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#435436 Undeclared Wars in Cyberspace Are ...

The US is at war. That’s probably not exactly news, as the country has been engaged in one type of conflict or another for most of its history. The last time we officially declared war was after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Our biggest undeclared war today is not being fought by drones in the mountains of Afghanistan or even through the less-lethal barrage of threats over the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. In this particular war, it is the US that is under attack and on the defensive.

This is cyberwarfare.

The definition of what constitutes a cyber attack is a broad one, according to Greg White, executive director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS) at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).

At the level of nation-state attacks, cyberwarfare could involve “attacking systems during peacetime—such as our power grid or election systems—or it could be during war time in which case the attacks may be designed to cause destruction, damage, deception, or death,” he told Singularity Hub.

For the US, the Pearl Harbor of cyberwarfare occurred during 2016 with the Russian interference in the presidential election. However, according to White, an Air Force veteran who has been involved in computer and network security since 1986, the history of cyber war can be traced back much further, to at least the first Gulf War of the early 1990s.

“We started experimenting with cyber attacks during the first Gulf War, so this has been going on a long time,” he said. “Espionage was the prime reason before that. After the war, the possibility of expanding the types of targets utilized expanded somewhat. What is really interesting is the use of social media and things like websites for [psychological operation] purposes during a conflict.”

The 2008 conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia is often cited as a cyberwarfare case study due to the large scale and overt nature of the cyber attacks. Russian hackers managed to bring down more than 50 news, government, and financial websites through denial-of-service attacks. In addition, about 35 percent of Georgia’s internet networks suffered decreased functionality during the attacks, coinciding with the Russian invasion of South Ossetia.

The cyberwar also offers lessons for today on Russia’s approach to cyberspace as a tool for “holistic psychological manipulation and information warfare,” according to a 2018 report called Understanding Cyberwarfare from the Modern War Institute at West Point.

US Fights Back
News in recent years has highlighted how Russian hackers have attacked various US government entities and critical infrastructure such as energy and manufacturing. In particular, a shadowy group known as Unit 26165 within the country’s military intelligence directorate is believed to be behind the 2016 US election interference campaign.

However, the US hasn’t been standing idly by. Since at least 2012, the US has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid, The New York Times reported. More recently, we learned that the US military has gone on the offensive, putting “crippling malware” inside the Russian power grid as the U.S. Cyber Command flexes its online muscles thanks to new authority granted to it last year.

“Access to the power grid that is obtained now could be used to shut something important down in the future when we are in a war,” White noted. “Espionage is part of the whole program. It is important to remember that cyber has just provided a new domain in which to conduct the types of activities we have been doing in the real world for years.”

The US is also beginning to pour more money into cybersecurity. The 2020 fiscal budget calls for spending $17.4 billion throughout the government on cyber-related activities, with the Department of Defense (DoD) alone earmarked for $9.6 billion.

Despite the growing emphasis on cybersecurity in the US and around the world, the demand for skilled security professionals is well outpacing the supply, with a projected shortfall of nearly three million open or unfilled positions according to the non-profit IT security organization (ISC)².

UTSA is rare among US educational institutions in that security courses and research are being conducted across three different colleges, according to White. About 10 percent of the school’s 30,000-plus students are enrolled in a cyber-related program, he added, and UTSA is one of only 21 schools that has received the Cyber Operations Center of Excellence designation from the National Security Agency.

“This track in the computer science program is specifically designed to prepare students for the type of jobs they might be involved in if they went to work for the DoD,” White said.

However, White is extremely doubtful there will ever be enough cyber security professionals to meet demand. “I’ve been preaching that we’ve got to worry about cybersecurity in the workforce, not just the cybersecurity workforce, not just cybersecurity professionals. Everybody has a responsibility for cybersecurity.”

Artificial Intelligence in Cybersecurity
Indeed, humans are often seen as the weak link in cybersecurity. That point was driven home at a cybersecurity roundtable discussion during this year’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado.

