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In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.
Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.
When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.
Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.
The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”
The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.
The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.
By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.
“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”
There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.
In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.
“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.
“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”
Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.
The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
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From how we get around to how we spend our time to how we manage our health, technology is changing our lives—not to mention economies, governments, and cities around the world. Tech has brought good to individuals and societies by, for example, democratizing access to information and lowering the cost of many products and services. But it’s also brought less-desirable effects we can’t ignore, like a rise in mental health problems and greater wealth inequality.
To keep pushing tech in a direction that will benefit humanity as a whole—rather than benefiting a select few—we must encourage open dialogues about these topics among leading figures in business, government, and spirituality.
To that end, SingularityU The Netherlands recently hosted a dialogue about compassion and technology with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The event was attended by students and tech innovators, ambassadors, members of the Dutch royal family, and other political and business leaders.
The first half of the conversation focused on robotics, telepresence, and artificial intelligence. His Holiness spoke with Tilly Lockey, a British student helping tech companies create bionic limbs, Karen Dolva, CEO of telepresence company No Isolation, and Maarten Steinbuch, faculty chair of robotics at SingularityU the Netherlands and a professor of systems and control at TU Eindhoven.
When asked what big tech companies could be doing to help spread good around the world, His Holiness pointed out that while technology has changed many aspects of life in developed countries, there is still immense suffering in less-developed nations, and tech companies should pay more attention to the poorer communities around the world.
In the second half of the event, focus switched to sickness, aging, and death. Speakers included Liz Parrish, CEO of BioViva Sciences, Kris Verburgh, faculty chair of health and medicine at SingularityU the Netherlands, Jeantine Lunshof, a bio-ethicist at MIT Media Lab, and Selma Boulmalf, a religious studies student at University of Amsterdam. Among other topics, they talked with His Holiness about longevity research and the drawbacks of trying to extend our lifespans or achieve immortality.
Both sessions were moderated by Christa Meindersma, founder and chair of the Himalaya Initiative for Culture and Society. The event served as the ceremonial opening of an exhibition called The Life of the Buddha, Path to the Present, on display in Amsterdam’s 15-century De Nieuwe Kerk church through February 2019.
In the 21st century, His Holiness said, “There is real possibility to create a happier world, peaceful world. So now we need vision. A peaceful world on the basis of a sense of oneness of humanity.”
Technology’s role in that world is being developed and refined every day, and we must maintain an ongoing awareness of its positive and negative repercussions—on everyone.
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A new technique using artificial intelligence to manipulate video content gives new meaning to the expression “talking head.”
An international team of researchers showcased the latest advancement in synthesizing facial expressions—including mouth, eyes, eyebrows, and even head position—in video at this month’s 2018 SIGGRAPH, a conference on innovations in computer graphics, animation, virtual reality, and other forms of digital wizardry.
The project is called Deep Video Portraits. It relies on a type of AI called generative adversarial networks (GANs) to modify a “target” actor based on the facial and head movement of a “source” actor. As the name implies, GANs pit two opposing neural networks against one another to create a realistic talking head, right down to the sneer or raised eyebrow.
In this case, the adversaries are actually working together: One neural network generates content, while the other rejects or approves each effort. The back-and-forth interplay between the two eventually produces a realistic result that can easily fool the human eye, including reproducing a static scene behind the head as it bobs back and forth.
The researchers say the technique can be used by the film industry for a variety of purposes, from editing facial expressions of actors for matching dubbed voices to repositioning an actor’s head in post-production. AI can not only produce highly realistic results, but much quicker ones compared to the manual processes used today, according to the researchers. You can read the full paper of their work here.
“Deep Video Portraits shows how such a visual effect could be created with less effort in the future,” said Christian Richardt, from the University of Bath’s motion capture research center CAMERA, in a press release. “With our approach, even the positioning of an actor’s head and their facial expression could be easily edited to change camera angles or subtly change the framing of a scene to tell the story better.”
AI Tech Different Than So-Called “Deepfakes”
The work is far from the first to employ AI to manipulate video and audio. At last year’s SIGGRAPH conference, researchers from the University of Washington showcased their work using algorithms that inserted audio recordings from a person in one instance into a separate video of the same person in a different context.
In this case, they “faked” a video using a speech from former President Barack Obama addressing a mass shooting incident during his presidency. The AI-doctored video injects the audio into an unrelated video of the president while also blending the facial and mouth movements, creating a pretty credible job of lip synching.
A previous paper by many of the same scientists on the Deep Video Portraits project detailed how they were first able to manipulate a video in real time of a talking head (in this case, actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). The Face2Face system pulled off this bit of digital trickery using a depth-sensing camera that tracked the facial expressions of an Asian female source actor.
A less sophisticated method of swapping faces using a machine learning software dubbed FakeApp emerged earlier this year. Predictably, the tech—requiring numerous photos of the source actor in order to train the neural network—was used for more juvenile pursuits, such as injecting a person’s face onto a porn star.
The application gave rise to the term “deepfakes,” which is now used somewhat ubiquitously to describe all such instances of AI-manipulated video—much to the chagrin of some of the researchers involved in more legitimate uses.
Fighting AI-Created Video Forgeries
However, the researchers are keenly aware that their work—intended for benign uses such as in the film industry or even to correct gaze and head positions for more natural interactions through video teleconferencing—could be used for nefarious purposes. Fake news is the most obvious concern.
“With ever-improving video editing technology, we must also start being more critical about the video content we consume every day, especially if there is no proof of origin,” said Michael Zollhöfer, a visiting assistant professor at Stanford University and member of the Deep Video Portraits team, in the press release.
Toward that end, the research team is training the same adversarial neural networks to spot video forgeries. They also strongly recommend that developers clearly watermark videos that are edited through AI or otherwise, and denote clearly what part and element of the scene was modified.
To catch less ethical users, the US Department of Defense, through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is supporting a program called Media Forensics. This latest DARPA challenge enlists researchers to develop technologies to automatically assess the integrity of an image or video, as part of an end-to-end media forensics platform.
The DARPA official in charge of the program, Matthew Turek, did tell MIT Technology Review that so far the program has “discovered subtle cues in current GAN-manipulated images and videos that allow us to detect the presence of alterations.” In one reported example, researchers have targeted eyes, which rarely blink in the case of “deepfakes” like those created by FakeApp, because the AI is trained on still pictures. That method would seem to be less effective to spot the sort of forgeries created by Deep Video Portraits, which appears to flawlessly match the entire facial and head movements between the source and target actors.
“We believe that the field of digital forensics should and will receive a lot more attention in the future to develop approaches that can automatically prove the authenticity of a video clip,” Zollhöfer said. “This will lead to ever-better approaches that can spot such modifications even if we humans might not be able to spot them with our own eyes.
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