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#436146 Video Friday: Kuka’s Robutt Is a ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Kuka’s “robutt” can, according to the company, simulate “thousands of butts in the pursuit of durability and comfort.” Two of the robots are used at a Ford development center in Germany to evaluate new car seats. The tests are quite exhaustive, consisting of around 25,000 simulated sitting motions for each new seat design.” Or as Kuka puts it, “Pleasing all the butts on the planet is serious business.”

[ Kuka ]

Here’s a clever idea: 3D printing manipulators, and then using the 3D printer head to move those manipulators around and do stuff with them:

[ Paper ]

Two former soldiers performed a series of tests to see if the ONYX Exoskeleton gave them extra strength and endurance in difficult environments.

So when can I rent one of these to help me move furniture?

[ Lockheed ]

One of the defining characteristics of legged robots in general (and humanoid robots in particular) is the ability of walking on various types of terrain. In this video, we show our humanoid robot TORO walking dynamically over uneven (on grass outside the lab), rough (large gravel), and compliant terrain (a soft gym mattress). The robot can maintain its balance, even when the ground shifts rapidly under foot, such as when walking over gravel. This behaviour showcases the torque-control capability of quickly adapting the contact forces compared to position control methods.

An in-depth discussion of the current implementation is presented in the paper “Dynamic Walking on Compliant and Uneven Terrain using DCM and Passivity-based Whole-body Control”.

[ DLR RMC ]

Tsuki is a ROS-enabled quadruped designed and built by Lingkang Zhang. It’s completely position controlled, with no contact sensors on the feet, or even an IMU.

It can even do flips!

[ Tsuki ]

Thanks Lingkang!

TRI CEO Dr. Gill Pratt presents TRI’s contributions to Toyota’s New “LQ” Concept Vehicle, which includes onboard artificial intelligence agent “Yui” and LQ’s automated driving technology.

[ TRI ]

Hooman Hedayati wrote in to share some work (presented at HRI this year) on using augmented reality to make drone teleoperation more intuitive. Get a virtual drone to do what you want first, and then the real drone will follow.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Hooman!

You can now order a Sphero RVR for $250. It’s very much not spherical, but it does other stuff, so we’ll give it a pass.

[ Sphero ]

The AI Gamer Q56 robot is an expert at whatever this game is, using AI plus actual physical control manipulation. Watch until the end!

[ Bandai Namco ]

We present a swarm of autonomous flying robots for the exploration of unknown environments. The tiny robots do not make maps of their environment, but deal with obstacles on the fly. In robotics, the algorithms for navigating like this are called “bug algorithms”. The navigation of the robots involves them first flying away from the base station and later finding their way back with the help of a wireless beacon.

[ MAVLab ]

Okay Soft Robotics you successfully and disgustingly convinced us that vacuum grippers should never be used for food handling. Yuck!

[ Soft Robotics ]

Beyond the asteroid belt are “fossils of planet formation” known as the Trojan asteroids. These primitive bodies share Jupiter’s orbit in two vast swarms, and may hold clues to the formation and evolution of our solar system. Now, NASA is preparing to explore the Trojan asteroids for the first time. A mission called Lucy will launch in 2021 and visit seven asteroids over the course of twelve years – one in the main belt and six in Jupiter’s Trojan swarms.

[ NASA ]

I’m not all that impressed by this concept car from Lexus except that it includes some kind of super-thin autonomous luggage-carrying drone.

The LF-30 Electrified also carries the ‘Lexus Airporter’ drone-technology support vehicle. Using autonomous control, the Lexus Airporter is capable of such tasks as independently transporting baggage from a household doorstep to the vehicle’s luggage area.

[ Lexus ]

Vision 60 legged robot managing unstructured terrain without vision or force sensors in its legs. Using only high-transparency actuators and 2kHz algorithmic stability control… 4-limbs and 12-motors with only a velocity command.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Tech United Eindhoven is looking good for RoboCup@Home 2020.

[ Tech United ]

Penn engineers participated in the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge hosted by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The goal of this Challenge is for teams to develop automated systems that can work in underground environments so they could be deployed after natural disasters or on dangerous search-and-rescue missions.

[ Team PLUTO ]

It’s BeetleCam vs White Rhinos in Kenya, and the White Rhinos don’t seem to mind at all.

[ Will Burrard-Lucas ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436126 Quantum Computing Gets a Boost From AI ...

Illustration: Greg Mably

Anyone of a certain age who has even a passing interest in computers will remember the remarkable breakthrough that IBM made in 1997 when its Deep Blue chess-playing computer defeated Garry Kasparov, then the world chess champion. Computer scientists passed another such milestone in March 2016, when DeepMind (a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) announced that its AlphaGo program had defeated world-champion player Lee Sedol in the game of Go, a board game that had vexed AI researchers for decades. Recently, DeepMind’s algorithms have also bested human players in the computer games StarCraft IIand Quake Arena III.

Some believe that the cognitive capacities of machines will overtake those of human beings in many spheres within a few decades. Others are more cautious and point out that our inability to understand the source of our own cognitive powers presents a daunting hurdle. How can we make thinking machines if we don’t fully understand our own thought processes?

Citizen science, which enlists masses of people to tackle research problems, holds promise here, in no small part because it can be used effectively to explore the boundary between human and artificial intelligence.

Some citizen-science projects ask the public to collect data from their surroundings (as eButterfly does for butterflies) or to monitor delicate ecosystems (as Eye on the Reef does for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). Other projects rely on online platforms on which people help to categorize obscure phenomena in the night sky (Zooniverse) or add to the understanding of the structure of proteins (Foldit). Typically, people can contribute to such projects without any prior knowledge of the subject. Their fundamental cognitive skills, like the ability to quickly recognize patterns, are sufficient.

In order to design and develop video games that can allow citizen scientists to tackle scientific problems in a variety of fields, professor and group leader Jacob Sherson founded ScienceAtHome (SAH), at Aarhus University, in Denmark. The group began by considering topics in quantum physics, but today SAH hosts games covering other areas of physics, math, psychology, cognitive science, and behavioral economics. We at SAH search for innovative solutions to real research challenges while providing insight into how people think, both alone and when working in groups.

It is computationally intractable to completely map out a higher-dimensional landscape: It is called the curse of high dimensionality, and it plagues many optimization problems.

We believe that the design of new AI algorithms would benefit greatly from a better understanding of how people solve problems. This surmise has led us to establish the Center for Hybrid Intelligence within SAH, which tries to combine human and artificial intelligence, taking advantage of the particular strengths of each. The center’s focus is on the gamification of scientific research problems and the development of interfaces that allow people to understand and work together with AI.

Our first game, Quantum Moves, was inspired by our group’s research into quantum computers. Such computers can in principle solve certain problems that would take a classical computer billions of years. Quantum computers could challenge current cryptographic protocols, aid in the design of new materials, and give insight into natural processes that require an exact solution of the equations of quantum mechanics—something normal computers are inherently bad at doing.

One candidate system for building such a computer would capture individual atoms by “freezing” them, as it were, in the interference pattern produced when a laser beam is reflected back on itself. The captured atoms can thus be organized like eggs in a carton, forming a periodic crystal of atoms and light. Using these atoms to perform quantum calculations requires that we use tightly focused laser beams, called optical tweezers, to transport the atoms from site to site in the light crystal. This is a tricky business because individual atoms do not behave like particles; instead, they resemble a wavelike liquid governed by the laws of quantum mechanics.

In Quantum Moves, a player manipulates a touch screen or mouse to move a simulated laser tweezer and pick up a trapped atom, represented by a liquidlike substance in a bowl. Then the player must bring the atom back to the tweezer’s initial position while trying to minimize the sloshing of the liquid. Such sloshing would increase the energy of the atom and ultimately introduce errors into the operations of the quantum computer. Therefore, at the end of a move, the liquid should be at a complete standstill.

To understand how people and computers might approach such a task differently, you need to know something about how computerized optimization algorithms work. The countless ways of moving a glass of water without spilling may be regarded as constituting a “solution landscape.” One solution is represented by a single point in that landscape, and the height of that point represents the quality of the solution—how smoothly and quickly the glass of water was moved. This landscape might resemble a mountain range, where the top of each mountain represents a local optimum and where the challenge is to find the highest peak in the range—the global optimum.

Illustration: Greg Mably

Researchers must compromise between searching the landscape for taller mountains (“exploration”) and climbing to the top of the nearest mountain (“exploitation”). Making such a trade-off may seem easy when exploring an actual physical landscape: Merely hike around a bit to get at least the general lay of the land before surveying in greater detail what seems to be the tallest peak. But because each possible way of changing the solution defines a new dimension, a realistic problem can have thousands of dimensions. It is computationally intractable to completely map out such a higher-dimensional landscape. We call this the curse of high dimensionality, and it plagues many optimization problems.

Although algorithms are wonderfully efficient at crawling to the top of a given mountain, finding good ways of searching through the broader landscape poses quite a challenge, one that is at the forefront of AI research into such control problems. The conventional approach is to come up with clever ways of reducing the search space, either through insights generated by researchers or with machine-learning algorithms trained on large data sets.

At SAH, we attacked certain quantum-optimization problems by turning them into a game. Our goal was not to show that people can beat computers in this arena but rather to understand the process of generating insights into such problems. We addressed two core questions: whether allowing players to explore the infinite space of possibilities will help them find good solutions and whether we can learn something by studying their behavior.

Today, more than 250,000 people have played Quantum Moves, and to our surprise, they did in fact search the space of possible moves differently from the algorithm we had put to the task. Specifically, we found that although players could not solve the optimization problem on their own, they were good at searching the broad landscape. The computer algorithms could then take those rough ideas and refine them.

Herbert A. Simon said that “solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.” Apparently, that’s what our games can do with their novel user interfaces.

Perhaps even more interesting was our discovery that players had two distinct ways of solving the problem, each with a clear physical interpretation. One set of players started by placing the tweezer close to the atom while keeping a barrier between the atom trap and the tweezer. In classical physics, a barrier is an impenetrable obstacle, but because the atom liquid is a quantum-mechanical object, it can tunnel through the barrier into the tweezer, after which the player simply moved the tweezer to the target area. Another set of players moved the tweezer directly into the atom trap, picked up the atom liquid, and brought it back. We called these two strategies the “tunneling” and “shoveling” strategies, respectively.

Such clear strategies are extremely valuable because they are very difficult to obtain directly from an optimization algorithm. Involving humans in the optimization loop can thus help us gain insight into the underlying physical phenomena that are at play, knowledge that may then be transferred to other types of problems.

Quantum Moves raised several obvious issues. First, because generating an exceptional solution required further computer-based optimization, players were unable to get immediate feedback to help them improve their scores, and this often left them feeling frustrated. Second, we had tested this approach on only one scientific challenge with a clear classical analogue, that of the sloshing liquid. We wanted to know whether such gamification could be applied more generally, to a variety of scientific challenges that do not offer such immediately applicable visual analogies.

We address these two concerns in Quantum Moves 2. Here, the player first generates a number of candidate solutions by playing the original game. Then the player chooses which solutions to optimize using a built-in algorithm. As the algorithm improves a player’s solution, it modifies the solution path—the movement of the tweezer—to represent the optimized solution. Guided by this feedback, players can then improve their strategy, come up with a new solution, and iteratively feed it back into this process. This gameplay provides high-level heuristics and adds human intuition to the algorithm. The person and the machine work in tandem—a step toward true hybrid intelligence.

In parallel with the development of Quantum Moves 2, we also studied how people collaboratively solve complex problems. To that end, we opened our atomic physics laboratory to the general public—virtually. We let people from around the world dictate the experiments we would run to see if they would find ways to improve the results we were getting. What results? That’s a little tricky to explain, so we need to pause for a moment and provide a little background on the relevant physics.

One of the essential steps in building the quantum computer along the lines described above is to create the coldest state of matter in the universe, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Here millions of atoms oscillate in synchrony to form a wavelike substance, one of the largest purely quantum phenomena known. To create this ultracool state of matter, researchers typically use a combination of laser light and magnetic fields. There is no familiar physical analogy between such a strange state of matter and the phenomena of everyday life.

The result we were seeking in our lab was to create as much of this enigmatic substance as was possible given the equipment available. The sequence of steps to accomplish that was unknown. We hoped that gamification could help to solve this problem, even though it had no classical analogy to present to game players.

Images: ScienceAtHome

Fun and Games: The
Quantum Moves game evolved over time, from a relatively crude early version [top] to its current form [second from top] and then a major revision,
Quantum Moves 2 [third from top].
Skill Lab: Science Detective games [bottom] test players’ cognitive skills.

In October 2016, we released a game that, for two weeks, guided how we created Bose-Einstein condensates in our laboratory. By manipulating simple curves in the game interface, players generated experimental sequences for us to use in producing these condensates—and they did so without needing to know anything about the underlying physics. A player would generate such a solution, and a few minutes later we would run the sequence in our laboratory. The number of ultracold atoms in the resulting Bose-Einstein condensate was measured and fed back to the player as a score. Players could then decide either to try to improve their previous solution or to copy and modify other players’ solutions. About 600 people from all over the world participated, submitting 7,577 solutions in total. Many of them yielded bigger condensates than we had previously produced in the lab.

So this exercise succeeded in achieving our primary goal, but it also allowed us to learn something about human behavior. We learned, for example, that players behave differently based on where they sit on the leaderboard. High-performing players make small changes to their successful solutions (exploitation), while poorly performing players are willing to make more dramatic changes (exploration). As a collective, the players nicely balance exploration and exploitation. How they do so provides valuable inspiration to researchers trying to understand human problem solving in social science as well as to those designing new AI algorithms.

How could mere amateurs outperform experienced experimental physicists? The players certainly weren’t better at physics than the experts—but they could do better because of the way in which the problem was posed. By turning the research challenge into a game, we gave players the chance to explore solutions that had previously required complex programming to study. Indeed, even expert experimentalists improved their solutions dramatically by using this interface.

Insight into why that’s possible can probably be found in the words of the late economics Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon: “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent [PDF].” Apparently, that’s what our games can do with their novel user interfaces. We believe that such interfaces might be a key to using human creativity to solve other complex research problems.

Eventually, we’d like to get a better understanding of why this kind of gamification works as well as it does. A first step would be to collect more data on what the players do while they are playing. But even with massive amounts of data, detecting the subtle patterns underlying human intuition is an overwhelming challenge. To advance, we need a deeper insight into the cognition of the individual players.

As a step forward toward this goal, ScienceAtHome created Skill Lab: Science Detective, a suite of minigames exploring visuospatial reasoning, response inhibition, reaction times, and other basic cognitive skills. Then we compare players’ performance in the games with how well these same people did on established psychological tests of those abilities. The point is to allow players to assess their own cognitive strengths and weaknesses while donating their data for further public research.

In the fall of 2018 we launched a prototype of this large-scale profiling in collaboration with the Danish Broadcasting Corp. Since then more than 20,000 people have participated, and in part because of the publicity granted by the public-service channel, participation has been very evenly distributed across ages and by gender. Such broad appeal is rare in social science, where the test population is typically drawn from a very narrow demographic, such as college students.

Never before has such a large academic experiment in human cognition been conducted. We expect to gain new insights into many things, among them how combinations of cognitive abilities sharpen or decline with age, what characteristics may be used to prescreen for mental illnesses, and how to optimize the building of teams in our work lives.

And so what started as a fun exercise in the weird world of quantum mechanics has now become an exercise in understanding the nuances of what makes us human. While we still seek to understand atoms, we can now aspire to understand people’s minds as well.

This article appears in the November 2019 print issue as “A Man-Machine Mind Meld for Quantum Computing.”

About the Authors
Ottó Elíasson, Carrie Weidner, Janet Rafner, and Shaeema Zaman Ahmed work with the ScienceAtHome project at Aarhus University in Denmark. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436119 How 3D Printing, Vertical Farming, and ...

Food. What we eat, and how we grow it, will be fundamentally transformed in the next decade.

Already, indoor farming is projected to be a US$40.25 billion industry by 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 9.65 percent. Meanwhile, the food 3D printing industry is expected to grow at an even higher rate, averaging 50 percent annual growth.

And converging exponential technologies—from materials science to AI-driven digital agriculture—are not slowing down. Today’s breakthroughs will soon allow our planet to boost its food production by nearly 70 percent, using a fraction of the real estate and resources, to feed 9 billion by mid-century.

What you consume, how it was grown, and how it will end up in your stomach will all ride the wave of converging exponentials, revolutionizing the most basic of human needs.

Printing Food
3D printing has already had a profound impact on the manufacturing sector. We are now able to print in hundreds of different materials, making anything from toys to houses to organs. However, we are finally seeing the emergence of 3D printers that can print food itself.

Redefine Meat, an Israeli startup, wants to tackle industrial meat production using 3D printers that can generate meat, no animals required. The printer takes in fat, water, and three different plant protein sources, using these ingredients to print a meat fiber matrix with trapped fat and water, thus mimicking the texture and flavor of real meat.

Slated for release in 2020 at a cost of $100,000, their machines are rapidly demonetizing and will begin by targeting clients in industrial-scale meat production.

Anrich3D aims to take this process a step further, 3D printing meals that are customized to your medical records, heath data from your smart wearables, and patterns detected by your sleep trackers. The company plans to use multiple extruders for multi-material printing, allowing them to dispense each ingredient precisely for nutritionally optimized meals. Currently in an R&D phase at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the company hopes to have its first taste tests in 2020.

These are only a few of the many 3D food printing startups springing into existence. The benefits from such innovations are boundless.

Not only will food 3D printing grant consumers control over the ingredients and mixtures they consume, but it is already beginning to enable new innovations in flavor itself, democratizing far healthier meal options in newly customizable cuisine categories.

Vertical Farming
Vertical farming, whereby food is grown in vertical stacks (in skyscrapers and buildings rather than outside in fields), marks a classic case of converging exponential technologies. Over just the past decade, the technology has surged from a handful of early-stage pilots to a full-grown industry.

Today, the average American meal travels 1,500-2,500 miles to get to your plate. As summed up by Worldwatch Institute researcher Brian Halweil, “We are spending far more energy to get food to the table than the energy we get from eating the food.” Additionally, the longer foods are out of the soil, the less nutritious they become, losing on average 45 percent of their nutrition before being consumed.

Yet beyond cutting down on time and transportation losses, vertical farming eliminates a whole host of issues in food production. Relying on hydroponics and aeroponics, vertical farms allows us to grow crops with 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture—which is critical for our increasingly thirsty planet.

Currently, the largest player around is Bay Area-based Plenty Inc. With over $200 million in funding from Softbank, Plenty is taking a smart tech approach to indoor agriculture. Plants grow on 20-foot-high towers, monitored by tens of thousands of cameras and sensors, optimized by big data and machine learning.

This allows the company to pack 40 plants in the space previously occupied by 1. The process also produces yields 350 times greater than outdoor farmland, using less than 1 percent as much water.

And rather than bespoke veggies for the wealthy few, Plenty’s processes allow them to knock 20-35 percent off the costs of traditional grocery stores. To date, Plenty has their home base in South San Francisco, a 100,000 square-foot farm in Kent, Washington, an indoor farm in the United Arab Emirates, and recently started construction on over 300 farms in China.

Another major player is New Jersey-based Aerofarms, which can now grow two million pounds of leafy greens without sunlight or soil.

To do this, Aerofarms leverages AI-controlled LEDs to provide optimized wavelengths of light for each plant. Using aeroponics, the company delivers nutrients by misting them directly onto the plants’ roots—no soil required. Rather, plants are suspended in a growth mesh fabric made from recycled water bottles. And here too, sensors, cameras, and machine learning govern the entire process.

While 50-80 percent of the cost of vertical farming is human labor, autonomous robotics promises to solve that problem. Enter contenders like Iron Ox, a firm that has developed the Angus robot, capable of moving around plant-growing containers.

The writing is on the wall, and traditional agriculture is fast being turned on its head.

Materials Science
In an era where materials science, nanotechnology, and biotechnology are rapidly becoming the same field of study, key advances are enabling us to create healthier, more nutritious, more efficient, and longer-lasting food.

For starters, we are now able to boost the photosynthetic abilities of plants. Using novel techniques to improve a micro-step in the photosynthesis process chain, researchers at UCLA were able to boost tobacco crop yield by 14-20 percent. Meanwhile, the RIPE Project, backed by Bill Gates and run out of the University of Illinois, has matched and improved those numbers.

And to top things off, The University of Essex was even able to improve tobacco yield by 27-47 percent by increasing the levels of protein involved in photo-respiration.

In yet another win for food-related materials science, Santa Barbara-based Apeel Sciences is further tackling the vexing challenge of food waste. Now approaching commercialization, Apeel uses lipids and glycerolipids found in the peels, seeds, and pulps of all fruits and vegetables to create “cutin”—the fatty substance that composes the skin of fruits and prevents them from rapidly spoiling by trapping moisture.

By then spraying fruits with this generated substance, Apeel can preserve foods 60 percent longer using an odorless, tasteless, colorless organic substance.

And stores across the US are already using this method. By leveraging our advancing knowledge of plants and chemistry, materials science is allowing us to produce more food with far longer-lasting freshness and more nutritious value than ever before.

Convergence
With advances in 3D printing, vertical farming, and materials sciences, we can now make food smarter, more productive, and far more resilient.

By the end of the next decade, you should be able to 3D print a fusion cuisine dish from the comfort of your home, using ingredients harvested from vertical farms, with nutritional value optimized by AI and materials science. However, even this picture doesn’t account for all the rapid changes underway in the food industry.

Join me next week for Part 2 of the Future of Food for a discussion on how food production will be transformed, quite literally, from the bottom up.

Join Me
Abundance-Digital Online Community: Stay ahead of technological advancements and turn your passion into action. Abundance Digital is now part of Singularity University. Learn more.

Image Credit: Vanessa Bates Ramirez Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436094 Agility Robotics Unveils Upgraded Digit ...

Last time we saw Agility Robotics’ Digit biped, it was picking up a box from a Ford delivery van and autonomously dropping it off on a porch, while at the same time managing to not trip over stairs, grass, or small children. As a demo, it was pretty impressive, but of course there’s an enormous gap between making a video of a robot doing a successful autonomous delivery and letting that robot out into the semi-structured world and expecting it to reliably do a good job.

Agility Robotics is aware of this, of course, and over the last six months they’ve been making substantial improvements to Digit to make it more capable and robust. A new video posted today shows what’s new with the latest version of Digit—Digit v2.

We appreciate Agility Robotics foregoing music in the video, which lets us hear exactly what Digit sounds like in operation. The most noticeable changes are in Digit’s feet, torso, and arms, and I was particularly impressed to see Digit reposition the box on the table before grasping it to make sure that it could get a good grip. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell what’s new, so we asked Agility Robotics’ CEO Damion Shelton to get us up to speed.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the differences between Digit v1 and v2? We’re particularly interested in the new feet.

Damion Shelton: The feet now include a roll degree of freedom, so that Digit can resist lateral forces without needing to side step. This allows Digit v2 to balance on one foot statically, which Digit v1 and Cassie could not do. The larger foot also dramatically decreases load per unit area, for improved performance on very soft surfaces like sand.

The perception stack includes four Intel RealSense cameras used for obstacle detection and pick/place, plus the lidar. In Digit v1, the perception systems were brought up incrementally over time for development purposes. In Digit v2, all perception systems are active from the beginning and tied to a dedicated computer. The perception system is used for a number of additional things beyond manipulation, which we’ll start to show in the next few weeks.

The torso changes are a bit more behind-the-scenes. All of the electronics in it are now fully custom, thermally managed, and environmentally sealed. We’ve also included power and ethernet to a payload bay that can fit either a NUC or Jetson module (or other customer payload).

What exactly are we seeing in the video in terms of Digit’s autonomous capabilities?

