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#435522 Harvard’s Smart Exo-Shorts Talk to the ...

Exosuits don’t generally scream “fashionable” or “svelte.” Take the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that allowed a paraplegic man to kick off the World Cup back in 2014. Is it cool? Hell yeah. Is it practical? Not so much.

Yapping about wearability might seem childish when the technology already helps people with impaired mobility move around dexterously. But the lesson of the ill-fated Google Glassholes, which includes an awkward dorky head tilt and an assuming voice command, clearly shows that wearable computer assistants can’t just work technologically—they have to look natural and allow the user to behave like as usual. They have to, in a sense, disappear.

To Dr. Jose Pons at the Legs + Walking Ability Lab in Chicago, exosuits need three main selling points to make it in the real world. One, they have to physically interact with their wearer and seamlessly deliver assistance when needed. Two, they should cognitively interact with the host to guide and control the robot at all times. Finally, they need to feel like a second skin—move with the user without adding too much extra mass or reducing mobility.

This week, a US-Korean collaboration delivered the whole shebang in a Lululemon-style skin-hugging package combined with a retro waist pack. The portable exosuit, weighing only 11 pounds, looks like a pair of spandex shorts but can support the wearer’s hip movement when needed. Unlike their predecessors, the shorts are embedded with sensors that let them know when the wearer is walking versus running by analyzing gait.

Switching between the two movement modes may not seem like much, but what naturally comes to our brains doesn’t translate directly to smart exosuits. “Walking and running have fundamentally different biomechanics, which makes developing devices that assist both gaits challenging,” the team said. Their algorithm, computed in the cloud, allows the wearer to easily switch between both, with the shorts providing appropriate hip support that makes the movement experience seamless.

To Pons, who was not involved in the research but wrote a perspective piece, the study is an exciting step towards future exosuits that will eventually disappear under the skin—that is, implanted neural interfaces to control robotic assistance or activate the user’s own muscles.

“It is realistic to think that we will witness, in the next several years…robust human-robot interfaces to command wearable robotics based on…the neural code of movement in humans,” he said.

A “Smart” Exosuit Hack
There are a few ways you can hack a human body to move with an exosuit. One is using implanted electrodes inside the brain or muscles to decipher movement intent. With heavy practice, a neural implant can help paralyzed people walk again or dexterously move external robotic arms. But because the technique requires surgery, it’s not an immediate sell for people who experience low mobility because of aging or low muscle tone.

The other approach is to look to biophysics. Rather than decoding neural signals that control movement, here the idea is to measure gait and other physical positions in space to decipher intent. As you can probably guess, accurately deciphering user intent isn’t easy, especially when the wearable tries to accommodate multiple gaits. But the gains are many: there’s no surgery involved, and the wearable is low in energy consumption.

Double Trouble
The authors decided to tackle an everyday situation. You’re walking to catch the train to work, realize you’re late, and immediately start sprinting.

That seemingly easy conversion hides a complex switch in biomechanics. When you walk, your legs act like an inverted pendulum that swing towards a dedicated center in a predictable way. When you run, however, the legs move more like a spring-loaded system, and the joints involved in the motion differ from a casual stroll. Engineering an assistive wearable for each is relatively simple; making one for both is exceedingly hard.

Led by Dr. Conor Walsh at Harvard University, the team started with an intuitive idea: assisted walking and running requires specialized “actuation” profiles tailored to both. When the user is moving in a way that doesn’t require assistance, the wearable needs to be out of the way so that it doesn’t restrict mobility. A quick analysis found that assisting hip extension has the largest impact, because it’s important to both gaits and doesn’t add mass to the lower legs.

Building on that insight, the team made a waist belt connected to two thigh wraps, similar to a climbing harness. Two electrical motors embedded inside the device connect the waist belt to other components through a pulley system to help the hip joints move. The whole contraption weighed about 11 lbs and didn’t obstruct natural movement.

