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#433728 AI Is Kicking Space Exploration into ...

Artificial intelligence in space exploration is gathering momentum. Over the coming years, new missions look likely to be turbo-charged by AI as we voyage to comets, moons, and planets and explore the possibilities of mining asteroids.

“AI is already a game-changer that has made scientific research and exploration much more efficient. We are not just talking about a doubling but about a multiple of ten,” Leopold Summerer, Head of the Advanced Concepts and Studies Office at ESA, said in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Examples Abound
The history of AI and space exploration is older than many probably think. It has already played a significant role in research into our planet, the solar system, and the universe. As computer systems and software have developed, so have AI’s potential use cases.

The Earth Observer 1 (EO-1) satellite is a good example. Since its launch in the early 2000s, its onboard AI systems helped optimize analysis of and response to natural occurrences, like floods and volcanic eruptions. In some cases, the AI was able to tell EO-1 to start capturing images before the ground crew were even aware that the occurrence had taken place.

Other satellite and astronomy examples abound. Sky Image Cataloging and Analysis Tool (SKICAT) has assisted with the classification of objects discovered during the second Palomar Sky Survey, classifying thousands more objects caught in low resolution than a human would be able to. Similar AI systems have helped astronomers to identify 56 new possible gravitational lenses that play a crucial role in connection with research into dark matter.

AI’s ability to trawl through vast amounts of data and find correlations will become increasingly important in relation to getting the most out of the available data. ESA’s ENVISAT produces around 400 terabytes of new data every year—but will be dwarfed by the Square Kilometre Array, which will produce around the same amount of data that is currently on the internet in a day.

AI Readying For Mars
AI is also being used for trajectory and payload optimization. Both are important preliminary steps to NASA’s next rover mission to Mars, the Mars 2020 Rover, which is, slightly ironically, set to land on the red planet in early 2021.

An AI known as AEGIS is already on the red planet onboard NASA’s current rovers. The system can handle autonomous targeting of cameras and choose what to investigate. However, the next generation of AIs will be able to control vehicles, autonomously assist with study selection, and dynamically schedule and perform scientific tasks.

Throughout his career, John Leif Jørgensen from DTU Space in Denmark has designed equipment and systems that have been on board about 100 satellites—and counting. He is part of the team behind the Mars 2020 Rover’s autonomous scientific instrument PIXL, which makes extensive use of AI. Its purpose is to investigate whether there have been lifeforms like stromatolites on Mars.

“PIXL’s microscope is situated on the rover’s arm and needs to be placed 14 millimetres from what we want it to study. That happens thanks to several cameras placed on the rover. It may sound simple, but the handover process and finding out exactly where to place the arm can be likened to identifying a building from the street from a picture taken from the roof. This is something that AI is eminently suited for,” he said in an interview with Singularity Hub.

AI also helps PIXL operate autonomously throughout the night and continuously adjust as the environment changes—the temperature changes between day and night can be more than 100 degrees Celsius, meaning that the ground beneath the rover, the cameras, the robotic arm, and the rock being studied all keep changing distance.

“AI is at the core of all of this work, and helps almost double productivity,” Jørgensen said.

First Mars, Then Moons
Mars is likely far from the final destination for AIs in space. Jupiter’s moons have long fascinated scientists. Especially Europa, which could house a subsurface ocean, buried beneath an approximately 10 km thick ice crust. It is one of the most likely candidates for finding life elsewhere in the solar system.

While that mission may be some time in the future, NASA is currently planning to launch the James Webb Space Telescope into an orbit of around 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in 2020. Part of the mission will involve AI-empowered autonomous systems overseeing the full deployment of the telescope’s 705-kilo mirror.

The distances between Earth and Europa, or Earth and the James Webb telescope, means a delay in communications. That, in turn, makes it imperative for the crafts to be able to make their own decisions. Examples from the Mars Rover project show that communication between a rover and Earth can take 20 minutes because of the vast distance. A Europa mission would see much longer communication times.

Both missions, to varying degrees, illustrate one of the most significant challenges currently facing the use of AI in space exploration. There tends to be a direct correlation between how well AI systems perform and how much data they have been fed. The more, the better, as it were. But we simply don’t have very much data to feed such a system about what it’s likely to encounter on a mission to a place like Europa.

