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Robots excel at carrying out specialized tasks in controlled environments, but put them in your average office and they’d be lost. Alphabet wants to change that by developing what they call the Everyday Robot, which could learn to help us out with our daily chores.
For a long time most robots were painstakingly hand-coded to carry out their functions, but since the deep learning revolution earlier this decade there’s been a growing effort to imbue them with AI that lets them learn new tasks through experience.
That’s led to some impressive breakthroughs, like a robotic hand nimble enough to solve a Rubik’s cube and a robotic arm that can accurately toss bananas across a room.
And it turns out Alphabet’s early-stage research and development division, Alphabet X, has also secretly been using similar machine learning techniques to develop robots adaptable enough to carry out a range of tasks in cluttered and unpredictable human environments like homes and offices.
The robots they’ve built combine a wheeled base with a single arm and a head full of sensors (including LIDAR) for 3D scanning, borrowed from Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo.
At the minute, though, they’re largely restricted to sorting trash for recycling, project leader Hans Peter Brondmo writes in a blog post. While that might sound mundane, identifying different kinds of trash, grasping it, and moving it to the correct bin is still a difficult thing for a robot to do consistently. Some of the robots also have to navigate around the office to sort trash at various recycling stations.
Alphabet says even its human staff were getting it wrong 20 percent of the time, but after several months of training the robots have managed to get that down to 3.5 percent.
Every day, 30 robots toil away in what’s been dubbed the “playpen” sorting trash, and then every night thousands of virtual robots continue to practice in a simulation. This experience is then used to update the robots’ control algorithms each night. All the robots also share their experiences with the others through a process called collaborative learning.
The process isn’t flawless, though. Simonite notes that while the robots exhibit some uncannily smart behaviors, like stirring piles of rubbish to make it easier to grab specific items, they also frequently miss or fumble the objects they’re trying to grasp.
Nonetheless, the project’s leaders are happy with their progress so far. And the hope is that creating robots that are able to learn from little more than experience in complex environments like an office should be a first step towards general-purpose robots that can pick up a variety of useful skills to assist humans.
Taking that next step will be the major test of the project. So far there’s been limited evidence that experience gained by robots in one task can be transferred to learning another. That’s something the group hopes to demonstrate next year.
And it seems there may be more robot news coming out of Alphabet X soon. The group has several other robotics “moonshots” in the pipeline, built on technology and talent transferred over in 2016 from the remains of a broadly unsuccessful splurge on robotics startups by former Google executive Andy Rubin.
Whether this robotics renaissance at Alphabet will finally help robots break into our homes and offices remains to be seen, but with the resources they have at hand, they just may be able to make it happen.
Image Credit: Everyday Robot, Alphabet X Continue reading
There’s no particular reason why knowing how to juggle would be a useful skill for a robot. Despite this, robots are frequently taught how to juggle things. Blind robots can juggle, humanoid robots can juggle, and even drones can juggle. Why? Because juggling is hard, man! You have to think about a bunch of different things at once, and also do a bunch of different things at once, which this particular human at least finds to be overly stressful. While juggling may not stress robots out, it does require carefully coordinated sensing and computing and actuation, which means that it’s as good a task as any (and a more entertaining task than most) for testing the capabilities of your system.
UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal robot, which consists of two legs and what could be called a torso if you were feeling charitable, has just learned to juggle by bouncing a ball on what would be her head if she had one of those. The idea is that if Cassie can juggle while balancing at the same time, she’ll be better able to do other things that require dynamic multitasking, too. And if that doesn’t work out, she’ll still be able to join the circus.
Cassie’s juggling is assisted by an external motion capture system that tracks the location of the ball, but otherwise everything is autonomous. Cassie is able to juggle the ball by leaning forwards and backwards, left and right, and moving up and down. She does this while maintaining her own balance, which is the whole point of this research—successfully executing two dynamic behaviors that may sometimes be at odds with one another. The end goal here is not to make a better juggling robot, but rather to explore dynamic multitasking, a skill that robots will need in order to be successful in human environments.
