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Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.
Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
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The field of artificial intelligence goes back a long way, but many consider it was officially born when a group of scientists at Dartmouth College got together for a summer, back in 1956. Computers had, over the last few decades, come on in incredible leaps and bounds; they could now perform calculations far faster than humans. Optimism, given the incredible progress that had been made, was rational. Genius computer scientist Alan Turing had already mooted the idea of thinking machines just a few years before. The scientists had a fairly simple idea: intelligence is, after all, just a mathematical process. The human brain was a type of machine. Pick apart that process, and you can make a machine simulate it.
The problem didn’t seem too hard: the Dartmouth scientists wrote, “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This research proposal, by the way, contains one of the earliest uses of the term artificial intelligence. They had a number of ideas—maybe simulating the human brain’s pattern of neurons could work and teaching machines the abstract rules of human language would be important.
The scientists were optimistic, and their efforts were rewarded. Before too long, they had computer programs that seemed to understand human language and could solve algebra problems. People were confidently predicting there would be a human-level intelligent machine built within, oh, let’s say, the next twenty years.
It’s fitting that the industry of predicting when we’d have human-level intelligent AI was born at around the same time as the AI industry itself. In fact, it goes all the way back to Turing’s first paper on “thinking machines,” where he predicted that the Turing Test—machines that could convince humans they were human—would be passed in 50 years, by 2000. Nowadays, of course, people are still predicting it will happen within the next 20 years, perhaps most famously Ray Kurzweil. There are so many different surveys of experts and analyses that you almost wonder if AI researchers aren’t tempted to come up with an auto reply: “I’ve already predicted what your question will be, and no, I can’t really predict that.”
The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach (at least, not until you’re trying to work on chips at the atomic scale). You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.
Stuart Armstrong’s survey looked for trends in these predictions. Specifically, there were two major cognitive biases he was looking for. The first was the idea that AI experts predict true AI will arrive (and make them immortal) conveniently just before they’d be due to die. This is the “Rapture of the Nerds” criticism people have leveled at Kurzweil—his predictions are motivated by fear of death, desire for immortality, and are fundamentally irrational. The ability to create a superintelligence is taken as an article of faith. There are also criticisms by people working in the AI field who know first-hand the frustrations and limitations of today’s AI.
The second was the idea that people always pick a time span of 15 to 20 years. That’s enough to convince people they’re working on something that could prove revolutionary very soon (people are less impressed by efforts that will lead to tangible results centuries down the line), but not enough for you to be embarrassingly proved wrong. Of the two, Armstrong found more evidence for the second one—people were perfectly happy to predict AI after they died, although most didn’t, but there was a clear bias towards “15–20 years from now” in predictions throughout history.
Armstrong points out that, if you want to assess the validity of a specific prediction, there are plenty of parameters you can look at. For example, the idea that human-level intelligence will be developed by simulating the human brain does at least give you a clear pathway that allows you to assess progress. Every time we get a more detailed map of the brain, or successfully simulate another part of it, we can tell that we are progressing towards this eventual goal, which will presumably end in human-level AI. We may not be 20 years away on that path, but at least you can scientifically evaluate the progress.
Compare this to those that say AI, or else consciousness, will “emerge” if a network is sufficiently complex, given enough processing power. This might be how we imagine human intelligence and consciousness emerged during evolution—although evolution had billions of years, not just decades. The issue with this is that we have no empirical evidence: we have never seen consciousness manifest itself out of a complex network. Not only do we not know if this is possible, we cannot know how far away we are from reaching this, as we can’t even measure progress along the way.
There is an immense difficulty in understanding which tasks are hard, which has continued from the birth of AI to the present day. Just look at that original research proposal, where understanding human language, randomness and creativity, and self-improvement are all mentioned in the same breath. We have great natural language processing, but do our computers understand what they’re processing? We have AI that can randomly vary to be “creative,” but is it creative? Exponential self-improvement of the kind the singularity often relies on seems far away.
We also struggle to understand what’s meant by intelligence. For example, AI experts consistently underestimated the ability of AI to play Go. Many thought, in 2015, it would take until 2027. In the end, it took two years, not twelve. But does that mean AI is any closer to being able to write the Great American Novel, say? Does it mean it’s any closer to conceptually understanding the world around it? Does it mean that it’s any closer to human-level intelligence? That’s not necessarily clear.
Not Human, But Smarter Than Humans
But perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong problem. For example, the Turing test has not yet been passed in the sense that AI cannot convince people it’s human in conversation; but of course the calculating ability, and perhaps soon the ability to perform other tasks like pattern recognition and driving cars, far exceed human levels. As “weak” AI algorithms make more decisions, and Internet of Things evangelists and tech optimists seek to find more ways to feed more data into more algorithms, the impact on society from this “artificial intelligence” can only grow.
It may be that we don’t yet have the mechanism for human-level intelligence, but it’s also true that we don’t know how far we can go with the current generation of algorithms. Those scary surveys that state automation will disrupt society and change it in fundamental ways don’t rely on nearly as many assumptions about some nebulous superintelligence.
Then there are those that point out we should be worried about AI for other reasons. Just because we can’t say for sure if human-level AI will arrive this century, or never, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the possibility that the optimistic predictors could be correct. We need to ensure that human values are programmed into these algorithms, so that they understand the value of human life and can act in “moral, responsible” ways.
Phil Torres, at the Project for Future Human Flourishing, expressed it well in an interview with me. He points out that if we suddenly decided, as a society, that we had to solve the problem of morality—determine what was right and wrong and feed it into a machine—in the next twenty years…would we even be able to do it?
So, we should take predictions with a grain of salt. Remember, it turned out the problems the AI pioneers foresaw were far more complicated than they anticipated. The same could be true today. At the same time, we cannot be unprepared. We should understand the risks and take our precautions. When those scientists met in Dartmouth in 1956, they had no idea of the vast, foggy terrain before them. Sixty years later, we still don’t know how much further there is to go, or how far we can go. But we’re going somewhere.
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The classical view of a robot as a mechanical body with a central “brain” that controls its behavior could soon be on its way out. The authors of a recent article in Science Robotics argue that future robots will have intelligence distributed throughout their bodies.
The concept, and the emerging discipline behind it, are variously referred to as “material robotics” or “robotic materials” and are essentially a synthesis of ideas from robotics and materials science. Proponents say advances in both fields are making it possible to create composite materials capable of combining sensing, actuation, computation, and communication and operating independently of a central processing unit.
Much of the inspiration for the field comes from nature, with practitioners pointing to the adaptive camouflage of the cuttlefish’s skin, the ability of bird wings to morph in response to different maneuvers, or the banyan tree’s ability to grow roots above ground to support new branches.
Adaptive camouflage and morphing wings have clear applications in the defense and aerospace sector, but the authors say similar principles could be used to create everything from smart tires able to calculate the traction needed for specific surfaces to grippers that can tailor their force to the kind of object they are grasping.
“Material robotics represents an acknowledgment that materials can absorb some of the challenges of acting and reacting to an uncertain world,” the authors write. “Embedding distributed sensors and actuators directly into the material of the robot’s body engages computational capabilities and offloads the rigid information and computational requirements from the central processing system.”
The idea of making materials more adaptive is not new, and there are already a host of “smart materials” that can respond to stimuli like heat, mechanical stress, or magnetic fields by doing things like producing a voltage or changing shape. These properties can be carefully tuned to create materials capable of a wide variety of functions such as movement, self-repair, or sensing.
The authors say synthesizing these kinds of smart materials, alongside other advanced materials like biocompatible conductors or biodegradable elastomers, is foundational to material robotics. But the approach also involves integration of many different capabilities in the same material, careful mechanical design to make the most of mechanical capabilities, and closing the loop between sensing and control within the materials themselves.
While there are stand-alone applications for such materials in the near term, like smart fabrics or robotic grippers, the long-term promise of the field is to distribute decision-making in future advanced robots. As they are imbued with ever more senses and capabilities, these machines will be required to shuttle huge amounts of control and feedback data to and fro, placing a strain on both their communication and computation abilities.
Materials that can process sensor data at the source and either autonomously react to it or filter the most relevant information to be passed on to the central processing unit could significantly ease this bottleneck. In a press release related to an earlier study, Nikolaus Correll, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder who is also an author of the current paper, pointed out this is a tactic used by the human body.
“The human sensory system automatically filters out things like the feeling of clothing rubbing on the skin,” he said. “An artificial skin with possibly thousands of sensors could do the same thing, and only report to a central ‘brain’ if it touches something new.”
There are still considerable challenges to realizing this vision, though, the authors say, noting that so far the young field has only produced proof of concepts. The biggest challenge remains manufacturing robotic materials in a way that combines all these capabilities in a small enough package at an affordable cost.
Luckily, the authors note, the field can draw on convergent advances in both materials science, such as the development of new bulk materials with inherent multifunctionality, and robotics, such as the ever tighter integration of components.
And they predict that doing away with the prevailing dichotomy of “brain versus body” could lay the foundations for the emergence of “robots with brains in their bodies—the foundation of inexpensive and ubiquitous robots that will step into the real world.”
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