Participant Dorian Daley, general counsel at Oracle, said insider threats are at the top of the list when it comes to cybersecurity. “Sadly, I think some of the biggest challenges are people, and I mean that in a number of ways. A lot of the breaches really come from insiders. So the more that you can automate things and you can eliminate human malicious conduct, the better.”

White noted that automation is already the norm in cybersecurity. “Humans can’t react as fast as systems can launch attacks, so we need to rely on automated defenses as well,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that humans are not in the loop, but much of what is done these days is ‘scripted’.”

The use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other advanced automation techniques have been part of the cybersecurity conversation for quite some time, according to White, such as pattern analysis to look for specific behaviors that might indicate an attack is underway.

“What we are seeing quite a bit of today falls under the heading of big data and data analytics,” he explained.

But there are signs that AI is going off-script when it comes to cyber attacks. In the hands of threat groups, AI applications could lead to an increase in the number of cyberattacks, wrote Michelle Cantos, a strategic intelligence analyst at cybersecurity firm FireEye.

“Current AI technology used by businesses to analyze consumer behavior and find new customer bases can be appropriated to help attackers find better targets,” she said. “Adversaries can use AI to analyze datasets and generate recommendations for high-value targets they think the adversary should hit.”

In fact, security researchers have already demonstrated how a machine learning system could be used for malicious purposes. The Social Network Automated Phishing with Reconnaissance system, or SNAP_R, generated more than four times as many spear-phishing tweets on Twitter than a human—and was just as successful at targeting victims in order to steal sensitive information.

Cyber war is upon us. And like the current war on terrorism, there are many battlefields from which the enemy can attack and then disappear. While total victory is highly unlikely in the traditional sense, innovations through AI and other technologies can help keep the lights on against the next cyber attack.

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#435145 How Big Companies Can Simultaneously Run ...

We live in the age of entrepreneurs. New startups seem to appear out of nowhere and challenge not only established companies, but entire industries. Where startup unicorns were once mythical creatures, they now seem abundant, not only increasing in numbers but also in the speed with which they can gain the minimum one-billion-dollar valuations to achieve this status.

But no matter how well things go for innovative startups, how many new success stories we hear, and how much space they take up in the media, the story that they are the best or only source of innovation isn’t entirely accurate.

Established organizations, or legacy organizations, can be incredibly innovative too. And while innovation is much more difficult in established organizations than in startups because they have much more complex systems—nobody is more likely to succeed in their innovation efforts than established organizations.

Unlike startups, established organizations have all the resources. They have money, customers, data, suppliers, partners, and infrastructure, which put them in a far better position to transform new ideas into concrete, value-creating, successful offerings than startups.

However, for established organizations, becoming an innovation champion in these times of rapid change requires new rules of engagement.

Many organizations commit the mistake of engaging in innovation as if it were a homogeneous thing that should be approached in the same way every time, regardless of its purpose. In my book, Transforming Legacy Organizations, I argue that innovation in established organizations must actually be divided into three different tracks: optimizing, augmenting, and mutating innovation.

All three are important, and to complicate matters further, organizations must execute all three types of innovation at the same time.

Optimizing Innovation
The first track is optimizing innovation. This type of innovation is the majority of what legacy organizations already do today. It is, metaphorically speaking, the extra blade on the razor. A razor manufacturer might launch a new razor that has not just three, but four blades, to ensure an even better, closer, and more comfortable shave. Then one or two years later, they say they are now launching a razor that has not only four, but five blades for an even better, closer, and more comfortable shave. That is optimizing innovation.

Adding extra blades on the razor is where the established player reigns.

No startup with so much as a modicum of sense would even try to beat the established company in this type of innovation. And this continuous optimization, both on the operational and customer facing sides, is important. In the short term. It pays the rent. But it’s far from enough. There are limits to how many blades a razor needs, and optimizing innovation only improves upon the past.

Augmenting Innovation
Established players must also go beyond optimization and prepare for the future through augmenting innovation.

