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#433901 The SpiNNaker Supercomputer, Modeled ...

We’ve long used the brain as inspiration for computers, but the SpiNNaker supercomputer, switched on this month, is probably the closest we’ve come to recreating it in silicon. Now scientists hope to use the supercomputer to model the very thing that inspired its design.

The brain is the most complex machine in the known universe, but that complexity comes primarily from its architecture rather than the individual components that make it up. Its highly interconnected structure means that relatively simple messages exchanged between billions of individual neurons add up to carry out highly complex computations.

That’s the paradigm that has inspired the ‘Spiking Neural Network Architecture” (SpiNNaker) supercomputer at the University of Manchester in the UK. The project is the brainchild of Steve Furber, the designer of the original ARM processor. After a decade of development, a million-core version of the machine that will eventually be able to simulate up to a billion neurons was switched on earlier this month.

The idea of splitting computation into very small chunks and spreading them over many processors is already the leading approach to supercomputing. But even the most parallel systems require a lot of communication, and messages may have to pack in a lot of information, such as the task that needs to be completed or the data that needs to be processed.

In contrast, messages in the brain consist of simple electrochemical impulses, or spikes, passed between neurons, with information encoded primarily in the timing or rate of those spikes (which is more important is a topic of debate among neuroscientists). Each neuron is connected to thousands of others via synapses, and complex computation relies on how spikes cascade through these highly-connected networks.

The SpiNNaker machine attempts to replicate this using a model called Address Event Representation. Each of the million cores can simulate roughly a million synapses, so depending on the model, 1,000 neurons with 1,000 connections or 100 neurons with 10,000 connections. Information is encoded in the timing of spikes and the identity of the neuron sending them. When a neuron is activated it broadcasts a tiny packet of data that contains its address, and spike timing is implicitly conveyed.

By modeling their machine on the architecture of the brain, the researchers hope to be able to simulate more biological neurons in real time than any other machine on the planet. The project is funded by the European Human Brain Project, a ten-year science mega-project aimed at bringing together neuroscientists and computer scientists to understand the brain, and researchers will be able to apply for time on the machine to run their simulations.

Importantly, it’s possible to implement various different neuronal models on the machine. The operation of neurons involves a variety of complex biological processes, and it’s still unclear whether this complexity is an artefact of evolution or central to the brain’s ability to process information. The ability to simulate up to a billion simple neurons or millions of more complex ones on the same machine should help to slowly tease out the answer.

Even at a billion neurons, that still only represents about one percent of the human brain, so it’s still going to be limited to investigating isolated networks of neurons. But the previous 500,000-core machine has already been used to do useful simulations of the Basal Ganglia—an area affected in Parkinson’s disease—and an outer layer of the brain that processes sensory information.

The full-scale supercomputer will make it possible to study even larger networks previously out of reach, which could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of both the healthy and unhealthy functioning of the brain.

And while neurological simulation is the main goal for the machine, it could also provide a useful research tool for roboticists. Previous research has already shown a small board of SpiNNaker chips can be used to control a simple wheeled robot, but Furber thinks the SpiNNaker supercomputer could also be used to run large-scale networks that can process sensory input and generate motor output in real time and at low power.

That low power operation is of particular promise for robotics. The brain is dramatically more power-efficient than conventional supercomputers, and by borrowing from its principles SpiNNaker has managed to capture some of that efficiency. That could be important for running mobile robotic platforms that need to carry their own juice around.

This ability to run complex neural networks at low power has been one of the main commercial drivers for so-called neuromorphic computing devices that are physically modeled on the brain, such as IBM’s TrueNorth chip and Intel’s Loihi. The hope is that complex artificial intelligence applications normally run in massive data centers could be run on edge devices like smartphones, cars, and robots.

But these devices, including SpiNNaker, operate very differently from the leading AI approaches, and its not clear how easy it would be to transfer between the two. The need to adopt an entirely new programming paradigm is likely to limit widespread adoption, and the lack of commercial traction for the aforementioned devices seems to back that up.

At the same time, though, this new paradigm could potentially lead to dramatic breakthroughs in massively parallel computing. SpiNNaker overturns many of the foundational principles of how supercomputers work that make it much more flexible and error-tolerant.

For now, the machine is likely to be firmly focused on accelerating our understanding of how the brain works. But its designers also hope those findings could in turn point the way to more efficient and powerful approaches to computing.

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#433872 Breaking Out of the Corporate Bubble ...

For big companies, success is a blessing and a curse. You don’t get big without doing something (or many things) very right. It might start with an invention or service the world didn’t know it needed. Your product takes off, and growth brings a whole new set of logistical challenges. Delivering consistent quality, hiring the right team, establishing a strong culture, tapping into new markets, satisfying shareholders. The list goes on.

Eventually, however, what made you successful also makes you resistant to change.

You’ve built a machine for one purpose, and it’s running smoothly, but what about retooling that machine to make something new? Not so easy. Leaders of big companies know there is no future for their organizations without change. And yet, they struggle to drive it.

In their new book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, Kyle Nel, Nathan Furr, and Thomas Ramsøy aim to deliver a roadmap for corporate transformation.

The book focuses on practical tools that have worked in big companies to break down behavioral and cognitive biases, envision radical futures, and run experiments. These include using science fiction and narrative to see ahead and adopting better measures of success for new endeavors.

A thread throughout is how to envision a new future and move into that future.

We’re limited by the bubbles in which we spend the most time—the corporate bubble, the startup bubble, the nonprofit bubble. The mutually beneficial convergence of complementary bubbles, then, can be a powerful tool for kickstarting transformation. The views and experiences of one partner can challenge the accepted wisdom of the other; resources can flow into newly co-created visions and projects; and connections can be made that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

The authors call such alliances uncommon partners. In the following excerpt from the book, Made In Space, a startup building 3D printers for space, helps Lowe’s explore an in-store 3D printing system, and Lowe’s helps Made In Space expand its vision and focus.

Uncommon Partners
In a dingy conference room at NASA, five prototypical nerds, smelling of Thai food, laid out the path to printing satellites in space and buildings on distant planets. At the end of their four-day marathon, they emerged with an artifact trail that began with early prototypes for the first 3D printer on the International Space Station and ended in the additive-manufacturing future—a future much bigger than 3D printing.

In the additive-manufacturing future, we will view everything as transient, or capable of being repurposed into new things. Rather than throwing away a soda bottle or a bent nail, we will simply reprocess these things into a new hinge for the fence we are building or a light switch plate for the tool shed. Indeed, we might not even go buy bricks for the tool shed, but instead might print them from impurities pulled from the air and the dirt beneath our feet. Such a process would both capture carbon in the air to make the bricks and avoid all the carbon involved in making and then transporting traditional bricks to your house.

If it all sounds a little too science fiction, think again. Lowe’s has already been honored as a Champion of Change by the US government for its prototype system to recycle plastic (e.g., plastic bags and bottles). The future may be closer than you have imagined. But to get there, Lowe’s didn’t work alone. It had to work with uncommon partners to create the future.

Uncommon partners are the types of organizations you might not normally work with, but which can greatly help you create radical new futures. Increasingly, as new technologies emerge and old industries converge, companies are finding that working independently to create all the necessary capabilities to enter new industries or create new technologies is costly, risky, and even counterproductive. Instead, organizations are finding that they need to collaborate with uncommon partners as an ecosystem to cocreate the future together. Nathan [Furr] and his colleague at INSEAD, Andrew Shipilov, call this arrangement an adaptive ecosystem strategy and described how companies such as Lowe’s, Samsung, Mastercard, and others are learning to work differently with partners and to work with different kinds of partners to more effectively discover new opportunities. For Lowe’s, an adaptive ecosystem strategy working with uncommon partners forms the foundation of capturing new opportunities and transforming the company. Despite its increased agility, Lowe’s can’t be (and shouldn’t become) an independent additive-manufacturing, robotics-using, exosuit-building, AR-promoting, fill-in-the-blank-what’s-next-ing company in addition to being a home improvement company. Instead, Lowe’s applies an adaptive ecosystem strategy to find the uncommon partners with which it can collaborate in new territory.

To apply the adaptive ecosystem strategy with uncommon partners, start by identifying the technical or operational components required for a particular focus area (e.g., exosuits) and then sort these components into three groups. First, there are the components that are emerging organically without any assistance from the orchestrator—the leader who tries to bring together the adaptive ecosystem. Second, there are the elements that might emerge, with encouragement and support. Third are the elements that won’t happen unless you do something about it. In an adaptive ecosystem strategy, you can create regular partnerships for the first two elements—those already emerging or that might emerge—if needed. But you have to create the elements in the final category (those that won’t emerge) either with an uncommon partner or by yourself.

