Tag Archives: damage

#435707 AI Agents Startle Researchers With ...

After 25 million games, the AI agents playing hide-and-seek with each other had mastered four basic game strategies. The researchers expected that part.

After a total of 380 million games, the AI players developed strategies that the researchers didn’t know were possible in the game environment—which the researchers had themselves created. That was the part that surprised the team at OpenAI, a research company based in San Francisco.

The AI players learned everything via a machine learning technique known as reinforcement learning. In this learning method, AI agents start out by taking random actions. Sometimes those random actions produce desired results, which earn them rewards. Via trial-and-error on a massive scale, they can learn sophisticated strategies.

In the context of games, this process can be abetted by having the AI play against another version of itself, ensuring that the opponents will be evenly matched. It also locks the AI into a process of one-upmanship, where any new strategy that emerges forces the opponent to search for a countermeasure. Over time, this “self-play” amounted to what the researchers call an “auto-curriculum.”

According to OpenAI researcher Igor Mordatch, this experiment shows that self-play “is enough for the agents to learn surprising behaviors on their own—it’s like children playing with each other.”

Reinforcement is a hot field of AI research right now. OpenAI’s researchers used the technique when they trained a team of bots to play the video game Dota 2, which squashed a world-champion human team last April. The Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind has used it to triumph in the ancient board game Go and the video game StarCraft.

Aniruddha Kembhavi, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, says games such as hide-and-seek offer a good way for AI agents to learn “foundational skills.” He worked on a team that taught their AllenAI to play Pictionary with humans, viewing the gameplay as a way for the AI to work on common sense reasoning and communication. “We are, however, quite far away from being able to translate these preliminary findings in highly simplified environments into the real world,” says Kembhavi.

Illustration: OpenAI

AI agents construct a fort during a hide-and-seek game developed by OpenAI.

In OpenAI’s game of hide-and-seek, both the hiders and the seekers received a reward only if they won the game, leaving the AI players to develop their own strategies. Within a simple 3D environment containing walls, blocks, and ramps, the players first learned to run around and chase each other (strategy 1). The hiders next learned to move the blocks around to build forts (2), and then the seekers learned to move the ramps (3), enabling them to jump inside the forts. Then the hiders learned to move all the ramps into their forts before the seekers could use them (4).

The two strategies that surprised the researchers came next. First the seekers learned that they could jump onto a box and “surf” it over to a fort (5), allowing them to jump in—a maneuver that the researchers hadn’t realized was physically possible in the game environment. So as a final countermeasure, the hiders learned to lock all the boxes into place (6) so they weren’t available for use as surfboards.

Illustration: OpenAI

An AI agent uses a nearby box to surf its way into a competitor’s fort.

In this circumstance, having AI agents behave in an unexpected way wasn’t a problem: They found different paths to their rewards, but didn’t cause any trouble. However, you can imagine situations in which the outcome would be rather serious. Robots acting in the real world could do real damage. And then there’s Nick Bostrom’s famous example of a paper clip factory run by an AI, whose goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. As Bostrom told IEEE Spectrum back in 2014, the AI might realize that “human bodies consist of atoms, and those atoms could be used to make some very nice paper clips.”

Bowen Baker, another member of the OpenAI research team, notes that it’s hard to predict all the ways an AI agent will act inside an environment—even a simple one. “Building these environments is hard,” he says. “The agents will come up with these unexpected behaviors, which will be a safety problem down the road when you put them in more complex environments.”

AI researcher Katja Hofmann at Microsoft Research Cambridge, in England, has seen a lot of gameplay by AI agents: She started a competition that uses Minecraft as the playing field. She says the emergent behavior seen in this game, and in prior experiments by other researchers, shows that games can be a useful for studies of safe and responsible AI.

“I find demonstrations like this, in games and game-like settings, a great way to explore the capabilities and limitations of existing approaches in a safe environment,” says Hofmann. “Results like these will help us develop a better understanding on how to validate and debug reinforcement learning systems–a crucial step on the path towards real-world applications.”

