Tag Archives: feedback

#435589 Construction Robots Learn to Excavate by ...

Pavel Savkin remembers the first time he watched a robot imitate his movements. Minutes earlier, the engineer had finished “showing” the robotic excavator its new goal by directing its movements manually. Now, running on software Savkin helped design, the robot was reproducing his movements, gesture for gesture. “It was like there was something alive in there—but I knew it was me,” he said.

Savkin is the CTO of SE4, a robotics software project that styles itself the “driver” of a fleet of robots that will eventually build human colonies in space. For now, SE4 is focused on creating software that can help developers communicate with robots, rather than on building hardware of its own.
The Tokyo-based startup showed off an industrial arm from Universal Robots that was running SE4’s proprietary software at SIGGRAPH in July. SE4’s demonstration at the Los Angeles innovation conference drew the company’s largest audience yet. The robot, nicknamed Squeezie, stacked real blocks as directed by SE4 research engineer Nathan Quinn, who wore a VR headset and used handheld controls to “show” Squeezie what to do.

As Quinn manipulated blocks in a virtual 3D space, the software learned a set of ordered instructions to be carried out in the real world. That order is essential for remote operations, says Quinn. To build remotely, developers need a way to communicate instructions to robotic builders on location. In the age of digital construction and industrial robotics, giving a computer a blueprint for what to build is a well-explored art. But operating on a distant object—especially under conditions that humans haven’t experienced themselves—presents challenges that only real-time communication with operators can solve.

The problem is that, in an unpredictable setting, even simple tasks require not only instruction from an operator, but constant feedback from the changing environment. Five years ago, the Swedish fiber network provider umea.net (part of the private Umeå Energy utility) took advantage of the virtual reality boom to promote its high-speed connections with the help of a viral video titled “Living with Lag: An Oculus Rift Experiment.” The video is still circulated in VR and gaming circles.

In the experiment, volunteers donned headgear that replaced their real-time biological senses of sight and sound with camera and audio feeds of their surroundings—both set at a 3-second delay. Thus equipped, volunteers attempt to complete everyday tasks like playing ping-pong, dancing, cooking, and walking on a beach, with decidedly slapstick results.

At outer-orbit intervals, including SE4’s dream of construction projects on Mars, the limiting factor in communication speed is not an artificial delay, but the laws of physics. The shifting relative positions of Earth and Mars mean that communications between the planets—even at the speed of light—can take anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes.

A long-distance relationship

Imagine trying to manage a construction project from across an ocean without the benefit of intelligent workers: sending a ship to an unknown world with a construction crew and blueprints for a log cabin, and four months later receiving a letter back asking how to cut down a tree. The parallel problem in long-distance construction with robots, according to SE4 CEO Lochlainn Wilson, is that automation relies on predictability. “Every robot in an industrial setting today is expecting a controlled environment.”
Platforms for applying AR and VR systems to teach tasks to artificial intelligences, as SE4 does, are already proliferating in manufacturing, healthcare, and defense. But all of the related communications systems are bound by physics and, specifically, the speed of light.
The same fundamental limitation applies in space. “Our communications are light-based, whether they’re radio or optical,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, a planetary scientist and consultant for space startups. “If you’re going to Mars and you want to communicate with your robot or spacecraft there, you need to have it act semi- or mostly-independently so that it can operate without commands from Earth.”

Semantic control
That’s exactly what SE4 aims to do. By teaching robots to group micro-movements into logical units—like all the steps to building a tower of blocks—the Tokyo-based startup lets robots make simple relational judgments that would allow them to receive a full set of instruction modules at once and carry them out in order. This sidesteps the latency issue in real-time bilateral communications that could hamstring a project or at least make progress excruciatingly slow.
The key to the platform, says Wilson, is the team’s proprietary operating software, “Semantic Control.” Just as in linguistics and philosophy, “semantics” refers to meaning itself, and meaning is the key to a robot’s ability to make even the smallest decisions on its own. “A robot can scan its environment and give [raw data] to us, but it can’t necessarily identify the objects around it and what they mean,” says Wilson.

That’s where human intelligence comes in. As part of the demonstration phase, the human operator of an SE4-controlled machine “annotates” each object in the robot’s vicinity with meaning. By labeling objects in the VR space with useful information—like which objects are building material and which are rocks—the operator helps the robot make sense of its real 3D environment before the building begins.

Giving robots the tools to deal with a changing environment is an important step toward allowing the AI to be truly independent, but it’s only an initial step. “We’re not letting it do absolutely everything,” said Quinn. “Our robot is good at moving an object from point A to point B, but it doesn’t know the overall plan.” Wilson adds that delegating environmental awareness and raw mechanical power to separate agents is the optimal relationship for a mixed human-robot construction team; it “lets humans do what they’re good at, while robots do what they do best.”

This story was updated on 4 September 2019. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435583 Soft Self-Healing Materials for Robots ...

If there’s one thing we know about robots, it’s that they break. They break, like, literally all the time. The software breaks. The hardware breaks. The bits that you think could never, ever, ever possibly break end up breaking just when you need them not to break the most, and then you have to try to explain what happened to your advisor who’s been standing there watching your robot fail and then stay up all night fixing the thing that seriously was not supposed to break.

While most of this is just a fundamental characteristic of robots that can’t be helped, the European Commission is funding a project called SHERO (Self HEaling soft RObotics) to try and solve at least some of those physical robot breaking problems through the use of structural materials that can autonomously heal themselves over and over again.

SHERO is a three year, €3 million collaboration between Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris), and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa). As the name SHERO suggests, the goal of the project is to develop soft materials that can completely recover from the kinds of damage that robots are likely to suffer in day to day operations, as well as the occasional more extreme accident.

Most materials, especially soft materials, are fixable somehow, whether it’s with super glue or duct tape. But fixing things involves a human first identifying when they’re broken, and then performing a potentially skill, labor, time, and money intensive task. SHERO’s soft materials will, eventually, make this entire process autonomous, allowing robots to self-identify damage and initiate healing on their own.

Photos: SHERO Project

The damaged robot finger [top] can operate normally after healing itself.

How the self-healing material works
What these self-healing materials can do is really pretty amazing. The researchers are actually developing two different types—the first one heals itself when there’s an application of heat, either internally or externally, which gives some control over when and how the healing process starts. For example, if the robot is handling stuff that’s dirty, you’d want to get it cleaned up before healing it so that dirt doesn’t become embedded in the material. This could mean that the robot either takes itself to a heating station, or it could activate some kind of embedded heating mechanism to be more self-sufficient.

The second kind of self-healing material is autonomous, in that it will heal itself at room temperature without any additional input, and is probably more suitable for relatively minor scrapes and cracks. Here are some numbers about how well the healing works:

Autonomous self-healing polymers do not require heat. They can heal damage at room temperature. Developing soft robotic systems from autonomous self-healing polymers excludes the need of additional heating devices… The healing however takes some time. The healing efficiency after 3 days, 7 days and 14 days is respectively 62 percent, 91 percent and 97 percent.

This material was used to develop a healable soft pneumatic hand. Relevant large cuts can be healed entirely without the need of external heat stimulus. Depending on the size of the damage and even more on the location of damage, the healing takes only seconds or up to a week. Damage on locations on the actuator that are subjected to very small stresses during actuation was healed instantaneously. Larger damages, like cutting the actuator completely in half, took 7 days to heal. But even this severe damage could be healed completely without the need of any external stimulus.

Applications of self-healing robots
Both of these materials can be mixed together, and their mechanical properties can be customized so that the structure that they’re a part of can be tuned to move in different ways. The researchers also plan on introducing flexible conductive sensors into the material, which will help sense damage as well as providing position feedback for control systems. A lot of development will happen over the next few years, and for more details, we spoke with Bram Vanderborght at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

IEEE Spectrum: How easy or difficult or expensive is it to produce these materials? Will they add significant cost to robotic grippers?

Bram Vanderborght: They are definitely more expensive materials, but it’s also a matter of size of production. At the moment, we’ve made a few kilograms of the material (enough to make several demonstrators), and the price already dropped significantly from when we ordered 100 grams of the material in the first phase of the project. So probably the cost of the gripper will be higher [than a regular gripper], but you won’t need to replace the gripper as often as other grippers that need to be replaced due to wear, so it can be an advantage.

