Tag Archives: Most Advanced
Here, the PRO Robots Channel highlights five of the most advanced humanoid robots. Related Posts Video Friday: These Robots Are Ready for …Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome … Video Friday: Boston Dynamics’ …Video Friday is your weekly … 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
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
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):
HRI 2021 – March 8-11, 2021 – [Online Conference]
RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference]
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.
We're proud to announce Starship Delivery Robots have now completed 1,000,000 autonomous deliveries around the world. We were unsure where the one millionth delivery was going to take place, as there are around 15-20 service areas open globally, all with robots doing deliveries every minute. In the end it took place at Bowling Green, Ohio, to a student called Annika Keeton who is a freshman studying pre-health Biology at BGSU. Annika is now part of Starship’s history!
[ Starship ]
I adore this little DIY walking robot- with modular feet and little dials to let you easily adjust the walking parameters, it's an affordable kit that's way more nuanced than most.
It's called Bakiwi, and it costs €95. A squee cover made from feathers or fur is an extra €17. Here's a more serious look at what it can do:
[ Bakiwi ]
Savva Morozov, an AeroAstro junior, works on autonomous navigation for the MIT mini cheetah robot and reflects on the value of a crowded Infinite Corridor.
[ MIT ]
The world's most advanced haptic feedback gloves just got a huge upgrade! HaptX Gloves DK2 achieves a level of realism that other haptic devices can't match. Whether you’re training your workforce, designing a new product, or controlling robots from a distance, HaptX Gloves make it feel real.
They're the only gloves with true-contact haptics, with patented technology that displace your skin the same way a real object would. With 133 points of tactile feedback per hand, for full palm and fingertip coverage. HaptX Gloves DK2 feature the industry's most powerful force feedback, ~2X the strength of other force feedback gloves. They're also the most accurate motion tracking gloves, with 30 tracked degrees of freedom, sub-millimeter precision, no perceivable latency, and no occlusion.
[ HaptX ]
Yardroid is an outdoor robot “guided by computer vision and artificial intelligence” that seems like it can do almost everything.
These are a lot of autonomous capabilities, but so far, we've only seen the video. So, best not to get too excited until we know more about how it works.
[ Yardroid ]
Since as far as we know, Pepper can't spread COVID, it had a busy year.
I somehow missed seeing that chimpanzee magic show, but here it is:
[ Simon Pierro ] via [ SoftBank Robotics ]
In spite of the pandemic, Professor Hod Lipson’s Robotics Studio persevered and even thrived— learning to work on global teams, to develop protocols for sharing blueprints and code, and to test, evaluate, and refine their designs remotely. Equipped with a 3D printer and a kit of electronics prototyping equipment, our students engineered bipedal robots that were conceptualized, fabricated, programmed, and endlessly iterated around the globe in bedrooms, kitchens, backyards, and any other makeshift laboratory you can imagine.
[ Hod Lipson ]
We all know how much quadrupeds love ice!
[ Ghost Robotics ]
We took the opportunity of the last storm to put the Warthog in the snow of Université Laval. Enjoy!
[ Norlab ]
They've got a long way to go, but autonomous indoor firefighting drones seem like a fantastic idea.
[ CTU ]
Individual manipulators are limited by their vertical total load capacity. This places a fundamental limit on the weight of loads that a single manipulator can move. Cooperative manipulation with two arms has the potential to increase the net weight capacity of the overall system. However, it is critical that proper load sharing takes place between the two arms. In this work, we outline a method that utilizes mechanical intelligence in the form of a whiffletree.
And your word of the day is whiffletree, which is “a mechanism to distribute force evenly through linkages.”
[ DART Lab ]
Some highlights of robotic projects at FZI in 2020, all using ROS.
[ FZI ]
iRobot CEO Colin Angle threatens my job by sharing some cool robots.
[ iRobot ]
A fascinating new talk from Henry Evans on robotic caregivers.
[ HRL ]
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE semifinals selection submission for Team AVATRINA. The setting is a mock clinic, with the patient sitting on a wheelchair and nurse having completed an initial intake. Avatar enters the room controlled by operator (Doctor). A rolling tray table with medical supplies (stethoscope, pulse oximeter, digital thermometer, oxygen mask, oxygen tube) is by the patient’s side. Demonstrates head tracking, stereo vision, fine manipulation, bimanual manipulation, safe impedance control, and navigation.
[ Team AVATRINA ]
This five year old talk from Mikell Taylor, who wrote for us a while back and is now at Amazon Robotics, is entitled “Nobody Cares About Your Robot.” For better or worse, it really doesn't sound like it was written five years ago.
Robotics for the consumer market – Mikell Taylor from Scott Handsaker on Vimeo.
[ Mikell Taylor ]
Fall River Community Media presents this wonderful guy talking about his love of antique robot toys.
If you enjoy this kind of slow media, Fall River also has weekly Hot Dogs Cool Cats adoption profiles that are super relaxing to watch.
[ YouTube ] Continue reading