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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.
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.
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.
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With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it’s a great time to reflect on the future of food. Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise in exponential technologies transforming the food industry from seed to plate. Food is important in many ways—too little or too much of it can kill us, and it is often at the heart of family, culture, our daily routines, and our biggest celebrations. The agriculture and food industries are also two of the world’s biggest employers. Let’s take a look to see what is in store for the future.
Over the last few years, we have seen a number of new companies emerge in the robotic farming industry. This includes new types of farming equipment used in arable fields, as well as indoor robotic vertical farms. In November 2017, Hands Free Hectare became the first in the world to remotely grow an arable crop. They used autonomous tractors to sow and spray crops, small rovers to take soil samples, drones to monitor crop growth, and an unmanned combine harvester to collect the crops. Since then, they’ve also grown and harvested a field of winter wheat, and have been adding additional technologies and capabilities to their arsenal of robotic farming equipment.
Indoor vertical farming is also rapidly expanding. As Engadget reported in October 2018, a number of startups are now growing crops like leafy greens, tomatoes, flowers, and herbs. These farms can grow food in urban areas, reducing transport, water, and fertilizer costs, and often don’t need pesticides since they are indoors. IronOx, which is using robots to grow plants with navigation technology used by self-driving cars, can grow 30 times more food per acre of land using 90 percent less water than traditional farmers. Vertical farming company Plenty was recently funded by Softbank’s Vision Fund, Jeff Bezos, and others to build 300 vertical farms in China.
These startups are not only succeeding in wealthy countries. Hello Tractor, an “uberized” tractor, has worked with 250,000 smallholder farms in Africa, creating both food security and tech-infused agriculture jobs. The World Food Progam’s Innovation Accelerator (an impact partner of Singularity University) works with hundreds of startups aimed at creating zero hunger. One project is focused on supporting refugees in developing “food computers” in refugee camps—computerized devices that grow food while also adjusting to the conditions around them. As exponential trends drive down the costs of robotics, sensors, software, and energy, we should see robotic farming scaling around the world and becoming the main way farming takes place.
Exponential technologies are not only revolutionizing how we grow vegetables and grains, but also how we generate protein and meat. The new cultured meat industry is rapidly expanding, led by startups such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, JUST Meat, Inc. and Finless Foods, and backed by heavyweight investors including DFJ, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and Tyson Foods.
Cultured meat is grown in a bioreactor using cells from an animal, a scaffold, and a culture. The process is humane and, potentially, scientists can make the meat healthier by adding vitamins, removing fat, or customizing it to an individual’s diet and health concerns. Another benefit is that cultured meats, if grown at scale, would dramatically reduce environmental destruction, pollution, and climate change caused by the livestock and fishing industries. Similar to vertical farms, cultured meat is produced using technology and can be grown anywhere, on-demand and in a decentralized way.
Similar to robotic farming equipment, bioreactors will also follow exponential trends, rapidly falling in cost. In fact, the first cultured meat hamburger (created by Singularity University faculty Member Mark Post of Mosa Meats in 2013) cost $350,000 dollars. In 2018, Fast Company reported the cost was now about $11 per burger, and the Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies predicted they will produce beef at about $2 per pound in 2020, which will be competitive with existing prices. For those who have turkey on their mind, one can read about New Harvest’s work (one of the leading think tanks and research centers for the cultured meat and cellular agriculture industry) in funding efforts to generate a nugget of cultured turkey meat.
One outstanding question is whether cultured meat is safe to eat and how it will interact with the overall food supply chain. In the US, regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working out their roles in this process, with the FDA overseeing the cellular process and the FDA overseeing production and labeling.
Tech companies are also making great headway in streamlining food processing. Norwegian company Tomra Foods was an early leader in using imaging recognition, sensors, artificial intelligence, and analytics to more efficiently sort food based on shape, composition of fat, protein, and moisture, and other food safety and quality indicators. Their technologies have improved food yield by 5-10 percent, which is significant given they own 25 percent of their market.
These advances are also not limited to large food companies. In 2016 Google reported how a small family farm in Japan built a world-class cucumber sorting device using their open-source machine learning tool TensorFlow. SU startup Impact Vision uses hyper-spectral imaging to analyze food quality, which increases revenues and reduces food waste and product recalls from contamination.
These examples point to a question many have on their mind: will we live in a future where a few large companies use advanced technologies to grow the majority of food on the planet, or will the falling costs of these technologies allow family farms, startups, and smaller players to take part in creating a decentralized system? Currently, the future could flow either way, but it is important for smaller companies to take advantage of the most cutting-edge technology in order to stay competitive.
Food Purchasing and Delivery
In the last year, we have also seen a number of new developments in technology improving access to food. Amazon Go is opening grocery stores in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago where customers use an app that allows them to pick up their products and pay without going through cashier lines. Sam’s Club is not far behind, with an app that also allows a customer to purchase goods in-store.
The market for food delivery is also growing. In 2017, Morgan Stanley estimated that the online food delivery market from restaurants could grow to $32 billion by 2021, from $12 billion in 2017. Companies like Zume are pioneering robot-powered pizza making and delivery. In addition to using robotics to create affordable high-end gourmet pizzas in their shop, they also have a pizza delivery truck that can assemble and cook pizzas while driving. Their system combines predictive analytics using past customer data to prepare pizzas for certain neighborhoods before the orders even come in. In early November 2018, the Wall Street Journal estimated that Zume is valued at up to $2.25 billion.
While each of these developments is promising on its own, it’s also important to note that since all these technologies are in some way digitized and connected to the internet, the various food tech players can collaborate. In theory, self-driving delivery restaurants could share data on what they are selling to their automated farm equipment, facilitating coordination of future crops. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve efficiency, lower costs, and create an abundance of healthy, sustainable food for all.
On the other hand, these technologies are also deeply disruptive. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 2010 about one billion people, or a third of the world’s workforce, worked in the farming and agricultural industries. We need to ensure these farmers are linked to new job opportunities, as well as facilitate collaboration between existing farming companies and technologists so that the industries can continue to grow and lead rather than be displaced.
Just as importantly, each of us might think about how these changes in the food industry might impact our own ways of life and culture. Thanksgiving celebrates community and sharing of food during a time of scarcity. Technology will help create an abundance of food and less need for communities to depend on one another. What are the ways that you will create community, sharing, and culture in this new world?
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