The digital transformation projects that many organizations are initiating can be characterized as augmenting innovation. In the first instance, it is about upgrading core offerings and processes from analog to digital. Or, if you’re born digital, you’ve probably had to augment the core to become mobile-first. Perhaps you have even entered the next augmentation phase, which involves implementing artificial intelligence. Becoming AI-first, like the Amazons, Microsofts, Baidus, and Googles of the world, requires great technological advancements. And it’s difficult. But technology may, in fact, be a minor part of the task.

The biggest challenge for augmenting innovation is probably culture.

Only legacy organizations that manage to transform their cultures from status quo cultures—cultures with a preference for things as they are—into cultures full of incremental innovators can thrive in constant change.

To create a strong innovation culture, an organization needs to thoroughly understand its immune systems. These are the mechanisms that protect the organization and operate around the clock to keep it healthy and stable, just as the body’s immune system operates to keep the body healthy and stable. But in a rapidly changing world, many of these defense mechanisms are no longer appropriate and risk weakening organizations’ innovation power.

When talking about organizational immune systems, there is a clear tendency to simply point to the individual immune system, people’s unwillingness to change.

But this is too simplistic.

Of course, there is human resistance to change, but the organizational immune system, consisting of a company’s key performance indicators (KPIs), rewards systems, legacy IT infrastructure and processes, and investor and shareholder demands, is far more important. So is the organization’s societal immune system, such as legislative barriers, legacy customers and providers, and economic climate.

Luckily, there are many culture hacks that organizations can apply to strengthen their innovation cultures by upgrading their physical and digital workspaces, transforming their top-down work processes into decentralized, agile ones, and empowering their employees.

Mutating Innovation
Upgrading your core and preparing for the future by augmenting innovation is crucial if you want success in the medium term. But to win in the long run and be as or more successful 20 to 30 years from now, you need to invent the future, and challenge your core, through mutating innovation.

This requires involving radical innovators who have a bold focus on experimenting with that which is not currently understood and for which a business case cannot be prepared.

Here you must also physically move away from the core organization when you initiate and run such initiatives. This is sometimes called “innovation on the edges” because the initiatives will not have a chance at succeeding within the core. It will be too noisy as they challenge what currently exists—precisely what the majority of the organization’s employees are working to optimize or augment.

Forward-looking organizations experiment to mutate their core through “X divisions,” sometimes called skunk works or innovation labs.

Lowe’s Innovation Labs, for instance, worked with startups to build in-store robot assistants and zero-gravity 3D printers to explore the future. Mutating innovation might include pursuing partnerships across all imaginable domains or establishing brand new companies, rather than traditional business units, as we see automakers such as Toyota now doing to build software for autonomous vehicles. Companies might also engage in radical open innovation by sponsoring others’ ingenuity. Japan’s top airline ANA is exploring a future of travel that does not involve flying people from point A to point B via the ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition.

Increasing technological opportunities challenge the core of any organization but also create unprecedented potential. No matter what product, service, or experience you create, you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to bring yourself to a position where you have a clear strategy for optimizing, augmenting, and mutating your core and thus transforming your organization.

It’s not an easy job. But, hey, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Those who make it, on the other hand, will be the innovation champions of the future.

Image Credit: rock-the-stock / Shutterstock.com

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#435119 Are These Robots Better Than You at ...

Robot technology is evolving at breakneck speed. SoftBank’s Pepper is found in companies across the globe and is rapidly improving its conversation skills. Telepresence robots open up new opportunities for remote working, while Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot could soon (literally) take a load off human colleagues in warehouses.

But warehouses and offices aren’t the only places where robots are lining up next to humans.

Toyota’s Cue 3 robot recently showed off its basketball skills, putting up better numbers than the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter, the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry.

Cue 3 is still some way from being ready to take on Curry, or even amateur basketball players, in a real game. However, it is the latest member of a growing cast of robots challenging human dominance in sports.

As these robots continue to develop, they not only exemplify the speed of exponential technology development, but also how those technologies are improving human capabilities.

Meet the Contestants
The list of robots in sports is surprisingly long and diverse. There are robot skiers, tumblers, soccer players, sumos, and even robot game jockeys. Introductions to a few of them are in order.

Robot: Forpheus
Sport: Table tennis
Intro: Looks like something out of War of the Worlds equipped with a ping pong bat instead of a death ray.
Ability level: Capable of counteracting spin shots and good enough to beat many beginners.

Robot: Sumo bot
Sport: Sumo wrestling
Intro: Hyper-fast, hyper-aggressive. Think robot equivalent to an angry wasp on six cans of Red Bull crossed with a very small tank.
Ability level: Flies around the ring way faster than any human sumo. Tend to drive straight out of the ring at times.

Robot: Cue 3
Sport: Basketball
Intro: Stands at an imposing 6 foot and 10 inches, so pretty much built for the NBA. Looks a bit like something that belongs in a video game.
Ability level: A 62.5 percent three-pointer percentage, which is better than Steph Curry’s; is less mobile than Charles Barkley – in his current form.

Robot: Robo Cup Robots
Intro: The future of soccer. If everything goes to plan, a team of robots will take on the Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of 2050 and beat them in a full 11 vs. 11 game.
Ability level: Currently plays soccer more like the six-year-olds I used to coach than Lionel Messi.

The Limiting Factor
The skill level of all the robots above is impressive, and they are doing things that no human contestant can. The sumo bots’ inhuman speed is self-evident. Forpheus’ ability to track the ball with two cameras while simultaneously tracking its opponent with two other cameras requires a look at the spec sheet, but is similarly beyond human capability. While Cue 3 can’t move, it makes shots from the mid-court logo look easy.

Robots are performing at a level that was confined to the realm of science fiction at the start of the millennium. The speed of development indicates that in the near future, my national team soccer coach would likely call up a robot instead of me (he must have lost my number since he hasn’t done so yet. It’s the only logical explanation), and he’d be right to do so.

It is also worth considering that many current sports robots have a humanoid form, which limits their ability. If engineers were to optimize robot design to outperform humans in specific categories, many world champions would likely already be metallic.

Swimming is perhaps one of the most obvious. Even Michael Phelps would struggle to keep up with a torpedo-shaped robot, and if you beefed up a sumo robot to human size, human sumos might impress you by running away from them with a 100-meter speed close to Usain Bolt’s.

In other areas, the playing field for humans and robots is rapidly leveling. One likely candidate for the first head-to-head competitions is racing, where self-driving cars from the Roborace League could perhaps soon be ready to race the likes of Lewis Hamilton.

Tech Pushing Humans
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why it may still take some time for robots to surpass us is that they, along with other exponential technologies, are already making us better at sports.

In Japan, elite volleyball players use a robot to practice their attacks. Some American football players also practice against robot opponents and hone their skills using VR.

On the sidelines, AI is being used to analyze and improve athletes’ performance, and we may soon see the first AI coaches, not to mention referees.

We may even compete in games dreamt up by our electronic cousins. SpeedGate, a new game created by an AI by studying 400 different sports, is a prime example of that quickly becoming a possibility.

However, we will likely still need to make the final call on what constitutes a good game. The AI that created SpeedGate reportedly also suggested less suitable pastimes, like underwater parkour and a game that featured exploding frisbees. Both of these could be fun…but only if you’re as sturdy as a robot.

Image Credit: RoboCup Standard Platform League 2018, ©The Robocup Federation. Published with permission of reproduction granted by the RoboCup Federation. Continue reading

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#435080 12 Ways Big Tech Can Take Big Action on ...

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested $1 billion in Breakthrough Energy to fund next-generation solutions to tackle climate. But there is a huge risk that any successful innovation will only reach the market as the world approaches 2030 at the earliest.

We now know that reducing the risk of dangerous climate change means halving global greenhouse gas emissions by that date—in just 11 years. Perhaps Gates, Zuckerberg, and all the tech giants should invest equally in innovations to do with how their own platforms —search, social media, eCommerce—can support societal behavior changes to drive down emissions.

