Tag Archives: fiction

#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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#432519 Robot Cities: Three Urban Prototypes for ...

Before I started working on real-world robots, I wrote about their fictional and historical ancestors. This isn’t so far removed from what I do now. In factories, labs, and of course science fiction, imaginary robots keep fueling our imagination about artificial humans and autonomous machines.

Real-world robots remain surprisingly dysfunctional, although they are steadily infiltrating urban areas across the globe. This fourth industrial revolution driven by robots is shaping urban spaces and urban life in response to opportunities and challenges in economic, social, political, and healthcare domains. Our cities are becoming too big for humans to manage.

Good city governance enables and maintains smooth flow of things, data, and people. These include public services, traffic, and delivery services. Long queues in hospitals and banks imply poor management. Traffic congestion demonstrates that roads and traffic systems are inadequate. Goods that we increasingly order online don’t arrive fast enough. And the WiFi often fails our 24/7 digital needs. In sum, urban life, characterized by environmental pollution, speedy life, traffic congestion, connectivity and increased consumption, needs robotic solutions—or so we are led to believe.

Is this what the future holds? Image Credit: Photobank gallery / Shutterstock.com
In the past five years, national governments have started to see automation as the key to (better) urban futures. Many cities are becoming test beds for national and local governments for experimenting with robots in social spaces, where robots have both practical purpose (to facilitate everyday life) and a very symbolic role (to demonstrate good city governance). Whether through autonomous cars, automated pharmacists, service robots in local stores, or autonomous drones delivering Amazon parcels, cities are being automated at a steady pace.

Many large cities (Seoul, Tokyo, Shenzhen, Singapore, Dubai, London, San Francisco) serve as test beds for autonomous vehicle trials in a competitive race to develop “self-driving” cars. Automated ports and warehouses are also increasingly automated and robotized. Testing of delivery robots and drones is gathering pace beyond the warehouse gates. Automated control systems are monitoring, regulating and optimizing traffic flows. Automated vertical farms are innovating production of food in “non-agricultural” urban areas around the world. New mobile health technologies carry promise of healthcare “beyond the hospital.” Social robots in many guises—from police officers to restaurant waiters—are appearing in urban public and commercial spaces.

Vertical indoor farm. Image Credit: Aisyaqilumaranas / Shutterstock.com
As these examples show, urban automation is taking place in fits and starts, ignoring some areas and racing ahead in others. But as yet, no one seems to be taking account of all of these various and interconnected developments. So, how are we to forecast our cities of the future? Only a broad view allows us to do this. To give a sense, here are three examples: Tokyo, Dubai, and Singapore.

Currently preparing to host the Olympics 2020, Japan’s government also plans to use the event to showcase many new robotic technologies. Tokyo is therefore becoming an urban living lab. The institution in charge is the Robot Revolution Realization Council, established in 2014 by the government of Japan.

Tokyo: city of the future. Image Credit: ESB Professional / Shutterstock.com
The main objectives of Japan’s robotization are economic reinvigoration, cultural branding, and international demonstration. In line with this, the Olympics will be used to introduce and influence global technology trajectories. In the government’s vision for the Olympics, robot taxis transport tourists across the city, smart wheelchairs greet Paralympians at the airport, ubiquitous service robots greet customers in 20-plus languages, and interactively augmented foreigners speak with the local population in Japanese.

Tokyo shows us what the process of state-controlled creation of a robotic city looks like.

Singapore, on the other hand, is a “smart city.” Its government is experimenting with robots with a different objective: as physical extensions of existing systems to improve management and control of the city.

In Singapore, the techno-futuristic national narrative sees robots and automated systems as a “natural” extension of the existing smart urban ecosystem. This vision is unfolding through autonomous delivery robots (the Singapore Post’s delivery drone trials in partnership with AirBus helicopters) and driverless bus shuttles from Easymile, EZ10.

Meanwhile, Singapore hotels are employing state-subsidized service robots to clean rooms and deliver linen and supplies, and robots for early childhood education have been piloted to understand how robots can be used in pre-schools in the future. Health and social care is one of the fastest growing industries for robots and automation in Singapore and globally.

Dubai is another emerging prototype of a state-controlled smart city. But rather than seeing robotization simply as a way to improve the running of systems, Dubai is intensively robotizing public services with the aim of creating the “happiest city on Earth.” Urban robot experimentation in Dubai reveals that authoritarian state regimes are finding innovative ways to use robots in public services, transportation, policing, and surveillance.

National governments are in competition to position themselves on the global politico-economic landscape through robotics, and they are also striving to position themselves as regional leaders. This was the thinking behind the city’s September 2017 test flight of a flying taxi developed by the German drone firm Volocopter—staged to “lead the Arab world in innovation.” Dubai’s objective is to automate 25% of its transport system by 2030.

It is currently also experimenting with Barcelona-based PAL Robotics’ humanoid police officer and Singapore-based vehicle OUTSAW. If the experiments are successful, the government has announced it will robotize 25% of the police force by 2030.

While imaginary robots are fueling our imagination more than ever—from Ghost in the Shell to Blade Runner 2049—real-world robots make us rethink our urban lives.

