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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
Not long after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Czech writer Karel Čapek first introduced the term “robot” to describe artificial people in his 1921 sci-fi play R.U.R. While we have not yet created the highly intelligent humanoid robots imagined by Čapek, the robots most commonly used today are complex systems that work alongside humans, assisting with an ever-expanding set of tasks. 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
Learning from rewards seems like the simplest thing. I make coffee, I sip coffee, I’m happy. My brain registers “brewing coffee” as an action that leads to a reward.
That’s the guiding insight behind deep reinforcement learning, a family of algorithms that famously smashed most of Atari’s gaming catalog and triumphed over humans in strategy games like Go. Here, an AI “agent” explores the game, trying out different actions and registering ones that let it win.
Except it’s not that simple. “Brewing coffee” isn’t one action; it’s a series of actions spanning several minutes, where you’re only rewarded at the very end. By just tasting the final product, how do you learn to fine-tune grind coarseness, water to coffee ratio, brewing temperature, and a gazillion other factors that result in the reward—tasty, perk-me-up coffee?
That’s the problem with “sparse rewards,” which are ironically very abundant in our messy, complex world. We don’t immediately get feedback from our actions—no video-game-style dings or points for just grinding coffee beans—yet somehow we’re able to learn and perform an entire sequence of arm and hand movements while half-asleep.
This week, researchers from UberAI and OpenAI teamed up to bestow this talent on AI.
The trick is to encourage AI agents to “return” to a previous step, one that’s promising for a winning solution. The agent then keeps a record of that state, reloads it, and branches out again to intentionally explore other solutions that may have been left behind on the first go-around. Video gamers are likely familiar with this idea: live, die, reload a saved point, try something else, repeat for a perfect run-through.
The new family of algorithms, appropriately dubbed “Go-Explore,” smashed notoriously difficult Atari games like Montezuma’s Revenge that were previously unsolvable by its AI predecessors, while trouncing human performance along the way.
It’s not just games and digital fun. In a computer simulation of a robotic arm, the team found that installing Go-Explore as its “brain” allowed it to solve a challenging series of actions when given very sparse rewards. Because the overarching idea is so simple, the authors say, it can be adapted and expanded to other real-world problems, such as drug design or language learning.
How do you reward an algorithm?
Rewards are very hard to craft, the authors say. Take the problem of asking a robot to go to a fridge. A sparse reward will only give the robot “happy points” if it reaches its destination, which is similar to asking a baby, with no concept of space and danger, to crawl through a potential minefield of toys and other obstacles towards a fridge.
“In practice, reinforcement learning works very well, if you have very rich feedback, if you can tell, ‘hey, this move is good, that move is bad, this move is good, that move is bad,’” said study author Joost Huinzinga. However, in situations that offer very little feedback, “rewards can intentionally lead to a dead end. Randomly exploring the space just doesn’t cut it.”
The other extreme is providing denser rewards. In the same robot-to-fridge example, you could frequently reward the bot as it goes along its journey, essentially helping “map out” the exact recipe to success. But that’s troubling as well. Over-holding an AI’s hand could result in an extremely rigid robot that ignores new additions to its path—a pet, for example—leading to dangerous situations. It’s a deceptive AI solution that seems effective in a simple environment, but crashes in the real world.
What we need are AI agents that can tackle both problems, the team said.
The key is to return to the past.
For AI, motivation usually comes from “exploring new or unusual situations,” said Huizinga. It’s efficient, but comes with significant downsides. For one, the AI agent could prematurely stop going back to promising areas because it thinks it had already found a good solution. For another, it could simply forget a previous decision point because of the mechanics of how it probes the next step in a problem.
For a complex task, the end result is an AI that randomly stumbles around towards a solution while ignoring potentially better ones.
“Detaching from a place that was previously visited after collecting a reward doesn’t work in difficult games, because you might leave out important clues,” Huinzinga explained.
Go-Explore solves these problems with a simple principle: first return, then explore. In essence, the algorithm saves different approaches it previously tried and loads promising save points—once more likely to lead to victory—to explore further.
Digging a bit deeper, the AI stores screen caps from a game. It then analyzes saved points and groups images that look alike as a potential promising “save point” to return to. Rinse and repeat. The AI tries to maximize its final score in the game, and updates its save points when it achieves a new record score. Because Atari doesn’t usually allow people to revisit any random point, the team used an emulator, which is a kind of software that mimics the Atari system but with custom abilities such as saving and reloading at any time.
The trick worked like magic. When pitted against 55 Atari games in the OpenAI gym, now commonly used to benchmark reinforcement learning algorithms, Go-Explore knocked out state-of-the-art AI competitors over 85 percent of the time.
It also crushed games previously unbeatable by AI. Montezuma’s Revenge, for example, requires you to move Pedro, the blocky protagonist, through a labyrinth of underground temples while evading obstacles such as traps and enemies and gathering jewels. One bad jump could derail the path to the next level. It’s a perfect example of sparse rewards: you need a series of good actions to get to the reward—advancing onward.
Go-Explore didn’t just beat all levels of the game, a first for AI. It also scored higher than any previous record for reinforcement learning algorithms at lower levels while toppling the human world record.
Outside a gaming environment, Go-Explore was also able to boost the performance of a simulated robot arm. While it’s easy for humans to follow high-level guidance like “put the cup on this shelf in a cupboard,” robots often need explicit training—from grasping the cup to recognizing a cupboard, moving towards it while avoiding obstacles, and learning motions to not smash the cup when putting it down.
Here, similar to the real world, the digital robot arm was only rewarded when it placed the cup onto the correct shelf, out of four possible shelves. When pitted against another algorithm, Go-Explore quickly figured out the movements needed to place the cup, while its competitor struggled with even reliably picking the cup up.
By itself, the “first return, then explore” idea behind Go-Explore is already powerful. The team thinks it can do even better.
One idea is to change the mechanics of save points. Rather than reloading saved states through the emulator, it’s possible to train a neural network to do the same, without needing to relaunch a saved state. It’s a potential way to make the AI even smarter, the team said, because it can “learn” to overcome one obstacle once, instead of solving the same problem again and again. The downside? It’s much more computationally intensive.
Another idea is to combine Go-Explore with an alternative form of learning, called “imitation learning.” Here, an AI observes human behavior and mimics it through a series of actions. Combined with Go-Explore, said study author Adrien Ecoffet, this could make more robust robots capable of handling all the complexity and messiness in the real world.
To the team, the implications go far beyond Go-Explore. The concept of “first return, then explore” seems to be especially powerful, suggesting “it may be a fundamental feature of learning in general.” The team said, “Harnessing these insights…may be essential…to create generally intelligent agents.”
Image Credit: Adrien Ecoffet, Joost Huizinga, Joel Lehman, Kenneth O. Stanley, and Jeff Clune Continue reading
Researchers from Skoltech's Intelligent Space Robotics Lab have proposed a novel method for customer behavior analytics and demand distribution based on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) stocktaking. Their research was published in the proceedings of the International Conference on Control, Automation, Robotics and Vision (ICARCV). Continue reading