Tag Archives: robotic

#433754 This Robotic Warehouse Fills Orders in ...

Shopping is becoming less and less of a consumer experience—or, for many, less of a chore—as the list of things that can be bought online and delivered to our homes grows to include, well, almost anything you can think of. An Israeli startup is working to make shopping and deliveries even faster and cheaper—and they’re succeeding.

Last week, CommonSense Robotics announced the launch of its first autonomous micro-fulfillment center in Tel Aviv. The company claims the facility is the smallest of its type in the world at 6,000 square feet. For comparison’s sake—most fulfillment hubs that incorporate robotics are at least 120,000 square feet. Amazon’s upcoming facility in Bessemer, Alabama will be a massive 855,000 square feet.

The thing about a building whose square footage is in the hundred-thousands is, you can fit a lot of stuff inside it, but there aren’t many places you can fit the building itself, especially not in major urban areas. So most fulfillment centers are outside cities, which means more time and more money to get your Moroccan oil shampoo, or your vegetable garden starter kit, or your 100-pack of organic protein bars from that fulfillment center to your front door.

CommonSense Robotics built the Tel Aviv center in an area that was previously thought too small for warehouse infrastructure. “In order to fit our site into small, tight urban spaces, we’ve designed every single element of it to optimize for space efficiency,” said Avital Sterngold, VP of operations. Using a robotic sorting system that includes hundreds of robots, plus AI software that assigns them specific tasks, the facility can prepare orders in less than five minutes end-to-end.

It’s not all automated, though—there’s still some human labor in the mix. The robots fetch goods and bring them to a team of people, who then pack the individual orders.

CommonSense raised $20 million this year in a funding round led by Palo Alto-based Playground Global. The company hopes to expand its operations to the US and UK in 2019. Its business model is to charge retailers a fee for each order fulfilled, while maintaining ownership and operation of the fulfillment centers. The first retailers to jump on the bandwagon were Super-Pharm, a drugstore chain, and Rami Levy, a retail supermarket chain.

“Staying competitive in today’s market is anchored by delivering orders quickly and determining how to fulfill and deliver orders efficiently, which are always the most complex aspects of any ecommerce operation. With robotics, we will be able to fulfill and deliver orders in under one hour, all while saving costs on said fulfillment and delivery,” said Super-Pharm VP Yossi Cohen. “Before CommonSense Robotics, we offered our customers next-day home delivery. With this partnership, we are now able to offer our customers same-day delivery and will very soon be offering them one-hour delivery.”

Long live the instant gratification economy—and the increasingly sophisticated technology that’s enabling it.

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Posted in Human Robots

#433748 Could Tech Make Government As We Know It ...

Governments are one of the last strongholds of an undigitized, linear sector of humanity, and they are falling behind fast. Apart from their struggle to keep up with private sector digitization, federal governments are in a crisis of trust.

At almost a 60-year low, only 18 percent of Americans reported that they could trust their government “always” or “most of the time” in a recent Pew survey. And the US is not alone. The Edelman Trust Barometer revealed last year that 41 percent of the world population distrust their nations’ governments.

In many cases, the private sector—particularly tech—is driving greater progress in regulation-targeted issues like climate change than state leaders. And as decentralized systems, digital disruption, and private sector leadership take the world by storm, traditional forms of government are beginning to fear irrelevance. However, the fight for exponential governance is not a lost battle.

Early visionaries like Estonia and the UAE are leading the way in digital governance, empowered by a host of converging technologies.

In this article, we will cover three key trends:

Digital governance divorced from land
AI-driven service delivery and regulation
Blockchain-enforced transparency

Let’s dive in.

Governments Going Digital
States and their governments have forever been tied to physical territories, and public services are often delivered through brick-and-mortar institutions. Yet public sector infrastructure and services will soon be hosted on servers, detached from land and physical form.

Enter e-Estonia. Perhaps the least expected on a list of innovative nations, this former Soviet Republic-turned digital society is ushering in an age of technological statecraft.

Hosting every digitizable government function on the cloud, Estonia could run its government almost entirely on a server. Starting in the 1990s, Estonia’s government has covered the nation with ultra-high-speed data connectivity, laying down tremendous amounts of fiber optic cable. By 2007, citizens could vote from their living rooms.

With digitized law, Estonia signs policies into effect using cryptographically secure digital signatures, and every stage of the legislative process is available to citizens online.

Citizens’ healthcare registry is run on the blockchain, allowing patients to own and access their own health data from anywhere in the world—X-rays, digital prescriptions, medical case notes—all the while tracking who has access.

Today, most banks have closed their offices, as 99 percent of banking transactions occur online (with 67 percent of citizens regularly using cryptographically secured e-IDs). And by 2020, e-tax will be entirely automated with Estonia’s new e-Tax and Customs Board portal, allowing companies and tax authority to exchange data automatically. And i-Voting, civil courts, land registries, banking, taxes, and countless e-facilities allow citizens to access almost any government service with an electronic ID and personal PIN online.

But perhaps Estonia’s most revolutionary breakthrough is its recently introduced e-residency. With over 30,000 e-residents, Estonia issues electronic IDs to global residents anywhere in the world. While e-residency doesn’t grant territorial rights, over 5,000 e-residents have already established companies within Estonia’s jurisdiction.

After registering companies online, entrepreneurs pay automated taxes—calculated in minutes and transmitted to the Estonian government with unprecedented ease.

The implications of e-residency and digital governance are huge. As with any software, open-source code for digital governance could be copied perfectly at almost zero cost, lowering the barrier to entry for any group or movement seeking statehood.

We may soon see the rise of competitive governing ecosystems, each testing new infrastructure and public e-services to compete with mainstream governments for taxpaying citizens.

And what better to accelerate digital governance than AI?

Legal Compliance Through AI
Just last year, the UAE became the first nation to appoint a State Minister for AI (actually a friend of mine, H.E. Omar Al Olama), aiming to digitize government services and halve annual costs. Among multiple sector initiatives, the UAE hopes to deploy robotic cops by 2030.

Meanwhile, the U.K. now has a Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, and just last month, world leaders convened at the World Government Summit to discuss guidelines for AI’s global regulation.

As AI infuses government services, emerging applications have caught my eye:

Smart Borders and Checkpoints

With biometrics and facial recognition, traditional checkpoints will soon be a thing of the past. Cubic Transportation Systems—the company behind London’s ticketless public transit—is currently developing facial recognition for automated transport barriers. Digital security company Gemalto predicts that biometric systems will soon cross-reference individual faces with passport databases at security checkpoints, and China has already begun to test this at scale. While the Alibaba Ant Financial affiliate’s “Smile to Pay” feature allows users to authenticate digital payments with their faces, nationally overseen facial recognition technologies allow passengers to board planes, employees to enter office spaces, and students to access university halls. With biometric-geared surveillance at national borders, supply chains and international travelers could be tracked automatically, and granted or denied access according to biometrics and cross-referenced databases.

Policing and Security

Leveraging predictive analytics, China is also working to integrate security footage into a national surveillance and data-sharing system. By merging citizen data in its “Police Cloud”—including everything from criminal and medical records, transaction data, travel records and social media—it may soon be able to spot suspects and predict crime in advance. But China is not alone. During London’s Notting Hill Carnival this year, the Metropolitan Police used facial recognition cross-referenced with crime data to pre-identify and track likely offenders.

Smart Courts

AI may soon be reaching legal trials as well. UCL computer scientists have developed software capable of predicting courtroom outcomes based on data patterns with unprecedented accuracy. Assessing risk of flight, the National Bureau of Economic Research now uses an algorithm leveraging data from hundreds of thousands of NYC cases to recommend whether defendants should be granted bail. But while AI allows for streamlined governance, the public sector’s power to misuse our data is a valid concern and issues with bias as a result of historical data still remain. As tons of new information is generated about our every move, how do we keep governments accountable?

Enter the blockchain.

Transparent Governance and Accountability
Without doubt, alongside AI, government’s greatest disruptor is the newly-minted blockchain. Relying on a decentralized web of nodes, blockchain can securely verify transactions, signatures, and other information. This makes it essentially impossible for hackers, companies, officials, or even governments to falsify information on the blockchain.

As you’d expect, many government elites are therefore slow to adopt the technology, fearing enforced accountability. But blockchain’s benefits to government may be too great to ignore.

First, blockchain will be a boon for regulatory compliance.

As transactions on a blockchain are irreversible and transparent, uploaded sensor data can’t be corrupted. This means middlemen have no way of falsifying information to shirk regulation, and governments eliminate the need to enforce charges after the fact.

Apply this to carbon pricing, for instance, and emission sensors could fluidly log carbon credits onto a carbon credit blockchain, such as that developed by Ecosphere+. As carbon values are added to the price of everyday products or to corporations’ automated taxes, compliance and transparency would soon be digitally embedded.

Blockchain could also bolster government efforts in cybersecurity. As supercities and nation-states build IoT-connected traffic systems, surveillance networks, and sensor-tracked supply chain management, blockchain is critical in protecting connected devices from cyberattack.

But blockchain will inevitably hold governments accountable as well. By automating and tracking high-risk transactions, blockchain may soon eliminate fraud in cash transfers, public contracts and aid funds. Already, the UN World Food Program has piloted blockchain to manage cash-based transfers and aid flows to Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Blockchain-enabled “smart contracts” could automate exchange of real assets according to publicly visible, pre-programmed conditions, disrupting the $9.5 trillion market of public-sector contracts and public investment projects.

Eliminating leakages and increasing transparency, a distributed ledger has the potential to save trillions.

Future Implications
It is truly difficult to experiment with new forms of government. It’s not like there are new countries waiting to be discovered where we can begin fresh. And with entrenched bureaucracies and dominant industrial players, changing an existing nation’s form of government is extremely difficult and usually only happens during times of crisis or outright revolution.

Perhaps we will develop and explore new forms of government in the virtual world (to be explored during a future blog), or perhaps Sea Steading will allow us to physically build new island nations. And ultimately, as we move off the earth to Mars and space colonies, we will have yet another chance to start fresh.

But, without question, 90 percent or more of today’s political processes herald back to a day before technology, and it shows in terms of speed and efficiency.

Ultimately, there will be a shift to digital governments enabled with blockchain’s transparency, and we will redefine the relationship between citizens and the public sector.

One day I hope i-voting will allow anyone anywhere to participate in policy, and cloud-based governments will start to compete in e-services. As four billion new minds come online over the next several years, people may soon have the opportunity to choose their preferred government and citizenship digitally, independent of birthplace.

In 50 years, what will our governments look like? Will we have an interplanetary order, or a multitude of publicly-run ecosystems? Will cyber-ocracies rule our physical worlds with machine intelligence, or will blockchains allow for hive mind-like democracy?

The possibilities are endless, and only we can shape them.

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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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#433655 First-Ever Grad Program in Space Mining ...

Maybe they could call it the School of Space Rock: A new program being offered at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) will educate post-graduate students on the nuts and bolts of extracting and using valuable materials such as rare metals and frozen water from space rocks like asteroids or the moon.

Officially called Space Resources, the graduate-level program is reputedly the first of its kind in the world to offer a course in the emerging field of space mining. Heading the program is Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at Mines, a well-known engineering school located in Golden, Colorado, where Molson Coors taps Rocky Mountain spring water for its earthly brews.

The first semester for the new discipline began last month. While Abbud-Madrid didn’t immediately respond to an interview request, Singularity Hub did talk to Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, a space mining company whose founders include Peter Diamandis, Singularity University co-founder.

A former NASA engineer who worked on multiple Mars missions, Lewicki says the Space Resources program at CSM, with its multidisciplinary focus on science, economics, and policy, will help students be light years ahead of their peers in the nascent field of space mining.

“I think it’s very significant that they’ve started this program,” he said. “Having students with that kind of background exposure just allows them to be productive on day one instead of having to kind of fill in a lot of things for them.”

Who would be attracted to apply for such a program? There are many professionals who could be served by a post-baccalaureate certificate, master’s degree, or even Ph.D. in Space Resources, according to Lewicki. Certainly aerospace engineers and planetary scientists would be among the faces in the classroom.

“I think it’s [also] people who have an interest in what I would call maybe space robotics,” he said. Lewicki is referring not only to the classic example of robotic arms like the Canadarm2, which lends a hand to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but other types of autonomous platforms.

One example might be Planetary Resources’ own Arkyd-6, a small, autonomous satellite called a CubeSat launched earlier this year to test different technologies that might be used for deep-space exploration of resources. The proof-of-concept was as much a test for the technology—such as the first space-based use of a mid-wave infrared imager to detect water resources—as it was for being able to work in space on a shoestring budget.

“We really proved that doing one of these billion-dollar science missions to deep space can be done for a lot less if you have a very focused goal, and if you kind of cut a lot of corners and then put some commercial approaches into those things,” Lewicki said.

A Trillion-Dollar Industry
Why space mining? There are at least a trillion reasons.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said that the first trillionaire will be the “person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids.” That’s because asteroids—rocky remnants from the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago—harbor precious metals, ranging from platinum and gold to iron and nickel.

For instance, one future target of exploration by NASA—an asteroid dubbed 16 Psyche, orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. It’s a number so mind-bogglingly big that it would crash the global economy, if someone ever figured out how to tow it back to Earth without literally crashing it into the planet.

Living Off the Land
Space mining isn’t just about getting rich. Many argue that humanity’s ability to extract resources in space, especially water that can be refined into rocket fuel, will be a key technology to extend our reach beyond near-Earth space.

The presence of frozen water around the frigid polar regions of the moon, for example, represents an invaluable source to power future deep-space missions. Splitting H20 into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen would provide a nearly inexhaustible source of rocket fuel. Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit, according to NASA.

Until more advanced rocket technology is developed, the moon looks to be the best bet for serving as the launching pad to Mars and beyond.

Moon Versus Asteroid
However, Lewicki notes that despite the moon’s proximity and our more intimate familiarity with its pockmarked surface, that doesn’t mean a lunar mission to extract resources is any easier than a multi-year journey to a fast-moving asteroid.

For one thing, fighting gravity to and from the moon is no easy feat, as the moon has a significantly stronger gravitational field than an asteroid. Another challenge is that the frozen water is located in permanently shadowed lunar craters, meaning space miners can’t rely on solar-powered equipment, but on some sort of external energy source.

And then there’s the fact that moon craters might just be the coldest places in the solar system. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter found temperatures plummeted as low as 26 Kelvin, or more than minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, the coldest temperatures on Earth have been recorded near the South Pole in Antarctica—about minus 148 degrees F.

“We don’t operate machines in that kind of thermal environment,” Lewicki said of the extreme temperatures detected in the permanent dark regions of the moon. “Antarctica would be a balmy desert island compared to a lunar polar crater.”

Of course, no one knows quite what awaits us in the asteroid belt. Answers may soon be forthcoming. Last week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed two small, hopping rovers on an asteroid called Ryugu. Meanwhile, NASA hopes to retrieve a sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu when its OSIRIS-REx mission makes contact at the end of this year.

No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
Visionaries like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos talk about colonies on Mars, with millions of people living and working in space. The reality is that there’s probably a reason Buck Rogers was set in the 25th century: It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time to realize those sci-fi visions.

Or, as Lewicki put it: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

The cost of operating in outer space can be prohibitive. Planetary Resources itself is grappling with raising additional funding, with reports this year about layoffs and even a possible auction of company assets.

Still, Lewicki is confident that despite economic and technical challenges, humanity will someday exceed even the boldest dreamers—skyscrapers on the moon, interplanetary trips to Mars—as judged against today’s engineering marvels.

“What we’re doing is going to be very hard, very painful, and almost certainly worth it,” he said. “Who would have thought that there would be a job for a space miner that you could go to school for, even just five or ten years ago. Things move quickly.”

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#433634 This Robotic Skin Makes Inanimate ...

In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.

Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.

When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.

Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.

The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.

The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.

By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.

“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”

There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.

In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.

“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.

“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”

Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.

The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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