Tag Archives: Off

#438076 Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Is Now ...

Boston Dynamics has been working on an arm for its Spot quadruped for at least five years now. There have been plenty of teasers along the way, including this 45-second clip from early 2018 of Spot using its arm to open a door, which at 85 million views seems to be Boston Dynamics’ most popular video ever by a huge margin. Obviously, there’s a substantial amount of interest in turning Spot from a highly dynamic but mostly passive sensor platform into a mobile manipulator that can interact with its environment.

As anyone who’s done mobile manipulation will tell you, actually building an arm is just the first step—the really tricky part is getting that arm to do exactly what you want it to do. In particular, Spot’s arm needs to be able to interact with the world with some amount of autonomy in order to be commercially useful, because you can’t expect a human (remote or otherwise) to spend all their time positioning individual joints or whatever to pick something up. So the real question about this arm is whether Boston Dynamics has managed to get it to a point where it’s autonomous enough that users with relatively little robotics experience will be able to get it to do useful tasks without driving themselves nuts.

Today, Boston Dynamics is announcing commercial availability of the Spot arm, along with some improved software called Scout plus a self-charging dock that’ll give the robot even more independence. And to figure out exactly what Spot’s new arm can do, we spoke with Zachary Jackowski, Spot Chief Engineer at Boston Dynamics.

Although Boston Dynamics’ focus has been on dynamic mobility and legged robots, the company has been working on manipulation for a very long time. We first saw an arm prototype on an early iteration of Spot in 2016, where it demonstrated some impressive functionality, including loading a dishwasher and fetching a beer in a way that only resulted in a minor catastrophe. But we’re guessing that Spot’s arm can trace its history back to BigDog’s crazy powerful hydraulic face-arm, which was causing mayhem with cinder blocks back in 2013:

Spot’s arm is not quite that powerful (it has to drag cinder blocks along the ground rather than fling them into space), but you can certainly see the resemblance. Here’s the video that Boston Dynamics posted yesterday to introduce Spot’s new arm:

A couple of things jumped out from this video right away. First, Spot is doing whole body manipulation with its arm, as opposed to just acting as a four-legged base that brings the arm where it needs to go. Planning looks to be very tightly integrated, such that if you ask the robot to manipulate an object, its arm, legs, and torso all work together to optimize that manipulation. Also, when Spot flips that electrical switch, you see the robot successfully grasp the switch, and then reposition its body in a way that looks like it provides better leverage for the flip, which is a neat trick. It looks like it may be able to use the strength of its legs to augment the strength of its arm, as when it’s dragging the cinder block around, which is surely an homage to BigDog. The digging of a hole is particularly impressive. But again, the real question is how much of this is autonomous or semi-autonomous in a way that will be commercially useful?

Before we get to our interview with Spot Chief Engineer Zack Jackowski, it’s worth watching one more video that Boston Dynamics shared with us:

This is notable because Spot is opening a door that’s not ADA compliant, and the robot is doing it with a simple two-finger gripper. Most robots you see interacting with doors rely on ADA compliant hardware, meaning (among other things) a handle that can be pushed rather than a knob that has to be twisted, because it’s much more challenging for a robot to grasp and twist a smooth round door knob than it is to just kinda bash down on a handle. That capability, combined with Spot being able to pass through a spring-loaded door, potentially opens up a much wider array of human environments to the robot, and that’s where we started our conversation with Jackowski.

IEEE Spectrum: At what point did you decide that for Spot’s arm to be useful, it had to be able to handle round door knobs?

Zachary Jackowski: We're like a lot of roboticists, where someone in a meeting about manipulation would say “it's time for the round doorknob” and people would start groaning a little bit. But the reality is that, in order to make a robot useful, you have to engage with the environments that users have. Spot’s arm uses a very simple gripper—it’s a one degree of freedom gripper, but a ton of thought has gone into all of the fine geometric contours of it such that it can grab that ADA compliant lever handle, and it’ll also do an enclosing grasp around a round door knob. The major point of a robot like Spot is to engage with the environment you have, and so you can’t cut out stuff like round door knobs.