For example, when Lowe’s wanted to explore the additive-manufacturing space, it began a search for an uncommon partner to provide the missing but needed capabilities. Unfortunately, initial discussions with major 3D printing companies proved disappointing. The major manufacturers kept trying to sell Lowe’s 3D printers. But the vision our group had created with science fiction was not for vendors to sell Lowe’s a printer, but for partners to help the company build a system—something that would allow customers to scan, manipulate, print, and eventually recycle additive-manufacturing objects. Every time we discussed 3D printing systems with these major companies, they responded that they could do it and then tried to sell printers. When Carin Watson, one of the leading lights at Singularity University, introduced us to Made In Space (a company being incubated in Singularity University’s futuristic accelerator), we discovered an uncommon partner that understood what it meant to cocreate a system.

Initially, Made In Space had been focused on simply getting 3D printing to work in space, where you can’t rely on gravity, you can’t send up a technician if the machine breaks, and you can’t release noxious fumes into cramped spacecraft quarters. But after the four days in the conference room going over the comic for additive manufacturing, Made In Space and Lowe’s emerged with a bigger vision. The company helped lay out an artifact trail that included not only the first printer on the International Space Station but also printing system services in Lowe’s stores.

Of course, the vision for an additive-manufacturing future didn’t end there. It also reshaped Made In Space’s trajectory, encouraging the startup, during those four days in a NASA conference room, to design a bolder future. Today, some of its bold projects include the Archinaut, a system that enables satellites to build themselves while in space, a direction that emerged partly from the science fiction narrative we created around additive manufacturing.

In summary, uncommon partners help you succeed by providing you with the capabilities you shouldn’t be building yourself, as well as with fresh insights. You also help uncommon partners succeed by creating new opportunities from which they can prosper.

Helping Uncommon Partners Prosper
Working most effectively with uncommon partners can require a shift from more familiar outsourcing or partnership relationships. When working with uncommon partners, you are trying to cocreate the future, which entails a great deal more uncertainty. Because you can’t specify outcomes precisely, agreements are typically less formal than in other types of relationships, and they operate under the provisions of shared vision and trust more than binding agreement clauses. Moreover, your goal isn’t to extract all the value from the relationship. Rather, you need to find a way to share the value.

Ideally, your uncommon partners should be transformed for the better by the work you do. For example, Lowe’s uncommon partner developing the robotics narrative was a small startup called Fellow Robots. Through their work with Lowe’s, Fellow Robots transformed from a small team focused on a narrow application of robotics (which was arguably the wrong problem) to a growing company developing a very different and valuable set of capabilities: putting cutting-edge technology on top of the old legacy systems embedded at the core of most companies. Working with Lowe’s allowed Fellow Robots to discover new opportunities, and today Fellow Robots works with retailers around the world, including BevMo! and Yamada. Ultimately, working with uncommon partners should be transformative for both of you, so focus more on creating a bigger pie than on how you are going to slice up a smaller pie.

The above excerpt appears in the new book Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future by Kyle Nel, Nathan Furr, and Thomas Ramsøy, published by Harvard Business Review Press.

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#433807 The How, Why, and Whether of Custom ...

A digital afterlife may soon be within reach, but it might not be for your benefit.

The reams of data we’re creating could soon make it possible to create digital avatars that live on after we die, aimed at comforting our loved ones or sharing our experience with future generations.

That may seem like a disappointing downgrade from the vision promised by the more optimistic futurists, where we upload our consciousness to the cloud and live forever in machines. But it might be a realistic possibility in the not-too-distant future—and the first steps have already been taken.

After her friend died in a car crash, Eugenia Kuyda, co-founder of Russian AI startup Luka, trained a neural network-powered chatbot on their shared message history to mimic him. Journalist and amateur coder James Vlahos took a more involved approach, carrying out extensive interviews with his terminally ill father so that he could create a digital clone of him when he died.

For those of us without the time or expertise to build our own artificial intelligence-powered avatar, startup Eternime is offering to take your social media posts and interactions as well as basic personal information to build a copy of you that could then interact with relatives once you’re gone. The service is so far only running a private beta with a handful of people, but with 40,000 on its waiting list, it’s clear there’s a market.

Comforting—Or Creepy?
The whole idea may seem eerily similar to the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, in which a woman pays a company to create a digital copy of her deceased husband and eventually a realistic robot replica. And given the show’s focus on the emotional turmoil she goes through, people might question whether the idea is a sensible one.