Computing power presents a second challenge. A strenuous, time-consuming approval process and the risk of radiation mean that your computer at home would likely be more powerful than anything going into space in the near future. A 200 GHz processor, 256 megabytes of ram, and 2 gigabytes of memory sounds a lot more like a Nokia 3210 (the one you could use as an ice hockey puck without it noticing) than an iPhone X—but it’s actually the ‘brain’ that will be onboard the next rover.

Private Companies Taking Off
Private companies are helping to push those limitations. CB Insights charts 57 startups in the space-space, covering areas as diverse as natural resources, consumer tourism, R&D, satellites, spacecraft design and launch, and data analytics.

David Chew works as an engineer for the Japanese satellite company Axelspace. He explained how private companies are pushing the speed of exploration and lowering costs.

“Many private space companies are taking advantage of fall-back systems and finding ways of using parts and systems that traditional companies have thought of as non-space-grade. By implementing fall-backs, and using AI, it is possible to integrate and use parts that lower costs without adding risk of failure,” he said in an interview with Singularity Hub.

Terraforming Our Future Home
Further into the future, moonshots like terraforming Mars await. Without AI, these kinds of projects to adapt other planets to Earth-like conditions would be impossible.

Autonomous crafts are already terraforming here on Earth. BioCarbon Engineering uses drones to plant up to 100,000 trees in a single day. Drones first survey and map an area, then an algorithm decides the optimal locations for the trees before a second wave of drones carry out the actual planting.

As is often the case with exponential technologies, there is a great potential for synergies and convergence. For example with AI and robotics, or quantum computing and machine learning. Why not send an AI-driven robot to Mars and use it as a telepresence for scientists on Earth? It could be argued that we are already in the early stages of doing just that by using VR and AR systems that take data from the Mars rovers and create a virtual landscape scientists can walk around in and make decisions on what the rovers should explore next.

One of the biggest benefits of AI in space exploration may not have that much to do with its actual functions. Chew believes that within as little as ten years, we could see the first mining of asteroids in the Kuiper Belt with the help of AI.

“I think one of the things that AI does to space exploration is that it opens up a whole range of new possible industries and services that have a more immediate effect on the lives of people on Earth,” he said. “It becomes a relatable industry that has a real effect on people’s daily lives. In a way, space exploration becomes part of people’s mindset, and the border between our planet and the solar system becomes less important.”

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#433284 Tech Can Sustainably Feed Developing ...

In the next 30 years, virtually all net population growth will occur in urban regions of developing countries. At the same time, worldwide food production will become increasingly limited by the availability of land, water, and energy. These constraints will be further worsened by climate change and the expected addition of two billion people to today’s four billion now living in urban regions. Meanwhile, current urban food ecosystems in the developing world are inefficient and critically inadequate to meet the challenges of the future.

Combined, these trends could have catastrophic economic and political consequences. A new path forward for urban food ecosystems needs to be found. But what is that path?

New technologies, coupled with new business models and supportive government policies, can create more resilient urban food ecosystems in the coming decades. These tech-enabled systems can sustainably link rural, peri-urban (areas just outside cities), and urban producers and consumers, increase overall food production, and generate opportunities for new businesses and jobs (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The urban food value chain nodes from rural, peri-urban and urban producers
to servicing end customers in urban and peri-urban markets.
Here’s a glimpse of the changes technology may bring to the systems feeding cities in the future.

A technology-linked urban food ecosystem would create unprecedented opportunities for small farms to reach wider markets and progress from subsistence farming to commercially producing niche cash crops and animal protein, such as poultry, fish, pork, and insects.

Meanwhile, new opportunities within cities will appear with the creation of vertical farms and other controlled-environment agricultural systems as well as production of plant-based and 3D printed foods and cultured meat. Uberized facilitation of production and distribution of food will reduce bottlenecks and provide new business opportunities and jobs. Off-the-shelf precision agriculture technology will increasingly be the new norm, from smallholders to larger producers.

As part of Agricultural Revolution 4.0, all this will be integrated into the larger collaborative economy—connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things and powered by artificial intelligence. It will more efficiently and effectively use resources and people to connect the nexus of food, water, energy, nutrition, and human health. It will also aid in the development of a circular economy that is designed to be restorative and regenerative, minimizing waste and maximizing recycling and reuse to build economic, natural, and social capital.

In short, technology will enable transformation of urban food ecosystems, from expanded production in cities to more efficient and inclusive distribution and closer connections with rural farmers. Here’s a closer look at seven tech-driven trends that will help feed tomorrow’s cities.