Moreover due to the method of 3D printing the material, the surface is smoother and airtight (so no post-processing is required to make it airtight). Also, the smooth surface is better to avoid contamination for food handling, for example.

In commercial or industrial applications, gradual fatigue seems to be a more common issue than more abrupt trauma like cuts. How well does the self-healing work to improve durability over long periods of time?

We did not test for gradual fatigue over very long times. But both macroscopic and microscopic damage can be healed. So hopefully it can provide an answer here as well.

Image: SHERO Project

After developing a self-healing robot gripper, the researchers plan to use similar materials to build parts that can be used as the skeleton of robots, allowing them to repair themselves on a regular basis.

How much does the self-healing capability restrict the material properties? What are the limits for softness or hardness or smoothness or other characteristics of the material?

Typically the mechanical properties of networked polymers are much better than thermoplastics. Our material is a networked polymer but in which the crosslinks are reversible. We can change quite a lot of parameters in the design of the materials. So we can develop very stiff (fracture strain at 1.24 percent) and very elastic materials (fracture strain at 450 percent). The big advantage that our material has is we can mix it to have intermediate properties. Moreover, at the interface of the materials with different mechanical properties, we have the same chemical bonds, so the interface is perfect. While other materials, they may need to glue it, which gives local stresses and a weak spot.

When the material heals itself, is it less structurally sound in that spot? Can it heal damage that happens to the same spot over and over again?

In theory we can heal it an infinite amount of times. When the wound is not perfectly aligned, of course in that spot it will become weaker. Also too high temperatures lead to irreversible bonds, and impurities lead to weak spots.

Besides grippers and skins, what other potential robotics applications would this technology be useful for?

Most of self healing materials available now are used for coatings. What we are developing are structural components, therefore the mechanical properties of the material need to be good for such applications. So maybe part of the skeleton of the robot can be developed with such materials to make it lighter, since can be designed for regular repair. And for exceptional loads, it breaks and can be repaired like our human body.

[ SHERO Project ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435462 Where Death Ends and Cyborgs Begin, With ...

Transhumanism is a growing movement but also one of the most controversial. Though there are many varying offshoots within the movement, the general core idea is the same: evolve and enhance human beings by integrating biology with technology.

We recently sat down with one of the most influential and vocal transhumanists, author and futurist Zoltan Istvan, on the latest episode of Singularity University Radio’s podcast series: The Feedback Loop, to discuss his ideas on technological implants, religion, transhumanism, and death.

Although Zoltan’s origin story is rooted deeply in his time as a reporter for National Geographic, much of his rise to prominence has been a result of his contributions to a variety of media outlets, including an appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. Additionally, many of you may know him from his novel, The Transhumanist Wager, and his 2016 presidential campaign, where he drove around the United States in a bus that had been remodeled into the shape of a coffin.

Although Zoltan had no illusions about actually winning the presidency, he had hoped that the “immortality bus” and his campaign might help inject more science, technology, and longevity research into the political discourse, or at the very least spark a more serious conversation around the future of our species.

Only time will tell if his efforts paid off, but in the meantime, you can hear Zoltan discuss religion, transhumanism, implants, the existential motivation of death, and the need for new governmental policies in Episode 7 of The Feedback Loop. To listen in each week you can find us on your favorite podcasting platforms, such as Spotify, Apple, or Google, and you can find links to other podcasting platforms and Singularity Hub’s text-to-speech articles here. You can also find our past episodes with other thought leaders like Douglas Rushkoff and Annaka Harris below.

Image Credit: VAlex / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435423 Moving Beyond Mind-Controlled Limbs to ...

Brain-machine interface enthusiasts often gush about “closing the loop.” It’s for good reason. On the implant level, it means engineering smarter probes that only activate when they detect faulty electrical signals in brain circuits. Elon Musk’s Neuralink—among other players—are readily pursuing these bi-directional implants that both measure and zap the brain.

But to scientists laboring to restore functionality to paralyzed patients or amputees, “closing the loop” has broader connotations. Building smart mind-controlled robotic limbs isn’t enough; the next frontier is restoring sensation in offline body parts. To truly meld biology with machine, the robotic appendage has to “feel one” with the body.

