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Robots excel at carrying out specialized tasks in controlled environments, but put them in your average office and they’d be lost. Alphabet wants to change that by developing what they call the Everyday Robot, which could learn to help us out with our daily chores.
For a long time most robots were painstakingly hand-coded to carry out their functions, but since the deep learning revolution earlier this decade there’s been a growing effort to imbue them with AI that lets them learn new tasks through experience.
That’s led to some impressive breakthroughs, like a robotic hand nimble enough to solve a Rubik’s cube and a robotic arm that can accurately toss bananas across a room.
And it turns out Alphabet’s early-stage research and development division, Alphabet X, has also secretly been using similar machine learning techniques to develop robots adaptable enough to carry out a range of tasks in cluttered and unpredictable human environments like homes and offices.
The robots they’ve built combine a wheeled base with a single arm and a head full of sensors (including LIDAR) for 3D scanning, borrowed from Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo.
At the minute, though, they’re largely restricted to sorting trash for recycling, project leader Hans Peter Brondmo writes in a blog post. While that might sound mundane, identifying different kinds of trash, grasping it, and moving it to the correct bin is still a difficult thing for a robot to do consistently. Some of the robots also have to navigate around the office to sort trash at various recycling stations.
Alphabet says even its human staff were getting it wrong 20 percent of the time, but after several months of training the robots have managed to get that down to 3.5 percent.
Every day, 30 robots toil away in what’s been dubbed the “playpen” sorting trash, and then every night thousands of virtual robots continue to practice in a simulation. This experience is then used to update the robots’ control algorithms each night. All the robots also share their experiences with the others through a process called collaborative learning.
The process isn’t flawless, though. Simonite notes that while the robots exhibit some uncannily smart behaviors, like stirring piles of rubbish to make it easier to grab specific items, they also frequently miss or fumble the objects they’re trying to grasp.
Nonetheless, the project’s leaders are happy with their progress so far. And the hope is that creating robots that are able to learn from little more than experience in complex environments like an office should be a first step towards general-purpose robots that can pick up a variety of useful skills to assist humans.
Taking that next step will be the major test of the project. So far there’s been limited evidence that experience gained by robots in one task can be transferred to learning another. That’s something the group hopes to demonstrate next year.
And it seems there may be more robot news coming out of Alphabet X soon. The group has several other robotics “moonshots” in the pipeline, built on technology and talent transferred over in 2016 from the remains of a broadly unsuccessful splurge on robotics startups by former Google executive Andy Rubin.
Whether this robotics renaissance at Alphabet will finally help robots break into our homes and offices remains to be seen, but with the resources they have at hand, they just may be able to make it happen.
Image Credit: Everyday Robot, Alphabet X Continue reading
The narrative that often accompanies most stories about artificial intelligence these days is how machines will disrupt any number of industries, from healthcare to transportation. It makes sense. After all, technology already drives many of the innovations in these sectors of the economy.
But sneakers and the red carpet? The definitively low-tech fashion industry would seem to be one of the last to turn over its creative direction to data scientists and machine learning algorithms.
However, big brands, e-commerce giants, and numerous startups are betting that AI can ingest data and spit out Chanel. Maybe it’s not surprising, given that fashion is partly about buzz and trends—and there’s nothing more buzzy and trendy in the world of tech today than AI.
In its annual survey of the $3 trillion fashion industry, consulting firm McKinsey predicted that while AI didn’t hit a “critical mass” in 2018, it would increasingly influence the business of everything from design to manufacturing.
“Fashion as an industry really has been so slow to understand its potential roles interwoven with technology. And, to be perfectly honest, the technology doesn’t take fashion seriously.” This comment comes from Zowie Broach, head of fashion at London’s Royal College of Arts, who as a self-described “old fashioned” designer has embraced the disruptive nature of technology—with some caveats.
Co-founder in the late 1990s of the avant-garde fashion label Boudicca, Broach has always seen tech as a tool for designers, even setting up a website for the company circa 1998, way before an online presence became, well, fashionable.
Broach told Singularity Hub that while she is generally optimistic about the future of technology in fashion—the designer has avidly been consuming old sci-fi novels over the last few years—there are still a lot of difficult questions to answer about the interface of algorithms, art, and apparel.
For instance, can AI do what the great designers of the past have done? Fashion was “about designing, it was about a narrative, it was about meaning, it was about expression,” according to Broach.
