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#434569 From Parkour to Surgery, Here Are the ...

The robot revolution may not be here quite yet, but our mechanical cousins have made some serious strides. And now some of the leading experts in the field have provided a rundown of what they see as the 10 most exciting recent developments.

Compiled by the editors of the journal Science Robotics, the list includes some of the most impressive original research and innovative commercial products to make a splash in 2018, as well as a couple from 2017 that really changed the game.

1. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas doing parkour

It seems like barely a few months go by without Boston Dynamics rewriting the book on what a robot can and can’t do. Last year they really outdid themselves when they got their Atlas humanoid robot to do parkour, leaping over logs and jumping between wooden crates.

Atlas’s creators have admitted that the videos we see are cherry-picked from multiple attempts, many of which don’t go so well. But they say they’re meant to be inspirational and aspirational rather than an accurate picture of where robotics is today. And combined with the company’s dog-like Spot robot, they are certainly pushing boundaries.

2. Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci SP platform
Robotic surgery isn’t new, but the technology is improving rapidly. Market leader Intuitive’s da Vinci surgical robot was first cleared by the FDA in 2000, but since then it’s come a long way, with the company now producing three separate systems.

The latest addition is the da Vinci SP (single port) system, which is able to insert three instruments into the body through a single 2.5cm cannula (tube) bringing a whole new meaning to minimally invasive surgery. The system was granted FDA clearance for urological procedures last year, and the company has now started shipping the new system to customers.

3. Soft robot that navigates through growth

Roboticists have long borrowed principles from the animal kingdom, but a new robot design that mimics the way plant tendrils and fungi mycelium move by growing at the tip has really broken the mold on robot navigation.

The editors point out that this is the perfect example of bio-inspired design; the researchers didn’t simply copy nature, they took a general principle and expanded on it. The tube-like robot unfolds from the front as pneumatic pressure is applied, but unlike a plant, it can grow at the speed of an animal walking and can navigate using visual feedback from a camera.

4. 3D printed liquid crystal elastomers for soft robotics
Soft robotics is one of the fastest-growing sub-disciplines in the field, but powering these devices without rigid motors or pumps is an ongoing challenge. A variety of shape-shifting materials have been proposed as potential artificial muscles, including liquid crystal elastomeric actuators.

Harvard engineers have now demonstrated that these materials can be 3D printed using a special ink that allows the designer to easily program in all kinds of unusual shape-shifting abilities. What’s more, their technique produces actuators capable of lifting significantly more weight than previous approaches.

5. Muscle-mimetic, self-healing, and hydraulically amplified actuators
In another effort to find a way to power soft robots, last year researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder designed a series of super low-cost artificial muscles that can lift 200 times their own weight and even heal themselves.

The devices rely on pouches filled with a liquid that makes them contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied. The most promising for robotics applications is the so-called Peano-HASEL, which features multiple rectangular pouches connected in series that contract linearly, just like real muscle.

6. Self-assembled nanoscale robot from DNA

While you may think of robots as hulking metallic machines, a substantial number of scientists are working on making nanoscale robots out of DNA. And last year German researchers built the first remote-controlled DNA robotic arm.

They created a length of tightly-bound DNA molecules to act as the arm and attached it to a DNA base plate via a flexible joint. Because DNA carries a charge, they were able to get the arm to swivel around like the hand of a clock by applying a voltage and switch direction by reversing that voltage. The hope is that this arm could eventually be used to build materials piece by piece at the nanoscale.

7. DelFly nimble bioinspired robotic flapper

Robotics doesn’t only borrow from biology—sometimes it gives back to it, too. And a new flapping-winged robot designed by Dutch engineers that mimics the humble fruit fly has done just that, by revealing how the animals that inspired it carry out predator-dodging maneuvers.

The lab has been building flapping robots for years, but this time they ditched the airplane-like tail used to control previous incarnations. Instead, they used insect-inspired adjustments to the motions of its twin pairs of flapping wings to hover, pitch, and roll with the agility of a fruit fly. That has provided a useful platform for investigating insect flight dynamics, as well as more practical applications.

8. Soft exosuit wearable robot

Exoskeletons could prevent workplace injuries, help people walk again, and even boost soldiers’ endurance. Strapping on bulky equipment isn’t ideal, though, so researchers at Harvard are working on a soft exoskeleton that combines specially-designed textiles, sensors, and lightweight actuators.

And last year the team made an important breakthrough by combining their novel exoskeleton with a machine-learning algorithm that automatically tunes the device to the user’s particular walking style. Using physiological data, it is able to adjust when and where the device needs to deliver a boost to the user’s natural movements to improve walking efficiency.

9. Universal Robots (UR) e-Series Cobots
Robots in factories are nothing new. The enormous mechanical arms you see in car factories normally have to be kept in cages to prevent them from accidentally crushing people. In recent years there’s been growing interest in “co-bots,” collaborative robots designed to work side-by-side with their human colleagues and even learn from them.

Earlier this year saw the demise of ReThink robotics, the pioneer of the approach. But the simple single arm devices made by Danish firm Universal Robotics are becoming ubiquitous in workshops and warehouses around the world, accounting for about half of global co-bot sales. Last year they released their latest e-Series, with enhanced safety features and force/torque sensing.

10. Sony’s aibo
After a nearly 20-year hiatus, Sony’s robotic dog aibo is back, and it’s had some serious upgrades. As well as a revamp to its appearance, the new robotic pet takes advantage of advances in AI, with improved environmental and command awareness and the ability to develop a unique character based on interactions with its owner.

The editors note that this new context awareness mark the device out as a significant evolution in social robots, which many hope could aid in childhood learning or provide companionship for the elderly.

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#434544 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

DeepMind Beats Pros at Starcraft in Another Triumph for Bots
Tom Simonite | Wired
“DeepMind’s feat is the most complex yet in a long train of contests in which computers have beaten top humans at games. Checkers fell in 1994, chess in 1997, and DeepMind’s earlier bot AlphaGo became the first to beat a champion at the board game Go in 2016. The StarCraft bot is the most powerful AI game player yet; it may also be the least unexpected.”

Complete Axolotl Genome Could Pave the Way Toward Human Tissue Regeneration
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“Now that researchers have a near-complete axolotl genome—the new assembly still requires a bit of fine-tuning (more on that in a bit)—they, along with others, can now go about the work of identifying the genes responsible for axolotl tissue regeneration.”

We Analyzed 16,625 Papers to Figure Out Where AI Is Headed Next
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“…though deep learning has singlehandedly thrust AI into the public eye, it represents just a small blip in the history of humanity’s quest to replicate our own intelligence. It’s been at the forefront of that effort for less than 10 years. When you zoom out on the whole history of the field, it’s easy to realize that it could soon be on its way out.”

Apple’s Finger-Controller Patent Is a Glimpse at Mixed Reality’s Future
Mark Sullivan | Fast Company
“[Apple’s] engineers are now looking past the phone touchscreen toward mixed reality, where the company’s next great UX will very likely be built. A recent patent application gives some tantalizing clues as to how Apple’s people are thinking about aspects of that challenge.”

How Do You Govern Machines That Can Learn? Policymakers Are Trying to Figure That Out
Steve Lohr | The New York Times
“Regulation is coming. That’s a good thing. Rules of competition and behavior are the foundation of healthy, growing markets. That was the consensus of the policymakers at MIT. But they also agreed that artificial intelligence raises some fresh policy challenges.”

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#434532 How Microrobots Will Fix Our Roads and ...

Swarms of microrobots will scuttle along beneath our roads and pavements, finding and fixing leaky pipes and faulty cables. Thanks to their efforts, we can avoid costly road work that costs billions of dollars each year—not to mention frustrating traffic delays.

That is, if a new project sponsored by the U.K. government is a success. Recent developments in the space seem to point towards a bright future for microrobots.

Microrobots Saving Billions
Each year, around 1.5 million road excavations take place across the U.K. Many are due to leaky pipes and faulty cables that necessitate excavation of road surfaces in order to fix them. The resulting repairs, alongside disruptions to traffic and businesses, are estimated to cost a whopping £6.3 billion ($8 billion).

A consortium of scientists, led by University of Sheffield Professor Kirill Horoshenkov, are planning to use microrobots to negate most of these costs. The group has received a £7.2 million ($9.2 million) grant to develop and build their bots.

According to Horoshenkov, the microrobots will come in two versions. One is an inspection bot, which will navigate along underground infrastructure and examine its condition via sonar. The inspectors will be complemented by worker bots capable of carrying out repairs with cement and adhesives or cleaning out blockages with a high-powered jet. The inspector bots will be around one centimeter long and possibly autonomous, while the worker bots will be slightly larger and steered via remote control.

If successful, it is believed the bots could potentially save the U.K. economy around £5 billion ($6.4 billion) a year.

The U.K. government has set aside a further £19 million ($24 million) for research into robots for hazardous environments, such as nuclear decommissioning, drones for oil pipeline monitoring, and artificial intelligence software to detect the need for repairs on satellites in orbit.

The Lowest-Hanging Fruit
Microrobots like the ones now under development in the U.K. have many potential advantages and use cases. Thanks to their small size they can navigate tight spaces, for example in search and rescue operations, and robot swarm technology would allow them to collaborate to perform many different functions, including in construction projects.

To date, the number of microrobots in use is relatively limited, but that could be about to change, with bots closing in on other types of inspection jobs, which could be considered one of the lowest-hanging fruits.

Engineering firm Rolls-Royce (not the car company, but the one that builds aircraft engines) is looking to use microrobots to inspect some of the up to 25,000 individual parts that make up an engine. The microrobots use the cockroach as a model, and Rolls Royce believes they could save engineers time when performing the maintenance checks that can take over a month per engine.

Even Smaller Successes
Going further down in scale, recent years have seen a string of successes for nanobots. For example, a team of researchers at the Femto-ST Institute have used nanobots to build what is likely the world’s smallest house (if this isn’t a category at Guinness, someone needs to get on the phone with them), which stands a ‘towering’ 0.015 millimeters.

One of the areas where nanobots have shown great promise is in medicine. Several studies have shown how the minute bots are capable of delivering drugs directly into dense biological tissue, which can otherwise be highly challenging to target directly. Such delivery systems have a great potential for improving the treatment of a wide range of ailments and illnesses, including cancer.

There’s no question that the ecosystem of microrobots and nanobots is evolving. While still in their early days, the above successes point to a near-future boom in the bots we may soon refer to as our ‘littlest everyday helpers.’

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#433725 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

The Demise of Rethink Robotics Shows How Hard It Is to Make Machines Truly Smart
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“There’s growing interest in using recent advances in AI to make industrial robots a lot smarter and more useful. …But look carefully and you’ll see that these technologies are at a very early stage, and that deploying them commercially could prove extremely challenging. The demise of Rethink doesn’t mean industrial robotics isn’t flourishing, or that AI-driven advances won’t come about. But it shows just how hard doing real innovation in robotics can be.”

The Human Cell Atlas Is Biologists’ Latest Grand Project
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Dubbed the Human Cell Atlas, the project intends to catalog all of the estimated 37 trillion cells that make up a human body. …By decoding the genes active in single cells, pegging different cell types to a specific address in the body, and tracing the molecular circuits between them, participating researchers plan to create a more comprehensive map of human biology than has ever existed before.”

US Will Rewrite Safety Rules to Permit Fully Driverless Cars on Public Roads
Andrew J. Hawkins | The Verge
“Under current US safety rules, a motor vehicle must have traditional controls, like a steering wheel, mirrors, and foot pedals, before it is allowed to operate on public roads. But that could all change under a new plan released on Thursday by the Department of Transportation that’s intended to open the floodgates for fully driverless cars.”

When an AI Goes Full Jack Kerouac
Brian Merchant | The Atlantic
“By the end of the four-day trip, receipts emblazoned with artificially intelligent prose would cover the floor of the car. …it is a hallucinatory, oddly illuminating account of a bot’s life on the interstate; the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meets Google Street View, narrated by Siri.”

New Autonomous Farm Wants to Produce Food Without Human Workers
Erin Winick | MIT Technology Review
“As the firm’s cofounder Brandon Alexander puts it: ‘We are a farm and will always be a farm.’ But it’s no ordinary farm. For starters, the company’s 15 human employees share their work space with robots who quietly go about the business of tending rows and rows of leafy greens.”

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#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

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