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#439105 This Robot Taught Itself to Walk in a ...

Recently, in a Berkeley lab, a robot called Cassie taught itself to walk, a little like a toddler might. Through trial and error, it learned to move in a simulated world. Then its handlers sent it strolling through a minefield of real-world tests to see how it’d fare.

And, as it turns out, it fared pretty damn well. With no further fine-tuning, the robot—which is basically just a pair of legs—was able to walk in all directions, squat down while walking, right itself when pushed off balance, and adjust to different kinds of surfaces.

It’s the first time a machine learning approach known as reinforcement learning has been so successfully applied in two-legged robots.

This likely isn’t the first robot video you’ve seen, nor the most polished.

For years, the internet has been enthralled by videos of robots doing far more than walking and regaining their balance. All that is table stakes these days. Boston Dynamics, the heavyweight champ of robot videos, regularly releases mind-blowing footage of robots doing parkour, back flips, and complex dance routines. At times, it can seem the world of iRobot is just around the corner.

This sense of awe is well-earned. Boston Dynamics is one of the world’s top makers of advanced robots.

But they still have to meticulously hand program and choreograph the movements of the robots in their videos. This is a powerful approach, and the Boston Dynamics team has done incredible things with it.

In real-world situations, however, robots need to be robust and resilient. They need to regularly deal with the unexpected, and no amount of choreography will do. Which is how, it’s hoped, machine learning can help.

Reinforcement learning has been most famously exploited by Alphabet’s DeepMind to train algorithms that thrash humans at some the most difficult games. Simplistically, it’s modeled on the way we learn. Touch the stove, get burned, don’t touch the damn thing again; say please, get a jelly bean, politely ask for another.

In Cassie’s case, the Berkeley team used reinforcement learning to train an algorithm to walk in a simulation. It’s not the first AI to learn to walk in this manner. But going from simulation to the real world doesn’t always translate.

Subtle differences between the two can (literally) trip up a fledgling robot as it tries out its sim skills for the first time.

To overcome this challenge, the researchers used two simulations instead of one. The first simulation, an open source training environment called MuJoCo, was where the algorithm drew upon a large library of possible movements and, through trial and error, learned to apply them. The second simulation, called Matlab SimMechanics, served as a low-stakes testing ground that more precisely matched real-world conditions.

Once the algorithm was good enough, it graduated to Cassie.

And amazingly, it didn’t need further polishing. Said another way, when it was born into the physical world—it knew how to walk just fine. In addition, it was also quite robust. The researchers write that two motors in Cassie’s knee malfunctioned during the experiment, but the robot was able to adjust and keep on trucking.

Other labs have been hard at work applying machine learning to robotics.

Last year Google used reinforcement learning to train a (simpler) four-legged robot. And OpenAI has used it with robotic arms. Boston Dynamics, too, will likely explore ways to augment their robots with machine learning. New approaches—like this one aimed at training multi-skilled robots or this one offering continuous learning beyond training—may also move the dial. It’s early yet, however, and there’s no telling when machine learning will exceed more traditional methods.

And in the meantime, Boston Dynamics bots are testing the commercial waters.

Still, robotics researchers, who were not part of the Berkeley team, think the approach is promising. Edward Johns, head of Imperial College London’s Robot Learning Lab, told MIT Technology Review, “This is one of the most successful examples I have seen.”

The Berkeley team hopes to build on that success by trying out “more dynamic and agile behaviors.” So, might a self-taught parkour-Cassie be headed our way? We’ll see.

Image Credit: University of California Berkeley Hybrid Robotics via YouTube Continue reading

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#439095 DARPA Prepares for the Subterranean ...

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final Event is scheduled to take place at the Louisville Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky, from September 21 to 23. We’ve followed SubT teams as they’ve explored their way through abandoned mines, unfinished nuclear reactors, and a variety of caves, and now everything comes together in one final course where the winner of the Systems Track will take home the $2 million first prize.

It’s a fitting reward for teams that have been solving some of the hardest problems in robotics, but winning isn’t going to be easy, and we’ll talk with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung about what we have to look forward to.

Since we haven’t talked about SubT in a little while (what with the unfortunate covid-related cancellation of the Systems Track Cave Circuit), here’s a quick refresher of where we are: the teams have made it through the Tunnel Circuit, the Urban Circuit, and a virtual version of the Cave Circuit, and some of them have been testing in caves of their own. The Final Event will include all of these environments, and the teams of robots will have 60 minutes to autonomously map the course, locating artifacts to score points. Since I’m not sure where on Earth there’s an underground location that combines tunnels and caves with urban structures, DARPA is going to have to get creative, and the location in which they’ve chosen to do that is Louisville, Kentucky.

The Louisville Mega Cavern is a former limestone mine, most of which is under the Louisville Zoo. It’s not all that deep, mostly less than 30 meters under the surface, but it’s enormous: with 370,000 square meters of rooms and passages, the cavern currently hosts (among other things) a business park, a zipline course, and mountain bike trails, because why not. While DARPA is keeping pretty quiet on the details, I’m guessing that they’ll be taking over a chunk of the cavern and filling it with features representing as many of the environmental challenges as they can.

To learn more about how the SubT Final Event is going to go, we spoke with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung. But first, we talked about Tim’s perspective on the success of the Urban Circuit, and how teams have been managing without an in-person Cave Circuit.

IEEE Spectrum: How did the SubT Urban Circuit go?

Tim Chung: On a couple fronts, Urban Circuit was really exciting. We were in this unfinished nuclear power plant—I’d be surprised if any of the competitors had prior experience in such a facility, or anything like it. I think that was illuminating both from an experiential point of view for the competitors, but also from a technology point of view, too.

One thing that I thought was really interesting was that we, DARPA, didn't need to make the venue more challenging. The real world is really that hard. There are places that were just really heinous for these robots to have to navigate through in order to look in every nook and cranny for artifacts. There were corners and doorways and small corridors and all these kind of things that really forced the teams to have to work hard, and the feedback was, why did DARPA have to make it so hard? But we didn’t, and in fact there were places that for the safety of the robots and personnel, we had to ensure the robots couldn’t go.

It sounds like some teams thought this course was on the more difficult side—do you think you tuned it to just the right amount of DARPA-hard?

Our calibration worked quite well. We were able to tease out and help refine and better understand what technologies are both useful and critical and also those technologies that might not necessarily get you the leap ahead capability. So as an example, the Urban Circuit really emphasized verticality, where you have to be able to sense, understand, and maneuver in three dimensions. Being able to capitalize on their robot technologies to address that verticality really stratified the teams, and showed how critical those capabilities are.

We saw teams that brought a lot of those capabilities do very well, and teams that brought baseline capabilities do what they could on the single floor that they were able to operate on. And so I think we got the Goldilocks solution for Urban Circuit that combined both difficulty and ambition.

Photos: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Two SubT Teams embedded networking equipment in balls that they could throw onto the course.

One of the things that I found interesting was that two teams independently came up with throwable network nodes. What was DARPA’s reaction to this? Is any solution a good solution, or was it more like the teams were trying to game the system?

You mean, do we want teams to game the rules in any way so as to get a competitive advantage? I don't think that's what the teams were doing. I think they were operating not only within the bounds of the rules, which permitted such a thing as throwable sensors where you could stand at the line and see how far you could chuck these things—not only was that acceptable by the rules, but anticipated. Behind the scenes, we tried to do exactly what these teams are doing and think through different approaches, so we explicitly didn't forbid such things in our rules because we thought it's important to have as wide an aperture as possible.

With these comms nodes specifically, I think they’re pretty clever. They were in some cases hacked together with a variety of different sports paraphernalia to see what would provide the best cushioning. You know, a lot of that happens in the field, and what it captured was that sometimes you just need to be up at two in the morning and thinking about things in a slightly different way, and that's when some nuggets of innovation can arise, and we see this all the time with operators in the field as well. They might only have duct tape or Styrofoam or whatever the case may be and that's when they come up with different ways to solve these problems. I think from DARPA’s perspective, and certainly from my perspective, wherever innovation can strike, we want to try to encourage and inspire those opportunities. I thought it was great, and it’s all part of the challenge.

Is there anything you can tell us about what your original plan had been for the Cave Circuit?

I can say that we’ve had the opportunity to go through a number of these caves scattered all throughout the country, and engage with caving communities—cavers clubs, speleologists that conduct research, and then of course the cave rescue community. The single biggest takeaway
is that every cave, and there are tens of thousands of them in the US alone, every cave has its own personality, and a lot of that personality is quite hidden from humans, because we can’t explore or access all of the cave. This led us to a number of different caves that were intriguing from a DARPA perspective but also inspirational for our Cave Circuit Virtual Competition.

How do you feel like the tuning was for the Virtual Cave Circuit?

The Virtual Competition, as you well know, was exciting in the sense that we could basically combine eight worlds into one competition, whereas the systems track competition really didn’t give us that opportunity. Even if we were able have held the Cave Circuit Systems Competition in person, it would have been at one site, and it would have been challenging to represent the level of diversity that we could with the Virtual Competition. So I think from that perspective, it’s clearly an advantage in terms of calibration—diversity gets you the ability to aggregate results to capture those that excel across all worlds as well as those that do well in one world or some worlds and not the others. I think the calibration was great in the sense that we were able to see the gamut of performance. Those that did well, did quite well, and those that have room to grow showed where those opportunities are for them as well.

We had to find ways to capture that diversity and that representativeness, and I think one of the fun ways we did that was with the different cave world tiles that we were able to combine in a variety of different ways. We also made use of a real world data set that we were able to take from a laser scan. Across the board, we had a really great chance to illustrate why virtual testing and simulation still plays such a dominant role in robotics technology development, and why I think it will continue to play an increasing role for developing these types of autonomy solutions.

Photo: Team CSIRO Data 61

How can systems track teams learn from their testing in whatever cave is local to them and effectively apply that to whatever cave environment is part of the final considering what the diversity of caves is?

I think that hits the nail on the head for what we as technologists are trying to discover—what are the transferable generalizable insights and how does that inform our technology development? As roboticists we want to optimize our systems to perform well at the tasks that they were designed to do, and oftentimes that means specialization because we get increased performance at the expense of being a generalist robot. I think in the case of SubT, we want to have our cake and eat it too—we want robots that perform well and reliably, but we want them to do so not just in one environment, which is how we tend to think about robot performance, but we want them to operate well in many environments, many of which have yet to be faced.

And I think that's kind of the nuance here, that we want robot systems to be generalists for the sake of being able to handle the unknown, namely the real world, but still achieve a high level of performance and perhaps they do that to their combined use of different technologies or advances in autonomy or perception approaches or novel mechanisms or mobility, but somehow they're still able, at least in aggregate, to achieve high performance.

We know these teams eagerly await any type of clue that DARPA can provide like about the SubT environments. From the environment previews for Tunnel, Urban, and even Cave, the teams were pivoting around and thinking a little bit differently. The takeaway, however, was that they didn't go to a clean sheet design—their systems were flexible enough that they could incorporate some of those specialist trends while still maintaining the notion of a generalist framework.

Looking ahead to the SubT Final, what can you tell us about the Louisville Mega Cavern?

As always, I’ll keep you in suspense until we get you there, but I can say that from the beginning of the SubT Challenge we had always envisioned teams of robots that are able to address not only the uncertainty of what's right in front of them, but also the uncertainty of what comes next. So I think the teams will be advantaged by thinking through subdomain awareness, or domain awareness if you want to generalize it, whether that means tuning multi-purpose robots, or deploying different robots, or employing your team of robots differently. Knowing which subdomain you are in is likely to be helpful, because then you can take advantage of those unique lessons learned through all those previous experiences then capitalize on that.

As far as specifics, I think the Mega Cavern offers many of the features important to what it means to be underground, while giving DARPA a pretty blank canvas to realize our vision of the SubT Challenge.

The SubT Final will be different from the earlier circuits in that there’s just one 60-minute run, rather than two. This is going to make things a lot more stressful for teams who have experienced bad robot days—why do it this way?

The preliminary round has two 30-minute runs, and those two runs are very similar to how we have done it during the circuits, of a single run per configuration per course. Teams will have the opportunity to show that their systems can face the obstacles in the final course, and it's the sum of those scores much like we did during the circuits, to help mitigate some of the concerns that you mentioned of having one robot somehow ruin their chances at a prize.

The prize round does give DARPA as well as the community a chance to focus on the top six teams from the preliminary round, and allows us to understand how they came to be at the top of the pack while emphasizing their technological contributions. The prize round will be one and done, but all of these teams we anticipate will be putting their best robot forward and will show the world why they deserve to win the SubT Challenge.

We’ve always thought that when called upon these robots need to operate in really challenging environments, and in the context of real world operations, there is no second chance. I don't think it's actually that much of a departure from our interests and insistence on bringing reliable technologies to the field, and those teams that might have something break here and there, that's all part of the challenge, of being resilient. Many teams struggled with robots that were debilitated on the course, and they still found ways to succeed and overcome that in the field, so maybe the rules emphasize that desire for showing up and working on game day which is consistent, I think, with how we've always envisioned it. This isn’t to say that these systems have to work perfectly, they just have to work in a way such that the team is resilient enough to tackle anything that they face.

It’s not too late for teams to enter for both the Virtual Track and the Systems Track to compete in the SubT Final, right?

Yes, that's absolutely right. Qualifications are still open, we are eager to welcome new teams to join in along with our existing competitors. I think any dark horse competitors coming into the Finals may be able to bring something that we haven't seen before, and that would be really exciting. I think it'll really make for an incredibly vibrant and illuminating final event.

The final event qualification deadline for the Systems Competition is April 21, and the qualification deadline for the Virtual Competition is June 29. More details here. Continue reading

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#439087 In an AI world we need to teach students ...

Robots are writing more of what we read on the internet. And artificial intelligence (AI) writing tools are becoming freely available for anyone, including students, to use. Continue reading

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#439077 How Scientists Grew Human Muscles in Pig ...

The little pigs bouncing around the lab looked exceedingly normal. Yet their adorable exterior hid a remarkable secret: each piglet carried two different sets of genes. For now, both sets came from their own species. But one day, one of those sets may be human.

The piglets are chimeras—creatures with intermingled sets of genes, as if multiple entities were seamlessly mashed together. Named after the Greek lion-goat-serpent monsters, chimeras may hold the key to an endless supply of human organs and tissues for transplant. The crux is growing these human parts in another animal—one close enough in size and function to our own.

Last week, a team from the University of Minnesota unveiled two mind-bending chimeras. One was joyous little piglets, each propelled by muscles grown from a different pig. Another was pig embryos, transplanted into surrogate pigs, that developed human muscles for more than 20 days.

The study, led by Drs. Mary and Daniel Garry at the University of Minnesota, had a therapeutic point: engineering a brilliant way to replace muscle loss, especially for the muscles around our skeletons that allow us to move and navigate the world. Trauma and injury, such as from firearm wounds or car crashes, can damage muscle tissue beyond the point of repair. Unfortunately, muscles are also stubborn in that donor tissue from cadavers doesn’t usually “take” at the injury site. For now, there are no effective treatments for severe muscle death, called volumetric muscle loss.

The new human-pig hybrids are designed to tackle this problem. Muscle wasting aside, the study also points to a clever “hack” that increases the amount of human tissue inside a growing pig embryo.

If further improved, the technology could “provide an unlimited supply of organs for transplantation,” said Dr. Mary Garry to Inverse. What’s more, because the human tissue can be sourced from patients themselves, the risk of rejection by the immune system is relatively low—even when grown inside a pig.

“The shortage of organs for heart transplantation, vascular grafting, and skeletal muscle is staggering,” said Garry. Human-animal chimeras could have a “seismic impact” that transforms organ transplantation and helps solve the organ shortage crisis.

That is, if society accepts the idea of a semi-humanoid pig.

Wait…But How?
The new study took a page from previous chimera recipes.

The main ingredients and steps go like this: first, you need an embryo that lacks the ability to develop a tissue or organ. This leaves an “empty slot” of sorts that you can fill with another set of genes—pig, human, or even monkey.

Second, you need to fine-tune the recipe so that the embryos “take” the new genes, incorporating them into their bodies as if they were their own. Third, the new genes activate to instruct the growing embryo to make the necessary tissue or organs without harming the overall animal. Finally, the foreign genes need to stay put, without cells migrating to another body part—say, the brain.

Not exactly straightforward, eh? The piglets are technological wonders that mix cutting-edge gene editing with cloning technologies.

The team went for two chimeras: one with two sets of pig genes, the other with a pig and human mix. Both started with a pig embryo that can’t make its own skeletal muscles (those are the muscles surrounding your bones). Using CRISPR, the gene-editing Swiss Army Knife, they snipped out three genes that are absolutely necessary for those muscles to develop. Like hitting a bullseye with three arrows simultaneously, it’s already a technological feat.

Here’s the really clever part: the muscles around your bones have a slightly different genetic makeup than the ones that line your blood vessels or the ones that pump your heart. While the resulting pig embryos had severe muscle deformities as they developed, their hearts beat as normal. This means the gene editing cut only impacted skeletal muscles.

Then came step two: replacing the missing genes. Using a microneedle, the team injected a fertilized and slightly developed pig egg—called a blastomere—into the embryo. If left on its natural course, a blastomere eventually develops into another embryo. This step “smashes” the two sets of genes together, with the newcomer filling the muscle void. The hybrid embryo was then placed into a surrogate, and roughly four months later, chimeric piglets were born.

Equipped with foreign DNA, the little guys nevertheless seemed totally normal, nosing around the lab and running everywhere without obvious clumsy stumbles. Under the microscope, their “xenomorph” muscles were indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill average muscle tissue—no signs of damage or inflammation, and as stretchy and tough as muscles usually are. What’s more, the foreign DNA seemed to have only developed into muscles, even though they were prevalent across the body. Extensive fishing experiments found no trace of the injected set of genes inside blood vessels or the brain.

A Better Human-Pig Hybrid
Confident in their recipe, the team next repeated the experiment with human cells, with a twist. Instead of using controversial human embryonic stem cells, which are obtained from aborted fetuses, they relied on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are skin cells that have been reverted back into a stem cell state.

Unlike previous attempts at making human chimeras, the team then scoured the genetic landscape of how pig and human embryos develop to find any genetic “brakes” that could derail the process. One gene, TP53, stood out, which was then promptly eliminated with CRISPR.

This approach provides a way for future studies to similarly increase the efficiency of interspecies chimeras, the team said.

The human-pig embryos were then carefully grown inside surrogate pigs for less than a month, and extensively analyzed. By day 20, the hybrids had already grown detectable human skeletal muscle. Similar to the pig-pig chimeras, the team didn’t detect any signs that the human genes had sprouted cells that would eventually become neurons or other non-muscle cells.

For now, human-animal chimeras are not allowed to grow to term, in part to stem the theoretical possibility of engineering humanoid hybrid animals (shudder). However, a sentient human-pig chimera is something that the team specifically addressed. Through multiple experiments, they found no trace of human genes in the embryos’ brain stem cells 20 and 27 days into development. Similarly, human donor genes were absent in cells that would become the hybrid embryos’ reproductive cells.

Despite bioethical quandaries and legal restrictions, human-animal chimeras have taken off, both as a source of insight into human brain development and a well of personalized organs and tissues for transplant. In 2019, Japan lifted its ban on developing human brain cells inside animal embryos, as well as the term limit—to global controversy. There’s also the question of animal welfare, given that hybrid clones will essentially become involuntary organ donors.

As the debates rage on, scientists are nevertheless pushing the limits of human-animal chimeras, while treading as carefully as possible.

“Our data…support the feasibility of the generation of these interspecies chimeras, which will serve as a model for translational research or, one day, as a source for xenotransplantation,” the team said.

Image Credit: Christopher Carson on Unsplash Continue reading

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#439073 There’s a ‘New’ Nirvana Song Out, ...

One of the primary capabilities separating human intelligence from artificial intelligence is our ability to be creative—to use nothing but the world around us, our experiences, and our brains to create art. At present, AI needs to be extensively trained on human-made works of art in order to produce new work, so we’ve still got a leg up. That said, neural networks like OpenAI’s GPT-3 and Russian designer Nikolay Ironov have been able to create content indistinguishable from human-made work.

Now there’s another example of AI artistry that’s hard to tell apart from the real thing, and it’s sure to excite 90s alternative rock fans the world over: a brand-new, never-heard-before Nirvana song. Or, more accurately, a song written by a neural network that was trained on Nirvana’s music.

The song is called “Drowned in the Sun,” and it does have a pretty Nirvana-esque ring to it. The neural network that wrote it is Magenta, which was launched by Google in 2016 with the goal of training machines to create art—or as the tool’s website puts it, exploring the role of machine learning as a tool in the creative process. Magenta was built using TensorFlow, Google’s massive open-source software library focused on deep learning applications.

The song was written as part of an album called Lost Tapes of the 27 Club, a project carried out by a Toronto-based organization called Over the Bridge focused on mental health in the music industry.

Here’s how a computer was able to write a song in the unique style of a deceased musician. Music, 20 to 30 tracks, was fed into Magenta’s neural network in the form of MIDI files. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and the format contains the details of a song written in code that represents musical parameters like pitch and tempo. Components of each song, like vocal melody or rhythm guitar, were fed in one at a time.

The neural network found patterns in these different components, and got enough of a handle on them that when given a few notes to start from, it could use those patterns to predict what would come next; in this case, chords and melodies that sound like they could’ve been written by Kurt Cobain.

To be clear, Magenta didn’t spit out a ready-to-go song complete with lyrics. The AI wrote the music, but a different neural network wrote the lyrics (using essentially the same process as Magenta), and the team then sifted through “pages and pages” of output to find lyrics that fit the melodies Magenta created.

Eric Hogan, a singer for a Nirvana tribute band who the Over the Bridge team hired to sing “Drowned in the Sun,” felt that the lyrics were spot-on. “The song is saying, ‘I’m a weirdo, but I like it,’” he said. “That is total Kurt Cobain right there. The sentiment is exactly what he would have said.”

Cobain isn’t the only musician the Lost Tapes project tried to emulate; songs in the styles of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse were also included. What all these artists have in common is that they died by suicide at the age of 27.

The project is meant to raise awareness around mental health, particularly among music industry professionals. It’s not hard to think of great artists of all persuasions—musicians, painters, writers, actors—whose lives are cut short due to severe depression and other mental health issues for which it can be hard to get help. These issues are sometimes romanticized, as suffering does tend to create art that’s meaningful, relatable, and timeless. But according to the Lost Tapes website, suicide attempts among music industry workers are more than double that of the general population.

How many more hit songs would these artists have written if they were still alive? We’ll never know, but hopefully Lost Tapes of the 27 Club and projects like it will raise awareness of mental health issues, both in the music industry and in general, and help people in need find the right resources. Because no matter how good computers eventually get at creating music, writing, or other art, as Lost Tapes’ website pointedly says, “Even AI will never replace the real thing.”

Image Credit: Edward Xu on Unsplash Continue reading

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