AI that designs products based on data gleaned from human behavior can potentially tap into the Pavlovian response in consumers in order to make money, Broach noted. But is that channeling creativity, or just digitally dabbling in basic human brain chemistry?
She is concerned about people retaining control of the process, whether we’re talking about their data or their designs. But being empowered with the insights machines could provide into, for example, the geographical nuances of fashion between Dubai, Moscow, and Toronto is thrilling.
“What is it that we want the future to be from a fashion, an identity, and design perspective?” she asked.
Off on the Right Foot
Silicon Valley and some of the biggest brands in the industry offer a few answers about where AI and fashion are headed (though not at the sort of depths that address Broach’s broader questions of aesthetics and ethics).
Take what is arguably the biggest brand in fashion, at least by market cap but probably not by the measure of appearances on Oscar night: Nike. The $100 billion shoe company just gobbled up an AI startup called Celect to bolster its data analytics and optimize its inventory. In other words, Nike hopes it will be able to figure out what’s hot and what’s not in a particular location to stock its stores more efficiently.
The company is going even further with Nike Fit, a foot-scanning platform using a smartphone camera that applies AI techniques from fields like computer vision and machine learning to find the best fit for each person’s foot. The algorithms then identify and recommend the appropriately sized and shaped shoe in different styles.
No doubt the next step will be to 3D print personalized and on-demand sneakers at any store.
San Francisco-based startup ThirdLove is trying to bring a similar approach to bra sizes. Its 20-member data team, Fortune reported, has developed the Fit Finder quiz that uses machine learning algorithms to help pick just the right garment for every body type.
Data scientists are also a big part of the team at Stitch Fix, a former San Francisco startup that went public in 2017 and today sports a market cap of more than $2 billion. The online “personal styling” company uses hundreds of algorithms to not only make recommendations to customers, but to help design new styles and even manage the subscription-based supply chain.
Future of Fashion
E-commerce giant Amazon has thrown its own considerable resources into developing AI applications for retail fashion—with mixed results.
One notable attempt involved a “styling assistant” that came with the company’s Echo Look camera that helped people catalog and manage their wardrobes, evening helping pick out each day’s attire. The company more recently revisited the direct consumer side of AI with an app called StyleSnap, which matches clothes and accessories uploaded to the site with the retailer’s vast inventory and recommends similar styles.
Behind the curtains, Amazon is going even further. A team of researchers in Israel have developed algorithms that can deduce whether a particular look is stylish based on a few labeled images. Another group at the company’s San Francisco research center was working on tech that could generate new designs of items based on images of a particular style the algorithms trained on.
“I will say that the accumulation of many new technologies across the industry could manifest in a highly specialized style assistant, far better than the examples we’ve seen today. However, the most likely thing is that the least sexy of the machine learning work will become the most impactful, and the public may never hear about it.”
That prediction is from an online interview with Leanne Luce, a fashion technology blogger and product manager at Google who recently wrote a book called, succinctly enough, Artificial Intelligence and Fashion.
Data Meets Design
Academics are also sticking their beakers into AI and fashion. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Adobe Research have previously demonstrated that neural networks, a type of AI designed to mimic some aspects of the human brain, can be trained to generate (i.e., design) new product images to match a buyer’s preference, much like the team at Amazon.
Meanwhile, scientists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are working with China’s answer to Amazon, Alibaba, on developing a FashionAI Dataset to help machines better understand fashion. The effort will focus on how algorithms approach certain building blocks of design, what are called “key points” such as neckline and waistline, and “fashion attributes” like collar types and skirt styles.
The man largely behind the university’s research team is Calvin Wong, a professor and associate head of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Institute of Textiles and Clothing. His group has also developed an “intelligent fabric defect detection system” called WiseEye for quality control, reducing the chance of producing substandard fabric by 90 percent.
Wong and company also recently inked an agreement with RCA to establish an AI-powered design laboratory, though the details of that venture have yet to be worked out, according to Broach.
One hope is that such collaborations will not just get at the technological challenges of using machines in creative endeavors like fashion, but will also address the more personal relationships humans have with their machines.
“I think who we are, and how we use AI in fashion, as our identity, is not a superficial skin. It’s very, very important for how we define our future,” Broach said.
Image Credit: Inspirationfeed / Unsplash Continue reading
Soft robots are getting more and more popular for some very good reasons. Their relative simplicity is one. Their relative low cost is another. And for their simplicity and low cost, they’re generally able to perform very impressively, leveraging the unique features inherent to their design and construction to move themselves and interact with their environment. The other significant reason why soft robots are so appealing is that they’re durable. Without the constraints of rigid parts, they can withstand the sort of abuse that would make any roboticist cringe.
In the current issue of Science Robotics, a group of researchers from Tsinghua University in China and University of California, Berkeley, present a new kind of soft robot that’s both higher performance and much more robust than just about anything we’ve seen before. The deceptively simple robot looks like a bent strip of paper, but it’s able to move at 20 body lengths per second and survive being stomped on by a human wearing tennis shoes. Take that, cockroaches.
This prototype robot measures just 3 centimeters by 1.5 cm. It takes a scanning electron microscope to actually see what the robot is made of—a thermoplastic layer is sandwiched by palladium-gold electrodes, bonded with adhesive silicone to a structural plastic at the bottom. When an AC voltage (as low as 8 volts but typically about 60 volts) is run through the electrodes, the thermoplastic extends and contracts, causing the robot’s back to flex and the little “foot” to shuffle. A complete step cycle takes just 50 milliseconds, yielding a 200 hertz gait. And technically, the robot “runs,” since it does have a brief aerial phase.
Image: Science Robotics
Photos from a high-speed camera show the robot’s gait (A to D) as it contracts and expands its body.
To put the robot’s top speed of 20 body lengths per second in perspective, have a look at this nifty chart, which shows where other animals relative running speeds of some animals and robots versus body mass:
Image: Science Robotics
This chart shows the relative running speeds of some mammals (purple area), arthropods (orange area), and soft robots (blue area) versus body mass. For both mammals and arthropods, relative speeds show a strong negative scaling law with respect to the body mass: speeds increase as body masses decrease. However, for soft robots, the relationship appears to be the opposite: speeds decrease as the body mass decrease. For the little soft robots created by the researchers from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley (red stars), the scaling law is similar to that of living animals: Higher speed was attained as the body mass decreased.
If you were wondering, like we were, just what that number 39 is on that chart (top left corner), it’s a species of tiny mite that was discovered underneath a rock in California in 1916. The mite is just under 1 mm in size, but it can run at 0.8 kilometer per hour, which is 322 body lengths per second, making it by far (like, by a factor of two at least) the fastest land animal on Earth relative to size. If a human was to run that fast relative to our size, we’d be traveling at a little bit over 2,000 kilometers per hour. It’s not a coincidence that pretty much everything in the upper left of the chart is an insect—speed scales favorably with decreasing mass, since actuators have a proportionally larger effect.
Other notable robots on the chart with impressive speed to mass ratios are number 27, which is this magnetically driven quadruped robot from UMD, and number 86, UC Berkeley’s X2-VelociRoACH.
Anyway, back to this robot. Some other cool things about it:
You can step on it, squishing it flat with a load about 1 million times its own body weight, and it’ll keep on crawling, albeit only half as fast.
Even climbing a slope of 15 degrees, it can still manage to move at 1 body length per second.
It carries peanuts! With a payload of six times its own weight, it moves a sixth as fast, but still, it’s not like you need your peanuts delivered all that quickly anyway, do you?
Image: Science Robotics
The researchers also put together a prototype with two legs instead of one, which was able to demonstrate a potentially faster galloping gait by spending more time in the air. They suggest that robots like these could be used for “environmental exploration, structural inspection, information reconnaissance, and disaster relief,” which are the sorts of things that you suggest that your robot could be used for when you really have no idea what it could be used for. But this work is certainly impressive, with speed and robustness that are largely unmatched by other soft robots. An untethered version seems possible due to the relatively low voltages required to drive the robot, and if they can put some peanut-sized sensors on there as well, practical applications might actually be forthcoming sometime soon.
“Insect-scale Fast Moving and Ultrarobust Soft Robot,” by Yichuan Wu, Justin K. Yim, Jiaming Liang, Zhichun Shao, Mingjing Qi, Junwen Zhong, Zihao Luo, Xiaojun Yan, Min Zhang, Xiaohao Wang, Ronald S. Fearing, Robert J. Full, and Liwei Lin from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley, is published in Science Robotics. Continue reading