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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 field of artificial intelligence goes back a long way, but many consider it was officially born when a group of scientists at Dartmouth College got together for a summer, back in 1956. Computers had, over the last few decades, come on in incredible leaps and bounds; they could now perform calculations far faster than humans. Optimism, given the incredible progress that had been made, was rational. Genius computer scientist Alan Turing had already mooted the idea of thinking machines just a few years before. The scientists had a fairly simple idea: intelligence is, after all, just a mathematical process. The human brain was a type of machine. Pick apart that process, and you can make a machine simulate it.
The problem didn’t seem too hard: the Dartmouth scientists wrote, “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This research proposal, by the way, contains one of the earliest uses of the term artificial intelligence. They had a number of ideas—maybe simulating the human brain’s pattern of neurons could work and teaching machines the abstract rules of human language would be important.
The scientists were optimistic, and their efforts were rewarded. Before too long, they had computer programs that seemed to understand human language and could solve algebra problems. People were confidently predicting there would be a human-level intelligent machine built within, oh, let’s say, the next twenty years.
It’s fitting that the industry of predicting when we’d have human-level intelligent AI was born at around the same time as the AI industry itself. In fact, it goes all the way back to Turing’s first paper on “thinking machines,” where he predicted that the Turing Test—machines that could convince humans they were human—would be passed in 50 years, by 2000. Nowadays, of course, people are still predicting it will happen within the next 20 years, perhaps most famously Ray Kurzweil. There are so many different surveys of experts and analyses that you almost wonder if AI researchers aren’t tempted to come up with an auto reply: “I’ve already predicted what your question will be, and no, I can’t really predict that.”
The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach (at least, not until you’re trying to work on chips at the atomic scale). You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.
Stuart Armstrong’s survey looked for trends in these predictions. Specifically, there were two major cognitive biases he was looking for. The first was the idea that AI experts predict true AI will arrive (and make them immortal) conveniently just before they’d be due to die. This is the “Rapture of the Nerds” criticism people have leveled at Kurzweil—his predictions are motivated by fear of death, desire for immortality, and are fundamentally irrational. The ability to create a superintelligence is taken as an article of faith. There are also criticisms by people working in the AI field who know first-hand the frustrations and limitations of today’s AI.
The second was the idea that people always pick a time span of 15 to 20 years. That’s enough to convince people they’re working on something that could prove revolutionary very soon (people are less impressed by efforts that will lead to tangible results centuries down the line), but not enough for you to be embarrassingly proved wrong. Of the two, Armstrong found more evidence for the second one—people were perfectly happy to predict AI after they died, although most didn’t, but there was a clear bias towards “15–20 years from now” in predictions throughout history.
Armstrong points out that, if you want to assess the validity of a specific prediction, there are plenty of parameters you can look at. For example, the idea that human-level intelligence will be developed by simulating the human brain does at least give you a clear pathway that allows you to assess progress. Every time we get a more detailed map of the brain, or successfully simulate another part of it, we can tell that we are progressing towards this eventual goal, which will presumably end in human-level AI. We may not be 20 years away on that path, but at least you can scientifically evaluate the progress.
Compare this to those that say AI, or else consciousness, will “emerge” if a network is sufficiently complex, given enough processing power. This might be how we imagine human intelligence and consciousness emerged during evolution—although evolution had billions of years, not just decades. The issue with this is that we have no empirical evidence: we have never seen consciousness manifest itself out of a complex network. Not only do we not know if this is possible, we cannot know how far away we are from reaching this, as we can’t even measure progress along the way.
There is an immense difficulty in understanding which tasks are hard, which has continued from the birth of AI to the present day. Just look at that original research proposal, where understanding human language, randomness and creativity, and self-improvement are all mentioned in the same breath. We have great natural language processing, but do our computers understand what they’re processing? We have AI that can randomly vary to be “creative,” but is it creative? Exponential self-improvement of the kind the singularity often relies on seems far away.
We also struggle to understand what’s meant by intelligence. For example, AI experts consistently underestimated the ability of AI to play Go. Many thought, in 2015, it would take until 2027. In the end, it took two years, not twelve. But does that mean AI is any closer to being able to write the Great American Novel, say? Does it mean it’s any closer to conceptually understanding the world around it? Does it mean that it’s any closer to human-level intelligence? That’s not necessarily clear.
Not Human, But Smarter Than Humans
But perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong problem. For example, the Turing test has not yet been passed in the sense that AI cannot convince people it’s human in conversation; but of course the calculating ability, and perhaps soon the ability to perform other tasks like pattern recognition and driving cars, far exceed human levels. As “weak” AI algorithms make more decisions, and Internet of Things evangelists and tech optimists seek to find more ways to feed more data into more algorithms, the impact on society from this “artificial intelligence” can only grow.
It may be that we don’t yet have the mechanism for human-level intelligence, but it’s also true that we don’t know how far we can go with the current generation of algorithms. Those scary surveys that state automation will disrupt society and change it in fundamental ways don’t rely on nearly as many assumptions about some nebulous superintelligence.
Then there are those that point out we should be worried about AI for other reasons. Just because we can’t say for sure if human-level AI will arrive this century, or never, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the possibility that the optimistic predictors could be correct. We need to ensure that human values are programmed into these algorithms, so that they understand the value of human life and can act in “moral, responsible” ways.
Phil Torres, at the Project for Future Human Flourishing, expressed it well in an interview with me. He points out that if we suddenly decided, as a society, that we had to solve the problem of morality—determine what was right and wrong and feed it into a machine—in the next twenty years…would we even be able to do it?
So, we should take predictions with a grain of salt. Remember, it turned out the problems the AI pioneers foresaw were far more complicated than they anticipated. The same could be true today. At the same time, we cannot be unprepared. We should understand the risks and take our precautions. When those scientists met in Dartmouth in 1956, they had no idea of the vast, foggy terrain before them. Sixty years later, we still don’t know how much further there is to go, or how far we can go. But we’re going somewhere.
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We all have scars, and each one tells a story. Tales of tomfoolery, tales of haphazardness, or in my case, tales of stupidity.
Whether the cause of your scar was a push-bike accident, a lack of concentration while cutting onions, or simply the byproduct of an active lifestyle, the experience was likely extremely painful and distressing. Not to mention the long and vexatious recovery period, stretching out for weeks and months after the actual event!
Cast your minds back to that time. How you longed for instant relief from your discomfort! How you longed to have your capabilities restored in an instant!
Well, materials that can heal themselves in an instant may not be far from becoming a reality—and a family of them known as elastomers holds the key.
“Elastomer” is essentially a big, fancy word for rubber. However, elastomers have one unique property—they are capable of returning to their original form after being vigorously stretched and deformed.
This unique property of elastomers has caught the eye of many scientists around the world, particularly those working in the field of robotics. The reason? Elastomer can be encouraged to return to its original shape, in many cases by simply applying heat. The implication of this is the quick and cost-effective repair of “wounds”—cuts, tears, and punctures to the soft, elastomer-based appendages of a robot’s exoskeleton.
Researchers from Vrije University in Brussels, Belgium have been toying with the technique, and with remarkable success. The team built a robotic hand with fingers made of a type of elastomer. They found that cuts and punctures were indeed able to repair themselves simply by applying heat to the affected area.
How long does the healing process take? In this instance, about a day. Now that’s a lot shorter than the weeks and months of recovery time we typically need for a flesh wound, during which we are unable to write, play the guitar, or do the dishes. If you consider the latter to be a bad thing…
However, it’s not the first time scientists have played around with elastomers and examined their self-healing properties. Another team of scientists, headed up by Cheng-Hui Li and Chao Wang, discovered another type of elastomer that exhibited autonomous self-healing properties. Just to help you picture this stuff, the material closely resembles animal muscle— strong, flexible, and elastic. With autogenetic restorative powers to boot.
