Tag Archives: robo

#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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#432352 Watch This Lifelike Robot Fish Swim ...

Earth’s oceans are having a rough go of it these days. On top of being the repository for millions of tons of plastic waste, global warming is affecting the oceans and upsetting marine ecosystems in potentially irreversible ways.

Coral bleaching, for example, occurs when warming water temperatures or other stress factors cause coral to cast off the algae that live on them. The coral goes from lush and colorful to white and bare, and sometimes dies off altogether. This has a ripple effect on the surrounding ecosystem.

Warmer water temperatures have also prompted many species of fish to move closer to the north or south poles, disrupting fisheries and altering undersea environments.

To keep these issues in check or, better yet, try to address and improve them, it’s crucial for scientists to monitor what’s going on in the water. A paper released last week by a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled a new tool for studying marine life: a biomimetic soft robotic fish, dubbed SoFi, that can swim with, observe, and interact with real fish.

SoFi isn’t the first robotic fish to hit the water, but it is the most advanced robot of its kind. Here’s what sets it apart.

It swims in three dimensions
Up until now, most robotic fish could only swim forward at a given water depth, advancing at a steady speed. SoFi blows older models out of the water. It’s equipped with side fins called dive planes, which move to adjust its angle and allow it to turn, dive downward, or head closer to the surface. Its density and thus its buoyancy can also be adjusted by compressing or decompressing air in an inner compartment.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” said CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the study. “We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.”

The team took SoFi to the Rainbow Reef in Fiji to test out its swimming skills, and the robo fish didn’t disappoint—it was able to swim at depths of over 50 feet for 40 continuous minutes. What keeps it swimming? A lithium polymer battery just like the one that powers our smartphones.

It’s remote-controlled… by Super Nintendo
SoFi has sensors to help it see what’s around it, but it doesn’t have a mind of its own yet. Rather, it’s controlled by a nearby scuba-diving human, who can send it commands related to speed, diving, and turning. The best part? The commands come from an actual repurposed (and waterproofed) Super Nintendo controller. What’s not to love?

Image Credit: MIT CSAIL
Previous robotic fish built by this team had to be tethered to a boat, so the fact that SoFi can swim independently is a pretty big deal. Communication between the fish and the diver was most successful when the two were less than 10 meters apart.

It looks real, sort of
SoFi’s side fins are a bit stiff, and its camera may not pass for natural—but otherwise, it looks a lot like a real fish. This is mostly thanks to the way its tail moves; a motor pumps water between two chambers in the tail, and as one chamber fills, the tail bends towards that side, then towards the other side as water is pumped into the other chamber. The result is a motion that closely mimics the way fish swim. Not only that, the hydraulic system can change the water flow to get different tail movements that let SoFi swim at varying speeds; its average speed is around half a body length (21.7 centimeters) per second.

Besides looking neat, it’s important SoFi look lifelike so it can blend in with marine life and not scare real fish away, so it can get close to them and observe them.

“A robot like this can help explore the reef more closely than current robots, both because it can get closer more safely for the reef and because it can be better accepted by the marine species.” said Cecilia Laschi, a biorobotics professor at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.

Just keep swimming
It sounds like this fish is nothing short of a regular Nemo. But its creators aren’t quite finished yet.

They’d like SoFi to be able to swim faster, so they’ll work on improving the robo fish’s pump system and streamlining its body and tail design. They also plan to tweak SoFi’s camera to help it follow real fish.

“We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,” said CSAIL director Daniela Rus. “It has the potential to be a new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of marine life.”

The CSAIL team plans to make a whole school of SoFis to help biologists learn more about how marine life is reacting to environmental changes.

Image Credit: MIT CSAIL Continue reading

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#431995 The 10 Grand Challenges Facing Robotics ...

Robotics research has been making great strides in recent years, but there are still many hurdles to the machines becoming a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The journal Science Robotics has now identified 10 grand challenges the field will have to grapple with to make that a reality.

Editors conducted an online survey on unsolved challenges in robotics and assembled an expert panel of roboticists to shortlist the 30 most important topics, which were then grouped into 10 grand challenges that could have major impact in the next 5 to 10 years. Here’s what they came up with.