After all, the tech giants influence the decisions of four billion consumers every day. It is time for a social contract between tech and society.

Recently myself and collaborator Johan Falk published a report during the World Economic Forum in Davos outlining 12 ways the tech sector can contribute to supporting societal goals to stabilize Earth’s climate.

Become genuine climate guardians

Tech giants go to great lengths to show how serious they are about reducing their emissions. But I smell cognitive dissonance. Google and Microsoft are working in partnership with oil companies to develop AI tools to help maximize oil recovery. This is not the behavior of companies working flat-out to stabilize Earth’s climate. Indeed, few major tech firms have visions that indicate a stable and resilient planet might be a good goal, yet AI alone has the potential to slash greenhouse gas emissions by four percent by 2030—equivalent to the emissions of Australia, Canada, and Japan combined.

We are now developing a playbook, which we plan to publish later this year at the UN climate summit, about making it as simple as possible for a CEO to become a climate guardian.

Hey Alexa, do you care about the stability of Earth’s climate?

Increasingly, consumers are delegating their decisions to narrow artificial intelligence like Alexa and Siri. Welcome to a world of zero-click purchases.

Should algorithms and information architecture be designed to nudge consumer behavior towards low-carbon choices, for example by making these options the default? We think so. People don’t mind being nudged; in fact, they welcome efforts to make their lives better. For instance, if I want to lose weight, I know I will need all the help I can get. Let’s ‘nudge for good’ and experiment with supporting societal goals.

Use social media for good

Facebook’s goal is to bring the world closer together. With 2.2 billion users on the platform, CEO Mark Zuckerberg can reasonably claim this goal is possible. But social media has changed the flow of information in the world, creating a lucrative industry around a toxic brown-cloud of confusion and anger, with frankly terrifying implications for democracy. This has been linked to the rise of nationalism and populism, and to the election of leaders who shun international cooperation, dismiss scientific knowledge, and reverse climate action at a moment when we need it more than ever.

Social media tools need re-engineering to help people make sense of the world, support democratic processes, and build communities around societal goals. Make this your mission.

Design for a future on Earth

Almost everything is designed with computer software, from buildings to mobile phones to consumer packaging. It is time to make zero-carbon design the new default and design products for sharing, re-use and disassembly.

The future is circular

Halving emissions in a decade will require all companies to adopt circular business models to reduce material use. Some tech companies are leading the charge. Apple has committed to becoming 100 percent circular as soon as possible. Great.

While big tech companies strive to be market leaders here, many other companies lack essential knowledge. Tech companies can support rapid adoption in different economic sectors, not least because they have the know-how to scale innovations exponentially. It makes business sense. If economies of scale drive the price of recycled steel and aluminium down, everyone wins.

Reward low-carbon consumption

eCommerce platforms can create incentives for low-carbon consumption. The world’s largest experiment in greening consumer behavior is Ant Forest, set up by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial.

An estimated 300 million customers—similar to the population of the United States—gain points for making low-carbon choices such as walking to work, using public transport, or paying bills online. Virtual points are eventually converted into real trees. Sure, big questions remain about its true influence on emissions, but this is a space for rapid experimentation for big impact.

Make information more useful

Science is our tool for defining reality. Scientific consensus is how we attain reliable knowledge. Even after the information revolution, reliable knowledge about the world remains fragmented and unstructured. Build the next generation of search engines to genuinely make the world’s knowledge useful for supporting societal goals.

We need to put these tools towards supporting shared world views of the state of the planet based on the best science. New AI tools being developed by startups like Iris.ai can help see through the fog. From Alexa to Google Home and Siri, the future is “Voice”, but who chooses the information source? The highest bidder? Again, the implications for climate are huge.

Create new standards for digital advertising and marketing

Half of global ad revenue will soon be online, and largely going to a small handful of companies. How about creating a novel ethical standard on what is advertised and where? Companies could consider promoting sustainable choices and healthy lifestyles and limiting advertising of high-emissions products such as cheap flights.

We are what we eat

It is no secret that tech is about to disrupt grocery. The supermarkets of the future will be built on personal consumer data. With about two billion people either obese or overweight, revolutions in choice architecture could support positive diet choices, reduce meat consumption, halve food waste and, into the bargain, slash greenhouse gas emissions.

The future of transport is not cars, it’s data

The 2020s look set to be the biggest disruption of the automobile industry since Henry Ford unveiled the Model T. Two seismic shifts are on their way.

First, electric cars now compete favorably with petrol engines on range. Growth will reach an inflection point within a year or two once prices reach parity. The death of the internal combustion engine in Europe and Asia is assured with end dates announced by China, India, France, the UK, and most of Scandinavia. Dates range from 2025 (Norway) to 2040 (UK and China).

Tech giants can accelerate the demise. Uber recently announced a passenger surcharge to help London drivers save around $1,500 a year towards the cost of an electric car.

Second, driverless cars can shift the transport economic model from ownership to service and ride sharing. A complete shift away from privately-owned vehicles is around the corner, with large implications for emissions.

Clean-energy living and working

Most buildings are barely used and inefficiently heated and cooled. Digitization can slash this waste and its corresponding emissions through measurement, monitoring, and new business models to use office space. While, just a few unicorns are currently in this space, the potential is enormous. Buildings are one of the five biggest sources of emissions, yet have the potential to become clean energy producers in a distributed energy network.

Creating liveable cities

More cities are setting ambitious climate targets to halve emissions in a decade or even less. Tech companies can support this transition by driving demand for low-carbon services for their workforces and offices, but also by providing tools to help monitor emissions and act to reduce them. Google, for example, is collecting travel and other data from across cities to estimate emissions in real time. This is possible through technologies like artificial intelligence and the internet of things. But beware of smart cities that turn out to be not so smart. Efficiencies can reduce resilience when cities face crises.

It’s a Start
Of course, it will take more than tech to solve the climate crisis. But tech is a wildcard. The actions of the current tech giants and their acolytes could serve to destabilize the climate further or bring it under control.

We need a new social contract between tech companies and society to achieve societal goals. The alternative is unthinkable. Without drastic action now, climate chaos threatens to engulf us all. As this future approaches, regulators will be forced to take ever more draconian action to rein in the problem. Acting now will reduce that risk.

Note: A version of this article was originally published on World Economic Forum

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#435023 Inflatable Robot Astronauts and How to ...

The typical cultural image of a robot—as a steel, chrome, humanoid bucket of bolts—is often far from the reality of cutting-edge robotics research. There are difficulties, both social and technological, in realizing the image of a robot from science fiction—let alone one that can actually help around the house. Often, it’s simply the case that great expense in producing a humanoid robot that can perform dozens of tasks quite badly is less appropriate than producing some other design that’s optimized to a specific situation.

A team of scientists from Brigham Young University has received funding from NASA to investigate an inflatable robot called, improbably, King Louie. The robot was developed by Pneubotics, who have a long track record in the world of soft robotics.

In space, weight is at a premium. The world watched in awe and amusement when Commander Chris Hadfield sang “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station—but launching that guitar into space likely cost around $100,000. A good price for launching payload into outer space is on the order of $10,000 per pound ($22,000/kg).

For that price, it would cost a cool $1.7 million to launch Boston Dynamics’ famous ATLAS robot to the International Space Station, and its bulk would be inconvenient in the cramped living quarters available. By contrast, an inflatable robot like King Louie is substantially lighter and can simply be deflated and folded away when not in use. The robot can be manufactured from cheap, lightweight, and flexible materials, and minor damage is easy to repair.

Inflatable Robots Under Pressure
The concept of inflatable robots is not new: indeed, earlier prototypes of King Louie were exhibited back in 2013 at Google I/O’s After Hours, flailing away at each other in a boxing ring. Sparks might fly in fights between traditional robots, but the aim here was to demonstrate that the robots are passively safe: the soft, inflatable figures won’t accidentally smash delicate items when moving around.

Health and safety regulations form part of the reason why robots don’t work alongside humans more often, but soft robots would be far safer to use in healthcare or around children (whose first instinct, according to BYU’s promotional video, is either to hug or punch King Louie.) It’s also much harder to have nightmarish fantasies about robotic domination with these friendlier softbots: Terminator would’ve been a much shorter franchise if Skynet’s droids were inflatable.

Robotic exoskeletons are increasingly used for physical rehabilitation therapies, as well as for industrial purposes. As countries like Japan seek to care for their aging populations with robots and alleviate the burden on nurses, who suffer from some of the highest rates of back injuries of any profession, soft robots will become increasingly attractive for use in healthcare.

Precision and Proprioception
The main issue is one of control. Rigid, metallic robots may be more expensive and more dangerous, but the simple fact of their rigidity makes it easier to map out and control the precise motions of each of the robot’s limbs, digits, and actuators. Individual motors attached to these rigid robots can allow for a great many degrees of freedom—individual directions in which parts of the robot can move—and precision control.

For example, ATLAS has 28 degrees of freedom, while Shadow’s dexterous robot hand alone has 20. This is much harder to do with an inflatable robot, for precisely the same reasons that make it safer. Without hard and rigid bones, other methods of control must be used.

In the case of King Louie, the robot is made up of many expandable air chambers. An air-compressor changes the pressure levels in these air chambers, allowing them to expand and contract. This harks back to some of the earliest pneumatic automata. Pairs of chambers act antagonistically, like muscles, such that when one chamber “tenses,” another relaxes—allowing King Louie to have, for example, four degrees of freedom in each of its arms.

The robot is also surprisingly strong. Professor Killpack, who works at BYU on the project, estimates that its payload is comparable to other humanoid robots on the market, like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter (RIP).

Proprioception, that sixth sense that allows us to map out and control our own bodies and muscles in fine detail, is being enhanced for a wider range of soft, flexible robots with the use of machine learning algorithms connected to input from a whole host of sensors on the robot’s body.

Part of the reason this is so complicated with soft, flexible robots is that the shape and “map” of the robot’s body can change; that’s the whole point. But this means that every time King Louie is inflated, its body is a slightly different shape; when it becomes deformed, for example due to picking up objects, the shape changes again, and the complex ways in which the fabric can twist and bend are far more difficult to model and sense than the behavior of the rigid metal of King Louie’s hard counterparts. When you’re looking for precision, seemingly-small changes can be the difference between successfully holding an object or dropping it.

Learning to Move
Researchers at BYU are therefore spending a great deal of time on how to control the soft-bot enough to make it comparably useful. One method involves the commercial tracking technology used in the Vive VR system: by moving the game controller, which provides a constant feedback to the robot’s arm, you can control its position. Since the tracking software provides an estimate of the robot’s joint angles and continues to provide feedback until the arm is correctly aligned, this type of feedback method is likely to work regardless of small changes to the robot’s shape.

The other technologies the researchers are looking into for their softbot include arrays of flexible, tactile sensors to place on the softbot’s skin, and minimizing the complex cross-talk between these arrays to get coherent information about the robot’s environment. As with some of the new proprioception research, the project is looking into neural networks as a means of modeling the complicated dynamics—the motion and response to forces—of the softbot. This method relies on large amounts of observational data, mapping how the robot is inflated and how it moves, rather than explicitly understanding and solving the equations that govern its motion—which hopefully means the methods can work even as the robot changes.

There’s still a long way to go before soft and inflatable robots can be controlled sufficiently well to perform all the tasks they might be used for. Ultimately, no one robotic design is likely to be perfect for any situation.

Nevertheless, research like this gives us hope that one day, inflatable robots could be useful tools, or even companions, at which point the advertising slogans write themselves: Don’t let them down, and they won’t let you down!

Image Credit: Brigham Young University. Continue reading

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