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Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.
Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.
Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.
It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.
That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.
But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.
It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.
And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.
In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.
It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.
Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.
And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).
How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.
Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.
But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.
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Scarcely a day goes by without another headline about neural networks: some new task that deep learning algorithms can excel at, approaching or even surpassing human competence. As the application of this approach to computer vision has continued to improve, with algorithms capable of specialized recognition tasks like those found in medicine, the software is getting closer to widespread commercial use—for example, in self-driving cars. Our ability to recognize patterns is a huge part of human intelligence: if this can be done faster by machines, the consequences will be profound.
Yet, as ever with algorithms, there are deep concerns about their reliability, especially when we don’t know precisely how they work. State-of-the-art neural networks will confidently—and incorrectly—classify images that look like television static or abstract art as real-world objects like school-buses or armadillos. Specific algorithms could be targeted by “adversarial examples,” where adding an imperceptible amount of noise to an image can cause an algorithm to completely mistake one object for another. Machine learning experts enjoy constructing these images to trick advanced software, but if a self-driving car could be fooled by a few stickers, it might not be so fun for the passengers.
These difficulties are hard to smooth out in large part because we don’t have a great intuition for how these neural networks “see” and “recognize” objects. The main insight analyzing a trained network itself can give us is a series of statistical weights, associating certain groups of points with certain objects: this can be very difficult to interpret.
Now, new research from UCLA, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, is testing neural networks to understand the limits of their vision and the differences between computer vision and human vision. Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, and Philip J. Kellman of UCLA, alongside Gennady Erlikhman of the University of Nevada, tested a deep convolutional neural network called VGG-19. This is state-of-the-art technology that is already outperforming humans on standardized tests like the ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Challenge.
They found that, while humans tend to classify objects based on their overall (global) shape, deep neural networks are far more sensitive to the textures of objects, including local color gradients and the distribution of points on the object. This result helps explain why neural networks in image recognition make mistakes that no human ever would—and could allow for better designs in the future.
In the first experiment, a neural network was trained to sort images into 1 of 1,000 different categories. It was then presented with silhouettes of these images: all of the local information was lost, while only the outline of the object remained. Ordinarily, the trained neural net was capable of recognizing these objects, assigning more than 90% probability to the correct classification. Studying silhouettes, this dropped to 10%. While human observers could nearly always produce correct shape labels, the neural networks appeared almost insensitive to the overall shape of the images. On average, the correct object was ranked as the 209th most likely solution by the neural network, even though the overall shapes were an exact match.
A particularly striking example arose when they tried to get the neural networks to classify glass figurines of objects they could already recognize. While you or I might find it easy to identify a glass model of an otter or a polar bear, the neural network classified them as “oxygen mask” and “can opener” respectively. By presenting glass figurines, where the texture information that neural networks relied on for classifying objects is lost, the neural network was unable to recognize the objects by shape alone. The neural network was similarly hopeless at classifying objects based on drawings of their outline.
If you got one of these right, you’re better than state-of-the-art image recognition software. Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
When the neural network was explicitly trained to recognize object silhouettes—given no information in the training data aside from the object outlines—the researchers found that slight distortions or “ripples” to the contour of the image were again enough to fool the AI, while humans paid them no mind.
The fact that neural networks seem to be insensitive to the overall shape of an object—relying instead on statistical similarities between local distributions of points—suggests a further experiment. What if you scrambled the images so that the overall shape was lost but local features were preserved? It turns out that the neural networks are far better and faster at recognizing scrambled versions of objects than outlines, even when humans struggle. Students could classify only 37% of the scrambled objects, while the neural network succeeded 83% of the time.
Humans vastly outperform machines at classifying object (a) as a bear, while the machine learning algorithm has few problems classifying the bear in figure (b). Image Credit: Nicholas Baker, Hongjing Lu, Gennady Erlikhman, Philip J. Kelman. “Deep convolutional networks do not classify based on global object shape.” Plos Computational Biology. 12/7/18. / CC BY 4.0
“This study shows these systems get the right answer in the images they were trained on without considering shape,” Kellman said. “For humans, overall shape is primary for object recognition, and identifying images by overall shape doesn’t seem to be in these deep learning systems at all.”
Naively, one might expect that—as the many layers of a neural network are modeled on connections between neurons in the brain and resemble the visual cortex specifically—the way computer vision operates must necessarily be similar to human vision. But this kind of research shows that, while the fundamental architecture might resemble that of the human brain, the resulting “mind” operates very differently.
Researchers can, increasingly, observe how the “neurons” in neural networks light up when exposed to stimuli and compare it to how biological systems respond to the same stimuli. Perhaps someday it might be possible to use these comparisons to understand how neural networks are “thinking” and how those responses differ from humans.
But, as yet, it takes a more experimental psychology to probe how neural networks and artificial intelligence algorithms perceive the world. The tests employed against the neural network are closer to how scientists might try to understand the senses of an animal or the developing brain of a young child rather than a piece of software.
By combining this experimental psychology with new neural network designs or error-correction techniques, it may be possible to make them even more reliable. Yet this research illustrates just how much we still don’t understand about the algorithms we’re creating and using: how they tick, how they make decisions, and how they’re different from us. As they play an ever-greater role in society, understanding the psychology of neural networks will be crucial if we want to use them wisely and effectively—and not end up missing the woods for the trees.
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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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