities of normal computers, which the company predicts will take 49 qubits—the quantum computing equivalent of bits.
As impressive as such a feat would be, the demonstration is likely to be on an esoteric problem that stacks the odds heavily in the quantum processor’s favor, and getting quantum computers to carry out practically useful calculations will take a lot more work.
But these devices hold great promise for solving problems in fields as diverse as cryptography or weather forecasting. One application people are particularly excited about is whether they could be used to supercharge the machine learning algorithms already transforming the modern world.
The potential is summarized in a recent review paper in the journal Nature written by a group of experts from the emerging field of quantum machine learning.
“Classical machine learning methods such as deep neural networks frequently have the feature that they can both recognize statistical patterns in data and produce data that possess the same statistical patterns: they recognize the patterns that they produce,” they write.
“This observation suggests the following hope. If small quantum information processors can produce statistical patterns that are computationally difficult for a classical computer to produce, then perhaps they can also recognize patterns that are equally difficult to recognize classically.”
Because of the way quantum computers work—taking advantage of strange quantum mechanical effects like entanglement and superposition—algorithms running on them should in principle be able to solve problems much faster than the best known classical algorithms, a phenomenon known as quantum speedup.
Designing these algorithms is tricky work, but the authors of the review note that there has been significant progress in recent years. They highlight multiple quantum algorithms exhibiting quantum speedup that could act as subroutines, or building blocks, for quantum machine learning programs.
We still don’t have the hardware to implement these algorithms, but according to the researchers the challenge is a technical one and clear paths to overcoming them exist. More challenging, they say, are four fundamental conceptual problems that could limit the applicability of quantum machine learning.
The first two are the input and output problems. Quantum computers, unsurprisingly, deal with quantum data, but the majority of the problems humans want to solve relate to the classical world. Translating significant amounts of classical data into the quantum systems can take so much time it can cancel out the benefits of the faster processing speeds, and the same is true of reading out the solution at the end.
The input problem could be mitigated to some extent by the development of quantum random access memory (qRAM)—the equivalent to RAM in a conventional computer used to provide the machine with quick access to its working memory. A qRAM can be configured to store classical data but allow the quantum computers to access all that information simultaneously as a superposition, which is required for a variety of quantum algorithms. But the authors note this is still a considerable engineering challenge and may not be sustainable for big data problems.
Closely related to the input/output problem is the costing problem. At present, the authors say very little is known about how many gates—or operations—a quantum machine learning algorithm will require to solve a given problem when operated on real-world devices. It’s expected that on highly complex problems they will offer considerable improvements over classical computers, but it’s not clear how big problems have to be before this becomes apparent.
Finally, whether or when these advantages kick in may be hard to prove, something the authors call the benchmarking problem. Claiming that a quantum algorithm can outperform any classical machine learning approach requires extensive testing against these other techniques that may not be feasible.
They suggest that this could be sidestepped by lowering the standards quantum machine learning algorithms are currently held to. This makes sense, as it doesn’t really matter whether an algorithm is intrinsically faster than all possible classical ones, as long as it’s faster than all the existing ones.
Another way of avoiding some of these problems is to apply these techniques directly to quantum data, the actual states generated by quantum systems and processes. The authors say this is probably the most promising near-term application for quantum machine learning and has the added benefit that any insights can be fed back into the design of better hardware.
“This would enable a virtuous cycle of innovation similar to that which occurred in classical computing, wherein each generation of processors is then leveraged to design the next-generation processors,” they conclude.
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