Tag Archives: computers

#435621 ANYbotics Introduces Sleek New ANYmal C ...

Quadrupedal robots are making significant advances lately, and just in the past few months we’ve seen Boston Dynamics’ Spot hauling a truck, IIT’s HyQReal pulling a plane, MIT’s MiniCheetah doing backflips, Unitree Robotics’ Laikago towing a van, and Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 exploring a mine. Robot makers are betting that their four-legged machines will prove useful in a variety of applications in construction, security, delivery, and even at home.

ANYbotics has been working on such applications for years, testing out their ANYmal robot in places where humans typically don’t want to go (like offshore platforms) as well as places where humans really don’t want to go (like sewers), and they have a better idea than most companies what can make quadruped robots successful.

This week, ANYbotics is announcing a completely new quadruped platform, ANYmal C, a major upgrade from the really quite research-y ANYmal B. The new quadruped has been optimized for ruggedness and reliability in industrial environments, with a streamlined body painted a color that lets you know it means business.

ANYmal C’s physical specs are pretty impressive for a production quadruped. It can move at 1 meter per second, manage 20-degree slopes and 45-degree stairs, cross 25-centimeter gaps, and squeeze through passages just 60 centimeters wide. It’s packed with cameras and 3D sensors, including a lidar for 3D mapping and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). All these sensors (along with the vast volume of gait research that’s been done with ANYmal) make this one of the most reliably autonomous quadrupeds out there, with real-time motion planning and obstacle avoidance.

Image: ANYbotics

ANYmal can autonomously attach itself to a cone-shaped docking station to recharge.

ANYmal C is also one of the ruggedest legged robots in existence. The 50-kilogram robot is IP67 rated, meaning that it’s completely impervious to dust and can withstand being submerged in a meter of water for an hour. If it’s submerged for longer than that, you’re absolutely doing something wrong. The robot will run for over 2 hours on battery power, and if that’s not enough endurance, don’t worry, because ANYmal can autonomously impale itself on a weird cone-shaped docking station to recharge.

Photo: ANYbotics

ANYmal C’s sensor payload includes cameras and a lidar for 3D mapping and SLAM.

As far as what ANYmal C is designed to actually do, it’s mostly remote inspection tasks where you need to move around through a relatively complex environment, but where for whatever reason you’d be better off not sending a human. ANYmal C has a sensor payload that gives it lots of visual options, like thermal imaging, and with the ability to handle a 10-kilogram payload, the robot can be adapted to many different environments.

Over the next few months, we’re hoping to see more examples of ANYmal C being deployed to do useful stuff in real-world environments, but for now, we do have a bit more detail from ANYbotics CTO Christian Gehring.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell us about the development process for ANYmal C?

Christian Gehring: We tested the previous generation of ANYmal (B) in a broad range of environments over the last few years and gained a lot of insights. Based on our learnings, it became clear that we would have to re-design the robot to meet the requirements of industrial customers in terms of safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. There were different prototype stages both for the new drives and for single robot assemblies. Apart from electrical tests, we thoroughly tested the thermal control and ingress protection of various subsystems like the depth cameras and actuators.

What can ANYmal C do that the previous version of ANYmal can’t?

ANYmal C was redesigned with a focus on performance increase regarding actuation (new drives), computational power (new hexacore Intel i7 PCs), locomotion and navigation skills, and autonomy (new depth cameras). The new robot additionally features a docking system for autonomous recharging and an inspection payload as an option. The design of ANYmal C is far more integrated than its predecessor, which increases both performance and reliability.

How much of ANYmal C’s development and design was driven by your experience with commercial or industry customers?

Tests (such as the offshore installation with TenneT) and discussions with industry customers were important to get the necessary design input in terms of performance, safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. Most customers ask for very similar inspection tasks that can be performed with our standard inspection payload and the required software packages. Some are looking for a robot that can also solve some simple manipulation tasks like pushing a button. Overall, most use cases customers have in mind are realistic and achievable, but some are really tough for the robot, like climbing 50° stairs in hot environments of 50°C.

