Tag Archives: inspiration

#434854 New Lifelike Biomaterial Self-Reproduces ...

Life demands flux.

Every living organism is constantly changing: cells divide and die, proteins build and disintegrate, DNA breaks and heals. Life demands metabolism—the simultaneous builder and destroyer of living materials—to continuously upgrade our bodies. That’s how we heal and grow, how we propagate and survive.

What if we could endow cold, static, lifeless robots with the gift of metabolism?

In a study published this month in Science Robotics, an international team developed a DNA-based method that gives raw biomaterials an artificial metabolism. Dubbed DASH—DNA-based assembly and synthesis of hierarchical materials—the method automatically generates “slime”-like nanobots that dynamically move and navigate their environments.

Like humans, the artificial lifelike material used external energy to constantly change the nanobots’ bodies in pre-programmed ways, recycling their DNA-based parts as both waste and raw material for further use. Some “grew” into the shape of molecular double-helixes; others “wrote” the DNA letters inside micro-chips.

The artificial life forms were also rather “competitive”—in quotes, because these molecular machines are not conscious. Yet when pitted against each other, two DASH bots automatically raced forward, crawling in typical slime-mold fashion at a scale easily seen under the microscope—and with some iterations, with the naked human eye.

“Fundamentally, we may be able to change how we create and use the materials with lifelike characteristics. Typically materials and objects we create in general are basically static… one day, we may be able to ‘grow’ objects like houses and maintain their forms and functions autonomously,” said study author Dr. Shogo Hamada to Singularity Hub.

“This is a great study that combines the versatility of DNA nanotechnology with the dynamics of living materials,” said Dr. Job Boekhoven at the Technical University of Munich, who was not involved in the work.

Dissipative Assembly
The study builds on previous ideas on how to make molecular Lego blocks that essentially assemble—and destroy—themselves.

Although the inspiration came from biological metabolism, scientists have long hoped to cut their reliance on nature. At its core, metabolism is just a bunch of well-coordinated chemical reactions, programmed by eons of evolution. So why build artificial lifelike materials still tethered by evolution when we can use chemistry to engineer completely new forms of artificial life?

Back in 2015, for example, a team led by Boekhoven described a way to mimic how our cells build their internal “structural beams,” aptly called the cytoskeleton. The key here, unlike many processes in nature, isn’t balance or equilibrium; rather, the team engineered an extremely unstable system that automatically builds—and sustains—assemblies from molecular building blocks when given an external source of chemical energy.

Sound familiar? The team basically built molecular devices that “die” without “food.” Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics (hey ya, Newton!), that energy eventually dissipates, and the shapes automatically begin to break down, completing an artificial “circle of life.”

The new study took the system one step further: rather than just mimicking synthesis, they completed the circle by coupling the building process with dissipative assembly.

Here, the “assembling units themselves are also autonomously created from scratch,” said Hamada.

DNA Nanobots
The process of building DNA nanobots starts on a microfluidic chip.

Decades of research have allowed researchers to optimize DNA assembly outside the body. With the help of catalysts, which help “bind” individual molecules together, the team found that they could easily alter the shape of the self-assembling DNA bots—which formed fiber-like shapes—by changing the structure of the microfluidic chambers.

Computer simulations played a role here too: through both digital simulations and observations under the microscope, the team was able to identify a few critical rules that helped them predict how their molecules self-assemble while navigating a maze of blocking “pillars” and channels carved onto the microchips.

This “enabled a general design strategy for the DASH patterns,” they said.

In particular, the whirling motion of the fluids as they coursed through—and bumped into—ridges in the chips seems to help the DNA molecules “entangle into networks,” the team explained.

These insights helped the team further develop the “destroying” part of metabolism. Similar to linking molecules into DNA chains, their destruction also relies on enzymes.

Once the team pumped both “generation” and “degeneration” enzymes into the microchips, along with raw building blocks, the process was completely autonomous. The simultaneous processes were so lifelike that the team used a metric commonly used in robotics, finite-state automation, to measure the behavior of their DNA nanobots from growth to eventual decay.

“The result is a synthetic structure with features associated with life. These behaviors include locomotion, self-regeneration, and spatiotemporal regulation,” said Boekhoven.

Molecular Slime Molds
Just witnessing lifelike molecules grow in place like the dance move running man wasn’t enough.

In their next experiments, the team took inspiration from slugs to program undulating movements into their DNA bots. Here, “movement” is actually a sort of illusion: the machines “moved” because their front ends kept regenerating, whereas their back ends degenerated. In essence, the molecular slime was built from linking multiple individual “DNA robot-like” units together: each unit receives a delayed “decay” signal from the head of the slime in a way that allowed the whole artificial “organism” to crawl forward, against the steam of fluid flow.

Here’s the fun part: the team eventually engineered two molecular slime bots and pitted them against each other, Mario Kart-style. In these experiments, the faster moving bot alters the state of its competitor to promote “decay.” This slows down the competitor, allowing the dominant DNA nanoslug to win in a race.

Of course, the end goal isn’t molecular podracing. Rather, the DNA-based bots could easily amplify a given DNA or RNA sequence, making them efficient nano-diagnosticians for viral and other infections.

The lifelike material can basically generate patterns that doctors can directly ‘see’ with their eyes, which makes DNA or RNA molecules from bacteria and viruses extremely easy to detect, the team said.

In the short run, “the detection device with this self-generating material could be applied to many places and help people on site, from farmers to clinics, by providing an easy and accurate way to detect pathogens,” explained Hamaga.

A Futuristic Iron Man Nanosuit?
I’m letting my nerd flag fly here. In Avengers: Infinity Wars, the scientist-engineer-philanthropist-playboy Tony Stark unveiled a nanosuit that grew to his contours when needed and automatically healed when damaged.

DASH may one day realize that vision. For now, the team isn’t focused on using the technology for regenerating armor—rather, the dynamic materials could create new protein assemblies or chemical pathways inside living organisms, for example. The team also envisions adding simple sensing and computing mechanisms into the material, which can then easily be thought of as a robot.

Unlike synthetic biology, the goal isn’t to create artificial life. Rather, the team hopes to give lifelike properties to otherwise static materials.

“We are introducing a brand-new, lifelike material concept powered by its very own artificial metabolism. We are not making something that’s alive, but we are creating materials that are much more lifelike than have ever been seen before,” said lead author Dr. Dan Luo.

“Ultimately, our material may allow the construction of self-reproducing machines… artificial metabolism is an important step toward the creation of ‘artificial’ biological systems with dynamic, lifelike capabilities,” added Hamada. “It could open a new frontier in robotics.”

Image Credit: A timelapse image of DASH, by Jeff Tyson at Cornell University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434786 AI Performed Like a Human on a Gestalt ...

Dr. Been Kim wants to rip open the black box of deep learning.

A senior researcher at Google Brain, Kim specializes in a sort of AI psychology. Like cognitive psychologists before her, she develops various ways to probe the alien minds of artificial neural networks (ANNs), digging into their gory details to better understand the models and their responses to inputs.

The more interpretable ANNs are, the reasoning goes, the easier it is to reveal potential flaws in their reasoning. And if we understand when or why our systems choke, we’ll know when not to use them—a foundation for building responsible AI.

There are already several ways to tap into ANN reasoning, but Kim’s inspiration for unraveling the AI black box came from an entirely different field: cognitive psychology. The field aims to discover fundamental rules of how the human mind—essentially also a tantalizing black box—operates, Kim wrote with her colleagues.

In a new paper uploaded to the pre-publication server arXiv, the team described a way to essentially perform a human cognitive test on ANNs. The test probes how we automatically complete gaps in what we see, so that they form entire objects—for example, perceiving a circle from a bunch of loose dots arranged along a clock face. Psychologist dub this the “law of completion,” a highly influential idea that led to explanations of how our minds generalize data into concepts.

Because deep neural networks in machine vision loosely mimic the structure and connections of the visual cortex, the authors naturally asked: do ANNs also exhibit the law of completion? And what does that tell us about how an AI thinks?

Enter the Germans
The law of completion is part of a series of ideas from Gestalt psychology. Back in the 1920s, long before the advent of modern neuroscience, a group of German experimental psychologists asked: in this chaotic, flashy, unpredictable world, how do we piece together input in a way that leads to meaningful perceptions?

The result is a group of principles known together as the Gestalt effect: that the mind self-organizes to form a global whole. In the more famous words of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, our perception forms a whole that’s “something else than the sum of its parts.” Not greater than; just different.

Although the theory has its critics, subsequent studies in humans and animals suggest that the law of completion happens on both the cognitive and neuroanatomical level.

Take a look at the drawing below. You immediately “see” a shape that’s actually the negative: a triangle or a square (A and B). Or you further perceive a 3D ball (C), or a snake-like squiggle (D). Your mind fills in blank spots, so that the final perception is more than just the black shapes you’re explicitly given.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons contributors, the free media repository.
Neuroscientists now think that the effect comes from how our visual system processes information. Arranged in multiple layers and columns, lower-level neurons—those first to wrangle the data—tend to extract simpler features such as lines or angles. In Gestalt speak, they “see” the parts.

Then, layer by layer, perception becomes more abstract, until higher levels of the visual system directly interpret faces or objects—or things that don’t really exist. That is, the “whole” emerges.

The Experiment Setup
Inspired by these classical experiments, Kim and team developed a protocol to test the Gestalt effect on feed-forward ANNs: one simple, the other, dubbed the “Inception V3,” far more complex and widely used in the machine vision community.

The main idea is similar to the triangle drawings above. First, the team generated three datasets: one set shows complete, ordinary triangles. The second—the “Illusory” set, shows triangles with the edges removed but the corners intact. Thanks to the Gestalt effect, to us humans these generally still look like triangles. The third set also only shows incomplete triangle corners. But here, the corners are randomly rotated so that we can no longer imagine a line connecting them—hence, no more triangle.

To generate a dataset large enough to tease out small effects, the authors changed the background color, image rotation, and other aspects of the dataset. In all, they produced nearly 1,000 images to test their ANNs on.

“At a high level, we compare an ANN’s activation similarities between the three sets of stimuli,” the authors explained. The process is two steps: first, train the AI on complete triangles. Second, test them on the datasets. If the response is more similar between the illusory set and the complete triangle—rather than the randomly rotated set—it should suggest a sort of Gestalt closure effect in the network.

Machine Gestalt
Right off the bat, the team got their answer: yes, ANNs do seem to exhibit the law of closure.

When trained on natural images, the networks better classified the illusory set as triangles than those with randomized connection weights or networks trained on white noise.

When the team dug into the “why,” things got more interesting. The ability to complete an image correlated with the network’s ability to generalize.

Humans subconsciously do this constantly: anything with a handle made out of ceramic, regardless of shape, could easily be a mug. ANNs still struggle to grasp common features—clues that immediately tells us “hey, that’s a mug!” But when they do, it sometimes allows the networks to better generalize.

“What we observe here is that a network that is able to generalize exhibits…more of the closure effect [emphasis theirs], hinting that the closure effect reflects something beyond simply learning features,” the team wrote.

What’s more, remarkably similar to the visual cortex, “higher” levels of the ANNs showed more of the closure effect than lower layers, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—the more layers a network had, the more it exhibited the closure effect.

As the networks learned, their ability to map out objects from fragments also improved. When the team messed around with the brightness and contrast of the images, the AI still learned to see the forest from the trees.

“Our findings suggest that neural networks trained with natural images do exhibit closure,” the team concluded.

AI Psychology
That’s not to say that ANNs recapitulate the human brain. As Google’s Deep Dream, an effort to coax AIs into spilling what they’re perceiving, clearly demonstrates, machine vision sees some truly weird stuff.

In contrast, because they’re modeled after the human visual cortex, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that these networks also exhibit higher-level properties inherent to how we process information.

But to Kim and her colleagues, that’s exactly the point.

“The field of psychology has developed useful tools and insights to study human brains– tools that we may be able to borrow to analyze artificial neural networks,” they wrote.

By tweaking these tools to better analyze machine minds, the authors were able to gain insight on how similarly or differently they see the world from us. And that’s the crux: the point isn’t to say that ANNs perceive the world sort of, kind of, maybe similar to humans. It’s to tap into a wealth of cognitive psychology tools, established over decades using human minds, to probe that of ANNs.

“The work here is just one step along a much longer path,” the authors conclude.

“Understanding where humans and neural networks differ will be helpful for research on interpretability by enlightening the fundamental differences between the two interesting species.”

Image Credit: Popova Alena / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434673 The World’s Most Valuable AI ...

It recognizes our faces. It knows the videos we might like. And it can even, perhaps, recommend the best course of action to take to maximize our personal health.

Artificial intelligence and its subset of disciplines—such as machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision—are seemingly becoming integrated into our daily lives whether we like it or not. What was once sci-fi is now ubiquitous research and development in company and university labs around the world.

Similarly, the startups working on many of these AI technologies have seen their proverbial stock rise. More than 30 of these companies are now valued at over a billion dollars, according to data research firm CB Insights, which itself employs algorithms to provide insights into the tech business world.

Private companies with a billion-dollar valuation were so uncommon not that long ago that they were dubbed unicorns. Now there are 325 of these once-rare creatures, with a combined valuation north of a trillion dollars, as CB Insights maintains a running count of this exclusive Unicorn Club.

The subset of AI startups accounts for about 10 percent of the total membership, growing rapidly in just 4 years from 0 to 32. Last year, an unprecedented 17 AI startups broke the billion-dollar barrier, with 2018 also a record year for venture capital into private US AI companies at $9.3 billion, CB Insights reported.

What exactly is all this money funding?

AI Keeps an Eye Out for You
Let’s start with the bad news first.

Facial recognition is probably one of the most ubiquitous applications of AI today. It’s actually a decades-old technology often credited to a man named Woodrow Bledsoe, who used an instrument called a RAND tablet that could semi-autonomously match faces from a database. That was in the 1960s.

Today, most of us are familiar with facial recognition as a way to unlock our smartphones. But the technology has gained notoriety as a surveillance tool of law enforcement, particularly in China.

It’s no secret that the facial recognition algorithms developed by several of the AI unicorns from China—SenseTime, CloudWalk, and Face++ (also known as Megvii)—are used to monitor the country’s 1.3 billion citizens. Police there are even equipped with AI-powered eyeglasses for such purposes.

A fourth billion-dollar Chinese startup, Yitu Technologies, also produces a platform for facial recognition in the security realm, and develops AI systems in healthcare on top of that. For example, its CARE.AITM Intelligent 4D Imaging System for Chest CT can reputedly identify in real time a variety of lesions for the possible early detection of cancer.

The AI Doctor Is In
As Peter Diamandis recently noted, AI is rapidly augmenting healthcare and longevity. He mentioned another AI unicorn from China in this regard—iCarbonX, which plans to use machines to develop personalized health plans for every individual.

A couple of AI unicorns on the hardware side of healthcare are OrCam Technologies and Butterfly. The former, an Israeli company, has developed a wearable device for the vision impaired called MyEye that attaches to one’s eyeglasses. The device can identify people and products, as well as read text, conveying the information through discrete audio.

Butterfly Network, out of Connecticut, has completely upended the healthcare market with a handheld ultrasound machine that works with a smartphone.

“Orcam and Butterfly are amazing examples of how machine learning can be integrated into solutions that provide a step-function improvement over state of the art in ultra-competitive markets,” noted Andrew Byrnes, investment director at Comet Labs, a venture capital firm focused on AI and robotics, in an email exchange with Singularity Hub.

AI in the Driver’s Seat
Comet Labs’ portfolio includes two AI unicorns, Megvii and Pony.ai.

The latter is one of three billion-dollar startups developing the AI technology behind self-driving cars, with the other two being Momenta.ai and Zoox.

Founded in 2016 near San Francisco (with another headquarters in China), Pony.ai debuted its latest self-driving system, called PonyAlpha, last year. The platform uses multiple sensors (LiDAR, cameras, and radar) to navigate its environment, but its “sensor fusion technology” makes things simple by choosing the most reliable sensor data for any given driving scenario.

Zoox is another San Francisco area startup founded a couple of years earlier. In late 2018, it got the green light from the state of California to be the first autonomous vehicle company to transport a passenger as part of a pilot program. Meanwhile, China-based Momenta.ai is testing level four autonomy for its self-driving system. Autonomous driving levels are ranked zero to five, with level five being equal to a human behind the wheel.

The hype around autonomous driving is currently in overdrive, and Byrnes thinks regulatory roadblocks will keep most self-driving cars in idle for the foreseeable future. The exception, he said, is China, which is adopting a “systems” approach to autonomy for passenger transport.

“If [autonomous mobility] solves bigger problems like traffic that can elicit government backing, then that has the potential to go big fast,” he said. “This is why we believe Pony.ai will be a winner in the space.”

AI in the Back Office
An AI-powered technology that perhaps only fans of the cult classic Office Space might appreciate has suddenly taken the business world by storm—robotic process automation (RPA).

RPA companies take the mundane back office work, such as filling out invoices or processing insurance claims, and turn it over to bots. The intelligent part comes into play because these bots can tackle unstructured data, such as text in an email or even video and pictures, in order to accomplish an increasing variety of tasks.

Both Automation Anywhere and UiPath are older companies, founded in 2003 and 2005, respectively. However, since just 2017, they have raised nearly a combined $1 billion in disclosed capital.

Cybersecurity Embraces AI
Cybersecurity is another industry where AI is driving investment into startups. Sporting imposing names like CrowdStrike, Darktrace, and Tanium, these cybersecurity companies employ different machine-learning techniques to protect computers and other IT assets beyond the latest software update or virus scan.

Darktrace, for instance, takes its inspiration from the human immune system. Its algorithms can purportedly “learn” the unique pattern of each device and user on a network, detecting emerging problems before things spin out of control.

All three companies are used by major corporations and governments around the world. CrowdStrike itself made headlines a few years ago when it linked the hacking of the Democratic National Committee email servers to the Russian government.

Looking Forward
I could go on, and introduce you to the world’s most valuable startup, a Chinese company called Bytedance that is valued at $75 billion for news curation and an app to create 15-second viral videos. But that’s probably not where VC firms like Comet Labs are generally putting their money.

Byrnes sees real value in startups that are taking “data-driven approaches to problems specific to unique industries.” Take the example of Chicago-based unicorn Uptake Technologies, which analyzes incoming data from machines, from wind turbines to tractors, to predict problems before they occur with the machinery. A not-yet unicorn called PingThings in the Comet Labs portfolio does similar predictive analytics for the energy utilities sector.

“One question we like asking is, ‘What does the state of the art look like in your industry in three to five years?’” Byrnes said. “We ask that a lot, then we go out and find the technology-focused teams building those things.”

Image Credit: Andrey Suslov / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434643 Sensors and Machine Learning Are Giving ...

According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.

This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.

Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.

Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.

Piecemeal Solutions
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?

New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.

The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.

“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”

The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.

In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.

Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.

Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.

They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.

Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.

Damage Control
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.

Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.

But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.

Image Credit: jumbojan / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434336 These Smart Seafaring Robots Have a ...

Drones. Self-driving cars. Flying robo taxis. If the headlines of the last few years are to be believed, terrestrial transportation in the future will someday be filled with robotic conveyances and contraptions that will require little input from a human other than to download an app.

But what about the other 70 percent of the planet’s surface—the part that’s made up of water?

Sure, there are underwater drones that can capture 4K video for the next BBC documentary. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are capable of diving down thousands of meters to investigate ocean vents or repair industrial infrastructure.

Yet most of the robots on or below the water today still lean heavily on the human element to operate. That’s not surprising given the unstructured environment of the seas and the poor communication capabilities for anything moving below the waves. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are probably the closest thing today to smart cars in the ocean, but they generally follow pre-programmed instructions.

A new generation of seafaring robots—leveraging artificial intelligence, machine vision, and advanced sensors, among other technologies—are beginning to plunge into the ocean depths. Here are some of the latest and most exciting ones.

The Transformer of the Sea
Nic Radford, chief technology officer of Houston Mechatronics Inc. (HMI), is hesitant about throwing around the word “autonomy” when talking about his startup’s star creation, Aquanaut. He prefers the term “shared control.”

Whatever you want to call it, Aquanaut seems like something out of the script of a Transformers movie. The underwater robot begins each mission in a submarine-like shape, capable of autonomously traveling up to 200 kilometers on battery power, depending on the assignment.

When Aquanaut reaches its destination—oil and gas is the primary industry HMI hopes to disrupt to start—its four specially-designed and built linear actuators go to work. Aquanaut then unfolds into a robot with a head, upper torso, and two manipulator arms, all while maintaining proper buoyancy to get its job done.

The lightbulb moment of how to engineer this transformation from submarine to robot came one day while Aquanaut’s engineers were watching the office’s stand-up desks bob up and down. The answer to the engineering challenge of the hull suddenly seemed obvious.

“We’re just gonna build a big, gigantic, underwater stand-up desk,” Radford told Singularity Hub.

Hardware wasn’t the only problem the team, comprised of veteran NASA roboticists like Radford, had to solve. In order to ditch the expensive support vessels and large teams of humans required to operate traditional ROVs, Aquanaut would have to be able to sense its environment in great detail and relay that information back to headquarters using an underwater acoustics communications system that harkens back to the days of dial-up internet connections.

To tackle that problem of low bandwidth, HMI equipped Aquanaut with a machine vision system comprised of acoustic, optical, and laser-based sensors. All of that dense data is compressed using in-house designed technology and transmitted to a single human operator who controls Aquanaut with a few clicks of a mouse. In other words, no joystick required.

“I don’t know of anyone trying to do this level of autonomy as it relates to interacting with the environment,” Radford said.

HMI got $20 million earlier this year in Series B funding co-led by Transocean, one of the world’s largest offshore drilling contractors. That should be enough money to finish the Aquanaut prototype, which Radford said is about 99.8 percent complete. Some “high-profile” demonstrations are planned for early next year, with commercial deployments as early as 2020.

“What just gives us an incredible advantage here is that we have been born and bred on doing robotic systems for remote locations,” Radford noted. “This is my life, and I’ve bet the farm on it, and it takes this kind of fortitude and passion to see these things through, because these are not easy problems to solve.”

On Cruise Control
Meanwhile, a Boston-based startup is trying to solve the problem of making ships at sea autonomous. Sea Machines is backed by about $12.5 million in capital venture funding, with Toyota AI joining the list of investors in a $10 million Series A earlier this month.

Sea Machines is looking to the self-driving industry for inspiration, developing what it calls “vessel intelligence” systems that can be retrofitted on existing commercial vessels or installed on newly-built working ships.

For instance, the startup announced a deal earlier this year with Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, to deploy a system of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and LiDAR on the Danish company’s new ice-class container ship. The technology works similar to advanced driver-assistance systems found in automobiles to avoid hazards. The proof of concept will lay the foundation for a future autonomous collision avoidance system.

It’s not just startups making a splash in autonomous shipping. Radford noted that Rolls Royce—yes, that Rolls Royce—is leading the way in the development of autonomous ships. Its Intelligence Awareness system pulls in nearly every type of hyped technology on the market today: neural networks, augmented reality, virtual reality, and LiDAR.

In augmented reality mode, for example, a live feed video from the ship’s sensors can detect both static and moving objects, overlaying the scene with details about the types of vessels in the area, as well as their distance, heading, and other pertinent data.

While safety is a primary motivation for vessel automation—more than 1,100 ships have been lost over the past decade—these new technologies could make ships more efficient and less expensive to operate, according to a story in Wired about the Rolls Royce Intelligence Awareness system.

Sea Hunt Meets Science
As Singularity Hub noted in a previous article, ocean robots can also play a critical role in saving the seas from environmental threats. One poster child that has emerged—or, invaded—is the spindly lionfish.

A venomous critter endemic to the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish is now found up and down the east coast of North America and beyond. And it is voracious, eating up to 30 times its own stomach volume and reducing juvenile reef fish populations by nearly 90 percent in as little as five weeks, according to the Ocean Support Foundation.

That has made the colorful but deadly fish Public Enemy No. 1 for many marine conservationists. Both researchers and startups are developing autonomous robots to hunt down the invasive predator.

At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for example, students are building a spear-carrying robot that uses machine learning and computer vision to distinguish lionfish from other aquatic species. The students trained the algorithms on thousands of different images of lionfish. The result: a lionfish-killing machine that boasts an accuracy of greater than 95 percent.

Meanwhile, a small startup called the American Marine Research Corporation out of Pensacola, Florida is applying similar technology to seek and destroy lionfish. Rather than spearfishing, the AMRC drone would stun and capture the lionfish, turning a profit by selling the creatures to local seafood restaurants.

Lionfish: It’s what’s for dinner.

Water Bots
A new wave of smart, independent robots are diving, swimming, and cruising across the ocean and its deepest depths. These autonomous systems aren’t necessarily designed to replace humans, but to venture where we can’t go or to improve safety at sea. And, perhaps, these latest innovations may inspire the robots that will someday plumb the depths of watery planets far from Earth.

Image Credit: Houston Mechatronics, Inc. Continue reading

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