Tag Archives: systems

#433506 MIT’s New Robot Taught Itself to Pick ...

Back in 2016, somewhere in a Google-owned warehouse, more than a dozen robotic arms sat for hours quietly grasping objects of various shapes and sizes. For hours on end, they taught themselves how to pick up and hold the items appropriately—mimicking the way a baby gradually learns to use its hands.

Now, scientists from MIT have made a new breakthrough in machine learning: their new system can not only teach itself to see and identify objects, but also understand how best to manipulate them.

This means that, armed with the new machine learning routine referred to as “dense object nets (DON),” the robot would be capable of picking up an object that it’s never seen before, or in an unfamiliar orientation, without resorting to trial and error—exactly as a human would.

The deceptively simple ability to dexterously manipulate objects with our hands is a huge part of why humans are the dominant species on the planet. We take it for granted. Hardware innovations like the Shadow Dexterous Hand have enabled robots to softly grip and manipulate delicate objects for many years, but the software required to control these precision-engineered machines in a range of circumstances has proved harder to develop.

This was not for want of trying. The Amazon Robotics Challenge offers millions of dollars in prizes (and potentially far more in contracts, as their $775m acquisition of Kiva Systems shows) for the best dexterous robot able to pick and package items in their warehouses. The lucrative dream of a fully-automated delivery system is missing this crucial ability.

Meanwhile, the Robocup@home challenge—an offshoot of the popular Robocup tournament for soccer-playing robots—aims to make everyone’s dream of having a robot butler a reality. The competition involves teams drilling their robots through simple household tasks that require social interaction or object manipulation, like helping to carry the shopping, sorting items onto a shelf, or guiding tourists around a museum.

Yet all of these endeavors have proved difficult; the tasks often have to be simplified to enable the robot to complete them at all. New or unexpected elements, such as those encountered in real life, more often than not throw the system entirely. Programming the robot’s every move in explicit detail is not a scalable solution: this can work in the highly-controlled world of the assembly line, but not in everyday life.

Computer vision is improving all the time. Neural networks, including those you train every time you prove that you’re not a robot with CAPTCHA, are getting better at sorting objects into categories, and identifying them based on sparse or incomplete data, such as when they are occluded, or in different lighting.

But many of these systems require enormous amounts of input data, which is impractical, slow to generate, and often needs to be laboriously categorized by humans. There are entirely new jobs that require people to label, categorize, and sift large bodies of data ready for supervised machine learning. This can make machine learning undemocratic. If you’re Google, you can make thousands of unwitting volunteers label your images for you with CAPTCHA. If you’re IBM, you can hire people to manually label that data. If you’re an individual or startup trying something new, however, you will struggle to access the vast troves of labeled data available to the bigger players.

This is why new systems that can potentially train themselves over time or that allow robots to deal with situations they’ve never seen before without mountains of labelled data are a holy grail in artificial intelligence. The work done by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is part of a new wave of “self-supervised” machine learning systems—little of the data used was labeled by humans.

The robot first inspects the new object from multiple angles, building up a 3D picture of the object with its own coordinate system. This then allows the robotic arm to identify a particular feature on the object—such as a handle, or the tongue of a shoe—from various different angles, based on its relative distance to other grid points.

This is the real innovation: the new means of representing objects to grasp as mapped-out 3D objects, with grid points and subsections of their own. Rather than using a computer vision algorithm to identify a door handle, and then activating a door handle grasping subroutine, the DON system treats all objects by making these spatial maps before classifying or manipulating them, enabling it to deal with a greater range of objects than in other approaches.

“Many approaches to manipulation can’t identify specific parts of an object across the many orientations that object may encounter,” said PhD student Lucas Manuelli, who wrote a new paper about the system with lead author and fellow student Pete Florence, alongside MIT professor Russ Tedrake. “For example, existing algorithms would be unable to grasp a mug by its handle, especially if the mug could be in multiple orientations, like upright, or on its side.”

Class-specific descriptors, which can be applied to the object features, can allow the robot arm to identify a mug, find the handle, and pick the mug up appropriately. Object-specific descriptors allow the robot arm to select a particular mug from a group of similar items. I’m already dreaming of a robot butler reliably picking my favourite mug when it serves me coffee in the morning.

Google’s robot arm-y was an attempt to develop a general grasping algorithm: one that could identify, categorize, and appropriately grip as many items as possible. This requires a great deal of training time and data, which is why Google parallelized their project by having 14 robot arms feed data into a single neural network brain: even then, the algorithm may fail with highly specific tasks. Specialist grasping algorithms might require less training if they’re limited to specific objects, but then your software is useless for general tasks.

As the roboticists noted, their system, with its ability to identify parts of an object rather than just a single object, is better suited to specific tasks, such as “grasp the racquet by the handle,” than Amazon Robotics Challenge robots, which identify whole objects by segmenting an image.

This work is small-scale at present. It has been tested with a few classes of objects, including shoes, hats, and mugs. Yet the use of these dense object nets as a way for robots to represent and manipulate new objects may well be another step towards the ultimate goal of generalized automation: a robot capable of performing every task a person can. If that point is reached, the question that will remain is how to cope with being obsolete.

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#433486 This AI Predicts Obesity ...

A research team at the University of Washington has trained an artificial intelligence system to spot obesity—all the way from space. The system used a convolutional neural network (CNN) to analyze 150,000 satellite images and look for correlations between the physical makeup of a neighborhood and the prevalence of obesity.

The team’s results, presented in JAMA Network Open, showed that features of a given neighborhood could explain close to two-thirds (64.8 percent) of the variance in obesity. Researchers found that analyzing satellite data could help increase understanding of the link between peoples’ environment and obesity prevalence. The next step would be to make corresponding structural changes in the way neighborhoods are built to encourage physical activity and better health.

Training AI to Spot Obesity
Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) are particularly adept at image analysis, object recognition, and identifying special hierarchies in large datasets.

Prior to analyzing 150,000 high-resolution satellite images of Bellevue, Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Memphis, and San Antonio, the researchers trained the CNN on 1.2 million images from the ImageNet database. The categorizations were correlated with obesity prevalence estimates for the six urban areas from census tracts gathered by the 500 Cities project.

The system was able to identify the presence of certain features that increased likelihood of obesity in a given area. Some of these features included tightly–packed houses, being close to roadways, and living in neighborhoods with a lack of greenery.

Visualization of features identified by the convolutional neural network (CNN) model. The images on the left column are satellite images taken from Google Static Maps API (application programming interface). Images in the middle and right columns are activation maps taken from the second convolutional layer of VGG-CNN-F network after forward pass of the respective satellite images through the network. From Google Static Maps API, DigitalGlobe, US Geological Survey (accessed July 2017). Credit: JAMA Network Open
Your Surroundings Are Key
In their discussion of the findings, the researchers stressed that there are limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn from the AI’s results. For example, socio-economic factors like income likely play a major role for obesity prevalence in a given geographic area.

However, the study concluded that the AI-powered analysis showed the prevalence of specific man-made features in neighborhoods consistently correlating with obesity prevalence and not necessarily correlating with socioeconomic status.

The system’s success rates varied between studied cities, with Memphis being the highest (73.3 percent) and Seattle being the lowest (55.8 percent).

AI Takes To the Sky
Around a third of the US population is categorized as obese. Obesity is linked to a number of health-related issues, and the AI-generated results could potentially help improve city planning and better target campaigns to limit obesity.

The study is one of the latest of a growing list that uses AI to analyze images and extrapolate insights.

A team at Stanford University has used a CNN to predict poverty via satellite imagery, assisting governments and NGOs to better target their efforts. A combination of the public Automatic Identification System for shipping, satellite imagery, and Google’s AI has proven able to identify illegal fishing activity. Researchers have even been able to use AI and Google Street View to predict what party a given city will vote for, based on what cars are parked on the streets.

In each case, the AI systems have been able to look at volumes of data about our world and surroundings that are beyond the capabilities of humans and extrapolate new insights. If one were to moralize about the good and bad sides of AI (new opportunities vs. potential job losses, for example) it could seem that it comes down to what we ask AI systems to look at—and what questions we ask of them.

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#433301 ‘Happiness Tech’ Is On the Rise. Is ...

We often get so fixated on technological progress that we forget it’s merely one component of the entirety of human progress. Technological advancement does not necessarily correlate with increases in human mental well-being.

While cleaner energy, access to education, and higher employment rates can improve quality of life, they do not guarantee happiness and inner peace. Amid what appears to be an increasing abundance of resources and ongoing human progress, we are experiencing a mental health epidemic, with high anxiety and depression rates. This is especially true in the developed world, where we have access to luxuries our ancestors couldn’t even dream of—all the world’s information contained in a device we hold in the palm of our hands, for example.

But as you may have realized through your own experience, technology can make us feel worse instead of better. Social media can become a tool for comparison and a source of debilitating status anxiety. Increased access to goods and services, along with the rise of consumerism, can lead people to choose “stuff” over true sources of meaning and get trapped in a hedonistic treadmill of materialism. Tools like artificial intelligence and big data could lead to violation of our privacy and autonomy. The digital world can take us away from the beauty of the present moment.

Understanding Happiness
How we use technology can significantly impact our happiness. In this context, “happiness” refers to a general sense of well-being, gratitude, and inner peace. Even with such a simple definition, it is a state of mind many people will admit they lack.

Eastern philosophies have told us for thousands of years that the problem of human suffering begins with our thoughts and perceptions of the circumstances we are in, as opposed to beginning with the circumstances themselves. As Derren Brown brilliantly points out in Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine, “The problem with the modern conception of happiness is that it is seen as some kind of commodity. There is this fantasy that simply by believing in yourself and setting goals you can have anything. But that simply isn’t how life works. The ancients had a much better view of it. They offered an approach of not trying to control things you can’t control, and of lessening your desires and your expectations so you achieve a harmony between what you desire and what you have.”

A core part of feeling more happy is about re-wiring our minds to adjust our expectations, exercise gratitude, escape negative narratives, and live in the present moment.

But can technology help us do that?

Applications for Mental Well-Being
Many doers are asking themselves how they can leverage digital tools to contribute to human happiness.

Meditation and mindfulness are examples of practices we can use to escape the often overwhelming burden of our thoughts and ground our minds into the present. They have become increasingly democratized with the rise of meditation mobile apps, such as Headspace, Gaia, and Calm, that allow millions of people globally to use their phones to learn from experts at a very low cost.

These companies have also partnered with hospitals, airlines, athletic teams, and others that could benefit from increased access to mindfulness and meditation. The popularity of these apps continues to rise as more people recognize their necessity. The combination of mass technology and ancient wisdom is one that can lead to a transformation of the collective consciousness.

Sometimes merely reflecting on the sources of joy in our lives and practicing gratitude can contribute to better well-being. Apps such as Happier encourage users to reflect upon and share pleasant everyday moments in their daily lives. Such exercises are based on the understanding that being happy is a “skill” one can build though practice and through scientifically-proven activities, such as writing down a nice thought and sharing your positivity with the world. Many other tools such as Track Your Happiness and Happstr allow users to track their happiness, which often serves as a valuable source of data to researchers.

There is also a growing body of knowledge that tells us we can achieve happiness by helping others. This “helper’s high” is a result of our brains producing endorphins after having a positive impact on the lives of others. In many shapes and forms, technology has made it easier now more than ever to help other people no matter where they are located. From charitable donations to the rise of social impact organizations, there is an abundance of projects that leverage technology to positively impact individual lives. Platforms like GoVolunteer connect nonprofits with individuals from a variety of skill sets who are looking to gift their abilities to those in need. Kiva allows for fundraising loans that can change lives. These are just a handful of examples of a much wider positive paradigm shift.

The Future of Technology for Well-Being
There is no denying that increasingly powerful and immersive technology can be used to better or worsen the human condition. Today’s leaders will not only have to focus on their ability to use technology to solve a problem or generate greater revenue; they will have to ask themselves if their tech solutions are beneficial or detrimental to human well-being. They will also have to remember that more powerful technology does not always translate to happier users. It is also crucial that future generations be equipped with the values required to use increasingly powerful tools responsibly and ethically.

In the Education 2030 report, the Millennium Project envisions a world wherein portable intelligent devices combined with integrated systems for lifelong learning contribute to better well-being. In this vision, “continuous evaluation of individual learning processes designed to prevent people from growing unstable and/or becoming mentally ill, along with programs aimed at eliminating prejudice and hate, could bring about a more beautiful, loving world.”

There is exciting potential for technology to be leveraged to contribute to human happiness at a massive scale. Yet, technology shouldn’t consume every aspect of our lives, since a life worth living is often about balance. Sometimes, even if just for a few moments, what would make us feel happier is we disconnected from technology to begin with.

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#433296 New Engineering Journal from Annual ...

The inaugural volume of the Annual Review of Control, Robotics, and Autonomous Systems is now available online! Continue reading

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#433284 Tech Can Sustainably Feed Developing ...

In the next 30 years, virtually all net population growth will occur in urban regions of developing countries. At the same time, worldwide food production will become increasingly limited by the availability of land, water, and energy. These constraints will be further worsened by climate change and the expected addition of two billion people to today’s four billion now living in urban regions. Meanwhile, current urban food ecosystems in the developing world are inefficient and critically inadequate to meet the challenges of the future.

Combined, these trends could have catastrophic economic and political consequences. A new path forward for urban food ecosystems needs to be found. But what is that path?

New technologies, coupled with new business models and supportive government policies, can create more resilient urban food ecosystems in the coming decades. These tech-enabled systems can sustainably link rural, peri-urban (areas just outside cities), and urban producers and consumers, increase overall food production, and generate opportunities for new businesses and jobs (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The urban food value chain nodes from rural, peri-urban and urban producers
to servicing end customers in urban and peri-urban markets.
Here’s a glimpse of the changes technology may bring to the systems feeding cities in the future.

A technology-linked urban food ecosystem would create unprecedented opportunities for small farms to reach wider markets and progress from subsistence farming to commercially producing niche cash crops and animal protein, such as poultry, fish, pork, and insects.

Meanwhile, new opportunities within cities will appear with the creation of vertical farms and other controlled-environment agricultural systems as well as production of plant-based and 3D printed foods and cultured meat. Uberized facilitation of production and distribution of food will reduce bottlenecks and provide new business opportunities and jobs. Off-the-shelf precision agriculture technology will increasingly be the new norm, from smallholders to larger producers.

As part of Agricultural Revolution 4.0, all this will be integrated into the larger collaborative economy—connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things and powered by artificial intelligence. It will more efficiently and effectively use resources and people to connect the nexus of food, water, energy, nutrition, and human health. It will also aid in the development of a circular economy that is designed to be restorative and regenerative, minimizing waste and maximizing recycling and reuse to build economic, natural, and social capital.

In short, technology will enable transformation of urban food ecosystems, from expanded production in cities to more efficient and inclusive distribution and closer connections with rural farmers. Here’s a closer look at seven tech-driven trends that will help feed tomorrow’s cities.

1. Worldwide Connectivity: Information, Learning, and Markets
Connectivity from simple cell phone SMS communication to internet-enabled smartphones and cloud services are providing platforms for the increasingly powerful technologies enabling development of a new agricultural revolution. Internet connections currently reach more than 4 billion people, about 55% of the global population. That number will grow fast in coming years.

These information and communications technologies connect food producers to consumers with just-in-time data, enhanced good agricultural practices, mobile money and credit, telecommunications, market information and merchandising, and greater transparency and traceability of goods and services throughout the value chain. Text messages on mobile devices have become the one-stop-shop for small farmers to place orders, gain technology information for best management practices, and access market information to increase profitability.

Hershey’s CocoaLink in Ghana, for example, uses text and voice messages with cocoa industry experts and small farm producers. Digital Green is a technology-enabled communication system in Asia and Africa to bring needed agricultural and management practices to small farmers in their own language by filming and recording successful farmers in their own communities. MFarm is a mobile app that connects Kenyan farmers with urban markets via text messaging.

2. Blockchain Technology: Greater Access to Basic Financial Services and Enhanced Food Safety
Gaining access to credit and executing financial transactions have been persistent constraints for small farm producers. Blockchain promises to help the unbanked access basic financial services.

The Gates Foundation has released an open source platform, Mojaloop, to allow software developers and banks and financial service providers to build secure digital payment platforms at scale. Mojaloop software uses more secure blockchain technology to enable urban food system players in the developing world to conduct business and trade. The free software reduces complexity and cost in building payment platforms to connect small farmers with customers, merchants, banks, and mobile money providers. Such digital financial services will allow small farm producers in the developing world to conduct business without a brick-and-mortar bank.

Blockchain is also important for traceability and transparency requirements to meet food regulatory and consumer requirement during the production, post-harvest, shipping, processing and distribution to consumers. Combining blockchain with RFID technologies also will enhance food safety.

3. Uberized Services: On-Demand Equipment, Storage, and More
Uberized services can advance development of the urban food ecosystem across the spectrum, from rural to peri-urban to urban food production and distribution. Whereas Uber and Airbnb enable sharing of rides and homes, the model can be extended in the developing world to include on-demand use of expensive equipment, such as farm machinery, or storage space.

This includes uberization of planting and harvesting equipment (Hello Tractor), transportation vehicles, refrigeration facilities for temporary storage of perishable product, and “cloud kitchens” (EasyAppetite in Nigeria, FoodCourt in Rwanda, and Swiggy and Zomto in India) that produce fresh meals to be delivered to urban customers, enabling young people with motorbikes and cell phones to become entrepreneurs or contractors delivering meals to urban customers.

Another uberized service is marketing and distributing “ugly food” or imperfect produce to reduce food waste. About a third of the world’s food goes to waste, often because of appearance; this is enough to feed two billion people. Such services supply consumers with cheaper, nutritious, tasty, healthy fruits and vegetables that would normally be discarded as culls due to imperfections in shape or size.

4. Technology for Producing Plant-Based Foods in Cities
We need to change diet choices through education and marketing and by developing tasty plant-based substitutes. This is not only critical for environmental sustainability, but also offers opportunities for new businesses and services. It turns out that current agricultural production systems for “red meat” have a far greater detrimental impact on the environment than automobiles.

There have been great advances in plant-based foods, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, that can satisfy the consumer’s experience and perception of meat. Rather than giving up the experience of eating red meat, technology is enabling marketable, attractive plant-based products that can potentially drastically reduce world per capita consumption of red meat.

5. Cellular Agriculture, Lab-Grown Meat, and 3D Printed Food
Lab-grown meat, literally meat grown from cultured cells, may radically change where and how protein and food is produced, including the cities where it is consumed. There is a wide range of innovative alternatives to traditional meats that can supplement the need for livestock, farms, and butchers. The history of innovation is about getting rid of the bottleneck in the system, and with meat, the bottleneck is the animal. Finless Foods is a new company trying to replicate fish fillets, for example, while Memphis meats is working on beef and poultry.

3D printing or additive manufacturing is a “general purpose technology” used for making, plastic toys, human tissues, aircraft parts, and buildings. 3D printing can also be used to convert alternative ingredients such as proteins from algae, beet leaves, or insects into tasty and healthy products that can be produced by small, inexpensive printers in home kitchens. The food can be customized for individual health needs as well as preferences. 3D printing can also contribute to the food ecosystem by making possible on-demand replacement parts—which are badly needed in the developing world for tractors, pumps, and other equipment. Catapult Design 3D prints tractor replacement parts as well as corn shellers, cart designs, prosthetic limbs, and rolling water barrels for the Indian market.

6. Alt Farming: Vertical Farms to Produce Food in Urban Centers
Urban food ecosystem production systems will rely not only on field-grown crops, but also on production of food within cities. There are a host of new, alternative production systems using “controlled environmental agriculture.” These include low-cost, protected poly hoop houses, greenhouses, roof-top and sack/container gardens, and vertical farming in buildings using artificial lighting. Vertical farms enable year-round production of selected crops, regardless of weather—which will be increasingly important in response to climate change—and without concern for deteriorating soil conditions that affect crop quality and productivity. AeroFarms claims 390 times more productivity per square foot than normal field production.

7. Biotechnology and Nanotechnology for Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture
CRISPR is a promising gene editing technology that can be used to enhance crop productivity while avoiding societal concerns about GMOs. CRISPR can accelerate traditional breeding and selection programs for developing new climate and disease-resistant, higher-yielding, nutritious crops and animals.

Plant-derived coating materials, developed with nanotechnology, can decrease waste, extend shelf-life and transportability of fruits and vegetables, and significantly reduce post-harvest crop loss in developing countries that lack adequate refrigeration. Nanotechnology is also used in polymers to coat seeds to increase their shelf-life and increase their germination success and production for niche, high-value crops.

Putting It All Together
The next generation “urban food industry” will be part of the larger collaborative economy that is connected by digital platforms, the cloud, and the Internet of Things. A tech-enabled urban food ecosystem integrated with new business models and smart agricultural policies offers the opportunity for sustainable intensification (doing more with less) of agriculture to feed a rapidly growing global urban population—while also creating viable economic opportunities for rural and peri-urban as well as urban producers and value-chain players.

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