Tag Archives: update

#436079 Video Friday: This Humanoid Robot Will ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

Northeast Robotics Colloquium – October 12, 2019 – Philadelphia, Pa., USA
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

What’s better than a robotics paper with “dynamic” in the title? A robotics paper with “highly dynamic” in the title. From Sangbae Kim’s lab at MIT, the latest exploits of Mini Cheetah:

Yes I’d very much like one please. Full paper at the link below.

[ Paper ] via [ MIT ]

A humanoid robot serving you ice cream—on his own ice cream bike: What a delicious vision!

[ Roboy ]

The Roomba “i” series and “s” series vacuums have just gotten an update that lets you set “keep out” zones, which is super useful. Tell your robot where not to go!

I feel bad, that Roomba was probably just hungry 🙁

[ iRobot ]

We wrote about Voliro’s tilt-rotor hexcopter a couple years ago, and now it’s off doing practical things, like spray painting a building pretty much the same color that it was before.

[ Voliro ]

Thanks Mina!

Here’s a clever approach for bin-picking problematic objects, like shiny things: Just grab a whole bunch, and then sort out what you need on a nice robot-friendly table.

It might take a little bit longer, but what do you care, you’re probably off sipping a cocktail with a little umbrella in it on a beach somewhere.

[ Harada Lab ]

A unique combination of the IRB 1200 and YuMi industrial robots that use vision, AI and deep learning to recognize and categorize trash for recycling.

[ ABB ]

Measuring glacial movements in-situ is a challenging, but necessary task to model glaciers and predict their future evolution. However, installing GPS stations on ice can be dangerous and expensive when not impossible in the presence of large crevasses. In this project, the ASL develops UAVs for dropping and recovering lightweight GPS stations over inaccessible glaciers to record the ice flow motion. This video shows the results of first tests performed at Gorner glacier, Switzerland, in July 2019.

[ EPFL ]

Turns out Tertills actually do a pretty great job fighting weeds.

Plus, they leave all those cute lil’ Tertill tracks.

[ Franklin Robotics ]

The online autonomous navigation and semantic mapping experiment presented [below] is conducted with the Cassie Blue bipedal robot at the University of Michigan. The sensors attached to the robot include an IMU, a 32-beam LiDAR and an RGB-D camera. The whole online process runs in real-time on a Jetson Xavier and a laptop with an i7 processor.

The resulting map is so precise that it looks like we are doing real-time SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping). In fact, the map is based on dead-reckoning via the InvEKF.

[ GTSAM ] via [ University of Michigan ]

UBTECH has announced an upgraded version of its Meebot, which is 30 percent bigger and comes with more sensors and programmable eyes.

[ UBTECH ]

ABB’s research team will be working with medical staff, scientist and engineers to develop non-surgical medical robotics systems, including logistics and next-generation automated laboratory technologies. The team will develop robotics solutions that will help eliminate bottlenecks in laboratory work and address the global shortage of skilled medical staff.

[ ABB ]

In this video, Ian and Chris go through Misty’s SDK, discussing the languages we’ve included, the tools that make it easy for you to get started quickly, a quick rundown of how to run the skills you build, plus what’s ahead on the Misty SDK roadmap.

[ Misty Robotics ]

My guess is that this was not one of iRobot’s testing environments for the Roomba.

You know, that’s actually super impressive. And maybe if they threw one of the self-emptying Roombas in there, it would be a viable solution to the entire problem.

[ How Farms Work ]

Part of WeRobotics’ Flying Labs network, Panama Flying Labs is a local knowledge hub catalyzing social good and empowering local experts. Through training and workshops, demonstrations and missions, the Panama Flying Labs team leverages the power of drones, data, and AI to promote entrepreneurship, build local capacity, and confront the pressing social challenges faced by communities in Panama and across Central America.

[ Panama Flying Labs ]

Go on a virtual flythrough of the NIOSH Experimental Mine, one of two courses used in the recent DARPA Subterranean Challenge Tunnel Circuit Event held 15-22 August, 2019. The data used for this partial flythrough tour were collected using 3D LIDAR sensors similar to the sensors commonly used on autonomous mobile robots.

[ SubT ]

Special thanks to PBS, Mark Knobil, Joe Seamans and Stan Brandorff and many others who produced this program in 1991.