Next, the team programmed two separate supporting profiles for walking and running. The goal was to reduce the “metabolic cost” for both movements, so that the wearer expends as little energy as needed. To switch between the two programs, they used a cloud-based classification algorithm to measure changes in energy fluctuation to figure out what mode—running or walking—the user is in.

Smart Booster
Initial trials on treadmills were highly positive. Six male volunteers with similar age and build donned the exosuit and either ran or walked on the treadmill at varying inclines. The algorithm performed perfectly at distinguishing between the two gaits in all conditions, even at steep angles.

An outdoor test with eight volunteers also proved the algorithm nearly perfect. Even on uneven terrain, only two steps out of all test trials were misclassified. In an additional trial on mud or snow, the algorithm performed just as well.

“The system allows the wearer to use their preferred gait for each speed,” the team said.

Software excellence translated to performance. A test found that the exosuit reduced the energy for walking by over nine percent and running by four percent. It may not sound like much, but the range of improvement is meaningful in athletic performance. Putting things into perspective, the team said, the metabolic rate reduction during walking is similar to taking 16 pounds off at the waist.

The Wearable Exosuit Revolution
The study’s lightweight exoshorts are hardly the only players in town. Back in 2017, SRI International’s spin-off, Superflex, engineered an Aura suit to support mobility in the elderly. The Aura used a different mechanism: rather than a pulley system, it incorporated a type of smart material that contracts in a manner similar to human muscles when zapped with electricity.

Embedded with a myriad of sensors for motion, accelerometers and gyroscopes, Aura’s smartness came from mini-computers that measure how fast the wearer is moving and track the user’s posture. The data were integrated and processed locally inside hexagon-shaped computing pods near the thighs and upper back. The pods also acted as the control center for sending electrical zaps to give the wearer a boost when needed.

Around the same time, a collaboration between Harvard’s Wyss Institute and ReWalk Robotics introduced a fabric-based wearable robot to assist a wearer’s legs for balance and movement. Meanwhile, a Swiss team coated normal fabric with electroactive material to weave soft, pliable artificial “muscles” that move with the skin.

Although health support is the current goal, the military is obviously interested in similar technologies to enhance soldiers’ physicality. Superflex’s Aura, for example, was originally inspired by technology born from DARPA’s Warrior Web Program, which aimed to reduce a soldier’s mechanical load.

That said, military gear has had a long history of trickling down to consumer use. Similar to the way camouflage, cargo pants, and GORE-TEX trickled down into the consumer ecosphere, it’s not hard to imagine your local Target eventually stocking intelligent exowear.

Image and Video Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435474 Watch China’s New Hybrid AI Chip Power ...

When I lived in Beijing back in the 90s, a man walking his bike was nothing to look at. But today, I did a serious double-take at a video of a bike walking his man.

No kidding.

The bike itself looks overloaded but otherwise completely normal. Underneath its simplicity, however, is a hybrid computer chip that combines brain-inspired circuits with machine learning processes into a computing behemoth. Thanks to its smart chip, the bike self-balances as it gingerly rolls down a paved track before smoothly gaining speed into a jogging pace while navigating dexterously around obstacles. It can even respond to simple voice commands such as “speed up,” “left,” or “straight.”

Far from a circus trick, the bike is a real-world demo of the AI community’s latest attempt at fashioning specialized hardware to keep up with the challenges of machine learning algorithms. The Tianjic (天机*) chip isn’t just your standard neuromorphic chip. Rather, it has the architecture of a brain-like chip, but can also run deep learning algorithms—a match made in heaven that basically mashes together neuro-inspired hardware and software.

The study shows that China is readily nipping at the heels of Google, Facebook, NVIDIA, and other tech behemoths investing in developing new AI chip designs—hell, with billions in government investment it may have already had a head start. A sweeping AI plan from 2017 looks to catch up with the US on AI technology and application by 2020. By 2030, China’s aiming to be the global leader—and a champion for building general AI that matches humans in intellectual competence.

The country’s ambition is reflected in the team’s parting words.

“Our study is expected to stimulate AGI [artificial general intelligence] development by paving the way to more generalized hardware platforms,” said the authors, led by Dr. Luping Shi at Tsinghua University.

A Hardware Conundrum
Shi’s autonomous bike isn’t the first robotic two-wheeler. Back in 2015, the famed research nonprofit SRI International in Menlo Park, California teamed up with Yamaha to engineer MOTOBOT, a humanoid robot capable of driving a motorcycle. Powered by state-of-the-art robotic hardware and machine learning, MOTOBOT eventually raced MotoGPTM world champion Valentino Rossi in a nail-biting match-off.

However, the technological core of MOTOBOT and Shi’s bike vastly differ, and that difference reflects two pathways towards more powerful AI. One, exemplified by MOTOBOT, is software—developing brain-like algorithms with increasingly efficient architecture, efficacy, and speed. That sounds great, but deep neural nets demand so many computational resources that general-purpose chips can’t keep up.

As Shi told China Science Daily: “CPUs and other chips are driven by miniaturization technologies based on physics. Transistors might shrink to nanoscale-level in 10, 20 years. But what then?” As more transistors are squeezed onto these chips, efficient cooling becomes a limiting factor in computational speed. Tax them too much, and they melt.

For AI processes to continue, we need better hardware. An increasingly popular idea is to build neuromorphic chips, which resemble the brain from the ground up. IBM’s TrueNorth, for example, contains a massively parallel architecture nothing like the traditional Von Neumann structure of classic CPUs and GPUs. Similar to biological brains, TrueNorth’s memory is stored within “synapses” between physical “neurons” etched onto the chip, which dramatically cuts down on energy consumption.

But even these chips are limited. Because computation is tethered to hardware architecture, most chips resemble just one specific type of brain-inspired network called spiking neural networks (SNNs). Without doubt, neuromorphic chips are highly efficient setups with dynamics similar to biological networks. They also don’t play nicely with deep learning and other software-based AI.

Brain-AI Hybrid Core
Shi’s new Tianjic chip brought the two incompatibilities together onto a single piece of brainy hardware.

First was to bridge the deep learning and SNN divide. The two have very different computation philosophies and memory organizations, the team said. The biggest difference, however, is that artificial neural networks transform multidimensional data—image pixels, for example—into a single, continuous, multi-bit 0 and 1 stream. In contrast, neurons in SNNs activate using something called “binary spikes” that code for specific activation events in time.

Confused? Yeah, it’s hard to wrap my head around it too. That’s because SNNs act very similarly to our neural networks and nothing like computers. A particular neuron needs to generate an electrical signal (a “spike”) large enough to transfer down to the next one; little blips in signals don’t count. The way they transmit data also heavily depends on how they’re connected, or the network topology. The takeaway: SNNs work pretty differently than deep learning.

Shi’s team first recreated this firing quirk in the language of computers—0s and 1s—so that the coding mechanism would become compatible with deep learning algorithms. They then carefully aligned the step-by-step building blocks of the two models, which allowed them to tease out similarities into a common ground to further build on. “On the basis of this unified abstraction, we built a cross-paradigm neuron scheme,” they said.

In general, the design allowed both computational approaches to share the synapses, where neurons connect and store data, and the dendrites, the outgoing branches of the neurons. In contrast, the neuron body, where signals integrate, was left reconfigurable for each type of computation, as were the input branches. Each building block was combined into a single unified functional core (FCore), which acts like a deep learning/SNN converter depending on its specific setup. Translation: the chip can do both types of previously incompatible computation.

The Chip
Using nanoscale fabrication, the team arranged 156 FCores, containing roughly 40,000 neurons and 10 million synapses, onto a chip less than a fifth of an inch in length and width. Initial tests showcased the chip’s versatility, in that it can run both SNNs and deep learning algorithms such as the popular convolutional neural network (CNNs) often used in machine vision.

Compared to IBM TrueNorth, the density of Tianjic’s cores increased by 20 percent, speeding up performance ten times and increasing bandwidth at least 100-fold, the team said. When pitted against GPUs, the current hardware darling of machine learning, the chip increased processing throughput up to 100 times, while using just a sliver (1/10,000) of energy.

Although these stats are great, real-life performance is even better as a demo. Here’s where the authors gave their Tianjic brain a body. The team combined one chip with multiple specialized networks to process vision, balance, voice commands, and decision-making in real time. Object detection and target tracking, for example, relied on a deep neural net CNN, whereas voice commands and balance data were recognized using an SNN. The inputs were then integrated inside a neural state machine, which churned out decisions to downstream output modules—for example, controlling the handle bar to turn left.

Thanks to the chip’s brain-like architecture and bilingual ability, Tianjic “allowed all of the neural network models to operate in parallel and realized seamless communication across the models,” the team said. The result is an autonomous bike that rolls after its human, balances across speed bumps, avoids crashing into roadblocks, and answers to voice commands.

General AI?
“It’s a wonderful demonstration and quite impressive,” said the editorial team at Nature, which published the study on its cover last week.

However, they cautioned, when comparing Tianjic with state-of-the-art chips designed for a single problem toe-to-toe on that particular problem, Tianjic falls behind. But building these jack-of-all-trades hybrid chips is definitely worth the effort. Compared to today’s limited AI, what people really want is artificial general intelligence, which will require new architectures that aren’t designed to solve one particular problem.

Until people start to explore, innovate, and play around with different designs, it’s not clear how we can further progress in the pursuit of general AI. A self-driving bike might not be much to look at, but its hybrid brain is a pretty neat place to start.

*The name, in Chinese, means “heavenly machine,” “unknowable mystery of nature,” or “confidentiality.” Go figure.

Image Credit: Alexander Ryabintsev / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#435313 This Week’s Awesome Stories From ...

Microsoft Invests $1 Billion in OpenAI to Pursue Holy Grail of Artificial Intelligence
James Vincent | The Verge
“i‘The creation of AGI will be the most important technological development in human history, with the potential to shape the trajectory of humanity,’ said [OpenAI cofounder] Sam Altman. ‘Our mission is to ensure that AGI technology benefits all of humanity, and we’re working with Microsoft to build the supercomputing foundation on which we’ll build AGI.’i”

UPS Wants to Go Full-Scale With Its Drone Deliveries
Eric Adams | Wired
“If UPS gets its way, it’ll be known for vehicles other than its famous brown vans. The delivery giant is working to become the first commercial entity authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to use autonomous delivery drones without any of the current restrictions that have governed the aerial testing it has done to date.”

Scientists Can Finally Build Feedback Circuits in Cells
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Network a few LOCKR-bound molecules together, and you’ve got a circuit that can control a cell’s functions the same way a PID computer program automatically adjusts the pitch of a plane. With the right key, you can make cells glow or blow themselves apart. You can send things to the cell’s trash heap or zoom them to another cellular zip code.”

Carbon Nanotubes Could Increase Solar Efficiency to 80 Percent
David Grossman | Popular Mechanics
“Obviously, that sort of efficiency rating is unheard of in the world of solar panels. But even though a proof of concept is a long way from being used in the real world, any further developments in the nanotubes could bolster solar panels in ways we haven’t seen yet.”

What Technology Is Most Likely to Become Obsolete During Your Lifetime?
Daniel Kolitz | Gizmodo
“Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. …And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.”

The Human Brain Project Hasn’t Lived Up to Its Promise
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“The HBP, then, is in a very odd position, criticized for being simultaneously too grandiose and too narrow. None of the skeptics I spoke with was dismissing the idea of simulating parts of the brain, but all of them felt that such efforts should be driven by actual research questions. …Countless such projects could have been funded with the money channeled into the HBP, which explains much of the furor around the project.”

Image Credit: Aron Van de Pol / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435224 Can AI Save the Internet from Fake News?

There’s an old proverb that says “seeing is believing.” But in the age of artificial intelligence, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to take anything at face value—literally.

The rise of so-called “deepfakes,” in which different types of AI-based techniques are used to manipulate video content, has reached the point where Congress held its first hearing last month on the potential abuses of the technology. The congressional investigation coincided with the release of a doctored video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivering what appeared to be a sinister speech.

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Scientists are scrambling for solutions on how to combat deepfakes, while at the same time others are continuing to refine the techniques for less nefarious purposes, such as automating video content for the film industry.

At one end of the spectrum, for example, researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering have proposed implanting a type of digital watermark using a neural network that can spot manipulated photos and videos.

The idea is to embed the system directly into a digital camera. Many smartphone cameras and other digital devices already use AI to boost image quality and make other corrections. The authors of the study out of NYU say their prototype platform increased the chances of detecting manipulation from about 45 percent to more than 90 percent without sacrificing image quality.

On the other hand, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently hit on a technique for automatically and rapidly converting large amounts of video content from one source into the style of another. In one example, the scientists transferred the facial expressions of comedian John Oliver onto the bespectacled face of late night show host Stephen Colbert.

The CMU team says the method could be a boon to the movie industry, such as by converting black and white films to color, though it also conceded that the technology could be used to develop deepfakes.

Words Matter with Fake News
While the current spotlight is on how to combat video and image manipulation, a prolonged trench warfare on fake news is being fought by academia, nonprofits, and the tech industry.

This isn’t the fake news that some have come to use as a knee-jerk reaction to fact-based information that might be less than flattering to the subject of the report. Rather, fake news is deliberately-created misinformation that is spread via the internet.

In a recent Pew Research Center poll, Americans said fake news is a bigger problem than violent crime, racism, and terrorism. Fortunately, many of the linguistic tools that have been applied to determine when people are being deliberately deceitful can be baked into algorithms for spotting fake news.

That’s the approach taken by a team at the University of Michigan (U-M) to develop an algorithm that was better than humans at identifying fake news—76 percent versus 70 percent—by focusing on linguistic cues like grammatical structure, word choice, and punctuation.

For example, fake news tends to be filled with hyperbole and exaggeration, using terms like “overwhelming” or “extraordinary.”

“I think that’s a way to make up for the fact that the news is not quite true, so trying to compensate with the language that’s being used,” Rada Mihalcea, a computer science and engineering professor at U-M, told Singularity Hub.

The paper “Automatic Detection of Fake News” was based on the team’s previous studies on how people lie in general, without necessarily having the intention of spreading fake news, she said.

“Deception is a complicated and complex phenomenon that requires brain power,” Mihalcea noted. “That often results in simpler language, where you have shorter sentences or shorter documents.”

AI Versus AI
While most fake news is still churned out by humans with identifiable patterns of lying, according to Mihalcea, other researchers are already anticipating how to detect misinformation manufactured by machines.

A group led by Yejin Choi, with the Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence and the University of Washington in Seattle, is one such team. The researchers recently introduced the world to Grover, an AI platform that is particularly good at catching autonomously-generated fake news because it’s equally good at creating it.

“This is due to a finding that is perhaps counterintuitive: strong generators for neural fake news are themselves strong detectors of it,” wrote Rowan Zellers, a PhD student and team member, in a Medium blog post. “A generator of fake news will be most familiar with its own peculiarities, such as using overly common or predictable words, as well as the peculiarities of similar generators.”

The team found that the best current discriminators can classify neural fake news from real, human-created text with 73 percent accuracy. Grover clocks in with 92 percent accuracy based on a training set of 5,000 neural network-generated fake news samples. Zellers wrote that Grover got better at scale, identifying 97.5 percent of made-up machine mumbo jumbo when trained on 80,000 articles.

It performed almost as well against fake news created by a powerful new text-generation system called GPT-2 built by OpenAI, a nonprofit research lab founded by Elon Musk, classifying 96.1 percent of the machine-written articles.

OpenAI had so feared that the platform could be abused that it has only released limited versions of the software. The public can play with a scaled-down version posted by a machine learning engineer named Adam King, where the user types in a short prompt and GPT-2 bangs out a short story or poem based on the snippet of text.

No Silver AI Bullet
While real progress is being made against fake news, the challenges of using AI to detect and correct misinformation are abundant, according to Hugo Williams, outreach manager for Logically, a UK-based startup that is developing different detectors using elements of deep learning and natural language processing, among others. He explained that the Logically models analyze information based on a three-pronged approach.

Publisher metadata: Is the article from a known, reliable, and trustworthy publisher with a history of credible journalism?
Network behavior: Is the article proliferating through social platforms and networks in ways typically associated with misinformation?
Content: The AI scans articles for hundreds of known indicators typically found in misinformation.

“There is no single algorithm which is capable of doing this,” Williams wrote in an email to Singularity Hub. “Even when you have a collection of different algorithms which—when combined—can give you relatively decent indications of what is unreliable or outright false, there will always need to be a human layer in the pipeline.”

The company released a consumer app in India back in February just before that country’s election cycle that was a “great testing ground” to refine its technology for the next app release, which is scheduled in the UK later this year. Users can submit articles for further scrutiny by a real person.

“We see our technology not as replacing traditional verification work, but as a method of simplifying and streamlining a very manual process,” Williams said. “In doing so, we’re able to publish more fact checks at a far quicker pace than other organizations.”

“With heightened analysis and the addition of more contextual information around the stories that our users are reading, we are not telling our users what they should or should not believe, but encouraging critical thinking based upon reliable, credible, and verified content,” he added.

AI may never be able to detect fake news entirely on its own, but it can help us be smarter about what we read on the internet.

Image Credit: Dennis Lytyagin / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435167 A Closer Look at the Robots Helping Us ...

Buck Rogers had Twiki. Luke Skywalker palled around with C-3PO and R2-D2. And astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) now have their own robotic companions in space—Astrobee.

A pair of the cube-shaped robots were launched to the ISS during an April re-supply mission and are currently being commissioned for use on the space station. The free-flying space robots, dubbed Bumble and Honey, are the latest generation of robotic machines to join the human crew on the ISS.

Exploration of the solar system and beyond will require autonomous machines that can assist humans with numerous tasks—or go where we cannot. NASA has said repeatedly that robots will be instrumental in future space missions to the moon, Mars, and even to the icy moon Europa.

The Astrobee robots will specifically test robotic capabilities in zero gravity, replacing the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellite) robots that have been on the ISS for more than a decade to test various technologies ranging from communications to navigation.

The 18-sided robots, each about the size of a volleyball or an oversized Dungeons and Dragons die, use CO2-based cold-gas thrusters for movement and a series of ultrasonic beacons for orientation. The Astrobee robots, on the other hand, can propel themselves autonomously around the interior of the ISS using electric fans and six cameras.

The modular design of the Astrobee robots means they are highly plug-and-play, capable of being reconfigured with different hardware modules. The robots’ software is also open-source, encouraging scientists and programmers to develop and test new algorithms and features.

And, yes, the Astrobee robots will be busy as bees once they are fully commissioned this fall, with experiments planned to begin next year. Scientists hope to learn more about how robots can assist space crews and perform caretaking duties on spacecraft.

Robots Working Together
The Astrobee robots are expected to be joined by a familiar “face” on the ISS later this year—the humanoid robot Robonaut.

Robonaut, also known as R2, was the first US-built robot on the ISS. It joined the crew back in 2011 without legs, which were added in 2014. However, the installation never entirely worked, as R2 experienced power failures that eventually led to its return to Earth last year to fix the problem. If all goes as planned, the space station’s first humanoid robot will return to the ISS to lend a hand to the astronauts and the new robotic arrivals.

In particular, NASA is interested in how the two different robotic platforms can complement each other, with an eye toward outfitting the agency’s proposed lunar orbital space station with various robots that can supplement a human crew.

“We don’t have definite plans for what would happen on the Gateway yet, but there’s a general recognition that intra-vehicular robots are important for space stations,” Astrobee technical lead Trey Smith in the NASA Intelligent Robotics Group told IEEE Spectrum. “And so, it would not be surprising to see a mobile manipulator like Robonaut, and a free flyer like Astrobee, on the Gateway.”

While the focus on R2 has been to test its capabilities in zero gravity and to use it for mundane or dangerous tasks in space, the technology enabling the humanoid robot has proven to be equally useful on Earth.

For example, R2 has amazing dexterity for a robot, with sensors, actuators, and tendons comparable to the nerves, muscles, and tendons in a human hand. Based on that design, engineers are working on a robotic glove that can help factory workers, for instance, do their jobs better while reducing the risk of repetitive injuries. R2 has also inspired development of a robotic exoskeleton for both astronauts in space and paraplegics on Earth.

Working Hard on Soft Robotics
While innovative and technologically sophisticated, Astrobee and Robonaut are typical robots in that neither one would do well in a limbo contest. In other words, most robots are limited in their flexibility and agility based on current hardware and materials.

A subfield of robotics known as soft robotics involves developing robots with highly pliant materials that mimic biological organisms in how they move. Scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center are investigating how soft robots could help with future space exploration.

Specifically, the researchers are looking at a series of properties to understand how actuators—components responsible for moving a robotic part, such as Robonaut’s hand—can be built and used in space.

The team first 3D prints a mold and then pours a flexible material like silicone into the mold. Air bladders or chambers in the actuator expand and compress using just air.

Some of the first applications of soft robotics sound more tool-like than R2-D2-like. For example, two soft robots could connect to produce a temporary shelter for astronauts on the moon or serve as an impromptu wind shield during one of Mars’ infamous dust storms.

The idea is to use soft robots in situations that are “dangerous, dirty, or dull,” according to Jack Fitzpatrick, a NASA intern working on the soft robotics project at Langley.

Working on Mars
Of course, space robots aren’t only designed to assist humans. In many instances, they are the only option to explore even relatively close celestial bodies like Mars. Four American-made robotic rovers have been used to investigate the fourth planet from the sun since 1997.

Opportunity is perhaps the most famous, covering about 25 miles of terrain across Mars over 15 years. A dust storm knocked it out of commission last year, with NASA officially ending the mission in February.

However, the biggest and baddest of the Mars rovers, Curiosity, is still crawling across the Martian surface, sending back valuable data since 2012. The car-size robot carries 17 cameras, a laser to vaporize rocks for study, and a drill to collect samples. It is on the hunt for signs of biological life.

The next year or two could see a virtual traffic jam of robots to Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover is next in line to visit the Red Planet, sporting scientific gadgets like an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for chemical analyses and ground-penetrating radar to see below the Martian surface.

This diagram shows the instrument payload for the Mars 2020 mission. Image Credit: NASA.
Meanwhile, the Europeans have teamed with the Russians on a rover called Rosalind Franklin, named after a famed British chemist, that will drill down into the Martian ground for evidence of past or present life as soon as 2021.

The Chinese are also preparing to begin searching for life on Mars using robots as soon as next year, as part of the country’s Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover program. The mission is scheduled to be the first in a series of launches that would culminate with bringing samples back from Mars to Earth.

Perhaps there is no more famous utterance in the universe of science fiction as “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” However, the fact is that human exploration of the solar system and beyond will only be possible with robots of different sizes, shapes, and sophistication.

Image Credit: NASA. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots