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As useful as conventional fixed-wing and quadrotor drones have become, they still tend to be relatively complicated, expensive machines that you really want to be able to use more than once. When a one-way trip is all that you have in mind, you want something simple, reliable, and cheap, and we’ve seen a bunch of different designs for drone gliders that more or less fulfill those criteria.
For an even simpler gliding design, you want to minimize both airframe mass and control surfaces, and the maple tree provides some inspiration in the form of samara, those distinctive seed pods that whirl to the ground in the fall. Samara are essentially just an unbalanced wing that spins, and while the natural ones don’t steer, adding an actuated flap to the robotic version and moving it at just the right time results in enough controllability to aim for a specific point on the ground.
Roboticists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have been experimenting with samara-inspired drones, and in a new paper in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters they explore what happens if you attach five of the drones together and then separate them in mid air.
Image: Singapore University of Technology and Design
The drone with all five wings attached (top left), and details of the individual wings: (a) smaller 44.9-gram wing for semi-indoor testing; (b) larger 83.4-gram wing able to carry a Pixracer, GPS, and magnetometer for directional control experiments.
Fundamentally, a samara design acts as a decelerator for an aerial payload. You can think of it like a parachute: It makes sure that whatever you toss out of an airplane gets to the ground intact rather than just smashing itself to bits on impact. Steering is possible, but you don’t get a lot of stability or precision control. The RA-L paper describes one solution to this, which is to collaboratively use five drones at once in a configuration that looks a bit like a helicopter rotor.
And once the multi-drone is right where you want it, the five individual samara drones can split off all at once, heading out on their own missions. It's quite a sight:
The concept features a collaborative autorotation in the initial stage of drop whereby several wings are attached to each other to form a rotor hub. The combined form achieves higher rotational energy and a collaborative control strategy is possible. Once closer to the ground, they can exit the collaborative form and continue to descend to unique destinations. A section of each wing forms a flap and a small actuator changes its pitch cyclically. Since all wing-flaps can actuate simultaneously in collaborative mode, better maneuverability is possible, hence higher resistance against environmental conditions. The vertical and horizontal speeds can be controlled to a certain extent, allowing it to navigate towards a target location and land softly.
The samara autorotating wing drones themselves could conceivably carry small payloads like sensors or emergency medical supplies, with these small-scale versions in the video able to handle an extra 30 grams of payload. While they might not have as much capacity as a traditional fixed-wing glider, they have the advantage of being able to descent vertically, and can perform better than a parachute due to their ability to steer. The researchers plan on improving the design of their little drones, with the goal of increasing the rotation speed and improving the control performance of both the individual drones and the multi-wing collaborative version.
“Dynamics and Control of a Collaborative and Separating Descent of Samara Autorotating Wings,” by Shane Kyi Hla Win, Luke Soe Thura Win, Danial Sufiyan, Gim Song Soh, and Shaohui Foong from Singapore University of Technology and Design, appears in the current issue of IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.
[ SUTD ]
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After 25 million games, the AI agents playing hide-and-seek with each other had mastered four basic game strategies. The researchers expected that part.
After a total of 380 million games, the AI players developed strategies that the researchers didn’t know were possible in the game environment—which the researchers had themselves created. That was the part that surprised the team at OpenAI, a research company based in San Francisco.
The AI players learned everything via a machine learning technique known as reinforcement learning. In this learning method, AI agents start out by taking random actions. Sometimes those random actions produce desired results, which earn them rewards. Via trial-and-error on a massive scale, they can learn sophisticated strategies.
In the context of games, this process can be abetted by having the AI play against another version of itself, ensuring that the opponents will be evenly matched. It also locks the AI into a process of one-upmanship, where any new strategy that emerges forces the opponent to search for a countermeasure. Over time, this “self-play” amounted to what the researchers call an “auto-curriculum.”
According to OpenAI researcher Igor Mordatch, this experiment shows that self-play “is enough for the agents to learn surprising behaviors on their own—it’s like children playing with each other.”
Reinforcement is a hot field of AI research right now. OpenAI’s researchers used the technique when they trained a team of bots to play the video game Dota 2, which squashed a world-champion human team last April. The Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind has used it to triumph in the ancient board game Go and the video game StarCraft.
Aniruddha Kembhavi, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, says games such as hide-and-seek offer a good way for AI agents to learn “foundational skills.” He worked on a team that taught their AllenAI to play Pictionary with humans, viewing the gameplay as a way for the AI to work on common sense reasoning and communication. “We are, however, quite far away from being able to translate these preliminary findings in highly simplified environments into the real world,” says Kembhavi.
AI agents construct a fort during a hide-and-seek game developed by OpenAI.
In OpenAI’s game of hide-and-seek, both the hiders and the seekers received a reward only if they won the game, leaving the AI players to develop their own strategies. Within a simple 3D environment containing walls, blocks, and ramps, the players first learned to run around and chase each other (strategy 1). The hiders next learned to move the blocks around to build forts (2), and then the seekers learned to move the ramps (3), enabling them to jump inside the forts. Then the hiders learned to move all the ramps into their forts before the seekers could use them (4).
The two strategies that surprised the researchers came next. First the seekers learned that they could jump onto a box and “surf” it over to a fort (5), allowing them to jump in—a maneuver that the researchers hadn’t realized was physically possible in the game environment. So as a final countermeasure, the hiders learned to lock all the boxes into place (6) so they weren’t available for use as surfboards.
An AI agent uses a nearby box to surf its way into a competitor’s fort.
In this circumstance, having AI agents behave in an unexpected way wasn’t a problem: They found different paths to their rewards, but didn’t cause any trouble. However, you can imagine situations in which the outcome would be rather serious. Robots acting in the real world could do real damage. And then there’s Nick Bostrom’s famous example of a paper clip factory run by an AI, whose goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. As Bostrom told IEEE Spectrum back in 2014, the AI might realize that “human bodies consist of atoms, and those atoms could be used to make some very nice paper clips.”
Bowen Baker, another member of the OpenAI research team, notes that it’s hard to predict all the ways an AI agent will act inside an environment—even a simple one. “Building these environments is hard,” he says. “The agents will come up with these unexpected behaviors, which will be a safety problem down the road when you put them in more complex environments.”
AI researcher Katja Hofmann at Microsoft Research Cambridge, in England, has seen a lot of gameplay by AI agents: She started a competition that uses Minecraft as the playing field. She says the emergent behavior seen in this game, and in prior experiments by other researchers, shows that games can be a useful for studies of safe and responsible AI.
“I find demonstrations like this, in games and game-like settings, a great way to explore the capabilities and limitations of existing approaches in a safe environment,” says Hofmann. “Results like these will help us develop a better understanding on how to validate and debug reinforcement learning systems–a crucial step on the path towards real-world applications.”
Baker says there’s also a hopeful takeaway from the surprises in the hide-and-seek experiment. “If you put these agents into a rich enough environment they will find strategies that we never knew were possible,” he says. “Maybe they can solve problems that we can’t imagine solutions to.” Continue reading
RoboCup 2019 took place earlier this month down in Sydney, Australia. While there are many different events including RoboCup@Home, RoboCup Rescue, and a bunch of different soccer leagues, one of the most compelling events is middle-size league (MSL), where mobile robots each about the size of a fire hydrant play soccer using a regular size FIFA soccer ball. The robots are fully autonomous, making their own decisions in real time about when to dribble, pass, and shoot.
The long-term goal of RoboCup is this:
By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.
While the robots are certainly not there yet, they're definitely getting closer.
Even if you’re not a particular fan of soccer, it’s impressive to watch the robots coordinate with each other, setting up multiple passes and changing tactics on the fly in response to the movements of the other team. And the ability of these robots to shoot accurately is world-class (like, human world-class), as they’re seemingly able to put the ball in whatever corner of the goal they choose with split-second timing.
The final match was between Tech United from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (whose robots are called TURTLE), and Team Water from Beijing Information Science & Technology University. Without spoiling it, I can tell you that the game was tied within just the last few seconds, meaning that it had to go to overtime. You can watch the entire match on YouTube, or a 5-minute commentated highlight video here:
It’s become a bit of a tradition to have the winning MSL robots play a team of what looks to be inexperienced adult humans wearing long pants and dress shoes.
The fact that the robots managed to score even once is pretty awesome, and it also looks like the robots are playing very conservatively (more so than the humans) so as not to accidentally injure any of us fragile meatbags with our spindly little legs. I get that RoboCup wants its first team of robots that can beat a human World Cup winning team to be humanoids, but at the moment, the MSL robots are where all the skill is.
To get calibrated on the state of the art for humanoid soccer robots, here’s the adult size final, Team Nimbro from the University of Bonn in Germany versus Team Sweaty from Offenburg University in Germany:
Yup, still a lot of falling over.
There’s lots more RoboCup on YouTube: Some channels to find more matches include the official RoboCup 2019 channel, and Tech United Eindhoven’s channel, which has both live English commentary and some highlight videos.
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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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