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#435589 Construction Robots Learn to Excavate by ...

Pavel Savkin remembers the first time he watched a robot imitate his movements. Minutes earlier, the engineer had finished “showing” the robotic excavator its new goal by directing its movements manually. Now, running on software Savkin helped design, the robot was reproducing his movements, gesture for gesture. “It was like there was something alive in there—but I knew it was me,” he said.

Savkin is the CTO of SE4, a robotics software project that styles itself the “driver” of a fleet of robots that will eventually build human colonies in space. For now, SE4 is focused on creating software that can help developers communicate with robots, rather than on building hardware of its own.
The Tokyo-based startup showed off an industrial arm from Universal Robots that was running SE4’s proprietary software at SIGGRAPH in July. SE4’s demonstration at the Los Angeles innovation conference drew the company’s largest audience yet. The robot, nicknamed Squeezie, stacked real blocks as directed by SE4 research engineer Nathan Quinn, who wore a VR headset and used handheld controls to “show” Squeezie what to do.

As Quinn manipulated blocks in a virtual 3D space, the software learned a set of ordered instructions to be carried out in the real world. That order is essential for remote operations, says Quinn. To build remotely, developers need a way to communicate instructions to robotic builders on location. In the age of digital construction and industrial robotics, giving a computer a blueprint for what to build is a well-explored art. But operating on a distant object—especially under conditions that humans haven’t experienced themselves—presents challenges that only real-time communication with operators can solve.

The problem is that, in an unpredictable setting, even simple tasks require not only instruction from an operator, but constant feedback from the changing environment. Five years ago, the Swedish fiber network provider umea.net (part of the private Umeå Energy utility) took advantage of the virtual reality boom to promote its high-speed connections with the help of a viral video titled “Living with Lag: An Oculus Rift Experiment.” The video is still circulated in VR and gaming circles.

In the experiment, volunteers donned headgear that replaced their real-time biological senses of sight and sound with camera and audio feeds of their surroundings—both set at a 3-second delay. Thus equipped, volunteers attempt to complete everyday tasks like playing ping-pong, dancing, cooking, and walking on a beach, with decidedly slapstick results.

At outer-orbit intervals, including SE4’s dream of construction projects on Mars, the limiting factor in communication speed is not an artificial delay, but the laws of physics. The shifting relative positions of Earth and Mars mean that communications between the planets—even at the speed of light—can take anywhere from 3 to 22 minutes.

A long-distance relationship

Imagine trying to manage a construction project from across an ocean without the benefit of intelligent workers: sending a ship to an unknown world with a construction crew and blueprints for a log cabin, and four months later receiving a letter back asking how to cut down a tree. The parallel problem in long-distance construction with robots, according to SE4 CEO Lochlainn Wilson, is that automation relies on predictability. “Every robot in an industrial setting today is expecting a controlled environment.”
Platforms for applying AR and VR systems to teach tasks to artificial intelligences, as SE4 does, are already proliferating in manufacturing, healthcare, and defense. But all of the related communications systems are bound by physics and, specifically, the speed of light.
The same fundamental limitation applies in space. “Our communications are light-based, whether they’re radio or optical,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, a planetary scientist and consultant for space startups. “If you’re going to Mars and you want to communicate with your robot or spacecraft there, you need to have it act semi- or mostly-independently so that it can operate without commands from Earth.”

Semantic control
That’s exactly what SE4 aims to do. By teaching robots to group micro-movements into logical units—like all the steps to building a tower of blocks—the Tokyo-based startup lets robots make simple relational judgments that would allow them to receive a full set of instruction modules at once and carry them out in order. This sidesteps the latency issue in real-time bilateral communications that could hamstring a project or at least make progress excruciatingly slow.
The key to the platform, says Wilson, is the team’s proprietary operating software, “Semantic Control.” Just as in linguistics and philosophy, “semantics” refers to meaning itself, and meaning is the key to a robot’s ability to make even the smallest decisions on its own. “A robot can scan its environment and give [raw data] to us, but it can’t necessarily identify the objects around it and what they mean,” says Wilson.

That’s where human intelligence comes in. As part of the demonstration phase, the human operator of an SE4-controlled machine “annotates” each object in the robot’s vicinity with meaning. By labeling objects in the VR space with useful information—like which objects are building material and which are rocks—the operator helps the robot make sense of its real 3D environment before the building begins.

Giving robots the tools to deal with a changing environment is an important step toward allowing the AI to be truly independent, but it’s only an initial step. “We’re not letting it do absolutely everything,” said Quinn. “Our robot is good at moving an object from point A to point B, but it doesn’t know the overall plan.” Wilson adds that delegating environmental awareness and raw mechanical power to separate agents is the optimal relationship for a mixed human-robot construction team; it “lets humans do what they’re good at, while robots do what they do best.”

This story was updated on 4 September 2019. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435541 This Giant AI Chip Is the Size of an ...

People say size doesn’t matter, but when it comes to AI the makers of the largest computer chip ever beg to differ. There are plenty of question marks about the gargantuan processor, but its unconventional design could herald an innovative new era in silicon design.

Computer chips specialized to run deep learning algorithms are a booming area of research as hardware limitations begin to slow progress, and both established players and startups are vying to build the successor to the GPU, the specialized graphics chip that has become the workhorse of the AI industry.

On Monday Californian startup Cerebras came out of stealth mode to unveil an AI-focused processor that turns conventional wisdom on its head. For decades chip makers have been focused on making their products ever-smaller, but the Wafer Scale Engine (WSE) is the size of an iPad and features 1.2 trillion transistors, 400,000 cores, and 18 gigabytes of on-chip memory.

The Cerebras Wafer-Scale Engine (WSE) is the largest chip ever built. It measures 46,225 square millimeters and includes 1.2 trillion transistors. Optimized for artificial intelligence compute, the WSE is shown here for comparison alongside the largest graphics processing unit. Image Credit: Used with permission from Cerebras Systems.
There is a method to the madness, though. Currently, getting enough cores to run really large-scale deep learning applications means connecting banks of GPUs together. But shuffling data between these chips is a major drain on speed and energy efficiency because the wires connecting them are relatively slow.

Building all 400,000 cores into the same chip should get round that bottleneck, but there are reasons it’s not been done before, and Cerebras has had to come up with some clever hacks to get around those obstacles.

Regular computer chips are manufactured using a process called photolithography to etch transistors onto the surface of a wafer of silicon. The wafers are inches across, so multiple chips are built onto them at once and then split up afterwards. But at 8.5 inches across, the WSE uses the entire wafer for a single chip.

The problem is that while for standard chip-making processes any imperfections in manufacturing will at most lead to a few processors out of several hundred having to be ditched, for Cerebras it would mean scrapping the entire wafer. To get around this the company built in redundant circuits so that even if there are a few defects, the chip can route around them.

The other big issue with a giant chip is the enormous amount of heat the processors can kick off—so the company has had to design a proprietary water-cooling system. That, along with the fact that no one makes connections and packaging for giant chips, means the WSE won’t be sold as a stand-alone component, but as part of a pre-packaged server incorporating the cooling technology.

There are no details on costs or performance so far, but some customers have already been testing prototypes, and according to Cerebras results have been promising. CEO and co-founder Andrew Feldman told Fortune that early tests show they are reducing training time from months to minutes.

We’ll have to wait until the first systems ship to customers in September to see if those claims stand up. But Feldman told ZDNet that the design of their chip should help spur greater innovation in the way engineers design neural networks. Many cornerstones of this process—for instance, tackling data in batches rather than individual data points—are guided more by the hardware limitations of GPUs than by machine learning theory, but their chip will do away with many of those obstacles.

Whether that turns out to be the case or not, the WSE might be the first indication of an innovative new era in silicon design. When Google announced it’s AI-focused Tensor Processing Unit in 2016 it was a wake-up call for chipmakers that we need some out-of-the-box thinking to square the slowing of Moore’s Law with skyrocketing demand for computing power.

It’s not just tech giants’ AI server farms driving innovation. At the other end of the spectrum, the desire to embed intelligence in everyday objects and mobile devices is pushing demand for AI chips that can run on tiny amounts of power and squeeze into the smallest form factors.

These trends have spawned renewed interest in everything from brain-inspired neuromorphic chips to optical processors, but the WSE also shows that there might be mileage in simply taking a sideways look at some of the other design decisions chipmakers have made in the past rather than just pumping ever more transistors onto a chip.

This gigantic chip might be the first exhibit in a weird and wonderful new menagerie of exotic, AI-inspired silicon.

Image Credit: Used with permission from Cerebras Systems. Continue reading

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#435535 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

To Power AI, This Startup Built a Really, Really Big Chip
Tom Simonite | Wired
“The silicon monster is almost 22 centimeters—roughly 9 inches—on each side, making it likely the largest computer chip ever, and a monument to the tech industry’s hopes for artificial intelligence.”

You Won’t See the Quantum Internet Coming
Ryan F. Mandelbaum | Gizmodo
“The quantum internet is coming sooner than you think—even sooner than quantum computing itself. When things change over, you might not even notice. But when they do, new rules will protect your data against attacks from computers that don’t even exist yet.”

What If Aging Weren’t Inevitable, But a Curable Disease
David Adam | MIT Technology Review
“…a growing number of scientists are questioning our basic conception of aging. What if you could challenge your death—or even prevent it altogether? What if the panoply of diseases that strike us in old age are symptoms, not causes? What would change if we classified aging itself as the disease?”

Thousands of Autonomous Delivery Robots Are About to Descend on College Campuses
Andrew J. Hawkins | The Verge
“The quintessential college experience of getting pizza delivered to your dorm room is about to get a high-tech upgrade. On Tuesday, Starship Technologies announced its plan to deploy thousands of its autonomous six-wheeled delivery robots on college campuses around the country over the next two years, after raising $40 million in Series A funding.”

Volocopter Reveals Its First Commercial Autonomous Flying Taxi
Christine Fisher | Endgadget
“It’s a race to the skies in terms of which company actually deploys an on-demand air taxi service based around electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. For its part, German startup Volocopter is taking another key step with the revelation of its first aircraft designed for actual commercial use, the VoloCity.”

Image Credit: Colin Carter / Unsplash Continue reading

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#435528 The Time for AI Is Now. Here’s Why

You hear a lot these days about the sheer transformative power of AI.

There’s pure intelligence: DeepMind’s algorithms readily beat humans at Go and StarCraft, and DeepStack triumphs over humans at no-limit hold’em poker. Often, these silicon brains generate gameplay strategies that don’t resemble anything from a human mind.

There’s astonishing speed: algorithms routinely surpass radiologists in diagnosing breast cancer, eye disease, and other ailments visible from medical imaging, essentially collapsing decades of expert training down to a few months.

Although AI’s silent touch is mainly felt today in the technological, financial, and health sectors, its impact across industries is rapidly spreading. At the Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco this week Neil Jacobstein, Chair of AI and Robotics, painted a picture of a better AI-powered future for humanity that is already here.

Thanks to cloud-based cognitive platforms, sophisticated AI tools like deep learning are no longer relegated to academic labs. For startups looking to tackle humanity’s grand challenges, the tools to efficiently integrate AI into their missions are readily available. The progress of AI is massively accelerating—to the point you need help from AI to track its progress, joked Jacobstein.

Now is the time to consider how AI can impact your industry, and in the process, begin to envision a beneficial relationship with our machine coworkers. As Jacobstein stressed in his talk, the future of a brain-machine mindmeld is a collaborative intelligence that augments our own. “AI is reinventing the way we invent,” he said.

AI’s Rapid Revolution
Machine learning and other AI-based methods may seem academic and abstruse. But Jacobstein pointed out that there are already plenty of real-world AI application frameworks.

Their secret? Rather than coding from scratch, smaller companies—with big visions—are tapping into cloud-based solutions such as Google’s TensorFlow, Microsoft’s Azure, or Amazon’s AWS to kick off their AI journey. These platforms act as all-in-one solutions that not only clean and organize data, but also contain built-in security and drag-and-drop coding that allow anyone to experiment with complicated machine learning algorithms.

Google Cloud’s Anthos, for example, lets anyone migrate data from other servers—IBM Watson or AWS, for example—so users can leverage different computing platforms and algorithms to transform data into insights and solutions.

Rather than coding from scratch, it’s already possible to hop onto a platform and play around with it, said Jacobstein. That’s key: this democratization of AI is how anyone can begin exploring solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had, or those long thought improbable.

The acceleration is only continuing. Much of AI’s mind-bending pace is thanks to a massive infusion of funding. Microsoft recently injected $1 billion into OpenAI, the Elon Musk venture that engineers socially responsible artificial general intelligence (AGI).

The other revolution is in hardware, and Google, IBM, and NVIDIA—among others—are racing to manufacture computing chips tailored to machine learning.

Democratizing AI is like the birth of the printing press. Mechanical printing allowed anyone to become an author; today, an iPhone lets anyone film a movie masterpiece.

However, this diffusion of AI into the fabric of our lives means tech explorers need to bring skepticism to their AI solutions, giving them a dose of empathy, nuance, and humanity.

A Path Towards Ethical AI
The democratization of AI is a double-edged sword: as more people wield the technology’s power in real-world applications, problems embedded in deep learning threaten to disrupt those very judgment calls.

Much of the press on the dangers of AI focuses on superintelligence—AI that’s more adept at learning than humans—taking over the world, said Jacobstein. But the near-term threat, and far more insidious, is in humans misusing the technology.

Deepfakes, for example, allow AI rookies to paste one person’s head on a different body or put words into a person’s mouth. As the panel said, it pays to think of AI as a cybersecurity problem, one with currently shaky accountability and complexity, and one that fails at diversity and bias.

Take bias. Thanks to progress in natural language processing, Google Translate works nearly perfectly today, so much so that many consider the translation problem solved. Not true, the panel said. One famous example is how the algorithm translates gender-neutral terms like “doctor” into “he” and “nurse” into “she.”

These biases reflect our own, and it’s not just a data problem. To truly engineer objective AI systems, ones stripped of our society’s biases, we need to ask who is developing these systems, and consult those who will be impacted by the products. In addition to gender, racial bias is also rampant. For example, one recent report found that a supposedly objective crime-predicting system was trained on falsified data, resulting in outputs that further perpetuate corrupt police practices. Another study from Google just this month found that their hate speech detector more often labeled innocuous tweets from African-Americans as “obscene” compared to tweets from people of other ethnicities.

We often think of building AI as purely an engineering job, the panelists agreed. But similar to gene drives, germ-line genome editing, and other transformative—but dangerous—tools, AI needs to grow under the consultation of policymakers and other stakeholders. It pays to start young: educating newer generations on AI biases will mold malleable minds early, alerting them to the problem of bias and potentially mitigating risks.

As panelist Tess Posner from AI4ALL said, AI is rocket fuel for ambition. If young minds set out using the tools of AI to tackle their chosen problems, while fully aware of its inherent weaknesses, we can begin to build an AI-embedded future that is widely accessible and inclusive.

The bottom line: people who will be impacted by AI need to be in the room at the conception of an AI solution. People will be displaced by the new technology, and ethical AI has to consider how to mitigate human suffering during the transition. Just because AI looks like “magic fairy dust doesn’t mean that you’re home free,” the panelists said. You, the sentient human, bear the burden of being responsible for how you decide to approach the technology.

The time for AI is now. Let’s make it ethical.

Image Credit: GrAI / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

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#435522 Harvard’s Smart Exo-Shorts Talk to the ...

Exosuits don’t generally scream “fashionable” or “svelte.” Take the mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton that allowed a paraplegic man to kick off the World Cup back in 2014. Is it cool? Hell yeah. Is it practical? Not so much.

Yapping about wearability might seem childish when the technology already helps people with impaired mobility move around dexterously. But the lesson of the ill-fated Google Glassholes, which includes an awkward dorky head tilt and an assuming voice command, clearly shows that wearable computer assistants can’t just work technologically—they have to look natural and allow the user to behave like as usual. They have to, in a sense, disappear.

To Dr. Jose Pons at the Legs + Walking Ability Lab in Chicago, exosuits need three main selling points to make it in the real world. One, they have to physically interact with their wearer and seamlessly deliver assistance when needed. Two, they should cognitively interact with the host to guide and control the robot at all times. Finally, they need to feel like a second skin—move with the user without adding too much extra mass or reducing mobility.

This week, a US-Korean collaboration delivered the whole shebang in a Lululemon-style skin-hugging package combined with a retro waist pack. The portable exosuit, weighing only 11 pounds, looks like a pair of spandex shorts but can support the wearer’s hip movement when needed. Unlike their predecessors, the shorts are embedded with sensors that let them know when the wearer is walking versus running by analyzing gait.

Switching between the two movement modes may not seem like much, but what naturally comes to our brains doesn’t translate directly to smart exosuits. “Walking and running have fundamentally different biomechanics, which makes developing devices that assist both gaits challenging,” the team said. Their algorithm, computed in the cloud, allows the wearer to easily switch between both, with the shorts providing appropriate hip support that makes the movement experience seamless.

To Pons, who was not involved in the research but wrote a perspective piece, the study is an exciting step towards future exosuits that will eventually disappear under the skin—that is, implanted neural interfaces to control robotic assistance or activate the user’s own muscles.

“It is realistic to think that we will witness, in the next several years…robust human-robot interfaces to command wearable robotics based on…the neural code of movement in humans,” he said.

A “Smart” Exosuit Hack
There are a few ways you can hack a human body to move with an exosuit. One is using implanted electrodes inside the brain or muscles to decipher movement intent. With heavy practice, a neural implant can help paralyzed people walk again or dexterously move external robotic arms. But because the technique requires surgery, it’s not an immediate sell for people who experience low mobility because of aging or low muscle tone.

The other approach is to look to biophysics. Rather than decoding neural signals that control movement, here the idea is to measure gait and other physical positions in space to decipher intent. As you can probably guess, accurately deciphering user intent isn’t easy, especially when the wearable tries to accommodate multiple gaits. But the gains are many: there’s no surgery involved, and the wearable is low in energy consumption.

Double Trouble
The authors decided to tackle an everyday situation. You’re walking to catch the train to work, realize you’re late, and immediately start sprinting.

That seemingly easy conversion hides a complex switch in biomechanics. When you walk, your legs act like an inverted pendulum that swing towards a dedicated center in a predictable way. When you run, however, the legs move more like a spring-loaded system, and the joints involved in the motion differ from a casual stroll. Engineering an assistive wearable for each is relatively simple; making one for both is exceedingly hard.

Led by Dr. Conor Walsh at Harvard University, the team started with an intuitive idea: assisted walking and running requires specialized “actuation” profiles tailored to both. When the user is moving in a way that doesn’t require assistance, the wearable needs to be out of the way so that it doesn’t restrict mobility. A quick analysis found that assisting hip extension has the largest impact, because it’s important to both gaits and doesn’t add mass to the lower legs.

Building on that insight, the team made a waist belt connected to two thigh wraps, similar to a climbing harness. Two electrical motors embedded inside the device connect the waist belt to other components through a pulley system to help the hip joints move. The whole contraption weighed about 11 lbs and didn’t obstruct natural movement.

Next, the team programmed two separate supporting profiles for walking and running. The goal was to reduce the “metabolic cost” for both movements, so that the wearer expends as little energy as needed. To switch between the two programs, they used a cloud-based classification algorithm to measure changes in energy fluctuation to figure out what mode—running or walking—the user is in.

Smart Booster
Initial trials on treadmills were highly positive. Six male volunteers with similar age and build donned the exosuit and either ran or walked on the treadmill at varying inclines. The algorithm performed perfectly at distinguishing between the two gaits in all conditions, even at steep angles.

An outdoor test with eight volunteers also proved the algorithm nearly perfect. Even on uneven terrain, only two steps out of all test trials were misclassified. In an additional trial on mud or snow, the algorithm performed just as well.

“The system allows the wearer to use their preferred gait for each speed,” the team said.

Software excellence translated to performance. A test found that the exosuit reduced the energy for walking by over nine percent and running by four percent. It may not sound like much, but the range of improvement is meaningful in athletic performance. Putting things into perspective, the team said, the metabolic rate reduction during walking is similar to taking 16 pounds off at the waist.

The Wearable Exosuit Revolution
The study’s lightweight exoshorts are hardly the only players in town. Back in 2017, SRI International’s spin-off, Superflex, engineered an Aura suit to support mobility in the elderly. The Aura used a different mechanism: rather than a pulley system, it incorporated a type of smart material that contracts in a manner similar to human muscles when zapped with electricity.

Embedded with a myriad of sensors for motion, accelerometers and gyroscopes, Aura’s smartness came from mini-computers that measure how fast the wearer is moving and track the user’s posture. The data were integrated and processed locally inside hexagon-shaped computing pods near the thighs and upper back. The pods also acted as the control center for sending electrical zaps to give the wearer a boost when needed.

Around the same time, a collaboration between Harvard’s Wyss Institute and ReWalk Robotics introduced a fabric-based wearable robot to assist a wearer’s legs for balance and movement. Meanwhile, a Swiss team coated normal fabric with electroactive material to weave soft, pliable artificial “muscles” that move with the skin.

Although health support is the current goal, the military is obviously interested in similar technologies to enhance soldiers’ physicality. Superflex’s Aura, for example, was originally inspired by technology born from DARPA’s Warrior Web Program, which aimed to reduce a soldier’s mechanical load.

That said, military gear has had a long history of trickling down to consumer use. Similar to the way camouflage, cargo pants, and GORE-TEX trickled down into the consumer ecosphere, it’s not hard to imagine your local Target eventually stocking intelligent exowear.

Image and Video Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots