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Robots are writing more of what we read on the internet. And artificial intelligence (AI) writing tools are becoming freely available for anyone, including students, to use. Continue reading
For athletes trying to run fast, the right shoe can be essential to achieving peak performance. For athletes trying to run fast as humanly possible, a runner’s shoe can also become a work of individually customized engineering.
This is why Adidas has married 3D printing with robotic automation in a mass-market footwear project it’s called Futurecraft.Strung, expected to be available for purchase as soon as later this year. Using a customized, 3D-printed sole, a Futurecraft.Strung manufacturing robot can place some 2,000 threads from up to 10 different sneaker yarns in one upper section of the shoe.
Skylar Tibbits, founder and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab and associate professor in MIT's Department of Architecture, says that because of its small scale, footwear has been an area of focus for 3D printing and additive manufacturing, which involves adding material bit by bit.
“There are really interesting complex geometry problems,” he says. “It’s pretty well suited.”
Beginning with a 3D-printed sole, Adidas robots weave together some 2000 threads from up to 10 different sneaker yarns to make one Futurecraft.Strung shoe—expected on the marketplace later this year or sometime in 2022.
Adidas began working on the Futurecraft.Strung project in 2016. Then two years later, Adidas Futurecraft, the company’s innovation incubator, began collaborating with digital design studio Kram/Weisshaar. In less than a year the team built the software and hardware for the upper part of the shoe, called Strung uppers.
“Most 3D printing in the footwear space has been focused on the midsole or outsole, like the bottom of the shoe,” Tibbits explains. But now, he says, Adidas is bringing robotics and a threaded design to the upper part of the shoe. The company bases its Futurecraft.Strung design on high-resolution scans of how runners’ feet move as they travel.
This more flexible design can benefit athletes in multiple sports, according to an Adidas blog post. It will be able to use motion capture of an athlete’s foot and feedback from the athlete to make the design specific to the athlete’s specific gait. Adidas customizes the weaving of the shoe’s “fabric” (really more like an elaborate woven string figure, a cat’s cradle to fit the foot) to achieve a close and comfortable fit, the company says.
What they call their “4D sole” consists of a design combining 3D printing with materials that can change their shape and properties over time. In fact, Tibbits coined the term 4D printing to describe this process in 2013. The company takes customized data from the Adidas Athlete Intelligent Engine to make the shoe, according to Kram/Weisshaar’s website.
Closeup of the weaving process behind a Futurecraft.Strung shoe
“With Strung for the first time, we can program single threads in any direction, where each thread has a different property or strength,” Fionn Corcoran-Tadd, an innovation designer at Adidas’ Futurecraft lab, said in a company video. Each thread serves a purpose, the video noted. “This is like customized string art for your feet,” Tibbits says.
Although the robotics technology the company uses has been around for many years, what Adidas’s robotic weavers can achieve with thread is a matter of elaborate geometry. “It’s more just like a really elegant way to build up material combining robotics and the fibers and yarns into these intricate and complex patterns,” he says.
Robots can of course create patterns with more precision than if someone wound it by hand, as well as rapidly and reliably changing the yarn and color of the fabric pattern. Adidas says it can make a single upper in 45 minutes and a pair of sneakers in 1 hour and 30 minutes. It plans to reduce this time down to minutes in the months ahead, the company said.
An Adidas spokesperson says sneakers incorporating the Futurecraft.Strung uppers design are a prototype, but the company plans to bring a Strung shoe to market in late 2021 or 2022. However, Adidas Futurecraft sneakers are currently available with a 3D-printed midsole.
Adidas plans to continue gathering data from athletes to customize the uppers of sneakers. “We’re building up a library of knowledge and it will get more interesting as we aggregate data of testing and from different athletes and sports,” the Adidas Futurecraft team writes in a blog post. “The more we understand about how data can become design code, the more we can take that and apply it to new Strung textiles. It’s a continuous evolution.” Continue reading
In a store in the center of an unnamed city, humanoid robots are displayed alongside housewares and magazines. They watch the fast-moving world outside the window, anxiously awaiting the arrival of customers who might buy them and take them home. Among them is Klara, a particularly astute robot who loves the sun and wants to learn as much as possible about humans and the world they live in.
So begins Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, published earlier this month. The book, told from Klara’s perspective, portrays an eerie future society in which intelligent machines and other advanced technologies have been integrated into daily life, but not everyone is happy about it.
Technological unemployment, the progress of artificial intelligence, inequality, the safety and ethics of gene editing, increasing loneliness and isolation—all of which we’re grappling with today—show up in Ishiguro’s world. It’s like he hit a fast-forward button, mirroring back to us how things might play out if we don’t approach these technologies with caution and foresight.
The wealthy genetically edit or “lift” their children to set them up for success, while the poor have to make do with the regular old brains and bodies bequeathed them by evolution. Lifted and unlifted kids generally don’t mix, and this is just one of many sinister delineations between a new breed of haves and have-nots.
There’s anger about robots’ steady infiltration into everyday life, and questions about how similar their rights should be to those of humans. “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater?” one woman fumes.
References to “changes” and “substitutions” allude to an economy where automation has eliminated millions of jobs. While “post-employed” people squat in abandoned buildings and fringe communities arm themselves in preparation for conflict, those whose livelihoods haven’t been destroyed can afford to have live-in housekeepers and buy Artificial Friends (or AFs) for their lonely children.
“The old traditional model that we still live with now—where most of us can get some kind of paid work in exchange for our services or the goods we make—has broken down,” Ishiguro said in a podcast discussion of the novel. “We’re not talking just about the difference between rich and poor getting bigger. We’re talking about a gap appearing between people who participate in society in an obvious way and people who do not.”
He has a point; as much as techno-optimists claim that the economic changes brought by automation and AI will give us all more free time, let us work less, and devote time to our passion projects, how would that actually play out? What would millions of “post-employed” people receiving basic income actually do with their time and energy?
In the novel, we don’t get much of a glimpse of this side of the equation, but we do see how the wealthy live. After a long wait, just as the store manager seems ready to give up on selling her, Klara is chosen by a 14-year-old girl named Josie, the daughter of a woman who wears “high-rank clothes” and lives in a large, sunny home outside the city. Cheerful and kind, Josie suffers from an unspecified illness that periodically flares up and leaves her confined to her bed for days at a time.
Her life seems somewhat bleak, the need for an AF clear. In this future world, the children of the wealthy no longer go to school together, instead studying alone at home on their digital devices. “Interaction meetings” are set up for them to learn to socialize, their parents carefully eavesdropping from the next room and trying not to intervene when there’s conflict or hurt feelings.
Klara does her best to be a friend, aide, and confidante to Josie while continuing to learn about the world around her and decode the mysteries of human behavior. We surmise that she was programmed with a basic ability to understand emotions, which evolves along with her other types of intelligence. “I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me,” she explains to one character.
Ishiguro does an excellent job of representing Klara’s mind: a blend of pre-determined programming, observation, and continuous learning. Her narration has qualities both robotic and human; we can tell when something has been programmed in—she “Gives Privacy” to the humans around her when that’s appropriate, for example—and when she’s figured something out for herself.
But the author maintains some mystery around Klara’s inner emotional life. “Does she actually understand human emotions, or is she just observing human emotions and simulating them within herself?” he said. “I suppose the question comes back to, what are our emotions as human beings? What do they amount to?”
Klara is particularly attuned to human loneliness, since she essentially was made to help prevent it. It is, in her view, peoples’ biggest fear, and something they’ll go to great lengths to avoid, yet can never fully escape. “Perhaps all humans are lonely,” she says.
Warding off loneliness through technology isn’t a futuristic idea, it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time, with the technologies at hand growing more and more sophisticated. Products like AFs already exist. There’s XiaoIce, a chatbot that uses “sentiment analysis” to keep its 660 million users engaged, and Azuma Hikari, a character-based AI designed to “bring comfort” to users whose lives lack emotional connection with other humans.
The mere existence of these tools would be sinister if it wasn’t for their widespread adoption; when millions of people use AIs to fill a void in their lives, it raises deeper questions about our ability to connect with each other and whether technology is building it up or tearing it down.
This isn’t the only big question the novel tackles. An overarching theme is one we’ve been increasingly contemplating as computers start to acquire more complex capabilities, like the beginnings of creativity or emotional awareness: What is it that truly makes us human?
“Do you believe in the human heart?” one character asks. “I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
The alternative, at least in the story, is that people don’t have a unique essence, but rather we’re all a blend of traits and personalities that can be reduced to strings of code. Our understanding of the brain is still elementary, but at some level, doesn’t all human experience boil down to the firing of billions of neurons between our ears? Will we one day—in a future beyond that painted by Ishiguro, but certainly foreshadowed by it—be able to “decode” our humanity to the point that there’s nothing mysterious left about it? “A human heart is bound to be complex,” Klara says. “But it must be limited.”
Whether or not you agree, Klara and the Sun is worth the read. It’s both a marvelous, engaging story about what it means to love and be human, and a prescient warning to approach technological change with caution and nuance. We’re already living in a world where AI keeps us company, influences our behavior, and is wreaking various forms of havoc. Ishiguro’s novel is a snapshot of one of our possible futures, told through the eyes of a robot who keeps you rooting for her to the end.
Image Credit: Marion Wellmann from Pixabay Continue reading
The race to build the first practical quantum computers looks like a two-horse contest between machines built from superconducting qubits and those that use trapped ions. But new research suggests a third contender—machines based on optical technology—could sneak up on the inside.
The most advanced quantum computers today are the ones built by Google and IBM, which rely on superconducting circuits to generate the qubits that form the basis of quantum calculations. They are now able to string together tens of qubits, and while controversial, Google claims its machines have achieved quantum supremacy—the ability to carry out a computation beyond normal computers.
Recently this approach has been challenged by a wave of companies looking to use trapped ion qubits, which are more stable and less error-prone than superconducting ones. While these devices are less developed, engineering giant Honeywell has already released a machine with 10 qubits, which it says is more powerful than a machine made of a greater number of superconducting qubits.
But despite this progress, both of these approaches have some major drawbacks. They require specialized fabrication methods, incredibly precise control mechanisms, and they need to be cooled to close to absolute zero to protect the qubits from any outside interference.
That’s why researchers at Canadian quantum computing hardware and software startup Xanadu are backing an alternative quantum computing approach based on optics, which was long discounted as impractical. In a paper published last week in Nature, they unveiled the first fully programmable and scalable optical chip that can run quantum algorithms. Not only does the system run at room temperature, but the company says it could scale to millions of qubits.
The idea isn’t exactly new. As Chris Lee notes in Ars Technica, people have been experimenting with optical approaches to quantum computing for decades, because encoding information in photons’ quantum states and manipulating those states is relatively easy. The biggest problem was that optical circuits were very large and not readily programmable, which meant you had to build a new computer for every new problem you wanted to solve.
That started to change thanks to the growing maturity of photonic integrated circuits. While early experiments with optical computing involved complex table-top arrangements of lasers, lenses, and detectors, today it’s possible to buy silicon chips not dissimilar to electronic ones that feature hundreds of tiny optical components.
In recent years, the reliability and performance of these devices has improved dramatically, and they’re now regularly used by the telecommunications industry. Some companies believe they could be the future of artificial intelligence too.
This allowed the Xanadu researchers to design a silicon chip that implements a complex optical network made up of beam splitters, waveguides, and devices called interferometers that cause light sources to interact with each other.
The chip can generate and manipulate up to eight qubits, but unlike conventional qubits, which can simultaneously be in two states, these qubits can be in any configuration of three states, which means they can carry more information.
Once the light has travelled through the network, it is then fed out to cutting-edge photon-counting detectors that provide the result. This is one of the potential limitations of the system, because currently these detectors need to be cryogenically cooled, although the rest of the chip does not.
But most importantly, the chip is easily re-programmable, which allows it to tackle a variety of problems. The computation can be controlled by adjusting the settings of these interferometers, but the researchers have also developed a software platform that hides the physical complexity from users and allows them to program it using fairly conventional code.
The company announced that its chips were available on the cloud in September of 2020, but the Nature paper is the first peer-reviewed test of their system. The researchers verified that the computations being done were genuinely quantum mechanical in nature, but they also implemented two more practical algorithms: one for simulating molecules and the other for judging how similar two graphs are, which has applications in a variety of pattern recognition problems.
In an accompanying opinion piece, Ulrik Andersen from the Technical University of Denmark says the quality of the qubits needs to be improved considerably and photon losses reduced if the technology is ever to scale to practical problems. But, he says, this breakthrough suggests optical approaches “could turn out to be the dark horse of quantum computing.”
Image Credit: Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash Continue reading
Over the last half decade or so, the commercialization of autonomous robots that can operate outside of structured environments has dramatically increased. But this relatively new transition of robotic technologies from research projects to commercial products comes with its share of challenges, many of which relate to the rapidly increasing visibility that these robots have in society.
Whether it's because of their appearance of agency, or because of their history in popular culture, robots frequently inspire people’s imagination. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when it leads to innovative new use cases. And sometimes this is a bad thing, like when it leads to use cases that could be classified as irresponsible or unethical. Can the people selling robots do anything about the latter? And even if they can, should they?
Roboticists understand that robots, fundamentally, are tools. We build them, we program them, and even the autonomous ones are just following the instructions that we’ve coded into them. However, that same appearance of agency that makes robots so compelling means that it may not be clear to people without much experience with or exposure to real robots that a robot itself isn’t inherently good or bad—rather, as a tool, a robot is a reflection of its designers and users.
This can put robotics companies into a difficult position. When they sell a robot to someone, that person can, hypothetically, use the robot in any way they want. Of course, this is the case with every tool, but it’s the autonomous aspect that makes robots unique. I would argue that autonomy brings with it an implied association between a robot and its maker, or in this case, the company that develops and sells it. I’m not saying that this association is necessarily a reasonable one, but I think that it exists, even if that robot has been sold to someone else who has assumed full control over everything it does.
“All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used to harm or intimidate people or animals, as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon”
—Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics
Robotics companies are certainly aware of this, because many of them are very careful about who they sell their robots to, and very explicit about what they want their robots to be doing. But once a robot is out in the wild, as it were, how far should that responsibility extend? And realistically, how far can it extend? Should robotics companies be held accountable for what their robots do in the world, or should we accept that once a robot is sold to someone else, responsibility is transferred as well? And what can be done if a robot is being used in an irresponsible or unethical way that could have a negative impact on the robotics community?
For perspective on this, we contacted folks from three different robotics companies, each of which has experience selling distinctive mobile robots to commercial end users. We asked them the same five questions about the responsibility that robotics companies have regarding the robots that they sell, and here’s what they had to say:
Do you have any restrictions on what people can do with your robots? If so, what are they, and if not, why not?
Péter Fankhauser, CEO, ANYbotics:
We closely work together with our customers to make sure that our solution provides the right approach for their problem. Thereby, the target use case is clear from the beginning and we do not work with customers interested in using our robot ANYmal outside the intended target applications. Specifically, we strictly exclude any military or weaponized uses and since the foundation of ANYbotics it is close to our heart to make human work easier, safer, and more enjoyable.
Robert Playter, CEO, Boston Dynamics:
Yes, we have restrictions on what people can do with our robots, which are outlined in our Terms and Conditions of Sale. All of our buyers, without exception, must agree that Spot will not be used to harm or intimidate people or animals, as a weapon or configured to hold a weapon. Spot, just like any product, must be used in compliance with the law.
Ryan Gariepy, CTO, Clearpath Robotics:
We do have strict restrictions and KYC processes which are based primarily on Canadian export control regulations. They depend on the type of equipment sold as well as where it is going. More generally, we also will not sell or support a robot if we know that it will create an uncontrolled safety hazard or if we have reason to believe that the buyer is unqualified to use the product. And, as always, we do not support using our products for the development of fully autonomous weapons systems.
More broadly, if you sell someone a robot, why should they be restricted in what they can do with it?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: We see the robot less as a simple object but more as an artificial workforce. This implies to us that the usage is closely coupled with the transfer of the robot and both the customer and the provider agree what the robot is expected to do. This approach is supported by what we hear from our customers with an increasing interest to pay for the robots as a service or per use.
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We’re offering a product for sale. We’re going to do the best we can to stop bad actors from using our technology for harm, but we don’t have the control to regulate every use. That said, we believe that our business will be best served if our technology is used for peaceful purposes—to work alongside people as trusted assistants and remove them from harm’s way. We do not want to see our technology used to cause harm or promote violence. Our restrictions are similar to those of other manufacturers or technology companies that take steps to reduce or eliminate the violent or unlawful use of their products.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: Assuming the organization doing the restricting is a private organization and the robot and its software is sold vs. leased or “managed,” there aren't strong legal reasons to restrict use. That being said, the manufacturer likewise has no obligation to continue supporting that specific robot or customer going forward. However, given that we are only at the very edge of how robots will reshape a great deal of society, it is in the best interest for the manufacturer and user to be honest with each other about their respective goals. Right now, you're not only investing in the initial purchase and relationship, you're investing in the promise of how you can help each other succeed in the future.
“If a robot is being used in a way that is irresponsible due to safety: intervene! If it’s unethical: speak up!”
—Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics
What can you realistically do to make sure that people who buy your robots use them in the ways that you intend?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: We maintain a close collaboration with our customers to ensure their success with our solution. So for us, we have refrained from technical solutions to block unintended use.
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We vet our customers to make sure that their desired applications are things that Spot can support, and are in alignment with our Terms and Conditions of Sale. We’ve turned away customers whose applications aren’t a good match with our technology. If customers misuse our technology, we’re clear in our Terms of Sale that their violations may void our warranty and prevent their robots from being updated, serviced, repaired, or replaced. We may also repossess robots that are not purchased, but leased. Finally, we will refuse future sales to customers that violate our Terms of Sale.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: We typically work with our clients ahead of the purchase to make sure their expectations match reality, in particular on aspects like safety, supervisory requirements, and usability. It's far worse to sell a robot that'll sit on a shelf or worse, cause harm, then to not sell a robot at all, so we prefer to reduce the risk of this situation in advance of receiving an order or shipping a robot.
How do you evaluate the merit of edge cases, for example if someone wants to use your robot in research or art that may push the boundaries of what you personally think is responsible or ethical?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: It’s about the dialog, understanding, and figuring out alternatives that work for all involved parties and the earlier you can have this dialog the better.
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: There’s a clear line between exploring robots in research and art, and using the robot for violent or illegal purposes.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: We have sold thousands of robots to hundreds of clients, and I do not recall the last situation that was not covered by a combination of export control and a general evaluation of the client's goals and expectations. I'm sure this will change as robots continue to drop in price and increase in flexibility and usability.
“You're not only investing in the initial purchase and relationship, you're investing in the promise of how you can help each other succeed in the future.”
—Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics
What should roboticists do if we see a robot being used in a way that we feel is unethical or irresponsible?
Péter Fankhauser, ANYbotics: If it’s irresponsible due to safety: intervene! If it’s unethical: speak up!
Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics: We want robots to be beneficial for humanity, which includes the notion of not causing harm. As an industry, we think robots will achieve long-term commercial viability only if people see robots as helpful, beneficial tools without worrying if they’re going to cause harm.
Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics: On a one off basis, they should speak to a combination of the user, the supplier or suppliers, the media, and, if safety is an immediate concern, regulatory or government agencies. If the situation in question risks becoming commonplace and is not being taken seriously, they should speak up more generally in appropriate forums—conferences, industry groups, standards bodies, and the like.
As more and more robots representing different capabilities become commercially available, these issues are likely to come up more frequently. The three companies we talked to certainly don’t represent every viewpoint, and we did reach out to other companies who declined to comment. But I would think (I would hope?) that everyone in the robotics community can agree that robots should be used in a way that makes people’s lives better. What “better” means in the context of art and research and even robots in the military may not always be easy to define, and inevitably there’ll be disagreement as to what is ethical and responsible, and what isn’t.
We’ll keep on talking about it, though, and do our best to help the robotics community to continue growing and evolving in a positive way. Let us know what you think in the comments. Continue reading