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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
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
Facebook’s New AI Teaches Itself to See With Less Human Help
Will Knight | Wired
“Peer inside an AI algorithm and you’ll find something constructed using data that was curated and labeled by an army of human workers. Now, Facebook has shown how some AI algorithms can learn to do useful work with far less human help. The company built an algorithm that learned to recognize objects in images with little help from labels.”
New AI ‘Deep Nostalgia’ Brings Old Photos, Including Very Old Ones, to Life
Kim Lyons | The Verge
“The Deep Nostalgia service, offered by online genealogy company MyHeritage, uses AI licensed from D-ID to create the effect that a still photo is moving. It’s kinda like the iOS Live Photos feature, which adds a few seconds of video to help smartphone photographers find the best shot. But Deep Nostalgia can take photos from any camera and bring them to ‘life.’i”
Could ‘Topological Materials’ Be a New Medium For Ultra-Fast Electronics?
Charles Q. Choi | IEEE Spectrum
“Potential future transistors that can exceed Moore’s law may rely on exotic materials called ‘topological matter’ in which electricity flows across surfaces only, with virtually no dissipation of energy. And now new findings suggest these special topological materials might one day find use in high-speed, low-power electronics and in quantum computers.”
A Chinese Province Could Ban Bitcoin Mining to Cut Down Energy Use
Dharna Noor | Gizmodo
“Since energy prices in Inner Mongolia are particularly low, many bitcoin miners have set up shop there specifically. The region is the third-largest mining site in China. Because the grid is heavily coal-powered, however, that’s led to skyrocketing emissions, putting it in conflict with President Xi Jinping’s promise last September to have China reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 at the latest and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”
Mesh Is Microsoft’s Vision for Sending Your Hologram Back to the Office
Sam Rutherford | Gizmodo
“With Mesh, Microsoft is hoping to create a virtual environment capable of sharing data, 3D models, avatars, and more—basically, the company wants to upgrade the traditional remote-working experience with the power of AR and VR. In the future, Microsoft is planning for something it’s calling ‘holoportation,’ which will allow Mesh devices to create photorealistic digital avatars of your body that can appear in virtual spaces anywhere in the world—assuming you’ve been invited, of course.”
Rocket Lab Could Be SpaceX’s Biggest Rival
Neel V. Patel | MIT Technology Review
“At 40 meters tall and able to carry 20 times the weight that Electron can, [the new] Neutron [rocket] is being touted by Rocket Lab as its entry into markets for large satellite and mega-constellation launches, as well as future robotics missions to the moon and Mars. Even more tantalizing, Rocket Lab says Neutron will be designed for human spaceflight as well.”
Can Alien Smog Lead Us to Extraterrestrial Civilizations?
Meghan Herbst | Wired
“Kopparapu is at the forefront of an emerging field in astronomy that is aiming to identify technosignatures, or technological markers we can search for in the cosmos. No longer conceptually limited to radio signals, astronomers are looking for ways we could identify planets or other spacefaring objects by looking for things like atmospheric gases, lasers, and even hypothetical sun-encircling structures called Dyson spheres.”
China Charges Ahead With a National Digital Currency
Nathaniel Popper and Cao Li | The New York Times
“China has charged ahead with a bold effort to remake the way that government-backed money works, rolling out its own digital currency with different qualities than cash or digital deposits. The country’s central bank, which began testing eCNY last year in four cities, recently expanded those trials to bigger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, according to government presentations.”
Image Credit: Leon Seibert / Unsplash Continue reading