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Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
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Con artistry is one of the world’s oldest and most innovative professions, and it may soon have a new target. Research suggests artificial intelligence may be uniquely susceptible to tricksters, and as its influence in the modern world grows, attacks against it are likely to become more common.
The root of the problem lies in the fact that artificial intelligence algorithms learn about the world in very different ways than people do, and so slight tweaks to the data fed into these algorithms can throw them off completely while remaining imperceptible to humans.
Much of the research into this area has been conducted on image recognition systems, in particular those relying on deep learning neural networks. These systems are trained by showing them thousands of examples of images of a particular object until they can extract common features that allow them to accurately spot the object in new images.
But the features they extract are not necessarily the same high-level features a human would be looking for, like the word STOP on a sign or a tail on a dog. These systems analyze images at the individual pixel level to detect patterns shared between examples. These patterns can be obscure combinations of pixel values, in small pockets or spread across the image, that would be impossible to discern for a human, but highly accurate at predicting a particular object.
“An attacker can trick the object recognition algorithm into seeing something that isn’t there, without these alterations being obvious to a human.”
What this means is that by identifying these patterns and overlaying them over a different image, an attacker can trick the object recognition algorithm into seeing something that isn’t there, without these alterations being obvious to a human. This kind of manipulation is known as an “adversarial attack.”
Early attempts to trick image recognition systems this way required access to the algorithm’s inner workings to decipher these patterns. But in 2016 researchers demonstrated a “black box” attack that enabled them to trick such a system without knowing its inner workings.
By feeding the system doctored images and seeing how it classified them, they were able to work out what it was focusing on and therefore generate images they knew would fool it. Importantly, the doctored images were not obviously different to human eyes.
These approaches were tested by feeding doctored image data directly into the algorithm, but more recently, similar approaches have been applied in the real world. Last year it was shown that printouts of doctored images that were then photographed on a smartphone successfully tricked an image classification system.
Another group showed that wearing specially designed, psychedelically-colored spectacles could trick a facial recognition system into thinking people were celebrities. In August scientists showed that adding stickers to stop signs in particular configurations could cause a neural net designed to spot them to misclassify the signs.
These last two examples highlight some of the potential nefarious applications for this technology. Getting a self-driving car to miss a stop sign could cause an accident, either for insurance fraud or to do someone harm. If facial recognition becomes increasingly popular for biometric security applications, being able to pose as someone else could be very useful to a con artist.
Unsurprisingly, there are already efforts to counteract the threat of adversarial attacks. In particular, it has been shown that deep neural networks can be trained to detect adversarial images. One study from the Bosch Center for AI demonstrated such a detector, an adversarial attack that fools the detector, and a training regime for the detector that nullifies the attack, hinting at the kind of arms race we are likely to see in the future.
While image recognition systems provide an easy-to-visualize demonstration, they’re not the only machine learning systems at risk. The techniques used to perturb pixel data can be applied to other kinds of data too.
“Bypassing cybersecurity defenses is one of the more worrying and probable near-term applications for this approach.”
Chinese researchers showed that adding specific words to a sentence or misspelling a word can completely throw off machine learning systems designed to analyze what a passage of text is about. Another group demonstrated that garbled sounds played over speakers could make a smartphone running the Google Now voice command system visit a particular web address, which could be used to download malware.
This last example points toward one of the more worrying and probable near-term applications for this approach: bypassing cybersecurity defenses. The industry is increasingly using machine learning and data analytics to identify malware and detect intrusions, but these systems are also highly susceptible to trickery.
At this summer’s DEF CON hacking convention, a security firm demonstrated they could bypass anti-malware AI using a similar approach to the earlier black box attack on the image classifier, but super-powered with an AI of their own.
Their system fed malicious code to the antivirus software and then noted the score it was given. It then used genetic algorithms to iteratively tweak the code until it was able to bypass the defenses while maintaining its function.
All the approaches noted so far are focused on tricking pre-trained machine learning systems, but another approach of major concern to the cybersecurity industry is that of “data poisoning.” This is the idea that introducing false data into a machine learning system’s training set will cause it to start misclassifying things.
This could be particularly challenging for things like anti-malware systems that are constantly being updated to take into account new viruses. A related approach bombards systems with data designed to generate false positives so the defenders recalibrate their systems in a way that then allows the attackers to sneak in.
How likely it is that these approaches will be used in the wild will depend on the potential reward and the sophistication of the attackers. Most of the techniques described above require high levels of domain expertise, but it’s becoming ever easier to access training materials and tools for machine learning.
Simpler versions of machine learning have been at the heart of email spam filters for years, and spammers have developed a host of innovative workarounds to circumvent them. As machine learning and AI increasingly embed themselves in our lives, the rewards for learning how to trick them will likely outweigh the costs.
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Does creativity make human intelligence special?
It may appear so at first glance. Though machines can calculate, analyze, and even perceive, creativity may seem far out of reach. Perhaps this is because we find it mysterious, even in ourselves. How can the output of a machine be anything more than that which is determined by its programmers?
Increasingly, however, artificial intelligence is moving into creativity’s hallowed domain, from art to industry. And though much is already possible, the future is sure to bring ever more creative machines.
What Is Machine Creativity?
Robotic art is just one example of machine creativity, a rapidly growing sub-field that sits somewhere between the study of artificial intelligence and human psychology.
The winning paintings from the 2017 Robot Art Competition are strikingly reminiscent of those showcased each spring at university exhibitions for graduating art students. Like the works produced by skilled artists, the compositions dreamed up by the competition’s robotic painters are aesthetically ambitious. One robot-made painting features a man’s bearded face gazing intently out from the canvas, his eyes locking with the viewer’s. Another abstract painting, “inspired” by data from EEG signals, visually depicts the human emotion of misery with jagged, gloomy stripes of black and purple.
More broadly, a creative machine is software (sometimes encased in a robotic body) that synthesizes inputs to generate new and valuable ideas, solutions to complex scientific problems, or original works of art. In a process similar to that followed by a human artist or scientist, a creative machine begins its work by framing a problem. Next, its software specifies the requirements the solution should have before generating “answers” in the form of original designs, patterns, or some other form of output.
Although the notion of machine creativity sounds a bit like science fiction, the basic concept is one that has been slowly developing for decades.
Nearly 50 years ago while a high school student, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil created software that could analyze the patterns in musical compositions and then compose new melodies in a similar style. Aaron, one of the world’s most famous painting robots, has been hard at work since the 1970s.
Industrial designers have used an automated, algorithm-driven process for decades to design computer chips (or machine parts) whose layout (or form) is optimized for a particular function or environment. Emily Howell, a computer program created by David Cope, writes original works in the style of classical composers, some of which have been performed by human orchestras to live audiences.
What’s different about today’s new and emerging generation of robotic artists, scientists, composers, authors, and product designers is their ubiquity and power.
“The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives.”
I’ve already mentioned the rapidly advancing fields of robotic art and music. In the realm of scientific research, so-called “robotic scientists” such as Eureqa and Adam and Eve develop new scientific hypotheses; their “insights” have contributed to breakthroughs that are cited by hundreds of academic research papers. In the medical industry, creative machines are hard at work creating chemical compounds for new pharmaceuticals. After it read over seven million words of 20th century English poetry, a neural network developed by researcher Jack Hopkins learned to write passable poetry in a number of different styles and meters.
The recent explosion of artificial creativity has been enabled by the rapid maturation of the same exponential technologies that have already re-drawn our daily lives, including faster processors, ubiquitous sensors and wireless networks, and better algorithms.
As they continue to improve, creative machines—like humans—will perform a broad range of creative activities, ranging from everyday problem solving (sometimes known as “Little C” creativity) to producing once-in-a-century masterpieces (“Big C” creativity). A creative machine’s outputs could range from a design for a cast for a marble sculpture to a schematic blueprint for a clever new gadget for opening bottles of wine.
In the coming decades, by automating the process of solving complex problems, creative machines will again transform our world. Creative machines will serve as a versatile source of on-demand talent.
In the battle to recruit a workforce that can solve complex problems, creative machines will put small businesses on equal footing with large corporations. Art and music lovers will enjoy fresh creative works that re-interpret the style of ancient disciplines. People with a health condition will benefit from individualized medical treatments, and low-income people will receive top-notch legal advice, to name but a few potentially beneficial applications.
How Can We Make Creative Machines, Unless We Understand Our Own Creativity?
One of the most intriguing—yet unsettling—aspects of watching robotic arms skillfully oil paint is that we humans still do not understand our own creative process. Over the centuries, several different civilizations have devised a variety of models to explain creativity.
The ancient Greeks believed that poets drew inspiration from a transcendent realm parallel to the material world where ideas could take root and flourish. In the Middle Ages, philosophers and poets attributed our peculiarly human ability to “make something of nothing” to an external source, namely divine inspiration. Modern academic study of human creativity has generated vast reams of scholarship, but despite the value of these insights, the human imagination remains a great mystery, second only to that of consciousness.
Today, the rise of machine creativity demonstrates (once again), that we do not have to fully understand a biological process in order to emulate it with advanced technology.
Past experience has shown that jet planes can fly higher and faster than birds by using the forward thrust of an engine rather than wings. Submarines propel themselves forward underwater without fins or a tail. Deep learning neural networks identify objects in randomly-selected photographs with super-human accuracy. Similarly, using a fairly straightforward software architecture, creative software (sometimes paired with a robotic body) can paint, write, hypothesize, or design with impressive originality, skill, and boldness.
At the heart of machine creativity is simple iteration. No matter what sort of output they produce, creative machines fall into one of three categories depending on their internal architecture.
Briefly, the first group consists of software programs that use traditional rule-based, or symbolic AI, the second group uses evolutionary algorithms, and the third group uses a variation of a form of machine learning called deep learning that has already revolutionized voice and facial recognition software.
1) Symbolic creative machines are the oldest artificial artists and musicians. In this approach—also known as “good old-fashioned AI (GOFAI) or symbolic AI—the human programmer plays a key role by writing a set of step-by-step instructions to guide the computer through a task. Despite the fact that symbolic AI is limited in its ability to adapt to environmental changes, it’s still possible for a robotic artist programmed this way to create an impressively wide variety of different outputs.
2) Evolutionary algorithms (EA) have been in use for several decades and remain powerful tools for design. In this approach, potential solutions “compete” in a software simulator in a Darwinian process reminiscent of biological evolution. The human programmer specifies a “fitness criterion” that will be used to score and rank the solutions generated by the software. The software then generates a “first generation” population of random solutions (which typically are pretty poor in quality), scores this first generation of solutions, and selects the top 50% (those random solutions deemed to be the best “fit”). The software then takes another pass and recombines the “winning” solutions to create the next generation and repeats this process for thousands (and sometimes millions) of generations.
3) Generative deep learning (DL) neural networks represent the newest software architecture of the three, since DL is data-dependent and resource-intensive. First, a human programmer “trains” a DL neural network to recognize a particular feature in a dataset, for example, an image of a dog in a stream of digital images. Next, the standard “feed forward” process is reversed and the DL neural network begins to generate the feature, for example, eventually producing new and sometimes original images of (or poetry about) dogs. Generative DL networks have tremendous and unexplored creative potential and are able to produce a broad range of original outputs, from paintings to music to poetry.
The Coming Explosion of Machine Creativity
In the near future as Moore’s Law continues its work, we will see sophisticated combinations of these three basic architectures. Since the 1950s, artificial intelligence has steadily mastered one human ability after another, and in the process of doing so, has reduced the cost of calculation, analysis, and most recently, perception. When creative software becomes as inexpensive and ubiquitous as analytical software is today, humans will no longer be the only intelligent beings capable of creative work.
This is why I have to bite my tongue when I hear the well-intended (but shortsighted) advice frequently dispensed to young people that they should pursue work that demands creativity to help them “AI-proof” their futures.
Instead, students should gain skills to harness the power of creative machines.
There are two skills in which humans excel that will enable us to remain useful in a world of ever-advancing artificial intelligence. One, the ability to frame and define a complex problem so that it can be handed off to a creative machine to solve. And two, the ability to communicate the value of both the framework and the proposed solution to the other humans involved.
What will happen to people when creative machines begin to capably tread on intellectual ground that was once considered the sole domain of the human mind, and before that, the product of divine inspiration? While machines engaging in Big C creativity—e.g., oil painting and composing new symphonies—tend to garner controversy and make the headlines, I suspect the real world-changing application of machine creativity will be in the realm of everyday problem solving, or Little C. The mainstream emergence of powerful problem-solving tools will help people create abundance where there was once scarcity.
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