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#437957 Meet Assembloids, Mini Human Brains With ...

It’s not often that a twitching, snowman-shaped blob of 3D human tissue makes someone’s day.

But when Dr. Sergiu Pasca at Stanford University witnessed the tiny movement, he knew his lab had achieved something special. You see, the blob was evolved from three lab-grown chunks of human tissue: a mini-brain, mini-spinal cord, and mini-muscle. Each individual component, churned to eerie humanoid perfection inside bubbling incubators, is already a work of scientific genius. But Pasca took the extra step, marinating the three components together inside a soup of nutrients.

The result was a bizarre, Lego-like human tissue that replicates the basic circuits behind how we decide to move. Without external prompting, when churned together like ice cream, the three ingredients physically linked up into a fully functional circuit. The 3D mini-brain, through the information highway formed by the artificial spinal cord, was able to make the lab-grown muscle twitch on demand.

In other words, if you think isolated mini-brains—known formally as brain organoids—floating in a jar is creepy, upgrade your nightmares. The next big thing in probing the brain is assembloids—free-floating brain circuits—that now combine brain tissue with an external output.

The end goal isn’t to freak people out. Rather, it’s to recapitulate our nervous system, from input to output, inside the controlled environment of a Petri dish. An autonomous, living brain-spinal cord-muscle entity is an invaluable model for figuring out how our own brains direct the intricate muscle movements that allow us stay upright, walk, or type on a keyboard.

It’s the nexus toward more dexterous brain-machine interfaces, and a model to understand when brain-muscle connections fail—as in devastating conditions like Lou Gehrig’s disease or Parkinson’s, where people slowly lose muscle control due to the gradual death of neurons that control muscle function. Assembloids are a sort of “mini-me,” a workaround for testing potential treatments on a simple “replica” of a person rather than directly on a human.

From Organoids to Assembloids
The miniature snippet of the human nervous system has been a long time in the making.

It all started in 2014, when Dr. Madeleine Lancaster, then a post-doc at Stanford, grew a shockingly intricate 3D replica of human brain tissue inside a whirling incubator. Revolutionarily different than standard cell cultures, which grind up brain tissue to reconstruct as a flat network of cells, Lancaster’s 3D brain organoids were incredibly sophisticated in their recapitulation of the human brain during development. Subsequent studies further solidified their similarity to the developing brain of a fetus—not just in terms of neuron types, but also their connections and structure.

With the finding that these mini-brains sparked with electrical activity, bioethicists increasingly raised red flags that the blobs of human brain tissue—no larger than the size of a pea at most—could harbor the potential to develop a sense of awareness if further matured and with external input and output.

Despite these concerns, brain organoids became an instant hit. Because they’re made of human tissue—often taken from actual human patients and converted into stem-cell-like states—organoids harbor the same genetic makeup as their donors. This makes it possible to study perplexing conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, or other brain disorders in a dish. What’s more, because they’re grown in the lab, it’s possible to genetically edit the mini-brains to test potential genetic culprits in the search for a cure.

Yet mini-brains had an Achilles’ heel: not all were made the same. Rather, depending on the region of the brain that was reverse engineered, the cells had to be persuaded by different cocktails of chemical soups and maintained in isolation. It was a stark contrast to our own developing brains, where regions are connected through highways of neural networks and work in tandem.

Pasca faced the problem head-on. Betting on the brain’s self-assembling capacity, his team hypothesized that it might be possible to grow different mini-brains, each reflecting a different brain region, and have them fuse together into a synchronized band of neuron circuits to process information. Last year, his idea paid off.

In one mind-blowing study, his team grew two separate portions of the brain into blobs, one representing the cortex, the other a deeper part of the brain known to control reward and movement, called the striatum. Shockingly, when put together, the two blobs of human brain tissue fused into a functional couple, automatically establishing neural highways that resulted in one of the most sophisticated recapitulations of a human brain. Pasca crowned this tissue engineering crème-de-la-crème “assembloids,” a portmanteau between “assemble” and “organoids.”

“We have demonstrated that regionalized brain spheroids can be put together to form fused structures called brain assembloids,” said Pasca at the time.” [They] can then be used to investigate developmental processes that were previously inaccessible.”

And if that’s possible for wiring up a lab-grown brain, why wouldn’t it work for larger neural circuits?

Assembloids, Assemble
The new study is the fruition of that idea.

The team started with human skin cells, scraped off of eight healthy people, and transformed them into a stem-cell-like state, called iPSCs. These cells have long been touted as the breakthrough for personalized medical treatment, before each reflects the genetic makeup of its original host.

Using two separate cocktails, the team then generated mini-brains and mini-spinal cords using these iPSCs. The two components were placed together “in close proximity” for three days inside a lab incubator, gently floating around each other in an intricate dance. To the team’s surprise, under the microscope using tracers that glow in the dark, they saw highways of branches extending from one organoid to the other like arms in a tight embrace. When stimulated with electricity, the links fired up, suggesting that the connections weren’t just for show—they’re capable of transmitting information.

“We made the parts,” said Pasca, “but they knew how to put themselves together.”

Then came the ménage à trois. Once the mini-brain and spinal cord formed their double-decker ice cream scoop, the team overlaid them onto a layer of muscle cells—cultured separately into a human-like muscular structure. The end result was a somewhat bizarre and silly-looking snowman, made of three oddly-shaped spherical balls.

Yet against all odds, the brain-spinal cord assembly reached out to the lab-grown muscle. Using a variety of tools, including measuring muscle contraction, the team found that this utterly Frankenstein-like snowman was able to make the muscle component contract—in a way similar to how our muscles twitch when needed.

“Skeletal muscle doesn’t usually contract on its own,” said Pasca. “Seeing that first twitch in a lab dish immediately after cortical stimulation is something that’s not soon forgotten.”

When tested for longevity, the contraption lasted for up to 10 weeks without any sort of breakdown. Far from a one-shot wonder, the isolated circuit worked even better the longer each component was connected.

Pasca isn’t the first to give mini-brains an output channel. Last year, the queen of brain organoids, Lancaster, chopped up mature mini-brains into slices, which were then linked to muscle tissue through a cultured spinal cord. Assembloids are a step up, showing that it’s possible to automatically sew multiple nerve-linked structures together, such as brain and muscle, sans slicing.

The question is what happens when these assembloids become more sophisticated, edging ever closer to the inherent wiring that powers our movements. Pasca’s study targets outputs, but what about inputs? Can we wire input channels, such as retinal cells, to mini-brains that have a rudimentary visual cortex to process those examples? Learning, after all, depends on examples of our world, which are processed inside computational circuits and delivered as outputs—potentially, muscle contractions.

To be clear, few would argue that today’s mini-brains are capable of any sort of consciousness or awareness. But as mini-brains get increasingly more sophisticated, at what point can we consider them a sort of AI, capable of computation or even something that mimics thought? We don’t yet have an answer—but the debates are on.

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#437935 Start the New Year Right: By Watching ...

I don’t need to tell you that 2020 was a tough year. There was almost nothing good about it, and we saw it off with a “good riddance” and hopes for a better 2021. But robotics company Boston Dynamics took a different approach to closing out the year: when all else fails, why not dance?

The company released a video last week that I dare you to watch without laughing—or at the very least, cracking a pretty big smile. Because, well, dancing robots are funny. And it’s not just one dancing robot, it’s four of them: two humanoid Atlas bots, one four-legged Spot, and one Handle, a bot-on-wheels built for materials handling.

The robots’ killer moves look almost too smooth and coordinated to be real, leading many to speculate that the video was computer-generated. But if you can trust Elon Musk, there’s no CGI here.

This is not CGI https://t.co/VOivE97vPR

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 29, 2020

Boston Dynamics went through a lot of changes in the last ten years; it was acquired by Google in 2013, then sold to Japanese conglomerate SoftBank in 2017 before being acquired again by Hyundai just a few weeks ago for $1.1 billion. But this isn’t the first time they teach a robot to dance and make a video for all the world to enjoy; Spot tore up the floor to “Uptown Funk” back in 2018.

Four-legged Spot went commercial in June, with a hefty price tag of $74,500, and was put to some innovative pandemic-related uses, including remotely measuring patients’ vital signs and reminding people to social distance.

Hyundai plans to implement its newly-acquired robotics prowess for everything from service and logistics robots to autonomous driving and smart factories.

They’ll have their work cut out for them. Besides being hilarious, kind of heartwarming, and kind of creepy all at once, the robots’ new routine is pretty impressive from an engineering standpoint. Compare it to a 2016 video of Atlas trying to pick up a box (I know it’s a machine with no feelings, but it’s hard not to feel a little bit bad for it, isn’t it?), and it’s clear Boston Dynamics’ technology has made huge strides. It wouldn’t be surprising if, in two years’ time, we see a video of a flash mob of robots whose routine includes partner dancing and back flips (which, admittedly, Atlas can already do).

In the meantime, though, this one is pretty entertaining—and not a bad note on which to start the new year.

Image Credit: Boston Dynamics Continue reading

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#437924 How a Software Map of the Entire Planet ...

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“3D map data is the scaffolding of the 21st century.”

–Edward Miller, Founder, Scape Technologies, UK

Covered in cameras, sensors, and a distinctly spaceship looking laser system, Google’s autonomous vehicles were easy to spot when they first hit public roads in 2015. The key hardware ingredient is a spinning laser fixed to the roof, called lidar, which provides the car with a pair of eyes to see the world. Lidar works by sending out beams of light and measuring the time it takes to bounce off objects back to the source. By timing the light’s journey, these depth-sensing systems construct fully 3D maps of their surroundings.

3D maps like these are essentially software copies of the real world. They will be crucial to the development of a wide range of emerging technologies including autonomous driving, drone delivery, robotics, and a fast-approaching future filled with augmented reality.

Like other rapidly improving technologies, lidar is moving quickly through its development cycle. What was an expensive technology on the roof of a well-funded research project is now becoming cheaper, more capable, and readily available to consumers. At some point, lidar will come standard on most mobile devices and is now available to early-adopting owners of the iPhone 12 Pro.

Consumer lidar represents the inevitable shift from wealthy tech companies generating our world’s map data, to a more scalable crowd-sourced approach. To develop the repository for their Street View Maps product, Google reportedly spent $1-2 billion sending cars across continents photographing every street. Compare that to a live-mapping service like Waze, which uses crowd-sourced user data from its millions of users to generate accurate and real-time traffic conditions. Though these maps serve different functions, one is a static, expensive, unchanging map of the world while the other is dynamic, real-time, and constructed by users themselves.

Soon millions of people may be scanning everything from bedrooms to neighborhoods, resulting in 3D maps of significant quality. An online search for lidar room scans demonstrates just how richly textured these three-dimensional maps are compared to anything we’ve had before. With lidar and other depth-sensing systems, we now have the tools to create exact software copies of everywhere and everything on earth.

At some point, likely aided by crowdsourcing initiatives, these maps will become living breathing, real-time representations of the world. Some refer to this idea as a “digital twin” of the planet. In a feature cover story, Kevin Kelly, the cofounder of Wired magazine, calls this concept the “mirrorworld,” a one-to-one software map of everything.

So why is that such a big deal? Take augmented reality as an example.

Of all the emerging industries dependent on such a map, none are more invested in seeing this concept emerge than those within the AR landscape. Apple, for example, is not-so-secretly developing a pair of AR glasses, which they hope will deliver a mainstream turning point for the technology.

For Apple’s AR devices to work as anticipated, they will require virtual maps of the world, a concept AR insiders call the “AR cloud,” which is synonymous with the “mirrorworld” concept. These maps will be two things. First, they will be a tool that creators use to place AR content in very specific locations; like a world canvas to paint on. Second, they will help AR devices both locate and understand the world around them so they can render content in a believable way.

Imagine walking down a street wanting to check the trading hours of a local business. Instead of pulling out your phone to do a tedious search online, you conduct the equivalent of a visual google search simply by gazing at the store. Albeit a trivial example, the AR cloud represents an entirely non-trivial new way of managing how we organize the world’s information. Access to knowledge can be shifted away from the faraway monitors in our pocket, to its relevant real-world location.

Ultimately this describes a blurring of physical and digital infrastructure. Our public and private spaces will thus be comprised equally of both.

No example demonstrates this idea better than Pokémon Go. The game is straightforward enough; users capture virtual characters scattered around the real world. Today, the game relies on traditional GPS technology to place its characters, but GPS is accurate only to within a few meters of a location. For a car navigating on a highway or locating Pikachus in the world, that level of precision is sufficient. For drone deliveries, driverless cars, or placing a Pikachu in a specific location, say on a tree branch in a park, GPS isn’t accurate enough. As astonishing as it may seem, many experimental AR cloud concepts, even entirely mapped cities, are location specific down to the centimeter.

Niantic, the $4 billion publisher behind Pokémon Go, is aggressively working on developing a crowd-sourced approach to building better AR Cloud maps by encouraging their users to scan the world for them. Their recent acquisition of 6D.ai, a mapping software company developed by the University of Oxford’s Victor Prisacariu through his work at Oxford’s Active Vision Lab, indicates Niantic’s ambition to compete with the tech giants in this space.

With 6D.ai’s technology, Niantic is developing the in-house ability to generate their own 3D maps while gaining better semantic understanding of the world. By going beyond just knowing there’s a temporary collection of orange cones in a certain location, for example, the game may one day understand the meaning behind this; that a temporary construction zone means no Pokémon should spawn here to avoid drawing players to this location.

Niantic is not the only company working on this. Many of the big tech firms you would expect have entire teams focused on map data. Facebook, for example, recently acquired the UK-based Scape technologies, a computer vision startup mapping entire cities with centimeter precision.

As our digital maps of the world improve, expect a relentless and justified discussion of privacy concerns as well. How will society react to the idea of a real-time 3D map of their bedroom living on a Facebook or Amazon server? Those horrified by the use of facial recognition AI being used in public spaces are unlikely to find comfort in the idea of a machine-readable world subject to infinite monitoring.

The ability to build high-precision maps of the world could reshape the way we engage with our planet and promises to be one of the biggest technology developments of the next decade. While these maps may stay hidden as behind-the-scenes infrastructure powering much flashier technologies that capture the world’s attention, they will soon prop up large portions of our technological future.

Keep that in mind when a car with no driver is sharing your road.

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#437912 “Boston Dynamics Will Continue to ...

Last week’s announcement that Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics from SoftBank left us with a lot of questions. We attempted to answer many of those questions ourselves, which is typically bad practice, but sometimes it’s the only option when news like that breaks.

Fortunately, yesterday we were able to speak with Michael Patrick Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, who candidly answered our questions about Boston Dynamics’ new relationship with Hyundai and what the near future has in store.

IEEE Spectrum: Boston Dynamics is worth 1.1 billion dollars! Can you put that valuation into context for us?

Michael Patrick Perry: Since 2018, we’ve shifted to becoming a commercial organization. And that’s included a number of things, like taking our existing technology and bringing it to market for the first time. We’ve gone from zero to 400 Spot robots deployed, building out an ecosystem of software developers, sensor providers, and integrators. With that scale of deployment and looking at the pipeline of opportunities that we have lined up over the next year, I think people have started to believe that this isn’t just a one-off novelty—that there’s actual value that Spot is able to create. Secondly, with some of our efforts in the logistics market, we’re getting really strong signals both with our Pick product and also with some early discussions around Handle’s deployment in warehouses, which we think are going to be transformational for that industry.

So, the thing that’s really exciting is that two years ago, we were talking about this vision, and people said, “Wow, that sounds really cool, let’s see how you do.” And now we have the validation from the market saying both that this is actually useful, and that we’re able to execute. And that’s where I think we’re starting to see belief in the long-term viability of Boston Dynamics, not just as a cutting-edge research shop, but also as a business.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics says it has deployed 400 Spot robots, building out an “ecosystem of software developers, sensor providers, and integrators.”

How would you describe Hyundai’s overall vision for the future of robotics, and how do they want Boston Dynamics to fit into that vision?

In the immediate term, Hyundai’s focus is to continue our existing trajectories, with Spot, Handle, and Atlas. They believe in the work that we’ve done so far, and we think that combining with a partner that understands many of the industries in which we’re targeting, whether its manufacturing, construction, or logistics, can help us improve our products. And obviously as we start thinking about producing these robots at scale, Hyundai’s expertise in manufacturing is going to be really helpful for us.

Looking down the line, both Boston Dynamics and Hyundai believe in the value of smart mobility, and they’ve made a number of plays in that space. Whether it’s urban air mobility or autonomous driving, they’ve been really thinking about connecting the digital and the physical world through moving systems, whether that’s a car, a vertical takeoff and landing multi-rotor vehicle, or a robot. We are well positioned to take on robotics side of that while also connecting to some of these other autonomous services.

Can you tell us anything about the kind of robotics that the Hyundai Motor Group has going on right now?

So they’re working on a lot of really interesting stuff—exactly how that connects, you know, it’s early days, and we don’t have anything explicitly to share. But they’ve got a smart and talented robotics team that’s working in a variety of directions that shares overlap with us. Obviously, a lot of things related to autonomous driving shares some DNA with the work that we’re doing in autonomy for Spot and Handle, so it’s pretty exciting to see.

What are you most excited about here? How do you think this deal will benefit Boston Dynamics?

I think there are a number of things. One is that they have an expertise in hardware, in a way that’s unique. They understand and appreciate the complexity of creating large complex robotic systems. So I think there’s some shared understanding of what it takes to create a great hardware product. And then also they have the resources to help us actually build those products with them together—they have manufacturing resources and things like that.

“Robotics isn’t a short term game. We’ve scaled pretty rapidly but if you start looking at what the full potential of a company like Boston Dynamics is, it’s going to take years to realize, and I think Hyundai is committed to that long-term vision”

Another thing that’s exciting is that Hyundai has some pretty visionary bets for autonomous driving and unmanned aerial systems, and all of that fits very neatly into the connected vision of robotics that we were talking about before. Robotics isn’t a short term game. We’ve scaled pretty rapidly for a robotics company in terms of the scale of robots we’ve able to deploy in the field, but if you start looking at what the full potential of a company like Boston Dynamics is, it’s going to take years to realize, and I think Hyundai is committed to that long-term vision.

And when you’ve been talking with Hyundai, what are they most excited about?

I think they’re really excited about our existing products and our technology. Looking at some of the things that Spot, Pick, and Handle are able to do now, there are applications that many of Hyundai’s customers could benefit from in terms of mobility, remote sensing, and material handling. Looking down the line, Hyundai is also very interested in smart city technology, and mobile robotics is going to be a core piece of that.

We tend to focus on Spot and Handle and Atlas in terms of platform capabilities, but can you talk a bit about some of the component-level technology that’s unique to Boston Dynamics, and that could be of interest to Hyundai?

Creating very power-dense actuator design is something that we’ve been successful at for several years, starting back with BigDog and LS3. And Handle has some hydraulic actuators and valves that are pretty unique in terms of their design and capability. Fundamentally, we have a systems engineering approach that brings together both hardware and software internally. You’ll often see different groups that specialize in something, like great mechanical or electrical engineering groups, or great controls teams, but what I think makes Boston Dynamics so special is that we’re able to put everything on the table at once to create a system that’s incredibly capable. And that’s why with something like Spot, we’re able to produce it at scale, while also making it flexible enough for all the different applications that the robot is being used for right now.

It’s hard to talk specifics right now, but there are obviously other disciplines within mechanical engineering or electrical engineering or controls for robots or autonomous systems where some of our technology could be applied.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics is in the process of commercializing Handle, iterating on its design and planning to get box-moving robots on-site with customers in the next year or two.

While Boston Dynamics was part of Google, and then SoftBank, it seems like there’s been an effort to maintain independence. Is it going to be different with Hyundai? Will there be more direct integration or collaboration?

Obviously it’s early days, but right now, we have support to continue executing against all the plans that we have. That includes all the commercialization of Spot, as well as things for Atlas, which is really going to be pushing the capability of our team to expand into new areas. That’s going to be our immediate focus, and we don’t see anything that’s going to pull us away from that core focus in the near term.

As it stands right now, Boston Dynamics will continue to be Boston Dynamics under this new ownership.

How much of what you do at Boston Dynamics right now would you characterize as fundamental robotics research, and how much is commercialization? And how do you see that changing over the next couple of years?

We have been expanding our commercial team, but we certainly keep a lot of the core capabilities of fundamental robotics research. Some of it is very visible, like the new behavior development for Atlas where we’re pushing the limits of perception and path planning. But a lot of the stuff that we’re working on is a little bit under the hood, things that are less obvious—terrain handling, intervention handling, how to make safe faults, for example. Initially when Spot started slipping on things, it would flail around trying to get back up. We’ve had to figure out the right balance between the robot struggling to stand, and when it should decide to just lock its limbs and fall over because it’s safer to do that.

I’d say the other big thrust for us is manipulation. Our gripper for Spot is coming out early next year, and that’s going to unlock a new set of capabilities for us. We have years and years of locomotion experience, but the ability to manipulate is a space that’s still relatively new to us. So we’ve been ramping up a lot of work over the last several years trying to get to an early but still valuable iteration of the technology, and we’ll continue pushing on that as we start learning what’s most useful to our customers.

“I’d say the other big thrust for us is manipulation. Our gripper for Spot is coming out early next year, and that’s going to unlock a new set of capabilities for us. We have years and years of locomotion experience, but the ability to manipulate is a space that’s still relatively new to us”

Looking back, Spot as a commercial robot has a history that goes back to robots like LS3 and BigDog, which were very ambitious projects funded by agencies like DARPA without much in the way of commercial expectations. Do you think these very early stage, very expensive, very technical projects are still things that Boston Dynamics can take on?

Yes—I would point to a lot of the things we do with Atlas as an example of that. While we don’t have immediate plans to commercialize Atlas, we can point to technologies that come out of Atlas that have enabled some of our commercial efforts over time. There’s not necessarily a clear roadmap of how every piece of Atlas research is going to feed over into a commercial product; it’s more like, this is a really hard fundamental robotics challenge, so let’s tackle it and learn things that we can then benefit from across the company.

And fundamentally, our team loves doing cool stuff with robots, and you’ll continue seeing that in the months to come.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

Spot’s arm with gripper is coming out early next year, and Boston Dynamics says that’s going to “unlock a new set of capabilities for us.”

What would it take to commercialize Atlas? And are you getting closer with Handle?

We’re in the process of commercializing Handle. We’re at a relatively early stage, but we have a plan to get the first versions for box moving on-site with customers in the next year or two. Last year, we did some on-site deployments as proof-of-concept trials, and using the feedback from that, we did a new design pass on the robot, and we’re looking at increasing our manufacturing capability. That’s all in progress.

For Atlas, it’s like the Formula 1 of robots—you’re not going to take a Formula 1 car and try to make it less capable so that you can drive it on the road. We’re still trying to see what are some applications that would necessitate an energy and computationally intensive humanoid robot as opposed to something that’s more inherently stable. Trying to understand that application space is something that we’re interested in, and then down the line, we could look at creating new morphologies to help address specific applications. In many ways, Handle is the first version of that, where we said, “Atlas is good at moving boxes but it’s very complicated and expensive, so let’s create a simpler and smaller design that can achieve some of the same things.”

The press release mentioned a mobile robot for warehouses that will be introduced next year—is that Handle?

Yes, that’s the work that we’re doing on Handle.

As we start thinking about a whole robotic solution for the warehouse, we have to look beyond a high power, low footprint, dynamic platform like Handle and also consider things that are a little less exciting on video. We need a vision system that can look at a messy stack of boxes and figure out how to pick them up, we need an interface between a robot and an order building system—things where people might question why Boston Dynamics is focusing on them because it doesn’t fit in with our crazy backflipping robots, but it’s really incumbent on us to create that full end-to-end solution.

Are you confident that under Hyundai’s ownership, Boston Dynamics will be able to continue taking the risks required to remain on the cutting edge of robotics?

I think we will continue to push the envelope of what robots are capable of, and I think in the near term, you’ll be able to see that realized in our products and the research that we’re pushing forward with. 2021 is going to be a great year for us. Continue reading

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#437905 New Deep Learning Method Helps Robots ...

One of the biggest things standing in the way of the robot revolution is their inability to adapt. That may be about to change though, thanks to a new approach that blends pre-learned skills on the fly to tackle new challenges.

Put a robot in a tightly-controlled environment and it can quickly surpass human performance at complex tasks, from building cars to playing table tennis. But throw these machines a curve ball and they’re in trouble—just check out this compilation of some of the world’s most advanced robots coming unstuck in the face of notoriously challenging obstacles like sand, steps, and doorways.

The reason robots tend to be so fragile is that the algorithms that control them are often manually designed. If they encounter a situation the designer didn’t think of, which is almost inevitable in the chaotic real world, then they simply don’t have the tools to react.

Rapid advances in AI have provided a potential workaround by letting robots learn how to carry out tasks instead of relying on hand-coded instructions. A particularly promising approach is deep reinforcement learning, where the robot interacts with its environment through a process of trial-and-error and is rewarded for carrying out the correct actions. Over many repetitions it can use this feedback to learn how to accomplish the task at hand.

But the approach requires huge amounts of data to solve even simple tasks. And most of the things we would want a robot to do are actually comprised of many smaller tasks—for instance, delivering a parcel involves learning how to pick an object up, how to walk, how to navigate, and how to pass an object to someone else, among other things.

Training all these sub-tasks simultaneously is hugely complex and far beyond the capabilities of most current AI systems, so many experiments so far have focused on narrow skills. Some have tried to train AI on multiple skills separately and then use an overarching system to flip between these expert sub-systems, but these approaches still can’t adapt to completely new challenges.

Building off this research, though, scientists have now created a new AI system that can blend together expert sub-systems specialized for a specific task. In a paper in Science Robotics, they explain how this allows a four-legged robot to improvise new skills and adapt to unfamiliar challenges in real time.

The technique, dubbed multi-expert learning architecture (MELA), relies on a two-stage training approach. First the researchers used a computer simulation to train two neural networks to carry out two separate tasks: trotting and recovering from a fall.

They then used the models these two networks learned as seeds for eight other neural networks specialized for more specific motor skills, like rolling over or turning left or right. The eight “expert networks” were trained simultaneously along with a “gating network,” which learns how to combine these experts to solve challenges.

Because the gating network synthesizes the expert networks rather than switching them on sequentially, MELA is able to come up with blends of different experts that allow it to tackle problems none could solve alone.

The authors liken the approach to training people in how to play soccer. You start out by getting them to do drills on individual skills like dribbling, passing, or shooting. Once they’ve mastered those, they can then intelligently combine them to deal with more dynamic situations in a real game.

After training the algorithm in simulation, the researchers uploaded it to a four-legged robot and subjected it to a battery of tests, both indoors and outdoors. The robot was able to adapt quickly to tricky surfaces like gravel or pebbles, and could quickly recover from being repeatedly pushed over before continuing on its way.

There’s still some way to go before the approach could be adapted for real-world commercially useful robots. For a start, MELA currently isn’t able to integrate visual perception or a sense of touch; it simply relies on feedback from the robot’s joints to tell it what’s going on around it. The more tasks you ask the robot to master, the more complex and time-consuming the training will get.

Nonetheless, the new approach points towards a promising way to make multi-skilled robots become more than the sum of their parts. As much fun as it is, it seems like laughing at compilations of clumsy robots may soon be a thing of the past.

Image Credit: Yang et al., Science Robotics Continue reading

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