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#432051 What Roboticists Are Learning From Early ...

You might not have heard of Hanson Robotics, but if you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen their work. They were the company behind Sophia, the lifelike humanoid avatar that’s made dozens of high-profile media appearances. Before that, they were the company behind that strange-looking robot that seemed a bit like Asimo with Albert Einstein’s head—or maybe you saw BINA48, who was interviewed for the New York Times in 2010 and featured in Jon Ronson’s books. For the sci-fi aficionados amongst you, they even made a replica of legendary author Philip K. Dick, best remembered for having books with titles like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? turned into films with titles like Blade Runner.

Hanson Robotics, in other words, with their proprietary brand of life-like humanoid robots, have been playing the same game for a while. Sometimes it can be a frustrating game to watch. Anyone who gives the robot the slightest bit of thought will realize that this is essentially a chat-bot, with all the limitations this implies. Indeed, even in that New York Times interview with BINA48, author Amy Harmon describes it as a frustrating experience—with “rare (but invariably thrilling) moments of coherence.” This sensation will be familiar to anyone who’s conversed with a chatbot that has a few clever responses.

The glossy surface belies the lack of real intelligence underneath; it seems, at first glance, like a much more advanced machine than it is. Peeling back that surface layer—at least for a Hanson robot—means you’re peeling back Frubber. This proprietary substance—short for “Flesh Rubber,” which is slightly nightmarish—is surprisingly complicated. Up to thirty motors are required just to control the face; they manipulate liquid cells in order to make the skin soft, malleable, and capable of a range of different emotional expressions.

A quick combinatorial glance at the 30+ motors suggests that there are millions of possible combinations; researchers identify 62 that they consider “human-like” in Sophia, although not everyone agrees with this assessment. Arguably, the technical expertise that went into reconstructing the range of human facial expressions far exceeds the more simplistic chat engine the robots use, although it’s the second one that allows it to inflate the punters’ expectations with a few pre-programmed questions in an interview.

Hanson Robotics’ belief is that, ultimately, a lot of how humans will eventually relate to robots is going to depend on their faces and voices, as well as on what they’re saying. “The perception of identity is so intimately bound up with the perception of the human form,” says David Hanson, company founder.

Yet anyone attempting to design a robot that won’t terrify people has to contend with the uncanny valley—that strange blend of concern and revulsion people react with when things appear to be creepily human. Between cartoonish humanoids and genuine humans lies what has often been a no-go zone in robotic aesthetics.

The uncanny valley concept originated with roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that roboticists should avoid trying to replicate humans exactly. Since anything that wasn’t perfect, but merely very good, would elicit an eerie feeling in humans, shirking the challenge entirely was the only way to avoid the uncanny valley. It’s probably a task made more difficult by endless streams of articles about AI taking over the world that inexplicably conflate AI with killer humanoid Terminators—which aren’t particularly likely to exist (although maybe it’s best not to push robots around too much).

The idea behind this realm of psychological horror is fairly simple, cognitively speaking.

We know how to categorize things that are unambiguously human or non-human. This is true even if they’re designed to interact with us. Consider the popularity of Aibo, Jibo, or even some robots that don’t try to resemble humans. Something that resembles a human, but isn’t quite right, is bound to evoke a fear response in the same way slightly distorted music or slightly rearranged furniture in your home will. The creature simply doesn’t fit.

You may well reject the idea of the uncanny valley entirely. David Hanson, naturally, is not a fan. In the paper Upending the Uncanny Valley, he argues that great art forms have often resembled humans, but the ultimate goal for humanoid roboticists is probably to create robots we can relate to as something closer to humans than works of art.

Meanwhile, Hanson and other scientists produce competing experiments to either demonstrate that the uncanny valley is overhyped, or to confirm it exists and probe its edges.

The classic experiment involves gradually morphing a cartoon face into a human face, via some robotic-seeming intermediaries—yet it’s in movement that the real horror of the almost-human often lies. Hanson has argued that incorporating cartoonish features may help—and, sometimes, that the uncanny valley is a generational thing which will melt away when new generations grow used to the quirks of robots. Although Hanson might dispute the severity of this effect, it’s clearly what he’s trying to avoid with each new iteration.

Hiroshi Ishiguro is the latest of the roboticists to have dived headlong into the valley.

Building on the work of pioneers like Hanson, those who study human-robot interaction are pushing at the boundaries of robotics—but also of social science. It’s usually difficult to simulate what you don’t understand, and there’s still an awful lot we don’t understand about how we interpret the constant streams of non-verbal information that flow when you interact with people in the flesh.

Ishiguro took this imitation of human forms to extreme levels. Not only did he monitor and log the physical movements people made on videotapes, but some of his robots are based on replicas of people; the Repliee series began with a ‘replicant’ of his daughter. This involved making a rubber replica—a silicone cast—of her entire body. Future experiments were focused on creating Geminoid, a replica of Ishiguro himself.

As Ishiguro aged, he realized that it would be more effective to resemble his replica through cosmetic surgery rather than by continually creating new casts of his face, each with more lines than the last. “I decided not to get old anymore,” Ishiguro said.

We love to throw around abstract concepts and ideas: humans being replaced by machines, cared for by machines, getting intimate with machines, or even merging themselves with machines. You can take an idea like that, hold it in your hand, and examine it—dispassionately, if not without interest. But there’s a gulf between thinking about it and living in a world where human-robot interaction is not a field of academic research, but a day-to-day reality.

As the scientists studying human-robot interaction develop their robots, their replicas, and their experiments, they are making some of the first forays into that world. We might all be living there someday. Understanding ourselves—decrypting the origins of empathy and love—may be the greatest challenge to face. That is, if you want to avoid the valley.

Image Credit: Anton Gvozdikov / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#432031 Why the Rise of Self-Driving Vehicles ...

It’s been a long time coming. For years Waymo (formerly known as Google Chauffeur) has been diligently developing, driving, testing and refining its fleets of various models of self-driving cars. Now Waymo is going big. The company recently placed an order for several thousand new Chrysler Pacifica minivans and next year plans to launch driverless taxis in a number of US cities.

This deal raises one of the biggest unanswered questions about autonomous vehicles: if fleets of driverless taxis make it cheap and easy for regular people to get around, what’s going to happen to car ownership?

One popular line of thought goes as follows: as autonomous ride-hailing services become ubiquitous, people will no longer need to buy their own cars. This notion has a certain logical appeal. It makes sense to assume that as driverless taxis become widely available, most of us will eagerly sell the family car and use on-demand taxis to get to work, run errands, or pick up the kids. After all, vehicle ownership is pricey and most cars spend the vast majority of their lives parked.

Even experts believe commercial availability of autonomous vehicles will cause car sales to drop.

Market research firm KPMG estimates that by 2030, midsize car sales in the US will decline from today’s 5.4 million units sold each year to nearly half that number, a measly 2.1 million units. Another market research firm, ReThinkX, offers an even more pessimistic estimate (or optimistic, depending on your opinion of cars), predicting that autonomous vehicles will reduce consumer demand for new vehicles by a whopping 70 percent.

The reality is that the impending death of private vehicle sales is greatly exaggerated. Despite the fact that autonomous taxis will be a beneficial and widely-embraced form of urban transportation, we will witness the opposite. Most people will still prefer to own their own autonomous vehicle. In fact, the total number of units of autonomous vehicles sold each year is going to increase rather than decrease.

When people predict the demise of car ownership, they are overlooking the reality that the new autonomous automotive industry is not going to be just a re-hash of today’s car industry with driverless vehicles. Instead, the automotive industry of the future will be selling what could be considered an entirely new product: a wide variety of intelligent, self-guiding transportation robots. When cars become a widely used type of transportation robot, they will be cheap, ubiquitous, and versatile.

Several unique characteristics of autonomous vehicles will ensure that people will continue to buy their own cars.

1. Cost: Thanks to simpler electric engines and lighter auto bodies, autonomous vehicles will be cheaper to buy and maintain than today’s human-driven vehicles. Some estimates bring the price to $10K per vehicle, a stark contrast with today’s average of $30K per vehicle.

2. Personal belongings: Consumers will be able to do much more in their driverless vehicles, including work, play, and rest. This means they will want to keep more personal items in their cars.

3. Frequent upgrades: The average (human-driven) car today is owned for 10 years. As driverless cars become software-driven devices, their price/performance ratio will track to Moore’s law. Their rapid improvement will increase the appeal and frequency of new vehicle purchases.

4. Instant accessibility: In a dense urban setting, a driverless taxi is able to show up within minutes of being summoned. But not so in rural areas, where people live miles apart. For many, delay and “loss of control” over their own mobility will increase the appeal of owning their own vehicle.

5. Diversity of form and function: Autonomous vehicles will be available in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Consumers will drive demand for custom-made, purpose-built autonomous vehicles whose form is adapted for a particular function.

Let’s explore each of these characteristics in more detail.

Autonomous vehicles will cost less for several reasons. For one, they will be powered by electric engines, which are cheaper to construct and maintain than gasoline-powered engines. Removing human drivers will also save consumers money. Autonomous vehicles will be much less likely to have accidents, hence they can be built out of lightweight, lower-cost materials and will be cheaper to insure. With the human interface no longer needed, autonomous vehicles won’t be burdened by the manufacturing costs of a complex dashboard, steering wheel, and foot pedals.

While hop-on, hop-off autonomous taxi-based mobility services may be ideal for some of the urban population, several sizeable customer segments will still want to own their own cars.

These include people who live in sparsely-populated rural areas who can’t afford to wait extended periods of time for a taxi to appear. Families with children will prefer to own their own driverless cars to house their childrens’ car seats and favorite toys and sippy cups. Another loyal car-buying segment will be die-hard gadget-hounds who will eagerly buy a sexy upgraded model every year or so, unable to resist the siren song of AI that is three times as safe, or a ride that is twice as smooth.

Finally, consider the allure of robotic diversity.

Commuters will invest in a home office on wheels, a sleek, traveling workspace resembling the first-class suite on an airplane. On the high end of the market, city-dwellers and country-dwellers alike will special-order custom-made autonomous vehicles whose shape and on-board gadgetry is adapted for a particular function or hobby. Privately-owned small businesses will buy their own autonomous delivery robot that could range in size from a knee-high, last-mile delivery pod, to a giant, long-haul shipping device.

As autonomous vehicles near commercial viability, Waymo’s procurement deal with Fiat Chrysler is just the beginning.

The exact value of this future automotive industry has yet to be defined, but research from Intel’s internal autonomous vehicle division estimates this new so-called “passenger economy” could be worth nearly $7 trillion a year. To position themselves to capture a chunk of this potential revenue, companies whose businesses used to lie in previously disparate fields such as robotics, software, ships, and entertainment (to name but a few) have begun to form a bewildering web of what they hope will be symbiotic partnerships. Car hailing and chip companies are collaborating with car rental companies, who in turn are befriending giant software firms, who are launching joint projects with all sizes of hardware companies, and so on.

Last year, car companies sold an estimated 80 million new cars worldwide. Over the course of nearly a century, car companies and their partners, global chains of suppliers and service providers, have become masters at mass-producing and maintaining sturdy and cost-effective human-driven vehicles. As autonomous vehicle technology becomes ready for mainstream use, traditional automotive companies are being forced to grapple with the painful realization that they must compete in a new playing field.

The challenge for traditional car-makers won’t be that people no longer want to own cars. Instead, the challenge will be learning to compete in a new and larger transportation industry where consumers will choose their product according to the appeal of its customized body and the quality of its intelligent software.

Melba Kurman and Hod Lipson are the authors of Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead and Fabricated: the New World of 3D Printing.

Image Credit: hfzimages / Shutterstock.com

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#431995 The 10 Grand Challenges Facing Robotics ...

Robotics research has been making great strides in recent years, but there are still many hurdles to the machines becoming a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The journal Science Robotics has now identified 10 grand challenges the field will have to grapple with to make that a reality.

Editors conducted an online survey on unsolved challenges in robotics and assembled an expert panel of roboticists to shortlist the 30 most important topics, which were then grouped into 10 grand challenges that could have major impact in the next 5 to 10 years. Here’s what they came up with.

1. New Materials and Fabrication Schemes
Roboticists are beginning to move beyond motors, gears, and sensors by experimenting with things like artificial muscles, soft robotics, and new fabrication methods that combine multiple functions in one material. But most of these advances have been “one-off” demonstrations, which are not easy to combine.

Multi-functional materials merging things like sensing, movement, energy harvesting, or energy storage could allow more efficient robot designs. But combining these various properties in a single machine will require new approaches that blend micro-scale and large-scale fabrication techniques. Another promising direction is materials that can change over time to adapt or heal, but this requires much more research.

2. Bioinspired and Bio-Hybrid Robots
Nature has already solved many of the problems roboticists are trying to tackle, so many are turning to biology for inspiration or even incorporating living systems into their robots. But there are still major bottlenecks in reproducing the mechanical performance of muscle and the ability of biological systems to power themselves.

There has been great progress in artificial muscles, but their robustness, efficiency, and energy and power density need to be improved. Embedding living cells into robots can overcome challenges of powering small robots, as well as exploit biological features like self-healing and embedded sensing, though how to integrate these components is still a major challenge. And while a growing “robo-zoo” is helping tease out nature’s secrets, more work needs to be done on how animals transition between capabilities like flying and swimming to build multimodal platforms.

3. Power and Energy
Energy storage is a major bottleneck for mobile robotics. Rising demand from drones, electric vehicles, and renewable energy is driving progress in battery technology, but the fundamental challenges have remained largely unchanged for years.

That means that in parallel to battery development, there need to be efforts to minimize robots’ power utilization and give them access to new sources of energy. Enabling them to harvest energy from their environment and transmitting power to them wirelessly are two promising approaches worthy of investigation.

4. Robot Swarms
Swarms of simple robots that assemble into different configurations to tackle various tasks can be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to large, task-specific robots. Smaller, cheaper, more powerful hardware that lets simple robots sense their environment and communicate is combining with AI that can model the kind of behavior seen in nature’s flocks.

But there needs to be more work on the most efficient forms of control at different scales—small swarms can be controlled centrally, but larger ones need to be more decentralized. They also need to be made robust and adaptable to the changing conditions of the real world and resilient to deliberate or accidental damage. There also needs to be more work on swarms of non-homogeneous robots with complementary capabilities.

5. Navigation and Exploration
A key use case for robots is exploring places where humans cannot go, such as the deep sea, space, or disaster zones. That means they need to become adept at exploring and navigating unmapped, often highly disordered and hostile environments.

The major challenges include creating systems that can adapt, learn, and recover from navigation failures and are able to make and recognize new discoveries. This will require high levels of autonomy that allow the robots to monitor and reconfigure themselves while being able to build a picture of the world from multiple data sources of varying reliability and accuracy.

6. AI for Robotics
Deep learning has revolutionized machines’ ability to recognize patterns, but that needs to be combined with model-based reasoning to create adaptable robots that can learn on the fly.

Key to this will be creating AI that’s aware of its own limitations and can learn how to learn new things. It will also be important to create systems that are able to learn quickly from limited data rather than the millions of examples used in deep learning. Further advances in our understanding of human intelligence will be essential to solving these problems.

7. Brain-Computer Interfaces
BCIs will enable seamless control of advanced robotic prosthetics but could also prove a faster, more natural way to communicate instructions to robots or simply help them understand human mental states.

Most current approaches to measuring brain activity are expensive and cumbersome, though, so work on compact, low-power, and wireless devices will be important. They also tend to involve extended training, calibration, and adaptation due to the imprecise nature of reading brain activity. And it remains to be seen if they will outperform simpler techniques like eye tracking or reading muscle signals.

8. Social Interaction
If robots are to enter human environments, they will need to learn to deal with humans. But this will be difficult, as we have very few concrete models of human behavior and we are prone to underestimate the complexity of what comes naturally to us.

Social robots will need to be able to perceive minute social cues like facial expression or intonation, understand the cultural and social context they are operating in, and model the mental states of people they interact with to tailor their dealings with them, both in the short term and as they develop long-standing relationships with them.

9. Medical Robotics
Medicine is one of the areas where robots could have significant impact in the near future. Devices that augment a surgeon’s capabilities are already in regular use, but the challenge will be to increase the autonomy of these systems in such a high-stakes environment.

Autonomous robot assistants will need to be able to recognize human anatomy in a variety of contexts and be able to use situational awareness and spoken commands to understand what’s required of them. In surgery, autonomous robots could perform the routine steps of a procedure, giving way to the surgeon for more complicated patient-specific bits.

Micro-robots that operate inside the human body also hold promise, but there are still many roadblocks to their adoption, including effective delivery systems, tracking and control methods, and crucially, finding therapies where they improve on current approaches.

10. Robot Ethics and Security
As the preceding challenges are overcome and robots are increasingly integrated into our lives, this progress will create new ethical conundrums. Most importantly, we may become over-reliant on robots.

That could lead to humans losing certain skills and capabilities, making us unable to take the reins in the case of failures. We may end up delegating tasks that should, for ethical reasons, have some human supervision, and allow people to pass the buck to autonomous systems in the case of failure. It could also reduce self-determination, as human behaviors change to accommodate the routines and restrictions required for robots and AI to work effectively.

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#431906 Low-Cost Soft Robot Muscles Can Lift 200 ...

Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.

Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
Image Credit: Keplinger Research Group/University of Colorado Continue reading

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#430988 The Week’s Awesome Stories From Around ...

BIOTECH
Lab-Grown Food Startup Memphis Meats Raises $17 Million From DFJ, Cargill, Bill Gates, OthersPaul Sawers | Venture Beat “Meat grown in a laboratory is the future, if certain sustainable food advocates have their way, and one startup just raised a bucketload of cash from major investors to make this goal a reality….Leading the $17 million series A round was venture capital (VC) firm DFJ, backer of Skype, Tesla, SpaceX, Tumblr, Foursquare, Baidu, and Box.”
ROBOTICS
Blossom: A Handmade Approach to Social Robotics From Cornell and GoogleEvan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum “Blossom’s overall aesthetic is, in some ways, a response to the way that the design of home robots (and personal technology) has been trending recently. We’re surrounding ourselves with sterility embodied in metal and plastic, perhaps because of a perception that tech should be flawless. And I suppose when it comes to my phone or my computer, sterile flawlessness is good.”
AUTOMOTIVE
Mercedes’ Outrageously Swoopy Concept Says Nein to the Pod-Car FutureAlex Davies | WIRED “The swooping concept car, unveiled last weekend at the Pebble Beach Concoursd’Elegance, rejects all notions of practicality. It measures nearly 18.7 feet long and 6.9 feet wide, yet offers just two seats…Each wheel gets its own electric motor that draws power from the battery that comprises the car’s underbody. All told, they generate 750 horsepower, and the car will go 200 miles between charges.”
EDTECH
Amazon’s TenMarks Releases a New Curriculum for Educators That Teaches Kids Writing Using Digital Assistants, Text Messaging and MoreSarah Perez | TechCrunch“Now, the business is offering an online curriculum for teachers designed to help students learn how to be better writers. The program includes a writing coach that leverages natural language processing, a variety of resources for teachers, and something called “bursts,” which are short writing prompts kids will be familiar with because of their use of mobile apps.”
VIRTUAL REALITY
What We Can Learn From Immersing Mice, Fruit Flies, and Zebrafish in VRAlessandra Potenza | The Verge “The VR system, called FreemoVR, pretty much resembles a holodeck from the TV show Star Trek. It’s an arena surrounded by computer screens that immerses the animals in a virtual world. Researchers tested the system on mice, fruit flies, and zebrafish, and found that the animals reacted to the virtual objects and environments as they would to real ones.” Continue reading

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