Can you describe how much autonomy you expect ANYmal C to have in industrial or commercial operations?

ANYmal C is primarily developed to perform autonomous routine inspections in industrial environments. This autonomy especially adds value for operations that are difficult to access, as human operation is extremely costly. The robot can naturally also be operated via a remote control and we are working on long-distance remote operation as well.

Do you expect that researchers will be interested in ANYmal C? What research applications could it be useful for?

ANYmal C has been designed to also address the needs of the research community. The robot comes with two powerful hexacore Intel i7 computers and can additionally be equipped with an NVIDIA Jetson Xavier graphics card for learning-based applications. Payload interfaces enable users to easily install and test new sensors. By joining our established ANYmal Research community, researchers get access to simulation tools and software APIs, which boosts their research in various areas like control, machine learning, and navigation.

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#435593 AI at the Speed of Light

Neural networks shine for solving tough problems such as facial and voice recognition, but conventional electronic versions are limited in speed and hungry for power. In theory, optics could beat digital electronic computers in the matrix calculations used in neural networks. However, optics had been limited by their inability to do some complex calculations that had required electronics. Now new experiments show that all-optical neural networks can tackle those problems.

The key attraction of neural networks is their massive interconnections among processors, comparable to the complex interconnections among neurons in the brain. This lets them perform many operations simultaneously, like the human brain does when looking at faces or listening to speech, making them more efficient for facial and voice recognition than traditional electronic computers that execute one instruction at a time.

Today's electronic neural networks have reached eight million neurons, but their future use in artificial intelligence may be limited by their high power usage and limited parallelism in connections. Optical connections through lenses are inherently parallel. The lens in your eye simultaneously focuses light from across your field of view onto the retina in the back of your eye, where an array of light-detecting nerve cells detects the light. Each cell then relays the signal it receives to neurons in the brain that process the visual signals to show us an image.

Glass lenses process optical signals by focusing light, which performs a complex mathematical operation called a Fourier transform that preserves the information in the original scene but rearranges is completely. One use of Fourier transforms is converting time variations in signal intensity into a plot of the frequencies present in the signal. The military used this trick in the 1950s to convert raw radar return signals recorded by an aircraft in flight into a three-dimensional image of the landscape viewed by the plane. Today that conversion is done electronically, but the vacuum-tube computers of the 1950s were not up to the task.

Development of neural networks for artificial intelligence started with electronics, but their AI applications have been limited by their slow processing and need for extensive computing resources. Some researchers have developed hybrid neural networks, in which optics perform simple linear operations, but electronics perform more complex nonlinear calculations. Now two groups have demonstrated simple all-optical neural networks that do all processing with light.

In May, Wolfram Pernice of the Institute of Physics at the University of Münster in Germany and colleagues reported testing an all-optical “neuron” in which signals change target materials between liquid and solid states, an effect that has been used for optical data storage. They demonstrated nonlinear processing, and produced output pulses like those from organic neurons. They then produced an integrated photonic circuit that incorporated four optical neurons operating at different wavelengths, each of which connected to 15 optical synapses. The photonic circuit contained more than 140 components and could recognize simple optical patterns. The group wrote that their device is scalable, and that the technology promises “access to the high speed and high bandwidth inherent to optical systems, thus enabling the direct processing of optical telecommunication and visual data.”

Now a group at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology reports in Optica that they have made an all-optical neural network based on a different process, electromagnetically induced transparency, in which incident light affects how atoms shift between quantum-mechanical energy levels. The process is nonlinear and can be triggered by very weak light signals, says Shengwang Du, a physics professor and coauthor of the paper.

In their demonstration, they illuminated rubidium-85 atoms cooled by lasers to about 10 microKelvin (10 microdegrees above absolute zero). Although the technique may seem unusually complex, Du said the system was the most accessible one in the lab that could produce the desired effects. “As a pure quantum atomic system [it] is ideal for this proof-of-principle experiment,” he says.

