Tag Archives: disaster

#434827 AI and Robotics Are Transforming ...

During the past 50 years, the frequency of recorded natural disasters has surged nearly five-fold.

In this blog, I’ll be exploring how converging exponential technologies (AI, robotics, drones, sensors, networks) are transforming the future of disaster relief—how we can prevent them in the first place and get help to victims during that first golden hour wherein immediate relief can save lives.

Here are the three areas of greatest impact:

AI, predictive mapping, and the power of the crowd
Next-gen robotics and swarm solutions
Aerial drones and immediate aid supply

Let’s dive in!

Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Mapping
When it comes to immediate and high-precision emergency response, data is gold.

Already, the meteoric rise of space-based networks, stratosphere-hovering balloons, and 5G telecommunications infrastructure is in the process of connecting every last individual on the planet.

Aside from democratizing the world’s information, however, this upsurge in connectivity will soon grant anyone the ability to broadcast detailed geo-tagged data, particularly those most vulnerable to natural disasters.

Armed with the power of data broadcasting and the force of the crowd, disaster victims now play a vital role in emergency response, turning a historically one-way blind rescue operation into a two-way dialogue between connected crowds and smart response systems.

With a skyrocketing abundance of data, however, comes a new paradigm: one in which we no longer face a scarcity of answers. Instead, it will be the quality of our questions that matters most.

This is where AI comes in: our mining mechanism.

In the case of emergency response, what if we could strategically map an almost endless amount of incoming data points? Or predict the dynamics of a flood and identify a tsunami’s most vulnerable targets before it even strikes? Or even amplify critical signals to trigger automatic aid by surveillance drones and immediately alert crowdsourced volunteers?

Already, a number of key players are leveraging AI, crowdsourced intelligence, and cutting-edge visualizations to optimize crisis response and multiply relief speeds.

Take One Concern, for instance. Born out of Stanford under the mentorship of leading AI expert Andrew Ng, One Concern leverages AI through analytical disaster assessment and calculated damage estimates.

Partnering with the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and numerous cities in San Mateo County, the platform assigns verified, unique ‘digital fingerprints’ to every element in a city. Building robust models of each system, One Concern’s AI platform can then monitor site-specific impacts of not only climate change but each individual natural disaster, from sweeping thermal shifts to seismic movement.

This data, combined with that of city infrastructure and former disasters, are then used to predict future damage under a range of disaster scenarios, informing prevention methods and structures in need of reinforcement.

Within just four years, One Concern can now make precise predictions with an 85 percent accuracy rate in under 15 minutes.

And as IoT-connected devices and intelligent hardware continue to boom, a blooming trillion-sensor economy will only serve to amplify AI’s predictive capacity, offering us immediate, preventive strategies long before disaster strikes.

Beyond natural disasters, however, crowdsourced intelligence, predictive crisis mapping, and AI-powered responses are just as formidable a triage in humanitarian disasters.

One extraordinary story is that of Ushahidi. When violence broke out after the 2007 Kenyan elections, one local blogger proposed a simple yet powerful question to the web: “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring and put it on a map?”

Within days, four ‘techies’ heeded the call, building a platform that crowdsourced first-hand reports via SMS, mined the web for answers, and—with over 40,000 verified reports—sent alerts back to locals on the ground and viewers across the world.

Today, Ushahidi has been used in over 150 countries, reaching a total of 20 million people across 100,000+ deployments. Now an open-source crisis-mapping software, its V3 (or “Ushahidi in the Cloud”) is accessible to anyone, mining millions of Tweets, hundreds of thousands of news articles, and geo-tagged, time-stamped data from countless sources.

Aggregating one of the longest-running crisis maps to date, Ushahidi’s Syria Tracker has proved invaluable in the crowdsourcing of witness reports. Providing real-time geographic visualizations of all verified data, Syria Tracker has enabled civilians to report everything from missing people and relief supply needs to civilian casualties and disease outbreaks— all while evading the government’s cell network, keeping identities private, and verifying reports prior to publication.

As mobile connectivity and abundant sensors converge with AI-mined crowd intelligence, real-time awareness will only multiply in speed and scale.

Imagining the Future….

Within the next 10 years, spatial web technology might even allow us to tap into mesh networks.

As I’ve explored in a previous blog on the implications of the spatial web, while traditional networks rely on a limited set of wired access points (or wireless hotspots), a wireless mesh network can connect entire cities via hundreds of dispersed nodes that communicate with each other and share a network connection non-hierarchically.

In short, this means that individual mobile users can together establish a local mesh network using nothing but the computing power in their own devices.

Take this a step further, and a local population of strangers could collectively broadcast countless 360-degree feeds across a local mesh network.

Imagine a scenario in which armed attacks break out across disjointed urban districts, each cluster of eye witnesses and at-risk civilians broadcasting an aggregate of 360-degree videos, all fed through photogrammetry AIs that build out a live hologram in real time, giving family members and first responders complete information.

Or take a coastal community in the throes of torrential rainfall and failing infrastructure. Now empowered by a collective live feed, verification of data reports takes a matter of seconds, and richly-layered data informs first responders and AI platforms with unbelievable accuracy and specificity of relief needs.

By linking all the right technological pieces, we might even see the rise of automated drone deliveries. Imagine: crowdsourced intelligence is first cross-referenced with sensor data and verified algorithmically. AI is then leveraged to determine the specific needs and degree of urgency at ultra-precise coordinates. Within minutes, once approved by personnel, swarm robots rush to collect the requisite supplies, equipping size-appropriate drones with the right aid for rapid-fire delivery.

This brings us to a second critical convergence: robots and drones.

While cutting-edge drone technology revolutionizes the way we deliver aid, new breakthroughs in AI-geared robotics are paving the way for superhuman emergency responses in some of today’s most dangerous environments.

Let’s explore a few of the most disruptive examples to reach the testing phase.

First up….

Autonomous Robots and Swarm Solutions
As hardware advancements converge with exploding AI capabilities, disaster relief robots are graduating from assistance roles to fully autonomous responders at a breakneck pace.

Born out of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, the Cheetah III is but one of many robots that may form our first line of defense in everything from earthquake search-and-rescue missions to high-risk ops in dangerous radiation zones.

Now capable of running at 6.4 meters per second, Cheetah III can even leap up to a height of 60 centimeters, autonomously determining how to avoid obstacles and jump over hurdles as they arise.

Initially designed to perform spectral inspection tasks in hazardous settings (think: nuclear plants or chemical factories), the Cheetah’s various iterations have focused on increasing its payload capacity, range of motion, and even a gripping function with enhanced dexterity.

Cheetah III and future versions are aimed at saving lives in almost any environment.

And the Cheetah III is not alone. Just this February, Tokyo’s Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has put one of its own robots to the test. For the first time since Japan’s devastating 2011 tsunami, which led to three nuclear meltdowns in the nation’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, a robot has successfully examined the reactor’s fuel.

Broadcasting the process with its built-in camera, the robot was able to retrieve small chunks of radioactive fuel at five of the six test sites, offering tremendous promise for long-term plans to clean up the still-deadly interior.

Also out of Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHi) is even using robots to fight fires with full autonomy. In a remarkable new feat, MHi’s Water Cannon Bot can now put out blazes in difficult-to-access or highly dangerous fire sites.

Delivering foam or water at 4,000 liters per minute and 1 megapascal (MPa) of pressure, the Cannon Bot and its accompanying Hose Extension Bot even form part of a greater AI-geared system to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance on larger transport vehicles.

As wildfires grow ever more untameable, high-volume production of such bots could prove a true lifesaver. Paired with predictive AI forest fire mapping and autonomous hauling vehicles, not only will solutions like MHi’s Cannon Bot save numerous lives, but avoid population displacement and paralyzing damage to our natural environment before disaster has the chance to spread.

But even in cases where emergency shelter is needed, groundbreaking (literally) robotics solutions are fast to the rescue.

After multiple iterations by Fastbrick Robotics, the Hadrian X end-to-end bricklaying robot can now autonomously build a fully livable, 180-square-meter home in under three days. Using a laser-guided robotic attachment, the all-in-one brick-loaded truck simply drives to a construction site and directs blocks through its robotic arm in accordance with a 3D model.

Meeting verified building standards, Hadrian and similar solutions hold massive promise in the long-term, deployable across post-conflict refugee sites and regions recovering from natural catastrophes.

But what if we need to build emergency shelters from local soil at hand? Marking an extraordinary convergence between robotics and 3D printing, the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) is already working on a solution.

In a major feat for low-cost construction in remote zones, IAAC has found a way to convert almost any soil into a building material with three times the tensile strength of industrial clay. Offering myriad benefits, including natural insulation, low GHG emissions, fire protection, air circulation, and thermal mediation, IAAC’s new 3D printed native soil can build houses on-site for as little as $1,000.

But while cutting-edge robotics unlock extraordinary new frontiers for low-cost, large-scale emergency construction, novel hardware and computing breakthroughs are also enabling robotic scale at the other extreme of the spectrum.

Again, inspired by biological phenomena, robotics specialists across the US have begun to pilot tiny robotic prototypes for locating trapped individuals and assessing infrastructural damage.

Take RoboBees, tiny Harvard-developed bots that use electrostatic adhesion to ‘perch’ on walls and even ceilings, evaluating structural damage in the aftermath of an earthquake.

Or Carnegie Mellon’s prototyped Snakebot, capable of navigating through entry points that would otherwise be completely inaccessible to human responders. Driven by AI, the Snakebot can maneuver through even the most densely-packed rubble to locate survivors, using cameras and microphones for communication.

But when it comes to fast-paced reconnaissance in inaccessible regions, miniature robot swarms have good company.

Next-Generation Drones for Instantaneous Relief Supplies
Particularly in the case of wildfires and conflict zones, autonomous drone technology is fundamentally revolutionizing the way we identify survivors in need and automate relief supply.

Not only are drones enabling high-resolution imagery for real-time mapping and damage assessment, but preliminary research shows that UAVs far outpace ground-based rescue teams in locating isolated survivors.

As presented by a team of electrical engineers from the University of Science and Technology of China, drones could even build out a mobile wireless broadband network in record time using a “drone-assisted multi-hop device-to-device” program.

And as shown during Houston’s Hurricane Harvey, drones can provide scores of predictive intel on everything from future flooding to damage estimates.

Among multiple others, a team led by Texas A&M computer science professor and director of the university’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue Dr. Robin Murphy flew a total of 119 drone missions over the city, from small-scale quadcopters to military-grade unmanned planes. Not only were these critical for monitoring levee infrastructure, but also for identifying those left behind by human rescue teams.

But beyond surveillance, UAVs have begun to provide lifesaving supplies across some of the most remote regions of the globe. One of the most inspiring examples to date is Zipline.

Created in 2014, Zipline has completed 12,352 life-saving drone deliveries to date. While drones are designed, tested, and assembled in California, Zipline primarily operates in Rwanda and Tanzania, hiring local operators and providing over 11 million people with instant access to medical supplies.

Providing everything from vaccines and HIV medications to blood and IV tubes, Zipline’s drones far outpace ground-based supply transport, in many instances providing life-critical blood cells, plasma, and platelets in under an hour.

But drone technology is even beginning to transcend the limited scale of medical supplies and food.

Now developing its drones under contracts with DARPA and the US Marine Corps, Logistic Gliders, Inc. has built autonomously-navigating drones capable of carrying 1,800 pounds of cargo over unprecedented long distances.

Built from plywood, Logistic’s gliders are projected to cost as little as a few hundred dollars each, making them perfect candidates for high-volume remote aid deliveries, whether navigated by a pilot or self-flown in accordance with real-time disaster zone mapping.

As hardware continues to advance, autonomous drone technology coupled with real-time mapping algorithms pose no end of abundant opportunities for aid supply, disaster monitoring, and richly layered intel previously unimaginable for humanitarian relief.

Concluding Thoughts
Perhaps one of the most consequential and impactful applications of converging technologies is their transformation of disaster relief methods.

While AI-driven intel platforms crowdsource firsthand experiential data from those on the ground, mobile connectivity and drone-supplied networks are granting newfound narrative power to those most in need.

And as a wave of new hardware advancements gives rise to robotic responders, swarm technology, and aerial drones, we are fast approaching an age of instantaneous and efficiently-distributed responses in the midst of conflict and natural catastrophes alike.

Empowered by these new tools, what might we create when everyone on the planet has the same access to relief supplies and immediate resources? In a new age of prevention and fast recovery, what futures can you envision?

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Posted in Human Robots

#433907 How the Spatial Web Will Fix What’s ...

Converging exponential technologies will transform media, advertising and the retail world. The world we see, through our digitally-enhanced eyes, will multiply and explode with intelligence, personalization, and brilliance.

This is the age of Web 3.0.

Last week, I discussed the what and how of Web 3.0 (also known as the Spatial Web), walking through its architecture and the converging technologies that enable it.

To recap, while Web 1.0 consisted of static documents and read-only data, Web 2.0 introduced multimedia content, interactive web applications, and participatory social media, all of these mediated by two-dimensional screens—a flat web of sensorily confined information.

During the next two to five years, the convergence of 5G, AI, a trillion sensors, and VR/AR will enable us to both map our physical world into virtual space and superimpose a digital layer onto our physical environments.

Web 3.0 is about to transform everything—from the way we learn and educate, to the way we trade (smart) assets, to our interactions with real and virtual versions of each other.

And while users grow rightly concerned about data privacy and misuse, the Spatial Web’s use of blockchain in its data and governance layer will secure and validate our online identities, protecting everything from your virtual assets to personal files.

In this second installment of the Web 3.0 series, I’ll be discussing the Spatial Web’s vast implications for a handful of industries:

News & Media Coverage
Smart Advertising
Personalized Retail

Let’s dive in.

Transforming Network News with Web 3.0
News media is big business. In 2016, global news media (including print) generated 168 billion USD in circulation and advertising revenue.

The news we listen to impacts our mindset. Listen to dystopian news on violence, disaster, and evil, and you’ll more likely be searching for a cave to hide in, rather than technology for the launch of your next business.

Today, different news media present starkly different realities of everything from foreign conflict to domestic policy. And outcomes are consequential. What reporters and news corporations decide to show or omit of a given news story plays a tremendous role in shaping the beliefs and resulting values of entire populations and constituencies.

But what if we could have an objective benchmark for today’s news, whereby crowdsourced and sensor-collected evidence allows you to tour the site of journalistic coverage, determining for yourself the most salient aspects of a story?

Enter mesh networks, AI, public ledgers, and virtual reality.

While traditional networks rely on a limited set of wired access points (or wireless hotspots), a wireless mesh network can connect entire cities via hundreds of dispersed nodes that communicate with each other and share a network connection non-hierarchically.

In short, this means that individual mobile users can together establish a local mesh network using nothing but the computing power in their own devices.

Take this a step further, and a local population of strangers could collectively broadcast countless 360-degree feeds across a local mesh network.

Imagine a scenario in which protests break out across the country, each cluster of activists broadcasting an aggregate of 360-degree videos, all fed through photogrammetry AIs that build out a live hologram of the march in real time. Want to see and hear what the NYC-based crowds are advocating for? Throw on some VR goggles and explore the event with full access. Or cue into the southern Texan border to assess for yourself the handling of immigrant entry and border conflicts.

Take a front seat in the Capitol during tomorrow’s Senate hearing, assessing each Senator’s reactions, questions and arguments without a Fox News or CNN filter. Or if you’re short on time, switch on the holographic press conference and host 3D avatars of live-broadcasting politicians in your living room.

We often think of modern media as taking away consumer agency, feeding tailored and often partisan ideology to a complacent audience. But as wireless mesh networks and agnostic sensor data allow for immersive VR-accessible news sites, the average viewer will necessarily become an active participant in her own education of current events.

And with each of us interpreting the news according to our own values, I envision a much less polarized world. A world in which civic engagement, moderately reasoned dialogue, and shared assumptions will allow us to empathize and make compromises.

The future promises an era in which news is verified and balanced; wherein public ledgers, AI, and new web interfaces bring you into the action and respect your intelligence—not manipulate your ignorance.

Web 3.0 Reinventing Advertising
Bringing about the rise of ‘user-owned data’ and self-established permissions, Web 3.0 is poised to completely disrupt digital advertising—a global industry worth over 192 billion USD.

Currently, targeted advertising leverages tomes of personal data and online consumer behavior to subtly engage you with products you might not want, or sell you on falsely advertised services promising inaccurate results.

With a new Web 3.0 data and governance layer, however, distributed ledger technologies will require advertisers to engage in more direct interaction with consumers, validating claims and upping transparency.

And with a data layer that allows users to own and authorize third-party use of their data, blockchain also holds extraordinary promise to slash not only data breaches and identity theft, but covert advertiser bombardment without your authorization.

Accessing crowdsourced reviews and AI-driven fact-checking, users will be able to validate advertising claims more efficiently and accurately than ever before, potentially rating and filtering out advertisers in the process. And in such a streamlined system of verified claims, sellers will face increased pressure to compete more on product and rely less on marketing.

But perhaps most exciting is the convergence of artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

As Spatial Web networks begin to associate digital information with physical objects and locations, products will begin to “sell themselves.” Each with built-in smart properties, products will become hyper-personalized, communicating information directly to users through Web 3.0 interfaces.

Imagine stepping into a department store in pursuit of a new web-connected fridge. As soon as you enter, your AR goggles register your location and immediately grant you access to a populated register of store products.

As you move closer to a kitchen set that catches your eye, a virtual salesperson—whether by holographic video or avatar—pops into your field of view next to the fridge you’ve been examining and begins introducing you to its various functions and features. You quickly decide you’d rather disable the avatar and get textual input instead, and preferences are reset to list appliance properties visually.

After a virtual tour of several other fridges, you decide on the one you want and seamlessly execute a smart contract, carried out by your smart wallet and the fridge. The transaction takes place in seconds, and the fridge’s blockchain-recorded ownership record has been updated.

Better yet, you head over to a friend’s home for dinner after moving into the neighborhood. While catching up in the kitchen, your eyes fixate on the cabinets, which quickly populate your AR glasses with a price-point and selection of colors.

But what if you’d rather not get auto-populated product info in the first place? No problem!

Now empowered with self-sovereign identities, users might be able to turn off advertising preferences entirely, turning on smart recommendations only when they want to buy a given product or need new supplies.

And with user-centric data, consumers might even sell such information to advertisers directly. Now, instead of Facebook or Google profiting off your data, you might earn a passive income by giving advertisers permission to personalize and market their services. Buy more, and your personal data marketplace grows in value. Buy less, and a lower-valued advertising profile causes an ebb in advertiser input.

With user-controlled data, advertisers now work on your terms, putting increased pressure on product iteration and personalizing products for each user.

This brings us to the transformative future of retail.

Personalized Retail–Power of the Spatial Web
In a future of smart and hyper-personalized products, I might walk through a virtual game space or a digitally reconstructed Target, browsing specific categories of clothing I’ve predetermined prior to entry.

As I pick out my selection, my AI assistant hones its algorithm reflecting new fashion preferences, and personal shoppers—also visiting the store in VR—help me pair different pieces as I go.

Once my personal shopper has finished constructing various outfits, I then sit back and watch a fashion show of countless Peter avatars with style and color variations of my selection, each customizable.

After I’ve made my selection, I might choose to purchase physical versions of three outfits and virtual versions of two others for my digital avatar. Payments are made automatically as I leave the store, including a smart wallet transaction made with the personal shopper at a per-outfit rate (for only the pieces I buy).

Already, several big players have broken into the VR market. Just this year, Walmart has announced its foray into the VR space, shipping 17,000 Oculus Go VR headsets to Walmart locations across the US.

And just this past January, Walmart filed two VR shopping-related patents. In a new bid to disrupt a rapidly changing retail market, Walmart now describes a system in which users couple their VR headset with haptic gloves for an immersive in-store experience, whether at 3am in your living room or during a lunch break at the office.

But Walmart is not alone. Big e-commerce players from Amazon to Alibaba are leaping onto the scene with new software buildout to ride the impending headset revolution.

Beyond virtual reality, players like IKEA have even begun using mobile-based augmented reality to map digitally replicated furniture in your physical living room, true to dimension. And this is just the beginning….

As AR headset hardware undergoes breakneck advancements in the next two to five years, we might soon be able to project watches onto our wrists, swapping out colors, styles, brand, and price points.

Or let’s say I need a new coffee table in my office. Pulling up multiple models in AR, I can position each option using advanced hand-tracking technology and customize height and width according to my needs. Once the smart payment is triggered, the manufacturer prints my newly-customized piece, droning it to my doorstep. As soon as I need to assemble the pieces, overlaid digital prompts walk me through each step, and any user confusions are communicated to a company database.

Perhaps one of the ripest industries for Spatial Web disruption, retail presents one of the greatest opportunities for profit across virtual apparel, digital malls, AI fashion startups and beyond.

In our next series iteration, I’ll be looking at the tremendous opportunities created by Web 3.0 for the Future of Work and Entertainment.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432891 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

TRANSPORTATION
Elon Musk Presents His Tunnel Vision to the People of LA
Jack Stewart and Aarian Marshall | Wired
“Now, Musk wants to build this new, 2.1-mile tunnel, near LA’s Sepulveda pass. It’s all part of his broader vision of a sprawling network that could take riders from Sherman Oaks in the north to Long Beach Airport in the south, Santa Monica in the west to Dodger Stadium in the east—without all that troublesome traffic.”

ROBOTICS
Feel What This Robot Feels Through Tactile Expressions
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“Guy Hoffman’s Human-Robot Collaboration & Companionship (HRC2) Lab at Cornell University is working on a new robot that’s designed to investigate this concept of textural communication, which really hasn’t been explored in robotics all that much. The robot uses a pneumatically powered elastomer skin that can be dynamically textured with either goosebumps or spikes, which should help it communicate more effectively, especially if what it’s trying to communicate is, ‘Don’t touch me!’”

VIRTUAL REALITY
In Virtual Reality, How Much Body Do You Need?
Steph Yin | The New York Times
“In a paper published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, they showed that animating virtual hands and feet alone is enough to make people feel their sense of body drift toward an invisible avatar. Their work fits into a corpus of research on illusory body ownership, which has challenged understandings of perception and contributed to therapies like treating pain for amputees who experience phantom limb.”

MEDICINE
How Graphene and Gold Could Help Us Test Drugs and Monitor Cancer
Angela Chen | The Verge
“In today’s study, scientists learned to precisely control the amount of electricity graphene generates by changing how much light they shine on the material. When they grew heart cells on the graphene, they could manipulate the cells too, says study co-author Alex Savtchenko, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego. They could make it beat 1.5 times faster, three times faster, 10 times faster, or whatever they needed.”

DISASTER RELIEF
Robotic Noses Could Be the Future of Disaster Rescue—If They Can Outsniff Search Dogs
Eleanor Cummins | Popular Science
“While canine units are a tried and fairly true method for identifying people trapped in the wreckage of a disaster, analytical chemists have for years been working in the lab to create a robotic alternative. A synthetic sniffer, they argue, could potentially prove to be just as or even more reliable than a dog, more resilient in the face of external pressures like heat and humidity, and infinitely more portable.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432646 How Fukushima Changed Japanese Robotics ...

In March 2011, Japan was hit by a catastrophic earthquake that triggered a terrible tsunami. Thousands were killed and billions of dollars of damage was done in one of the worst disasters of modern times. For a few perilous weeks, though, the eyes of the world were focused on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Its safety systems were unable to cope with the tsunami damage, and there were widespread fears of another catastrophic meltdown that could spread radiation over several countries, like the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s. A heroic effort that included dumping seawater into the reactor core prevented an even bigger catastrophe. As it is, a hundred thousand people are still evacuated from the area, and it will likely take many years and hundreds of billions of dollars before the region is safe.

Because radiation is so dangerous to humans, the natural solution to the Fukushima disaster was to send in robots to monitor levels of radiation and attempt to begin the clean-up process. The techno-optimists in Japan had discovered a challenge, deep in the heart of that reactor core, that even their optimism could not solve. The radiation fried the circuits of the robots that were sent in, even those specifically designed and built to deal with the Fukushima catastrophe. The power plant slowly became a vast robot graveyard. While some robots initially saw success in measuring radiation levels around the plant—and, recently, a robot was able to identify the melted uranium fuel at the heart of the disaster—hopes of them playing a substantial role in the clean-up are starting to diminish.



In Tokyo’s neon Shibuya district, it can sometimes seem like it’s brighter at night than it is during the daytime. In karaoke booths on the twelfth floor—because everything is on the twelfth floor—overlooking the brightly-lit streets, businessmen unwind by blasting out pop hits. It can feel like the most artificial place on Earth; your senses are dazzled by the futuristic techno-optimism. Stock footage of the area has become symbolic of futurism and modernity.

Japan has had a reputation for being a nation of futurists for a long time. We’ve already described how tech giant Softbank, headed by visionary founder Masayoshi Son, is investing billions in a technological future, including plans for the world’s largest solar farm.

When Google sold pioneering robotics company Boston Dynamics in 2017, Softbank added it to their portfolio, alongside the famous Nao and Pepper robots. Some may think that Son is taking a gamble in pursuing a robotics project even Google couldn’t succeed in, but this is a man who lost nearly everything in the dot-com crash of 2000. The fact that even this reversal didn’t dent his optimism and faith in technology is telling. But how long can it last?

The failure of Japan’s robots to deal with the immense challenge of Fukushima has sparked something of a crisis of conscience within the industry. Disaster response is an obvious stepping-stone technology for robots. Initially, producing a humanoid robot will be very costly, and the robot will be less capable than a human; building a robot to wait tables might not be particularly economical yet. Building a robot to do jobs that are too dangerous for humans is far more viable. Yet, at Fukushima, in one of the most advanced nations in the world, many of the robots weren’t up to the task.

Nowhere was this crisis more felt than Honda; the company had developed ASIMO, which stunned the world in 2000 and continues to fascinate as an iconic humanoid robot. Despite all this technological advancement, however, Honda knew that ASIMO was still too unreliable for the real world.

It was Fukushima that triggered a sea-change in Honda’s approach to robotics. Two years after the disaster, there were rumblings that Honda was developing a disaster robot, and in October 2017, the prototype was revealed to the public for the first time. It’s not yet ready for deployment in disaster zones, however. Interestingly, the creators chose not to give it dexterous hands but instead to assume that remotely-operated tools fitted to the robot would be a better solution for the range of circumstances it might encounter.

This shift in focus for humanoid robots away from entertainment and amusement like ASIMO, and towards being practically useful, has been mirrored across the world.

In 2015, also inspired by the Fukushima disaster and the lack of disaster-ready robots, the DARPA Robotics Challenge tested humanoid robots with a range of tasks that might be needed in emergency response, such as driving cars, opening doors, and climbing stairs. The Terminator-like ATLAS robot from Boston Dynamics, alongside Korean robot HUBO, took many of the plaudits, and CHIMP also put in an impressive display by being able to right itself after falling.

Yet the DARPA Robotics Challenge showed us just how far the robots are from truly being as useful as we’d like, or maybe even as we would imagine. Many robots took hours to complete the tasks, which were highly idealized to suit them. Climbing stairs proved a particular challenge. Those who watched were more likely to see a robot that had fallen over, struggling to get up, rather than heroic superbots striding in to save the day. The “striding” proved a particular problem, with the fastest robot HUBO managing this by resorting to wheels in its knees when the legs weren’t necessary.

Fukushima may have brought a sea-change over futuristic Japan, but before robots will really begin to enter our everyday lives, they will need to prove their worth. In the interim, aerial drone robots designed to examine infrastructure damage after disasters may well see earlier deployment and more success.

It’s a considerable challenge.

Building a humanoid robot is expensive; if these multi-million-dollar machines can’t help in a crisis, people may begin to question the worth of investing in them in the first place (unless your aim is just to make viral videos). This could lead to a further crisis of confidence among the Japanese, who are starting to rely on humanoid robotics as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.

But if they continue to fail when put to the test, that will raise serious concerns. In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, you can see all kinds of flash robotic toys for sale in the neon-lit superstores, and dancing, acting robots like Robothespian can entertain crowds all over the world. But if we want these machines to be anything more than toys—partners, helpers, even saviors—more work needs to be done.

At the same time, those who participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015 won’t be too concerned if people were underwhelmed by the performance of their disaster relief robots. Back in 2004, nearly every participant in the DARPA Grand Challenge crashed, caught fire, or failed on the starting line. To an outside observer, the whole thing would have seemed like an unmitigated disaster, and a pointless investment. What was the task in 2004? Developing a self-driving car. A lot can change in a decade.

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Posted in Human Robots