1. Worldwide Connectivity: Information, Learning, and Markets
Connectivity from simple cell phone SMS communication to internet-enabled smartphones and cloud services are providing platforms for the increasingly powerful technologies enabling development of a new agricultural revolution. Internet connections currently reach more than 4 billion people, about 55% of the global population. That number will grow fast in coming years.

These information and communications technologies connect food producers to consumers with just-in-time data, enhanced good agricultural practices, mobile money and credit, telecommunications, market information and merchandising, and greater transparency and traceability of goods and services throughout the value chain. Text messages on mobile devices have become the one-stop-shop for small farmers to place orders, gain technology information for best management practices, and access market information to increase profitability.

Hershey’s CocoaLink in Ghana, for example, uses text and voice messages with cocoa industry experts and small farm producers. Digital Green is a technology-enabled communication system in Asia and Africa to bring needed agricultural and management practices to small farmers in their own language by filming and recording successful farmers in their own communities. MFarm is a mobile app that connects Kenyan farmers with urban markets via text messaging.

2. Blockchain Technology: Greater Access to Basic Financial Services and Enhanced Food Safety
Gaining access to credit and executing financial transactions have been persistent constraints for small farm producers. Blockchain promises to help the unbanked access basic financial services.

The Gates Foundation has released an open source platform, Mojaloop, to allow software developers and banks and financial service providers to build secure digital payment platforms at scale. Mojaloop software uses more secure blockchain technology to enable urban food system players in the developing world to conduct business and trade. The free software reduces complexity and cost in building payment platforms to connect small farmers with customers, merchants, banks, and mobile money providers. Such digital financial services will allow small farm producers in the developing world to conduct business without a brick-and-mortar bank.

Blockchain is also important for traceability and transparency requirements to meet food regulatory and consumer requirement during the production, post-harvest, shipping, processing and distribution to consumers. Combining blockchain with RFID technologies also will enhance food safety.

3. Uberized Services: On-Demand Equipment, Storage, and More
Uberized services can advance development of the urban food ecosystem across the spectrum, from rural to peri-urban to urban food production and distribution. Whereas Uber and Airbnb enable sharing of rides and homes, the model can be extended in the developing world to include on-demand use of expensive equipment, such as farm machinery, or storage space.

This includes uberization of planting and harvesting equipment (Hello Tractor), transportation vehicles, refrigeration facilities for temporary storage of perishable product, and “cloud kitchens” (EasyAppetite in Nigeria, FoodCourt in Rwanda, and Swiggy and Zomto in India) that produce fresh meals to be delivered to urban customers, enabling young people with motorbikes and cell phones to become entrepreneurs or contractors delivering meals to urban customers.

Another uberized service is marketing and distributing “ugly food” or imperfect produce to reduce food waste. About a third of the world’s food goes to waste, often because of appearance; this is enough to feed two billion people. Such services supply consumers with cheaper, nutritious, tasty, healthy fruits and vegetables that would normally be discarded as culls due to imperfections in shape or size.

4. Technology for Producing Plant-Based Foods in Cities
We need to change diet choices through education and marketing and by developing tasty plant-based substitutes. This is not only critical for environmental sustainability, but also offers opportunities for new businesses and services. It turns out that current agricultural production systems for “red meat” have a far greater detrimental impact on the environment than automobiles.

There have been great advances in plant-based foods, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, that can satisfy the consumer’s experience and perception of meat. Rather than giving up the experience of eating red meat, technology is enabling marketable, attractive plant-based products that can potentially drastically reduce world per capita consumption of red meat.

5. Cellular Agriculture, Lab-Grown Meat, and 3D Printed Food
Lab-grown meat, literally meat grown from cultured cells, may radically change where and how protein and food is produced, including the cities where it is consumed. There is a wide range of innovative alternatives to traditional meats that can supplement the need for livestock, farms, and butchers. The history of innovation is about getting rid of the bottleneck in the system, and with meat, the bottleneck is the animal. Finless Foods is a new company trying to replicate fish fillets, for example, while Memphis meats is working on beef and poultry.