These three urban robotic living labs—Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai—help us gauge what kind of future is being created, and by whom. From hyper-robotized Tokyo to smartest Singapore and happy, crime-free Dubai, these three comparisons show that, no matter what the context, robots are perceived as a means to achieve global futures based on a specific national imagination. Just like the films, they demonstrate the role of the state in envisioning and creating that future.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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#432036 The Power to Upgrade Our Own Biology Is ...

Upgrading our biology may sound like science fiction, but attempts to improve humanity actually date back thousands of years. Every day, we enhance ourselves through seemingly mundane activities such as exercising, meditating, or consuming performance-enhancing drugs, such as caffeine or adderall. However, the tools with which we upgrade our biology are improving at an accelerating rate and becoming increasingly invasive.

In recent decades, we have developed a wide array of powerful methods, such as genetic engineering and brain-machine interfaces, that are redefining our humanity. In the short run, such enhancement technologies have medical applications and may be used to treat many diseases and disabilities. Additionally, in the coming decades, they could allow us to boost our physical abilities or even digitize human consciousness.

What’s New?
Many futurists argue that our devices, such as our smartphones, are already an extension of our cortex and in many ways an abstract form of enhancement. According to philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of extended mind, we use technology to expand the boundaries of the human mind beyond our skulls.

One can argue that having access to a smartphone enhances one’s cognitive capacities and abilities and is an indirect form of enhancement of its own. It can be considered an abstract form of brain-machine interface. Beyond that, wearable devices and computers are already accessible in the market, and people like athletes use them to boost their progress.

However, these interfaces are becoming less abstract.

Not long ago, Elon Musk announced a new company, Neuralink, with the goal of merging the human mind with AI. The past few years have seen remarkable developments in both the hardware and software of brain-machine interfaces. Experts are designing more intricate electrodes while programming better algorithms to interpret neural signals. Scientists have already succeeded in enabling paralyzed patients to type with their minds, and are even allowing brains to communicate with one another purely through brainwaves.

Ethical Challenges of Enhancement
There are many social and ethical implications of such advancements.

One of the most fundamental issues with cognitive and physical enhancement techniques is that they contradict the very definition of merit and success that society has relied on for millennia. Many forms of performance-enhancing drugs have been considered “cheating” for the longest time.

But perhaps we ought to revisit some of our fundamental assumptions as a society.

For example, we like to credit hard work and talent in a fair manner, where “fair” generally implies that an individual has acted in a way that has served him to merit his rewards. If you are talented and successful, it is considered to be because you chose to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. But by these standards, how much of our accomplishments can we truly be credited for?

For instance, the genetic lottery can have an enormous impact on an individual’s predisposition and personality, which can in turn affect factors such as motivation, reasoning skills, and other mental abilities. Many people are born with a natural ability or a physique that gives them an advantage in a particular area or predisposes them to learn faster. But is it justified to reward someone for excellence if their genes had a pivotal role in their path to success?

Beyond that, there are already many ways in which we take “shortcuts” to better mental performance. Seemingly mundane activities like drinking coffee, meditating, exercising, or sleeping well can boost one’s performance in any given area and are tolerated by society. Even the use of language can have positive physical and psychological effects on the human brain, which can be liberating to the individual and immensely beneficial to society at large. And let’s not forget the fact that some of us are born into more access to developing literacy than others.

Given all these reasons, one could argue that cognitive abilities and talents are currently derived more from uncontrollable factors and luck than we like to admit. If anything, technologies like brain-machine interfaces can enhance individual autonomy and allow one a choice of how capable they become.

As Karim Jebari points out (pdf), if a certain characteristic or trait is required to perform a particular role and an individual lacks this trait, would it be wrong to implement the trait through brain-machine interfaces or genetic engineering? How is this different from any conventional form of learning or acquiring a skill? If anything, this would be removing limitations on individuals that result from factors outside their control, such as biological predisposition (or even traits induced from traumatic experiences) to act or perform in a certain way.

Another major ethical concern is equality. As with any other emerging technology, there are valid concerns that cognitive enhancement tech will benefit only the wealthy, thus exacerbating current inequalities. This is where public policy and regulations can play a pivotal role in the impact of technology on society.

Enhancement technologies can either contribute to inequality or allow us to solve it. Educating and empowering the under-privileged can happen at a much more rapid rate, helping the overall rate of human progress accelerate. The “normal range” for human capacity and intelligence, however it is defined, could shift dramatically towards more positive trends.

Many have also raised concerns over the negative applications of government-led biological enhancement, including eugenics-like movements and super-soldiers. Naturally, there are also issues of safety, security, and well-being, especially within the early stages of experimentation with enhancement techniques.

Brain-machine interfaces, for instance, could have implications on autonomy. The interface involves using information extracted from the brain to stimulate or modify systems in order to accomplish a goal. This part of the process can be enhanced by implementing an artificial intelligence system onto the interface—one that exposes the possibility of a third party potentially manipulating individual’s personalities, emotions, and desires by manipulating the interface.