At the moment this is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade. This is v2 hardware, so there’s one more full version in development prior to the 2020 launch, which will expand the autonomy envelope significantly.

“This is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade”
—Damion Shelton, Agility Robotics

What are some unique features or capabilities of Digit v2 that might not be obvious from the video?

For those who’ve used Cassie robots, the power-up and power-down ergonomics are a lot more user friendly. Digit can be disassembled into carry-on luggage sized pieces (give or take) in under 5 minutes for easy transport. The battery charges in-situ using a normal laptop-style charger.

I’m curious about this “stompy” sort of gait that we see in Digit and many other bipedal robots—are there significant challenges or drawbacks to implementing a more human-like (and presumably quieter) heel-toe gait?

There are no drawbacks other than increased complexity in controls and foot design. With Digit v2, the larger surface area helps with the noise, and v2 has similar or better passive-dynamic performance as compared to Cassie or Digit v1. The foot design is brand new, and new behaviors like heel-toe are an active area of development.

How close is Digit v2 to a system that you’d be comfortable operating commercially?

We’re on track for a 2020 launch for Digit v3. Changes from v2 to v3 are mostly bug-fix in nature, with a few regulatory upgrades like full battery certification. Safety is a major concern for us, and we have launch customers that will be operating Digit in a safe environment, with a phased approach to relaxing operational constraints. Digit operates almost exclusively under force control (as with cobots more generally), but at the moment we’ll err on the side of caution during operation until we have the stats to back up safety and reliability. The legged robot industry has too much potential for us to screw it up by behaving irresponsibly.

It will be a while before Digit (or any other humanoid robot) is operating fully autonomously in crowds of people, but there are so many large market opportunities (think indoor factory/warehouse environments) to address prior to that point that we expect to mature the operational safety side of things well in advance of having saturated the more robot-tolerant markets.

[ Agility Robotics ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436044 Want a Really Hard Machine Learning ...

What’s the world’s hardest machine learning problem? Autonomous vehicles? Robots that can walk? Cancer detection?

Nope, says Julian Sanchez. It’s agriculture.

Sanchez might be a little biased. He is the director of precision agriculture for John Deere, and is in charge of adding intelligence to traditional farm vehicles. But he does have a little perspective, having spent time working on software for both medical devices and air traffic control systems.

I met with Sanchez and Alexey Rostapshov, head of digital innovation at John Deere Labs, at the organization’s San Francisco offices last month. Labs launched in 2017 to take advantage of the area’s tech expertise, both to apply machine learning to in-house agricultural problems and to work with partners to build technologies that play nicely with Deere’s big green machines. Deere’s neighbors in San Francisco’s tech-heavy South of Market are LinkedIn, Salesforce, and Planet Labs, which puts it in a good position for recruiting.

“We’ve literally had folks knock on the door and say, ‘What are you doing here?’” says Rostapshov, and some return to drop off resumes.

Here’s why Sanchez believes agriculture is such a big challenge for artificial intelligence.

“It’s not just about driving tractors around,” he says, although autonomous driving technologies are part of the mix. (John Deere is doing a lot of work with precision GPS to improve autonomous driving, for example, and allow tractors to plan their own routes around fields.)

But more complex than the driving problem, says Sanchez, are the classification problems.

Corn: A Classic Classification Problem

Photo: Tekla Perry

One key effort, Sanchez says, are AI systems “that allow me to tell whether grain being harvested is good quality or low quality and to make automatic adjustment systems for the harvester.” The company is already selling an early version of this image analysis technology. But the many differences between grain types, and grains grown under different conditions, make this task a tough one for machine learning.

“Take corn,” Sanchez says. “Let’s say we are building a deep learning algorithm to detect this corn. And we take lots of pictures of kernels to give it. Say we pick those kernels in central Illinois. But, one mile over, the farmer planted a slightly different hybrid which has slightly different coloration of yellow. Meanwhile, this other farm harvested three days later in a field five miles away; it’s the same hybrid, but it also looks different.

“It’s an overwhelming classification challenge, and that’s just for corn. But you are not only doing it for corn, you have to add 20 more varieties of grain to the mix; and some, like canola, are almost microscopic.”

Even the ground conditions vary dramatically—far more than road conditions, Sanchez points out.

“Let’s say we are building a deep learning algorithm to detect how much residue is left on the soil after a harvest, including stubble and some chaff. Let’s drive 2,000 acres of fields in the Midwest looking at residue. That’s great, but I guarantee that if you go drive those the next year, it will look significantly different.

“Deep learning is great at interpolating conditions between what it knows; it is not good at extrapolating to situations it hasn’t seen. And in agriculture, you always feel that there is a set of conditions that you haven’t yet classified.”

A Flood of Big Data

The scale of the data is also daunting, Rostapshov points out. “We are one of the largest users of cloud computing services in the world,” he says. “We are gathering 5 to 15 million measurements per second from 130,000 connected machines globally. We have over 150 million acres in our databases, using petabytes and petabytes [of storage]. We process more data than Twitter does.”

Much of this information is so-called dirty data, that is, it doesn’t share the same format or structure, because it’s coming not only from a wide variety of John Deere machines, but also includes data from some 100 other companies that have access to the platform, including weather information, aerial imagery, and soil analyses.

As a result, says Sanchez, Deere has had to make “tremendous investments in back-end data cleanup.”

Deep learning is great at interpolating conditions between what it knows; it is not good at extrapolating to situations it hasn’t seen.”
—Julian Sanchez, John Deere

“We have gotten progressively more skilled at that problem,” he says. “We started simply by cleaning up our own data. You’d think it would be nice and neat, since it’s coming from our own machines, but there is a wide variety of different models and different years. Then we started geospatially tagging the agronomic data—the information about where you are applying herbicides and fertilizer and the like—coming in from our vehicles. When we started bringing in other data, from drones, say, we were already good at cleaning it up.”

John Deere’s Hiring Pitch

Hard problems can be a good thing to have for a company looking to hire machine learning engineers.

“Our opening line to potential recruits,” Sanchez says, “is ‘This stuff matters.’ Then, if we get a chance to talk to them more, we follow up with ‘Not only does this stuff matter, but the problems are really hard and interesting.’ When we explain the variability in farming and how we have to apply all the latest tools to these problems, we get their attention.”

Software engineers “know that feeding a growing population is a massive problem and are excited about the prospect of making a difference,” Rostapshov says.

Only 20 engineers work in the San Francisco labs right now, and that’s on a busy day—some of the researchers spend part of their time at Blue River Technology, a startup based in Sunnyvale that was acquired by Deere in 2017. About half of the researchers are focusing on AI. The Lab is in the process of doubling its office space (no word on staffing plans for that expansion yet).

“We are one of the largest users of cloud computing services in the world.”
—Alexey Rostapshov, John Deere Labs

Company-wide, Deere has thousands of software engineers, with many using AI and machine learning tools in their work, and about the same number of mechanical and electrical engineers, Sanchez reports. “If you look at our hiring 10 years ago,” he says, “it was heavily weighted to mechanical engineers. But if you look at those numbers now, it is by a large majority [engineers working] in the software space. We still need mechanical engineers—we do build green machines—but if you go by our footprint of tech talent, it is pretty safe to call John Deere a software company. And if you follow the key conversations that are happening in the company right now, 95 percent of them are software-related.”

For now, these software engineers are focused on developing technologies that allow farmers to “do more with less,” Sanchez says. Meaning, to get more and better crops from less fuel, less seed, less fertilizer, less pesticide, and fewer workers, and putting together building blocks that, he says, could eventually lead to fully autonomous farm vehicles. The data Deere collects today, for the most part, stays in silos (the virtual kind), with AI algorithms that analyze specific sets of data to provide guidance to individual farmers. At some point, however, with tools to anonymize data and buy-in from farmers, aggregating data could provide some powerful insights.

“We are not asking farmers for that yet,” Sanchez says. “We are not doing aggregation to look for patterns. We are focused on offering technology that allows an individual farmer to use less, on positioning ourselves to be in a neutral spot. We are not about selling you more seed or more fertilizer. So we are building up a good trust level. In the long term, we can have conversations about doing more with deep learning.” Continue reading

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