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Robots and machines are getting smarter with the advancement of artificial intelligence, but they still lack the ability to touch and feel their subtle and complex surroundings like human beings. Now, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have invented a smart foam that can give machines more than a human touch. 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
Photo: CIA Museum
CIA roboticists designed Catfish Charlie to take water samples undetected. Why they wanted a spy fish for such a purpose remains classified.
In 1961, Tom Rogers of the Leo Burnett Agency created Charlie the Tuna, a jive-talking cartoon mascot and spokesfish for the StarKist brand. The popular ad campaign ran for several decades, and its catchphrase “Sorry, Charlie” quickly hooked itself in the American lexicon.
When the CIA’s Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs started conducting some fish-focused research in the 1990s, Charlie must have seemed like the perfect code name. Except that the CIA’s Charlie was a catfish. And it was a robot.
More precisely, Charlie was an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) designed to surreptitiously collect water samples. Its handler controlled the fish via a line-of-sight radio handset. Not much has been revealed about the fish’s construction except that its body contained a pressure hull, ballast system, and communications system, while its tail housed the propulsion. At 61 centimeters long, Charlie wouldn’t set any biggest-fish records. (Some species of catfish can grow to 2 meters.) Whether Charlie reeled in any useful intel is unknown, as details of its missions are still classified.
For exploring watery environments, nothing beats a robot
The CIA was far from alone in its pursuit of UUVs nor was it the first agency to do so. In the United States, such research began in earnest in the 1950s, with the U.S. Navy’s funding of technology for deep-sea rescue and salvage operations. Other projects looked at sea drones for surveillance and scientific data collection.
Aaron Marburg, a principal electrical and computer engineer who works on UUVs at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, notes that the world’s oceans are largely off-limits to crewed vessels. “The nature of the oceans is that we can only go there with robots,” he told me in a recent Zoom call. To explore those uncharted regions, he said, “we are forced to solve the technical problems and make the robots work.”
Image: Thomas Wells/Applied Physics Laboratory/University of Washington
An oil painting commemorates SPURV, a series of underwater research robots built by the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab. In nearly 400 deployments, no SPURVs were lost.
One of the earliest UUVs happens to sit in the hall outside Marburg’s office: the Self-Propelled Underwater Research Vehicle, or SPURV, developed at the applied physics lab beginning in the late ’50s. SPURV’s original purpose was to gather data on the physical properties of the sea, in particular temperature and sound velocity. Unlike Charlie, with its fishy exterior, SPURV had a utilitarian torpedo shape that was more in line with its mission. Just over 3 meters long, it could dive to 3,600 meters, had a top speed of 2.5 m/s, and operated for 5.5 hours on a battery pack. Data was recorded to magnetic tape and later transferred to a photosensitive paper strip recorder or other computer-compatible media and then plotted using an IBM 1130.
Over time, SPURV’s instrumentation grew more capable, and the scope of the project expanded. In one study, for example, SPURV carried a fluorometer to measure the dispersion of dye in the water, to support wake studies. The project was so successful that additional SPURVs were developed, eventually completing nearly 400 missions by the time it ended in 1979.
Working on underwater robots, Marburg says, means balancing technical risks and mission objectives against constraints on funding and other resources. Support for purely speculative research in this area is rare. The goal, then, is to build UUVs that are simple, effective, and reliable. “No one wants to write a report to their funders saying, ‘Sorry, the batteries died, and we lost our million-dollar robot fish in a current,’ ” Marburg says.
A robot fish called SoFi
Since SPURV, there have been many other unmanned underwater vehicles, of various shapes and sizes and for various missions, developed in the United States and elsewhere. UUVs and their autonomous cousins, AUVs, are now routinely used for scientific research, education, and surveillance.
At least a few of these robots have been fish-inspired. In the mid-1990s, for instance, engineers at MIT worked on a RoboTuna, also nicknamed Charlie. Modeled loosely on a blue-fin tuna, it had a propulsion system that mimicked the tail fin of a real fish. This was a big departure from the screws or propellers used on UUVs like SPURV. But this Charlie never swam on its own; it was always tethered to a bank of instruments. The MIT group’s next effort, a RoboPike called Wanda, overcame this limitation and swam freely, but never learned to avoid running into the sides of its tank.
Fast-forward 25 years, and a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled SoFi, a decidedly more fishy robot designed to swim next to real fish without disturbing them. Controlled by a retrofitted Super Nintendo handset, SoFi could dive more than 15 meters, control its own buoyancy, and swim around for up to 40 minutes between battery charges. Noting that SoFi’s creators tested their robot fish in the gorgeous waters off Fiji, IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman noted, “Part of me is convinced that roboticists take on projects like these…because it’s a great way to justify a trip somewhere exotic.”
SoFi, Wanda, and both Charlies are all examples of biomimetics, a term coined in 1974 to describe the study of biological mechanisms, processes, structures, and substances. Biomimetics looks to nature to inspire design.
Sometimes, the resulting technology proves to be more efficient than its natural counterpart, as Richard James Clapham discovered while researching robotic fish for his Ph.D. at the University of Essex, in England. Under the supervision of robotics expert Huosheng Hu, Clapham studied the swimming motion of Cyprinus carpio, the common carp. He then developed four robots that incorporated carplike swimming, the most capable of which was iSplash-II. When tested under ideal conditions—that is, a tank 5 meters long, 2 meters wide, and 1.5 meters deep—iSpash-II obtained a maximum velocity of 11.6 body lengths per second (or about 3.7 m/s). That’s faster than a real carp, which averages a top velocity of 10 body lengths per second. But iSplash-II fell short of the peak performance of a fish darting quickly to avoid a predator.
Of course, swimming in a test pool or placid lake is one thing; surviving the rough and tumble of a breaking wave is another matter. The latter is something that roboticist Kathryn Daltorio has explored in depth.
Daltorio, an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University and codirector of the Center for Biologically Inspired Robotics Research there, has studied the movements of cockroaches, earthworms, and crabs for clues on how to build better robots. After watching a crab navigate from the sandy beach to shallow water without being thrown off course by a wave, she was inspired to create an amphibious robot with tapered, curved feet that could dig into the sand. This design allowed her robot to withstand forces up to 138 percent of its body weight.
Photo: Nicole Graf
This robotic crab created by Case Western’s Kathryn Daltorio imitates how real crabs grab the sand to avoid being toppled by waves.
In her designs, Daltorio is following architect Louis Sullivan’s famous maxim: Form follows function. She isn’t trying to imitate the aesthetics of nature—her robot bears only a passing resemblance to a crab—but rather the best functionality. She looks at how animals interact with their environments and steals evolution’s best ideas.
And yet, Daltorio admits, there is also a place for realistic-looking robotic fish, because they can capture the imagination and spark interest in robotics as well as nature. And unlike a hyperrealistic humanoid, a robotic fish is unlikely to fall into the creepiness of the uncanny valley.
In writing this column, I was delighted to come across plenty of recent examples of such robotic fish. Ryomei Engineering, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, has developed several: a robo-coelacanth, a robotic gold koi, and a robotic carp. The coelacanth was designed as an educational tool for aquariums, to present a lifelike specimen of a rarely seen fish that is often only known by its fossil record. Meanwhile, engineers at the University of Kitakyushu in Japan created Tai-robot-kun, a credible-looking sea bream. And a team at Evologics, based in Berlin, came up with the BOSS manta ray.
Whatever their official purpose, these nature-inspired robocreatures can inspire us in return. UUVs that open up new and wondrous vistas on the world’s oceans can extend humankind’s ability to explore. We create them, and they enhance us, and that strikes me as a very fair and worthy exchange.
This article appears in the March 2021 print issue as “Catfish, Robot, Swimmer, Spy.”
About the Author
Allison Marsh is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and codirector of the university’s Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology & Society. Continue reading