Baker says there’s also a hopeful takeaway from the surprises in the hide-and-seek experiment. “If you put these agents into a rich enough environment they will find strategies that we never knew were possible,” he says. “Maybe they can solve problems that we can’t imagine solutions to.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435583 Soft Self-Healing Materials for Robots ...

If there’s one thing we know about robots, it’s that they break. They break, like, literally all the time. The software breaks. The hardware breaks. The bits that you think could never, ever, ever possibly break end up breaking just when you need them not to break the most, and then you have to try to explain what happened to your advisor who’s been standing there watching your robot fail and then stay up all night fixing the thing that seriously was not supposed to break.

While most of this is just a fundamental characteristic of robots that can’t be helped, the European Commission is funding a project called SHERO (Self HEaling soft RObotics) to try and solve at least some of those physical robot breaking problems through the use of structural materials that can autonomously heal themselves over and over again.

SHERO is a three year, €3 million collaboration between Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris), and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa). As the name SHERO suggests, the goal of the project is to develop soft materials that can completely recover from the kinds of damage that robots are likely to suffer in day to day operations, as well as the occasional more extreme accident.

Most materials, especially soft materials, are fixable somehow, whether it’s with super glue or duct tape. But fixing things involves a human first identifying when they’re broken, and then performing a potentially skill, labor, time, and money intensive task. SHERO’s soft materials will, eventually, make this entire process autonomous, allowing robots to self-identify damage and initiate healing on their own.

Photos: SHERO Project

The damaged robot finger [top] can operate normally after healing itself.

How the self-healing material works
What these self-healing materials can do is really pretty amazing. The researchers are actually developing two different types—the first one heals itself when there’s an application of heat, either internally or externally, which gives some control over when and how the healing process starts. For example, if the robot is handling stuff that’s dirty, you’d want to get it cleaned up before healing it so that dirt doesn’t become embedded in the material. This could mean that the robot either takes itself to a heating station, or it could activate some kind of embedded heating mechanism to be more self-sufficient.

The second kind of self-healing material is autonomous, in that it will heal itself at room temperature without any additional input, and is probably more suitable for relatively minor scrapes and cracks. Here are some numbers about how well the healing works:

Autonomous self-healing polymers do not require heat. They can heal damage at room temperature. Developing soft robotic systems from autonomous self-healing polymers excludes the need of additional heating devices… The healing however takes some time. The healing efficiency after 3 days, 7 days and 14 days is respectively 62 percent, 91 percent and 97 percent.

This material was used to develop a healable soft pneumatic hand. Relevant large cuts can be healed entirely without the need of external heat stimulus. Depending on the size of the damage and even more on the location of damage, the healing takes only seconds or up to a week. Damage on locations on the actuator that are subjected to very small stresses during actuation was healed instantaneously. Larger damages, like cutting the actuator completely in half, took 7 days to heal. But even this severe damage could be healed completely without the need of any external stimulus.

Applications of self-healing robots
Both of these materials can be mixed together, and their mechanical properties can be customized so that the structure that they’re a part of can be tuned to move in different ways. The researchers also plan on introducing flexible conductive sensors into the material, which will help sense damage as well as providing position feedback for control systems. A lot of development will happen over the next few years, and for more details, we spoke with Bram Vanderborght at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

IEEE Spectrum: How easy or difficult or expensive is it to produce these materials? Will they add significant cost to robotic grippers?

Bram Vanderborght: They are definitely more expensive materials, but it’s also a matter of size of production. At the moment, we’ve made a few kilograms of the material (enough to make several demonstrators), and the price already dropped significantly from when we ordered 100 grams of the material in the first phase of the project. So probably the cost of the gripper will be higher [than a regular gripper], but you won’t need to replace the gripper as often as other grippers that need to be replaced due to wear, so it can be an advantage.

Moreover due to the method of 3D printing the material, the surface is smoother and airtight (so no post-processing is required to make it airtight). Also, the smooth surface is better to avoid contamination for food handling, for example.