3D printing or additive manufacturing is a “general purpose technology” used for making, plastic toys, human tissues, aircraft parts, and buildings. 3D printing can also be used to convert alternative ingredients such as proteins from algae, beet leaves, or insects into tasty and healthy products that can be produced by small, inexpensive printers in home kitchens. The food can be customized for individual health needs as well as preferences. 3D printing can also contribute to the food ecosystem by making possible on-demand replacement parts—which are badly needed in the developing world for tractors, pumps, and other equipment. Catapult Design 3D prints tractor replacement parts as well as corn shellers, cart designs, prosthetic limbs, and rolling water barrels for the Indian market.

6. Alt Farming: Vertical Farms to Produce Food in Urban Centers
Urban food ecosystem production systems will rely not only on field-grown crops, but also on production of food within cities. There are a host of new, alternative production systems using “controlled environmental agriculture.” These include low-cost, protected poly hoop houses, greenhouses, roof-top and sack/container gardens, and vertical farming in buildings using artificial lighting. Vertical farms enable year-round production of selected crops, regardless of weather—which will be increasingly important in response to climate change—and without concern for deteriorating soil conditions that affect crop quality and productivity. AeroFarms claims 390 times more productivity per square foot than normal field production.

7. Biotechnology and Nanotechnology for Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture
CRISPR is a promising gene editing technology that can be used to enhance crop productivity while avoiding societal concerns about GMOs. CRISPR can accelerate traditional breeding and selection programs for developing new climate and disease-resistant, higher-yielding, nutritious crops and animals.

Plant-derived coating materials, developed with nanotechnology, can decrease waste, extend shelf-life and transportability of fruits and vegetables, and significantly reduce post-harvest crop loss in developing countries that lack adequate refrigeration. Nanotechnology is also used in polymers to coat seeds to increase their shelf-life and increase their germination success and production for niche, high-value crops.

Putting It All Together
The next generation “urban food industry” will be part of the larger collaborative economy that is connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things. A tech-enabled urban food ecosystem integrated with new business models and smart agricultural policies offers the opportunity for sustainable intensification (doing more with less) of agriculture to feed a rapidly growing global urban population—while also creating viable economic opportunities for rural and peri-urban as well as urban producers and value-chain players.

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#432880 Google’s Duplex Raises the Question: ...

By now, you’ve probably seen Google’s new Duplex software, which promises to call people on your behalf to book appointments for haircuts and the like. As yet, it only exists in demo form, but already it seems like Google has made a big stride towards capturing a market that plenty of companies have had their eye on for quite some time. This software is impressive, but it raises questions.

Many of you will be familiar with the stilted, robotic conversations you can have with early chatbots that are, essentially, glorified menus. Instead of pressing 1 to confirm or 2 to re-enter, some of these bots would allow for simple commands like “Yes” or “No,” replacing the buttons with limited ability to recognize a few words. Using them was often a far more frustrating experience than attempting to use a menu—there are few things more irritating than a robot saying, “Sorry, your response was not recognized.”

Google Duplex scheduling a hair salon appointment:

Google Duplex calling a restaurant:

Even getting the response recognized is hard enough. After all, there are countless different nuances and accents to baffle voice recognition software, and endless turns of phrase that amount to saying the same thing that can confound natural language processing (NLP), especially if you like your phrasing quirky.

You may think that standard customer-service type conversations all travel the same route, using similar words and phrasing. But when there are over 80,000 ways to order coffee, and making a mistake is frowned upon, even simple tasks require high accuracy over a huge dataset.

Advances in audio processing, neural networks, and NLP, as well as raw computing power, have meant that basic recognition of what someone is trying to say is less of an issue. Soundhound’s virtual assistant prides itself on being able to process complicated requests (perhaps needlessly complicated).

The deeper issue, as with all attempts to develop conversational machines, is one of understanding context. There are so many ways a conversation can go that attempting to construct a conversation two or three layers deep quickly runs into problems. Multiply the thousands of things people might say by the thousands they might say next, and the combinatorics of the challenge runs away from most chatbots, leaving them as either glorified menus, gimmicks, or rather bizarre to talk to.

Yet Google, who surely remembers from Glass the risk of premature debuts for technology, especially the kind that ask you to rethink how you interact with or trust in software, must have faith in Duplex to show it on the world stage. We know that startups like Semantic Machines and x.ai have received serious funding to perform very similar functions, using natural-language conversations to perform computing tasks, schedule meetings, book hotels, or purchase items.

It’s no great leap to imagine Google will soon do the same, bringing us closer to a world of onboard computing, where Lens labels the world around us and their assistant arranges it for us (all the while gathering more and more data it can convert into personalized ads). The early demos showed some clever tricks for keeping the conversation within a fairly narrow realm where the AI should be comfortable and competent, and the blog post that accompanied the release shows just how much effort has gone into the technology.

Yet given the privacy and ethics funk the tech industry finds itself in, and people’s general unease about AI, the main reaction to Duplex’s impressive demo was concern. The voice sounded too natural, bringing to mind Lyrebird and their warnings of deepfakes. You might trust “Do the Right Thing” Google with this technology, but it could usher in an era when automated robo-callers are far more convincing.

A more human-like voice may sound like a perfectly innocuous improvement, but the fact that the assistant interjects naturalistic “umm” and “mm-hm” responses to more perfectly mimic a human rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. This wasn’t just a voice assistant trying to sound less grinding and robotic; it was actively trying to deceive people into thinking they were talking to a human.

Google is running the risk of trying to get to conversational AI by going straight through the uncanny valley.

“Google’s experiments do appear to have been designed to deceive,” said Dr. Thomas King of the Oxford Internet Institute’s Digital Ethics Lab, according to Techcrunch. “Their main hypothesis was ‘can you distinguish this from a real person?’ In this case it’s unclear why their hypothesis was about deception and not the user experience… there should be some kind of mechanism there to let people know what it is they are speaking to.”

From Google’s perspective, being able to say “90 percent of callers can’t tell the difference between this and a human personal assistant” is an excellent marketing ploy, even though statistics about how many interactions are successful might be more relevant.

In fact, Duplex runs contrary to pretty much every major recommendation about ethics for the use of robotics or artificial intelligence, not to mention certain eavesdropping laws. Transparency is key to holding machines (and the people who design them) accountable, especially when it comes to decision-making.

Then there are the more subtle social issues. One prominent effect social media has had is to allow people to silo themselves; in echo chambers of like-minded individuals, it’s hard to see how other opinions exist. Technology exacerbates this by removing the evolutionary cues that go along with face-to-face interaction. Confronted with a pair of human eyes, people are more generous. Confronted with a Twitter avatar or a Facebook interface, people hurl abuse and criticism they’d never dream of using in a public setting.

Now that we can use technology to interact with ever fewer people, will it change us? Is it fair to offload the burden of dealing with a robot onto the poor human at the other end of the line, who might have to deal with dozens of such calls a day? Google has said that if the AI is in trouble, it will put you through to a human, which might help save receptionists from the hell of trying to explain a concept to dozens of dumbfounded AI assistants all day. But there’s always the risk that failures will be blamed on the person and not the machine.

As AI advances, could we end up treating the dwindling number of people in these “customer-facing” roles as the buggiest part of a fully automatic service? Will people start accusing each other of being robots on the phone, as well as on Twitter?

Google has provided plenty of reassurances about how the system will be used. They have said they will ensure that the system is identified, and it’s hardly difficult to resolve this problem; a slight change in the script from their demo would do it. For now, consumers will likely appreciate moves that make it clear whether the “intelligent agents” that make major decisions for us, that we interact with daily, and that hide behind social media avatars or phone numbers are real or artificial.

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#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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#432646 How Fukushima Changed Japanese Robotics ...

In March 2011, Japan was hit by a catastrophic earthquake that triggered a terrible tsunami. Thousands were killed and billions of dollars of damage was done in one of the worst disasters of modern times. For a few perilous weeks, though, the eyes of the world were focused on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Its safety systems were unable to cope with the tsunami damage, and there were widespread fears of another catastrophic meltdown that could spread radiation over several countries, like the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s. A heroic effort that included dumping seawater into the reactor core prevented an even bigger catastrophe. As it is, a hundred thousand people are still evacuated from the area, and it will likely take many years and hundreds of billions of dollars before the region is safe.

Because radiation is so dangerous to humans, the natural solution to the Fukushima disaster was to send in robots to monitor levels of radiation and attempt to begin the clean-up process. The techno-optimists in Japan had discovered a challenge, deep in the heart of that reactor core, that even their optimism could not solve. The radiation fried the circuits of the robots that were sent in, even those specifically designed and built to deal with the Fukushima catastrophe. The power plant slowly became a vast robot graveyard. While some robots initially saw success in measuring radiation levels around the plant—and, recently, a robot was able to identify the melted uranium fuel at the heart of the disaster—hopes of them playing a substantial role in the clean-up are starting to diminish.



In Tokyo’s neon Shibuya district, it can sometimes seem like it’s brighter at night than it is during the daytime. In karaoke booths on the twelfth floor—because everything is on the twelfth floor—overlooking the brightly-lit streets, businessmen unwind by blasting out pop hits. It can feel like the most artificial place on Earth; your senses are dazzled by the futuristic techno-optimism. Stock footage of the area has become symbolic of futurism and modernity.

Japan has had a reputation for being a nation of futurists for a long time. We’ve already described how tech giant Softbank, headed by visionary founder Masayoshi Son, is investing billions in a technological future, including plans for the world’s largest solar farm.

When Google sold pioneering robotics company Boston Dynamics in 2017, Softbank added it to their portfolio, alongside the famous Nao and Pepper robots. Some may think that Son is taking a gamble in pursuing a robotics project even Google couldn’t succeed in, but this is a man who lost nearly everything in the dot-com crash of 2000. The fact that even this reversal didn’t dent his optimism and faith in technology is telling. But how long can it last?

The failure of Japan’s robots to deal with the immense challenge of Fukushima has sparked something of a crisis of conscience within the industry. Disaster response is an obvious stepping-stone technology for robots. Initially, producing a humanoid robot will be very costly, and the robot will be less capable than a human; building a robot to wait tables might not be particularly economical yet. Building a robot to do jobs that are too dangerous for humans is far more viable. Yet, at Fukushima, in one of the most advanced nations in the world, many of the robots weren’t up to the task.

Nowhere was this crisis more felt than Honda; the company had developed ASIMO, which stunned the world in 2000 and continues to fascinate as an iconic humanoid robot. Despite all this technological advancement, however, Honda knew that ASIMO was still too unreliable for the real world.

It was Fukushima that triggered a sea-change in Honda’s approach to robotics. Two years after the disaster, there were rumblings that Honda was developing a disaster robot, and in October 2017, the prototype was revealed to the public for the first time. It’s not yet ready for deployment in disaster zones, however. Interestingly, the creators chose not to give it dexterous hands but instead to assume that remotely-operated tools fitted to the robot would be a better solution for the range of circumstances it might encounter.

This shift in focus for humanoid robots away from entertainment and amusement like ASIMO, and towards being practically useful, has been mirrored across the world.

In 2015, also inspired by the Fukushima disaster and the lack of disaster-ready robots, the DARPA Robotics Challenge tested humanoid robots with a range of tasks that might be needed in emergency response, such as driving cars, opening doors, and climbing stairs. The Terminator-like ATLAS robot from Boston Dynamics, alongside Korean robot HUBO, took many of the plaudits, and CHIMP also put in an impressive display by being able to right itself after falling.

Yet the DARPA Robotics Challenge showed us just how far the robots are from truly being as useful as we’d like, or maybe even as we would imagine. Many robots took hours to complete the tasks, which were highly idealized to suit them. Climbing stairs proved a particular challenge. Those who watched were more likely to see a robot that had fallen over, struggling to get up, rather than heroic superbots striding in to save the day. The “striding” proved a particular problem, with the fastest robot HUBO managing this by resorting to wheels in its knees when the legs weren’t necessary.

Fukushima may have brought a sea-change over futuristic Japan, but before robots will really begin to enter our everyday lives, they will need to prove their worth. In the interim, aerial drone robots designed to examine infrastructure damage after disasters may well see earlier deployment and more success.

It’s a considerable challenge.

Building a humanoid robot is expensive; if these multi-million-dollar machines can’t help in a crisis, people may begin to question the worth of investing in them in the first place (unless your aim is just to make viral videos). This could lead to a further crisis of confidence among the Japanese, who are starting to rely on humanoid robotics as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.

But if they continue to fail when put to the test, that will raise serious concerns. In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, you can see all kinds of flash robotic toys for sale in the neon-lit superstores, and dancing, acting robots like Robothespian can entertain crowds all over the world. But if we want these machines to be anything more than toys—partners, helpers, even saviors—more work needs to be done.

At the same time, those who participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015 won’t be too concerned if people were underwhelmed by the performance of their disaster relief robots. Back in 2004, nearly every participant in the DARPA Grand Challenge crashed, caught fire, or failed on the starting line. To an outside observer, the whole thing would have seemed like an unmitigated disaster, and a pointless investment. What was the task in 2004? Developing a self-driving car. A lot can change in a decade.

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