Tag Archives: environment

#435152 The Futuristic Tech Disrupting Real ...

In the wake of the housing market collapse of 2008, one entrepreneur decided to dive right into the failing real estate industry. But this time, he didn’t buy any real estate to begin with. Instead, Glenn Sanford decided to launch the first-ever cloud-based real estate brokerage, eXp Realty.

Contracting virtual platform VirBELA to build out the company’s mega-campus in VR, eXp Realty demonstrates the power of a dematerialized workspace, throwing out hefty overhead costs and fundamentally redefining what ‘real estate’ really means. Ten years later, eXp Realty has an army of 14,000 agents across all 50 US states, 3 Canadian provinces, and 400 MLS market areas… all without a single physical office.

But VR is just one of many exponential technologies converging to revolutionize real estate and construction. As floating cities and driverless cars spread out your living options, AI and VR are together cutting out the middleman.

Already, the global construction industry is projected to surpass $12.9 trillion in 2022, and the total value of the US housing market alone grew to $33.3 trillion last year. Both vital for our daily lives, these industries will continue to explode in value, posing countless possibilities for disruption.

In this blog, I’ll be discussing the following trends:

New prime real estate locations;
Disintermediation of the real estate broker and search;
Materials science and 3D printing in construction.

Let’s dive in!

Location Location Location
Until today, location has been the name of the game when it comes to hunting down the best real estate. But constraints on land often drive up costs while limiting options, and urbanization is only exacerbating the problem.

Beyond the world of virtual real estate, two primary mechanisms are driving the creation of new locations.

(1) Floating Cities

Offshore habitation hubs, floating cities have long been conceived as a solution to rising sea levels, skyrocketing urban populations, and threatened ecosystems. In success, they will soon unlock an abundance of prime real estate, whether for scenic living, commerce, education, or recreation.

One pioneering model is that of Oceanix City, designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and a host of other domain experts. Intended to adapt organically over time, Oceanix would consist of a galaxy of mass-produced, hexagonal floating modules, built as satellite “cities” off coastal urban centers and sustained by renewable energies.

While individual 4.5-acre platforms would each sustain 300 people, these hexagonal modules are designed to link into 75-acre tessellations sustaining up to 10,000 residents. Each anchored to the ocean floor using biorock, Oceanix cities are slated to be closed-loop systems, as external resources are continuously supplied by automated drone networks.

Electric boats or flying cars might zoom you to work, city-embedded water capture technologies would provide your water, and while vertical and outdoor farming supply your family meal, share economies would dominate goods provision.

AERIAL: Located in calm, sheltered waters, near coastal megacities, OCEANIX City will be an adaptable, sustainable, scalable, and affordable solution for human life on the ocean. Image Credit: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.
Joined by countless government officials whose islands risk submersion at the hands of sea level rise, the UN is now getting on board. And just this year, seasteading is exiting the realm of science fiction and testing practical waters.

As French Polynesia seeks out robust solutions to sea level rise, their government has now joined forces with the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute. With a newly designated special economic zone and 100 acres of beachfront, this joint Floating Island Project could even see up to a dozen inhabitable structures by 2020. And what better to fund the $60 million project than the team’s upcoming ICO?

But aside from creating new locations, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and flying cars are turning previously low-demand land into the prime real estate of tomorrow.

(2) Autonomous Electric Vehicles and Flying Cars

Today, the value of a location is a function of its proximity to your workplace, your city’s central business district, the best schools, or your closest friends.

But what happens when driverless cars desensitize you to distance, or Hyperloop and flying cars decimate your commute time? Historically, every time new transit methods have hit the mainstream, tolerance for distance has opened up right alongside them, further catalyzing city spread.

And just as Hyperloop and the Boring Company aim to make your commute immaterial, autonomous vehicle (AV) ridesharing services will spread out cities in two ways: (1) by drastically reducing parking spaces needed (vertical parking decks = more prime real estate); and (2) by untethering you from the steering wheel. Want an extra two hours of sleep on the way to work? Schedule a sleeper AV and nap on your route to the office. Need a car-turned-mobile-office? No problem.

Meanwhile, aerial taxis (i.e. flying cars) will allow you to escape ground congestion entirely, delivering you from bedroom to boardroom at decimated time scales.

Already working with regulators, Uber Elevate has staked ambitious plans for its UberAIR airborne taxi project. By 2023, Uber anticipates rolling out flying drones in its two first pilot cities, Los Angeles and Dallas. Flying between rooftop skyports, drones would carry passengers at a height of 1,000 to 2,000 feet at speeds between 100 to 200 mph. And while costs per ride are anticipated to resemble those of an Uber Black based on mileage, prices are projected to soon drop to those of an UberX.

But the true economic feat boils down to this: if I were to commute 50 to 100 kilometers, I could get two or three times the house for the same price. (Not to mention the extra living space offered up by my now-unneeded garage.)

All of a sudden, virtual reality, broadband, AVs, or high-speed vehicles are going to change where we live and where we work. So rather than living in a crowded, dense urban core for access to jobs and entertainment, our future of personalized, autonomous, low-cost transport opens the luxury of rural areas to all without compromising the benefits of a short commute.

Once these drivers multiply your real estate options, how will you select your next home?

Disintermediation: Say Bye to Your Broker
In a future of continuous and personalized preference-tracking, why hire a human agent who knows less about your needs and desires than a personal AI?

Just as disintermediation is cutting out bankers and insurance agents, so too is it closing in on real estate brokers. Over the next decade, as AI becomes your agent, VR will serve as your medium.

To paint a more vivid picture of how this will look, over 98 percent of your home search will be conducted from the comfort of your couch through next-generation VR headgear.

Once you’ve verbalized your primary desires for home location, finishings, size, etc. to your personal AI, it will offer you top picks, tour-able 24/7, with optional assistance by a virtual guide and constantly updated data. As a seller, this means potential buyers from two miles, or two continents, away.

Throughout each immersive VR tour, advanced eye-tracking software and a permissioned machine learning algorithm follow your gaze, further learn your likes and dislikes, and intelligently recommend other homes or commercial residences to visit.

Curious as to what the living room might look like with a fresh coat of blue paint and a white carpet? No problem! VR programs will be able to modify rendered environments instantly, changing countless variables, from furniture materials to even the sun’s orientation. Keen to input your own furniture into a VR-rendered home? Advanced AIs could one day compile all your existing furniture, electronics, clothing, decorations, and even books, virtually organizing them across any accommodating new space.

As 3D scanning technologies make extraordinary headway, VR renditions will only grow cheaper and higher resolution. One company called Immersive Media (disclosure: I’m an investor and advisor) has a platform for 360-degree video capture and distribution, and is already exploring real estate 360-degree video.

Smaller firms like Studio 216, Vieweet, Arch Virtual, ArX Solutions, and Rubicon Media can similarly capture and render models of various properties for clients and investors to view and explore. In essence, VR real estate platforms will allow you to explore any home for sale, do the remodel, and determine if it truly is the house of your dreams.

Once you’re ready to make a bid, your AI will even help estimate a bid, process and submit your offer. Real estate companies like Zillow, Trulia, Move, Redfin, ZipRealty (acquired by Realogy in 2014) and many others have already invested millions in machine learning applications to make search, valuation, consulting, and property management easier, faster, and much more accurate.

But what happens if the home you desire most means starting from scratch with new construction?

New Methods and Materials for Construction
For thousands of years, we’ve been constrained by the construction materials of nature. We built bricks from naturally abundant clay and shale, used tree limbs as our rooftops and beams, and mastered incredible structures in ancient Rome with the use of cement.

But construction is now on the cusp of a materials science revolution. Today, I’d like to focus on three key materials:

Upcycled Materials

Imagine if you could turn the world’s greatest waste products into their most essential building blocks. Thanks to UCLA researchers at CO2NCRETE, we can already do this with carbon emissions.

Today, concrete produces about five percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But what if concrete could instead conserve greenhouse emissions? CO2NCRETE engineers capture carbon from smokestacks and combine it with lime to create a new type of cement. The lab’s 3D printers then shape the upcycled concrete to build entirely new structures. Once conquered at scale, upcycled concrete will turn a former polluter into a future conserver.

Or what if we wanted to print new residences from local soil at hand? Marking an extraordinary convergence between robotics and 3D printing, the Institute of 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.

Nanomaterials

Nano- and micro-materials are ushering in a new era of smart, super-strong, and self-charging buildings. While carbon nanotubes dramatically increase the strength-to-weight ratio of skyscrapers, revolutionizing their structural flexibility, nanomaterials don’t stop here.

Several research teams are pioneering silicon nanoparticles to capture everyday light flowing through our windows. Little solar cells at the edges of windows then harvest this energy for ready use. Researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Lab have developed similar smart windows. Turning into solar panels when bathed in sunlight, these thermochromic windows will power our buildings, changing color as they do.

Self-Healing Infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the US needs to spend roughly $4.5 trillion to fix nationwide roads, bridges, dams, and common infrastructure by 2025. But what if infrastructure could fix itself?

Enter self-healing concrete. Engineers at Delft University have developed bio-concrete that can repair its own cracks. As head researcher Henk Jonkers explains, “What makes this limestone-producing bacteria so special is that they are able to survive in concrete for more than 200 years and come into play when the concrete is damaged. […] If cracks appear as a result of pressure on the concrete, the concrete will heal these cracks itself.”

But bio-concrete is only the beginning of self-healing technologies. As futurist architecture firms start printing plastic and carbon-fiber houses like the stunner seen below (using Branch Technologies’ 3D printing technology), engineers have begun tackling self-healing plastic.

And in a bid to go smart, burgeoning construction projects have started embedding sensors for preemptive detection. Beyond materials and sensors, however, construction methods are fast colliding into robotics and 3D printing.

While some startups and research institutes have leveraged robot swarm construction (namely, Harvard’s robotic termite-like swarm of programmed constructors), others have taken to large-scale autonomous robots.

One such example involves Fastbrick Robotics. After multiple iterations, the company’s Hadrian X end-to-end bricklaying robot can now autonomously build a fully livable, 180-square meter home in under 3 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.

Layhead. Image Credit: Fastbrick Robotics.
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.

Imagine the implications. Eliminating human safety concerns and unlocking any environment, autonomous builder robots could collaboratively build massive structures in space or deep underwater habitats.

Final Thoughts
Where, how, and what we live in form a vital pillar of our everyday lives. The concept of “home” is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. At the same time, real estate and construction are two of the biggest playgrounds for technological convergence, each on the verge of revolutionary disruption.

As underlying shifts in transportation, land reclamation, and the definition of “space” (real vs. virtual) take hold, the real estate market is about to explode in value, spreading out urban centers on unprecedented scales and unlocking vast new prime “property.”

Meanwhile, converging advancements in AI and VR are fundamentally disrupting the way we design, build, and explore new residences. Just as mirror worlds create immersive, virtual real estate economies, VR tours and AI agents are absorbing both sides of the coin to entirely obliterate the middleman.

And as materials science breakthroughs meet new modes of construction, the only limits to tomorrow’s structures are those of our own imagination.

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Image Credit: OCEANIX/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435110 5 Coming Breakthroughs in Energy and ...

The energy and transportation industries are being aggressively disrupted by converging exponential technologies.

In just five days, the sun provides Earth with an energy supply exceeding all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas. Capturing just 1 part in 8,000 of this available solar energy would allow us to meet 100 percent of our energy needs.

As we leverage renewable energy supplied by the sun, wind, geothermal sources, and eventually fusion, we are rapidly heading towards a future where 100 percent of our energy needs will be met by clean tech in just 30 years.

During the past 40 years, solar prices have dropped 250-fold. And as these costs plummet, solar panel capacity continues to grow exponentially.

On the heels of energy abundance, we are additionally witnessing a new transportation revolution, which sets the stage for a future of seamlessly efficient travel at lower economic and environmental costs.

Top 5 Transportation Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
Entrepreneur and inventor Ramez Naam is my go-to expert on all things energy and environment. Currently serving as the Energy Co-Chair at Singularity University, Naam is the award-winning author of five books, including the Nexus series of science fiction novels. Having spent 13 years at Microsoft, his software has touched the lives of over a billion people. Naam holds over 20 patents, including several shared with co-inventor Bill Gates.

In the next five years, he forecasts five respective transportation and energy trends, each poised to disrupt major players and birth entirely new business models.

Let’s dive in.

Autonomous cars drive 1 billion miles on US roads. Then 10 billion

Alphabet’s Waymo alone has already reached 10 million miles driven in the US. The 600 Waymo vehicles on public roads drive a total of 25,000 miles each day, and computer simulations provide an additional 25,000 virtual cars driving constantly. Since its launch in December, the Waymo One service has transported over 1,000 pre-vetted riders in the Phoenix area.

With more training miles, the accuracy of these cars continues to improve. Since last year, GM Cruise has improved its disengagement rate by 321 percent since last year, trailing close behind with only one human intervention per 5,025 miles self-driven.

Autonomous taxis as a service in top 20 US metro areas

Along with its first quarterly earnings released last week, Lyft recently announced that it would expand its Waymo partnership with the upcoming deployment of 10 autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix area. While individuals previously had to partake in Waymo’s “early rider program” prior to trying Waymo One, the Lyft partnership will allow anyone to ride in a self-driving vehicle without a prior NDA.

Strategic partnerships will grow increasingly essential between automakers, self-driving tech companies, and rideshare services. Ford is currently working with Volkswagen, and Nvidia now collaborates with Daimler (Mercedes) and Toyota. Just last week, GM Cruise raised another $1.15 billion at a $19 billion valuation as the company aims to launch a ride-hailing service this year.

“They’re going to come to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston, other cities with relatively good weather,” notes Naam. “In every major city within five years in the US and in some other parts of the world, you’re going to see the ability to hail an autonomous vehicle as a ride.”

Cambrian explosion of vehicle formats

Naam explains, “If you look today at the average ridership of a taxi, a Lyft, or an Uber, it’s about 1.1 passengers plus the driver. So, why do you need a large four-seater vehicle for that?”

Small electric, autonomous pods that seat as few as two people will begin to emerge, satisfying the majority of ride-hailing demands we see today. At the same time, larger communal vehicles will appear, such as Uber Express, that will undercut even the cheapest of transportation methods—buses, trams, and the like. Finally, last-mile scooter transit (or simply short-distance walks) might connect you to communal pick-up locations.

By 2024, an unimaginably diverse range of vehicles will arise to meet every possible need, regardless of distance or destination.

Drone delivery for lightweight packages in at least one US city

Wing, the Alphabet drone delivery startup, recently became the first company to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make deliveries in the US. Having secured approval to deliver to 100 homes in Canberra, Australia, Wing additionally plans to begin delivering goods from local businesses in the suburbs of Virginia.

The current state of drone delivery is best suited for lightweight, urgent-demand payloads like pharmaceuticals, thumb drives, or connectors. And as Amazon continues to decrease its Prime delivery times—now as speedy as a one-day turnaround in many cities—the use of drones will become essential.

Robotic factories drive onshoring of US factories… but without new jobs

The supply chain will continue to shorten and become more agile with the re-onshoring of manufacturing jobs in the US and other countries. Naam reasons that new management and software jobs will drive this shift, as these roles develop the necessary robotics to manufacture goods. Equally as important, these robotic factories will provide a more humane setting than many of the current manufacturing practices overseas.

Top 5 Energy Breakthroughs (2019-2024)

First “1 cent per kWh” deals for solar and wind signed

Ten years ago, the lowest price of solar and wind power fell between 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), over twice the price of wholesale power from coal or natural gas.

Today, the gap between solar/wind power and fossil fuel-generated electricity is nearly negligible in many parts of the world. In G20 countries, fossil fuel electricity costs between 5 to 17 cents per kWh, while the average cost per kWh of solar power in the US stands at under 10 cents.

Spanish firm Solarpack Corp Technological recently won a bid in Chile for a 120 MW solar power plant supplying energy at 2.91 cents per kWh. This deal will result in an estimated 25 percent drop in energy costs for Chilean businesses by 2021.

Naam indicates, “We will see the first unsubsidized 1.0 cent solar deals in places like Chile, Mexico, the Southwest US, the Middle East, and North Africa, and we’ll see similar prices for wind in places like Mexico, Brazil, and the US Great Plains.”

Solar and wind will reach >15 percent of US electricity, and begin to drive all growth

Just over eight percent of energy in the US comes from solar and wind sources. In total, 17 percent of American energy is derived from renewable sources, while a whopping 63 percent is sourced from fossil fuels, and 17 percent from nuclear.

Last year in the U.K., twice as much energy was generated from wind than from coal. For over a week in May, the U.K. went completely coal-free, using wind and solar to supply 35 percent and 21 percent of power, respectively. While fossil fuels remain the primary electricity source, this week-long experiment highlights the disruptive potential of solar and wind power that major countries like the U.K. are beginning to emphasize.

“Solar and wind are still a relatively small part of the worldwide power mix, only about six percent. Within five years, it’s going to be 15 percent in the US and more than close to that worldwide,” Naam predicts. “We are nearing the point where we are not building any new fossil fuel power plants.”

It will be cheaper to build new solar/wind/batteries than to run on existing coal

Last October, Northern Indiana utility company NIPSCO announced its transition from a 65 percent coal-powered state to projected coal-free status by 2028. Importantly, this decision was made purely on the basis of financials, with an estimated $4 billion in cost savings for customers. The company has already begun several initiatives in solar, wind, and batteries.

NextEra, the largest power generator in the US, has taken on a similar goal, making a deal last year to purchase roughly seven million solar panels from JinkoSolar over four years. Leading power generators across the globe have vocalized a similar economic case for renewable energy.

ICE car sales have now peaked. All car sales growth will be electric

While electric vehicles (EV) have historically been more expensive for consumers than internal combustion engine-powered (ICE) cars, EVs are cheaper to operate and maintain. The yearly cost of operating an EV in the US is about $485, less than half the $1,117 cost of operating a gas-powered vehicle.

And as battery prices continue to shrink, the upfront costs of EVs will decline until a long-term payoff calculation is no longer required to determine which type of car is the better investment. EVs will become the obvious choice.

Many experts including Naam believe that ICE-powered vehicles peaked worldwide in 2018 and will begin to decline over the next five years, as has already been demonstrated in the past five months. At the same time, EVs are expected to quadruple their market share to 1.6 percent this year.

New storage technologies will displace Li-ion batteries for tomorrow’s most demanding applications

Lithium ion batteries have dominated the battery market for decades, but Naam anticipates new storage technologies will take hold for different contexts. Flow batteries, which can collect and store solar and wind power at large scales, will supply city grids. Already, California’s Independent System Operator, the nonprofit that maintains the majority of the state’s power grid, recently installed a flow battery system in San Diego.

Solid-state batteries, which consist of entirely solid electrolytes, will supply mobile devices in cars. A growing body of competitors, including Toyota, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, and Nissan, are already working on developing solid-state battery technology. These types of batteries offer up to six times faster charging periods, three times the energy density, and eight years of added lifespan, compared to lithium ion batteries.

Final Thoughts
Major advancements in transportation and energy technologies will continue to converge over the next five years. A case in point, Tesla’s recent announcement of its “robotaxi” fleet exemplifies the growing trend towards joint priority of sustainability and autonomy.

On the connectivity front, 5G and next-generation mobile networks will continue to enable the growth of autonomous fleets, many of which will soon run on renewable energy sources. This growth demands important partnerships between energy storage manufacturers, automakers, self-driving tech companies, and ridesharing services.

In the eco-realm, increasingly obvious economic calculi will catalyze consumer adoption of autonomous electric vehicles. In just five years, Naam predicts that self-driving rideshare services will be cheaper than owning a private vehicle for urban residents. And by the same token, plummeting renewable energy costs will make these fuels far more attractive than fossil fuel-derived electricity.

As universally optimized AI systems cut down on traffic, aggregate time spent in vehicles will decimate, while hours in your (or not your) car will be applied to any number of activities as autonomous systems steer the way. All the while, sharing an electric vehicle will cut down not only on your carbon footprint but on the exorbitant costs swallowed by your previous SUV. How will you spend this extra time and money? What new natural resources will fuel your everyday life?

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Posted in Human Robots

#435023 Inflatable Robot Astronauts and How to ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Brigham Young University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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

#434818 Watch These Robots Do Tasks You Thought ...

Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.

Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.

Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.

It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.

That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.

But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.

It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.

And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.

In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.

It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.

Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.

And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).

How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.

Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.

But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.

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Posted in Human Robots