Next, they plan to scale up the demonstration using a hot atomic vapor center, which is less expensive, does not require time-consuming preparation of cold atoms, and can be integrated with photonic chips. Du says the major challenges are reducing cost of the nonlinear processing medium and increasing the scale of the all-optical neural network for more complex tasks.

“Their demonstration seems valid,” says Volker Sorger, an electrical engineer at George Washington University in Washington who was not involved in either demonstration. He says the all-optical approach is attractive because it offers very high parallelism, but the update rate is limited to about 100 hertz because of the liquid crystals used in their test, and he is not completely convinced their approach can be scaled error-free. Continue reading

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#435575 How an AI Startup Designed a Drug ...

Discovering a new drug can take decades, billions of dollars, and untold man hours from some of the smartest people on the planet. Now a startup says it’s taken a significant step towards speeding the process up using AI.

The typical drug discovery process involves carrying out physical tests on enormous libraries of molecules, and even with the help of robotics it’s an arduous process. The idea of sidestepping this by using computers to virtually screen for promising candidates has been around for decades. But progress has been underwhelming, and it’s still not a major part of commercial pipelines.

Recent advances in deep learning, however, have reignited hopes for the field, and major pharma companies have started tying up with AI-powered drug discovery startups. And now Insilico Medicine has used AI to design a molecule that effectively targets a protein involved in fibrosis—the formation of excess fibrous tissue—in mice in just 46 days.

The platform the company has developed combines two of the hottest sub-fields of AI: the generative adversarial networks, or GANs, which power deepfakes, and reinforcement learning, which is at the heart of the most impressive game-playing AI advances of recent years.

In a paper in Nature Biotechnology, the company’s researchers describe how they trained their model on all the molecules already known to target this protein as well as many other active molecules from various datasets. The model was then used to generate 30,000 candidate molecules.

Unlike most previous efforts, they went a step further and selected the most promising molecules for testing in the lab. The 30,000 candidates were whittled down to just 6 using more conventional drug discovery approaches and were then synthesized in the lab. They were put through increasingly stringent tests, but the leading candidate was found to be effective at targeting the desired protein and behaved as one would hope a drug would.

The authors are clear that the results are just a proof-of-concept, which company CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told Wired stemmed from a challenge set by a pharma partner to design a drug as quickly as possible. But they say they were able to carry out the process faster than traditional methods for a fraction of the cost.

There are some caveats. For a start, the protein being targeted is already very well known and multiple effective drugs exist for it. That gave the company a wealth of data to train their model on, something that isn’t the case for many of the diseases where we urgently need new drugs.

The company’s platform also only targets the very initial stages of the drug discovery process. The authors concede in their paper that the molecules would still take considerable optimization in the lab before they’d be true contenders for clinical trials.

“And that is where you will start to begin to commence to spend the vast piles of money that you will eventually go through in trying to get a drug to market,” writes Derek Lowe in his blog In The Pipeline. The part of the discovery process that the platform tackles represents a tiny fraction of the total cost of drug development, he says.

Nonetheless, the research is a definite advance for virtual screening technology and an important marker of the potential of AI for designing new medicines. Zhavoronkov also told Wired that this research was done more than a year ago, and they’ve since adapted the platform to go after harder drug targets with less data.

And with big pharma companies desperate to slash their ballooning development costs and find treatments for a host of intractable diseases, they can use all the help they can get.

Image Credit: freestocks.org / Unsplash Continue reading

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#435535 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

To Power AI, This Startup Built a Really, Really Big Chip
Tom Simonite | Wired
“The silicon monster is almost 22 centimeters—roughly 9 inches—on each side, making it likely the largest computer chip ever, and a monument to the tech industry’s hopes for artificial intelligence.”

You Won’t See the Quantum Internet Coming
Ryan F. Mandelbaum | Gizmodo
“The quantum internet is coming sooner than you think—even sooner than quantum computing itself. When things change over, you might not even notice. But when they do, new rules will protect your data against attacks from computers that don’t even exist yet.”

What If Aging Weren’t Inevitable, But a Curable Disease
David Adam | MIT Technology Review
“…a growing number of scientists are questioning our basic conception of aging. What if you could challenge your death—or even prevent it altogether? What if the panoply of diseases that strike us in old age are symptoms, not causes? What would change if we classified aging itself as the disease?”

Thousands of Autonomous Delivery Robots Are About to Descend on College Campuses
Andrew J. Hawkins | The Verge
“The quintessential college experience of getting pizza delivered to your dorm room is about to get a high-tech upgrade. On Tuesday, Starship Technologies announced its plan to deploy thousands of its autonomous six-wheeled delivery robots on college campuses around the country over the next two years, after raising $40 million in Series A funding.”

Volocopter Reveals Its First Commercial Autonomous Flying Taxi
Christine Fisher | Endgadget
“It’s a race to the skies in terms of which company actually deploys an on-demand air taxi service based around electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. For its part, German startup Volocopter is taking another key step with the revelation of its first aircraft designed for actual commercial use, the VoloCity.”

Image Credit: Colin Carter / Unsplash Continue reading

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#435522 Harvard’s Smart Exo-Shorts Talk to the ...

Exosuits don’t generally scream “fashionable” or “svelte.” Take the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that allowed a paraplegic man to kick off the World Cup back in 2014. Is it cool? Hell yeah. Is it practical? Not so much.

Yapping about wearability might seem childish when the technology already helps people with impaired mobility move around dexterously. But the lesson of the ill-fated Google Glassholes, which includes an awkward dorky head tilt and an assuming voice command, clearly shows that wearable computer assistants can’t just work technologically—they have to look natural and allow the user to behave like as usual. They have to, in a sense, disappear.

To Dr. Jose Pons at the Legs + Walking Ability Lab in Chicago, exosuits need three main selling points to make it in the real world. One, they have to physically interact with their wearer and seamlessly deliver assistance when needed. Two, they should cognitively interact with the host to guide and control the robot at all times. Finally, they need to feel like a second skin—move with the user without adding too much extra mass or reducing mobility.

This week, a US-Korean collaboration delivered the whole shebang in a Lululemon-style skin-hugging package combined with a retro waist pack. The portable exosuit, weighing only 11 pounds, looks like a pair of spandex shorts but can support the wearer’s hip movement when needed. Unlike their predecessors, the shorts are embedded with sensors that let them know when the wearer is walking versus running by analyzing gait.

Switching between the two movement modes may not seem like much, but what naturally comes to our brains doesn’t translate directly to smart exosuits. “Walking and running have fundamentally different biomechanics, which makes developing devices that assist both gaits challenging,” the team said. Their algorithm, computed in the cloud, allows the wearer to easily switch between both, with the shorts providing appropriate hip support that makes the movement experience seamless.

To Pons, who was not involved in the research but wrote a perspective piece, the study is an exciting step towards future exosuits that will eventually disappear under the skin—that is, implanted neural interfaces to control robotic assistance or activate the user’s own muscles.

“It is realistic to think that we will witness, in the next several years…robust human-robot interfaces to command wearable robotics based on…the neural code of movement in humans,” he said.

A “Smart” Exosuit Hack
There are a few ways you can hack a human body to move with an exosuit. One is using implanted electrodes inside the brain or muscles to decipher movement intent. With heavy practice, a neural implant can help paralyzed people walk again or dexterously move external robotic arms. But because the technique requires surgery, it’s not an immediate sell for people who experience low mobility because of aging or low muscle tone.

The other approach is to look to biophysics. Rather than decoding neural signals that control movement, here the idea is to measure gait and other physical positions in space to decipher intent. As you can probably guess, accurately deciphering user intent isn’t easy, especially when the wearable tries to accommodate multiple gaits. But the gains are many: there’s no surgery involved, and the wearable is low in energy consumption.

Double Trouble
The authors decided to tackle an everyday situation. You’re walking to catch the train to work, realize you’re late, and immediately start sprinting.

That seemingly easy conversion hides a complex switch in biomechanics. When you walk, your legs act like an inverted pendulum that swing towards a dedicated center in a predictable way. When you run, however, the legs move more like a spring-loaded system, and the joints involved in the motion differ from a casual stroll. Engineering an assistive wearable for each is relatively simple; making one for both is exceedingly hard.

Led by Dr. Conor Walsh at Harvard University, the team started with an intuitive idea: assisted walking and running requires specialized “actuation” profiles tailored to both. When the user is moving in a way that doesn’t require assistance, the wearable needs to be out of the way so that it doesn’t restrict mobility. A quick analysis found that assisting hip extension has the largest impact, because it’s important to both gaits and doesn’t add mass to the lower legs.

Building on that insight, the team made a waist belt connected to two thigh wraps, similar to a climbing harness. Two electrical motors embedded inside the device connect the waist belt to other components through a pulley system to help the hip joints move. The whole contraption weighed about 11 lbs and didn’t obstruct natural movement.

Next, the team programmed two separate supporting profiles for walking and running. The goal was to reduce the “metabolic cost” for both movements, so that the wearer expends as little energy as needed. To switch between the two programs, they used a cloud-based classification algorithm to measure changes in energy fluctuation to figure out what mode—running or walking—the user is in.

Smart Booster
Initial trials on treadmills were highly positive. Six male volunteers with similar age and build donned the exosuit and either ran or walked on the treadmill at varying inclines. The algorithm performed perfectly at distinguishing between the two gaits in all conditions, even at steep angles.

An outdoor test with eight volunteers also proved the algorithm nearly perfect. Even on uneven terrain, only two steps out of all test trials were misclassified. In an additional trial on mud or snow, the algorithm performed just as well.

“The system allows the wearer to use their preferred gait for each speed,” the team said.

Software excellence translated to performance. A test found that the exosuit reduced the energy for walking by over nine percent and running by four percent. It may not sound like much, but the range of improvement is meaningful in athletic performance. Putting things into perspective, the team said, the metabolic rate reduction during walking is similar to taking 16 pounds off at the waist.

The Wearable Exosuit Revolution
The study’s lightweight exoshorts are hardly the only players in town. Back in 2017, SRI International’s spin-off, Superflex, engineered an Aura suit to support mobility in the elderly. The Aura used a different mechanism: rather than a pulley system, it incorporated a type of smart material that contracts in a manner similar to human muscles when zapped with electricity.

Embedded with a myriad of sensors for motion, accelerometers and gyroscopes, Aura’s smartness came from mini-computers that measure how fast the wearer is moving and track the user’s posture. The data were integrated and processed locally inside hexagon-shaped computing pods near the thighs and upper back. The pods also acted as the control center for sending electrical zaps to give the wearer a boost when needed.

Around the same time, a collaboration between Harvard’s Wyss Institute and ReWalk Robotics introduced a fabric-based wearable robot to assist a wearer’s legs for balance and movement. Meanwhile, a Swiss team coated normal fabric with electroactive material to weave soft, pliable artificial “muscles” that move with the skin.

Although health support is the current goal, the military is obviously interested in similar technologies to enhance soldiers’ physicality. Superflex’s Aura, for example, was originally inspired by technology born from DARPA’s Warrior Web Program, which aimed to reduce a soldier’s mechanical load.

That said, military gear has had a long history of trickling down to consumer use. Similar to the way camouflage, cargo pants, and GORE-TEX trickled down into the consumer ecosphere, it’s not hard to imagine your local Target eventually stocking intelligent exowear.

Image and Video Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Continue reading

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