It features Reid Simmons (and his 1 year old son), David Wettergreen, Red Whittaker, Mac Macdonald, Omead Amidi, and other Field Robotics Center alumni building the planetary walker prototype called Ambler. The team gets ready for an important demo for NASA.

[ CMU RI ]

As art and technology merge, roboticist Madeline Gannon explores the frontiers of human-robot interaction across the arts, sciences and society, and explores what this could mean for the future.

[ Sonar+D ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435806 Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Dog ...

Boston Dynamics is announcing this morning that Spot, its versatile quadruped robot, is now for sale. The machine’s animal-like behavior regularly electrifies crowds at tech conferences, and like other Boston Dynamics’ robots, Spot is a YouTube sensation whose videos amass millions of views.

Now anyone interested in buying a Spot—or a pack of them—can go to the company’s website and submit an order form. But don’t pull out your credit card just yet. Spot may cost as much as a luxury car, and it is not really available to consumers. The initial sale, described as an “early adopter program,” is targeting businesses. Boston Dynamics wants to find customers in select industries and help them deploy Spots in real-world scenarios.

“What we’re doing is the productization of Spot,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert tells IEEE Spectrum. “It’s really a milestone for us going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field.”

Boston Dynamics has always been a secretive company, but last month, in preparation for launching Spot (formerly SpotMini), it allowed our photographers into its headquarters in Waltham, Mass., for a special shoot. In that session, we captured Spot and also Atlas—the company’s highly dynamic humanoid—in action, walking, climbing, and jumping.

You can see Spot’s photo interactives on our Robots Guide. (The Atlas interactives will appear in coming weeks.)

Gif: Bob O’Connor/Robots.ieee.org

And if you’re in the market for a robot dog, here’s everything we know about Boston Dynamics’ plans for Spot.

Who can buy a Spot?
If you’re interested in one, you should go to Boston Dynamics’ website and take a look at the information the company requires from potential buyers. Again, the focus is on businesses. Boston Dynamics says it wants to get Spots out to initial customers that “either have a compelling use case or a development team that we believe can do something really interesting with the robot,” says VP of business development Michael Perry. “Just because of the scarcity of the robots that we have, we’re going to have to be selective about which partners we start working together with.”

What can Spot do?
As you’ve probably seen on the YouTube videos, Spot can walk, trot, avoid obstacles, climb stairs, and much more. The robot’s hardware is almost completely custom, with powerful compute boards for control, and five sensor modules located on every side of Spot’s body, allowing it to survey the space around itself from any direction. The legs are powered by 12 custom motors with a reduction, with a top speed of 1.6 meters per second. The robot can operate for 90 minutes on a charge. In addition to the basic configuration, you can integrate up to 14 kilograms of extra hardware to a payload interface. Among the payload packages Boston Dynamics plans to offer are a 6 degrees-of-freedom arm, a version of which can be seen in some of the YouTube videos, and a ring of cameras called SpotCam that could be used to create Street View–type images inside buildings.

Image: Boston Dynamics

How do you control Spot?
Learning to drive the robot using its gaming-style controller “takes 15 seconds,” says CEO Marc Raibert. He explains that while teleoperating Spot, you may not realize that the robot is doing a lot of the work. “You don’t really see what that is like until you’re operating the joystick and you go over a box and you don’t have to do anything,” he says. “You’re practically just thinking about what you want to do and the robot takes care of everything.” The control methods have evolved significantly since the company’s first quadruped robots, machines like BigDog and LS3. “The control in those days was much more monolithic, and now we have what we call a sequential composition controller,” Raibert says, “which lets the system have control of the dynamics in a much broader variety of situations.” That means that every time one of Spot’s feet touches or doesn’t touch the ground, this different state of the body affects the basic physical behavior of the robot, and the controller adjusts accordingly. “Our controller is designed to understand what that state is and have different controls depending upon the case,” he says.

How much does Spot cost?
Boston Dynamics would not give us specific details about pricing, saying only that potential customers should contact them for a quote and that there is going to be a leasing option. It’s understandable: As with any expensive and complex product, prices can vary on a case by case basis and depend on factors such as configuration, availability, level of support, and so forth. When we pressed the company for at least an approximate base price, Perry answered: “Our general guidance is that the total cost of the early adopter program lease will be less than the price of a car—but how nice a car will depend on the number of Spots leased and how long the customer will be leasing the robot.”

