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According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.
This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.
Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.
Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?
New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.
The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.
“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”
The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.
In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.
Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.
Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.
They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.
Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.
Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.
But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.
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The World’s Fastest Supercomputer Breaks an AI Record
Tom Simonite | Wired
“Summit, which occupies an area equivalent to two tennis courts, used more than 27,000 powerful graphics processors in the project. It tapped their power to train deep-learning algorithms, the technology driving AI’s frontier, chewing through the exercise at a rate of a billion billion operations per second, a pace known in supercomputing circles as an exaflop.”
iRobot Finally Announces Awesome New Terra Robotic Lawnmower
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“Since the first Roomba came out in 2002, it has seemed inevitable that one day iRobot would develop a robotic lawn mower. After all, a robot mower is basically just a Roomba that works outside, right? Of course, it’s not nearly that simple, as iRobot has spent the last decade or so discovering, but they’ve finally managed to pull it off.”
Watch This Super Speedy 3D Printer Make Objects Suddenly Appear
Erin Winick | MIT Technology Review
“The new machine—which the team nicknamed the ‘replicator’ after the machine from Star Trek—instead forms the entire item all in one go. It does this by shining light onto specific spots in a rotating resin that solidifies when exposed to a certain light level.”
The DIY Designer Baby Project Funded With Bitcoin
Antonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review
“i‘Is DIY bio anywhere close to making a CRISPR baby? No, not remotely,’ David Ishee says. ‘But if some rich guy pays a scientist to do the work, it’s going to happen.’ He adds: ‘What you are reporting on isn’t Bryan—it’s the unseen middle space, a layer of gray-market biotech and freelance science where people with resources can get things done.’i”
The Complete Cancer Cure Story Is Both Bogus and Tragic
Megan Molteni | Wired
“You’d think creators and consumers of news would have learned their lesson by now. But the latest version of the fake cancer cure story is even more flagrantly flawed than usual. The public’s cancer cure–shaped amnesia, and media outlets’ willingness to exploit it for clicks, are as bottomless as ever. Hope, it would seem, trumps history.”
An AI Reading List—From Practical Primers to Sci-Fi Short Stories
James Vincent | The Verge
“The Verge has assembled a reading list: a brief but diverse compendium of books, short stories, and blogs, all chosen by leading figures in the AI world to help you better understand artificial intelligence.”
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2018 was bonkers for science.
From a woman who gave birth using a transplanted uterus, to the infamous CRISPR baby scandal, to forensics adopting consumer-based genealogy test kits to track down criminals, last year was a factory churning out scientific “whoa” stories with consequences for years to come.
With CRISPR still in the headlines, Britain ready to bid Europe au revoir, and multiple scientific endeavors taking off, 2019 is shaping up to be just as tumultuous.
Here are the science and health stories that may blow up in the new year. But first, a note of caveat: predicting the future is tough. Forecasting is the lovechild between statistics and (a good deal of) intuition, and entire disciplines have been dedicated to the endeavor. But January is the perfect time to gaze into the crystal ball for wisps of insight into the year to come. Last year we predicted the widespread approval of gene therapy products—on the most part, we nailed it. This year we’re hedging our bets with multiple predictions.
Gene Drives Used in the Wild
The concept of gene drives scares many, for good reason. Gene drives are a step up in severity (and consequences) from CRISPR and other gene-editing tools. Even with germline editing, in which the sperm, egg, or embryos are altered, gene editing affects just one genetic line—one family—at least at the beginning, before they reproduce with the general population.
Gene drives, on the other hand, have the power to wipe out entire species.
In a nutshell, they’re little bits of DNA code that help a gene transfer from parent to child with almost 100 percent perfect probability. The “half of your DNA comes from dad, the other comes from mom” dogma? Gene drives smash that to bits.
In other words, the only time one would consider using a gene drive is to change the genetic makeup of an entire population. It sounds like the plot of a supervillain movie, but scientists have been toying around with the idea of deploying the technology—first in mosquitoes, then (potentially) in rodents.
By releasing just a handful of mutant mosquitoes that carry gene drives for infertility, for example, scientists could potentially wipe out entire populations that carry infectious scourges like malaria, dengue, or Zika. The technology is so potent—and dangerous—the US Defense Advances Research Projects Agency is shelling out $65 million to suss out how to deploy, control, counter, or even reverse the effects of tampering with ecology.
Last year, the U.N. gave a cautious go-ahead for the technology to be deployed in the wild in limited terms. Now, the first release of a genetically modified mosquito is set for testing in Burkina Faso in Africa—the first-ever field experiment involving gene drives.
The experiment will only release mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus, which are the main culprits transferring disease. As a first step, over 10,000 male mosquitoes are set for release into the wild. These dudes are genetically sterile but do not cause infertility, and will help scientists examine how they survive and disperse as a preparation for deploying gene-drive-carrying mosquitoes.
Hot on the project’s heels, the nonprofit consortium Target Malaria, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, is engineering a gene drive called Mosq that will spread infertility across the population or kill out all female insects. Their attempt to hack the rules of inheritance—and save millions in the process—is slated for 2024.
A Universal Flu Vaccine
People often brush off flu as a mere annoyance, but the infection kills hundreds of thousands each year based on the CDC’s statistical estimates.
The flu virus is actually as difficult of a nemesis as HIV—it mutates at an extremely rapid rate, making effective vaccines almost impossible to engineer on time. Scientists currently use data to forecast the strains that will likely explode into an epidemic and urge the public to vaccinate against those predictions. That’s partly why, on average, flu vaccines only have a success rate of roughly 50 percent—not much better than a coin toss.
Tired of relying on educated guesses, scientists have been chipping away at a universal flu vaccine that targets all strains—perhaps even those we haven’t yet identified. Often referred to as the “holy grail” in epidemiology, these vaccines try to alert our immune systems to parts of a flu virus that are least variable from strain to strain.
Last November, a first universal flu vaccine developed by BiondVax entered Phase 3 clinical trials, which means it’s already been proven safe and effective in a small numbers and is now being tested in a broader population. The vaccine doesn’t rely on dead viruses, which is a common technique. Rather, it uses a small chain of amino acids—the chemical components that make up proteins—to stimulate the immune system into high alert.
With the government pouring $160 million into the research and several other universal candidates entering clinical trials, universal flu vaccines may finally experience a breakthrough this year.
In-Body Gene Editing Shows Further Promise
CRISPR and other gene editing tools headed the news last year, including both downers suggesting we already have immunity to the technology and hopeful news of it getting ready for treating inherited muscle-wasting diseases.
But what wasn’t widely broadcasted was the in-body gene editing experiments that have been rolling out with gusto. Last September, Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California revealed that they had injected gene-editing enzymes into a patient in an effort to correct a genetic deficit that prevents him from breaking down complex sugars.
The effort is markedly different than the better-known CAR-T therapy, which extracts cells from the body for genetic engineering before returning them to the hosts. Rather, Sangamo’s treatment directly injects viruses carrying the edited genes into the body. So far, the procedure looks to be safe, though at the time of reporting it was too early to determine effectiveness.
This year the company hopes to finally answer whether it really worked.
If successful, it means that devastating genetic disorders could potentially be treated with just a few injections. With a gamut of new and more precise CRISPR and other gene-editing tools in the works, the list of treatable inherited diseases is likely to grow. And with the CRISPR baby scandal potentially dampening efforts at germline editing via regulations, in-body gene editing will likely receive more attention if Sangamo’s results return positive.
Neuralink and Other Brain-Machine Interfaces
Neuralink is the stuff of sci fi: tiny implanted particles into the brain could link up your biological wetware with silicon hardware and the internet.
But that’s exactly what Elon Musk’s company, founded in 2016, seeks to develop: brain-machine interfaces that could tinker with your neural circuits in an effort to treat diseases or even enhance your abilities.
Last November, Musk broke his silence on the secretive company, suggesting that he may announce something “interesting” in a few months, that’s “better than anyone thinks is possible.”
Musk’s aspiration for achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence isn’t the driving force for all brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). In the clinics, the main push is to rehabilitate patients—those who suffer from paralysis, memory loss, or other nerve damage.