1. New Materials and Fabrication Schemes
Roboticists are beginning to move beyond motors, gears, and sensors by experimenting with things like artificial muscles, soft robotics, and new fabrication methods that combine multiple functions in one material. But most of these advances have been “one-off” demonstrations, which are not easy to combine.

Multi-functional materials merging things like sensing, movement, energy harvesting, or energy storage could allow more efficient robot designs. But combining these various properties in a single machine will require new approaches that blend micro-scale and large-scale fabrication techniques. Another promising direction is materials that can change over time to adapt or heal, but this requires much more research.

2. Bioinspired and Bio-Hybrid Robots
Nature has already solved many of the problems roboticists are trying to tackle, so many are turning to biology for inspiration or even incorporating living systems into their robots. But there are still major bottlenecks in reproducing the mechanical performance of muscle and the ability of biological systems to power themselves.

There has been great progress in artificial muscles, but their robustness, efficiency, and energy and power density need to be improved. Embedding living cells into robots can overcome challenges of powering small robots, as well as exploit biological features like self-healing and embedded sensing, though how to integrate these components is still a major challenge. And while a growing “robo-zoo” is helping tease out nature’s secrets, more work needs to be done on how animals transition between capabilities like flying and swimming to build multimodal platforms.

3. Power and Energy
Energy storage is a major bottleneck for mobile robotics. Rising demand from drones, electric vehicles, and renewable energy is driving progress in battery technology, but the fundamental challenges have remained largely unchanged for years.

That means that in parallel to battery development, there need to be efforts to minimize robots’ power utilization and give them access to new sources of energy. Enabling them to harvest energy from their environment and transmitting power to them wirelessly are two promising approaches worthy of investigation.

4. Robot Swarms
Swarms of simple robots that assemble into different configurations to tackle various tasks can be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to large, task-specific robots. Smaller, cheaper, more powerful hardware that lets simple robots sense their environment and communicate is combining with AI that can model the kind of behavior seen in nature’s flocks.

But there needs to be more work on the most efficient forms of control at different scales—small swarms can be controlled centrally, but larger ones need to be more decentralized. They also need to be made robust and adaptable to the changing conditions of the real world and resilient to deliberate or accidental damage. There also needs to be more work on swarms of non-homogeneous robots with complementary capabilities.

5. Navigation and Exploration
A key use case for robots is exploring places where humans cannot go, such as the deep sea, space, or disaster zones. That means they need to become adept at exploring and navigating unmapped, often highly disordered and hostile environments.

The major challenges include creating systems that can adapt, learn, and recover from navigation failures and are able to make and recognize new discoveries. This will require high levels of autonomy that allow the robots to monitor and reconfigure themselves while being able to build a picture of the world from multiple data sources of varying reliability and accuracy.

6. AI for Robotics
Deep learning has revolutionized machines’ ability to recognize patterns, but that needs to be combined with model-based reasoning to create adaptable robots that can learn on the fly.

Key to this will be creating AI that’s aware of its own limitations and can learn how to learn new things. It will also be important to create systems that are able to learn quickly from limited data rather than the millions of examples used in deep learning. Further advances in our understanding of human intelligence will be essential to solving these problems.

7. Brain-Computer Interfaces
BCIs will enable seamless control of advanced robotic prosthetics but could also prove a faster, more natural way to communicate instructions to robots or simply help them understand human mental states.

Most current approaches to measuring brain activity are expensive and cumbersome, though, so work on compact, low-power, and wireless devices will be important. They also tend to involve extended training, calibration, and adaptation due to the imprecise nature of reading brain activity. And it remains to be seen if they will outperform simpler techniques like eye tracking or reading muscle signals.

8. Social Interaction
If robots are to enter human environments, they will need to learn to deal with humans. But this will be difficult, as we have very few concrete models of human behavior and we are prone to underestimate the complexity of what comes naturally to us.

Social robots will need to be able to perceive minute social cues like facial expression or intonation, understand the cultural and social context they are operating in, and model the mental states of people they interact with to tailor their dealings with them, both in the short term and as they develop long-standing relationships with them.

9. Medical Robotics
Medicine is one of the areas where robots could have significant impact in the near future. Devices that augment a surgeon’s capabilities are already in regular use, but the challenge will be to increase the autonomy of these systems in such a high-stakes environment.

Autonomous robot assistants will need to be able to recognize human anatomy in a variety of contexts and be able to use situational awareness and spoken commands to understand what’s required of them. In surgery, autonomous robots could perform the routine steps of a procedure, giving way to the surgeon for more complicated patient-specific bits.

Micro-robots that operate inside the human body also hold promise, but there are still many roadblocks to their adoption, including effective delivery systems, tracking and control methods, and crucially, finding therapies where they improve on current approaches.

10. Robot Ethics and Security
As the preceding challenges are overcome and robots are increasingly integrated into our lives, this progress will create new ethical conundrums. Most importantly, we may become over-reliant on robots.

That could lead to humans losing certain skills and capabilities, making us unable to take the reins in the case of failures. We may end up delegating tasks that should, for ethical reasons, have some human supervision, and allow people to pass the buck to autonomous systems in the case of failure. It could also reduce self-determination, as human behaviors change to accommodate the routines and restrictions required for robots and AI to work effectively.

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#431377 The Farms of the Future Will Be ...

Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.

“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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#430955 This Inspiring Teenager Wants to Save ...

It’s not every day you meet a high school student who’s been building functional robots since age 10. Then again, Mihir Garimella is definitely not your average teenager.
When I sat down to interview him recently at Singularity University’s Global Summit, that much was clear.
Mihir’s curiosity for robotics began at age two when his parents brought home a pet dog—well, a robotic dog. A few years passed with this robotic companion by his side, and Mihir became fascinated with how software and hardware could bring inanimate objects to “life.”
When he was 10, Mihir built a robotic violin tuner called Robo-Mozart to help him address a teacher’s complaints about his always-out-of-tune violin. The robot analyzes the sound of the violin, determines which strings are out of tune, and then uses motors to turn the tuning pegs.
Robo-Mozart and other earlier projects helped Mihir realize he could use robotics to solve real problems. Fast-forward to age 14 and Flybot, a tiny, low-cost emergency response drone that won Mihir top honors in his age category at the 2015 Google Science Fair.

The small drone is propelled by four rotors and is designed to mimic how fruit flies can speedily see and react to surrounding threats. It’s a design idea that hit Mihir when he and his family returned home after a long vacation to discover they had left bananas on their kitchen counter. The house was filled with fruit flies.
After many failed attempts to swat the flies, Mihir started wondering how these tiny creatures with small brains and horrible vision were such masterful escape artists. He began digging through research papers on fruit flies and came to an interesting conclusion.
Since fruit flies can’t see a lot of detail, they compensate by processing visual information very fast—ten times faster than people do.
“That’s what enables them to escape so effectively,” says Mihir.
Escaping a threat for a fruit fly could mean quickly avoiding a fatal swat from a human hand. Applied to a search-and-response drone, the scenario shifts—picture a drone instantaneously detecting and avoiding a falling ceiling while searching for survivors inside a collapsing building.

Now, at 17, Mihir is still pushing Flybot forward. He’s developing software to enable the drone to operate autonomously and hopes it will be able to navigate environments such as a burning building, or a structure that’s been hit by an earthquake. The drone is also equipped with intelligent sensors to collect spatial data it will use to maneuver around obstacles and detect things like a trapped person or the location of a gas leak.
For everyone concerned about robots eating jobs, Flybot is a perfect example of how technology can aid existing jobs.
Flybot could substitute for a first responder entering a dangerous situation or help a firefighter make a quicker rescue by showing where victims are trapped. With its small and fast design, the drone could also presumably carry out an initial search-and-rescue sweep in just a few minutes.
Mihir is committed to commercializing the product and keeping it within a $250–$500 price range, which is a fraction of the cost of many current emergency response drones. He hopes the low cost will allow the technology to be used in developing countries.
Next month, Mihir starts his freshman year at Stanford, where he plans to keep up his research and create a company to continue work on the drone.
When I asked Mihir what fuels him, he said, “Curiosity is a great skill for inventors. It lets you find inspiration in a lot of places that you may not look. If I had started by trying to build an escape algorithm for these drones, I wouldn’t know where to start. But looking at fruit flies and getting inspired by them, it gave me a really good place to look for inspiration.”
It’s a bit mind boggling how much Mihir has accomplished by age 17, but I suspect he’s just getting started.
Image Credit: Google Science Fair via YouTube Continue reading

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