Advancements in the world of self-healing elastomers, or rubbers, may also affect the lives of everyday motorists. Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a self-healing rubber material that could be used to make tires that repair their own punctures.
This time the mechanism of self-healing doesn’t involve heat. Rather, it is related to a physical phenomenon associated with the rubber’s unique structure. Normally, when a large enough stress is applied to a typical rubber, there is catastrophic failure at the focal point of that stress. The self-healing rubber the researchers created, on the other hand, distributes that same stress evenly over a network of “crazes”—which are like cracks connected by strands of fiber.
Here’s the interesting part. Not only does this unique physical characteristic of the rubber prevent catastrophic failure, it facilitates self-repair. According to Harvard researchers, when the stress is released, the material snaps back to its original form and the crazes heal.
This wonder material could be used in any number of rubber-based products.
Professor Jinrong Wu, of Sichuan University, China, and co-author of the study, happened to single out tires: “Imagine that we could use this material as one of the components to make a rubber tire… If you have a cut through the tire, this tire wouldn’t have to be replaced right away. Instead, it would self-heal while driving, enough to give you leeway to avoid dramatic damage,” said Wu.
So where to from here? Well, self-healing elastomers could have a number of different applications. According to the article published by Quartz, cited earlier, the material could be used on artificial limbs. Perhaps it will provide some measure of structural integrity without looking like a tattered mess after years of regular use.
Or perhaps a sort of elastomer-based hybrid skin is on the horizon. A skin in which wounds heal instantly. And recovery time, unlike your regular old human skin of yesteryear, is significantly slashed. Furthermore, this future skin might eliminate those little reminders we call scars.
For those with poor judgment skills, this spells an end to disquieting reminders of our own stupidity.
Image Credit: Vrije Universiteit Brussel / Prof. Dr. ir. Bram Vanderborght Continue reading
Picture a robot. In all likelihood, you just pictured a sleek metallic or chrome-white humanoid. Yet the vast majority of robots in the world around us are nothing like this; instead, they’re specialized for specific tasks. Our cultural conception of what robots are dates back to the coining of the term robots in the Czech play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which originally envisioned them as essentially synthetic humans.
The vision of a humanoid robot is tantalizing. There are constant efforts to create something that looks like the robots of science fiction. Recently, an old competitor in this field returned with a new model: Toyota has released what they call the T-HR3. As humanoid robots go, it appears to be pretty dexterous and have a decent grip, with a number of degrees of freedom making the movements pleasantly human.
This humanoid robot operates mostly via a remote-controlled system that allows the user to control the robot’s limbs by exerting different amounts of pressure on a framework. A VR headset completes the picture, allowing the user to control the robot’s body and teleoperate the machine. There’s no word on a price tag, but one imagines a machine with a control system this complicated won’t exactly be on your Christmas list, unless you’re a billionaire.
Toyota is no stranger to robotics. They released a series of “Partner Robots” that had a bizarre affinity for instrument-playing but weren’t often seen doing much else. Given that they didn’t seem to have much capability beyond the automaton that Leonardo da Vinci made hundreds of years ago, they promptly vanished. If, as the name suggests, the T-HR3 is a sequel to these robots, which came out shortly after ASIMO back in 2003, it’s substantially better.
Slightly less humanoid (and perhaps the more useful for it), Toyota’s HSR-2 is a robot base on wheels with a simple mechanical arm. It brings to mind earlier machines produced by dream-factory startup Willow Garage like the PR-2. The idea of an affordable robot that could simply move around on wheels and pick up and fetch objects, and didn’t harbor too-lofty ambitions to do anything else, was quite successful.
So much so that when Robocup, the international robotics competition, looked for a platform for their robot-butler competition @Home, they chose HSR-2 for its ability to handle objects. HSR-2 has been deployed in trial runs to care for the elderly and injured, but has yet to be widely adopted for these purposes five years after its initial release. It’s telling that arguably the most successful multi-purpose humanoid robot isn’t really humanoid at all—and it’s curious that Toyota now seems to want to return to a more humanoid model a decade after they gave up on the project.
What’s unclear, as is often the case with humanoid robots, is what, precisely, the T-HR3 is actually for. The teleoperation gets around the complex problem of control by simply having the machine controlled remotely by a human. That human then handles all the sensory perception, decision-making, planning, and manipulation; essentially, the hardest problems in robotics.
There may not be a great deal of autonomy for the T-HR3, but by sacrificing autonomy, you drastically cut down the uses of the robot. Since it can’t act alone, you need a convincing scenario where you need a teleoperated humanoid robot that’s less precise and vastly more expensive than just getting a person to do the same job. Perhaps someday more autonomy will be developed for the robot, and the master maneuvering system that allows humans to control it will only be used in emergencies to control the robot if it gets stuck.
Toyota’s press release says it is “a platform with capabilities that can safely assist humans in a variety of settings, such as the home, medical facilities, construction sites, disaster-stricken areas and even outer space.” In reality, it’s difficult to see such a robot being affordable or even that useful in the home or in medical facilities (unless it’s substantially stronger than humans). Equally, it certainly doesn’t seem robust enough to be deployed in disaster zones or outer space. These tasks have been mooted for robots for a very long time and few have proved up to the challenge.
Toyota’s third generation humanoid robot, the T-HR3. Image Credit: Toyota
Instead, the robot seems designed to work alongside humans. Its design, standing 1.5 meters tall, weighing 75 kilograms, and possessing 32 degrees of freedom in its body, suggests it is built to closely mimic a person, rather than a robot like ATLAS which is robust enough that you can imagine it being useful in a war zone. In this case, it might be closer to the model of the collaborative robots or co-bots developed by Rethink Robotics, whose tons of safety features, including force-sensitive feedback for the user, reduce the risk of terrible PR surrounding killer robots.
Instead the emphasis is on graceful precision engineering: in the promo video, the robot can be seen balancing on one leg before showing off a few poised, yoga-like poses. This perhaps suggests that an application in elderly care, which Toyota has ventured into before and which was the stated aim of their simple HSR-2, might be more likely than deployment to a disaster zone.
The reason humanoid robots remain so elusive and so tempting is probably because of a simple cognitive mistake. We make two bad assumptions. First, we assume that if you build a humanoid robot, give its joints enough flexibility, throw in a little AI and perhaps some pre-programmed behaviors, then presto, it will be able to do everything humans can. When you see a robot that moves well and looks humanoid, it seems like the hardest part is done; surely this robot could do anything. The reality is never so simple.
We also make the reverse assumption: we assume that when we are finally replaced, it will be by perfect replicas of our own bodies and brains that can fulfill all the functions we used to fulfill. Perhaps, in reality, the future of robots and AI is more like its present: piecemeal, with specialized algorithms and specialized machines gradually learning to outperform humans at every conceivable task without ever looking convincingly human.
It may well be that the T-HR3 is angling towards this concept of machine learning as a platform for future research. Rather than trying to program an omni-capable robot out of the box, it will gradually learn from its human controllers. In this way, you could see the platform being used to explore the limits of what humans can teach robots to do simply by having them mimic sequences of our bodies’ motion, in the same way the exploitation of neural networks is testing the limits of training algorithms on data. No one machine will be able to perform everything a human can, but collectively, they will vastly outperform us at anything you’d want one to do.
So when you see a new android like Toyota’s, feel free to marvel at its technical abilities and indulge in the speculation about whether it’s a PR gimmick or a revolutionary step forward along the road to human replacement. Just remember that, human-level bots or not, we’re already strolling down that road.
Image Credit: Toyota Continue reading
The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
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