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#434818 Watch These Robots Do Tasks You Thought ...

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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#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.

Image Credit: DelFly Nimble / CC BY – SA 4.0 Continue reading

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#433859 Video Friday: Collaborative Humanoid ...

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos Continue reading

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#433719 Rethink Robotics, Pioneer of ...

Rodney Brooks’s startup developed a new class of factory robots that could safely work alongside people. Then came the hardest part: selling them Continue reading

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#433689 The Rise of Dataism: A Threat to Freedom ...

What would happen if we made all of our data public—everything from wearables monitoring our biometrics, all the way to smartphones monitoring our location, our social media activity, and even our internet search history?

Would such insights into our lives simply provide companies and politicians with greater power to invade our privacy and manipulate us by using our psychological profiles against us?

A burgeoning new philosophy called dataism doesn’t think so.

In fact, this trending ideology believes that liberating the flow of data is the supreme value of the universe, and that it could be the key to unleashing the greatest scientific revolution in the history of humanity.

What Is Dataism?
First mentioned by David Brooks in his 2013 New York Times article “The Philosophy of Data,” dataism is an ethical system that has been most heavily explored and popularized by renowned historian, Yuval Noah Harari.

In his 2016 book Homo Deus, Harari described dataism as a new form of religion that celebrates the growing importance of big data.

Its core belief centers around the idea that the universe gives greater value and support to systems, individuals, and societies that contribute most heavily and efficiently to data processing. In an interview with Wired, Harari stated, “Humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case.”

Now, big data and machine learning are proving themselves more sophisticated, and dataists believe we should hand over as much information and power to these algorithms as possible, allowing the free flow of data to unlock innovation and progress unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Pros: Progress and Personal Growth
When you let data run freely, it’s bound to be mixed and matched in new ways that inevitably spark progress. And as we enter the exponential future where every person is constantly connected and sharing their data, the potential for such collaborative epiphanies becomes even greater.

We can already see important increases in quality of life thanks to companies like Google. With Google Maps on your phone, your position is constantly updating on their servers. This information, combined with everyone else on the planet using a phone with Google Maps, allows your phone to inform you of traffic conditions. Based on the speed and location of nearby phones, Google can reroute you to less congested areas or help you avoid accidents. And since you trust that these algorithms have more data than you, you gladly hand over your power to them, following your GPS’s directions rather than your own.

We can do the same sort of thing with our bodies.

Imagine, for instance, a world where each person has biosensors in their bloodstreams—a not unlikely or distant possibility when considering diabetic people already wear insulin pumps that constantly monitor their blood sugar levels. And let’s assume this data was freely shared to the world.

Now imagine a virus like Zika or the Bird Flu breaks out. Thanks to this technology, the odd change in biodata coming from a particular region flags an artificial intelligence that feeds data to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Recognizing that a pandemic could be possible, AIs begin 3D printing vaccines on-demand, predicting the number of people who may be afflicted. When our personal AIs tell us the locations of the spreading epidemic and to take the vaccine it just delivered by drone to our homes, are we likely to follow its instructions? Almost certainly—and if so, it’s likely millions, if not billions, of lives will have been saved.

But to quickly create such vaccines, we’ll also need to liberate research.

Currently, universities and companies seeking to benefit humankind with medical solutions have to pay extensively to organize clinical trials and to find people who match their needs. But if all our biodata was freely aggregated, perhaps they could simply say “monitor all people living with cancer” to an AI, and thanks to the constant stream of data coming in from the world’s population, a machine learning program may easily be able to detect a pattern and create a cure.

As always in research, the more sample data you have, the higher the chance that such patterns will emerge. If data is flowing freely, then anyone in the world can suddenly decide they have a hunch they want to explore, and without having to spend months and months of time and money hunting down the data, they can simply test their hypothesis.

Whether garage tinkerers, at-home scientists, or PhD students—an abundance of free data allows for science to progress unhindered, each person able to operate without being slowed by lack of data. And any progress they make is immediately liberated, becoming free data shared with anyone else that may find a use for it.

Any individual with a curious passion would have the entire world’s data at their fingertips, empowering every one of us to become an expert in any subject that inspires us. Expertise we can then share back into the data stream—a positive feedback loop spearheading progress for the entirety of humanity’s knowledge.

Such exponential gains represent a dataism utopia.

Unfortunately, our current incentives and economy also show us the tragic failures of this model.

As Harari has pointed out, the rise of datism means that “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.”

Cons: Manipulation and Extortion
In 2017, The Economist declared that data was the most valuable resource on the planet—even more valuable than oil.

Perhaps this is because data is ‘priceless’: it represents understanding, and understanding represents control. And so, in the world of advertising and politics, having data on your consumers and voters gives you an incredible advantage.

This was evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it’s believed that Donald Trump and the architects of Brexit leveraged users’ Facebook data to create psychological profiles that enabled them to manipulate the masses.

How powerful are these psychological models?

A team who built a model similar to that used by Cambridge Analytica said their model could understand someone as well as a coworker with access to only 10 Facebook likes. With 70 likes they could know them as well as a friend might, 150 likes to match their parents’ understanding, and at 300 likes they could even come to know someone better than their lovers. With more likes, they could even come to know someone better than that person knows themselves.

Proceeding With Caution
In a capitalist democracy, do we want businesses and politicians to know us better than we know ourselves?

In spite of the remarkable benefits that may result for our species by freely giving away our information, do we run the risk of that data being used to exploit and manipulate the masses towards a future without free will, where our daily lives are puppeteered by those who own our data?

It’s extremely possible.

And it’s for this reason that one of the most important conversations we’ll have as a species centers around data ownership: do we just give ownership of the data back to the users, allowing them to choose who to sell or freely give their data to? Or will that simply deter the entrepreneurial drive and cause all of the free services we use today, like Google Search and Facebook, to begin charging inaccessible prices? How much are we willing to pay for our freedom? And how much do we actually care?

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that humans are willing to give up more privacy than they like to think. Fifteen years ago, it would have been crazy to suggest we’d all allow ourselves to be tracked by our cars, phones, and daily check-ins to our favorite neighborhood locations; but now most of us see it as a worthwhile trade for optimized commutes and dating. As we continue navigating that fine line between exploitation and innovation into a more technological future, what other trade-offs might we be willing to make?

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