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Small robots are appealing because they’re simple, cheap, and it’s easy to make a lot of them. Unfortunately, being simple and cheap means that each robot individually can’t do a whole lot. To make up for this, you can do what insects do—leverage that simplicity and low-cost to just make a huge swarm of simple robots, and together, they can cooperate to carry out relatively complex tasks.
Using insects as an example does set a bit of an unfair expectation for the poor robots, since insects are (let’s be honest) generally smarter and much more versatile than a robot on their scale could ever hope to be. Most robots with insect-like capabilities (like DASH and its family) are really too big and complex to be turned into swarms, because to make a vast amount of small robots, things like motors aren’t going to work because they’re too expensive.
The question, then, is to how to make a swarm of inexpensive small robots with insect-like mobility that don’t need motors to get around, and Jamie Paik’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL has an answer, inspired by trap-jaw ants.
Let’s talk about trap-jaw ants for just a second, because they’re insane. You can read this 2006 paper about them if you’re particularly interested in insane ants (and who isn’t!), but if you just want to hear the insane bit, it’s that trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground (!). In just 0.06 millisecond, their half-millimeter long mandibles can close at a top speed of 64 meters per second, which works out to an acceleration of about 100,000 g’s. Biting the ground causes the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself, which launches the ant upwards. The ants can fly 8 centimeters vertically, and up to 15 cm horizontally—this is a lot, for an ant that’s just a few millimeters long.
Trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground, causing the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself
EPFL’s robots, called Tribots, look nothing at all like trap-jaw ants, which personally I am fine with. They’re about 5 cm tall, weighing 10 grams each, and can be built on a flat sheet, and then folded into a tripod shape, origami-style. Or maybe it’s kirigami, because there’s some cutting involved. The Tribots are fully autonomous, meaning they have onboard power and control, including proximity sensors that allow them to detect objects and avoid them.
Photo: Marc Delachaux/EPFL
EPFL researchers Zhenishbek Zhakypov and Jamie Paik.
Avoiding objects is where the trap-jaw ants come in. Using two different shape-memory actuators (a spring and a latch, similar to how the ant’s jaw works), the Tribots can move around using a bunch of different techniques that can adapt to the terrain that they’re on, including:
Vertical jumping for height
Horizontal jumping for distance
Somersault jumping to clear obstacles
Walking on textured terrain with short hops (called “flic-flac” walking)
Crawling on flat surfaces
Here’s the robot in action:
Tribot’s maximum vertical jump is 14 cm (2.5 times its height), and horizontally it can jump about 23 cm (almost 4 times its length). Tribot is actually quite efficient in these movements, with a cost of transport much lower than similarly-sized robots, on par with insects themselves.
Working together, small groups of Tribots can complete tasks that a single robot couldn’t do alone. One example is pushing a heavy object a set distance. It turns out that you need five Tribots for this task—a leader robot, two worker robots, a monitor robot to measure the distance that the object has been pushed, and then a messenger robot to relay communications around the obstacle.
Five Tribots collaborate to move an object to a desired position, using coordination between a leader, two workers, a monitor, and a messenger robot. The leader orders the two worker robots to push the object while the monitor measures the relative position of the object. As the object blocks the two-way link between the leader and the monitor, the messenger maintains the communication link.
The researchers acknowledge that the current version of the hardware is limited in pretty much every way (mobility, sensing, and computation), but it does a reasonable job of demonstrating what’s possible with the concept. The plan going forward is to automate fabrication in order to “enable on-demand, ’push-button-manufactured’” robots.
“Designing minimal and scalable insect-inspired multi-locomotion millirobots,” by Zhenishbek Zhakypov, Kazuaki Mori, Koh Hosoda, and Jamie Paik from EPFL and Osaka University, is published in the current issue of Nature.
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The narrative that often accompanies most stories about artificial intelligence these days is how machines will disrupt any number of industries, from healthcare to transportation. It makes sense. After all, technology already drives many of the innovations in these sectors of the economy.
But sneakers and the red carpet? The definitively low-tech fashion industry would seem to be one of the last to turn over its creative direction to data scientists and machine learning algorithms.
However, big brands, e-commerce giants, and numerous startups are betting that AI can ingest data and spit out Chanel. Maybe it’s not surprising, given that fashion is partly about buzz and trends—and there’s nothing more buzzy and trendy in the world of tech today than AI.
In its annual survey of the $3 trillion fashion industry, consulting firm McKinsey predicted that while AI didn’t hit a “critical mass” in 2018, it would increasingly influence the business of everything from design to manufacturing.
“Fashion as an industry really has been so slow to understand its potential roles interwoven with technology. And, to be perfectly honest, the technology doesn’t take fashion seriously.” This comment comes from Zowie Broach, head of fashion at London’s Royal College of Arts, who as a self-described “old fashioned” designer has embraced the disruptive nature of technology—with some caveats.
Co-founder in the late 1990s of the avant-garde fashion label Boudicca, Broach has always seen tech as a tool for designers, even setting up a website for the company circa 1998, way before an online presence became, well, fashionable.
Broach told Singularity Hub that while she is generally optimistic about the future of technology in fashion—the designer has avidly been consuming old sci-fi novels over the last few years—there are still a lot of difficult questions to answer about the interface of algorithms, art, and apparel.
For instance, can AI do what the great designers of the past have done? Fashion was “about designing, it was about a narrative, it was about meaning, it was about expression,” according to Broach.
AI that designs products based on data gleaned from human behavior can potentially tap into the Pavlovian response in consumers in order to make money, Broach noted. But is that channeling creativity, or just digitally dabbling in basic human brain chemistry?
She is concerned about people retaining control of the process, whether we’re talking about their data or their designs. But being empowered with the insights machines could provide into, for example, the geographical nuances of fashion between Dubai, Moscow, and Toronto is thrilling.
“What is it that we want the future to be from a fashion, an identity, and design perspective?” she asked.
Off on the Right Foot
Silicon Valley and some of the biggest brands in the industry offer a few answers about where AI and fashion are headed (though not at the sort of depths that address Broach’s broader questions of aesthetics and ethics).
Take what is arguably the biggest brand in fashion, at least by market cap but probably not by the measure of appearances on Oscar night: Nike. The $100 billion shoe company just gobbled up an AI startup called Celect to bolster its data analytics and optimize its inventory. In other words, Nike hopes it will be able to figure out what’s hot and what’s not in a particular location to stock its stores more efficiently.
The company is going even further with Nike Fit, a foot-scanning platform using a smartphone camera that applies AI techniques from fields like computer vision and machine learning to find the best fit for each person’s foot. The algorithms then identify and recommend the appropriately sized and shaped shoe in different styles.
No doubt the next step will be to 3D print personalized and on-demand sneakers at any store.
San Francisco-based startup ThirdLove is trying to bring a similar approach to bra sizes. Its 20-member data team, Fortune reported, has developed the Fit Finder quiz that uses machine learning algorithms to help pick just the right garment for every body type.
Data scientists are also a big part of the team at Stitch Fix, a former San Francisco startup that went public in 2017 and today sports a market cap of more than $2 billion. The online “personal styling” company uses hundreds of algorithms to not only make recommendations to customers, but to help design new styles and even manage the subscription-based supply chain.
Future of Fashion
E-commerce giant Amazon has thrown its own considerable resources into developing AI applications for retail fashion—with mixed results.
One notable attempt involved a “styling assistant” that came with the company’s Echo Look camera that helped people catalog and manage their wardrobes, evening helping pick out each day’s attire. The company more recently revisited the direct consumer side of AI with an app called StyleSnap, which matches clothes and accessories uploaded to the site with the retailer’s vast inventory and recommends similar styles.
Behind the curtains, Amazon is going even further. A team of researchers in Israel have developed algorithms that can deduce whether a particular look is stylish based on a few labeled images. Another group at the company’s San Francisco research center was working on tech that could generate new designs of items based on images of a particular style the algorithms trained on.
“I will say that the accumulation of many new technologies across the industry could manifest in a highly specialized style assistant, far better than the examples we’ve seen today. However, the most likely thing is that the least sexy of the machine learning work will become the most impactful, and the public may never hear about it.”
That prediction is from an online interview with Leanne Luce, a fashion technology blogger and product manager at Google who recently wrote a book called, succinctly enough, Artificial Intelligence and Fashion.
Data Meets Design
Academics are also sticking their beakers into AI and fashion. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Adobe Research have previously demonstrated that neural networks, a type of AI designed to mimic some aspects of the human brain, can be trained to generate (i.e., design) new product images to match a buyer’s preference, much like the team at Amazon.
Meanwhile, scientists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are working with China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba, on developing a FashionAI Dataset to help machines better understand fashion. The effort will focus on how algorithms approach certain building blocks of design, what are called “key points” such as neckline and waistline, and “fashion attributes” like collar types and skirt styles.
The man largely behind the university’s research team is Calvin Wong, a professor and associate head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing. His group has also developed an “intelligent fabric defect detection system” called WiseEye for quality control, reducing the chance of producing substandard fabric by 90 percent.
Wong and company also recently inked an agreement with RCA to establish an AI-powered design laboratory, though the details of that venture have yet to be worked out, according to Broach.
One hope is that such collaborations will not just get at the technological challenges of using machines in creative endeavors like fashion, but will also address the more personal relationships humans have with their machines.
“I think who we are, and how we use AI in fashion, as our identity, is not a superficial skin. It’s very, very important for how we define our future,” Broach said.
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Discovering a new drug can take decades, billions of dollars, and untold man hours from some of the smartest people on the planet. Now a startup says it’s taken a significant step towards speeding the process up using AI.
The typical drug discovery process involves carrying out physical tests on enormous libraries of molecules, and even with the help of robotics it’s an arduous process. The idea of sidestepping this by using computers to virtually screen for promising candidates has been around for decades. But progress has been underwhelming, and it’s still not a major part of commercial pipelines.
Recent advances in deep learning, however, have reignited hopes for the field, and major pharma companies have started tying up with AI-powered drug discovery startups. And now Insilico Medicine has used AI to design a molecule that effectively targets a protein involved in fibrosis—the formation of excess fibrous tissue—in mice in just 46 days.
The platform the company has developed combines two of the hottest sub-fields of AI: the generative adversarial networks, or GANs, which power deepfakes, and reinforcement learning, which is at the heart of the most impressive game-playing AI advances of recent years.
In a paper in Nature Biotechnology, the company’s researchers describe how they trained their model on all the molecules already known to target this protein as well as many other active molecules from various datasets. The model was then used to generate 30,000 candidate molecules.
Unlike most previous efforts, they went a step further and selected the most promising molecules for testing in the lab. The 30,000 candidates were whittled down to just 6 using more conventional drug discovery approaches and were then synthesized in the lab. They were put through increasingly stringent tests, but the leading candidate was found to be effective at targeting the desired protein and behaved as one would hope a drug would.
The authors are clear that the results are just a proof-of-concept, which company CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told Wired stemmed from a challenge set by a pharma partner to design a drug as quickly as possible. But they say they were able to carry out the process faster than traditional methods for a fraction of the cost.
There are some caveats. For a start, the protein being targeted is already very well known and multiple effective drugs exist for it. That gave the company a wealth of data to train their model on, something that isn’t the case for many of the diseases where we urgently need new drugs.
The company’s platform also only targets the very initial stages of the drug discovery process. The authors concede in their paper that the molecules would still take considerable optimization in the lab before they’d be true contenders for clinical trials.
“And that is where you will start to begin to commence to spend the vast piles of money that you will eventually go through in trying to get a drug to market,” writes Derek Lowe in his blog In The Pipeline. The part of the discovery process that the platform tackles represents a tiny fraction of the total cost of drug development, he says.
Nonetheless, the research is a definite advance for virtual screening technology and an important marker of the potential of AI for designing new medicines. Zhavoronkov also told Wired that this research was done more than a year ago, and they’ve since adapted the platform to go after harder drug targets with less data.
And with big pharma companies desperate to slash their ballooning development costs and find treatments for a host of intractable diseases, they can use all the help they can get.
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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.
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.
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.
“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.
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