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In the fictional worlds of film and TV, artificial intelligence has been depicted as so advanced that it is indistinguishable from humans. But what if we’re actually getting closer to a world where AI is capable of thinking and feeling?
Tech company UneeQ is embarking on that journey with its “digital humans.” These avatars act as visual interfaces for customer service chatbots, virtual assistants, and other applications. UneeQ’s digital humans appear lifelike not only in terms of language and tone of voice, but also because of facial movements: raised eyebrows, a tilt of the head, a smile, even a wink. They transform a transaction into an interaction: creepy yet astonishing, human, but not quite.
What lies beneath UneeQ’s digital humans? Their 3D faces are modeled on actual human features. Speech recognition enables the avatar to understand what a person is saying, and natural language processing is used to craft a response. Before the avatar utters a word, specific emotions and facial expressions are encoded within the response.
UneeQ may be part of a larger trend towards humanizing computing. ObEN’s digital avatars serve as virtual identities for celebrities, influencers, gaming characters, and other entities in the media and entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Soul Machines is taking a more biological approach, with a “digital brain” that simulates aspects of the human brain to modulate the emotions “felt” and “expressed” by its “digital people.” Amelia is employing a similar methodology in building its “digital employees.” It emulates parts of the brain involved with memory to respond to queries and, with each interaction, learns to deliver more engaging and personalized experiences.
Shiwali Mohan, an AI systems scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, is skeptical of these digital beings. “They’re humanlike in their looks and the way they sound, but that in itself is not being human,” she says. “Being human is also how you think, how you approach problems, and how you break them down; and that takes a lot of algorithmic design. Designing for human-level intelligence is a different endeavor than designing graphics that behave like humans. If you think about the problems we’re trying to design these avatars for, we might not need something that looks like a human—it may not even be the right solution path.”
And even if these avatars appear near-human, they still evoke an uncanny valley feeling. “If something looks like a human, we have high expectations of them, but they might behave differently in ways that humans just instinctively know how other humans react. These differences give rise to the uncanny valley feeling,” says Mohan.
Yet the demand is there, with Amelia seeing high adoption of its digital employees across the financial, health care, and retail sectors. “We find that banks and insurance companies, which are so risk-averse, are leading the adoption of such disruptive technologies because they understand that the risk of non-adoption is much greater than the risk of early adoption,” says Chetan Dube, Amelia’s CEO. “Unless they innovate their business models and make them much more efficient digitally, they might be left behind.” Dube adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated adoption of digital employees in health care and retail as well.
Amelia, Soul Machines, and UneeQ are taking their digital beings a step further, enabling organizations to create avatars themselves using low-code or no-code platforms: Digital Employee Builder for Amelia, Creator for UneeQ, and Digital DNA Studio for Soul Machines. Unreal Engine, a game engine developed by Epic Games, is doing the same with MetaHuman Creator, a tool that allows anyone to create photorealistic digital humans. “The biggest motivation for Digital Employee Builder is to democratize AI,” Dube says.
Mohan is cautious about this approach. “AI has problems with bias creeping in from data sets and into the way it speaks. The AI community is still trying to figure out how to measure and counter that bias,” she says. “[Companies] have to have an AI expert on board that can recommend the right things to build for.”
Despite being wary of the technology, Mohan supports the purpose behind these virtual beings and is optimistic about where they’re headed. “We do need these tools that support humans in different kinds of things. I think the vision is the pro, and I’m behind that vision,” she says. “As we develop more sophisticated AI technology, we would then have to implement novel ways of interacting with that technology. Hopefully, all of that is designed to support humans in their goals.” Continue reading
Most humans are bipeds, but even the best of us are really only bipeds until things get tricky. While our legs may be our primary mobility system, there are lots of situations in which we leverage our arms as well, either passively to keep balance or actively when we put out a hand to steady ourselves on a nearby object. And despite how unstable bipedal robots tend to be, using anything besides legs for mobility has been a challenge in both software and hardware, a significant limitation in highly unstructured environments.
Roboticists from TUM in Germany (with support from the German Research Foundation) have recently given their humanoid robot LOLA some major upgrades to make this kind of multi-contact locomotion possible. While it’s still in the early stages, it’s already some of the most human-like bipedal locomotion we’ve seen.
It’s certainly possible for bipedal robots to walk over challenging terrain without using limbs for support, but I’m sure you can think of lots of times where using your arms to assist with your own bipedal mobility was a requirement. It’s not a requirement because your leg strength or coordination or sense of balance is bad, necessarily. It’s just that sometimes, you might find yourself walking across something that’s highly unstable or in a situation where the consequences of a stumble are exceptionally high. And it may not even matter how much sensing you do beforehand, and how careful you are with your footstep planning: there are limits to how much you can know about your environment beforehand, and that can result in having a really bad time of it. This is why using multi-contact locomotion, whether it’s planned in advance or not, is a useful skill for humans, and should be for robots, too.
As the video notes (and props for being explicit up front about it), this isn’t yet fully autonomous behavior, with foot positions and arm contact points set by hand in advance. But it’s not much of a stretch to see how everything could be done autonomously, since one of the really hard parts (using multiple contact points to dynamically balance a moving robot) is being done onboard and in real time.
Getting LOLA to be able to do this required a major overhaul in hardware as well as software. And Philipp Seiwald, who works with LOLA at TUM, was able to tell us more about it.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the changes to LOLA’s hardware that are required for multi-contact locomotion?
Philipp Seiwald: The original version of LOLA has been designed for fast biped walking. Although it had two arms, they were not meant to get into contact with the environment but rather to compensate for the dynamic effects of the feet during fast walking. Also, the torso had a relatively simple design that was fine for its original purpose; however, it was not conceived to withstand the high loads coming from the hands during multi-contact maneuvers. Thus, we redesigned the complete upper body of LOLA from scratch. Starting from the pelvis, the strength and stiffness of the torso have been increased. We used the finite element method to optimize critical parts to obtain maximum strength at minimum weight. Moreover, we added additional degrees of freedom to the arms to increase the hands' reachable workspace. The kinematic topology of the arms, i.e., the arrangement of joints and link lengths, has been obtained from an optimization that takes typical multi-contact scenarios into account.
Why is this an important problem for bipedal humanoid robots?
Maintaining balance during locomotion can be considered the primary goal of legged robots. Naturally, this task is more challenging for bipeds when compared to robots with four or even more legs. Although current high-end prototypes show impressive progress, humanoid robots still do not have the robustness and versatility they need for most real-world applications. With our research, we try to contribute to this field and help to push the limits further. Recently, we showed our latest work on walking over uneven terrain without multi-contact support. Although the robustness is already high, there still exist scenarios, such as walking on loose objects, where the robot's stabilization fails when using only foot contacts. The use of additional hand-environment support during this (comparatively) fast walking allows a further significant increase in robustness, i.e., the robot's capability to compensate disturbances, modeling errors, or inaccurate sensor input. Besides stabilization on uneven terrain, multi-contact locomotion also enables more complex motions, e.g., stepping over a tall obstacle or toe-only contacts, as shown in our latest multi-contact video.
How can LOLA decide whether a surface is suitable for multi-contact locomotion?
LOLA’s visual perception system is currently developed by our project partners from the Chair for Computer Aided Medical Procedures & Augmented Reality at the TUM. This system relies on a novel semantic Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) pipeline that can robustly extract the scene's semantic components (like floor, walls, and objects therein) by merging multiple observations from different viewpoints and by inferring therefrom the underlying scene graph. This provides a reliable estimate of which scene parts can be used to support the locomotion, based on the assumption that certain structural elements such as walls are fixed, while chairs, for example, are not.
Also, the team plans to develop a specific dataset with annotations further describing the attributes of the object (such as roughness of the surface or its softness) and that will be used to master multi-contact locomotion in even more complex scenes. As of today, the vision and navigation system is not finished yet; thus, in our latest video, we used pre-defined footholds and contact points for the hands. However, within our collaboration, we are working towards a fully integrated and autonomous system.
Is LOLA capable of both proactive and reactive multi-contact locomotion?
The software framework of LOLA has a hierarchical structure. On the highest level, the vision system generates an environment model and estimates the 6D-pose of the robot in the scene. The walking pattern generator then uses this information to plan a dynamically feasible future motion that will lead LOLA to a target position defined by the user. On a lower level, the stabilization module modifies this plan to compensate for model errors or any kind of disturbance and keep overall balance. So our approach currently focuses on proactive multi-contact locomotion. However, we also plan to work on a more reactive behavior such that additional hand support can also be triggered by an unexpected disturbance instead of being planned in advance.
What are some examples of unique capabilities that you are working towards with LOLA?
One of the main goals for the research with LOLA remains fast, autonomous, and robust locomotion on complex, uneven terrain. We aim to reach a walking speed similar to humans. Currently, LOLA can do multi-contact locomotion and cross uneven terrain at a speed of 1.8 km/h, which is comparably fast for a biped robot but still slow for a human. On flat ground, LOLA's high-end hardware allows it to walk at a relatively high maximum speed of 3.38 km/h.
Fully autonomous multi-contact locomotion for a life-sized humanoid robot is a tough task. As algorithms get more complex, computation time increases, which often results in offline motion planning methods. For LOLA, we restrict ourselves to gaited multi-contact locomotion, which means that we try to preserve the core characteristics of bipedal gait and use the arms only for assistance. This allows us to use simplified models of the robot which lead to very efficient algorithms running in real-time and fully onboard.
A long-term scientific goal with LOLA is to understand essential components and control policies of human walking. LOLA's leg kinematics is relatively similar to the human body. Together with scientists from kinesiology, we try to identify similarities and differences between observed human walking and LOLA’s “engineered” walking gait. We hope this research leads, on the one hand, to new ideas for the control of bipeds, and on the other hand, shows via experiments on bipeds if biomechanical models for the human gait are correctly understood. For a comparison of control policies on uneven terrain, LOLA must be able to walk at comparable speeds, which also motivates our research on fast and robust walking.
While it makes sense why the researchers are using LOLA’s arms primarily to assist with a conventional biped gait, looking ahead a bit it’s interesting to think about how robots that we typically consider to be bipeds could potentially leverage their limbs for mobility in decidedly non-human ways.
We’re used to legged robots being one particular morphology, I guess because associating them with either humans or dogs or whatever is just a comfortable way to do it, but there’s no particular reason why a robot with four limbs has to choose between being a quadruped and being a biped with arms, or some hybrid between the two, depending on what its task is. The research being done with LOLA could be a step in that direction, and maybe a hand on the wall in that direction, too. Continue reading
Thanks to neural implants, mind reading is no longer science fiction.
As I’m writing this sentence, a tiny chip with arrays of electrodes could sit on my brain, listening in on the crackling of my neurons firing as my hands dance across the keyboard. Sophisticated algorithms could then decode these electrical signals in real time. My brain’s inner language to plan and move my fingers could then be used to guide a robotic hand to do the same. Mind-to-machine control, voilà!
Yet as the name implies, even the most advanced neural implant has a problem: it’s an implant. For electrodes to reliably read the brain’s electrical chatter, they need to pierce through the its protective membrane and into brain tissue. Danger of infection aside, over time, damage accumulates around the electrodes, distorting their signals or even rendering them unusable.
Now, researchers from Caltech have paved a way to read the brain without any physical contact. Key to their device is a relatively new superstar in neuroscience: functional ultrasound, which uses sound waves to capture activity in the brain.
In monkeys, the technology could reliably predict their eye movement and hand gestures after just a single trial—without the usual lengthy training process needed to decode a movement. If adopted by humans, the new mind-reading tech represents a triple triumph: it requires minimal surgery and minimal learning, but yields maximal resolution for brain decoding. For people who are paralyzed, it could be a paradigm shift in how they control their prosthetics.
“We pushed the limits of ultrasound neuroimaging and were thrilled that it could predict movement,” said study author Dr. Sumner Norman.
To Dr. Krishna Shenoy at Stanford, who was not involved, the study will finally put ultrasound “on the map as a brain-machine interface technique. Adding to this toolkit is spectacular,” he said.
Breaking the Sound Barrier
Using sound to decode brain activity might seem preposterous, but ultrasound has had quite the run in medicine. You’ve probably heard of its most common use: taking photos of a fetus in pregnancy. The technique uses a transducer, which emits ultrasound pulses into the body and finds boundaries in tissue structure by analyzing the sound waves that bounce back.
Roughly a decade ago, neuroscientists realized they could adapt the tech for brain scanning. Rather than directly measuring the brain’s electrical chatter, it looks at a proxy—blood flow. When certain brain regions or circuits are active, the brain requires much more energy, which is provided by increased blood flow. In this way, functional ultrasound works similarly to functional MRI, but at a far higher resolution—roughly ten times, the authors said. Plus, people don’t have to lie very still in an expensive, claustrophobic magnet.
“A key question in this work was: If we have a technique like functional ultrasound that gives us high-resolution images of the brain’s blood flow dynamics in space and over time, is there enough information from that imaging to decode something useful about behavior?” said study author Dr. Mikhail Shapiro.
There’s plenty of reasons for doubt. As the new kid on the block, functional ultrasound has some known drawbacks. A major one: it gives a far less direct signal than electrodes. Previous studies show that, with multiple measurements, it can provide a rough picture of brain activity. But is that enough detail to guide a robotic prosthesis?
The new study put functional ultrasound to the ultimate test: could it reliably detect movement intention in monkeys? Because their brains are the most similar to ours, rhesus macaque monkeys are often the critical step before a brain-machine interface technology is adapted for humans.
The team first inserted small ultrasound transducers into the skulls of two rhesus monkeys. While it sounds intense, the surgery doesn’t penetrate the brain or its protective membrane; it’s only on the skull. Compared to electrodes, this means the brain itself isn’t physically harmed.
The device is linked to a computer, which controls the direction of sound waves and captures signals from the brain. For this study, the team aimed the pulses at the posterior parietal cortex, a part of the “motor” aspect of the brain, which plans movement. If right now you’re thinking about scrolling down this page, that’s the brain region already activated, before your fingers actually perform the movement.
Then came the tests. The first looked at eye movements—something pretty necessary before planning actual body movements without tripping all over the place. Here, the monkeys learned to focus on a central dot on a computer screen. A second dot, either left or right, then flashed. The monkeys’ task was to flicker their eyes to the most recent dot. It’s something that seems easy for us, but requires sophisticated brain computation.
The second task was more straightforward. Rather than just moving their eyes to the second target dot, the monkeys learned to grab and manipulate a joystick to move a cursor to that target.
Using brain imaging to decode the mind and control movement. Image Credit: S. Norman, Caltech
As the monkeys learned, so did the device. Ultrasound data capturing brain activity was fed into a sophisticated machine learning algorithm to guess the monkeys’ intentions. Here’s the kicker: once trained, using data from just a single trial, the algorithm was able to correctly predict the monkeys’ actual eye movement—whether left or right—with roughly 78 percent accuracy. The accuracy for correctly maneuvering the joystick was even higher, at nearly 90 percent.
That’s crazy accurate, and very much needed for a mind-controlled prosthetic. If you’re using a mind-controlled cursor or limb, the last thing you’d want is to have to imagine the movement multiple times before you actually click the web button, grab the door handle, or move your robotic leg.
Even more impressive is the resolution. Sound waves seem omnipresent, but with focused ultrasound, it’s possible to measure brain activity at a resolution of 100 microns—roughly 10 neurons in the brain.
A Cyborg Future?
Before you start worrying about scientists blasting your brain with sound waves to hack your mind, don’t worry. The new tech still requires skull surgery, meaning that a small chunk of skull needs to be removed. However, the brain itself is spared. This means that compared to electrodes, ultrasound could offer less damage and potentially a far longer mind reading than anything currently possible.
There are downsides. Focused ultrasound is far younger than any electrode-based neural implants, and can’t yet reliably decode 360-degree movement or fine finger movements. For now, the tech requires a wire to link the device to a computer, which is off-putting to many people and will prevent widespread adoption. Add to that the inherent downside of focused ultrasound, which lags behind electrical recordings by roughly two seconds.
All that aside, however, the tech is just tiptoeing into a future where minds and machines seamlessly connect. Ultrasound can penetrate the skull, though not yet at the resolution needed for imaging and decoding brain activity. The team is already working with human volunteers with traumatic brain injuries, who had to have a piece of their skulls removed, to see how well ultrasound works for reading their minds.
“What’s most exciting is that functional ultrasound is a young technique with huge potential. This is just our first step in bringing high performance, less invasive brain-machine interface to more people,” said Norman.
Image Credit: Free-Photos / Pixabay Continue reading