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According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.
This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.
Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.
Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?
New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.
The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.
“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”
The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.
In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.
Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.
Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.
They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.
Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.
Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.
But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.
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One of the most contentious debates in technology is around the question of automation and jobs. At issue is whether advances in automation, specifically with regards to artificial intelligence and robotics, will spell trouble for today’s workers. This debate is played out in the media daily, and passions run deep on both sides of the issue. In the past, however, automation has created jobs and increased real wages.
A widespread concern with the current scenario is that the workers most likely to be displaced by technology lack the skills needed to do the new jobs that same technology will create.
Let’s look at this concern in detail. Those who fear automation will hurt workers start by pointing out that there is a wide range of jobs, from low-pay, low-skill to high-pay, high-skill ones. This can be represented as follows:
They then point out that technology primarily creates high-paying jobs, like geneticists, as shown in the diagram below.
Meanwhile, technology destroys low-wage, low-skill jobs like those in fast food restaurants, as shown below:
Then, those who are worried about this dynamic often pose the question, “Do you really think a fast-food worker is going to become a geneticist?”
They worry that we are about to face a huge amount of systemic permanent unemployment, as the unskilled displaced workers are ill-equipped to do the jobs of tomorrow.
It is important to note that both sides of the debate are in agreement at this point. Unquestionably, technology destroys low-skilled, low-paying jobs while creating high-skilled, high-paying ones.
So, is that the end of the story? As a society are we destined to bifurcate into two groups, those who have training and earn high salaries in the new jobs, and those with less training who see their jobs vanishing to machines? Is this latter group forever locked out of economic plenty because they lack training?
The question, “Can a fast food worker become a geneticist?” is where the error comes in. Fast food workers don’t become geneticists. What happens is that a college biology professor becomes a geneticist. Then a high-school biology teacher gets the college job. Then the substitute teacher gets hired on full-time to fill the high school teaching job. All the way down.
The question is not whether those in the lowest-skilled jobs can do the high-skilled work. Instead the question is, “Can everyone do a job just a little harder than the job they have today?” If so, and I believe very deeply that this is the case, then every time technology creates a new job “at the top,” everyone gets a promotion.
This isn’t just an academic theory—it’s 200 years of economic history in the west. For 200 years, with the exception of the Great Depression, unemployment in the US has been between 2 percent and 13 percent. Always. Europe’s range is a bit wider, but not much.
If I took 200 years of unemployment rates and graphed them, and asked you to find where the assembly line took over manufacturing, or where steam power rapidly replaced animal power, or the lightning-fast adoption of electricity by industry, you wouldn’t be able to find those spots. They aren’t even blips in the unemployment record.
You don’t even have to look back as far as the assembly line to see this happening. It has happened non-stop for 200 years. Every fifty years, we lose about half of all jobs, and this has been pretty steady since 1800.
How is it that for 200 years we have lost half of all jobs every half century, but never has this process caused unemployment? Not only has it not caused unemployment, but during that time, we have had full employment against the backdrop of rising wages.
How can wages rise while half of all jobs are constantly being destroyed? Simple. Because new technology always increases worker productivity. It creates new jobs, like web designer and programmer, while destroying low-wage backbreaking work. When this happens, everyone along the way gets a better job.
Our current situation isn’t any different than the past. The nature of technology has always been to create high-skilled jobs and increase worker productivity. This is good news for everyone.
People often ask me what their children should study to make sure they have a job in the future. I usually say it doesn’t really matter. If I knew everything I know now and went back to the mid 1980s, what could I have taken in high school to make me better prepared for today? There is only one class, and it wasn’t computer science. It was typing. Who would have guessed?
The great skill is to be able to learn new things, and luckily, we all have that. In fact, that is our singular ability as a species. What I do in my day-to-day job consists largely of skills I have learned as the years have passed. In my experience, if you ask people at all job levels,“Would you like a little more challenging job to make a little more money?” almost everyone says yes.
That’s all it has taken for us to collectively get here today, and that’s all we need going forward.
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The World’s Fastest Supercomputer Breaks an AI Record
Tom Simonite | Wired
“Summit, which occupies an area equivalent to two tennis courts, used more than 27,000 powerful graphics processors in the project. It tapped their power to train deep-learning algorithms, the technology driving AI’s frontier, chewing through the exercise at a rate of a billion billion operations per second, a pace known in supercomputing circles as an exaflop.”
iRobot Finally Announces Awesome New Terra Robotic Lawnmower
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“Since the first Roomba came out in 2002, it has seemed inevitable that one day iRobot would develop a robotic lawn mower. After all, a robot mower is basically just a Roomba that works outside, right? Of course, it’s not nearly that simple, as iRobot has spent the last decade or so discovering, but they’ve finally managed to pull it off.”
Watch This Super Speedy 3D Printer Make Objects Suddenly Appear
Erin Winick | MIT Technology Review
“The new machine—which the team nicknamed the ‘replicator’ after the machine from Star Trek—instead forms the entire item all in one go. It does this by shining light onto specific spots in a rotating resin that solidifies when exposed to a certain light level.”
The DIY Designer Baby Project Funded With Bitcoin
Antonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review
“i‘Is DIY bio anywhere close to making a CRISPR baby? No, not remotely,’ David Ishee says. ‘But if some rich guy pays a scientist to do the work, it’s going to happen.’ He adds: ‘What you are reporting on isn’t Bryan—it’s the unseen middle space, a layer of gray-market biotech and freelance science where people with resources can get things done.’i”
The Complete Cancer Cure Story Is Both Bogus and Tragic
Megan Molteni | Wired
“You’d think creators and consumers of news would have learned their lesson by now. But the latest version of the fake cancer cure story is even more flagrantly flawed than usual. The public’s cancer cure–shaped amnesia, and media outlets’ willingness to exploit it for clicks, are as bottomless as ever. Hope, it would seem, trumps history.”
An AI Reading List—From Practical Primers to Sci-Fi Short Stories
James Vincent | The Verge
“The Verge has assembled a reading list: a brief but diverse compendium of books, short stories, and blogs, all chosen by leading figures in the AI world to help you better understand artificial intelligence.”
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