This work is from the Hybrid Robotics Lab at UC Berkeley, led by Koushil Sreenath, and is being done by Katherine Poggensee, Albert Li, Daniel Sotsaikich, Bike Zhang, and Prasanth Kotaru.
For a bit more detail, we spoke with Albert Li via email.
Image: UC Berkeley
UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal getting ready to juggle.
IEEE Spectrum: What would be involved in getting Cassie to juggle without relying on motion capture?
Albert Li: Our motivation for starting off with motion capture was to first address the control challenge of juggling on a biped without worrying about implementing the perception. We actually do have a ball detector working on a camera, which would mean we wouldn’t have to rely on the motion capture system. However, we need to mount the camera in a way that it would provide the best upwards field of view, and we also have develop a reliable estimator. The estimator is particularly important because when the ball gets close enough to the camera, we actually can’t track the ball and have to assume our dynamic models describe its motion accurately enough until it bounces back up.
What keeps Cassie from juggling indefinitely?
There are a few factors that affect how long Cassie can sustain a juggle. While in simulation the paddle exhibits homogeneous properties like its stiffness and damping, in reality every surface has anisotropic contact properties. So, there are parts of the paddle which may be better for juggling than others (and importantly, react differently than modeled). These differences in contact are also exacerbated due to how the paddle is cantilevered when mounted on Cassie. When the ball hits these areas, it leads to a larger than expected error in a juggle. Due to the small size of the paddle, the ball may then just hit the paddle’s edge and end the juggling run. Over a very long run, this is a likely occurrence. Additionally, some large juggling errors could cause Cassie’s feet to slip slightly, which ends up changing the stable standing position over time. Since this version of the controller assumes Cassie is stationary, this change in position eventually leads to poor juggles and failure.
Would Cassie be able to juggle while walking (or hovershoe-ing)?
Walking (and hovershoe-ing) while juggling is a far more challenging problem and is certainly a goal for future research. Some of these challenges include getting the paddle to precise poses to juggle the ball while also moving to avoid any destabilizing effects of stepping incorrectly. The number of juggles per step of walking could also vary and make the mathematics of the problem more challenging. The controller goal is also more involved. While the current goal of the juggling controller is to juggle the ball to a static apex position, with a walking juggling controller, we may instead want to hit the ball forwards and also walk forwards to bounce it, juggle the ball along a particular path, etc. Solving such challenges would be the main thrusts of the follow-up research.
Can you give an example of a practical task that would be made possible by using a controller like this?
Studying juggling means studying contact behavior and leveraging our models of it to achieve a known objective. Juggling could also be used to study predictable post-contact flight behavior. Consider the scenario where a robot is attempting to make a catch, but fails, letting the ball to bounce off of its hand, and then recovering the catch. This behavior could also be intentional: It is often easier to first execute a bounce to direct the target and then perform a subsequent action. For example, volleyball players could in principle directly hit a spiked ball back, but almost always bump the ball back up and then return it.
Even beyond this motivating example, the kinds of models we employ to get juggling working are more generally applicable to any task that involves contact, which could include tasks besides bouncing like sliding and rolling. For example, clearing space on a desk by pushing objects to the side may be preferable than individually manipulating each and every object on it.
You mention collaborative juggling or juggling multiple balls—is that something you’ve tried yet? Can you talk a bit more about what you’re working on next?
We haven’t yet started working on collaborative or multi-ball juggling, but that’s also a goal for future work. Juggling multiple balls statically is probably the most reasonable next goal, but presents additional challenges. For instance, you have to encode a notion of juggling urgency (if the second ball isn’t hit hard enough, you have less time to get the first ball up before you get back to the second one).
On the other hand, collaborative human-robot juggling requires a more advanced decision-making framework. To get robust multi-agent juggling, the robot will need to employ some sort of probabilistic model of the expected human behavior (are they likely to move somewhere? Are they trying to catch the ball high or low? Is it safe to hit the ball back?). In general, developing such human models is difficult since humans are fairly unpredictable and often don’t exhibit rational behavior. This will be a focus of future work.
[ Hybrid Robotics Lab ] Continue reading
People say size doesn’t matter, but when it comes to AI the makers of the largest computer chip ever beg to differ. There are plenty of question marks about the gargantuan processor, but its unconventional design could herald an innovative new era in silicon design.
Computer chips specialized to run deep learning algorithms are a booming area of research as hardware limitations begin to slow progress, and both established players and startups are vying to build the successor to the GPU, the specialized graphics chip that has become the workhorse of the AI industry.
On Monday Californian startup Cerebras came out of stealth mode to unveil an AI-focused processor that turns conventional wisdom on its head. For decades chip makers have been focused on making their products ever-smaller, but the Wafer Scale Engine (WSE) is the size of an iPad and features 1.2 trillion transistors, 400,000 cores, and 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory.
The Cerebras Wafer-Scale Engine (WSE) is the largest chip ever built. It measures 46,225 square millimeters and includes 1.2 trillion transistors. Optimized for artificial intelligence compute, the WSE is shown here for comparison alongside the largest graphics processing unit. Image Credit: Used with permission from Cerebras Systems.
There is a method to the madness, though. Currently, getting enough cores to run really large-scale deep learning applications means connecting banks of GPUs together. But shuffling data between these chips is a major drain on speed and energy efficiency because the wires connecting them are relatively slow.
Building all 400,000 cores into the same chip should get round that bottleneck, but there are reasons it’s not been done before, and Cerebras has had to come up with some clever hacks to get around those obstacles.
Regular computer chips are manufactured using a process called photolithography to etch transistors onto the surface of a wafer of silicon. The wafers are inches across, so multiple chips are built onto them at once and then split up afterwards. But at 8.5 inches across, the WSE uses the entire wafer for a single chip.
The problem is that while for standard chip-making processes any imperfections in manufacturing will at most lead to a few processors out of several hundred having to be ditched, for Cerebras it would mean scrapping the entire wafer. To get around this the company built in redundant circuits so that even if there are a few defects, the chip can route around them.
The other big issue with a giant chip is the enormous amount of heat the processors can kick off—so the company has had to design a proprietary water-cooling system. That, along with the fact that no one makes connections and packaging for giant chips, means the WSE won’t be sold as a stand-alone component, but as part of a pre-packaged server incorporating the cooling technology.
There are no details on costs or performance so far, but some customers have already been testing prototypes, and according to Cerebras results have been promising. CEO and co-founder Andrew Feldman told Fortune that early tests show they are reducing training time from months to minutes.
We’ll have to wait until the first systems ship to customers in September to see if those claims stand up. But Feldman told ZDNet that the design of their chip should help spur greater innovation in the way engineers design neural networks. Many cornerstones of this process—for instance, tackling data in batches rather than individual data points—are guided more by the hardware limitations of GPUs than by machine learning theory, but their chip will do away with many of those obstacles.
Whether that turns out to be the case or not, the WSE might be the first indication of an innovative new era in silicon design. When Google announced it’s AI-focused Tensor Processing Unit in 2016 it was a wake-up call for chipmakers that we need some out-of-the-box thinking to square the slowing of Moore’s Law with skyrocketing demand for computing power.
It’s not just tech giants’ AI server farms driving innovation. At the other end of the spectrum, the desire to embed intelligence in everyday objects and mobile devices is pushing demand for AI chips that can run on tiny amounts of power and squeeze into the smallest form factors.
These trends have spawned renewed interest in everything from brain-inspired neuromorphic chips to optical processors, but the WSE also shows that there might be mileage in simply taking a sideways look at some of the other design decisions chipmakers have made in the past rather than just pumping ever more transistors onto a chip.
This gigantic chip might be the first exhibit in a weird and wonderful new menagerie of exotic, AI-inspired silicon.
Image Credit: Used with permission from Cerebras Systems. Continue reading