We're thrilled to be launching the arm and getting it out with users and to have them start telling us what doors it works really well on, and what they're having trouble with. And we're going to be working on rapidly improving all this stuff. We went through a few campaigns of like, “this isn’t ready until we can open every single door at Boston Dynamics!” But every single door at Boston Dynamics and at our test lab is a small fraction of all the doors in the world. So we're prepared to learn a lot this year.

When we see Spot open a door, or when it does those other manipulation behaviors in the launch video, how much of that is autonomous, how much is scripted, and to what extent is there a human in the loop?

All of the scenes where the robot does a pick, like the snow scene or the laundry scene, that is actually an almost fully integrated autonomous behavior that has a bit of a script wrapped around it. We trained a detector for an object, and the robot is identifying that object in the environment, picking it, and putting it in the bin all autonomously. The scripted part of that is telling the robot to perform a series of picks.

One of the things that we’re excited about, and that roboticists have been excited about going back probably all the way to the DRC, is semi-autonomous manipulation. And so we have modes built into the interface where if you see an object that you want the robot to grab, all you have to do is tap that object on the screen, and the robot will walk up to it, use the depth camera in its gripper to capture a depth map, and plan a grasp on its own in real time. That’s all built-in, too.

The jump rope—robots don’t just go and jump rope on their own. We scripted an arm motion to move the rope, and wrote a script using our API to coordinate all three robots. Drawing “Boston Dynamics” in chalk in our parking lot was scripted also. One of our engineers wrote a really cool G-code interpreter that vectorizes graphics so that Spot can draw them.

So for an end user, if you wanted Spot to autonomously flip some switches for you, you’d just have to train Spot on your switches, and then Spot could autonomously perform the task?

There are a couple of ways that task could break down depending on how you’re interfacing with the robot. If you’re a tablet user, you’d probably just identify the switch yourself on the tablet’s screen, and the robot will figure out the grasp, and grasp it. Then you’ll enter a constrained manipulation mode on the tablet, and the robot will be able to actuate the switch. But the robot will take care of the complicated controls aspects, like figuring out how hard it has to pull, the center of rotation of the switch, and so on.

The video of Spot digging was pretty cool—how did that work?

That’s mostly a scripted behavior. There are some really interesting control systems topics in there, like how you’d actually do the right kinds of force control while you insert the trowel into the dirt, and how to maintain robot stability while you do it. The higher level task of how to make a good hole in the dirt—that’s scripted. But the part of the problem that’s actually digging, you need the right control system to actually do that, or you’ll dig your trowel into the ground and flip your robot over.

The last time we saw Boston Dynamics robots flipping switches and turning valves I think might have been during the DRC in 2015, when they had expert robot operators with control over every degree of freedom. How are things different now with Spot, and will non-experts in the commercial space really be able to get the robot to do useful tasks?

A lot of the things, like “pick the stuff up in the room,” or ‘turn that switch,” can all be done by a lightly trained operator using just the tablet interface. If you want to actually command all of Spot’s arm degrees of freedom, you can do that— not through the tablet, but the API does expose all of it. That’s actually a notable difference from the base robot; we’ve never opened up the part of the API that lets you command individual leg degrees of freedom, because we don’t think it’s productive for someone to do that. The arm is a little bit different. There are a lot of smart people working on arm motion planning algorithms, and maybe you want to plan your arm trajectory in a super precise way and then do a DRC-style interface where you click to approve it. You can do all that through the API if you want, but fundamentally, it’s also user friendly. It follows our general API design philosophy of giving you the highest level pieces of the toolbox that will enable you to solve a complex problem that we haven't thought of.

Looking back on it now, it’s really cool to see, after so many years, robots do the stuff that Gill Pratt was excited about kicking off with the DRC. And now it’s just a thing you can buy.

Is Spot’s arm safe?

You should follow the same safety rules that you’d follow when working with Spot normally, and that’s that you shouldn’t get within two meters of the robot when it’s powered on. Spot is not a cobot. You shouldn’t hug it. Fundamentally, the places where the robot is the most valuable are places where people don’t want to be, or shouldn’t be.

We’ve seen how people reacted to earlier videos of Spot using its arm—can you help us set some reasonable expectations for what this means for Spot?

You know, it gets right back to the normal assumptions about our robots that people make that aren’t quite reality. All of this manipulation work we’re doing— the robot’s really acting as a tool. Even if it’s an autonomous behavior, it’s a tool. The robot is digging a hole because it’s got a set of instructions that say “apply this much force over this much distance here, here, and here.”

It’s not digging a hole and planting a tree because it loves trees, as much as I’d love to build a robot that works like that.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

There isn’t too much to say about the dock, except that it’s a requirement for making Spot long-term autonomous. The uncomfortable looking charging contacts that Spot impales itself on also include hardwired network connectivity, which is important because Spot often comes back home with a huge amount of data that all needs to be offloaded and processed. Docking and undocking are autonomous— as soon as the robot sees the fiducial markers on the dock, auto docking is enabled and it takes one click to settle the robot down.

During a brief remote demo, we also learned some other interesting things about Spot’s updated remote interface. It’s very latency tolerant, since you don’t have to drive the robot directly (although you can if you want to). Click a point on the camera view and Spot will move there autonomously while avoiding obstacles, meaning that even if you’re dealing with seconds of lag, the robot will continue making safe progress. This will be especially important if (when?) Spot starts exploring the Moon.

The remote interface also has an option to adjust how close Spot can get to obstacles, or to turn the obstacle avoidance off altogether. The latter functionality is useful if Spot sees something as an obstacle that really isn’t, like a curtain, while the former is useful if the robot is operating in an environment where it needs to give an especially wide berth to objects that could be dangerous to run into. “The robot’s not perfect—robots will never be perfect,” Jackowski reminds us, which is something we really (seriously) appreciate hearing from folks working on powerful, dynamic robots. “No matter how good the robot is, you should always de-risk as much as possible.”

Another part of that de-risking is having the user let Spot know when it’s about to go up or down some stairs by putting into “Stair Mode” with a toggle switch in the remote interface. Stairs are still a challenge for Spot, and Stair Mode slows the robot down and encourages it to pitch its body more aggressively to get a better view of the stairs. You’re encouraged to use stair mode, and also encouraged to send Spot up and down stairs with its “head” pointing up the stairs both ways, but these are not requirements for stair navigation— if you want to, you can send Spot down stairs head first without putting it in stair mode. Jackowski says that eventually, Spot will detect stairways by itself even when not in stair mode and adjust itself accordingly, but for now, that de-risking is solidly in the hands of the user.

Spot’s sensor payload, which is what we were trying out for the demo, provided a great opportunity for us to hear Spot STOMP STOMP STOMPING all over the place, which was also an opportunity for us to ask Jackowski why they can’t make Spot a little quieter. “It’s advantageous for Spot to step a little bit hard for the same reason it’s advantageous for you to step a little bit hard if you’re walking around blindfolded—that reason is that it really lets you know where the ground is, particularly when you’re not sure what to expect.” He adds, “It’s all in the name of robustness— the robot might be a little louder, but it’s a little more sure of its footing.”

Boston Dynamics isn’t yet ready to disclose the price of an arm-equipped Spot, but if you’re a potential customer, now is the time to contact the Boston Dynamics sales team to ask them about it. As a reminder, the base model of Spot costs US $74,500, with extra sensing or compute adding a substantial premium on top of that.

There will be a livestream launch event taking place at 11am ET today, during which Boston Dynamics’ CEO Robert Playter, VP of Marketing Michael Perry, and other folks from Boston Dynamics will make presentations on this new stuff. It’ll be live at this link, or you can watch it below. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438006 Smellicopter Drone Uses Live Moth ...

Research into robotic sensing has, understandably I guess, been very human-centric. Most of us navigate and experience the world visually and in 3D, so robots tend to get covered with things like cameras and lidar. Touch is important to us, as is sound, so robots are getting pretty good with understanding tactile and auditory information, too. Smell, though? In most cases, smell doesn’t convey nearly as much information for us, so while it hasn’t exactly been ignored in robotics, it certainly isn’t the sensing modality of choice in most cases.

Part of the problem with smell sensing is that we just don’t have a good way of doing it, from a technical perspective. This has been a challenge for a long time, and it’s why we either bribe or trick animals like dogs, rats, vultures, and other animals to be our sensing systems for airborne chemicals. If only they’d do exactly what we wanted them to do all the time, this would be fine, but they don’t, so it’s not.

Until we get better at making chemical sensors, leveraging biology is the best we can do, and what would be ideal would be some sort of robot-animal hybrid cyborg thing. We’ve seen some attempts at remote controlled insects, but as it turns out, you can simplify things if you don’t use the entire insect, but instead just find a way to use its sensing system. Enter the Smellicopter.

There’s honestly not too much to say about the drone itself. It’s an open-source drone project called Crazyflie 2.0, with some additional off the shelf sensors for obstacle avoidance and stabilization. The interesting bits are a couple of passive fins that keep the drone pointed into the wind, and then the sensor, called an electroantennogram.

Image: UW

The drone’s sensor, called an electroantennogram, consists of a “single excised antenna” from a Manduca sexta hawkmoth and a custom signal processing circuit.

To make one of these sensors, you just, uh, “harvest” an antenna from a live hawkmoth. Obligingly, the moth antenna is hollow, meaning that you can stick electrodes up it. Whenever the olfactory neurons in the antenna (which is still technically alive even though it’s not attached to the moth anymore) encounter an odor that they’re looking for, they produce an electrical signal that the electrodes pick up. Plug the other ends of the electrodes into a voltage amplifier and filter, run it through an analog to digital converter, and you’ve got a chemical sensor that weighs just 1.5 gram and consumes only 2.7 mW of power. It’s significantly more sensitive than a conventional metal-oxide odor sensor, in a much smaller and more efficient form factor, making it ideal for drones.

To localize an odor, the Smellicopter uses a simple bioinspired approach called crosswind casting, which involves moving laterally left and right and then forward when an odor is detected. Here’s how it works:

The vehicle takes off to a height of 40 cm and then hovers for ten seconds to allow it time to orient upwind. The smellicopter starts casting left and right crosswind. When a volatile chemical is detected, the smellicopter will surge 25 cm upwind, and then resume casting. As long as the wind direction is fairly consistent, this strategy will bring the insect or robot increasingly closer to a singular source with each surge.

Since odors are airborne, they need a bit of a breeze to spread very far, and the Smellicopter won’t be able to detect them unless it’s downwind of the source. But, that’s just how odors work— even if you’re right next to the source, if the wind is blowing from you towards the source rather than the other way around, you might not catch a whiff of it.

Whenever the olfactory neurons in the antenna encounter an odor that they’re looking for, they produce an electrical signal that the electrodes pick up

There are a few other constraints to keep in mind with this sensor as well. First, rather than detecting something useful (like explosives), it’s going to detect the smells of pretty flowers, because moths like pretty flowers. Second, the antenna will literally go dead on you within a couple hours, since it only functions while its tissues are alive and metaphorically kicking. Interestingly, it may be possible to use CRISPR-based genetic modification to breed moths with antennae that do respond to useful smells, which would be a neat trick, and we asked the researchers—Melanie Anderson, a doctoral student of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle; Thomas Daniel, a UW professor of biology; and Sawyer Fuller, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering—about this, along with some other burning questions, via email.

IEEE Spectrum, asking the important questions first: So who came up with “Smellicopter”?

Melanie Anderson: Tom Daniel coined the term “Smellicopter”. Another runner up was “OdorRotor”!

In general, how much better are moths at odor localization than robots?

Melanie Anderson: Moths are excellent at odor detection and odor localization and need to be in order to find mates and food. Their antennae are much more sensitive and specialized than any portable man-made odor sensor. We can't ask the moths how exactly they search for odors so well, but being able to have the odor sensitivity of a moth on a flying platform is a big step in that direction.

Tom Daniel: Our best estimate is that they outperform robotic sensing by at least three orders of magnitude.

How does the localization behavior of the Smellicopter compare to that of a real moth?

Anderson: The cast-and-surge odor search strategy is a simplified version of what we believe the moth (and many other odor searching animals) are doing. It is a reactive strategy that relies on the knowledge that if you detect odor, you can assume that the source is somewhere up-wind of you. When you detect odor, you simply move upwind, and when you lose the odor signal you cast in a cross-wind direction until you regain the signal.

Can you elaborate on the potential for CRISPR to be able to engineer moths for the detection of specific chemicals?

Anderson: CRISPR is already currently being used to modify the odor detection pathways in moth species. It is one of our future efforts to specifically use this to make the antennae sensitive to other chemicals of interest, such as the chemical scent of explosives.

Sawyer Fuller: We think that one of the strengths of using a moth's antenna, in addition to its speed, is that it may provide a path to both high chemical specificity as well as high sensitivity. By expressing a preponderance of only one or a few chemosensors, we are anticipating that a moth antenna will give a strong response only to that chemical. There are several efforts underway in other research groups to make such specific, sensitive chemical detectors. Chemical sensing is an area where biology exceeds man-made systems in terms of efficiency, small size, and sensitivity. So that's why we think that the approach of trying to leverage biological machinery that already exists has some merit.

You mention that the antennae lifespan can be extended for a few days with ice- how feasible do you think this technology is outside of a research context?

Anderson: The antennae can be stored in tiny vials in a standard refrigerator or just with an ice pack to extend their life to about a week. Additionally, the process for attaching the antenna to the electrical circuit is a teachable skill. It is definitely feasible outside of a research context.

Considering the trajectory that sensor development is on, how long do you think that this biological sensor system will outperform conventional alternatives?

Anderson: It's hard to speak toward what will happen in the future, but currently, the moth antenna still stands out among any commercially-available portable sensors.

There have been some experiments with cybernetic insects; what are the advantages and disadvantages of your approach, as opposed to (say) putting some sort of tracking system on a live moth?

Daniel: I was part of a cyber insect team a number of years ago. The challenge of such research is that the animal has natural reactions to attempts to steer or control it.

Anderson: While moths are better at odor tracking than robots currently, the advantage of the drone platform is that we have control over it. We can tell it to constrain the search to a certain area, and return after it finishes searching.

What can you tell us about the health, happiness, and overall wellfare of the moths in your experiments?

Anderson: The moths are cold anesthetized before the antennae are removed. They are then frozen so that they can be used for teaching purposes or in other research efforts.

What are you working on next?

Daniel: The four big efforts are (1) CRISPR modification, (2) experiments aimed at improving the longevity of the antennal preparation, (3) improved measurements of antennal electrical responses to odors combined with machine learning to see if we can classify different odors, and (4) flight in outdoor environments.

Fuller: The moth's antenna sensor gives us a new ability to sense with a much shorter latency than was previously possible with similarly-sized sensors (e.g. semiconductor sensors). What exactly a robot agent should do to best take advantage of this is an open question. In particular, I think the speed may help it to zero in on plume sources in complex environments much more quickly. Think of places like indoor settings with flow down hallways that splits out at doorways, and in industrial settings festooned with pipes and equipment. We know that it is possible to search out and find odors in such scenarios, as anybody who has had to contend with an outbreak of fruit flies can attest. It is also known that these animals respond very quickly to sudden changes in odor that is present in such turbulent, patchy plumes. Since it is hard to reduce such plumes to a simple model, we think that machine learning may provide insights into how to best take advantage of the improved temporal plume information we now have available.

Tom Daniel also points out that the relative simplicity of this project (now that the UW researchers have it all figured out, that is) means that even high school students could potentially get involved in it, even if it’s on a ground robot rather than a drone. All the details are in the paper that was just published in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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.

Image Credit: christitzeimaging.com / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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

Posted in Human Robots

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

“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.

Image credit: sergio souza / Pexels Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots