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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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The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
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Artificial intelligence has received its fair share of hype recently. However, it’s hype that’s well-founded: IDC predicts worldwide spend on AI and cognitive computing will culminate to a whopping $46 billion (with a “b”) by 2020, and all the tech giants are jumping on board faster than you can say “ROI.” But what is AI, exactly?
According to Hilary Mason, AI today is being misused as a sort of catch-all term to basically describe “any system that uses data to do anything.” But it’s so much more than that. A truly artificially intelligent system is one that learns on its own, one that’s capable of crunching copious amounts of data in order to create associations and intelligently mimic actual human behavior.
It’s what powers the technology anticipating our next online purchase (Amazon), or the virtual assistant that deciphers our voice commands with incredible accuracy (Siri), or even the hipster-friendly recommendation engine that helps you discover new music before your friends do (Pandora). But AI is moving past these consumer-pleasing “nice-to-haves” and getting down to serious business: saving our butts.
Much in the same way robotics entered manufacturing, AI is making its mark in healthcare by automating mundane, repetitive tasks. This is especially true in the case of detecting cancer. By leveraging the power of deep learning, algorithms can now be trained to distinguish between sets of pixels in an image that represents cancer versus sets that don’t—not unlike how Facebook’s image recognition software tags pictures of our friends without us having to type in their names first. This software can then go ahead and scour millions of medical images (MRIs, CT scans, etc.) in a single day to detect anomalies on a scope that humans just aren’t capable of. That’s huge.
As if that wasn’t enough, these algorithms are constantly learning and evolving, getting better at making these associations with each new data set that gets fed to them. Radiology, dermatology, and pathology will experience a giant upheaval as tech giants and startups alike jump in to bring these deep learning algorithms to a hospital near you.
In fact, some already are: the FDA recently gave their seal of approval for an AI-powered medical imaging platform that helps doctors analyze and diagnose heart anomalies. This is the first time the FDA has approved a machine learning application for use in a clinical setting.
But how efficient is AI compared to humans, really? Well, aside from the obvious fact that software programs don’t get bored or distracted or have to check Facebook every twenty minutes, AI is exponentially better than us at analyzing data.
Take, for example, IBM’s Watson. Watson analyzed genomic data from both tumor cells and healthy cells and was ultimately able to glean actionable insights in a mere 10 minutes. Compare that to the 160 hours it would have taken a human to analyze that same data. Diagnoses aside, AI is also being leveraged in pharmaceuticals to aid in the very time-consuming grunt work of discovering new drugs, and all the big players are getting involved.
But AI is far from being just a behind-the-scenes player. Gartner recently predicted that by 2025, 50 percent of the population will rely on AI-powered “virtual personal health assistants” for their routine primary care needs. What this means is that consumer-facing voice and chat-operated “assistants” (think Siri or Cortana) would, in effect, serve as a central hub of interaction for all our connected health devices and the algorithms crunching all our real-time biometric data. These assistants would keep us apprised of our current state of well-being, acting as a sort of digital facilitator for our personal health objectives and an always-on health alert system that would notify us when we actually need to see a physician.
Slowly, and thanks to the tsunami of data and advancements in self-learning algorithms, healthcare is transitioning from a reactive model to more of a preventative model—and it’s completely upending the way care is delivered. Whether Elon Musk’s dystopian outlook on AI holds any weight or not is yet to be determined. But one thing’s certain: for the time being, artificial intelligence is saving our lives.
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For every new piece of technology that gets developed, you can usually find people saying it will never be useful. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, for example, said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” It’s equally easy to find people raving about whichever new technology is at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the buzz around these newest developments and attempts to temper predictions. When technologies emerge, there are all kinds of uncertainties, from the actual capacity of the technology to its use cases in real life to the price tag.
Eventually the dust settles, and some technologies get widely adopted, to the extent that they can become “invisible”; people take them for granted. Others fall by the wayside as gimmicky fads or impractical ideas. Picking which horses to back is the difference between Silicon Valley millions and Betamax pub-quiz-question obscurity. For a while, it seemed that Google had—for once—backed the wrong horse.
Google Glass emerged from Google X, the ubiquitous tech giant’s much-hyped moonshot factory, where highly secretive researchers work on the sci-fi technologies of the future. Self-driving cars and artificial intelligence are the more mundane end for an organization that apparently once looked into jetpacks and teleportation.
The original smart glasses, Google began selling Google Glass in 2013 for $1,500 as prototypes for their acolytes, around 8,000 early adopters. Users could control the glasses with a touchpad, or, activated by tilting the head back, with voice commands. Audio relay—as with several wearable products—is via bone conduction, which transmits sound by vibrating the skull bones of the user. This was going to usher in the age of augmented reality, the next best thing to having a chip implanted directly into your brain.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. People had dreamed about augmented reality for a long time—an onboard, JARVIS-style computer giving you extra information and instant access to communications without even having to touch a button. After smartphone ubiquity, it looked like a natural step forward.
Instead, there was a backlash. People may be willing to give their data up to corporations, but they’re less pleased with the idea that someone might be filming them in public. The worst aspect of smartphones is trying to talk to people who are distractedly scrolling through their phones. There’s a famous analogy in Revolutionary Road about an old couple’s loveless marriage: the husband tunes out his wife’s conversation by turning his hearing aid down to zero. To many, Google Glass seemed to provide us with a whole new way to ignore each other in favor of our Twitter feeds.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of whether it’s because we’re not used to them, or if it’s a more permanent feature, people wearing AR tech often look very silly. Put all this together with a lack of early functionality, the high price (do you really feel comfortable wearing a $1,500 computer?), and a killer pun for the users—Glassholes—and the final recipe wasn’t great for Google.
Google Glass was quietly dropped from sale in 2015 with the ominous slogan posted on Google’s website “Thanks for exploring with us.” Reminding the Glass users that they had always been referred to as “explorers”—beta-testing a product, in many ways—it perhaps signaled less enthusiasm for wearables than the original, Google Glass skydive might have suggested.
In reality, Google went back to the drawing board. Not with the technology per se, although it has improved in the intervening years, but with the uses behind the technology.
Under what circumstances would you actually need a Google Glass? When would it genuinely be preferable to a smartphone that can do many of the same things and more? Beyond simply being a fashion item, which Google Glass decidedly was not, even the most tech-evangelical of us need a convincing reason to splash $1,500 on a wearable computer that’s less socially acceptable and less easy to use than the machine you’re probably reading this on right now.
Enter the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Piloted in factories during the years that Google Glass was dormant, and now roaring back to life and commercially available, the Google Glass relaunch got under way in earnest in July of 2017. The difference here was the specific audience: workers in factories who need hands-free computing because they need to use their hands at the same time.
In this niche application, wearable computers can become invaluable. A new employee can be trained with pre-programmed material that explains how to perform actions in real time, while instructions can be relayed straight into a worker’s eyeline without them needing to check a phone or switch to email.
Medical devices have long been a dream application for Google Glass. You can imagine a situation where people receive real-time information during surgery, or are augmented by artificial intelligence that provides additional diagnostic information or questions in response to a patient’s symptoms. The quest to develop a healthcare AI, which can provide recommendations in response to natural language queries, is on. The famously untidy doctor’s handwriting—and the associated death toll—could be avoided if the glasses could take dictation straight into a patient’s medical records. All of this is far more useful than allowing people to check Facebook hands-free while they’re riding the subway.
Google’s “Lens” application indicates another use for Google Glass that hadn’t quite matured when the original was launched: the Lens processes images and provides information about them. You can look at text and have it translated in real time, or look at a building or sign and receive additional information. Image processing, either through neural networks hooked up to a cloud database or some other means, is the frontier that enables driverless cars and similar technology to exist. Hook this up to a voice-activated assistant relaying information to the user, and you have your killer application: real-time annotation of the world around you. It’s this functionality that just wasn’t ready yet when Google launched Glass.
Amazon’s recent announcement that they want to integrate Alexa into a range of smart glasses indicates that the tech giants aren’t ready to give up on wearables yet. Perhaps, in time, people will become used to voice activation and interaction with their machines, at which point smart glasses with bone conduction will genuinely be more convenient than a smartphone.
But in many ways, the real lesson from the initial failure—and promising second life—of Google Glass is a simple question that developers of any smart technology, from the Internet of Things through to wearable computers, must answer. “What can this do that my smartphone can’t?” Find your answer, as the Enterprise Edition did, as Lens might, and you find your product.
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