2019 may be the year that BMIs and neuromodulators cut the cord in the clinics. These devices may finally work autonomously within a malfunctioning brain, applying electrical stimulation only when necessary to reduce side effects without requiring external monitoring. Or they could allow scientists to control brains with light without needing bulky optical fibers.
Cutting the cord is just the first step to fine-tuning neurological treatments—or enhancements—to the tune of your own brain, and 2019 will keep on bringing the music.
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Each time there’s a headline about driverless trucking technology, another piece is taken out of the old equation. First, an Uber/Otto truck’s safety driver went hands-off once the truck reached the highway (and said truck successfully delivered its valuable cargo of 50,000 beers). Then, Starsky Robotics announced its trucks would start making autonomous deliveries without a human in the vehicle at all.
Now, Volvo has taken the tech one step further. Its new trucks not only won’t have safety drivers, they won’t even have the option of putting safety drivers behind the wheel, because there is no wheel—and no cab, either.
Vera, as the technology’s been dubbed, was unveiled in September, and consists of a sort of flat-Tesla-like electric car with a standard trailer hookup. The vehicles are connected to a cloud service, which also connects them to each other and to a control center. The control center monitors the trucks’ positioning (they’re designed to locate their position to within centimeters), battery charge, load content, service requirements, and other variables. The driveline and battery pack used in the cars are the same as those Volvo uses in its existing electric trucks.
You won’t see these cruising down an interstate highway, though, or even down a local highway. Vera trucks are designed to be used on short, repetitive routes contained within limited areas—think shipping ports, industrial parks, or logistics hubs. They’re limited to slower speeds than normal cars or trucks, and will be able to operate 24/7. “We will see much higher delivery precision, as well as improved flexibility and productivity,” said Mikael Karlsson, VP of Autonomous Solutions at Volvo Trucks. “Today’s operations are often designed according to standard daytime work hours, but a solution like Vera opens up the possibility of continuous round-the-clock operation and a more optimal flow. This in turn can minimize stock piles and increase overall productivity.”
The trucks are sort of like bigger versions of Amazon’s Kiva robots, which scoot around the aisles of warehouses and fulfillment centers moving pallets between shelves and fetching goods to be shipped.
Pairing trucks like Vera with robots like Kiva makes for a fascinating future landscape of logistics and transport; cargo will be moved from docks to warehouses by a large, flat robot-on-wheels, then distributed throughout that warehouse by smaller, flat robots-on-wheels. To really see the automated process through to the end point, even smaller flat robots-on-wheels will be used to deliver peoples’ goods right to their front doors.
Sounds like a lot of robots and not a lot of humans, right? Anticipating its technology’s implication in the ongoing uproar over technological unemployment, Volvo has already made statements about its intentions to continue to employ humans alongside the driverless trucks. “I foresee that there will be an increased level of automation where it makes sense, such as for repetitive tasks. This in turn will drive prosperity and increase the need for truck drivers in other applications,” said Karlsson.
The end-to-end automation concept has already been put into practice in Caofeidian, a northern Chinese city that houses the world’s first fully autonomous harbor, aiming to be operational by the end of this year. Besides replacing human-driven trucks with autonomous ones (made by Chinese startup TuSimple), the port is using automated cranes and a coordinating central control system.
Besides Uber/Otto, Tesla, or Daimler, which are all working on driverless trucks with a more conventional design (meaning they still have a cab and look like you’d expect a truck to look), Volvo also has competition from a company called Einride. The Swedish startup’s electric, cabless T/Pod looks a lot like Vera, but has some fundamental differences. Rather than being tailored to short distances and high capacity, Einride’s trucks are meant for medium distance and capacity, like moving goods from a distribution center to a series of local stores.
Vera trucks are currently still in the development phase. But since their intended use is quite specific and limited (Karlsson noted “Vera is not intended to be a solution for everyone, everywhere”), the technology could likely be rolled out faster than its more general-use counterparts. Having cabless electric trucks take over short routes in closed environments would be one more baby step along the road to a driverless future—and a testament to the fact that self-driving technology will move into our lives and our jobs incrementally, ostensibly giving us the time we’ll need to adapt and adjust.
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