This month, two studies from Science Robotics describe complementary ways forward. In one, scientists from the University of Utah paired a state-of-the-art robotic arm—the DEKA LUKE—with electrically stimulating remaining nerves above the attachment point. Using artificial zaps to mimic the skin’s natural response patterns to touch, the team dramatically increased the patient’s ability to identify objects. Without much training, he could easily discriminate between the small and large and the soft and hard while blindfolded and wearing headphones.

In another, a team based at the National University of Singapore took inspiration from our largest organ, the skin. Mimicking the neural architecture of biological skin, the engineered “electronic skin” not only senses temperature, pressure, and humidity, but continues to function even when scraped or otherwise damaged. Thanks to artificial nerves that transmit signals far faster than our biological ones, the flexible e-skin shoots electrical data 1,000 times quicker than human nerves.

Together, the studies marry neuroscience and robotics. Representing the latest push towards closing the loop, they show that integrating biological sensibilities with robotic efficiency isn’t impossible (super-human touch, anyone?). But more immediately—and more importantly—they’re beacons of hope for patients who hope to regain their sense of touch.

For one of the participants, a late middle-aged man with speckled white hair who lost his forearm 13 years ago, superpowers, cyborgs, or razzle-dazzle brain implants are the last thing on his mind. After a barrage of emotionally-neutral scientific tests, he grasped his wife’s hand and felt her warmth for the first time in over a decade. His face lit up in a blinding smile.

That’s what scientists are working towards.

Biomimetic Feedback
The human skin is a marvelous thing. Not only does it rapidly detect a multitude of sensations—pressure, temperature, itch, pain, humidity—its wiring “binds” disparate signals together into a sensory fingerprint that helps the brain identify what it’s feeling at any moment. Thanks to over 45 miles of nerves that connect the skin, muscles, and brain, you can pick up a half-full coffee cup, knowing that it’s hot and sloshing, while staring at your computer screen. Unfortunately, this complexity is also why restoring sensation is so hard.

The sensory electrode array implanted in the participant’s arm. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019)..
However, complex neural patterns can also be a source of inspiration. Previous cyborg arms are often paired with so-called “standard” sensory algorithms to induce a basic sense of touch in the missing limb. Here, electrodes zap residual nerves with intensities proportional to the contact force: the harder the grip, the stronger the electrical feedback. Although seemingly logical, that’s not how our skin works. Every time the skin touches or leaves an object, its nerves shoot strong bursts of activity to the brain; while in full contact, the signal is much lower. The resulting electrical strength curve resembles a “U.”

The LUKE hand. Image Credit: George et al., Sci. Robot. 4, eaax2352 (2019).
The team decided to directly compare standard algorithms with one that better mimics the skin’s natural response. They fitted a volunteer with a robotic LUKE arm and implanted an array of electrodes into his forearm—right above the amputation—to stimulate the remaining nerves. When the team activated different combinations of electrodes, the man reported sensations of vibration, pressure, tapping, or a sort of “tightening” in his missing hand. Some combinations of zaps also made him feel as if he were moving the robotic arm’s joints.

In all, the team was able to carefully map nearly 120 sensations to different locations on the phantom hand, which they then overlapped with contact sensors embedded in the LUKE arm. For example, when the patient touched something with his robotic index finger, the relevant electrodes sent signals that made him feel as if he were brushing something with his own missing index fingertip.

Standard sensory feedback already helped: even with simple electrical stimulation, the man could tell apart size (golf versus lacrosse ball) and texture (foam versus plastic) while blindfolded and wearing noise-canceling headphones. But when the team implemented two types of neuromimetic feedback—electrical zaps that resembled the skin’s natural response—his performance dramatically improved. He was able to identify objects much faster and more accurately under their guidance. Outside the lab, he also found it easier to cook, feed, and dress himself. He could even text on his phone and complete routine chores that were previously too difficult, such as stuffing an insert into a pillowcase, hammering a nail, or eating hard-to-grab foods like eggs and grapes.

The study shows that the brain more readily accepts biologically-inspired electrical patterns, making it a relatively easy—but enormously powerful—upgrade that seamlessly integrates the robotic arms with the host. “The functional and emotional benefits…are likely to be further enhanced with long-term use, and efforts are underway to develop a portable take-home system,” the team said.

E-Skin Revolution: Asynchronous Coded Electronic Skin (ACES)
Flexible electronic skins also aren’t new, but the second team presented an upgrade in both speed and durability while retaining multiplexed sensory capabilities.

Starting from a combination of rubber, plastic, and silicon, the team embedded over 200 sensors onto the e-skin, each capable of discerning contact, pressure, temperature, and humidity. They then looked to the skin’s nervous system for inspiration. Our skin is embedded with a dense array of nerve endings that individually transmit different types of sensations, which are integrated inside hubs called ganglia. Compared to having every single nerve ending directly ping data to the brain, this “gather, process, and transmit” architecture rapidly speeds things up.

The team tapped into this biological architecture. Rather than pairing each sensor with a dedicated receiver, ACES sends all sensory data to a single receiver—an artificial ganglion. This setup lets the e-skin’s wiring work as a whole system, as opposed to individual electrodes. Every sensor transmits its data using a characteristic pulse, which allows it to be uniquely identified by the receiver.

The gains were immediate. First was speed. Normally, sensory data from multiple individual electrodes need to be periodically combined into a map of pressure points. Here, data from thousands of distributed sensors can independently go to a single receiver for further processing, massively increasing efficiency—the new e-skin’s transmission rate is roughly 1,000 times faster than that of human skin.

Second was redundancy. Because data from individual sensors are aggregated, the system still functioned even when any individual receptors are damaged, making it far more resilient than previous attempts. Finally, the setup could easily scale up. Although the team only tested the idea with 240 sensors, theoretically the system should work with up to 10,000.

The team is now exploring ways to combine their invention with other material layers to make it water-resistant and self-repairable. As you might’ve guessed, an immediate application is to give robots something similar to complex touch. A sensory upgrade not only lets robots more easily manipulate tools, doorknobs, and other objects in hectic real-world environments, it could also make it easier for machines to work collaboratively with humans in the future (hey Wall-E, care to pass the salt?).

Dexterous robots aside, the team also envisions engineering better prosthetics. When coated onto cyborg limbs, for example, ACES may give them a better sense of touch that begins to rival the human skin—or perhaps even exceed it.

Regardless, efforts that adapt the functionality of the human nervous system to machines are finally paying off, and more are sure to come. Neuromimetic ideas may very well be the link that finally closes the loop.

Image Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering.. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435313 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Microsoft Invests $1 Billion in OpenAI to Pursue Holy Grail of Artificial Intelligence
James Vincent | The Verge
“i‘The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,’ said [OpenAI cofounder] Sam Altman. ‘Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity, and we’re working with Microsoft to build the supercomputing foundation on which we’ll build AGI.’i”

ROBOTICS
UPS Wants to Go Full-Scale With Its Drone Deliveries
Eric Adams | Wired
“If UPS gets its way, it’ll be known for vehicles other than its famous brown vans. The delivery giant is working to become the first commercial entity authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to use autonomous delivery drones without any of the current restrictions that have governed the aerial testing it has done to date.”

SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
Scientists Can Finally Build Feedback Circuits in Cells
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Network a few LOCKR-bound molecules together, and you’ve got a circuit that can control a cell’s functions the same way a PID computer program automatically adjusts the pitch of a plane. With the right key, you can make cells glow or blow themselves apart. You can send things to the cell’s trash heap or zoom them to another cellular zip code.”

ENERGY
Carbon Nanotubes Could Increase Solar Efficiency to 80 Percent
David Grossman | Popular Mechanics
“Obviously, that sort of efficiency rating is unheard of in the world of solar panels. But even though a proof of concept is a long way from being used in the real world, any further developments in the nanotubes could bolster solar panels in ways we haven’t seen yet.”

FUTURE
What Technology Is Most Likely to Become Obsolete During Your Lifetime?
Daniel Kolitz | Gizmodo
“Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. …And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.”

NEUROSCIENCE
The Human Brain Project Hasn’t Lived Up to Its Promise
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“The HBP, then, is in a very odd position, criticized for being simultaneously too grandiose and too narrow. None of the skeptics I spoke with was dismissing the idea of simulating parts of the brain, but all of them felt that such efforts should be driven by actual research questions. …Countless such projects could have been funded with the money channeled into the HBP, which explains much of the furor around the project.”

Image Credit: Aron Van de Pol / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots