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The new Blade Runner sequel will return us to a world where sophisticated androids made with organic body parts can match the strength and emotions of their human creators. As someone who builds biologically inspired robots, I’m interested in whether our own technology will ever come close to matching the “replicants” of Blade Runner 2049.
The reality is that we’re a very long way from building robots with human-like abilities. But advances in so-called soft robotics show a promising way forward for technology that could be a new basis for the androids of the future.
From a scientific point of view, the real challenge is replicating the complexity of the human body. Each one of us is made up of millions and millions of cells, and we have no clue how we can build such a complex machine that is indistinguishable from us humans. The most complex machines today, for example the world’s largest airliner, the Airbus A380, are composed of millions of parts. But in order to match the complexity level of humans, we would need to scale this complexity up about a million times.
There are currently three different ways that engineering is making the border between humans and robots more ambiguous. Unfortunately, these approaches are only starting points and are not yet even close to the world of Blade Runner.
There are human-like robots built from scratch by assembling artificial sensors, motors, and computers to resemble the human body and motion. However, extending the current human-like robot would not bring Blade Runner-style androids closer to humans, because every artificial component, such as sensors and motors, are still hopelessly primitive compared to their biological counterparts.
There is also cyborg technology, where the human body is enhanced with machines such as robotic limbs and wearable and implantable devices. This technology is similarly very far away from matching our own body parts.
Finally, there is the technology of genetic manipulation, where an organism’s genetic code is altered to modify that organism’s body. Although we have been able to identify and manipulate individual genes, we still have a limited understanding of how an entire human emerges from genetic code. As such, we don’t know the degree to which we can actually program code to design everything we wish.
Soft robotics: a way forward?
But we might be able to move robotics closer to the world of Blade Runner by pursuing other technologies and, in particular, by turning to nature for inspiration. The field of soft robotics is a good example. In the last decade or so, robotics researchers have been making considerable efforts to make robots soft, deformable, squishable, and flexible.
This technology is inspired by the fact that 90% of the human body is made from soft substances such as skin, hair, and tissues. This is because most of the fundamental functions in our body rely on soft parts that can change shape, from the heart and lungs pumping fluid around our body to the eye lenses generating signals from their movement. Cells even change shape to trigger division, self-healing and, ultimately, the evolution of the body.
The softness of our bodies is the origin of all their functionality needed to stay alive. So being able to build soft machines would at least bring us a step closer to the robotic world of Blade Runner. Some of the recent technological advances include artificial hearts made out of soft functional materials that are pumping fluid through deformation. Similarly, soft, wearable gloves can help make hand grasping stronger. And “epidermal electronics” has enabled us to tattoo electronic circuits onto our biological skins.
Softness is the keyword that brings humans and technologies closer together. Sensors, motors, and computers are all of a sudden integrated into human bodies once they became soft, and the border between us and external devices becomes ambiguous, just like soft contact lenses became part of our eyes.
Nevertheless, the hardest challenge is how to make individual parts of a soft robot body physically adaptable by self-healing, growing, and differentiating. After all, every part of a living organism is also alive in biological systems in order to make our bodies totally adaptable and evolvable, the function of which could make machines totally indistinguishable from ourselves.
It is impossible to predict when the robotic world of Blade Runner might arrive, and if it does, it will probably be very far in the future. But as long as the desire to build machines indistinguishable from humans is there, the current trends of robotic revolution could make it possible to achieve that dream.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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The multiverse of science fiction is populated by robots that are indistinguishable from humans. They are usually smarter, faster, and stronger than us. They seem capable of doing any job imaginable, from piloting a starship and battling alien invaders to taking out the trash and cooking a gourmet meal.
The reality, of course, is far from fantasy. Aside from industrial settings, robots have yet to meet The Jetsons. The robots the public are exposed to seem little more than over-sized plastic toys, pre-programmed to perform a set of tasks without the ability to interact meaningfully with their environment or their creators.
To paraphrase PayPal co-founder and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, we wanted cool robots, instead we got 140 characters and Flippy the burger bot. But scientists are making progress to empower robots with the ability to see and respond to their surroundings just like humans.
Some of the latest developments in that arena were presented this month at the annual Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The papers drilled down into topics that ranged from how to make robots more conversational and help them understand language ambiguities to helping them see and navigate through complex spaces.
Ben Burchfiel, a graduate student at Duke University, and his thesis advisor George Konidaris, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown University, developed an algorithm to enable machines to see the world more like humans.
In the paper, Burchfiel and Konidaris demonstrate how they can teach robots to identify and possibly manipulate three-dimensional objects even when they might be obscured or sitting in unfamiliar positions, such as a teapot that has been tipped over.
The researchers trained their algorithm by feeding it 3D scans of about 4,000 common household items such as beds, chairs, tables, and even toilets. They then tested its ability to identify about 900 new 3D objects just from a bird’s eye view. The algorithm made the right guess 75 percent of the time versus a success rate of about 50 percent for other computer vision techniques.
In an email interview with Singularity Hub, Burchfiel notes his research is not the first to train machines on 3D object classification. How their approach differs is that they confine the space in which the robot learns to classify the objects.
“Imagine the space of all possible objects,” Burchfiel explains. “That is to say, imagine you had tiny Legos, and I told you [that] you could stick them together any way you wanted, just build me an object. You have a huge number of objects you could make!”
The infinite possibilities could result in an object no human or machine might recognize.
To address that problem, the researchers had their algorithm find a more restricted space that would host the objects it wants to classify. “By working in this restricted space—mathematically we call it a subspace—we greatly simplify our task of classification. It is the finding of this space that sets us apart from previous approaches.”
Meanwhile, a pair of undergraduate students at Brown University figured out a way to teach robots to understand directions better, even at varying degrees of abstraction.
The research, led by Dilip Arumugam and Siddharth Karamcheti, addressed how to train a robot to understand nuances of natural language and then follow instructions correctly and efficiently.
“The problem is that commands can have different levels of abstraction, and that can cause a robot to plan its actions inefficiently or fail to complete the task at all,” says Arumugam in a press release.
In this project, the young researchers crowdsourced instructions for moving a virtual robot through an online domain. The space consisted of several rooms and a chair, which the robot was told to manipulate from one place to another. The volunteers gave various commands to the robot, ranging from general (“take the chair to the blue room”) to step-by-step instructions.
The researchers then used the database of spoken instructions to teach their system to understand the kinds of words used in different levels of language. The machine learned to not only follow instructions but to recognize the level of abstraction. That was key to kickstart its problem-solving abilities to tackle the job in the most appropriate way.
The research eventually moved from virtual pixels to a real place, using a Roomba-like robot that was able to respond to instructions within one second 90 percent of the time. Conversely, when unable to identify the specificity of the task, it took the robot 20 or more seconds to plan a task about 50 percent of the time.
One application of this new machine-learning technique referenced in the paper is a robot worker in a warehouse setting, but there are many fields that could benefit from a more versatile machine capable of moving seamlessly between small-scale operations and generalized tasks.
“Other areas that could possibly benefit from such a system include things from autonomous vehicles… to assistive robotics, all the way to medical robotics,” says Karamcheti, responding to a question by email from Singularity Hub.
More to Come
These achievements are yet another step toward creating robots that see, listen, and act more like humans. But don’t expect Disney to build a real-life Westworld next to Toon Town anytime soon.
“I think we’re a long way off from human-level communication,” Karamcheti says. “There are so many problems preventing our learning models from getting to that point, from seemingly simple questions like how to deal with words never seen before, to harder, more complicated questions like how to resolve the ambiguities inherent in language, including idiomatic or metaphorical speech.”
Even relatively verbose chatbots can run out of things to say, Karamcheti notes, as the conversation becomes more complex.
The same goes for human vision, according to Burchfiel.
While deep learning techniques have dramatically improved pattern matching—Google can find just about any picture of a cat—there’s more to human eyesight than, well, meets the eye.
“There are two big areas where I think perception has a long way to go: inductive bias and formal reasoning,” Burchfiel says.
The former is essentially all of the contextual knowledge people use to help them reason, he explains. Burchfiel uses the example of a puddle in the street. People are conditioned or biased to assume it’s a puddle of water rather than a patch of glass, for instance.
“This sort of bias is why we see faces in clouds; we have strong inductive bias helping us identify faces,” he says. “While it sounds simple at first, it powers much of what we do. Humans have a very intuitive understanding of what they expect to see, [and] it makes perception much easier.”
Formal reasoning is equally important. A machine can use deep learning, in Burchfiel’s example, to figure out the direction any river flows once it understands that water runs downhill. But it’s not yet capable of applying the sort of human reasoning that would allow us to transfer that knowledge to an alien setting, such as figuring out how water moves through a plumbing system on Mars.
“Much work was done in decades past on this sort of formal reasoning… but we have yet to figure out how to merge it with standard machine-learning methods to create a seamless system that is useful in the actual physical world.”
Robots still have a lot to learn about being human, which should make us feel good that we’re still by far the most complex machines on the planet.
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