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Robotics has come a long way in the past few years. Robots can now fetch items from specific spots in massive warehouses, swim through the ocean to study marine life, and lift 200 times their own weight. They can even perform synchronized dance routines.
But the really big question is—can robots put together an Ikea chair?
A team of engineers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore decided to find out, detailing their work in a paper published last week in the journal Science Robotics. The team took industrial robot arms and equipped them with parallel grippers, force-detecting sensors, and 3D cameras, and wrote software enabling the souped-up bots to tackle chair assembly. The robots’ starting point was a set of chair parts randomly scattered within reach.
As impressive as the above-mentioned robotic capabilities are, it’s worth noting that they’re mostly limited to a single skill. Putting together furniture, on the other hand, requires using and precisely coordinating multiple skills, including force control, visual localization, hand-eye coordination, and the patience to read each step of the manual without rushing through it and messing everything up.
Indeed, Ikea furniture, while meant to be simple and user-friendly, has left even the best of us scratching our heads and holding a spare oddly-shaped piece of wood as we stare at the desk or bed frame we just put together—or, for the less even-tempered among us, throwing said piece of wood across the room.
It’s a good thing robots don’t have tempers, because it took a few tries for the bots to get the chair assembly right.
Practice makes perfect, though (or in this case, rewriting code makes perfect), and these bots didn’t give up so easily. They had to hone three different skills: identifying which part was which among the scattered, differently-shaped pieces of wood, coordinating their movements to put those pieces in the right place, and knowing how much force to use in various steps of the process (i.e., more force is needed to connect two pieces than to pick up one piece).
A few tries later, the bots were able to assemble the chair from start to finish in about nine minutes.
On the whole, nicely done. But before we applaud the robots’ success too loudly, it’s important to note that they didn’t autonomously assemble the chair. Rather, each step of the process was planned and coded by engineers, down to the millimeter.
However, the team believes this closely-guided chair assembly was just a first step, and they see a not-so-distant future where combining artificial intelligence with advanced robotic capabilities could produce smart bots that would learn to assemble furniture and do other complex tasks on their own.
Future applications mentioned in the paper include electronics and aircraft manufacturing, logistics, and other high-mix, low-volume sectors.
Image Credit: Francisco Suárez-Ruiz and Quang-Cuong Pham/Nanyang Technological University Continue reading
Ever wished you could be in two places at the same time? The XPRIZE Foundation wants to make that a reality with a $10 million competition to build robot avatars that can be controlled from at least 100 kilometers away.
The competition was announced by XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis at the SXSW conference in Austin last week, with an ambitious timeline of awarding the grand prize by October 2021. Teams have until October 31st to sign up, and they need to submit detailed plans to a panel of judges by the end of next January.
The prize, sponsored by Japanese airline ANA, has given contestants little guidance on how they expect them to solve the challenge other than saying their solutions need to let users see, hear, feel, and interact with the robot’s environment as well as the people in it.
XPRIZE has also not revealed details of what kind of tasks the robots will be expected to complete, though they’ve said tasks will range from “simple” to “complex,” and it should be possible for an untrained operator to use them.
That’s a hugely ambitious goal that’s likely to require teams to combine multiple emerging technologies, from humanoid robotics to virtual reality high-bandwidth communications and high-resolution haptics.
If any of the teams succeed, the technology could have myriad applications, from letting emergency responders enter areas too hazardous for humans to helping people care for relatives who live far away or even just allowing tourists to visit other parts of the world without the jet lag.
“Our ability to physically experience another geographic location, or to provide on-the-ground assistance where needed, is limited by cost and the simple availability of time,” Diamandis said in a statement.
“The ANA Avatar XPRIZE can enable creation of an audacious alternative that could bypass these limitations, allowing us to more rapidly and efficiently distribute skill and hands-on expertise to distant geographic locations where they are needed, bridging the gap between distance, time, and cultures,” he added.
Interestingly, the technology may help bypass an enduring hand break on the widespread use of robotics: autonomy. By having a human in the loop, you don’t need nearly as much artificial intelligence analyzing sensory input and making decisions.
Robotics software is doing a lot more than just high-level planning and strategizing, though. While a human moves their limbs instinctively without consciously thinking about which muscles to activate, controlling and coordinating a robot’s components requires sophisticated algorithms.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge demonstrated just how hard it was to get human-shaped robots to do tasks humans would find simple, such as opening doors, climbing steps, and even just walking. These robots were supposedly semi-autonomous, but on many tasks they were essentially tele-operated, and the results suggested autonomy isn’t the only problem.
There’s also the issue of powering these devices. You may have noticed that in a lot of the slick web videos of humanoid robots doing cool things, the machine is attached to the roof by a large cable. That’s because they suck up huge amounts of power.
