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#435260 How Tech Can Help Curb Emissions by ...

Trees are a low-tech, high-efficiency way to offset much of humankind’s negative impact on the climate. What’s even better, we have plenty of room for a lot more of them.

A new study conducted by researchers at Switzerland’s ETH-Zürich, published in Science, details how Earth could support almost an additional billion hectares of trees without the new forests pushing into existing urban or agricultural areas. Once the trees grow to maturity, they could store more than 200 billion metric tons of carbon.

Great news indeed, but it still leaves us with some huge unanswered questions. Where and how are we going to plant all the new trees? What kind of trees should we plant? How can we ensure that the new forests become a boon for people in those areas?

Answers to all of the above likely involve technology.

Math + Trees = Challenges
The ETH-Zürich research team combined Google Earth mapping software with a database of nearly 80,000 existing forests to create a predictive model for optimal planting locations. In total, 0.9 billion hectares of new, continuous forest could be planted. Once mature, the 500 billion new trees in these forests would be capable of storing about two-thirds of the carbon we have emitted since the industrial revolution.

Other researchers have noted that the study may overestimate how efficient trees are at storing carbon, as well as underestimate how much carbon humans have emitted over time. However, all seem to agree that new forests would offset much of our cumulative carbon emissions—still an impressive feat as the target of keeping global warming this century at under 1.5 degrees Celsius becomes harder and harder to reach.

Recently, there was a story about a Brazilian couple who replanted trees in the valley where they live. The couple planted about 2.7 million trees in two decades. Back-of-the-napkin math shows that they on average planted 370 trees a day, meaning planting 500 billion trees would take about 3.7 million years. While an over-simplification, the point is that planting trees by hand is not realistic. Even with a million people going at a rate of 370 trees a day, it would take 83 years. Current technologies are also not likely to be able to meet the challenge, especially in remote locations.

Tree-Bombing Drones
Technology can speed up the planting process, including a new generation of drones that take tree planting to the skies. Drone planting generally involves dropping biodegradable seed pods at a designated area. The pods dissolve over time, and the tree seeds grow in the earth below. DroneSeed is one example; its 55-pound drones can plant up to 800 seeds an hour. Another startup, Biocarbon Engineering, has used various techniques, including drones, to plant 38 different species of trees across three continents.

Drone planting has distinct advantages when it comes to planting in hard-to-access areas—one example is mangrove forests, which are disappearing rapidly, increasing the risk of floods and storm surges.

Challenges include increasing the range and speed of drone planting, and perhaps most importantly, the success rate, as automatic planting from a height is still likely to be less accurate when it comes to what depth the tree saplings are planted. However, drones are already showing impressive numbers for sapling survival rates.

AI, Sensors, and Eye-In-the-Sky
Planting the trees is the first step in a long road toward an actual forest. Companies are leveraging artificial intelligence and satellite imagery in a multitude of ways to increase protection and understanding of forested areas.

20tree.ai, a Portugal-based startup, uses AI to analyze satellite imagery and monitor the state of entire forests at a fraction of the cost of manual monitoring. The approach can lead to faster identification of threats like pest infestation and a better understanding of the state of forests.

AI can also play a pivotal role in protecting existing forest areas by predicting where deforestation is likely to occur.

Closer to the ground—and sometimes in it—new networks of sensors can provide detailed information about the state and needs of trees. One such project is Trace, where individual trees are equipped with a TreeTalker, an internet of things-based device that can provide real-time monitoring of the tree’s functions and well-being. The information can be used to, among other things, optimize the use of available resources, such as providing the exact amount of water a tree needs.

Budding Technologies Are Controversial
Trees are in many ways fauna’s marathon runners—slow-growing and sturdy, but still susceptible to sickness and pests. Many deforested areas are likely not as rich in nutrients as they once were, which could slow down reforestation. Much of the positive impact that said trees could have on carbon levels in the atmosphere is likely decades away.

Bioengineering, for example through CRISPR, could provide solutions, making trees more resistant and faster-growing. Such technologies are being explored in relation to Ghana’s at-risk cocoa trees. Other exponential technologies could also hold much future potential—for instance micro-robots to assist the dwindling number of bees with pollination.

These technologies remain mired in controversy, and perhaps rightfully so. Bioengineering’s massive potential is for many offset by the inherent risks of engineered plants out-competing existing fauna or growing beyond our control. Micro-robots for pollination may solve a problem, but don’t do much to address the root cause: that we seem to be disrupting and destroying integral parts of natural cycles.

Tech Not The Whole Answer
So, is it realistic to plant 500 billion new trees? The short answer would be that yes, it’s possible—with the help of technology.

However, there are many unanswered challenges. For example, many of areas identified by the ETH-Zürich research team are not readily available for reforestation. Some are currently reserved for grazing, others owned by private entities, and others again are located in remote areas or areas prone to political instability, beyond the reach of most replanting efforts.

If we do wish to plant 500 billion trees to offset some of the negative impacts we have had on the planet, we might well want to combine the best of exponential technology with reforestation as well as a move to other forms of agriculture.

Such an approach might also help address a major issue: that few of the proposed new forests will likely succeed without ensuring that people living in and around the areas where reforestation takes place become involved, and can reap rewards from turning arable land into forests.

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#435196 Avatar Love? New ‘Black Mirror’ ...

This week, the widely-anticipated fifth season of the dystopian series Black Mirror was released on Netflix. The storylines this season are less focused on far-out scenarios and increasingly aligned with current issues. With only three episodes, this season raises more questions than it answers, often leaving audiences bewildered.

The episode Smithereens explores our society’s crippling addiction to social media platforms and the monopoly they hold over our data. In Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, we see the disruptive impact of technologies on the music and entertainment industry, and the price of fame for artists in the digital world. Like most Black Mirror episodes, these explore the sometimes disturbing implications of tech advancements on humanity.

But once again, in the midst of all the doom and gloom, the creators of the series leave us with a glimmer of hope. Aligned with Pride month, the episode Striking Vipers explores the impact of virtual reality on love, relationships, and sexual fluidity.

*The review contains a few spoilers.*

Striking Vipers
The first episode of the season, Striking Vipers may be one of the most thought-provoking episodes in Black Mirror history. Reminiscent of previous episodes San Junipero and Hang the DJ, the writers explore the potential for technology to transform human intimacy.

The episode tells the story of two old friends, Danny and Karl, whose friendship is reignited in an unconventional way. Karl unexpectedly appears at Danny’s 38th birthday and reintroduces him to the VR version of a game they used to play years before. In the game Striking Vipers X, each of the players is represented by an avatar of their choice in an uncanny digital reality. Following old tradition, Karl chooses to become the female fighter, Roxanne, and Danny takes on the role of the male fighter, Lance. The state-of-the-art VR headsets appear to use an advanced form of brain-machine interface to allow each player to be fully immersed in the virtual world, emulating all physical sensations.

To their surprise (and confusion), Danny and Karl find themselves transitioning from fist-fighting to kissing. Over the course of many games, they continue to explore a sexual and romantic relationship in the virtual world, leaving them confused and distant in the real world. The virtual and physical realities begin to blur, and so do the identities of the players with their avatars. Danny, who is married (in a heterosexual relationship) and is a father, begins to carry guilt and confusion in the real world. They both wonder if there would be any spark between them in real life.

The brain-machine interface (BMI) depicted in the episode is still science fiction, but that hasn’t stopped innovators from pushing the technology forward. Experts today are designing more intricate BMI systems while programming better algorithms to interpret the neural signals they capture. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing people to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.

The convergence of BMIs with virtual reality and artificial intelligence could make the experience of such immersive digital realities possible. Virtual reality, too, is decreasing exponentially in cost and increasing in quality.

The narrative provides meaningful commentary on another tech area—gaming. It highlights video games not necessarily as addictive distractions, but rather as a platform for connecting with others in a deeper way. This is already very relevant. Video games like Final Fantasy are often a tool for meaningful digital connections for their players.

The Implications of Virtual Reality on Love and Relationships
The narrative of Striking Vipers raises many novel questions about the implications of immersive technologies on relationships: could the virtual world allow us a safe space to explore suppressed desires? Can virtual avatars make it easier for us to show affection to those we care about? Can a sexual or romantic encounter in the digital world be considered infidelity?

Above all, the episode explores the therapeutic possibilities of such technologies. While many fears about virtual reality had been raised in previous seasons of Black Mirror, this episode was focused on its potential. This includes the potential of immersive technology to be a source of liberation, meaningful connections, and self-exploration, as well as a tool for realizing our true identities and desires.

Once again, this is aligned with emerging trends in VR. We are seeing the rise of social VR applications and platforms that allow you to hang out with your friends and family as avatars in the virtual space. The technology is allowing for animation movies, such as Coco VR, to become an increasingly social and interactive experience. Considering that meaningful social interaction can alleviate depression and anxiety, such applications could contribute to well-being.

Techno-philosopher and National Geographic host Jason Silva points out that immersive media technologies can be “engines of empathy.” VR allows us to enter virtual spaces that mimic someone else’s state of mind, allowing us to empathize with the way they view the world. Silva said, “Imagine the intimacy that becomes possible when people meet and they say, ‘Hey, do you want to come visit my world? Do you want to see what it’s like to be inside my head?’”

What is most fascinating about Striking Vipers is that it explores how we may redefine love with virtual reality; we are introduced to love between virtual avatars. While this kind of love may seem confusing to audiences, it may be one of the complex implications of virtual reality on human relationships.

In many ways, the title Black Mirror couldn’t be more appropriate, as each episode serves as a mirror to the most disturbing aspects of our psyches as they get amplified through technology. However, what we see in uplifting and thought-provoking plots like Striking Vipers, San Junipero, and Hang The DJ is that technology could also amplify the most positive aspects of our humanity. This includes our powerful capacity to love.

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#435110 5 Coming Breakthroughs in Energy and ...

The energy and transportation industries are being aggressively disrupted by converging exponential technologies.

In just five days, the sun provides Earth with an energy supply exceeding all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas. Capturing just 1 part in 8,000 of this available solar energy would allow us to meet 100 percent of our energy needs.

As we leverage renewable energy supplied by the sun, wind, geothermal sources, and eventually fusion, we are rapidly heading towards a future where 100 percent of our energy needs will be met by clean tech in just 30 years.

During the past 40 years, solar prices have dropped 250-fold. And as these costs plummet, solar panel capacity continues to grow exponentially.

On the heels of energy abundance, we are additionally witnessing a new transportation revolution, which sets the stage for a future of seamlessly efficient travel at lower economic and environmental costs.

Top 5 Transportation Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
Entrepreneur and inventor Ramez Naam is my go-to expert on all things energy and environment. Currently serving as the Energy Co-Chair at Singularity University, Naam is the award-winning author of five books, including the Nexus series of science fiction novels. Having spent 13 years at Microsoft, his software has touched the lives of over a billion people. Naam holds over 20 patents, including several shared with co-inventor Bill Gates.

In the next five years, he forecasts five respective transportation and energy trends, each poised to disrupt major players and birth entirely new business models.

Let’s dive in.

Autonomous cars drive 1 billion miles on US roads. Then 10 billion

Alphabet’s Waymo alone has already reached 10 million miles driven in the US. The 600 Waymo vehicles on public roads drive a total of 25,000 miles each day, and computer simulations provide an additional 25,000 virtual cars driving constantly. Since its launch in December, the Waymo One service has transported over 1,000 pre-vetted riders in the Phoenix area.

With more training miles, the accuracy of these cars continues to improve. Since last year, GM Cruise has improved its disengagement rate by 321 percent since last year, trailing close behind with only one human intervention per 5,025 miles self-driven.

Autonomous taxis as a service in top 20 US metro areas

Along with its first quarterly earnings released last week, Lyft recently announced that it would expand its Waymo partnership with the upcoming deployment of 10 autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix area. While individuals previously had to partake in Waymo’s “early rider program” prior to trying Waymo One, the Lyft partnership will allow anyone to ride in a self-driving vehicle without a prior NDA.

Strategic partnerships will grow increasingly essential between automakers, self-driving tech companies, and rideshare services. Ford is currently working with Volkswagen, and Nvidia now collaborates with Daimler (Mercedes) and Toyota. Just last week, GM Cruise raised another $1.15 billion at a $19 billion valuation as the company aims to launch a ride-hailing service this year.

“They’re going to come to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston, other cities with relatively good weather,” notes Naam. “In every major city within five years in the US and in some other parts of the world, you’re going to see the ability to hail an autonomous vehicle as a ride.”

Cambrian explosion of vehicle formats

Naam explains, “If you look today at the average ridership of a taxi, a Lyft, or an Uber, it’s about 1.1 passengers plus the driver. So, why do you need a large four-seater vehicle for that?”

Small electric, autonomous pods that seat as few as two people will begin to emerge, satisfying the majority of ride-hailing demands we see today. At the same time, larger communal vehicles will appear, such as Uber Express, that will undercut even the cheapest of transportation methods—buses, trams, and the like. Finally, last-mile scooter transit (or simply short-distance walks) might connect you to communal pick-up locations.

By 2024, an unimaginably diverse range of vehicles will arise to meet every possible need, regardless of distance or destination.

Drone delivery for lightweight packages in at least one US city

Wing, the Alphabet drone delivery startup, recently became the first company to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make deliveries in the US. Having secured approval to deliver to 100 homes in Canberra, Australia, Wing additionally plans to begin delivering goods from local businesses in the suburbs of Virginia.

The current state of drone delivery is best suited for lightweight, urgent-demand payloads like pharmaceuticals, thumb drives, or connectors. And as Amazon continues to decrease its Prime delivery times—now as speedy as a one-day turnaround in many cities—the use of drones will become essential.

Robotic factories drive onshoring of US factories… but without new jobs

The supply chain will continue to shorten and become more agile with the re-onshoring of manufacturing jobs in the US and other countries. Naam reasons that new management and software jobs will drive this shift, as these roles develop the necessary robotics to manufacture goods. Equally as important, these robotic factories will provide a more humane setting than many of the current manufacturing practices overseas.

Top 5 Energy Breakthroughs (2019-2024)

First “1 cent per kWh” deals for solar and wind signed

Ten years ago, the lowest price of solar and wind power fell between 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), over twice the price of wholesale power from coal or natural gas.

Today, the gap between solar/wind power and fossil fuel-generated electricity is nearly negligible in many parts of the world. In G20 countries, fossil fuel electricity costs between 5 to 17 cents per kWh, while the average cost per kWh of solar power in the US stands at under 10 cents.

Spanish firm Solarpack Corp Technological recently won a bid in Chile for a 120 MW solar power plant supplying energy at 2.91 cents per kWh. This deal will result in an estimated 25 percent drop in energy costs for Chilean businesses by 2021.

Naam indicates, “We will see the first unsubsidized 1.0 cent solar deals in places like Chile, Mexico, the Southwest US, the Middle East, and North Africa, and we’ll see similar prices for wind in places like Mexico, Brazil, and the US Great Plains.”

Solar and wind will reach >15 percent of US electricity, and begin to drive all growth

Just over eight percent of energy in the US comes from solar and wind sources. In total, 17 percent of American energy is derived from renewable sources, while a whopping 63 percent is sourced from fossil fuels, and 17 percent from nuclear.

Last year in the U.K., twice as much energy was generated from wind than from coal. For over a week in May, the U.K. went completely coal-free, using wind and solar to supply 35 percent and 21 percent of power, respectively. While fossil fuels remain the primary electricity source, this week-long experiment highlights the disruptive potential of solar and wind power that major countries like the U.K. are beginning to emphasize.

“Solar and wind are still a relatively small part of the worldwide power mix, only about six percent. Within five years, it’s going to be 15 percent in the US and more than close to that worldwide,” Naam predicts. “We are nearing the point where we are not building any new fossil fuel power plants.”

It will be cheaper to build new solar/wind/batteries than to run on existing coal

Last October, Northern Indiana utility company NIPSCO announced its transition from a 65 percent coal-powered state to projected coal-free status by 2028. Importantly, this decision was made purely on the basis of financials, with an estimated $4 billion in cost savings for customers. The company has already begun several initiatives in solar, wind, and batteries.

NextEra, the largest power generator in the US, has taken on a similar goal, making a deal last year to purchase roughly seven million solar panels from JinkoSolar over four years. Leading power generators across the globe have vocalized a similar economic case for renewable energy.

ICE car sales have now peaked. All car sales growth will be electric

While electric vehicles (EV) have historically been more expensive for consumers than internal combustion engine-powered (ICE) cars, EVs are cheaper to operate and maintain. The yearly cost of operating an EV in the US is about $485, less than half the $1,117 cost of operating a gas-powered vehicle.

And as battery prices continue to shrink, the upfront costs of EVs will decline until a long-term payoff calculation is no longer required to determine which type of car is the better investment. EVs will become the obvious choice.

Many experts including Naam believe that ICE-powered vehicles peaked worldwide in 2018 and will begin to decline over the next five years, as has already been demonstrated in the past five months. At the same time, EVs are expected to quadruple their market share to 1.6 percent this year.

New storage technologies will displace Li-ion batteries for tomorrow’s most demanding applications

Lithium ion batteries have dominated the battery market for decades, but Naam anticipates new storage technologies will take hold for different contexts. Flow batteries, which can collect and store solar and wind power at large scales, will supply city grids. Already, California’s Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that maintains the majority of the state’s power grid, recently installed a flow battery system in San Diego.

Solid-state batteries, which consist of entirely solid electrolytes, will supply mobile devices in cars. A growing body of competitors, including Toyota, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, and Nissan, are already working on developing solid-state battery technology. These types of batteries offer up to six times faster charging periods, three times the energy density, and eight years of added lifespan, compared to lithium ion batteries.

Final Thoughts
Major advancements in transportation and energy technologies will continue to converge over the next five years. A case in point, Tesla’s recent announcement of its “robotaxi” fleet exemplifies the growing trend towards joint priority of sustainability and autonomy.

On the connectivity front, 5G and next-generation mobile networks will continue to enable the growth of autonomous fleets, many of which will soon run on renewable energy sources. This growth demands important partnerships between energy storage manufacturers, automakers, self-driving tech companies, and ridesharing services.

In the eco-realm, increasingly obvious economic calculi will catalyze consumer adoption of autonomous electric vehicles. In just five years, Naam predicts that self-driving rideshare services will be cheaper than owning a private vehicle for urban residents. And by the same token, plummeting renewable energy costs will make these fuels far more attractive than fossil fuel-derived electricity.

As universally optimized AI systems cut down on traffic, aggregate time spent in vehicles will decimate, while hours in your (or not your) car will be applied to any number of activities as autonomous systems steer the way. All the while, sharing an electric vehicle will cut down not only on your carbon footprint but on the exorbitant costs swallowed by your previous SUV. How will you spend this extra time and money? What new natural resources will fuel your everyday life?

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#435106 Could Artificial Photosynthesis Help ...

Plants are the planet’s lungs, but they’re struggling to keep up due to rising CO2 emissions and deforestation. Engineers are giving them a helping hand, though, by augmenting their capacity with new technology and creating artificial substitutes to help them clean up our atmosphere.

Imperial College London, one of the UK’s top engineering schools, recently announced that it was teaming up with startup Arborea to build the company’s first outdoor pilot of its BioSolar Leaf cultivation system at the university’s White City campus in West London.

Arborea is developing large solar panel-like structures that house microscopic plants and can be installed on buildings or open land. The plants absorb light and carbon dioxide as they photosynthesize, removing greenhouse gases from the air and producing organic material, which can be processed to extract valuable food additives like omega-3 fatty acids.

The idea of growing algae to produce useful materials isn’t new, but Arborea’s pitch seems to be flexibility and affordability. The more conventional approach is to grow algae in open ponds, which are less efficient and open to contamination, or in photo-bioreactors, which typically require CO2 to be piped in rather than getting it from the air and can be expensive to run.

There’s little detail on how the technology deals with issues like nutrient supply and harvesting or how efficient it is. The company claims it can remove carbon dioxide as fast as 100 trees using the surface area of just a single tree, but there’s no published research to back that up, and it’s hard to compare the surface area of flat panels to that of a complex object like a tree. If you flattened out every inch of a tree’s surface it would cover a surprisingly large area.

Nonetheless, the ability to install these panels directly on buildings could present a promising way to soak up the huge amount of CO2 produced in our cities by transport and industry. And Arborea isn’t the only one trying to give plants a helping hand.

For decades researchers have been working on ways to use light-activated catalysts to split water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel, and more recently there have been efforts to fuse this with additional processes to combine the hydrogen with carbon from CO2 to produce all kinds of useful products.

Most notably, in 2016 Harvard researchers showed that water-splitting catalysts could be augmented with bacteria that combines the resulting hydrogen with CO2 to create oxygen and biomass, fuel, or other useful products. The approach was more efficient than plants at turning CO2 to fuel and was built using cheap materials, but turning it into a commercially viable technology will take time.

Not everyone is looking to mimic or borrow from biology in their efforts to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. There’s been a recent glut of investment in startups working on direct-air capture (DAC) technology, which had previously been written off for using too much power and space to be practical. The looming climate change crisis appears to be rewriting some of those assumptions, though.

Most approaches aim to use the concentrated CO2 to produce synthetic fuels or other useful products, creating a revenue stream that could help improve their commercial viability. But we look increasingly likely to surpass the safe greenhouse gas limits, so attention is instead turning to carbon-negative technologies.

That means capturing CO2 from the air and then putting it into long-term storage. One way could be to grow lots of biomass and then bury it, mimicking the process that created fossil fuels in the first place. Or DAC plants could pump the CO2 they produce into deep underground wells.

But the former would take up unreasonably large amounts of land to make a significant dent in emissions, while the latter would require huge amounts of already scant and expensive renewable power. According to a recent analysis, artificial photosynthesis could sidestep these issues because it’s up to five times more efficient than its natural counterpart and could be cheaper than DAC.

Whether the technology will develop quickly enough for it to be deployed at scale and in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change remains to be seen. Emissions reductions certainly present a more sure-fire way to deal with the problem, but nonetheless, cyborg plants could soon be a common sight in our cities.

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#434818 Watch These Robots Do Tasks You Thought ...

Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.

Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.

Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.

It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.

That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.

But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.

It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.

And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.

In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.

It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.

Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.

And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).

How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.

Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.

But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.

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