Tag Archives: mechanism

#435597 Water Jet Powered Drone Takes Off With ...

At ICRA 2015, the Aerial Robotics Lab at the Imperial College London presented a concept for a multimodal flying swimming robot called AquaMAV. The really difficult thing about a flying and swimming robot isn’t so much the transition from the first to the second, since you can manage that even if your robot is completely dead (thanks to gravity), but rather the other way: going from water to air, ideally in a stable and repetitive way. The AquaMAV concept solved this by basically just applying as much concentrated power as possible to the problem, using a jet thruster to hurl the robot out of the water with quite a bit of velocity to spare.

In a paper appearing in Science Robotics this week, the roboticists behind AquaMAV present a fully operational robot that uses a solid-fuel powered chemical reaction to generate an explosion that powers the robot into the air.

The 2015 version of AquaMAV, which was mostly just some very vintage-looking computer renderings and a little bit of hardware, used a small cylinder of CO2 to power its water jet thruster. This worked pretty well, but the mass and complexity of the storage and release mechanism for the compressed gas wasn’t all that practical for a flying robot designed for long-term autonomy. It’s a familiar challenge, especially for pneumatically powered soft robots—how do you efficiently generate gas on-demand, especially if you need a lot of pressure all at once?

An explosion propels the drone out of the water
There’s one obvious way of generating large amounts of pressurized gas all at once, and that’s explosions. We’ve seen robots use explosive thrust for mobility before, at a variety of scales, and it’s very effective as long as you can both properly harness the explosion and generate the fuel with a minimum of fuss, and this latest version of AquaMAV manages to do both:

The water jet coming out the back of this robot aircraft is being propelled by a gas explosion. The gas comes from the reaction between a little bit of calcium carbide powder stored inside the robot, and water. Water is mixed with the powder one drop at a time, producing acetylene gas, which gets piped into a combustion chamber along with air and water. When ignited, the acetylene air mixture explodes, forcing the water out of the combustion chamber and providing up to 51 N of thrust, which is enough to launch the 160-gram robot 26 meters up and over the water at 11 m/s. It takes just 50 mg of calcium carbide (mixed with 3 drops of water) to generate enough acetylene for each explosion, and both air and water are of course readily available. With 0.2 g of calcium carbide powder on board, the robot has enough fuel for multiple jumps, and the jump is powerful enough that the robot can get airborne even under fairly aggressive sea conditions.

Image: Science Robotics

The robot can transition from a floating state to an airborne jetting phase and back to floating (A). A 3D model render of the underside of the robot (B) shows the electronics capsule. The capsule contains the fuel tank (C), where calcium carbide reacts with air and water to propel the vehicle.

Next step: getting the robot to fly autonomously
Providing adequate thrust is just one problem that needs to be solved when attempting to conquer the water-air transition with a fixed-wing robot. The overall design of the robot itself is a challenge as well, because the optimal design and balance for the robot is quite different in each phase of operation, as the paper describes:

For the vehicle to fly in a stable manner during the jetting phase, the center of mass must be a significant distance in front of the center of pressure of the vehicle. However, to maintain a stable floating position on the water surface and the desired angle during jetting, the center of mass must be located behind the center of buoyancy. For the gliding phase, a fine balance between the center of mass and the center of pressure must be struck to achieve static longitudinal flight stability passively. During gliding, the center of mass should be slightly forward from the wing’s center of pressure.

The current version is mostly optimized for the jetting phase of flight, and doesn’t have any active flight control surfaces yet, but the researchers are optimistic that if they added some they’d have no problem getting the robot to fly autonomously. It’s just a glider at the moment, but a low-power propeller is the obvious step after that, and to get really fancy, a switchable gearbox could enable efficient movement on water as well as in the air. Long-term, the idea is that robots like these would be useful for tasks like autonomous water sampling over large areas, but I’d personally be satisfied with a remote controlled version that I could take to the beach.

“Consecutive aquatic jump-gliding with water-reactive fuel,” by R. Zufferey, A. Ortega Ancel, A. Farinha, R. Siddall, S. F. Armanini, M. Nasr, R. V. Brahmal, G. Kennedy, and M. Kovac from Imperial College in London, is published in the current issue of Science Robotics. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435583 Soft Self-Healing Materials for Robots ...