Can Spot do mapping and SLAM out of the box?
The robot’s perception system includes cameras and 3D sensors (there is no lidar), used to avoid obstacles and sense the terrain so it can climb stairs and walk over rubble. It’s also used to create 3D maps. According to Boston Dynamics, the first software release will offer just teleoperation. But a second release, to be available in the next few weeks, will enable more autonomous behaviors. For example, it will be able to do mapping and autonomous navigation—similar to what the company demonstrated in a video last year, showing how you can drive the robot through an environment, create a 3D point cloud of the environment, and then set waypoints within that map for Spot to go out and execute that mission. For customers that have their own autonomy stack and are interested in using those on Spot, Boston Dynamics made it “as plug and play as possible in terms of how third-party software integrates into Spot’s system,” Perry says. This is done mainly via an API.

How does Spot’s API works?
Boston Dynamics built an API so that customers can create application-level products with Spot without having to deal with low-level control processes. “Rather than going and building joint-level kinematic access to the robot,” Perry explains, “we created a high-level API and SDK that allows people who are used to Web app development or development of missions for drones to use that same scope, and they’ll be able to build applications for Spot.”

What applications should we see first?
Boston Dynamics envisions Spot as a platform: a versatile mobile robot that companies can use to build applications based on their needs. What types of applications? The company says the best way to find out is to put Spot in the hands of as many users as possible and let them develop the applications. Some possibilities include performing remote data collection and light manipulation in construction sites; monitoring sensors and infrastructure at oil and gas sites; and carrying out dangerous missions such as bomb disposal and hazmat inspections. There are also other promising areas such as security, package delivery, and even entertainment. “We have some initial guesses about which markets could benefit most from this technology, and we’ve been engaging with customers doing proof-of-concept trials,” Perry says. “But at the end of the day, that value story is really going to be determined by people going out and exploring and pushing the limits of the robot.”

Photo: Bob O'Connor

How many Spots have been produced?
Last June, Boston Dynamics said it was planning to build about a hundred Spots by the end of the year, eventually ramping up production to a thousand units per year by the middle of this year. The company admits that it is not quite there yet. It has built close to a hundred beta units, which it has used to test and refine the final design. This version is now being mass manufactured, but the company is still “in the early tens of robots,” Perry says.

How did Boston Dynamics test Spot?

The company has tested the robots during proof-of-concept trials with customers, and at least one is already using Spot to survey construction sites. The company has also done reliability tests at its facility in Waltham, Mass. “We drive around, not quite day and night, but hundreds of miles a week, so that we can collect reliability data and find bugs,” Raibert says.

What about competitors?
In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of quadruped robots that will compete in the same space as Spot. The most prominent of these is ANYmal, from ANYbotics, a Swiss company that spun out of ETH Zurich. Other quadrupeds include Vision from Ghost Robotics, used by one of the teams in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge; and Laikago and Aliengo from Unitree Robotics, a Chinese startup. Raibert views the competition as a positive thing. “We’re excited to see all these companies out there helping validate the space,” he says. “I think we’re more in competition with finding the right need [that robots can satisfy] than we are with the other people building the robots at this point.”

Why is Boston Dynamics selling Spot now?
Boston Dynamics has long been an R&D-centric firm, with most of its early funding coming from military programs, but it says commercializing robots has always been a goal. Productizing its machines probably accelerated when the company was acquired by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which had an ambitious (and now apparently very dead) robotics program. The commercial focus likely continued after Alphabet sold Boston Dynamics to SoftBank, whose famed CEO, Masayoshi Son, is known for his love of robots—and profits.

Which should I buy, Spot or Aibo?
Don’t laugh. We’ve gotten emails from individuals interested in purchasing a Spot for personal use after seeing our stories on the robot. Alas, Spot is not a bigger, fancier Aibo pet robot. It’s an expensive, industrial-grade machine that requires development and maintenance. If you’re maybe Jeff Bezos you could probably convince Boston Dynamics to sell you one, but otherwise the company will prioritize businesses.

What’s next for Boston Dynamics?
On the commercial side of things, other than Spot, Boston Dynamics is interested in the logistics space. Earlier this year it announced the acquisition of Kinema Systems, a startup that had developed vision sensors and deep-learning software to enable industrial robot arms to locate and move boxes. There’s also Handle, the mobile robot on whegs (wheels + legs), that can pick up and move packages. Boston Dynamics is hiring both in Waltham, Mass., and Mountain View, Calif., where Kinema was located.

Okay, can I watch a cool video now?
During our visit to Boston Dynamics’ headquarters last month, we saw Atlas and Spot performing some cool new tricks that we unfortunately are not allowed to tell you about. We hope that, although the company is putting a lot of energy and resources into its commercial programs, Boston Dynamics will still find plenty of time to improve its robots, build new ones, and of course, keep making videos. [Update: The company has just released a new Spot video, which we’ve embedded at the top of the post.][Update 2: We should have known. Boston Dynamics sure knows how to create buzz for itself: It has just released a second video, this time of Atlas doing some of those tricks we saw during our visit and couldn’t tell you about. Enjoy!]

[ Boston Dynamics ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435640 Video Friday: This Wearable Robotic Tail ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
CLAWAR 2019 – August 26-28, 2019 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Lakshmi Nair from Georgia Tech describes some fascinating research towards robots that can create their own tools, as presented at ICRA this year:

Using a novel capability to reason about shape, function, and attachment of unrelated parts, researchers have for the first time successfully trained an intelligent agent to create basic tools by combining objects.

The breakthrough comes from Georgia Tech’s Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning (RAIL) research lab and is a significant step toward enabling intelligent agents to devise more advanced tools that could prove useful in hazardous – and potentially life-threatening – environments.

[ Lakshmi Nair ]

Victor Barasuol, from the Dynamic Legged Systems Lab at IIT, wrote in to share some new research on their HyQ quadruped that enables sensorless shin collision detection. This helps the robot navigate unstructured environments, and also mitigates all those painful shin strikes, because ouch.

This will be presented later this month at the International Conference on Climbing and Walking Robots (CLAWAR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

[ IIT ]

Thanks Victor!

You used to have a tail, you know—as an embryo, about a month in to your development. All mammals used to have tails, and now we just have useless tailbones, which don’t help us with balancing even a little bit. BRING BACK THE TAIL!

The tail, created by Junichi Nabeshima, Kouta Minamizawa, and MHD Yamen Saraiji from Keio University’s Graduate School of Media Design, was presented at SIGGRAPH 2019 Emerging Technologies.

[ Paper ] via [ Gizmodo ]

The noises in this video are fantastic.

[ ESA ]

Apparently the industrial revolution wasn’t a thorough enough beatdown of human knitting, because the robots are at it again.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

Skydio’s drones just keep getting more and more impressive. Now if only they’d make one that I can afford…

[ Skydio ]

The only thing more fun than watching robots is watching people react to robots.

[ SEER ]

There aren’t any robots in this video, but it’s robotics-related research, and very soothing to watch.

[ Stanford ]

#autonomousicecreamtricycle

In case it wasn’t clear, which it wasn’t, this is a Roboy project. And if you didn’t understand that first video, you definitely won’t understand this second one:

Whatever that t-shirt is at the end (Roboy in sunglasses puking rainbows…?) I need one.

[ Roboy ]

By adding electronics and computation technology to a simple cane that has been around since ancient times, a team of researchers at Columbia Engineering have transformed it into a 21st century robotic device that can provide light-touch assistance in walking to the aged and others with impaired mobility.

The light-touch robotic cane, called CANINE, acts as a cane-like mobile assistant. The device improves the individual’s proprioception, or self-awareness in space, during walking, which in turn improves stability and balance.

[ ROAR Lab ]

During the second field experiment for DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program, which took place at Fort Benning, Georgia, teams of autonomous air and ground robots tested tactics on a mission to isolate an urban objective. Similar to the way a firefighting crew establishes a boundary around a burning building, they first identified locations of interest and then created a perimeter around the focal point.

[ DARPA ]

I think there’s a bit of new footage here of Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 quadruped walking around without sensors on unstructured terrain.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

If you’re as tired of passenger drone hype as I am, there’s absolutely no need to watch this video of NEC’s latest hover test.

[ AP ]

As researchers teach robots to perform more and more complex tasks, the need for realistic simulation environments is growing. Existing techniques for closing the reality gap by approximating real-world physics often require extensive real world data and/or thousands of simulation samples. This paper presents TuneNet, a new machine learning-based method to directly tune the parameters of one model to match another using an iterative residual tuning technique. TuneNet estimates the parameter difference between two models using a single observation from the target and minimal simulation, allowing rapid, accurate and sample-efficient parameter estimation.

The system can be trained via supervised learning over an auto-generated simulated dataset. We show that TuneNet can perform system identification, even when the true parameter values lie well outside the distribution seen during training, and demonstrate that simulators tuned with TuneNet outperform existing techniques for predicting rigid body motion. Finally, we show that our method can estimate real-world parameter values, allowing a robot to perform sim-to-real task transfer on a dynamic manipulation task unseen during training. We are also making a baseline implementation of our code available online.

[ Paper ]

Here’s an update on what GITAI has been up to with their telepresence astronaut-replacement robot.

[ GITAI ]

Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama of a location on Mars called “Teal Ridge” on June 18, 2019. This location is part of a larger region the rover has been exploring called the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, which is inside Gale Crater. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.

[ MSL ]

Some updates (in English) on ROS from ROSCon France. The first is a keynote from Brian Gerkey:

And this second video is from Omri Ben-Bassat, about how to keep your Anki Vector alive using ROS:

All of the ROSCon FR talks are available on Vimeo.

[ ROSCon FR ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435605 All of the Winners in the DARPA ...

The first competitive event in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge concluded last week—hopefully you were able to follow along on the livestream, on Twitter, or with some of the articles that we’ve posted about the event. We’ll have plenty more to say about how things went for the SubT teams, but while they take a bit of a (well earned) rest, we can take a look at the winning teams as well as who won DARPA’s special superlative awards for the competition.

First Place: Team Explorer (25/40 artifacts found)
With their rugged, reliable robots featuring giant wheels and the ability to drop communications nodes, Team Explorer was in the lead from day 1, scoring in double digits on every single run.

Second Place: Team CoSTAR (11/40 artifacts found)
Team CoSTAR had one of the more diverse lineups of robots, and they switched up which robots they decided to send into the mine as they learned more about the course.

Third Place: Team CTU-CRAS (10/40 artifacts found)
While many teams came to SubT with DARPA funding, Team CTU-CRAS was self-funded, making them eligible for a special $200,000 Tunnel Circuit prize.

DARPA also awarded a bunch of “superlative awards” after SubT:

Most Accurate Artifact: Team Explorer

To score a point, teams had to submit the location of an artifact that was correct to within 5 meters of the artifact itself. However, DARPA was tracking the artifact locations with much higher precision—for example, the “zero” point on the backpack artifact was the center of the label on the front, which DARPA tracked to the millimeter. Team Explorer managed to return the location of a backpack with an error of just 0.18 meter, which is kind of amazing.

Down to the Wire: Team CSIRO Data61

With just an hour to find as many artifacts as possible, teams had to find the right balance between sending robots off to explore and bringing them back into communication range to download artifact locations. Team CSIRO Data61 cut their last point pretty close, sliding their final point in with a mere 22 seconds to spare.

Most Distinctive Robots: Team Robotika

Team Robotika had some of the quirkiest and most recognizable robots, which DARPA recognized with the “Most Distinctive” award. Robotika told us that part of the reason for that distinctiveness was practical—having a robot that was effectively in two parts meant that they could disassemble it so that it would fit in the baggage compartment of an airplane, very important for a team based in the Czech Republic.

Most Robots Per Person: Team Coordinated Robotics

Kevin Knoedler, who won NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge entirely by himself, brought his own personal swarm of drones to SubT. With a ratio of seven robots to one human, Kevin was almost certainly the hardest working single human at the challenge.

Fan Favorite: Team NCTU

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Fan Favorite award went to the team that was most popular on Twitter (with the #SubTChallenge hashtag), and it may or may not be the case that I personally tweeted enough about Team NCTU’s blimp to win them this award. It’s also true that whenever we asked anyone on other teams what their favorite robot was (besides their own, of course), the blimp was overwhelmingly popular. So either way, the award is well deserved.

DARPA shared this little behind-the-scenes clip of the blimp in action (sort of), showing what happened to the poor thing when the mine ventilation system was turned on between runs and DARPA staff had to chase it down and rescue it:

The thing to keep in mind about the results of the Tunnel Circuit is that unlike past DARPA robotics challenges (like the DRC), they don’t necessarily indicate how things are going to go for the Urban or Cave circuits because of how different things are going to be. Explorer did a great job with a team of rugged wheeled vehicles, which turned out to be ideal for navigating through mines, but they’re likely going to need to change things up substantially for the rest of the challenges, where the terrain will be much more complex.

DARPA hasn’t provided any details on the location of the Urban Circuit yet; all we know is that it’ll be sometime in February 2020. This gives teams just six months to take all the lessons that they learned from the Tunnel Circuit and update their hardware, software, and strategies. What were those lessons, and what do teams plan to do differently next year? Check back next week, and we’ll tell you.

[ DARPA SubT ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435593 AI at the Speed of Light

Neural networks shine for solving tough problems such as facial and voice recognition, but conventional electronic versions are limited in speed and hungry for power. In theory, optics could beat digital electronic computers in the matrix calculations used in neural networks. However, optics had been limited by their inability to do some complex calculations that had required electronics. Now new experiments show that all-optical neural networks can tackle those problems.

The key attraction of neural networks is their massive interconnections among processors, comparable to the complex interconnections among neurons in the brain. This lets them perform many operations simultaneously, like the human brain does when looking at faces or listening to speech, making them more efficient for facial and voice recognition than traditional electronic computers that execute one instruction at a time.

Today's electronic neural networks have reached eight million neurons, but their future use in artificial intelligence may be limited by their high power usage and limited parallelism in connections. Optical connections through lenses are inherently parallel. The lens in your eye simultaneously focuses light from across your field of view onto the retina in the back of your eye, where an array of light-detecting nerve cells detects the light. Each cell then relays the signal it receives to neurons in the brain that process the visual signals to show us an image.

Glass lenses process optical signals by focusing light, which performs a complex mathematical operation called a Fourier transform that preserves the information in the original scene but rearranges is completely. One use of Fourier transforms is converting time variations in signal intensity into a plot of the frequencies present in the signal. The military used this trick in the 1950s to convert raw radar return signals recorded by an aircraft in flight into a three-dimensional image of the landscape viewed by the plane. Today that conversion is done electronically, but the vacuum-tube computers of the 1950s were not up to the task.

Development of neural networks for artificial intelligence started with electronics, but their AI applications have been limited by their slow processing and need for extensive computing resources. Some researchers have developed hybrid neural networks, in which optics perform simple linear operations, but electronics perform more complex nonlinear calculations. Now two groups have demonstrated simple all-optical neural networks that do all processing with light.

In May, Wolfram Pernice of the Institute of Physics at the University of Münster in Germany and colleagues reported testing an all-optical “neuron” in which signals change target materials between liquid and solid states, an effect that has been used for optical data storage. They demonstrated nonlinear processing, and produced output pulses like those from organic neurons. They then produced an integrated photonic circuit that incorporated four optical neurons operating at different wavelengths, each of which connected to 15 optical synapses. The photonic circuit contained more than 140 components and could recognize simple optical patterns. The group wrote that their device is scalable, and that the technology promises “access to the high speed and high bandwidth inherent to optical systems, thus enabling the direct processing of optical telecommunication and visual data.”

Now a group at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology reports in Optica that they have made an all-optical neural network based on a different process, electromagnetically induced transparency, in which incident light affects how atoms shift between quantum-mechanical energy levels. The process is nonlinear and can be triggered by very weak light signals, says Shengwang Du, a physics professor and coauthor of the paper.

In their demonstration, they illuminated rubidium-85 atoms cooled by lasers to about 10 microKelvin (10 microdegrees above absolute zero). Although the technique may seem unusually complex, Du said the system was the most accessible one in the lab that could produce the desired effects. “As a pure quantum atomic system [it] is ideal for this proof-of-principle experiment,” he says.

Next, they plan to scale up the demonstration using a hot atomic vapor center, which is less expensive, does not require time-consuming preparation of cold atoms, and can be integrated with photonic chips. Du says the major challenges are reducing cost of the nonlinear processing medium and increasing the scale of the all-optical neural network for more complex tasks.

“Their demonstration seems valid,” says Volker Sorger, an electrical engineer at George Washington University in Washington who was not involved in either demonstration. He says the all-optical approach is attractive because it offers very high parallelism, but the update rate is limited to about 100 hertz because of the liquid crystals used in their test, and he is not completely convinced their approach can be scaled error-free. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots