Tag Archives: international

#436911 Scientists Linked Artificial and ...

Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls a living, biological one, and passes on the info to another artificial one.


We’ve talked plenty about brain-computer interfaces and novel computer chips that resemble the brain. We’ve covered how those “neuromorphic” chips could link up into tremendously powerful computing entities, using engineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.

As Moore’s law is dying, we even said that neuromorphic computing is one path towards the future of extremely powerful, low energy consumption artificial neural network-based computing—in hardware—that could in theory better link up with the brain. Because the chips “speak” the brain’s language, in theory they could become neuroprosthesis hubs far more advanced and “natural” than anything currently possible.

This month, an international team put all of those ingredients together, turning theory into reality.

The three labs, scattered across Padova, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Southampton, England, collaborated to create a fully self-controlled, hybrid artificial-biological neural network that communicated using biological principles, but over the internet.

The three-neuron network, linked through artificial synapses that emulate the real thing, was able to reproduce a classic neuroscience experiment that’s considered the basis of learning and memory in the brain. In other words, artificial neuron and synapse “chips” have progressed to the point where they can actually use a biological neuron intermediary to form a circuit that, at least partially, behaves like the real thing.

That’s not to say cyborg brains are coming soon. The simulation only recreated a small network that supports excitatory transmission in the hippocampus—a critical region that supports memory—and most brain functions require enormous cross-talk between numerous neurons and circuits. Nevertheless, the study is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far we’ve come in recreating biological neurons and synapses in artificial hardware.

And perhaps one day, the currently “experimental” neuromorphic hardware will be integrated into broken biological neural circuits as bridges to restore movement, memory, personality, and even a sense of self.

The Artificial Brain Boom
One important thing: this study relies heavily on a decade of research into neuromorphic computing, or the implementation of brain functions inside computer chips.

The best-known example is perhaps IBM’s TrueNorth, which leveraged the brain’s computational principles to build a completely different computer than what we have today. Today’s computers run on a von Neumann architecture, in which memory and processing modules are physically separate. In contrast, the brain’s computing and memory are simultaneously achieved at synapses, small “hubs” on individual neurons that talk to adjacent ones.

Because memory and processing occur on the same site, biological neurons don’t have to shuttle data back and forth between processing and storage compartments, massively reducing processing time and energy use. What’s more, a neuron’s history will also influence how it behaves in the future, increasing flexibility and adaptability compared to computers. With the rise of deep learning, which loosely mimics neural processing as the prima donna of AI, the need to reduce power while boosting speed and flexible learning is becoming ever more tantamount in the AI community.

Neuromorphic computing was partially born out of this need. Most chips utilize special ingredients that change their resistance (or other physical characteristics) to mimic how a neuron might adapt to stimulation. Some chips emulate a whole neuron, that is, how it responds to a history of stimulation—does it get easier or harder to fire? Others imitate synapses themselves, that is, how easily they will pass on the information to another neuron.

Although single neuromorphic chips have proven to be far more efficient and powerful than current computer chips running machine learning algorithms in toy problems, so far few people have tried putting the artificial components together with biological ones in the ultimate test.

That’s what this study did.

A Hybrid Network
Still with me? Let’s talk network.

It’s gonna sound complicated, but remember: learning is the formation of neural networks, and neurons that fire together wire together. To rephrase: when learning, neurons will spontaneously organize into networks so that future instances will re-trigger the entire network. To “wire” together, downstream neurons will become more responsive to their upstream neural partners, so that even a whisper will cause them to activate. In contrast, some types of stimulation will cause the downstream neuron to “chill out” so that only an upstream “shout” will trigger downstream activation.

Both these properties—easier or harder to activate downstream neurons—are essentially how the brain forms connections. The “amping up,” in neuroscience jargon, is long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas the down-tuning is LTD (long-term depression). These two phenomena were first discovered in the rodent hippocampus more than half a century ago, and ever since have been considered as the biological basis of how the brain learns and remembers, and implicated in neurological problems such as addition (seriously, you can’t pass Neuro 101 without learning about LTP and LTD!).

So it’s perhaps especially salient that one of the first artificial-brain hybrid networks recapitulated this classic result.

To visualize: the three-neuron network began in Switzerland, with an artificial neuron with the badass name of “silicon spiking neuron.” That neuron is linked to an artificial synapse, a “memristor” located in the UK, which is then linked to a biological rat neuron cultured in Italy. The rat neuron has a “smart” microelectrode, controlled by the artificial synapse, to stimulate it. This is the artificial-to-biological pathway.

Meanwhile, the rat neuron in Italy also has electrodes that listen in on its electrical signaling. This signaling is passed back to another artificial synapse in the UK, which is then used to control a second artificial neuron back in Switzerland. This is the biological-to-artificial pathway back. As a testimony in how far we’ve come in digitizing neural signaling, all of the biological neural responses are digitized and sent over the internet to control its far-out artificial partner.

Here’s the crux: to demonstrate a functional neural network, just having the biological neuron passively “pass on” electrical stimulation isn’t enough. It has to show the capacity to learn, that is, to be able to mimic the amping up and down-tuning that are LTP and LTD, respectively.

You’ve probably guessed the results: certain stimulation patterns to the first artificial neuron in Switzerland changed how the artificial synapse in the UK operated. This, in turn, changed the stimulation to the biological neuron, so that it either amped up or toned down depending on the input.

Similarly, the response of the biological neuron altered the second artificial synapse, which then controlled the output of the second artificial neuron. Altogether, the biological and artificial components seamlessly linked up, over thousands of miles, into a functional neural circuit.

Cyborg Mind-Meld
So…I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.

It’s utterly insane seeing a classic neuroscience learning experiment repeated with an integrated network with artificial components. That said, a three-neuron network is far from the thousands of synapses (if not more) needed to truly re-establish a broken neural circuit in the hippocampus, which DARPA has been aiming to do. And LTP/LTD has come under fire recently as the de facto brain mechanism for learning, though so far they remain cemented as neuroscience dogma.

However, this is one of the few studies where you see fields coming together. As Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot recreate, I cannot understand.” Even though neuromorphic chips were built on a high-level rather than molecular-level understanding of how neurons work, the study shows that artificial versions can still synapse with their biological counterparts. We’re not just on the right path towards understanding the brain, we’re recreating it, in hardware—if just a little.

While the study doesn’t have immediate use cases, practically it does boost both the neuromorphic computing and neuroprosthetic fields.

“We are very excited with this new development,” said study author Dr. Themis Prodromakis at the University of Southampton. “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#436526 Not Bot, Not Beast: Scientists Create ...

A remarkable combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and biology has produced the world’s first “living robots.”

This week, a research team of roboticists and scientists published their recipe for making a new lifeform called xenobots from stem cells. The term “xeno” comes from the frog cells (Xenopus laevis) used to make them.

One of the researchers described the creation as “neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal,” but a “new class of artifact: a living, programmable organism.”

Xenobots are less than 1 millimeter long and made of 500-1,000 living cells. They have various simple shapes, including some with squat “legs.” They can propel themselves in linear or circular directions, join together to act collectively, and move small objects. Using their own cellular energy, they can live up to 10 days.

While these “reconfigurable biomachines” could vastly improve human, animal, and environmental health, they raise legal and ethical concerns.

Strange New ‘Creature’
To make xenobots, the research team used a supercomputer to test thousands of random designs of simple living things that could perform certain tasks.

The computer was programmed with an AI “evolutionary algorithm” to predict which organisms would likely display useful tasks, such as moving towards a target.

After the selection of the most promising designs, the scientists attempted to replicate the virtual models with frog skin or heart cells, which were manually joined using microsurgery tools. The heart cells in these bespoke assemblies contract and relax, giving the organisms motion.

The creation of xenobots is groundbreaking. Despite being described as “programmable living robots,” they are actually completely organic and made of living tissue. The term “robot” has been used because xenobots can be configured into different forms and shapes, and “programmed” to target certain objects, which they then unwittingly seek. They can also repair themselves after being damaged.

Possible Applications
Xenobots may have great value. Some speculate they could be used to clean our polluted oceans by collecting microplastics. Similarly, they may be used to enter confined or dangerous areas to scavenge toxins or radioactive materials. Xenobots designed with carefully shaped “pouches” might be able to carry drugs into human bodies.

Future versions may be built from a patient’s own cells to repair tissue or target cancers. Being biodegradable, xenobots would have an edge on technologies made of plastic or metal.

Further development of biological “robots” could accelerate our understanding of living and robotic systems. Life is incredibly complex, so manipulating living things could reveal some of life’s mysteries—and improve our use of AI.

Legal and Ethical Questions
Conversely, xenobots raise legal and ethical concerns. In the same way they could help target cancers, they could also be used to hijack life functions for malevolent purposes.

Some argue artificially making living things is unnatural, hubristic, or involves “playing God.” A more compelling concern is that of unintended or malicious use, as we have seen with technologies in fields including nuclear physics, chemistry, biology and AI. For instance, xenobots might be used for hostile biological purposes prohibited under international law.

More advanced future xenobots, especially ones that live longer and reproduce, could potentially “malfunction” and go rogue, and out-compete other species.

For complex tasks, xenobots may need sensory and nervous systems, possibly resulting in their sentience. A sentient programmed organism would raise additional ethical questions. Last year, the revival of a disembodied pig brain elicited concerns about different species’ suffering.

Managing Risks
The xenobot’s creators have rightly acknowledged the need for discussion around the ethics of their creation. The 2018 scandal over using CRISPR (which allows the introduction of genes into an organism) may provide an instructive lesson here. While the experiment’s goal was to reduce the susceptibility of twin baby girls to HIV-AIDS, associated risks caused ethical dismay. The scientist in question is in prison.

When CRISPR became widely available, some experts called for a moratorium on heritable genome editing. Others argued the benefits outweighed the risks.

While each new technology should be considered impartially and based on its merits, giving life to xenobots raises certain significant questions:

Should xenobots have biological kill-switches in case they go rogue?
Who should decide who can access and control them?
What if “homemade” xenobots become possible? Should there be a moratorium until regulatory frameworks are established? How much regulation is required?

Lessons learned in the past from advances in other areas of science could help manage future risks, while reaping the possible benefits.

Long Road Here, Long Road Ahead
The creation of xenobots had various biological and robotic precedents. Genetic engineering has created genetically modified mice that become fluorescent in UV light.

Designer microbes can produce drugs and food ingredients that may eventually replace animal agriculture. In 2012, scientists created an artificial jellyfish called a “medusoid” from rat cells.

Robotics is also flourishing. Nanobots can monitor people’s blood sugar levels and may eventually be able to clear clogged arteries. Robots can incorporate living matter, which we witnessed when engineers and biologists created a sting-ray robot powered by light-activated cells.

In the coming years, we are sure to see more creations like xenobots that evoke both wonder and due concern. And when we do, it is important we remain both open-minded and critical.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Posted in Human Robots

#436507 The Weird, the Wacky, the Just Plain ...

As you know if you’ve ever been to, heard of, or read about the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, there’s no shortage of tech in any form: gadgets, gizmos, and concepts abound. You probably couldn’t see them all in a month even if you spent all day every day trying.

Given the sheer scale of the show, the number of exhibitors, and the inherent subjectivity of bestowing superlatives, it’s hard to pick out the coolest tech from CES. But I’m going to do it anyway; in no particular order, here are some of the products and concepts that I personally found most intriguing at this year’s event.

e-Novia’s Haptic Gloves
Italian startup e-Novia’s Weart glove uses a ‘sensing core’ to record tactile sensations and an ‘actuation core’ to reproduce those sensations onto the wearer’s skin. Haptic gloves will bring touch to VR and AR experiences, making them that much more life-like. The tech could also be applied to digitization of materials and in gaming and entertainment.

e-Novia’s modular haptic glove
I expected a full glove, but in fact there were two rings that attached to my fingers. Weart co-founder Giovanni Spagnoletti explained that they’re taking a modular approach, so as to better tailor the technology to different experiences. He then walked me through a virtual reality experience that was a sort of simulated science experiment: I had to lift a glass beaker, place it on a stove, pour in an ingredient, open a safe to access some dry ice, add that, and so on. As I went through the steps, I felt the beaker heat up and cool off at the expected times, and felt the liquid moving inside, as well as the pressure of my fingertips against the numbered buttons on the safe.

A virtual (but tactile) science experiment
There was a slight delay between my taking an action and feeling the corresponding tactile sensation, but on the whole, the haptic glove definitely made the experience more realistic—and more fun. Slightly less fun but definitely more significant, Spagnoletti told me Weart is working with a medical group to bring tactile sensations to VR training for surgeons.

Sarcos Robotics’ Exoskeleton
That tire may as well be a feather
Sarcos Robotics unveiled its Guardian XO full-body exoskeleton, which it says can safely lift up to 200 pounds across an extended work session. What’s cool about this particular exoskeleton is that it’s not just a prototype; the company announced a partnership with Delta airlines, which will be trialing the technology for aircraft maintenance, engine repair, and luggage handling. In a demo, I watched a petite female volunteer strap into the exoskeleton and easily lift a 50-pound weight with one hand, and a Sarcos employee lift and attach a heavy component of a propeller; she explained that the strength-augmenting function of the exoskeleton can easily be switched on or off—and the wearer’s hands released—to facilitate multi-step tasks.

Hyundai’s Flying Taxi
Where to?
Hyundai and Uber partnered to unveil an air taxi concept. With a 49-foot wingspan, 4 lift rotors, and 4 tilt rotors, the aircraft would be manned by a pilot and could carry 4 passengers at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. The companies say you’ll be able to ride across your city in one of these by 2030—we’ll see if the regulatory environment, public opinion, and other factors outside of technological capability let that happen.

Mercedes’ Avatar Concept Car
Welcome to the future
As evident from its name, Mercedes’ sweet new Vision AVTR concept car was inspired by the movie Avatar; director James Cameron helped design it. The all-electric car has no steering wheel, transparent doors, seats made of vegan leather, and 33 reptilian-scale-like flaps on the back; its design is meant to connect the driver with both the car and the surrounding environment in a natural, seamless way.

Next-generation scrolling
Offered the chance to ‘drive’ the car, I jumped on it. Placing my hand on the center console started the engine, and within seconds it had synced to my heartbeat, which reverberated through the car. The whole dashboard, from driver door to passenger door, is one big LED display. It showed a virtual landscape I could select by holding up my hand: as I moved my hand from left to right, different images were projected onto my open palm. Closing my hand on an image selected it, and suddenly it looked like I was in the middle of a lush green mountain range. Applying slight forward pressure on the center console made the car advance in the virtual landscape; it was essentially like playing a really cool video game.

Mercedes is aiming to have a carbon-neutral production fleet by 2039, and to reduce the amount of energy it uses during production by 40 percent by 2030. It’s unclear when—or whether—the man-machine-nature connecting features of the Vision AVTR will start showing up in production, but I for one will be on the lookout.

Waverly Labs’ In-Ear Translator
Waverly Labs unveiled its Ambassador translator earlier this year and has it on display at the show. It’s worn on the ear and uses a far-field microphone array with speech recognition to translate real-time conversations in 20 different languages. Besides in-ear audio, translations can also appear as text on an app or be broadcast live in a conference environment.

It’s kind of like a giant talking earring
I stopped by the booth and tested out the translator with Waverly senior software engineer Georgiy Konovalov. We each hooked on an earpiece, and first, he spoke to me in Russian. After a delay of a couple seconds, I heard his words in—slightly robotic, but fully comprehensible—English. Then we switched: I spoke to him in Spanish, my words popped up on his phone screen in Cyrillic, and he translated them back to English for me out loud.

On the whole, the demo was pretty cool. If you’ve ever been lost in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak, imagine how handy a gadget like this would come in. Let’s just hope that once they’re more widespread, these products don’t end up discouraging people from learning languages.

Not to be outdone, Google also announced updates to its Translate product, which is being deployed at information desks in JFK airport’s international terminal, in sports stadiums in Qatar, and by some large hotel chains.

Stratuscent’s Digital Nose
AI is making steady progress towards achieving human-like vision and hearing—but there’s been less work done on mimicking our sense of smell (maybe because it’s less useful in everyday applications). Stratuscent’s digital nose, which it says is based on NASA patents, uses chemical receptors and AI to identify both simple chemicals and complex scents. The company is aiming to create the world’s first comprehensive database of everyday scents, which it says it will use to make “intelligent decisions” for customers. What kind of decisions remains to be seen—and smelled.

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Posted in Human Robots

#436403 Why Your 5G Phone Connection Could Mean ...

Will getting full bars on your 5G connection mean getting caught out by sudden weather changes?

The question may strike you as hypothetical, nonsensical even, but it is at the core of ongoing disputes between meteorologists and telecommunications companies. Everyone else, including you and I, are caught in the middle, wanting both 5G’s faster connection speeds and precise information about our increasingly unpredictable weather. So why can’t we have both?

Perhaps we can, but because of the way 5G networks function, it may take some special technology—specifically, artificial intelligence.

The Bandwidth Worries
Around the world, the first 5G networks are already being rolled out. The networks use a variety of frequencies to transmit data to and from devices at speeds up to 100 times faster than existing 4G networks.

One of the bandwidths used is between 24.25 and 24.45 gigahertz (GHz). In a recent FCC auction, telecommunications companies paid a combined $2 billion for the 5G usage rights for this spectrum in the US.

However, meteorologists are concerned that transmissions near the lower end of that range can interfere with their ability to accurately measure water vapor in the atmosphere. Wired reported that acting chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Neil Jacobs, told the US House Subcommittee on the Environment that 5G interference could substantially cut the amount of weather data satellites can gather. As a result, forecast accuracy could drop by as much as 30 percent.

Among the consequences could be less time to prepare for hurricanes, and it may become harder to predict storms’ paths. Due to the interconnectedness of weather patterns, measurement issues in one location can affect other areas too. Lack of accurate atmospheric data from the US could, for example, lead to less accurate forecasts for weather patterns over Europe.

The Numbers Game
Water vapor emits a faint signal at 23.8 GHz. Weather satellites measure the signals, and the data is used to gauge atmospheric humidity levels. Meteorologists have expressed concern that 5G signals in the same range can disturb those readings. The issue is that it would be nigh on impossible to tell whether a signal is water vapor or an errant 5G signal.

Furthermore, 5G disturbances in other frequency bands could make forecasting even more difficult. Rain and snow emit frequencies around 36-37 GHz. 50.2-50.4 GHz is used to measure atmospheric temperatures, and 86-92 GHz clouds and ice. All of the above are under consideration for international 5G signals. Some have warned that the wider consequences could set weather forecasts back to the 1980s.

Telecommunications companies and interest organizations have argued back, saying that weather sensors aren’t as susceptible to interference as meteorologists fear. Furthermore, 5G devices and signals will produce much less interference with weather forecasts than organizations like NOAA predict. Since very little scientific research has been carried out to examine the claims of either party, we seem stuck in a ‘wait and see’ situation.

To offset some of the possible effects, the two groups have tried to reach a consensus on a noise buffer between the 5G transmissions and water-vapor signals. It could be likened to limiting the noise from busy roads or loud sound systems to avoid bothering neighboring buildings.

The World Meteorological Organization was looking to establish a -55 decibel watts buffer. In Europe, regulators are locked in on a -42 decibel watts buffer for 5G base stations. For comparison, the US Federal Communications Commission has advocated for a -20 decibel watts buffer, which would, in reality, allow more than 150 times more noise than the European proposal.

How AI Could Help
Much of the conversation about 5G’s possible influence on future weather predictions is centered around mobile phones. However, the phones are far from the only systems that will be receiving and transmitting signals on 5G. Self-driving cars and the Internet of Things are two other technologies that could soon be heavily reliant on faster wireless signals.

Densely populated areas are likely going to be the biggest emitters of 5G signals, leading to a suggestion to only gather water-vapor data over oceans.

Another option is to develop artificial intelligence (AI) approaches to clean or process weather data. AI is playing an increasing role in weather forecasting. For example, in 2016 IBM bought The Weather Company for $2 billion. The goal was to combine the two companies’ models and data in IBM’s Watson to create more accurate forecasts. AI would also be able to predict increases or drops in business revenues due to weather changes. Monsanto has also been investing in AI for forecasting, in this case to provide agriculturally-related weather predictions.

Smartphones may also provide a piece of the weather forecasting puzzle. Studies have shown how data from thousands of smartphones can help to increase the accuracy of storm predictions, as well as the force of storms.

“Weather stations cost a lot of money,” Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told Inside Science, adding, “If there are already 20 million smartphones, you might as well take advantage of the observation system that’s already in place.”

Smartphones may not be the solution when it comes to finding new ways of gathering the atmospheric data on water vapor that 5G could disrupt. But it does go to show that some technologies open new doors, while at the same time, others shut them.

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Posted in Human Robots

#436204 We’re at IROS 2019 to Bring You ...

The 2019 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) is taking place in Macau this week, featuring well over a thousand presentations on the newest and most amazing robotics research from around the world. There are also posters, workshops, tutorials, an exhibit hall, and plenty of social events where roboticists have the chance to get a little tipsy and talk about all the really interesting stuff.

As always, our plan is to bring you all of the coolest, weirdest, and most interesting things that we find at the show, and here are just a few of the things we’re looking forward to this week:

Flying robots with wings, tails, and… arms?
Spherical robot turtles
An update on that crazy jet-powered iCub
Agile and tiny robot insects
Metallic self-healing robot bones
How to train robots by messing with them
A weird robot sea urchin

And all that is happening just on Tuesday!

Our IROS coverage will continue beyond this week, so keep checking back for more of the best new robotics from Macau.

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Posted in Human Robots