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The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
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Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
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On a dark night, away from city lights, the stars of the Milky Way can seem uncountable. Yet from any given location no more than 4,500 are visible to the naked eye. Meanwhile, our galaxy has 100–400 billion stars, and there are even more galaxies in the universe.
The numbers of the night sky are humbling. And they give us a deep perspective…on drugs.
Yes, this includes wow-the-stars-are-freaking-amazing-tonight drugs, but also the kinds of drugs that make us well again when we’re sick. The number of possible organic compounds with “drug-like” properties dwarfs the number of stars in the universe by over 30 orders of magnitude.
Next to this multiverse of possibility, the chemical configurations scientists have made into actual medicines are like the smattering of stars you’d glimpse downtown.
But for good reason.
Exploring all that potential drug-space is as humanly impossible as exploring all of physical space, and even if we could, most of what we’d find wouldn’t fit our purposes. Still, the idea that wonder drugs must surely lurk amid the multitudes is too tantalizing to ignore.
Which is why, Alex Zhavoronkov said at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine in San Diego last week, we should use artificial intelligence to do more of the legwork and speed discovery. This, he said, could be one of the next big medical applications for AI.
Dogs, Diagnosis, and Drugs
Zhavoronkov is CEO of Insilico Medicine and CSO of the Biogerontology Research Foundation. Insilico is one of a number of AI startups aiming to accelerate drug discovery with AI.
In recent years, Zhavoronkov said, the now-famous machine learning technique, deep learning, has made progress on a number of fronts. Algorithms that can teach themselves to play games—like DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero or Carnegie Mellon’s poker playing AI—are perhaps the most headline-grabbing of the bunch. But pattern recognition was the thing that kicked deep learning into overdrive early on, when machine learning algorithms went from struggling to tell dogs and cats apart to outperforming their peers and then their makers in quick succession.
[Watch this video for an AI update from Neil Jacobstein, chair of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Singularity University.]
In medicine, deep learning algorithms trained on databases of medical images can spot life-threatening disease with equal or greater accuracy than human professionals. There’s even speculation that AI, if we learn to trust it, could be invaluable in diagnosing disease. And, as Zhavoronkov noted, with more applications and a longer track record that trust is coming.
“Tesla is already putting cars on the street,” Zhavoronkov said. “Three-year, four-year-old technology is already carrying passengers from point A to point B, at 100 miles an hour, and one mistake and you’re dead. But people are trusting their lives to this technology.”
“So, why don’t we do it in pharma?”
Trial and Error and Try Again
AI wouldn’t drive the car in pharmaceutical research. It’d be an assistant that, when paired with a chemist or two, could fast-track discovery by screening more possibilities for better candidates.
There’s plenty of room to make things more efficient, according to Zhavoronkov.
Drug discovery is arduous and expensive. Chemists sift tens of thousands of candidate compounds for the most promising to synthesize. Of these, a handful will go on to further research, fewer will make it to human clinical trials, and a fraction of those will be approved.
The whole process can take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is a big data problem if ever there was one, and deep learning thrives on big data. Early applications have shown their worth unearthing subtle patterns in huge training databases. Although drug-makers already use software to sift compounds, such software requires explicit rules written by chemists. AI’s allure is its ability to learn and improve on its own.
“There are two strategies for AI-driven innovation in pharma to ensure you get better molecules and much faster approvals,” Zhavoronkov said. “One is looking for the needle in the haystack, and another one is creating a new needle.”
To find the needle in the haystack, algorithms are trained on large databases of molecules. Then they go looking for molecules with attractive properties. But creating a new needle? That’s a possibility enabled by the generative adversarial networks Zhavoronkov specializes in.
Such algorithms pit two neural networks against each other. One generates meaningful output while the other judges whether this output is true or false, Zhavoronkov said. Together, the networks generate new objects like text, images, or in this case, molecular structures.
“We started employing this particular technology to make deep neural networks imagine new molecules, to make it perfect right from the start. So, to come up with really perfect needles,” Zhavoronkov said. “[You] can essentially go to this [generative adversarial network] and ask it to create molecules that inhibit protein X at concentration Y, with the highest viability, specific characteristics, and minimal side effects.”
Zhavoronkov believes AI can find or fabricate more needles from the array of molecular possibilities, freeing human chemists to focus on synthesizing only the most promising. If it works, he hopes we can increase hits, minimize misses, and generally speed the process up.
Proof’s in the Pudding
Insilico isn’t alone on its drug-discovery quest, nor is it a brand new area of interest.
Last year, a Harvard group published a paper on an AI that similarly suggests drug candidates. The software trained on 250,000 drug-like molecules and used its experience to generate new molecules that blended existing drugs and made suggestions based on desired properties.
An MIT Technology Review article on the subject highlighted a few of the challenges such systems may still face. The results returned aren’t always meaningful or easy to synthesize in the lab, and the quality of these results, as always, is only as good as the data dined upon.
Stanford chemistry professor and Andreesen Horowitz partner, Vijay Pande, said that images, speech, and text—three of the areas deep learning’s made quick strides in—have better, cleaner data. Chemical data, on the other hand, is still being optimized for deep learning. Also, while there are public databases, much data still lives behind closed doors at private companies.
To overcome the challenges and prove their worth, Zhavoronkov said, his company is very focused on validating the tech. But this year, skepticism in the pharmaceutical industry seems to be easing into interest and investment.
AI drug discovery startup Exscientia inked a deal with Sanofi for $280 million and GlaxoSmithKline for $42 million. Insilico is also partnering with GlaxoSmithKline, and Numerate is working with Takeda Pharmaceutical. Even Google may jump in. According to an article in Nature outlining the field, the firm’s deep learning project, Google Brain, is growing its biosciences team, and industry watchers wouldn’t be surprised to see them target drug discovery.
With AI and the hardware running it advancing rapidly, the greatest potential may yet be ahead. Perhaps, one day, all 1060 molecules in drug-space will be at our disposal. “You should take all the data you have, build n new models, and search as much of that 1060 as possible” before every decision you make, Brandon Allgood, CTO at Numerate, told Nature.
Today’s projects need to live up to their promises, of course, but Zhavoronkov believes AI will have a big impact in the coming years, and now’s the time to integrate it. “If you are working for a pharma company, and you’re still thinking, ‘Okay, where is the proof?’ Once there is a proof, and once you can see it to believe it—it’s going to be too late,” he said.
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Does creativity make human intelligence special?
It may appear so at first glance. Though machines can calculate, analyze, and even perceive, creativity may seem far out of reach. Perhaps this is because we find it mysterious, even in ourselves. How can the output of a machine be anything more than that which is determined by its programmers?
Increasingly, however, artificial intelligence is moving into creativity’s hallowed domain, from art to industry. And though much is already possible, the future is sure to bring ever more creative machines.
What Is Machine Creativity?
Robotic art is just one example of machine creativity, a rapidly growing sub-field that sits somewhere between the study of artificial intelligence and human psychology.
The winning paintings from the 2017 Robot Art Competition are strikingly reminiscent of those showcased each spring at university exhibitions for graduating art students. Like the works produced by skilled artists, the compositions dreamed up by the competition’s robotic painters are aesthetically ambitious. One robot-made painting features a man’s bearded face gazing intently out from the canvas, his eyes locking with the viewer’s. Another abstract painting, “inspired” by data from EEG signals, visually depicts the human emotion of misery with jagged, gloomy stripes of black and purple.
More broadly, a creative machine is software (sometimes encased in a robotic body) that synthesizes inputs to generate new and valuable ideas, solutions to complex scientific problems, or original works of art. In a process similar to that followed by a human artist or scientist, a creative machine begins its work by framing a problem. Next, its software specifies the requirements the solution should have before generating “answers” in the form of original designs, patterns, or some other form of output.
Although the notion of machine creativity sounds a bit like science fiction, the basic concept is one that has been slowly developing for decades.
Nearly 50 years ago while a high school student, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil created software that could analyze the patterns in musical compositions and then compose new melodies in a similar style. Aaron, one of the world’s most famous painting robots, has been hard at work since the 1970s.
Industrial designers have used an automated, algorithm-driven process for decades to design computer chips (or machine parts) whose layout (or form) is optimized for a particular function or environment. Emily Howell, a computer program created by David Cope, writes original works in the style of classical composers, some of which have been performed by human orchestras to live audiences.
What’s different about today’s new and emerging generation of robotic artists, scientists, composers, authors, and product designers is their ubiquity and power.
“The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives.”
I’ve already mentioned the rapidly advancing fields of robotic art and music. In the realm of scientific research, so-called “robotic scientists” such as Eureqa and Adam and Eve develop new scientific hypotheses; their “insights” have contributed to breakthroughs that are cited by hundreds of academic research papers. In the medical industry, creative machines are hard at work creating chemical compounds for new pharmaceuticals. After it read over seven million words of 20th century English poetry, a neural network developed by researcher Jack Hopkins learned to write passable poetry in a number of different styles and meters.
The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives, including faster processors, ubiquitous sensors and wireless networks, and better algorithms.
As they continue to improve, creative machines—like humans—will perform a broad range of creative activities, ranging from everyday problem solving (sometimes known as “Little C” creativity) to producing once-in-a-century masterpieces (“Big C” creativity). A creative machine’s outputs could range from a design for a cast for a marble sculpture to a schematic blueprint for a clever new gadget for opening bottles of wine.
In the coming decades, by automating the process of solving complex problems, creative machines will again transform our world. Creative machines will serve as a versatile source of on-demand talent.
In the battle to recruit a workforce that can solve complex problems, creative machines will put small businesses on equal footing with large corporations. Art and music lovers will enjoy fresh creative works that re-interpret the style of ancient disciplines. People with a health condition will benefit from individualized medical treatments, and low-income people will receive top-notch legal advice, to name but a few potentially beneficial applications.
How Can We Make Creative Machines, Unless We Understand Our Own Creativity?
One of the most intriguing—yet unsettling—aspects of watching robotic arms skillfully oil paint is that we humans still do not understand our own creative process. Over the centuries, several different civilizations have devised a variety of models to explain creativity.
The ancient Greeks believed that poets drew inspiration from a transcendent realm parallel to the material world where ideas could take root and flourish. In the Middle Ages, philosophers and poets attributed our peculiarly human ability to “make something of nothing” to an external source, namely divine inspiration. Modern academic study of human creativity has generated vast reams of scholarship, but despite the value of these insights, the human imagination remains a great mystery, second only to that of consciousness.
Today, the rise of machine creativity demonstrates (once again), that we do not have to fully understand a biological process in order to emulate it with advanced technology.
Past experience has shown that jet planes can fly higher and faster than birds by using the forward thrust of an engine rather than wings. Submarines propel themselves forward underwater without fins or a tail. Deep learning neural networks identify objects in randomly-selected photographs with super-human accuracy. Similarly, using a fairly straightforward software architecture, creative software (sometimes paired with a robotic body) can paint, write, hypothesize, or design with impressive originality, skill, and boldness.
At the heart of machine creativity is simple iteration. No matter what sort of output they produce, creative machines fall into one of three categories depending on their internal architecture.
Briefly, the first group consists of software programs that use traditional rule-based, or symbolic AI, the second group uses evolutionary algorithms, and the third group uses a variation of a form of machine learning called deep learning that has already revolutionized voice and facial recognition software.
1) Symbolic creative machines are the oldest artificial artists and musicians. In this approach—also known as “good old-fashioned AI (GOFAI) or symbolic AI—the human programmer plays a key role by writing a set of step-by-step instructions to guide the computer through a task. Despite the fact that symbolic AI is limited in its ability to adapt to environmental changes, it’s still possible for a robotic artist programmed this way to create an impressively wide variety of different outputs.
2) Evolutionary algorithms (EA) have been in use for several decades and remain powerful tools for design. In this approach, potential solutions “compete” in a software simulator in a Darwinian process reminiscent of biological evolution. The human programmer specifies a “fitness criterion” that will be used to score and rank the solutions generated by the software. The software then generates a “first generation” population of random solutions (which typically are pretty poor in quality), scores this first generation of solutions, and selects the top 50% (those random solutions deemed to be the best “fit”). The software then takes another pass and recombines the “winning” solutions to create the next generation and repeats this process for thousands (and sometimes millions) of generations.
3) Generative deep learning (DL) neural networks represent the newest software architecture of the three, since DL is data-dependent and resource-intensive. First, a human programmer “trains” a DL neural network to recognize a particular feature in a dataset, for example, an image of a dog in a stream of digital images. Next, the standard “feed forward” process is reversed and the DL neural network begins to generate the feature, for example, eventually producing new and sometimes original images of (or poetry about) dogs. Generative DL networks have tremendous and unexplored creative potential and are able to produce a broad range of original outputs, from paintings to music to poetry.
The Coming Explosion of Machine Creativity
In the near future as Moore’s Law continues its work, we will see sophisticated combinations of these three basic architectures. Since the 1950s, artificial intelligence has steadily mastered one human ability after another, and in the process of doing so, has reduced the cost of calculation, analysis, and most recently, perception. When creative software becomes as inexpensive and ubiquitous as analytical software is today, humans will no longer be the only intelligent beings capable of creative work.
This is why I have to bite my tongue when I hear the well-intended (but shortsighted) advice frequently dispensed to young people that they should pursue work that demands creativity to help them “AI-proof” their futures.
Instead, students should gain skills to harness the power of creative machines.
There are two skills in which humans excel that will enable us to remain useful in a world of ever-advancing artificial intelligence. One, the ability to frame and define a complex problem so that it can be handed off to a creative machine to solve. And two, the ability to communicate the value of both the framework and the proposed solution to the other humans involved.
What will happen to people when creative machines begin to capably tread on intellectual ground that was once considered the sole domain of the human mind, and before that, the product of divine inspiration? While machines engaging in Big C creativity—e.g., oil painting and composing new symphonies—tend to garner controversy and make the headlines, I suspect the real world-changing application of machine creativity will be in the realm of everyday problem solving, or Little C. The mainstream emergence of powerful problem-solving tools will help people create abundance where there was once scarcity.
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