Tag Archives: engineers

#434759 To Be Ethical, AI Must Become ...

As over-hyped as artificial intelligence is—everyone’s talking about it, few fully understand it, it might leave us all unemployed but also solve all the world’s problems—its list of accomplishments is growing. AI can now write realistic-sounding text, give a debating champ a run for his money, diagnose illnesses, and generate fake human faces—among much more.

After training these systems on massive datasets, their creators essentially just let them do their thing to arrive at certain conclusions or outcomes. The problem is that more often than not, even the creators don’t know exactly why they’ve arrived at those conclusions or outcomes. There’s no easy way to trace a machine learning system’s rationale, so to speak. The further we let AI go down this opaque path, the more likely we are to end up somewhere we don’t want to be—and may not be able to come back from.

In a panel at the South by Southwest interactive festival last week titled “Ethics and AI: How to plan for the unpredictable,” experts in the field shared their thoughts on building more transparent, explainable, and accountable AI systems.

Not New, but Different
Ryan Welsh, founder and director of explainable AI startup Kyndi, pointed out that having knowledge-based systems perform advanced tasks isn’t new; he cited logistical, scheduling, and tax software as examples. What’s new is the learning component, our inability to trace how that learning occurs, and the ethical implications that could result.

“Now we have these systems that are learning from data, and we’re trying to understand why they’re arriving at certain outcomes,” Welsh said. “We’ve never actually had this broad society discussion about ethics in those scenarios.”

Rather than continuing to build AIs with opaque inner workings, engineers must start focusing on explainability, which Welsh broke down into three subcategories. Transparency and interpretability come first, and refer to being able to find the units of high influence in a machine learning network, as well as the weights of those units and how they map to specific data and outputs.

Then there’s provenance: knowing where something comes from. In an ideal scenario, for example, Open AI’s new text generator would be able to generate citations in its text that reference academic (and human-created) papers or studies.

Explainability itself is the highest and final bar and refers to a system’s ability to explain itself in natural language to the average user by being able to say, “I generated this output because x, y, z.”

“Humans are unique in our ability and our desire to ask why,” said Josh Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, which advises Department of Defense senior leaders on innovation. “The reason we want explanations from people is so we can understand their belief system and see if we agree with it and want to continue to work with them.”

Similarly, we need to have the ability to interrogate AIs.

Two Types of Thinking
Welsh explained that one big barrier standing in the way of explainability is the tension between the deep learning community and the symbolic AI community, which see themselves as two different paradigms and historically haven’t collaborated much.

Symbolic or classical AI focuses on concepts and rules, while deep learning is centered around perceptions. In human thought this is the difference between, for example, deciding to pass a soccer ball to a teammate who is open (you make the decision because conceptually you know that only open players can receive passes), and registering that the ball is at your feet when someone else passes it to you (you’re taking in information without making a decision about it).

“Symbolic AI has abstractions and representation based on logic that’s more humanly comprehensible,” Welsh said. To truly mimic human thinking, AI needs to be able to both perceive information and conceptualize it. An example of perception (deep learning) in an AI is recognizing numbers within an image, while conceptualization (symbolic learning) would give those numbers a hierarchical order and extract rules from the hierachy (4 is greater than 3, and 5 is greater than 4, therefore 5 is also greater than 3).

Explainability comes in when the system can say, “I saw a, b, and c, and based on that decided x, y, or z.” DeepMind and others have recently published papers emphasizing the need to fuse the two paradigms together.

Implications Across Industries
One of the most prominent fields where AI ethics will come into play, and where the transparency and accountability of AI systems will be crucial, is defense. Marcuse said, “We’re accountable beings, and we’re responsible for the choices we make. Bringing in tech or AI to a battlefield doesn’t strip away that meaning and accountability.”

In fact, he added, rather than worrying about how AI might degrade human values, people should be asking how the tech could be used to help us make better moral choices.

It’s also important not to conflate AI with autonomy—a worst-case scenario that springs to mind is an intelligent destructive machine on a rampage. But in fact, Marcuse said, in the defense space, “We have autonomous systems today that don’t rely on AI, and most of the AI systems we’re contemplating won’t be autonomous.”

The US Department of Defense released its 2018 artificial intelligence strategy last month. It includes developing a robust and transparent set of principles for defense AI, investing in research and development for AI that’s reliable and secure, continuing to fund research in explainability, advocating for a global set of military AI guidelines, and finding ways to use AI to reduce the risk of civilian casualties and other collateral damage.

Though these were designed with defense-specific aims in mind, Marcuse said, their implications extend across industries. “The defense community thinks of their problems as being unique, that no one deals with the stakes and complexity we deal with. That’s just wrong,” he said. Making high-stakes decisions with technology is widespread; safety-critical systems are key to aviation, medicine, and self-driving cars, to name a few.

Marcuse believes the Department of Defense can invest in AI safety in a way that has far-reaching benefits. “We all depend on technology to keep us alive and safe, and no one wants machines to harm us,” he said.

A Creation Superior to Its Creator
That said, we’ve come to expect technology to meet our needs in just the way we want, all the time—servers must never be down, GPS had better not take us on a longer route, Google must always produce the answer we’re looking for.

With AI, though, our expectations of perfection may be less reasonable.

“Right now we’re holding machines to superhuman standards,” Marcuse said. “We expect them to be perfect and infallible.” Take self-driving cars. They’re conceived of, built by, and programmed by people, and people as a whole generally aren’t great drivers—just look at traffic accident death rates to confirm that. But the few times self-driving cars have had fatal accidents, there’s been an ensuing uproar and backlash against the industry, as well as talk of implementing more restrictive regulations.

This can be extrapolated to ethics more generally. We as humans have the ability to explain our decisions, but many of us aren’t very good at doing so. As Marcuse put it, “People are emotional, they confabulate, they lie, they’re full of unconscious motivations. They don’t pass the explainability test.”

Why, then, should explainability be the standard for AI?

Even if humans aren’t good at explaining our choices, at least we can try, and we can answer questions that probe at our decision-making process. A deep learning system can’t do this yet, so working towards being able to identify which input data the systems are triggering on to make decisions—even if the decisions and the process aren’t perfect—is the direction we need to head.

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#434753 Top Takeaways From The Economist ...

Over the past few years, the word ‘innovation’ has degenerated into something of a buzzword. In fact, according to Vijay Vaitheeswaran, US business editor at The Economist, it’s one of the most abused words in the English language.

The word is over-used precisely because we’re living in a great age of invention. But the pace at which those inventions are changing our lives is fast, new, and scary.

So what strategies do companies need to adopt to make sure technology leads to growth that’s not only profitable, but positive? How can business and government best collaborate? Can policymakers regulate the market without suppressing innovation? Which technologies will impact us most, and how soon?

At The Economist Innovation Summit in Chicago last week, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, policymakers, and academics shared their insights on the current state of exponential technologies, and the steps companies and individuals should be taking to ensure a tech-positive future. Here’s their expert take on the tech and trends shaping the future.

Blockchain
There’s been a lot of hype around blockchain; apparently it can be used for everything from distributing aid to refugees to voting. However, it’s too often conflated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, and we haven’t heard of many use cases. Where does the technology currently stand?

Julie Sweet, chief executive of Accenture North America, emphasized that the technology is still in its infancy. “Everything we see today are pilots,” she said. The most promising of these pilots are taking place across three different areas: supply chain, identity, and financial services.

When you buy something from outside the US, Sweet explained, it goes through about 80 different parties. 70 percent of the relevant data is replicated and is prone to error, with paper-based documents often to blame. Blockchain is providing a secure way to eliminate paper in supply chains, upping accuracy and cutting costs in the process.

One of the most prominent use cases in the US is Walmart—the company has mandated that all suppliers in its leafy greens segment be on a blockchain, and its food safety has improved as a result.

Beth Devin, head of Citi Ventures’ innovation network, added “Blockchain is an infrastructure technology. It can be leveraged in a lot of ways. There’s so much opportunity to create new types of assets and securities that aren’t accessible to people today. But there’s a lot to figure out around governance.”

Open Source Technology
Are the days of proprietary technology numbered? More and more companies and individuals are making their source code publicly available, and its benefits are thus more widespread than ever before. But what are the limitations and challenges of open source tech, and where might it go in the near future?

Bob Lord, senior VP of cognitive applications at IBM, is a believer. “Open-sourcing technology helps innovation occur, and it’s a fundamental basis for creating great technology solutions for the world,” he said. However, the biggest challenge for open source right now is that companies are taking out more than they’re contributing back to the open-source world. Lord pointed out that IBM has a rule about how many lines of code employees take out relative to how many lines they put in.

Another challenge area is open governance; blockchain by its very nature should be transparent and decentralized, with multiple parties making decisions and being held accountable. “We have to embrace open governance at the same time that we’re contributing,” Lord said. He advocated for a hybrid-cloud environment where people can access public and private data and bring it together.

Augmented and Virtual Reality
Augmented and virtual reality aren’t just for fun and games anymore, and they’ll be even less so in the near future. According to Pearly Chen, vice president at HTC, they’ll also go from being two different things to being one and the same. “AR overlays digital information on top of the real world, and VR transports you to a different world,” she said. “In the near future we will not need to delineate between these two activities; AR and VR will come together naturally, and will change everything we do as we know it today.”

For that to happen, we’ll need a more ergonomically friendly device than we have today for interacting with this technology. “Whenever we use tech today, we’re multitasking,” said product designer and futurist Jody Medich. “When you’re using GPS, you’re trying to navigate in the real world and also manage this screen. Constant task-switching is killing our brain’s ability to think.” Augmented and virtual reality, she believes, will allow us to adapt technology to match our brain’s functionality.

This all sounds like a lot of fun for uses like gaming and entertainment, but what about practical applications? “Ultimately what we care about is how this technology will improve lives,” Chen said.

A few ways that could happen? Extended reality will be used to simulate hazardous real-life scenarios, reduce the time and resources needed to bring a product to market, train healthcare professionals (such as surgeons), or provide therapies for patients—not to mention education. “Think about the possibilities for children to learn about history, science, or math in ways they can’t today,” Chen said.

Quantum Computing
If there’s one technology that’s truly baffling, it’s quantum computing. Qubits, entanglement, quantum states—it’s hard to wrap our heads around these concepts, but they hold great promise. Where is the tech right now?

Mandy Birch, head of engineering strategy at Rigetti Computing, thinks quantum development is starting slowly but will accelerate quickly. “We’re at the innovation stage right now, trying to match this capability to useful applications,” she said. “Can we solve problems cheaper, better, and faster than classical computers can do?” She believes quantum’s first breakthrough will happen in two to five years, and that is highest potential is in applications like routing, supply chain, and risk optimization, followed by quantum chemistry (for materials science and medicine) and machine learning.

David Awschalom, director of the Chicago Quantum Exchange and senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, believes quantum communication and quantum sensing will become a reality in three to seven years. “We’ll use states of matter to encrypt information in ways that are completely secure,” he said. A quantum voting system, currently being prototyped, is one application.

Who should be driving quantum tech development? The panelists emphasized that no one entity will get very far alone. “Advancing quantum tech will require collaboration not only between business, academia, and government, but between nations,” said Linda Sapochak, division director of materials research at the National Science Foundation. She added that this doesn’t just go for the technology itself—setting up the infrastructure for quantum will be a big challenge as well.

Space
Space has always been the final frontier, and it still is—but it’s not quite as far-removed from our daily lives now as it was when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969.

The space industry has always been funded by governments and private defense contractors. But in 2009, SpaceX launched its first commercial satellite, and in subsequent years have drastically cut the cost of spaceflight. More importantly, they published their pricing, which brought transparency to a market that hadn’t seen it before.

Entrepreneurs around the world started putting together business plans, and there are now over 400 privately-funded space companies, many with consumer applications.

Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels and managing partner of Space Capital, pointed out that the technology floating around in space was, until recently, archaic. “A few NASA engineers saw they had more computing power in their phone than there was in satellites,” he said. “So they thought, ‘why don’t we just fly an iPhone?’” They did—and it worked.

Now companies have networks of satellites monitoring the whole planet, producing a huge amount of data that’s valuable for countless applications like agriculture, shipping, and observation. “A lot of people underestimate space,” Anderson said. “It’s already enabling our modern global marketplace.”

Next up in the space realm, he predicts, are mining and tourism.

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work
From the US to Europe to Asia, alarms are sounding about AI taking our jobs. What will be left for humans to do once machines can do everything—and do it better?

These fears may be unfounded, though, and are certainly exaggerated. It’s undeniable that AI and automation are changing the employment landscape (not to mention the way companies do business and the way we live our lives), but if we build these tools the right way, they’ll bring more good than harm, and more productivity than obsolescence.

Accenture’s Julie Sweet emphasized that AI alone is not what’s disrupting business and employment. Rather, it’s what she called the “triple A”: automation, analytics, and artificial intelligence. But even this fear-inducing trifecta of terms doesn’t spell doom, for workers or for companies. Accenture has automated 40,000 jobs—and hasn’t fired anyone in the process. Instead, they’ve trained and up-skilled people. The most important drivers to scale this, Sweet said, are a commitment by companies and government support (such as tax credits).

Imbuing AI with the best of human values will also be critical to its impact on our future. Tracy Frey, Google Cloud AI’s director of strategy, cited the company’s set of seven AI principles. “What’s important is the governance process that’s put in place to support those principles,” she said. “You can’t make macro decisions when you have technology that can be applied in many different ways.”

High Risks, High Stakes
This year, Vaitheeswaran said, 50 percent of the world’s population will have internet access (he added that he’s disappointed that percentage isn’t higher given the proliferation of smartphones). As technology becomes more widely available to people around the world and its influence grows even more, what are the biggest risks we should be monitoring and controlling?

Information integrity—being able to tell what’s real from what’s fake—is a crucial one. “We’re increasingly operating in siloed realities,” said Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge and head of policy at Data for Democracy. “Inadvertent algorithmic amplification on social media elevates certain perspectives—what does that do to us as a society?”

Algorithms have also already been proven to perpetuate the bias of the people who create it—and those people are often wealthy, white, and male. Ensuring that technology doesn’t propagate unfair bias will be crucial to its ability to serve a diverse population, and to keep societies from becoming further polarized and inequitable. The polarization of experience that results from pronounced inequalities within countries, Vaitheeswaran pointed out, can end up undermining democracy.

We’ll also need to walk the line between privacy and utility very carefully. As Dan Wagner, founder of Civis Analytics put it, “We want to ensure privacy as much as possible, but open access to information helps us achieve important social good.” Medicine in the US has been hampered by privacy laws; if, for example, we had more data about biomarkers around cancer, we could provide more accurate predictions and ultimately better healthcare.

But going the Chinese way—a total lack of privacy—is likely not the answer, either. “We have to be very careful about the way we bake rights and freedom into our technology,” said Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at Human Rights Foundation.

Technology’s risks are clearly as fraught as its potential is promising. As Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, put it, “Everything we’ve talked about today is simply a tool, and can be used for good or bad.”

The decisions we’re making now, at every level—from the engineers writing algorithms, to the legislators writing laws, to the teenagers writing clever Instagram captions—will determine where on the spectrum we end up.

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#434658 The Next Data-Driven Healthtech ...

Increasing your healthspan (i.e. making 100 years old the new 60) will depend to a large degree on artificial intelligence. And, as we saw in last week’s blog, healthcare AI systems are extremely data-hungry.

Fortunately, a slew of new sensors and data acquisition methods—including over 122 million wearables shipped in 2018—are bursting onto the scene to meet the massive demand for medical data.

From ubiquitous biosensors, to the mobile healthcare revolution, to the transformative power of the Health Nucleus, converging exponential technologies are fundamentally transforming our approach to healthcare.

In Part 4 of this blog series on Longevity & Vitality, I expand on how we’re acquiring the data to fuel today’s AI healthcare revolution.

In this blog, I’ll explore:

How the Health Nucleus is transforming “sick care” to healthcare
Sensors, wearables, and nanobots
The advent of mobile health

Let’s dive in.

Health Nucleus: Transforming ‘Sick Care’ to Healthcare
Much of today’s healthcare system is actually sick care. Most of us assume that we’re perfectly healthy, with nothing going on inside our bodies, until the day we travel to the hospital writhing in pain only to discover a serious or life-threatening condition.

Chances are that your ailment didn’t materialize that morning; rather, it’s been growing or developing for some time. You simply weren’t aware of it. At that point, once you’re diagnosed as “sick,” our medical system engages to take care of you.

What if, instead of this retrospective and reactive approach, you were constantly monitored, so that you could know the moment anything was out of whack?

Better yet, what if you more closely monitored those aspects of your body that your gene sequence predicted might cause you difficulty? Think: your heart, your kidneys, your breasts. Such a system becomes personalized, predictive, and possibly preventative.

This is the mission of the Health Nucleus platform built by Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI). While not continuous—that will come later, with the next generation of wearable and implantable sensors—the Health Nucleus was designed to ‘digitize’ you once per year to help you determine whether anything is going on inside your body that requires immediate attention.

The Health Nucleus visit provides you with the following tests during a half-day visit:

Whole genome sequencing (30x coverage)
Whole body (non-contrast) MRI
Brain magnetic resonance imaging/angiography (MRI/MRA)
CT (computed tomography) of the heart and lungs
Coronary artery calcium scoring
Electrocardiogram
Echocardiogram
Continuous cardiac monitoring
Clinical laboratory tests and metabolomics

In late 2018, HLI published the results of the first 1,190 clients through the Health Nucleus. The results were eye-opening—especially since these patients were all financially well-off, and already had access to the best doctors.

Following are the physiological and genomic findings in these clients who self-selected to undergo evaluation at HLI’s Health Nucleus.

Physiological Findings [TG]

Two percent had previously unknown tumors detected by MRI
2.5 percent had previously undetected aneurysms detected by MRI
Eight percent had cardiac arrhythmia found on cardiac rhythm monitoring, not previously known
Nine percent had moderate-severe coronary artery disease risk, not previously known
16 percent discovered previously unknown cardiac structure/function abnormalities
30 percent had elevated liver fat, not previously known

Genomic Findings [TG]

24 percent of clients uncovered a rare (unknown) genetic mutation found on WGS
63 percent of clients had a rare genetic mutation with a corresponding phenotypic finding

In summary, HLI’s published results found that 14.4 percent of clients had significant findings that are actionable, requiring immediate or near-term follow-up and intervention.

Long-term value findings were found in 40 percent of the clients we screened. Long-term clinical findings include discoveries that require medical attention or monitoring but are not immediately life-threatening.

The bottom line: most people truly don’t know their actual state of health. The ability to take a fully digital deep dive into your health status at least once per year will enable you to detect disease at stage zero or stage one, when it is most curable.

Sensors, Wearables, and Nanobots
Wearables, connected devices, and quantified self apps will allow us to continuously collect enormous amounts of useful health information.

Wearables like the Quanttus wristband and Vital Connect can transmit your electrocardiogram data, vital signs, posture, and stress levels anywhere on the planet.

In April 2017, we were proud to grant $2.5 million in prize money to the winning team in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, Final Frontier Medical Devices.

Using a group of noninvasive sensors that collect data on vital signs, body chemistry, and biological functions, Final Frontier integrates this data in their powerful, AI-based DxtER diagnostic engine for rapid, high-precision assessments.

Their engine combines learnings from clinical emergency medicine and data analysis from actual patients.

Google is developing a full range of internal and external sensors (e.g. smart contact lenses) that can monitor the wearer’s vitals, ranging from blood sugar levels to blood chemistry.

In September 2018, Apple announced its Series 4 Apple Watch, including an FDA-approved mobile, on-the-fly ECG. Granted its first FDA approval, Apple appears to be moving deeper into the sensing healthcare market.

Further, Apple is reportedly now developing sensors that can non-invasively monitor blood sugar levels in real time for diabetic treatment. IoT-connected sensors are also entering the world of prescription drugs.

Last year, the FDA approved the first sensor-embedded pill, Abilify MyCite. This new class of digital pills can now communicate medication data to a user-controlled app, to which doctors may be granted access for remote monitoring.

Perhaps what is most impressive about the next generation of wearables and implantables is the density of sensors, processing, networking, and battery capability that we can now cheaply and compactly integrate.

Take the second-generation OURA ring, for example, which focuses on sleep measurement and management.

The OURA ring looks like a slightly thick wedding band, yet contains an impressive array of sensors and capabilities, including:

Two infrared LED
One infrared sensor
Three temperature sensors
One accelerometer
A six-axis gyro
A curved battery with a seven-day life
The memory, processing, and transmission capability required to connect with your smartphone

Disrupting Medical Imaging Hardware
In 2018, we saw lab breakthroughs that will drive the cost of an ultrasound sensor to below $100, in a packaging smaller than most bandages, powered by a smartphone. Dramatically disrupting ultrasound is just the beginning.

Nanobots and Nanonetworks
While wearables have long been able to track and transmit our steps, heart rate, and other health data, smart nanobots and ingestible sensors will soon be able to monitor countless new parameters and even help diagnose disease.

Some of the most exciting breakthroughs in smart nanotechnology from the past year include:

Researchers from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) demonstrated artificial microrobots that can swim and navigate through different fluids, independent of additional sensors, electronics, or power transmission.

Researchers at the University of Chicago proposed specific arrangements of DNA-based molecular logic gates to capture the information contained in the temporal portion of our cells’ communication mechanisms. Accessing the otherwise-lost time-dependent information of these cellular signals is akin to knowing the tune of a song, rather than solely the lyrics.

MIT researchers built micron-scale robots able to sense, record, and store information about their environment. These tiny robots, about 100 micrometers in diameter (approximately the size of a human egg cell), can also carry out pre-programmed computational tasks.

Engineers at University of California, San Diego developed ultrasound-powered nanorobots that swim efficiently through your blood, removing harmful bacteria and the toxins they produce.

But it doesn’t stop there.

As nanosensor and nanonetworking capabilities develop, these tiny bots may soon communicate with each other, enabling the targeted delivery of drugs and autonomous corrective action.

Mobile Health
The OURA ring and the Series 4 Apple Watch are just the tip of the spear when it comes to our future of mobile health. This field, predicted to become a $102 billion market by 2022, puts an on-demand virtual doctor in your back pocket.

Step aside, WebMD.

In true exponential technology fashion, mobile device penetration has increased dramatically, while image recognition error rates and sensor costs have sharply declined.

As a result, AI-powered medical chatbots are flooding the market; diagnostic apps can identify anything from a rash to diabetic retinopathy; and with the advent of global connectivity, mHealth platforms enable real-time health data collection, transmission, and remote diagnosis by medical professionals.

Already available to residents across North London, Babylon Health offers immediate medical advice through AI-powered chatbots and video consultations with doctors via its app.

Babylon now aims to build up its AI for advanced diagnostics and even prescription. Others, like Woebot, take on mental health, using cognitive behavioral therapy in communications over Facebook messenger with patients suffering from depression.

In addition to phone apps and add-ons that test for fertility or autism, the now-FDA-approved Clarius L7 Linear Array Ultrasound Scanner can connect directly to iOS and Android devices and perform wireless ultrasounds at a moment’s notice.

Next, Healthy.io, an Israeli startup, uses your smartphone and computer vision to analyze traditional urine test strips—all you need to do is take a few photos.

With mHealth platforms like ClickMedix, which connects remotely-located patients to medical providers through real-time health data collection and transmission, what’s to stop us from delivering needed treatments through drone delivery or robotic telesurgery?

Welcome to the age of smartphone-as-a-medical-device.

Conclusion
With these DIY data collection and diagnostic tools, we save on transportation costs (time and money), and time bottlenecks.

No longer will you need to wait for your urine or blood results to go through the current information chain: samples will be sent to the lab, analyzed by a technician, results interpreted by your doctor, and only then relayed to you.

Just like the “sage-on-the-stage” issue with today’s education system, healthcare has a “doctor-on-the-dais” problem. Current medical procedures are too complicated and expensive for a layperson to perform and analyze on their own.

The coming abundance of healthcare data promises to transform how we approach healthcare, putting the power of exponential technologies in the patient’s hands and revolutionizing how we live.

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#434653 700,000 submunitions demilitarized by ...

More than 700,000 Multiple Launch Rocket System submunitions have been demilitarized since the Army started using an automated nine-robot system conceptualized, built and programmed by Sandia National Laboratories engineers. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434569 From Parkour to Surgery, Here Are the ...

The robot revolution may not be here quite yet, but our mechanical cousins have made some serious strides. And now some of the leading experts in the field have provided a rundown of what they see as the 10 most exciting recent developments.

Compiled by the editors of the journal Science Robotics, the list includes some of the most impressive original research and innovative commercial products to make a splash in 2018, as well as a couple from 2017 that really changed the game.

1. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas doing parkour

It seems like barely a few months go by without Boston Dynamics rewriting the book on what a robot can and can’t do. Last year they really outdid themselves when they got their Atlas humanoid robot to do parkour, leaping over logs and jumping between wooden crates.

Atlas’s creators have admitted that the videos we see are cherry-picked from multiple attempts, many of which don’t go so well. But they say they’re meant to be inspirational and aspirational rather than an accurate picture of where robotics is today. And combined with the company’s dog-like Spot robot, they are certainly pushing boundaries.

2. Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci SP platform
Robotic surgery isn’t new, but the technology is improving rapidly. Market leader Intuitive’s da Vinci surgical robot was first cleared by the FDA in 2000, but since then it’s come a long way, with the company now producing three separate systems.

The latest addition is the da Vinci SP (single port) system, which is able to insert three instruments into the body through a single 2.5cm cannula (tube) bringing a whole new meaning to minimally invasive surgery. The system was granted FDA clearance for urological procedures last year, and the company has now started shipping the new system to customers.

3. Soft robot that navigates through growth

Roboticists have long borrowed principles from the animal kingdom, but a new robot design that mimics the way plant tendrils and fungi mycelium move by growing at the tip has really broken the mold on robot navigation.

The editors point out that this is the perfect example of bio-inspired design; the researchers didn’t simply copy nature, they took a general principle and expanded on it. The tube-like robot unfolds from the front as pneumatic pressure is applied, but unlike a plant, it can grow at the speed of an animal walking and can navigate using visual feedback from a camera.

4. 3D printed liquid crystal elastomers for soft robotics
Soft robotics is one of the fastest-growing sub-disciplines in the field, but powering these devices without rigid motors or pumps is an ongoing challenge. A variety of shape-shifting materials have been proposed as potential artificial muscles, including liquid crystal elastomeric actuators.

Harvard engineers have now demonstrated that these materials can be 3D printed using a special ink that allows the designer to easily program in all kinds of unusual shape-shifting abilities. What’s more, their technique produces actuators capable of lifting significantly more weight than previous approaches.

5. Muscle-mimetic, self-healing, and hydraulically amplified actuators
In another effort to find a way to power soft robots, last year researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder designed a series of super low-cost artificial muscles that can lift 200 times their own weight and even heal themselves.

The devices rely on pouches filled with a liquid that makes them contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied. The most promising for robotics applications is the so-called Peano-HASEL, which features multiple rectangular pouches connected in series that contract linearly, just like real muscle.

6. Self-assembled nanoscale robot from DNA

While you may think of robots as hulking metallic machines, a substantial number of scientists are working on making nanoscale robots out of DNA. And last year German researchers built the first remote-controlled DNA robotic arm.

They created a length of tightly-bound DNA molecules to act as the arm and attached it to a DNA base plate via a flexible joint. Because DNA carries a charge, they were able to get the arm to swivel around like the hand of a clock by applying a voltage and switch direction by reversing that voltage. The hope is that this arm could eventually be used to build materials piece by piece at the nanoscale.

7. DelFly nimble bioinspired robotic flapper

Robotics doesn’t only borrow from biology—sometimes it gives back to it, too. And a new flapping-winged robot designed by Dutch engineers that mimics the humble fruit fly has done just that, by revealing how the animals that inspired it carry out predator-dodging maneuvers.

The lab has been building flapping robots for years, but this time they ditched the airplane-like tail used to control previous incarnations. Instead, they used insect-inspired adjustments to the motions of its twin pairs of flapping wings to hover, pitch, and roll with the agility of a fruit fly. That has provided a useful platform for investigating insect flight dynamics, as well as more practical applications.

8. Soft exosuit wearable robot

Exoskeletons could prevent workplace injuries, help people walk again, and even boost soldiers’ endurance. Strapping on bulky equipment isn’t ideal, though, so researchers at Harvard are working on a soft exoskeleton that combines specially-designed textiles, sensors, and lightweight actuators.

And last year the team made an important breakthrough by combining their novel exoskeleton with a machine-learning algorithm that automatically tunes the device to the user’s particular walking style. Using physiological data, it is able to adjust when and where the device needs to deliver a boost to the user’s natural movements to improve walking efficiency.

9. Universal Robots (UR) e-Series Cobots
Robots in factories are nothing new. The enormous mechanical arms you see in car factories normally have to be kept in cages to prevent them from accidentally crushing people. In recent years there’s been growing interest in “co-bots,” collaborative robots designed to work side-by-side with their human colleagues and even learn from them.

Earlier this year saw the demise of ReThink robotics, the pioneer of the approach. But the simple single arm devices made by Danish firm Universal Robotics are becoming ubiquitous in workshops and warehouses around the world, accounting for about half of global co-bot sales. Last year they released their latest e-Series, with enhanced safety features and force/torque sensing.

10. Sony’s aibo
After a nearly 20-year hiatus, Sony’s robotic dog aibo is back, and it’s had some serious upgrades. As well as a revamp to its appearance, the new robotic pet takes advantage of advances in AI, with improved environmental and command awareness and the ability to develop a unique character based on interactions with its owner.

The editors note that this new context awareness mark the device out as a significant evolution in social robots, which many hope could aid in childhood learning or provide companionship for the elderly.

Image Credit: DelFly Nimble / CC BY – SA 4.0 Continue reading

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