Possibly the most advanced humanoid robot—Boston Dynamics’ Atlas—has a battery, but it can only run for about an hour. That might be fine for some applications, but you don’t want it running out of juice halfway through rescuing someone from a mine shaft.
When it comes to the link between the robot and its human user, some of the technology is probably not that much of a stretch. Virtual reality headsets can create immersive audio-visual environments, and a number of companies are working on advanced haptic suits that will let people “feel” virtual environments.
Motion tracking technology may be more complicated. While even consumer-grade devices can track peoples’ movements with high accuracy, you will probably need to don something more like an exoskeleton that can both pick up motion and provide mechanical resistance, so that when the robot bumps into an immovable object, the user stops dead too.
How hard all of this will be is also dependent on how the competition ultimately defines subjective terms like “feel” and “interact.” Will the user need to be able to feel a gentle breeze on the robot’s cheek or be able to paint a watercolor? Or will simply having the ability to distinguish a hard object from a soft one or shake someone’s hand be enough?
Whatever the fidelity they decide on, the approach will require huge amounts of sensory and control data to be transmitted over large distances, most likely wirelessly, in a way that’s fast and reliable enough that there’s no lag or interruptions. Fortunately 5G is launching this year, with a speed of 10 gigabits per second and very low latency, so this problem should be solved by 2021.
And it’s worth remembering there have already been some tentative attempts at building robotic avatars. Telepresence robots have solved the seeing, hearing, and some of the interacting problems, and MIT has already used virtual reality to control robots to carry out complex manipulation tasks.
South Korean company Hankook Mirae Technology has also unveiled a 13-foot-tall robotic suit straight out of a sci-fi movie that appears to have made some headway with the motion tracking problem, albeit with a human inside the robot. Toyota’s T-HR3 does the same, but with the human controlling the robot from a “Master Maneuvering System” that marries motion tracking with VR.
Combining all of these capabilities into a single machine will certainly prove challenging. But if one of the teams pulls it off, you may be able to tick off trips to the Seven Wonders of the World without ever leaving your house.
Image Credit: ANA Avatar XPRIZE Continue reading
This donut-shaped drone, not technically known as a dronut, offers a tasty combination of safety and ease of use Continue reading
The first time Dr. Blake Richards heard about deep learning, he was convinced that he wasn’t just looking at a technique that would revolutionize artificial intelligence. He also knew he was looking at something fundamental about the human brain.
That was the early 2000s, and Richards was taking a course with Dr. Geoff Hinton at the University of Toronto. Hinton, a pioneer architect of the algorithm that would later take the world by storm, was offering an introductory course on his learning method inspired by the human brain.
The key words here are “inspired by.” Despite Richards’ conviction, the odds were stacked against him. The human brain, as it happens, seems to lack a critical function that’s programmed into deep learning algorithms. On the surface, the algorithms were violating basic biological facts already proven by neuroscientists.
But what if, superficial differences aside, deep learning and the brain are actually compatible?
Now, in a new study published in eLife, Richards, working with DeepMind, proposed a new algorithm based on the biological structure of neurons in the neocortex. Also known as the cortex, this outermost region of the brain is home to higher cognitive functions such as reasoning, prediction, and flexible thought.
The team networked their artificial neurons together into a multi-layered network and challenged it with a classic computer vision task—identifying hand-written numbers.
The new algorithm performed well. But the kicker is that it analyzed the learning examples in a way that’s characteristic of deep learning algorithms, even though it was completely based on the brain’s fundamental biology.
“Deep learning is possible in a biological framework,” concludes the team.
Because the model is only a computer simulation at this point, Richards hopes to pass the baton to experimental neuroscientists, who could actively test whether the algorithm operates in an actual brain.
If so, the data could then be passed back to computer scientists to work out the next generation of massively parallel and low-energy algorithms to power our machines.
It’s a first step towards merging the two fields back into a “virtuous circle” of discovery and innovation.
The blame game
While you’ve probably heard of deep learning’s recent wins against humans in the game of Go, you might not know the nitty-gritty behind the algorithm’s operations.
In a nutshell, deep learning relies on an artificial neural network with virtual “neurons.” Like a towering skyscraper, the network is structured into hierarchies: lower-level neurons process aspects of an input—for example, a horizontal or vertical stroke that eventually forms the number four—whereas higher-level neurons extract more abstract aspects of the number four.
To teach the network, you give it examples of what you’re looking for. The signal propagates forward in the network (like climbing up a building), where each neuron works to fish out something fundamental about the number four.
Like children trying to learn a skill the first time, initially the network doesn’t do so well. It spits out what it thinks a universal number four should look like—think a Picasso-esque rendition.
But here’s where the learning occurs: the algorithm compares the output with the ideal output, and computes the difference between the two (dubbed “error”). This error is then “backpropagated” throughout the entire network, telling each neuron: hey, this is how far off you were, so try adjusting your computation closer to the ideal.
Millions of examples and tweakings later, the network inches closer to the desired output and becomes highly proficient at the trained task.
This error signal is crucial for learning. Without efficient “backprop,” the network doesn’t know which of its neurons are off kilter. By assigning blame, the AI can better itself.
The brain does this too. How? We have no clue.
What’s clear, though, is that the deep learning solution doesn’t work.
Backprop is a pretty needy function. It requires a very specific infrastructure for it to work as expected.
For one, each neuron in the network has to receive the error feedback. But in the brain, neurons are only connected to a few downstream partners (if that). For backprop to work in the brain, early-level neurons need to be able to receive information from billions of connections in their downstream circuits—a biological impossibility.
And while certain deep learning algorithms adapt a more local form of backprop— essentially between neurons—it requires their connection forwards and backwards to be symmetric. This hardly ever occurs in the brain’s synapses.
More recent algorithms adapt a slightly different strategy, in that they implement a separate feedback pathway that helps the neurons to figure out errors locally. While it’s more biologically plausible, the brain doesn’t have a separate computational network dedicated to the blame game.
What it does have are neurons with intricate structures, unlike the uniform “balls” that are currently applied in deep learning.
The team took inspiration from pyramidal cells that populate the human cortex.
“Most of these neurons are shaped like trees, with ‘roots’ deep in the brain and ‘branches’ close to the surface,” says Richards. “What’s interesting is that these roots receive a different set of inputs than the branches that are way up at the top of the tree.”
This is an illustration of a multi-compartment neural network model for deep learning. Left: Reconstruction of pyramidal neurons from mouse primary visual cortex. Right: Illustration of simplified pyramidal neuron models. Image Credit: CIFAR
Curiously, the structure of neurons often turn out be “just right” for efficiently cracking a computational problem. Take the processing of sensations: the bottoms of pyramidal neurons are right smack where they need to be to receive sensory input, whereas the tops are conveniently placed to transmit feedback errors.
Could this intricate structure be evolution’s solution to channeling the error signal?
The team set up a multi-layered neural network based on previous algorithms. But rather than having uniform neurons, they gave those in middle layers—sandwiched between the input and output—compartments, just like real neurons.
When trained with hand-written digits, the algorithm performed much better than a single-layered network, despite lacking a way to perform classical backprop. The cell-like structure itself was sufficient to assign error: the error signals at one end of the neuron are naturally kept separate from input at the other end.
Then, at the right moment, the neuron brings both sources of information together to find the best solution.
There’s some biological evidence for this: neuroscientists have long known that the neuron’s input branches perform local computations, which can be integrated with signals that propagate backwards from the so-called output branch.
However, we don’t yet know if this is the brain’s way of dealing blame—a question that Richards urges neuroscientists to test out.
What’s more, the network parsed the problem in a way eerily similar to traditional deep learning algorithms: it took advantage of its multi-layered structure to extract progressively more abstract “ideas” about each number.
“[This is] the hallmark of deep learning,” the authors explain.
The Deep Learning Brain
Without doubt, there will be more twists and turns to the story as computer scientists incorporate more biological details into AI algorithms.
One aspect that Richards and team are already eyeing is a top-down predictive function, in which signals from higher levels directly influence how lower levels respond to input.
Feedback from upper levels doesn’t just provide error signals; it could also be nudging lower processing neurons towards a “better” activity pattern in real-time, says Richards.
The network doesn’t yet outperform other non-biologically derived (but “brain-inspired”) deep networks. But that’s not the point.
“Deep learning has had a huge impact on AI, but, to date, its impact on neuroscience has been limited,” the authors say.
Now neuroscientists have a lead they could experimentally test: that the structure of neurons underlie nature’s own deep learning algorithm.
“What we might see in the next decade or so is a real virtuous cycle of research between neuroscience and AI, where neuroscience discoveries help us to develop new AI and AI can help us interpret and understand our experimental data in neuroscience,” says Richards.
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The alternative universe known as science fiction has given our culture a menagerie of alien species. From overstuffed teddy bears like Ewoks and Wookies to terrifying nightmares such as Alien and Predator, our collective imagination of what form alien life from another world may take has been irrevocably imprinted by Hollywood.
It might all be possible, or all these bug-eyed critters might turn out to be just B-movie versions of how real extraterrestrials will appear if and when they finally make the evening news.
One thing for certain is that aliens from another world will be shaped by the same evolutionary forces as here on Earth—natural selection. That’s the conclusion of a team of scientists from the University of Oxford in a study published this month in the International Journal of Astrobiology.
A complex alien that comprises a hierarchy of entities, where each lower level collection of entities has aligned evolutionary interests.Image Credit: Helen S. Cooper/University of Oxford.
The researchers suggest that evolutionary theory—famously put forth by Charles Darwin in his seminal book On the Origin of Species 158 years ago this month—can be used to make some predictions about alien species. In particular, the team argues that extraterrestrials will undergo natural selection, because that is the only process by which organisms can adapt to their environment.
“Adaptation is what defines life,” lead author Samuel Levin tells Singularity Hub.
While it’s likely that NASA or some SpaceX-like private venture will eventually kick over a few space rocks and discover microbial life in the not-too-distant future, the sorts of aliens Levin and his colleagues are interested in describing are more complex. That’s because natural selection is at work.
A quick evolutionary theory 101 refresher: Natural selection is the process by which certain traits are favored over others in a given population. For example, take a group of brown and green beetles. It just so happens that birds prefer foraging on green beetles, allowing more brown beetles to survive and reproduce than the more delectable green ones. Eventually, if these population pressures persist, brown beetles will become the dominant type. Brown wins, green loses.
And just as human beings are the result of millions of years of adaptations—eyes and thumbs, for example—aliens will similarly be constructed from parts that were once free living but through time came together to work as one organism.
“Life has so many intricate parts, so much complexity, for that to happen (randomly),” Levin explains. “It’s too complex and too many things working together in a purposeful way for that to happen by chance, as how certain molecules come about. Instead you need a process for making it, and natural selection is that process.”
Just don’t expect ET to show up as a bipedal humanoid with a large head and almond-shaped eyes, Levin says.
“They can be built from entirely different chemicals and so visually, superficially, unfamiliar,” he explains. “They will have passed through the same evolutionary history as us. To me, that’s way cooler and more exciting than them having two legs.”
Need for Data
Seth Shostak, a lead astronomer at the SETI Institute and host of the organization’s Big Picture Science radio show, wrote that while the argument is interesting, it doesn’t answer the question of ET’s appearance.
Shostak argues that a more productive approach would invoke convergent evolution, where similar environments lead to similar adaptations, at least assuming a range of Earth-like conditions such as liquid oceans and thick atmospheres. For example, an alien species that evolved in a liquid environment would evolve a streamlined body to move through water.
“Happenstance and the specifics of the environment will produce variations on an alien species’ planet as it has on ours, and there’s really no way to predict these,” Shostak concludes. “Alas, an accurate cosmic bestiary cannot be written by the invocation of biological mechanisms alone. We need data. That requires more than simply thinking about alien life. We need to actually discover it.”
Search Is On
The search is on. On one hand, the task seems easy enough: There are at least 100 billion planets in the Milky Way alone, and at least 20 percent of those are likely to be capable of producing a biosphere. Even if the evolution of life is exceedingly rare—take a conservative estimate of .001 percent or 200,000 planets, as proposed by the Oxford paper—you have to like the odds.
Of course, it’s not that easy by a billion light years.
Planet hunters can’t even agree on what signatures of life they should focus on. The idea is that where there’s smoke there’s fire. In the case of an alien world home to biological life, astrobiologists are searching for the presence of “biosignature gases,” vapors that could only be produced by alien life.
As Quanta Magazine reported, scientists do this by measuring a planet’s atmosphere against starlight. Gases in the atmosphere absorb certain frequencies of starlight, offering a clue as to what is brewing around a particular planet.
The presence of oxygen would seem to be a biological no-brainer, but there are instances where a planet can produce a false positive, meaning non-biological processes are responsible for the exoplanet’s oxygen. Scientists like Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, have argued there are plenty of examples of other types of gases produced by organisms right here on Earth that could also produce the smoking gun, er, planet.
Life as We Know It
Indeed, the existence of Earth-bound extremophiles—organisms that defy conventional wisdom about where life can exist, such as in the vacuum of space—offer another clue as to what kind of aliens we might eventually meet.
Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist and synthetic biologist in the Earth Science Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, takes extremophiles as a baseline and then supersizes them through synthetic biology.
For example, say a bacteria is capable of surviving at 120 degrees Celsius. Rothschild’s lab might tweak an organism’s DNA to see if it could metabolize at 150 degrees. The idea, as she explains, is to expand the envelope for life without ever getting into a rocket ship.
While researchers may not always agree on the “where” and “how” and “what” of the search for extraterrestrial life, most do share one belief: Alien life must be out there.
“It would shock me if there weren’t [extraterrestrials],” Levin says. “There are few things that would shock me more than to find out there aren’t any aliens…If I had to bet on it, I would bet on the side of there being lots and lots of aliens out there.”
Image Credit: NASA Continue reading