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#437407 Nvidia’s Arm Acquisition Brings the ...

Artificial intelligence and mobile computing have been two of the most disruptive technologies of this century. The unification of the two companies that made them possible could have wide-ranging consequences for the future of computing.

California-based Nvidia’s graphics processing units (GPUs) have powered the deep learning revolution ever since Google researchers discovered in 2011 that they could run neural networks far more efficiently than conventional CPUs. UK company Arm’s energy-efficient chip designs have dominated the mobile and embedded computing markets for even longer.

Now the two will join forces after the American company announced a $40 billion deal to buy Arm from its Japanese owner, Softbank. In a press release announcing the deal, Nvidia touted its potential to rapidly expand the reach of AI into all areas of our lives.

“In the years ahead, trillions of computers running AI will create a new internet-of-things that is thousands of times larger than today’s internet-of-people,” said Nvidia founder and CEO Jensen Huang. “Uniting NVIDIA’s AI computing capabilities with the vast ecosystem of Arm’s CPU, we can advance computing from the cloud, smartphones, PCs, self-driving cars and robotics, to edge IoT, and expand AI computing to every corner of the globe.”

There are good reasons to believe the hype. The two companies are absolutely dominant in their respective fields—Nvidia’s GPUs support more than 97 percent of AI computing infrastructure offered by big cloud service providers, and Arm’s chips power more than 90 percent of smartphones. And there’s little overlap in their competencies, which means the relationship could be a truly symbiotic one.

“I think the deal “fits like a glove” in that Arm plays in areas that Nvidia does not or isn’t that successful, while NVIDIA plays in many places Arm doesn’t or isn’t that successful,” analyst Patrick Moorhead wrote in Forbes.

One of the most obvious directions would be to expand Nvidia’s AI capabilities to the kind of low-power edge devices that Arm excels in. There’s growing demand for AI in devices like smartphones, wearables, cars, and drones, where transmitting data to the cloud for processing is undesirable either for reasons of privacy or speed.

But there might also be fruitful exchanges in the other direction. Huang told Moorhead a major focus would be bringing Arm’s expertise in energy efficiency to the data center. That’s a big concern for technology companies whose electricity bills and green credentials are taking a battering thanks to the huge amounts of energy required to run millions of computer chips around the clock.

The deal may not be plain sailing, though, most notably due to the two companies’ differing business models. While Nvidia sells ready-made processors, Arm simply creates chip designs and then licenses them to other companies who can then customize them to their particular hardware needs. It operates on an open-licence basis whereby any company with the necessary cash can access its designs.

As a result, its designs are found in products built by hundreds of companies that license its innovations, including Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Qualcomm, and even Nvidia. Some, including two of the company’s co-founders, have raised concerns that the purchase by Nvidia, which competes with many of these other companies, could harm the neutrality that has been central to its success.

It’s possible this could push more companies towards RISC-V, an open-source technology developed by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley that rivals Arm’s and is not owned by any one company. However, there are plenty of reasons why most companies still prefer arm over the less feature-rich open-source option, and it might take a considerable push to convince Arm’s customers to jump ship.

The deal will also have to navigate some thorny political issues. Unions, politicians, and business leaders in the UK have voiced concerns that it could lead to the loss of high-tech jobs, and government sources have suggested conditions could be placed on the deal.

Regulators in other countries could also put a spanner in the works. China is concerned that if Arm becomes US-owned, many of the Chinese companies that rely on its technology could become victims of export restrictions as the China-US trade war drags on. South Korea is also wary that the deal could create a new technology juggernaut that could dent Samsung’s growth in similar areas.

Nvidia has made commitments to keep Arm’s headquarters in the UK, which it says should lessen concerns around jobs and export restrictions. It’s also pledged to open a new world-class technology center in Cambridge and build a state-of-the-art AI supercomputer powered by Arm’s chips there. Whether the deal goes through still hangs in the balance, but of it does it could spur a whole new wave of AI innovation.

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#437402 Helping robots avoid collisions

George Konidaris still remembers his disheartening introduction to robotics. Continue reading

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#437395 Microsoft Had a Crazy Idea to Put ...

A little over two years ago, a shipping container-sized cylinder bearing Microsoft’s name and logo was lowered onto the ocean floor off the northern coast of Scotland. Inside were 864 servers, and their submersion was part of the second phase of the software giant’s Project Natick. Launched in 2015, the project’s purpose is to determine the feasibility of underwater data centers powered by offshore renewable energy.

A couple months ago, the deep-sea servers were brought back up to the surface so engineers could inspect them and evaluate how they’d performed while under water.

But wait—why were they there in the first place?

As bizarre as it seems to sink hundreds of servers into the ocean, there are actually several very good reasons to do so. According to the UN, about 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of an ocean. As internet connectivity expands to cover most of the globe in the next few years, millions more people will come online, and a lot more servers will be needed to manage the increased demand and data they’ll generate.

In densely-populated cities real estate is expensive and can be hard to find. But know where there’s lots of cheap, empty space? At the bottom of the ocean. This locale also carries the added benefit of being really cold (depending where we’re talking, that is; if you’re looking off the coast of, say, Mumbai or Abu Dhabi, the waters are warmer).

Servers generate a lot of heat, and datacenters use most of their electricity for cooling. Keeping not just the temperature but also the humidity level constant is important for optimal functioning of the servers; neither of these vary much 100 feet under water.

Finally, installing data centers on the ocean floor is, surprisingly, much faster than building them on land. Microsoft claims its server-holding cylinders will take less than 90 days to go from factory ship to operation, as compared to the average two years it takes to get a terrestrial data center up and running.

Microsoft’s Special Projects team operated the underwater data center for two years, and it took a full day to dredge it up and bring it to the surface. One of the first things researchers did was to insert test tubes into the container to take samples of the air inside; they’ll use it to try to determine how gases released from the equipment may have impacted the servers’ operating environment.

The container was filled with dry nitrogen upon deployment, which seems to have made for a much better environment than the oxygen that land-bound servers are normally surrounded by; the failure rate of the servers in the water was just one-eighth that of Microsoft’s typical rate for its servers on land. The team thinks the nitrogen atmosphere was helpful because it’s less corrosive than oxygen. The fact that no humans entered the container for the entirety of its operations helped, too (no moving around of components or having to turn on lights or adjust the temperature).

Ben Cutler, a project manager in Microsoft’s Special Projects research group who leads Project Natick, believes the results of this phase of the project are sufficient to show that underwater data centers are worth pursuing. “We are now at the point of trying to harness what we have done as opposed to feeling the need to go and prove out some more,” he said.

Cutler envisions putting underwater datacenters near offshore wind farms to power them sustainably. The data centers of the future will require less human involvement, instead being managed and run primarily by technologies like robotics and AI. In this kind of “lights-out” datacenter, the servers would be swapped out about once every five years, with any that fail before then being taken offline.

The final step in this phase of Project Natick is to recycle all the components used for the underwater data center, including the steel pressure vessel, heat exchangers, and the servers themselves—and restoring the sea bed where the cylinder rested back to its original condition.

If Cutler’s optimism is a portent of things to come, it may not be long before the ocean floor is dotted with sustainable datacenters to feed our ever-increasing reliance on our phones and the internet.

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#437373 Microsoft’s New Deepfake Detector Puts ...

The upcoming US presidential election seems set to be something of a mess—to put it lightly. Covid-19 will likely deter millions from voting in person, and mail-in voting isn’t shaping up to be much more promising. This all comes at a time when political tensions are running higher than they have in decades, issues that shouldn’t be political (like mask-wearing) have become highly politicized, and Americans are dramatically divided along party lines.

So the last thing we need right now is yet another wrench in the spokes of democracy, in the form of disinformation; we all saw how that played out in 2016, and it wasn’t pretty. For the record, disinformation purposely misleads people, while misinformation is simply inaccurate, but without malicious intent. While there’s not a ton tech can do to make people feel safe at crowded polling stations or up the Postal Service’s budget, tech can help with disinformation, and Microsoft is trying to do so.

On Tuesday the company released two new tools designed to combat disinformation, described in a blog post by VP of Customer Security and Trust Tom Burt and Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz.

The first is Microsoft Video Authenticator, which is made to detect deepfakes. In case you’re not familiar with this wicked byproduct of AI progress, “deepfakes” refers to audio or visual files made using artificial intelligence that can manipulate peoples’ voices or likenesses to make it look like they said things they didn’t. Editing a video to string together words and form a sentence someone didn’t say doesn’t count as a deepfake; though there’s manipulation involved, you don’t need a neural network and you’re not generating any original content or footage.

The Authenticator analyzes videos or images and tells users the percentage chance that they’ve been artificially manipulated. For videos, the tool can even analyze individual frames in real time.

Deepfake videos are made by feeding hundreds of hours of video of someone into a neural network, “teaching” the network the minutiae of the person’s voice, pronunciation, mannerisms, gestures, etc. It’s like when you do an imitation of your annoying coworker from accounting, complete with mimicking the way he makes every sentence sound like a question and his eyes widen when he talks about complex spreadsheets. You’ve spent hours—no, months—in his presence and have his personality quirks down pat. An AI algorithm that produces deepfakes needs to learn those same quirks, and more, about whoever the creator’s target is.

Given enough real information and examples, the algorithm can then generate its own fake footage, with deepfake creators using computer graphics and manually tweaking the output to make it as realistic as possible.

The scariest part? To make a deepfake, you don’t need a fancy computer or even a ton of knowledge about software. There are open-source programs people can access for free online, and as far as finding video footage of famous people—well, we’ve got YouTube to thank for how easy that is.

Microsoft’s Video Authenticator can detect the blending boundary of a deepfake and subtle fading or greyscale elements that the human eye may not be able to see.

In the blog post, Burt and Horvitz point out that as time goes by, deepfakes are only going to get better and become harder to detect; after all, they’re generated by neural networks that are continuously learning from and improving themselves.

Microsoft’s counter-tactic is to come in from the opposite angle, that is, being able to confirm beyond doubt that a video, image, or piece of news is real (I mean, can McDonald’s fries cure baldness? Did a seal slap a kayaker in the face with an octopus? Never has it been so imperative that the world know the truth).

A tool built into Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud computing service, lets content producers add digital hashes and certificates to their content, and a reader (which can be used as a browser extension) checks the certificates and matches the hashes to indicate the content is authentic.

Finally, Microsoft also launched an interactive “Spot the Deepfake” quiz it developed in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, deepfake detection company Sensity, and USA Today. The quiz is intended to help people “learn about synthetic media, develop critical media literacy skills, and gain awareness of the impact of synthetic media on democracy.”

The impact Microsoft’s new tools will have remains to be seen—but hey, we’re glad they’re trying. And they’re not alone; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all taken steps to ban and remove deepfakes from their sites. The AI Foundation’s Reality Defender uses synthetic media detection algorithms to identify fake content. There’s even a coalition of big tech companies teaming up to try to fight election interference.

One thing is for sure: between a global pandemic, widespread protests and riots, mass unemployment, a hobbled economy, and the disinformation that’s remained rife through it all, we’re going to need all the help we can get to make it through not just the election, but the rest of the conga-line-of-catastrophes year that is 2020.

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#437364 New electronic skin can react to pain ...

Researchers have developed electronic artificial skin that reacts to pain just like real skin, opening the way to better prosthetics, smarter robotics and non-invasive alternatives to skin grafts. Continue reading

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