If there’s one thing we know about robots, it’s that they break. They break, like, literally all the time. The software breaks. The hardware breaks. The bits that you think could never, ever, ever possibly break end up breaking just when you need them not to break the most, and then you have to try to explain what happened to your advisor who’s been standing there watching your robot fail and then stay up all night fixing the thing that seriously was not supposed to break.

While most of this is just a fundamental characteristic of robots that can’t be helped, the European Commission is funding a project called SHERO (Self HEaling soft RObotics) to try and solve at least some of those physical robot breaking problems through the use of structural materials that can autonomously heal themselves over and over again.

SHERO is a three year, €3 million collaboration between Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris), and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa). As the name SHERO suggests, the goal of the project is to develop soft materials that can completely recover from the kinds of damage that robots are likely to suffer in day to day operations, as well as the occasional more extreme accident.

Most materials, especially soft materials, are fixable somehow, whether it’s with super glue or duct tape. But fixing things involves a human first identifying when they’re broken, and then performing a potentially skill, labor, time, and money intensive task. SHERO’s soft materials will, eventually, make this entire process autonomous, allowing robots to self-identify damage and initiate healing on their own.

Photos: SHERO Project

The damaged robot finger [top] can operate normally after healing itself.

How the self-healing material works
What these self-healing materials can do is really pretty amazing. The researchers are actually developing two different types—the first one heals itself when there’s an application of heat, either internally or externally, which gives some control over when and how the healing process starts. For example, if the robot is handling stuff that’s dirty, you’d want to get it cleaned up before healing it so that dirt doesn’t become embedded in the material. This could mean that the robot either takes itself to a heating station, or it could activate some kind of embedded heating mechanism to be more self-sufficient.

The second kind of self-healing material is autonomous, in that it will heal itself at room temperature without any additional input, and is probably more suitable for relatively minor scrapes and cracks. Here are some numbers about how well the healing works:

Autonomous self-healing polymers do not require heat. They can heal damage at room temperature. Developing soft robotic systems from autonomous self-healing polymers excludes the need of additional heating devices… The healing however takes some time. The healing efficiency after 3 days, 7 days and 14 days is respectively 62 percent, 91 percent and 97 percent.

This material was used to develop a healable soft pneumatic hand. Relevant large cuts can be healed entirely without the need of external heat stimulus. Depending on the size of the damage and even more on the location of damage, the healing takes only seconds or up to a week. Damage on locations on the actuator that are subjected to very small stresses during actuation was healed instantaneously. Larger damages, like cutting the actuator completely in half, took 7 days to heal. But even this severe damage could be healed completely without the need of any external stimulus.

Applications of self-healing robots
Both of these materials can be mixed together, and their mechanical properties can be customized so that the structure that they’re a part of can be tuned to move in different ways. The researchers also plan on introducing flexible conductive sensors into the material, which will help sense damage as well as providing position feedback for control systems. A lot of development will happen over the next few years, and for more details, we spoke with Bram Vanderborght at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

IEEE Spectrum: How easy or difficult or expensive is it to produce these materials? Will they add significant cost to robotic grippers?

Bram Vanderborght: They are definitely more expensive materials, but it’s also a matter of size of production. At the moment, we’ve made a few kilograms of the material (enough to make several demonstrators), and the price already dropped significantly from when we ordered 100 grams of the material in the first phase of the project. So probably the cost of the gripper will be higher [than a regular gripper], but you won’t need to replace the gripper as often as other grippers that need to be replaced due to wear, so it can be an advantage.

Moreover due to the method of 3D printing the material, the surface is smoother and airtight (so no post-processing is required to make it airtight). Also, the smooth surface is better to avoid contamination for food handling, for example.

In commercial or industrial applications, gradual fatigue seems to be a more common issue than more abrupt trauma like cuts. How well does the self-healing work to improve durability over long periods of time?

We did not test for gradual fatigue over very long times. But both macroscopic and microscopic damage can be healed. So hopefully it can provide an answer here as well.

Image: SHERO Project

After developing a self-healing robot gripper, the researchers plan to use similar materials to build parts that can be used as the skeleton of robots, allowing them to repair themselves on a regular basis.

How much does the self-healing capability restrict the material properties? What are the limits for softness or hardness or smoothness or other characteristics of the material?

Typically the mechanical properties of networked polymers are much better than thermoplastics. Our material is a networked polymer but in which the crosslinks are reversible. We can change quite a lot of parameters in the design of the materials. So we can develop very stiff (fracture strain at 1.24 percent) and very elastic materials (fracture strain at 450 percent). The big advantage that our material has is we can mix it to have intermediate properties. Moreover, at the interface of the materials with different mechanical properties, we have the same chemical bonds, so the interface is perfect. While other materials, they may need to glue it, which gives local stresses and a weak spot.

When the material heals itself, is it less structurally sound in that spot? Can it heal damage that happens to the same spot over and over again?

In theory we can heal it an infinite amount of times. When the wound is not perfectly aligned, of course in that spot it will become weaker. Also too high temperatures lead to irreversible bonds, and impurities lead to weak spots.

Besides grippers and skins, what other potential robotics applications would this technology be useful for?

Most of self healing materials available now are used for coatings. What we are developing are structural components, therefore the mechanical properties of the material need to be good for such applications. So maybe part of the skeleton of the robot can be developed with such materials to make it lighter, since can be designed for regular repair. And for exceptional loads, it breaks and can be repaired like our human body.

[ SHERO Project ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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

Posted in Human Robots

#435172 DARPA’s New Project Is Investing ...

When Elon Musk and DARPA both hop aboard the cyborg hypetrain, you know brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are about to achieve the impossible.

BMIs, already the stuff of science fiction, facilitate crosstalk between biological wetware with external computers, turning human users into literal cyborgs. Yet mind-controlled robotic arms, microelectrode “nerve patches”, or “memory Band-Aids” are still purely experimental medical treatments for those with nervous system impairments.

With the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, DARPA is looking to expand BMIs to the military. This month, the project tapped six academic teams to engineer radically different BMIs to hook up machines to the brains of able-bodied soldiers. The goal is to ditch surgery altogether—while minimizing any biological interventions—to link up brain and machine.

Rather than microelectrodes, which are currently surgically inserted into the brain to hijack neural communication, the project is looking to acoustic signals, electromagnetic waves, nanotechnology, genetically-enhanced neurons, and infrared beams for their next-gen BMIs.

It’s a radical departure from current protocol, with potentially thrilling—or devastating—impact. Wireless BMIs could dramatically boost bodily functions of veterans with neural damage or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or allow a single soldier to control swarms of AI-enabled drones with his or her mind. Or, similar to the Black Mirror episode Men Against Fire, it could cloud the perception of soldiers, distancing them from the emotional guilt of warfare.

When trickled down to civilian use, these new technologies are poised to revolutionize medical treatment. Or they could galvanize the transhumanist movement with an inconceivably powerful tool that fundamentally alters society—for better or worse.

Here’s what you need to know.

Radical Upgrades
The four-year N3 program focuses on two main aspects: noninvasive and “minutely” invasive neural interfaces to both read and write into the brain.

Because noninvasive technologies sit on the scalp, their sensors and stimulators will likely measure entire networks of neurons, such as those controlling movement. These systems could then allow soldiers to remotely pilot robots in the field—drones, rescue bots, or carriers like Boston Dynamics’ BigDog. The system could even boost multitasking prowess—mind-controlling multiple weapons at once—similar to how able-bodied humans can operate a third robotic arm in addition to their own two.

In contrast, minutely invasive technologies allow scientists to deliver nanotransducers without surgery: for example, an injection of a virus carrying light-sensitive sensors, or other chemical, biotech, or self-assembled nanobots that can reach individual neurons and control their activity independently without damaging sensitive tissue. The proposed use for these technologies isn’t yet well-specified, but as animal experiments have shown, controlling the activity of single neurons at multiple points is sufficient to program artificial memories of fear, desire, and experiences directly into the brain.

“A neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters is the ultimate program goal,” DARPA wrote in its funding brief, released early last year.

The only technologies that will be considered must have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects.

“Final N3 deliverables will include a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system,” the project description states. This doesn’t just include hardware, but also new algorithms tailored to these system, demonstrated in a “Department of Defense-relevant application.”

The Tools
Right off the bat, the usual tools of the BMI trade, including microelectrodes, MRI, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are off the table. These popular technologies rely on surgery, heavy machinery, or personnel to sit very still—conditions unlikely in the real world.

The six teams will tap into three different kinds of natural phenomena for communication: magnetism, light beams, and acoustic waves.

Dr. Jacob Robinson at Rice University, for example, is combining genetic engineering, infrared laser beams, and nanomagnets for a bidirectional system. The $18 million project, MOANA (Magnetic, Optical and Acoustic Neural Access device) uses viruses to deliver two extra genes into the brain. One encodes a protein that sits on top of neurons and emits infrared light when the cell activates. Red and infrared light can penetrate through the skull. This lets a skull cap, embedded with light emitters and detectors, pick up these signals for subsequent decoding. Ultra-fast and utra-sensitvie photodetectors will further allow the cap to ignore scattered light and tease out relevant signals emanating from targeted portions of the brain, the team explained.

The other new gene helps write commands into the brain. This protein tethers iron nanoparticles to the neurons’ activation mechanism. Using magnetic coils on the headset, the team can then remotely stimulate magnetic super-neurons to fire while leaving others alone. Although the team plans to start in cell cultures and animals, their goal is to eventually transmit a visual image from one person to another. “In four years we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought and without brain surgery,” said Robinson.

Other projects in N3 are just are ambitious.

The Carnegie Mellon team, for example, plans to use ultrasound waves to pinpoint light interaction in targeted brain regions, which can then be measured through a wearable “hat.” To write into the brain, they propose a flexible, wearable electrical mini-generator that counterbalances the noisy effect of the skull and scalp to target specific neural groups.

Similarly, a group at Johns Hopkins is also measuring light path changes in the brain to correlate them with regional brain activity to “read” wetware commands.

The Teledyne Scientific & Imaging group, in contrast, is turning to tiny light-powered “magnetometers” to detect small, localized magnetic fields that neurons generate when they fire, and match these signals to brain output.

The nonprofit Battelle team gets even fancier with their ”BrainSTORMS” nanotransducers: magnetic nanoparticles wrapped in a piezoelectric shell. The shell can convert electrical signals from neurons into magnetic ones and vice-versa. This allows external transceivers to wirelessly pick up the transformed signals and stimulate the brain through a bidirectional highway.

The magnetometers can be delivered into the brain through a nasal spray or other non-invasive methods, and magnetically guided towards targeted brain regions. When no longer needed, they can once again be steered out of the brain and into the bloodstream, where the body can excrete them without harm.

Four-Year Miracle
Mind-blown? Yeah, same. However, the challenges facing the teams are enormous.

DARPA’s stated goal is to hook up at least 16 sites in the brain with the BMI, with a lag of less than 50 milliseconds—on the scale of average human visual perception. That’s crazy high resolution for devices sitting outside the brain, both in space and time. Brain tissue, blood vessels, and the scalp and skull are all barriers that scatter and dissipate neural signals. All six teams will need to figure out the least computationally-intensive ways to fish out relevant brain signals from background noise, and triangulate them to the appropriate brain region to decipher intent.

In the long run, four years and an average $20 million per project isn’t much to potentially transform our relationship with machines—for better or worse. DARPA, to its credit, is keenly aware of potential misuse of remote brain control. The program is under the guidance of a panel of external advisors with expertise in bioethical issues. And although DARPA’s focus is on enabling able-bodied soldiers to better tackle combat challenges, it’s hard to argue that wireless, non-invasive BMIs will also benefit those most in need: veterans and other people with debilitating nerve damage. To this end, the program is heavily engaging the FDA to ensure it meets safety and efficacy regulations for human use.

Will we be there in just four years? I’m skeptical. But these electrical, optical, acoustic, magnetic, and genetic BMIs, as crazy as they sound, seem inevitable.

“DARPA is preparing for a future in which a combination of unmanned systems, AI, and cyber operations may cause conflicts to play out on timelines that are too short for humans to effectively manage with current technology alone,” said Al Emondi, the N3 program manager.

The question is, now that we know what’s in store, how should the rest of us prepare?

Image Credit: With permission from DARPA N3 project. Continue reading

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