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Recently, in a Berkeley lab, a robot called Cassie taught itself to walk, a little like a toddler might. Through trial and error, it learned to move in a simulated world. Then its handlers sent it strolling through a minefield of real-world tests to see how it’d fare.
And, as it turns out, it fared pretty damn well. With no further fine-tuning, the robot—which is basically just a pair of legs—was able to walk in all directions, squat down while walking, right itself when pushed off balance, and adjust to different kinds of surfaces.
It’s the first time a machine learning approach known as reinforcement learning has been so successfully applied in two-legged robots.
This likely isn’t the first robot video you’ve seen, nor the most polished.
For years, the internet has been enthralled by videos of robots doing far more than walking and regaining their balance. All that is table stakes these days. Boston Dynamics, the heavyweight champ of robot videos, regularly releases mind-blowing footage of robots doing parkour, back flips, and complex dance routines. At times, it can seem the world of iRobot is just around the corner.
This sense of awe is well-earned. Boston Dynamics is one of the world’s top makers of advanced robots.
But they still have to meticulously hand program and choreograph the movements of the robots in their videos. This is a powerful approach, and the Boston Dynamics team has done incredible things with it.
In real-world situations, however, robots need to be robust and resilient. They need to regularly deal with the unexpected, and no amount of choreography will do. Which is how, it’s hoped, machine learning can help.
Reinforcement learning has been most famously exploited by Alphabet’s DeepMind to train algorithms that thrash humans at some the most difficult games. Simplistically, it’s modeled on the way we learn. Touch the stove, get burned, don’t touch the damn thing again; say please, get a jelly bean, politely ask for another.
In Cassie’s case, the Berkeley team used reinforcement learning to train an algorithm to walk in a simulation. It’s not the first AI to learn to walk in this manner. But going from simulation to the real world doesn’t always translate.
Subtle differences between the two can (literally) trip up a fledgling robot as it tries out its sim skills for the first time.
To overcome this challenge, the researchers used two simulations instead of one. The first simulation, an open source training environment called MuJoCo, was where the algorithm drew upon a large library of possible movements and, through trial and error, learned to apply them. The second simulation, called Matlab SimMechanics, served as a low-stakes testing ground that more precisely matched real-world conditions.
Once the algorithm was good enough, it graduated to Cassie.
And amazingly, it didn’t need further polishing. Said another way, when it was born into the physical world—it knew how to walk just fine. In addition, it was also quite robust. The researchers write that two motors in Cassie’s knee malfunctioned during the experiment, but the robot was able to adjust and keep on trucking.
Other labs have been hard at work applying machine learning to robotics.
Last year Google used reinforcement learning to train a (simpler) four-legged robot. And OpenAI has used it with robotic arms. Boston Dynamics, too, will likely explore ways to augment their robots with machine learning. New approaches—like this one aimed at training multi-skilled robots or this one offering continuous learning beyond training—may also move the dial. It’s early yet, however, and there’s no telling when machine learning will exceed more traditional methods.
And in the meantime, Boston Dynamics bots are testing the commercial waters.
Still, robotics researchers, who were not part of the Berkeley team, think the approach is promising. Edward Johns, head of Imperial College London’s Robot Learning Lab, told MIT Technology Review, “This is one of the most successful examples I have seen.”
The Berkeley team hopes to build on that success by trying out “more dynamic and agile behaviors.” So, might a self-taught parkour-Cassie be headed our way? We’ll see.
Image Credit: University of California Berkeley Hybrid Robotics via YouTube Continue reading
For athletes trying to run fast, the right shoe can be essential to achieving peak performance. For athletes trying to run fast as humanly possible, a runner’s shoe can also become a work of individually customized engineering.
This is why Adidas has married 3D printing with robotic automation in a mass-market footwear project it’s called Futurecraft.Strung, expected to be available for purchase as soon as later this year. Using a customized, 3D-printed sole, a Futurecraft.Strung manufacturing robot can place some 2,000 threads from up to 10 different sneaker yarns in one upper section of the shoe.
Skylar Tibbits, founder and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab and associate professor in MIT's Department of Architecture, says that because of its small scale, footwear has been an area of focus for 3D printing and additive manufacturing, which involves adding material bit by bit.
“There are really interesting complex geometry problems,” he says. “It’s pretty well suited.”
Beginning with a 3D-printed sole, Adidas robots weave together some 2000 threads from up to 10 different sneaker yarns to make one Futurecraft.Strung shoe—expected on the marketplace later this year or sometime in 2022.
Adidas began working on the Futurecraft.Strung project in 2016. Then two years later, Adidas Futurecraft, the company’s innovation incubator, began collaborating with digital design studio Kram/Weisshaar. In less than a year the team built the software and hardware for the upper part of the shoe, called Strung uppers.
“Most 3D printing in the footwear space has been focused on the midsole or outsole, like the bottom of the shoe,” Tibbits explains. But now, he says, Adidas is bringing robotics and a threaded design to the upper part of the shoe. The company bases its Futurecraft.Strung design on high-resolution scans of how runners’ feet move as they travel.
This more flexible design can benefit athletes in multiple sports, according to an Adidas blog post. It will be able to use motion capture of an athlete’s foot and feedback from the athlete to make the design specific to the athlete’s specific gait. Adidas customizes the weaving of the shoe’s “fabric” (really more like an elaborate woven string figure, a cat’s cradle to fit the foot) to achieve a close and comfortable fit, the company says.
What they call their “4D sole” consists of a design combining 3D printing with materials that can change their shape and properties over time. In fact, Tibbits coined the term 4D printing to describe this process in 2013. The company takes customized data from the Adidas Athlete Intelligent Engine to make the shoe, according to Kram/Weisshaar’s website.
Closeup of the weaving process behind a Futurecraft.Strung shoe
“With Strung for the first time, we can program single threads in any direction, where each thread has a different property or strength,” Fionn Corcoran-Tadd, an innovation designer at Adidas’ Futurecraft lab, said in a company video. Each thread serves a purpose, the video noted. “This is like customized string art for your feet,” Tibbits says.
Although the robotics technology the company uses has been around for many years, what Adidas’s robotic weavers can achieve with thread is a matter of elaborate geometry. “It’s more just like a really elegant way to build up material combining robotics and the fibers and yarns into these intricate and complex patterns,” he says.
Robots can of course create patterns with more precision than if someone wound it by hand, as well as rapidly and reliably changing the yarn and color of the fabric pattern. Adidas says it can make a single upper in 45 minutes and a pair of sneakers in 1 hour and 30 minutes. It plans to reduce this time down to minutes in the months ahead, the company said.
An Adidas spokesperson says sneakers incorporating the Futurecraft.Strung uppers design are a prototype, but the company plans to bring a Strung shoe to market in late 2021 or 2022. However, Adidas Futurecraft sneakers are currently available with a 3D-printed midsole.
Adidas plans to continue gathering data from athletes to customize the uppers of sneakers. “We’re building up a library of knowledge and it will get more interesting as we aggregate data of testing and from different athletes and sports,” the Adidas Futurecraft team writes in a blog post. “The more we understand about how data can become design code, the more we can take that and apply it to new Strung textiles. It’s a continuous evolution.” Continue reading
The little pigs bouncing around the lab looked exceedingly normal. Yet their adorable exterior hid a remarkable secret: each piglet carried two different sets of genes. For now, both sets came from their own species. But one day, one of those sets may be human.
The piglets are chimeras—creatures with intermingled sets of genes, as if multiple entities were seamlessly mashed together. Named after the Greek lion-goat-serpent monsters, chimeras may hold the key to an endless supply of human organs and tissues for transplant. The crux is growing these human parts in another animal—one close enough in size and function to our own.
Last week, a team from the University of Minnesota unveiled two mind-bending chimeras. One was joyous little piglets, each propelled by muscles grown from a different pig. Another was pig embryos, transplanted into surrogate pigs, that developed human muscles for more than 20 days.
The study, led by Drs. Mary and Daniel Garry at the University of Minnesota, had a therapeutic point: engineering a brilliant way to replace muscle loss, especially for the muscles around our skeletons that allow us to move and navigate the world. Trauma and injury, such as from firearm wounds or car crashes, can damage muscle tissue beyond the point of repair. Unfortunately, muscles are also stubborn in that donor tissue from cadavers doesn’t usually “take” at the injury site. For now, there are no effective treatments for severe muscle death, called volumetric muscle loss.
The new human-pig hybrids are designed to tackle this problem. Muscle wasting aside, the study also points to a clever “hack” that increases the amount of human tissue inside a growing pig embryo.
If further improved, the technology could “provide an unlimited supply of organs for transplantation,” said Dr. Mary Garry to Inverse. What’s more, because the human tissue can be sourced from patients themselves, the risk of rejection by the immune system is relatively low—even when grown inside a pig.
“The shortage of organs for heart transplantation, vascular grafting, and skeletal muscle is staggering,” said Garry. Human-animal chimeras could have a “seismic impact” that transforms organ transplantation and helps solve the organ shortage crisis.
That is, if society accepts the idea of a semi-humanoid pig.
The new study took a page from previous chimera recipes.
The main ingredients and steps go like this: first, you need an embryo that lacks the ability to develop a tissue or organ. This leaves an “empty slot” of sorts that you can fill with another set of genes—pig, human, or even monkey.
Second, you need to fine-tune the recipe so that the embryos “take” the new genes, incorporating them into their bodies as if they were their own. Third, the new genes activate to instruct the growing embryo to make the necessary tissue or organs without harming the overall animal. Finally, the foreign genes need to stay put, without cells migrating to another body part—say, the brain.
Not exactly straightforward, eh? The piglets are technological wonders that mix cutting-edge gene editing with cloning technologies.
The team went for two chimeras: one with two sets of pig genes, the other with a pig and human mix. Both started with a pig embryo that can’t make its own skeletal muscles (those are the muscles surrounding your bones). Using CRISPR, the gene-editing Swiss Army Knife, they snipped out three genes that are absolutely necessary for those muscles to develop. Like hitting a bullseye with three arrows simultaneously, it’s already a technological feat.
Here’s the really clever part: the muscles around your bones have a slightly different genetic makeup than the ones that line your blood vessels or the ones that pump your heart. While the resulting pig embryos had severe muscle deformities as they developed, their hearts beat as normal. This means the gene editing cut only impacted skeletal muscles.
Then came step two: replacing the missing genes. Using a microneedle, the team injected a fertilized and slightly developed pig egg—called a blastomere—into the embryo. If left on its natural course, a blastomere eventually develops into another embryo. This step “smashes” the two sets of genes together, with the newcomer filling the muscle void. The hybrid embryo was then placed into a surrogate, and roughly four months later, chimeric piglets were born.
Equipped with foreign DNA, the little guys nevertheless seemed totally normal, nosing around the lab and running everywhere without obvious clumsy stumbles. Under the microscope, their “xenomorph” muscles were indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill average muscle tissue—no signs of damage or inflammation, and as stretchy and tough as muscles usually are. What’s more, the foreign DNA seemed to have only developed into muscles, even though they were prevalent across the body. Extensive fishing experiments found no trace of the injected set of genes inside blood vessels or the brain.
A Better Human-Pig Hybrid
Confident in their recipe, the team next repeated the experiment with human cells, with a twist. Instead of using controversial human embryonic stem cells, which are obtained from aborted fetuses, they relied on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are skin cells that have been reverted back into a stem cell state.
Unlike previous attempts at making human chimeras, the team then scoured the genetic landscape of how pig and human embryos develop to find any genetic “brakes” that could derail the process. One gene, TP53, stood out, which was then promptly eliminated with CRISPR.
This approach provides a way for future studies to similarly increase the efficiency of interspecies chimeras, the team said.
The human-pig embryos were then carefully grown inside surrogate pigs for less than a month, and extensively analyzed. By day 20, the hybrids had already grown detectable human skeletal muscle. Similar to the pig-pig chimeras, the team didn’t detect any signs that the human genes had sprouted cells that would eventually become neurons or other non-muscle cells.
For now, human-animal chimeras are not allowed to grow to term, in part to stem the theoretical possibility of engineering humanoid hybrid animals (shudder). However, a sentient human-pig chimera is something that the team specifically addressed. Through multiple experiments, they found no trace of human genes in the embryos’ brain stem cells 20 and 27 days into development. Similarly, human donor genes were absent in cells that would become the hybrid embryos’ reproductive cells.
Despite bioethical quandaries and legal restrictions, human-animal chimeras have taken off, both as a source of insight into human brain development and a well of personalized organs and tissues for transplant. In 2019, Japan lifted its ban on developing human brain cells inside animal embryos, as well as the term limit—to global controversy. There’s also the question of animal welfare, given that hybrid clones will essentially become involuntary organ donors.
As the debates rage on, scientists are nevertheless pushing the limits of human-animal chimeras, while treading as carefully as possible.
“Our data…support the feasibility of the generation of these interspecies chimeras, which will serve as a model for translational research or, one day, as a source for xenotransplantation,” the team said.
Image Credit: Christopher Carson on Unsplash Continue reading
In the fictional worlds of film and TV, artificial intelligence has been depicted as so advanced that it is indistinguishable from humans. But what if we’re actually getting closer to a world where AI is capable of thinking and feeling?
Tech company UneeQ is embarking on that journey with its “digital humans.” These avatars act as visual interfaces for customer service chatbots, virtual assistants, and other applications. UneeQ’s digital humans appear lifelike not only in terms of language and tone of voice, but also because of facial movements: raised eyebrows, a tilt of the head, a smile, even a wink. They transform a transaction into an interaction: creepy yet astonishing, human, but not quite.
What lies beneath UneeQ’s digital humans? Their 3D faces are modeled on actual human features. Speech recognition enables the avatar to understand what a person is saying, and natural language processing is used to craft a response. Before the avatar utters a word, specific emotions and facial expressions are encoded within the response.
UneeQ may be part of a larger trend towards humanizing computing. ObEN’s digital avatars serve as virtual identities for celebrities, influencers, gaming characters, and other entities in the media and entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Soul Machines is taking a more biological approach, with a “digital brain” that simulates aspects of the human brain to modulate the emotions “felt” and “expressed” by its “digital people.” Amelia is employing a similar methodology in building its “digital employees.” It emulates parts of the brain involved with memory to respond to queries and, with each interaction, learns to deliver more engaging and personalized experiences.
Shiwali Mohan, an AI systems scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, is skeptical of these digital beings. “They’re humanlike in their looks and the way they sound, but that in itself is not being human,” she says. “Being human is also how you think, how you approach problems, and how you break them down; and that takes a lot of algorithmic design. Designing for human-level intelligence is a different endeavor than designing graphics that behave like humans. If you think about the problems we’re trying to design these avatars for, we might not need something that looks like a human—it may not even be the right solution path.”
And even if these avatars appear near-human, they still evoke an uncanny valley feeling. “If something looks like a human, we have high expectations of them, but they might behave differently in ways that humans just instinctively know how other humans react. These differences give rise to the uncanny valley feeling,” says Mohan.
Yet the demand is there, with Amelia seeing high adoption of its digital employees across the financial, health care, and retail sectors. “We find that banks and insurance companies, which are so risk-averse, are leading the adoption of such disruptive technologies because they understand that the risk of non-adoption is much greater than the risk of early adoption,” says Chetan Dube, Amelia’s CEO. “Unless they innovate their business models and make them much more efficient digitally, they might be left behind.” Dube adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated adoption of digital employees in health care and retail as well.
Amelia, Soul Machines, and UneeQ are taking their digital beings a step further, enabling organizations to create avatars themselves using low-code or no-code platforms: Digital Employee Builder for Amelia, Creator for UneeQ, and Digital DNA Studio for Soul Machines. Unreal Engine, a game engine developed by Epic Games, is doing the same with MetaHuman Creator, a tool that allows anyone to create photorealistic digital humans. “The biggest motivation for Digital Employee Builder is to democratize AI,” Dube says.
Mohan is cautious about this approach. “AI has problems with bias creeping in from data sets and into the way it speaks. The AI community is still trying to figure out how to measure and counter that bias,” she says. “[Companies] have to have an AI expert on board that can recommend the right things to build for.”
Despite being wary of the technology, Mohan supports the purpose behind these virtual beings and is optimistic about where they’re headed. “We do need these tools that support humans in different kinds of things. I think the vision is the pro, and I’m behind that vision,” she says. “As we develop more sophisticated AI technology, we would then have to implement novel ways of interacting with that technology. Hopefully, all of that is designed to support humans in their goals.” Continue reading