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Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.
Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
Image Credit: Keplinger Research Group/University of Colorado Continue reading
The tech industry touts its ability to automate tasks and remove slow and expensive humans from the equation. But in the background, a lot of the legwork training machine learning systems, solving problems software can’t, and cleaning up its mistakes is still done by people.
This was highlighted recently when Expensify, which promises to automatically scan photos of receipts to extract data for expense reports, was criticized for sending customers’ personally identifiable receipts to workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdsourcing platform.
The company uses text analysis software to read the receipts, but if the automated system falls down then the images are passed to a human for review. While entrusting this job to random workers on MTurk was maybe not so wise—and the company quickly stopped after the furor—the incident brought to light that this kind of human safety net behind AI-powered services is actually very common.
As Wired notes, similar services like Ibotta and Receipt Hog that collect receipt information for marketing purposes also use crowdsourced workers. In a similar vein, while most users might assume their Facebook newsfeed is governed by faceless algorithms, the company has been ramping up the number of human moderators it employs to catch objectionable content that slips through the net, as has YouTube. Twitter also has thousands of human overseers.
Humans aren’t always witting contributors either. The old text-based reCAPTCHA problems Google used to use to distinguish humans from machines was actually simultaneously helping the company digitize books by getting humans to interpret hard-to-read text.
“Every product that uses AI also uses people,” Jeffrey Bigham, a crowdsourcing expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told Wired. “I wouldn’t even say it’s a backstop so much as a core part of the process.”
Some companies are not shy about their use of crowdsourced workers. Startup Eloquent Labs wants to insert them between customer service chatbots and human agents who step in when the machines fail. Many times the AI is pretty certain what particular work means, and an MTurk worker can step in and quickly classify them faster and cheaper than a service agent.
Fashion retailer Gilt provides “pre-emptive shipping,” which uses data analytics to predict what people will buy to get products to them faster. The company uses MTurk workers to provide subjective critiques of clothing that feed into their models.
MTurk isn’t the only player. Companies like Cloudfactory and Crowdflower provide crowdsourced human manpower tailored to particular niches, and some companies prefer to maintain their own communities of workers. Unlabel uses an army of 50,000 humans to check and edit the translations its artificial intelligence system produces for customers.
Most of the time these human workers aren’t just filling in the gaps, they’re also helping to train the machine learning component of these companies’ services by providing new examples of how to solve problems. Other times humans aren’t used “in-the-loop” with AI systems, but to prepare data sets they can learn from by labeling images, text, or audio.
It’s even possible to use crowdsourced workers to carry out tasks typically tackled by machine learning, such as large-scale image analysis and forecasting.
Zooniverse gets citizen scientists to classify images of distant galaxies or videos of animals to help academics analyze large data sets too complex for computers. Almanis creates forecasts on everything from economics to politics with impressive accuracy by giving those who sign up to the website incentives for backing the correct answer to a question. Researchers have used MTurkers to power a chatbot, and there’s even a toolkit for building algorithms to control this human intelligence called TurKit.
So what does this prominent role for humans in AI services mean? Firstly, it suggests that many tools people assume are powered by AI may in fact be relying on humans. This has obvious privacy implications, as the Expensify story highlighted, but should also raise concerns about whether customers are really getting what they pay for.
One example of this is IBM’s Watson for oncology, which is marketed as a data-driven AI system for providing cancer treatment recommendations. But an investigation by STAT highlighted that it’s actually largely driven by recommendations from a handful of (admittedly highly skilled) doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Secondly, humans intervening in AI-run processes also suggests AI is still largely helpless without us, which is somewhat comforting to know among all the doomsday predictions of AI destroying jobs. At the same time, though, much of this crowdsourced work is monotonous, poorly paid, and isolating.
As machines trained by human workers get better at all kinds of tasks, this kind of piecemeal work filling in the increasingly small gaps in their capabilities may get more common. While tech companies often talk about AI augmenting human intelligence, for many it may actually end up being the other way around.
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The multiverse of science fiction is populated by robots that are indistinguishable from humans. They are usually smarter, faster, and stronger than us. They seem capable of doing any job imaginable, from piloting a starship and battling alien invaders to taking out the trash and cooking a gourmet meal.
The reality, of course, is far from fantasy. Aside from industrial settings, robots have yet to meet The Jetsons. The robots the public are exposed to seem little more than over-sized plastic toys, pre-programmed to perform a set of tasks without the ability to interact meaningfully with their environment or their creators.
To paraphrase PayPal co-founder and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, we wanted cool robots, instead we got 140 characters and Flippy the burger bot. But scientists are making progress to empower robots with the ability to see and respond to their surroundings just like humans.
Some of the latest developments in that arena were presented this month at the annual Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The papers drilled down into topics that ranged from how to make robots more conversational and help them understand language ambiguities to helping them see and navigate through complex spaces.
Ben Burchfiel, a graduate student at Duke University, and his thesis advisor George Konidaris, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown University, developed an algorithm to enable machines to see the world more like humans.
In the paper, Burchfiel and Konidaris demonstrate how they can teach robots to identify and possibly manipulate three-dimensional objects even when they might be obscured or sitting in unfamiliar positions, such as a teapot that has been tipped over.
The researchers trained their algorithm by feeding it 3D scans of about 4,000 common household items such as beds, chairs, tables, and even toilets. They then tested its ability to identify about 900 new 3D objects just from a bird’s eye view. The algorithm made the right guess 75 percent of the time versus a success rate of about 50 percent for other computer vision techniques.
In an email interview with Singularity Hub, Burchfiel notes his research is not the first to train machines on 3D object classification. How their approach differs is that they confine the space in which the robot learns to classify the objects.
“Imagine the space of all possible objects,” Burchfiel explains. “That is to say, imagine you had tiny Legos, and I told you [that] you could stick them together any way you wanted, just build me an object. You have a huge number of objects you could make!”
The infinite possibilities could result in an object no human or machine might recognize.
To address that problem, the researchers had their algorithm find a more restricted space that would host the objects it wants to classify. “By working in this restricted space—mathematically we call it a subspace—we greatly simplify our task of classification. It is the finding of this space that sets us apart from previous approaches.”
Meanwhile, a pair of undergraduate students at Brown University figured out a way to teach robots to understand directions better, even at varying degrees of abstraction.
The research, led by Dilip Arumugam and Siddharth Karamcheti, addressed how to train a robot to understand nuances of natural language and then follow instructions correctly and efficiently.
“The problem is that commands can have different levels of abstraction, and that can cause a robot to plan its actions inefficiently or fail to complete the task at all,” says Arumugam in a press release.
In this project, the young researchers crowdsourced instructions for moving a virtual robot through an online domain. The space consisted of several rooms and a chair, which the robot was told to manipulate from one place to another. The volunteers gave various commands to the robot, ranging from general (“take the chair to the blue room”) to step-by-step instructions.
The researchers then used the database of spoken instructions to teach their system to understand the kinds of words used in different levels of language. The machine learned to not only follow instructions but to recognize the level of abstraction. That was key to kickstart its problem-solving abilities to tackle the job in the most appropriate way.
The research eventually moved from virtual pixels to a real place, using a Roomba-like robot that was able to respond to instructions within one second 90 percent of the time. Conversely, when unable to identify the specificity of the task, it took the robot 20 or more seconds to plan a task about 50 percent of the time.
One application of this new machine-learning technique referenced in the paper is a robot worker in a warehouse setting, but there are many fields that could benefit from a more versatile machine capable of moving seamlessly between small-scale operations and generalized tasks.
“Other areas that could possibly benefit from such a system include things from autonomous vehicles… to assistive robotics, all the way to medical robotics,” says Karamcheti, responding to a question by email from Singularity Hub.
More to Come
These achievements are yet another step toward creating robots that see, listen, and act more like humans. But don’t expect Disney to build a real-life Westworld next to Toon Town anytime soon.
“I think we’re a long way off from human-level communication,” Karamcheti says. “There are so many problems preventing our learning models from getting to that point, from seemingly simple questions like how to deal with words never seen before, to harder, more complicated questions like how to resolve the ambiguities inherent in language, including idiomatic or metaphorical speech.”
Even relatively verbose chatbots can run out of things to say, Karamcheti notes, as the conversation becomes more complex.
The same goes for human vision, according to Burchfiel.
While deep learning techniques have dramatically improved pattern matching—Google can find just about any picture of a cat—there’s more to human eyesight than, well, meets the eye.
“There are two big areas where I think perception has a long way to go: inductive bias and formal reasoning,” Burchfiel says.
The former is essentially all of the contextual knowledge people use to help them reason, he explains. Burchfiel uses the example of a puddle in the street. People are conditioned or biased to assume it’s a puddle of water rather than a patch of glass, for instance.
“This sort of bias is why we see faces in clouds; we have strong inductive bias helping us identify faces,” he says. “While it sounds simple at first, it powers much of what we do. Humans have a very intuitive understanding of what they expect to see, [and] it makes perception much easier.”
Formal reasoning is equally important. A machine can use deep learning, in Burchfiel’s example, to figure out the direction any river flows once it understands that water runs downhill. But it’s not yet capable of applying the sort of human reasoning that would allow us to transfer that knowledge to an alien setting, such as figuring out how water moves through a plumbing system on Mars.
“Much work was done in decades past on this sort of formal reasoning… but we have yet to figure out how to merge it with standard machine-learning methods to create a seamless system that is useful in the actual physical world.”
Robots still have a lot to learn about being human, which should make us feel good that we’re still by far the most complex machines on the planet.
Image Credit: Alex Knight via Unsplash Continue reading