But it’s hard to say at this stage whether being able to interact with an approximation of a deceased loved one would be a help or a hindrance in the grieving process. The fear is that it could make it harder for people to “let go” or “move on,” but others think it could play a useful therapeutic role, reminding people that just because someone is dead it doesn’t mean they’re gone, and providing a novel way for them to express and come to terms with their feelings.

While at present most envisage these digital resurrections as a way to memorialize loved ones, there are also more ambitious plans to use the technology as a way to preserve expertise and experience. A project at MIT called Augmented Eternity is investigating whether we could use AI to trawl through someone’s digital footprints and extract both their knowledge and elements of their personality.

Project leader Hossein Rahnama says he’s already working with a CEO who wants to leave behind a digital avatar that future executives could consult with after he’s gone. And you wouldn’t necessarily have to wait until you’re dead—experts could create virtual clones of themselves that could dispense advice on demand to far more people. These clones could soon be more than simple chatbots, too. Hollywood has already started spending millions of dollars to create 3D scans of its most bankable stars so that they can keep acting beyond the grave.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the idea; imagine if we could bring back Stephen Hawking or Tim Cook to share their wisdom with us. And what if we could create a digital brain trust combining the experience and wisdom of all the world’s greatest thinkers, accessible on demand?

But there are still huge hurdles ahead before we could create truly accurate representations of people by simply trawling through their digital remains. The first problem is data. Most peoples’ digital footprints only started reaching significant proportions in the last decade or so, and cover a relatively small period of their lives. It could take many years before there’s enough data to create more than just a superficial imitation of someone.

And that’s assuming that the data we produce is truly representative of who we are. Carefully-crafted Instagram profiles and cautiously-worded work emails hardly capture the messy realities of most peoples’ lives.

Perhaps if the idea is simply to create a bank of someone’s knowledge and expertise, accurately capturing the essence of their character would be less important. But these clones would also be static. Real people continually learn and change, but a digital avatar is a snapshot of someone’s character and opinions at the point they died. An inability to adapt as the world around them changes could put a shelf life on the usefulness of these replicas.

Who’s Calling the (Digital) Shots?
It won’t stop people trying, though, and that raises a potentially more important question: Who gets to make the calls about our digital afterlife? The subjects, their families, or the companies that hold their data?

In most countries, the law is currently pretty hazy on this topic. Companies like Google and Facebook have processes to let you choose who should take control of your accounts in the event of your death. But if you’ve forgotten to do that, the fate of your virtual remains comes down to a tangle of federal law, local law, and tech company terms of service.

This lack of regulation could create incentives and opportunities for unscrupulous behavior. The voice of a deceased loved one could be a highly persuasive tool for exploitation, and digital replicas of respected experts could be powerful means of pushing a hidden agenda.

That means there’s a pressing need for clear and unambiguous rules. Researchers at Oxford University recently suggested ethical guidelines that would treat our digital remains the same way museums and archaeologists are required to treat mortal remains—with dignity and in the interest of society.

Whether those kinds of guidelines are ever enshrined in law remains to be seen, but ultimately they may decide whether the digital afterlife turns out to be heaven or hell.

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#433799 The First Novel Written by AI Is ...

Last year, a novelist went on a road trip across the USA. The trip was an attempt to emulate Jack Kerouac—to go out on the road and find something essential to write about in the experience. There is, however, a key difference between this writer and anyone else talking your ear off in the bar. This writer is just a microphone, a GPS, and a camera hooked up to a laptop and a whole bunch of linear algebra.

People who are optimistic that artificial intelligence and machine learning won’t put us all out of a job say that human ingenuity and creativity will be difficult to imitate. The classic argument is that, just as machines freed us from repetitive manual tasks, machine learning will free us from repetitive intellectual tasks.

This leaves us free to spend more time on the rewarding aspects of our work, pursuing creative hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and generally being human.

In this worldview, creative works like a great novel or symphony, and the emotions they evoke, cannot be reduced to lines of code. Humans retain a dimension of superiority over algorithms.

But is creativity a fundamentally human phenomenon? Or can it be learned by machines?

And if they learn to understand us better than we understand ourselves, could the great AI novel—tailored, of course, to your own predispositions in fiction—be the best you’ll ever read?

Maybe Not a Beach Read
This is the futurist’s view, of course. The reality, as the jury-rigged contraption in Ross Goodwin’s Cadillac for that road trip can attest, is some way off.

“This is very much an imperfect document, a rapid prototyping project. The output isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s a human novel, or anywhere near it,” Goodwin said of the novel that his machine created. 1 The Road is currently marketed as the first novel written by AI.

Once the neural network has been trained, it can generate any length of text that the author desires, either at random or working from a specific seed word or phrase. Goodwin used the sights and sounds of the road trip to provide these seeds: the novel is written one sentence at a time, based on images, locations, dialogue from the microphone, and even the computer’s own internal clock.

The results are… mixed.

The novel begins suitably enough, quoting the time: “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.” Descriptions of locations begin according to the Foursquare dataset fed into the algorithm, but rapidly veer off into the weeds, becoming surreal. While experimentation in literature is a wonderful thing, repeatedly quoting longitude and latitude coordinates verbatim is unlikely to win anyone the Booker Prize.

Data In, Art Out?
Neural networks as creative agents have some advantages. They excel at being trained on large datasets, identifying the patterns in those datasets, and producing output that follows those same rules. Music inspired by or written by AI has become a growing subgenre—there’s even a pop album by human-machine collaborators called the Songularity.

A neural network can “listen to” all of Bach and Mozart in hours, and train itself on the works of Shakespeare to produce passable pseudo-Bard. The idea of artificial creativity has become so widespread that there’s even a meme format about forcibly training neural network ‘bots’ on human writing samples, with hilarious consequences—although the best joke was undoubtedly human in origin.

The AI that roamed from New York to New Orleans was an LSTM (long short-term memory) neural net. By default, information contained in individual neurons is preserved, and only small parts can be “forgotten” or “learned” in an individual timestep, rather than neurons being entirely overwritten.

The LSTM architecture performs better than previous recurrent neural networks at tasks such as handwriting and speech recognition. The neural net—and its programmer—looked further in search of literary influences, ingesting 60 million words (360 MB) of raw literature according to Goodwin’s recipe: one third poetry, one third science fiction, and one third “bleak” literature.

In this way, Goodwin has some creative control over the project; the source material influences the machine’s vocabulary and sentence structuring, and hence the tone of the piece.

The Thoughts Beneath the Words
The problem with artificially intelligent novelists is the same problem with conversational artificial intelligence that computer scientists have been trying to solve from Turing’s day. The machines can understand and reproduce complex patterns increasingly better than humans can, but they have no understanding of what these patterns mean.

Goodwin’s neural network spits out sentences one letter at a time, on a tiny printer hooked up to the laptop. Statistical associations such as those tracked by neural nets can form words from letters, and sentences from words, but they know nothing of character or plot.

When talking to a chatbot, the code has no real understanding of what’s been said before, and there is no dataset large enough to train it through all of the billions of possible conversations.

Unless restricted to a predetermined set of options, it loses the thread of the conversation after a reply or two. In a similar way, the creative neural nets have no real grasp of what they’re writing, and no way to produce anything with any overarching coherence or narrative.

Goodwin’s experiment is an attempt to add some coherent backbone to the AI “novel” by repeatedly grounding it with stimuli from the cameras or microphones—the thematic links and narrative provided by the American landscape the neural network drives through.

Goodwin feels that this approach (the car itself moving through the landscape, as if a character) borrows some continuity and coherence from the journey itself. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.”

AI Is Still No Kerouac
A coherent tone and semantic “style” might be enough to produce some vaguely-convincing teenage poetry, as Google did, and experimental fiction that uses neural networks can have intriguing results. But wading through the surreal AI prose of this era, searching for some meaning or motif beyond novelty value, can be a frustrating experience.

Maybe machines can learn the complexities of the human heart and brain, or how to write evocative or entertaining prose. But they’re a long way off, and somehow “more layers!” or a bigger corpus of data doesn’t feel like enough to bridge that gulf.

Real attempts by machines to write fiction have so far been broadly incoherent, but with flashes of poetry—dreamlike, hallucinatory ramblings.

Neural networks might not be capable of writing intricately-plotted works with charm and wit, like Dickens or Dostoevsky, but there’s still an eeriness to trying to decipher the surreal, Finnegans’ Wake mish-mash.

You might see, in the odd line, the flickering ghost of something like consciousness, a deeper understanding. Or you might just see fragments of meaning thrown into a neural network blender, full of hype and fury, obeying rules in an occasionally striking way, but ultimately signifying nothing. In that sense, at least, the RNN’s grappling with metaphor feels like a metaphor for the hype surrounding the latest AI summer as a whole.

Or, as the human author of On The Road put it: “You guys are going somewhere or just going?”

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#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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