A Tool For Transcendence
It’s important to discuss these risks, not so that we begin to fear and avoid such technologies, but so that we continue to advance in a way that minimizes harm and allows us to optimize the benefits.

Stephen Hawking notes that “with genetic engineering, we will be able to increase the complexity of our DNA, and improve the human race.” Indeed, the potential advantages of modifying biology are revolutionary. Doctors would gain access to a powerful tool to tackle disease, allowing us to live longer and healthier lives. We might be able to extend our lifespan and tackle aging, perhaps a critical step to becoming a space-faring species. We may begin to modify the brain’s building blocks to become more intelligent and capable of solving grand challenges.

In their book Evolving Ourselves, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans describe a world where evolution is no longer driven by natural processes. Instead, it is driven by human choices, through what they call unnatural selection and non-random mutation. Human enhancement is bringing us closer to such a world—it could allow us to take control of our evolution and truly shape the future of our species.

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#431920 If We Could Engineer Animals to Be as ...

Advances in neural implants and genetic engineering suggest that in the not–too–distant future we may be able to boost human intelligence. If that’s true, could we—and should we—bring our animal cousins along for the ride?
Human brain augmentation made headlines last year after several tech firms announced ambitious efforts to build neural implant technology. Duke University neuroscientist Mikhail Lebedev told me in July it could be decades before these devices have applications beyond the strictly medical.
But he said the technology, as well as other pharmacological and genetic engineering approaches, will almost certainly allow us to boost our mental capacities at some point in the next few decades.
Whether this kind of cognitive enhancement is a good idea or not, and how we should regulate it, are matters of heated debate among philosophers, futurists, and bioethicists, but for some it has raised the question of whether we could do the same for animals.
There’s already tantalizing evidence of the idea’s feasibility. As detailed in BBC Future, a group from MIT found that mice that were genetically engineered to express the human FOXP2 gene linked to learning and speech processing picked up maze routes faster. Another group at Wake Forest University studying Alzheimer’s found that neural implants could boost rhesus monkeys’ scores on intelligence tests.
The concept of “animal uplift” is most famously depicted in the Planet of the Apes movie series, whose planet–conquering protagonists are likely to put most people off the idea. But proponents are less pessimistic about the outcomes.
Science fiction author David Brin popularized the concept in his “Uplift” series of novels, in which humans share the world with various other intelligent animals that all bring their own unique skills, perspectives, and innovations to the table. “The benefits, after a few hundred years, could be amazing,” he told Scientific American.
Others, like George Dvorsky, the director of the Rights of Non-Human Persons program at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, go further and claim there is a moral imperative. He told the Boston Globe that denying augmentation technology to animals would be just as unethical as excluding certain groups of humans.
Others are less convinced. Forbes’ Alex Knapp points out that developing the technology to uplift animals will likely require lots of very invasive animal research that will cause huge suffering to the animals it purports to help. This is problematic enough with normal animals, but could be even more morally dubious when applied to ones whose cognitive capacities have been enhanced.
The whole concept could also be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Humans are prone to seeing intelligence as a single, self-contained metric that progresses in a linear way with humans at the pinnacle.
In an opinion piece in Wired arguing against the likelihood of superhuman artificial intelligence, Kevin Kelly points out that science has no such single dimension with which to rank the intelligence of different species. Each one combines a bundle of cognitive capabilities, some of which are well below our own capabilities and others which are superhuman. He uses the example of the squirrel, which can remember the precise location of thousands of acorns for years.
Uplift efforts may end up being less about boosting intelligence and more about making animals more human-like. That represents “a kind of benevolent colonialism” that assumes being more human-like is a good thing, Paul Graham Raven, a futures researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, told the Boston Globe. There’s scant evidence that’s the case, and it’s easy to see how a chimpanzee with the mind of a human might struggle to adjust.
There are also fundamental barriers that may make it difficult to achieve human-level cognitive capabilities in animals, no matter how advanced brain augmentation technology gets. In 2013 Swedish researchers selectively bred small fish called guppies for bigger brains. This made them smarter, but growing the energy-intensive organ meant the guppies developed smaller guts and produced fewer offspring to compensate.
This highlights the fact that uplifting animals may require more than just changes to their brains, possibly a complete rewiring of their physiology that could prove far more technically challenging than human brain augmentation.
Our intelligence is intimately tied to our evolutionary history—our brains are bigger than other animals’; opposable thumbs allow us to use tools; our vocal chords make complex communication possible. No matter how much you augment a cow’s brain, it still couldn’t use a screwdriver or talk to you in English because it simply doesn’t have the machinery.
Finally, from a purely selfish point of view, even if it does become possible to create a level playing field between us and other animals, it may not be a smart move for humanity. There’s no reason to assume animals would be any more benevolent than we are, having evolved in the same ‘survival of the fittest’ crucible that we have. And given our already endless capacity to divide ourselves along national, religious, or ethnic lines, conflict between species seems inevitable.
We’re already likely to face considerable competition from smart machines in the coming decades if you believe the hype around AI. So maybe adding a few more intelligent species to the mix isn’t the best idea.
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#431906 Low-Cost Soft Robot Muscles Can Lift 200 ...

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.
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