In commercial or industrial applications, gradual fatigue seems to be a more common issue than more abrupt trauma like cuts. How well does the self-healing work to improve durability over long periods of time?

We did not test for gradual fatigue over very long times. But both macroscopic and microscopic damage can be healed. So hopefully it can provide an answer here as well.

Image: SHERO Project

After developing a self-healing robot gripper, the researchers plan to use similar materials to build parts that can be used as the skeleton of robots, allowing them to repair themselves on a regular basis.

How much does the self-healing capability restrict the material properties? What are the limits for softness or hardness or smoothness or other characteristics of the material?

Typically the mechanical properties of networked polymers are much better than thermoplastics. Our material is a networked polymer but in which the crosslinks are reversible. We can change quite a lot of parameters in the design of the materials. So we can develop very stiff (fracture strain at 1.24 percent) and very elastic materials (fracture strain at 450 percent). The big advantage that our material has is we can mix it to have intermediate properties. Moreover, at the interface of the materials with different mechanical properties, we have the same chemical bonds, so the interface is perfect. While other materials, they may need to glue it, which gives local stresses and a weak spot.

When the material heals itself, is it less structurally sound in that spot? Can it heal damage that happens to the same spot over and over again?

In theory we can heal it an infinite amount of times. When the wound is not perfectly aligned, of course in that spot it will become weaker. Also too high temperatures lead to irreversible bonds, and impurities lead to weak spots.

Besides grippers and skins, what other potential robotics applications would this technology be useful for?

Most of self healing materials available now are used for coatings. What we are developing are structural components, therefore the mechanical properties of the material need to be good for such applications. So maybe part of the skeleton of the robot can be developed with such materials to make it lighter, since can be designed for regular repair. And for exceptional loads, it breaks and can be repaired like our human body.

[ SHERO Project ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435436 Undeclared Wars in Cyberspace Are ...

The US is at war. That’s probably not exactly news, as the country has been engaged in one type of conflict or another for most of its history. The last time we officially declared war was after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Our biggest undeclared war today is not being fought by drones in the mountains of Afghanistan or even through the less-lethal barrage of threats over the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. In this particular war, it is the US that is under attack and on the defensive.

This is cyberwarfare.

The definition of what constitutes a cyber attack is a broad one, according to Greg White, executive director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS) at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).

At the level of nation-state attacks, cyberwarfare could involve “attacking systems during peacetime—such as our power grid or election systems—or it could be during war time in which case the attacks may be designed to cause destruction, damage, deception, or death,” he told Singularity Hub.

For the US, the Pearl Harbor of cyberwarfare occurred during 2016 with the Russian interference in the presidential election. However, according to White, an Air Force veteran who has been involved in computer and network security since 1986, the history of cyber war can be traced back much further, to at least the first Gulf War of the early 1990s.

“We started experimenting with cyber attacks during the first Gulf War, so this has been going on a long time,” he said. “Espionage was the prime reason before that. After the war, the possibility of expanding the types of targets utilized expanded somewhat. What is really interesting is the use of social media and things like websites for [psychological operation] purposes during a conflict.”

The 2008 conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia is often cited as a cyberwarfare case study due to the large scale and overt nature of the cyber attacks. Russian hackers managed to bring down more than 50 news, government, and financial websites through denial-of-service attacks. In addition, about 35 percent of Georgia’s internet networks suffered decreased functionality during the attacks, coinciding with the Russian invasion of South Ossetia.

The cyberwar also offers lessons for today on Russia’s approach to cyberspace as a tool for “holistic psychological manipulation and information warfare,” according to a 2018 report called Understanding Cyberwarfare from the Modern War Institute at West Point.

US Fights Back
News in recent years has highlighted how Russian hackers have attacked various US government entities and critical infrastructure such as energy and manufacturing. In particular, a shadowy group known as Unit 26165 within the country’s military intelligence directorate is believed to be behind the 2016 US election interference campaign.

However, the US hasn’t been standing idly by. Since at least 2012, the US has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid, The New York Times reported. More recently, we learned that the US military has gone on the offensive, putting “crippling malware” inside the Russian power grid as the U.S. Cyber Command flexes its online muscles thanks to new authority granted to it last year.

“Access to the power grid that is obtained now could be used to shut something important down in the future when we are in a war,” White noted. “Espionage is part of the whole program. It is important to remember that cyber has just provided a new domain in which to conduct the types of activities we have been doing in the real world for years.”

The US is also beginning to pour more money into cybersecurity. The 2020 fiscal budget calls for spending $17.4 billion throughout the government on cyber-related activities, with the Department of Defense (DoD) alone earmarked for $9.6 billion.

Despite the growing emphasis on cybersecurity in the US and around the world, the demand for skilled security professionals is well outpacing the supply, with a projected shortfall of nearly three million open or unfilled positions according to the non-profit IT security organization (ISC)².

UTSA is rare among US educational institutions in that security courses and research are being conducted across three different colleges, according to White. About 10 percent of the school’s 30,000-plus students are enrolled in a cyber-related program, he added, and UTSA is one of only 21 schools that has received the Cyber Operations Center of Excellence designation from the National Security Agency.

“This track in the computer science program is specifically designed to prepare students for the type of jobs they might be involved in if they went to work for the DoD,” White said.

However, White is extremely doubtful there will ever be enough cyber security professionals to meet demand. “I’ve been preaching that we’ve got to worry about cybersecurity in the workforce, not just the cybersecurity workforce, not just cybersecurity professionals. Everybody has a responsibility for cybersecurity.”

Artificial Intelligence in Cybersecurity
Indeed, humans are often seen as the weak link in cybersecurity. That point was driven home at a cybersecurity roundtable discussion during this year’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado.

Participant Dorian Daley, general counsel at Oracle, said insider threats are at the top of the list when it comes to cybersecurity. “Sadly, I think some of the biggest challenges are people, and I mean that in a number of ways. A lot of the breaches really come from insiders. So the more that you can automate things and you can eliminate human malicious conduct, the better.”

White noted that automation is already the norm in cybersecurity. “Humans can’t react as fast as systems can launch attacks, so we need to rely on automated defenses as well,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that humans are not in the loop, but much of what is done these days is ‘scripted’.”

The use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other advanced automation techniques have been part of the cybersecurity conversation for quite some time, according to White, such as pattern analysis to look for specific behaviors that might indicate an attack is underway.

“What we are seeing quite a bit of today falls under the heading of big data and data analytics,” he explained.

But there are signs that AI is going off-script when it comes to cyber attacks. In the hands of threat groups, AI applications could lead to an increase in the number of cyberattacks, wrote Michelle Cantos, a strategic intelligence analyst at cybersecurity firm FireEye.

“Current AI technology used by businesses to analyze consumer behavior and find new customer bases can be appropriated to help attackers find better targets,” she said. “Adversaries can use AI to analyze datasets and generate recommendations for high-value targets they think the adversary should hit.”

In fact, security researchers have already demonstrated how a machine learning system could be used for malicious purposes. The Social Network Automated Phishing with Reconnaissance system, or SNAP_R, generated more than four times as many spear-phishing tweets on Twitter than a human—and was just as successful at targeting victims in order to steal sensitive information.

Cyber war is upon us. And like the current war on terrorism, there are many battlefields from which the enemy can attack and then disappear. While total victory is highly unlikely in the traditional sense, innovations through AI and other technologies can help keep the lights on against the next cyber attack.

Image Credit: pinkeyes / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435172 DARPA’s New Project Is Investing ...

When Elon Musk and DARPA both hop aboard the cyborg hypetrain, you know brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are about to achieve the impossible.

BMIs, already the stuff of science fiction, facilitate crosstalk between biological wetware with external computers, turning human users into literal cyborgs. Yet mind-controlled robotic arms, microelectrode “nerve patches”, or “memory Band-Aids” are still purely experimental medical treatments for those with nervous system impairments.

With the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, DARPA is looking to expand BMIs to the military. This month, the project tapped six academic teams to engineer radically different BMIs to hook up machines to the brains of able-bodied soldiers. The goal is to ditch surgery altogether—while minimizing any biological interventions—to link up brain and machine.

Rather than microelectrodes, which are currently surgically inserted into the brain to hijack neural communication, the project is looking to acoustic signals, electromagnetic waves, nanotechnology, genetically-enhanced neurons, and infrared beams for their next-gen BMIs.

It’s a radical departure from current protocol, with potentially thrilling—or devastating—impact. Wireless BMIs could dramatically boost bodily functions of veterans with neural damage or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or allow a single soldier to control swarms of AI-enabled drones with his or her mind. Or, similar to the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire, it could cloud the perception of soldiers, distancing them from the emotional guilt of warfare.

When trickled down to civilian use, these new technologies are poised to revolutionize medical treatment. Or they could galvanize the transhumanist movement with an inconceivably powerful tool that fundamentally alters society—for better or worse.

Here’s what you need to know.

Radical Upgrades
The four-year N3 program focuses on two main aspects: noninvasive and “minutely” invasive neural interfaces to both read and write into the brain.

Because noninvasive technologies sit on the scalp, their sensors and stimulators will likely measure entire networks of neurons, such as those controlling movement. These systems could then allow soldiers to remotely pilot robots in the field—drones, rescue bots, or carriers like Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. The system could even boost multitasking prowess—mind-controlling multiple weapons at once—similar to how able-bodied humans can operate a third robotic arm in addition to their own two.

In contrast, minutely invasive technologies allow scientists to deliver nanotransducers without surgery: for example, an injection of a virus carrying light-sensitive sensors, or other chemical, biotech, or self-assembled nanobots that can reach individual neurons and control their activity independently without damaging sensitive tissue. The proposed use for these technologies isn’t yet well-specified, but as animal experiments have shown, controlling the activity of single neurons at multiple points is sufficient to program artificial memories of fear, desire, and experiences directly into the brain.

“A neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters is the ultimate program goal,” DARPA wrote in its funding brief, released early last year.

The only technologies that will be considered must have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects.

“Final N3 deliverables will include a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system,” the project description states. This doesn’t just include hardware, but also new algorithms tailored to these system, demonstrated in a “Department of Defense-relevant application.”

The Tools
Right off the bat, the usual tools of the BMI trade, including microelectrodes, MRI, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are off the table. These popular technologies rely on surgery, heavy machinery, or personnel to sit very still—conditions unlikely in the real world.

The six teams will tap into three different kinds of natural phenomena for communication: magnetism, light beams, and acoustic waves.

Dr. Jacob Robinson at Rice University, for example, is combining genetic engineering, infrared laser beams, and nanomagnets for a bidirectional system. The $18 million project, MOANA (Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device) uses viruses to deliver two extra genes into the brain. One encodes a protein that sits on top of neurons and emits infrared light when the cell activates. Red and infrared light can penetrate through the skull. This lets a skull cap, embedded with light emitters and detectors, pick up these signals for subsequent decoding. Ultra-fast and utra-sensitvie photodetectors will further allow the cap to ignore scattered light and tease out relevant signals emanating from targeted portions of the brain, the team explained.

The other new gene helps write commands into the brain. This protein tethers iron nanoparticles to the neurons’ activation mechanism. Using magnetic coils on the headset, the team can then remotely stimulate magnetic super-neurons to fire while leaving others alone. Although the team plans to start in cell cultures and animals, their goal is to eventually transmit a visual image from one person to another. “In four years we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought and without brain surgery,” said Robinson.

Other projects in N3 are just are ambitious.

The Carnegie Mellon team, for example, plans to use ultrasound waves to pinpoint light interaction in targeted brain regions, which can then be measured through a wearable “hat.” To write into the brain, they propose a flexible, wearable electrical mini-generator that counterbalances the noisy effect of the skull and scalp to target specific neural groups.

Similarly, a group at Johns Hopkins is also measuring light path changes in the brain to correlate them with regional brain activity to “read” wetware commands.

The Teledyne Scientific & Imaging group, in contrast, is turning to tiny light-powered “magnetometers” to detect small, localized magnetic fields that neurons generate when they fire, and match these signals to brain output.

The nonprofit Battelle team gets even fancier with their ”BrainSTORMS” nanotransducers: magnetic nanoparticles wrapped in a piezoelectric shell. The shell can convert electrical signals from neurons into magnetic ones and vice-versa. This allows external transceivers to wirelessly pick up the transformed signals and stimulate the brain through a bidirectional highway.

The magnetometers can be delivered into the brain through a nasal spray or other non-invasive methods, and magnetically guided towards targeted brain regions. When no longer needed, they can once again be steered out of the brain and into the bloodstream, where the body can excrete them without harm.

Four-Year Miracle
Mind-blown? Yeah, same. However, the challenges facing the teams are enormous.

DARPA’s stated goal is to hook up at least 16 sites in the brain with the BMI, with a lag of less than 50 milliseconds—on the scale of average human visual perception. That’s crazy high resolution for devices sitting outside the brain, both in space and time. Brain tissue, blood vessels, and the scalp and skull are all barriers that scatter and dissipate neural signals. All six teams will need to figure out the least computationally-intensive ways to fish out relevant brain signals from background noise, and triangulate them to the appropriate brain region to decipher intent.

In the long run, four years and an average $20 million per project isn’t much to potentially transform our relationship with machines—for better or worse. DARPA, to its credit, is keenly aware of potential misuse of remote brain control. The program is under the guidance of a panel of external advisors with expertise in bioethical issues. And although DARPA’s focus is on enabling able-bodied soldiers to better tackle combat challenges, it’s hard to argue that wireless, non-invasive BMIs will also benefit those most in need: veterans and other people with debilitating nerve damage. To this end, the program is heavily engaging the FDA to ensure it meets safety and efficacy regulations for human use.

Will we be there in just four years? I’m skeptical. But these electrical, optical, acoustic, magnetic, and genetic BMIs, as crazy as they sound, seem inevitable.

“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, AI, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, the N3 program manager.

The question is, now that we know what’s in store, how should the rest of us prepare?

Image Credit: With permission from DARPA N3 project. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435023 Inflatable Robot Astronauts and How to ...

The typical cultural image of a robot—as a steel, chrome, humanoid bucket of bolts—is often far from the reality of cutting-edge robotics research. There are difficulties, both social and technological, in realizing the image of a robot from science fiction—let alone one that can actually help around the house. Often, it’s simply the case that great expense in producing a humanoid robot that can perform dozens of tasks quite badly is less appropriate than producing some other design that’s optimized to a specific situation.

A team of scientists from Brigham Young University has received funding from NASA to investigate an inflatable robot called, improbably, King Louie. The robot was developed by Pneubotics, who have a long track record in the world of soft robotics.

In space, weight is at a premium. The world watched in awe and amusement when Commander Chris Hadfield sang “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station—but launching that guitar into space likely cost around $100,000. A good price for launching payload into outer space is on the order of $10,000 per pound ($22,000/kg).

For that price, it would cost a cool $1.7 million to launch Boston Dynamics’ famous ATLAS robot to the International Space Station, and its bulk would be inconvenient in the cramped living quarters available. By contrast, an inflatable robot like King Louie is substantially lighter and can simply be deflated and folded away when not in use. The robot can be manufactured from cheap, lightweight, and flexible materials, and minor damage is easy to repair.

Inflatable Robots Under Pressure
The concept of inflatable robots is not new: indeed, earlier prototypes of King Louie were exhibited back in 2013 at Google I/O’s After Hours, flailing away at each other in a boxing ring. Sparks might fly in fights between traditional robots, but the aim here was to demonstrate that the robots are passively safe: the soft, inflatable figures won’t accidentally smash delicate items when moving around.

Health and safety regulations form part of the reason why robots don’t work alongside humans more often, but soft robots would be far safer to use in healthcare or around children (whose first instinct, according to BYU’s promotional video, is either to hug or punch King Louie.) It’s also much harder to have nightmarish fantasies about robotic domination with these friendlier softbots: Terminator would’ve been a much shorter franchise if Skynet’s droids were inflatable.

Robotic exoskeletons are increasingly used for physical rehabilitation therapies, as well as for industrial purposes. As countries like Japan seek to care for their aging populations with robots and alleviate the burden on nurses, who suffer from some of the highest rates of back injuries of any profession, soft robots will become increasingly attractive for use in healthcare.

Precision and Proprioception
The main issue is one of control. Rigid, metallic robots may be more expensive and more dangerous, but the simple fact of their rigidity makes it easier to map out and control the precise motions of each of the robot’s limbs, digits, and actuators. Individual motors attached to these rigid robots can allow for a great many degrees of freedom—individual directions in which parts of the robot can move—and precision control.

For example, ATLAS has 28 degrees of freedom, while Shadow’s dexterous robot hand alone has 20. This is much harder to do with an inflatable robot, for precisely the same reasons that make it safer. Without hard and rigid bones, other methods of control must be used.

In the case of King Louie, the robot is made up of many expandable air chambers. An air-compressor changes the pressure levels in these air chambers, allowing them to expand and contract. This harks back to some of the earliest pneumatic automata. Pairs of chambers act antagonistically, like muscles, such that when one chamber “tenses,” another relaxes—allowing King Louie to have, for example, four degrees of freedom in each of its arms.

The robot is also surprisingly strong. Professor Killpack, who works at BYU on the project, estimates that its payload is comparable to other humanoid robots on the market, like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter (RIP).

Proprioception, that sixth sense that allows us to map out and control our own bodies and muscles in fine detail, is being enhanced for a wider range of soft, flexible robots with the use of machine learning algorithms connected to input from a whole host of sensors on the robot’s body.

Part of the reason this is so complicated with soft, flexible robots is that the shape and “map” of the robot’s body can change; that’s the whole point. But this means that every time King Louie is inflated, its body is a slightly different shape; when it becomes deformed, for example due to picking up objects, the shape changes again, and the complex ways in which the fabric can twist and bend are far more difficult to model and sense than the behavior of the rigid metal of King Louie’s hard counterparts. When you’re looking for precision, seemingly-small changes can be the difference between successfully holding an object or dropping it.

Learning to Move
Researchers at BYU are therefore spending a great deal of time on how to control the soft-bot enough to make it comparably useful. One method involves the commercial tracking technology used in the Vive VR system: by moving the game controller, which provides a constant feedback to the robot’s arm, you can control its position. Since the tracking software provides an estimate of the robot’s joint angles and continues to provide feedback until the arm is correctly aligned, this type of feedback method is likely to work regardless of small changes to the robot’s shape.

The other technologies the researchers are looking into for their softbot include arrays of flexible, tactile sensors to place on the softbot’s skin, and minimizing the complex cross-talk between these arrays to get coherent information about the robot’s environment. As with some of the new proprioception research, the project is looking into neural networks as a means of modeling the complicated dynamics—the motion and response to forces—of the softbot. This method relies on large amounts of observational data, mapping how the robot is inflated and how it moves, rather than explicitly understanding and solving the equations that govern its motion—which hopefully means the methods can work even as the robot changes.

There’s still a long way to go before soft and inflatable robots can be controlled sufficiently well to perform all the tasks they might be used for. Ultimately, no one robotic design is likely to be perfect for any situation.

Nevertheless, research like this gives us hope that one day, inflatable robots could be useful tools, or even companions, at which point the advertising slogans write themselves: Don’t let them down, and they won’t let you down!

Image Credit: Brigham Young University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots