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Though 5G—a next-generation speed upgrade to wireless networks—is scarcely up and running (and still nonexistent in many places) researchers are already working on what comes next. It lacks an official name, but they’re calling it 6G for the sake of simplicity (and hey, it’s tradition). 6G promises to be up to 100 times faster than 5G—fast enough to download 142 hours of Netflix in a second—but researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how to make such ultra-speedy connections happen.
A new chip, described in a paper in Nature Photonics by a team from Osaka University and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, may give us a glimpse of our 6G future. The team was able to transmit data at a rate of 11 gigabits per second, topping 5G’s theoretical maximum speed of 10 gigabits per second and fast enough to stream 4K high-def video in real time. They believe the technology has room to grow, and with more development, might hit those blistering 6G speeds.
NTU final year PhD student Abhishek Kumar, Assoc Prof Ranjan Singh and postdoc Dr Yihao Yang. Dr Singh is holding the photonic topological insulator chip made from silicon, which can transmit terahertz waves at ultrahigh speeds. Credit: NTU Singapore
But first, some details about 5G and its predecessors so we can differentiate them from 6G.
Electromagnetic waves are characterized by a wavelength and a frequency; the wavelength is the distance a cycle of the wave covers (peak to peak or trough to trough, for example), and the frequency is the number of waves that pass a given point in one second. Cellphones use miniature radios to pick up electromagnetic signals and convert those signals into the sights and sounds on your phone.
4G wireless networks run on millimeter waves on the low- and mid-band spectrum, defined as a frequency of a little less (low-band) and a little more (mid-band) than one gigahertz (or one billion cycles per second). 5G kicked that up several notches by adding even higher frequency millimeter waves of up to 300 gigahertz, or 300 billion cycles per second. Data transmitted at those higher frequencies tends to be information-dense—like video—because they’re much faster.
The 6G chip kicks 5G up several more notches. It can transmit waves at more than three times the frequency of 5G: one terahertz, or a trillion cycles per second. The team says this yields a data rate of 11 gigabits per second. While that’s faster than the fastest 5G will get, it’s only the beginning for 6G. One wireless communications expert even estimates 6G networks could handle rates up to 8,000 gigabits per second; they’ll also have much lower latency and higher bandwidth than 5G.
Terahertz waves fall between infrared waves and microwaves on the electromagnetic spectrum. Generating and transmitting them is difficult and expensive, requiring special lasers, and even then the frequency range is limited. The team used a new material to transmit terahertz waves, called photonic topological insulators (PTIs). PTIs can conduct light waves on their surface and edges rather than having them run through the material, and allow light to be redirected around corners without disturbing its flow.
The chip is made completely of silicon and has rows of triangular holes. The team’s research showed the chip was able to transmit terahertz waves error-free.
Nanyang Technological University associate professor Ranjan Singh, who led the project, said, “Terahertz technology […] can potentially boost intra-chip and inter-chip communication to support artificial intelligence and cloud-based technologies, such as interconnected self-driving cars, which will need to transmit data quickly to other nearby cars and infrastructure to navigate better and also to avoid accidents.”
Besides being used for AI and self-driving cars (and, of course, downloading hundreds of hours of video in seconds), 6G would also make a big difference for data centers, IoT devices, and long-range communications, among other applications.
Given that 5G networks are still in the process of being set up, though, 6G won’t be coming on the scene anytime soon; a recent whitepaper on 6G from Japanese company NTTDoCoMo estimates we’ll see it in 2030, pointing out that wireless connection tech generations have thus far been spaced about 10 years apart; we got 3G in the early 2000s, 4G in 2010, and 5G in 2020.
In the meantime, as 6G continues to develop, we’re still looking forward to the widespread adoption of 5G.
Image Credit: Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay Continue reading →
For most of history, technology was about atoms, the manipulation of physical stuff to extend humankind’s reach. But in the last five or six decades, atoms have partnered with bits, the elemental “particles” of the digital world as we know it today. As computing has advanced at the accelerating pace described by Moore’s Law, technological progress has become increasingly digitized.
SpaceX lands and reuses rockets and self-driving cars do away with drivers thanks to automation, sensors, and software. Businesses find and hire talent from anywhere in the world, and for better and worse, a notable fraction of the world learns and socializes online. From the sequencing of DNA to artificial intelligence and from 3D printing to robotics, more and more new technologies are moving at a digital pace and quickly emerging to reshape the world around us.
In 2019, stories charting the advances of some of these digital technologies consistently made headlines. Below is, what is at best, an incomplete list of some of the big stories that caught our eye this year. With so much happening, it’s likely we’ve missed some notable headlines and advances—as well as some of your personal favorites. In either instance, share your thoughts and candidates for the biggest stories and breakthroughs on Facebook and Twitter.
With that said, let’s dive straight into the year.
No technology garnered as much attention as AI in 2019. With good reason. Intelligent computer systems are transitioning from research labs to everyday life. Healthcare, weather forecasting, business process automation, traffic congestion—you name it, and machine learning algorithms are likely beginning to work on it. Yet, AI has also been hyped up and overmarketed, and the latest round of AI technology, deep learning, is likely only one piece of the AI puzzle.
This year, Open AI’s game-playing algorithms beat some of the world’s best Dota 2 players, DeepMind notched impressive wins in Starcraft, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Libratus “crushed” pros at six-player Texas Hold‘em.
Speaking of games, AI’s mastery of the incredibly complex game of Go prompted a former world champion to quit, stating that AI ‘”cannot be defeated.”
But it isn’t just fun and games. Practical, powerful applications that make the best of AI’s pattern recognition abilities are on the way. Insilico Medicine, for example, used machine learning to help discover and design a new drug in just 46 days, and DeepMind is focused on using AI to crack protein folding.
Of course, AI can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to deepfakes and fake news, for example, AI makes both easier to create and detect, and early in the year, OpenAI created and announced a powerful AI text generator but delayed releasing it for fear of malicious use.
Recognizing AI’s power for good and ill, the OECD, EU, World Economic Forum, and China all took a stab at defining an ethical framework for the development and deployment of AI.
Processors and chips kickstarted the digital boom and are still the bedrock of continued growth. While progress in traditional silicon-based chips continues, it’s slowing and getting more expensive. Some say we’re reaching the end of Moore’s Law. While that may be the case for traditional chips, specialized chips and entirely new kinds of computing are waiting in the wings.
In fall 2019, Google confirmed its quantum computer had achieved “quantum supremacy,” a term that means a quantum computer can perform a calculation a normal computer cannot. IBM pushed back on the claim, and it should be noted the calculation was highly specialized. But while it’s still early days, there does appear to be some real progress (and more to come).
Should quantum computing become truly practical, “the implications are staggering.” It could impact machine learning, medicine, chemistry, and materials science, just to name a few areas.
Specialized chips continue to take aim at machine learning—a giant new chip with over a trillion transistors, for example, may make machine learning algorithms significantly more efficient.
Cellular computers also saw advances in 2019 thanks to CRISPR. And the year witnessed the emergence of the first reprogrammable DNA computer and new chips inspired by the brain.
The development of hardware computing platforms is intrinsically linked to software. 2019 saw a continued move from big technology companies towards open sourcing (at least parts of) their software, potentially democratizing the use of advanced systems.
Increasing interconnectedness has, in many ways, defined the 21st century so far. Your phone is no longer just a phone. It’s access to the world’s population and accumulated knowledge—and it fits in your pocket. Pretty neat. This is all thanks to networks, which had some notable advances in 2019.
The biggest network development of the year may well be the arrival of the first 5G networks.
5G’s faster speeds promise advances across many emerging technologies.
Self-driving vehicles, for example, may become both smarter and safer thanks to 5G C-V2X networks. (Don’t worry with trying to remember that. If they catch on, they’ll hopefully get a better name.)
Wi-Fi may have heard the news and said “hold my beer,” as 2019 saw the introduction of Wi-Fi 6. Perhaps the most important upgrade, among others, is that Wi-Fi 6 ensures that the ever-growing number of network connected devices get higher data rates.
Networks also went to space in 2019, as SpaceX began launching its Starlink constellation of broadband satellites. In typical fashion, Elon Musk showed off the network’s ability to bounce data around the world by sending a Tweet.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Forget Pokemon Go (unless you want to add me as a friend in the game—in which case don’t forget Pokemon Go). 2019 saw AR and VR advance, even as Magic Leap, the most hyped of the lot, struggled to live up to outsized expectations and sell headsets.
Mixed reality AR and VR technologies, along with the explosive growth of sensor-based data about the world around us, is creating a one-to-one “Mirror World” of our physical reality—a digital world you can overlay on our own or dive into immersively thanks to AR and VR.
Facebook launched Replica, for example, which is a photorealistic virtual twin of the real world that, among other things, will help train AIs to better navigate their physical surroundings.
Our other senses (beyond eyes) may also become part of the Mirror World through the use of peripherals like a newly developed synthetic skin that aim to bring a sense of touch to VR.
AR and VR equipment is also becoming cheaper—with more producers entering the space—and more user-friendly. Instead of a wired headset requiring an expensive gaming PC, the new Oculus Quest is a wireless, self-contained step toward the mainstream.
Niche uses also continue to gain traction, from Google Glass’s Enterprise edition to the growth of AR and VR in professional education—including on-the-job-training and roleplaying emotionally difficult work encounters, like firing an employee.
Digital Biology and Biotech
The digitization of biology is happening at an incredible rate. With wild new research coming to light every year and just about every tech giant pouring money into new solutions and startups, we’re likely to see amazing advances in 2020 added to those we saw in 2019.
None were, perhaps, more visible than the success of protein-rich, plant-based substitutes for various meats. This was the year Beyond Meat was the top IPO on the NASDAQ stock exchange and people stood in line for the plant-based Impossible Whopper and KFC’s Beyond Chicken.
In the healthcare space, a report about three people with HIV who became virus free thanks to a bone marrow transplants of stem cells caused a huge stir. The research is still in relatively early stages, and isn’t suitable for most people, but it does provides a glimmer of hope.
CRISPR technology, which almost deserves its own section, progressed by leaps and bounds. One tweak made CRISPR up to 50 times more accurate, while the latest new CRISPR-based system, CRISPR prime, was described as a “word processor” for gene editing.
Many areas of healthcare stand to gain from CRISPR. For instance, cancer treatment, were a first safety test showed ‘promising’ results.
CRISPR’s many potential uses, however, also include some weird/morally questionable areas, which was exemplified by one the year’s stranger CRISPR-related stories about a human-monkey hybrid embryo in China.
Incidentally, China could be poised to take the lead on CRISPR thanks to massive investments and research programs.
As a consequence of quick advances in gene editing, we are approaching a point where we will be able to design our own biology—but first we need to have a serious conversation as a society about the ethics of gene editing and what lines should be drawn.
3D printing has quietly been growing both market size and the objects the printers are capable of producing. While both are impressive, perhaps the biggest story of 2019 is their increased speed.
One example was a boat that was printed in just three days, which also set three new world records for 3D printing.
3D printing is also spreading in the construction industry. In Mexico, the technology is being used to construct 50 new homes with subsidized mortgages of just $20/month.
3D printers also took care of all parts of a 640 square-meter home in Dubai.
Generally speaking, the use of 3D printing to make parts for everything from rocket engines (even entire rockets) to trains to cars illustrates the sturdiness of the technology, anno 2019.
In healthcare, 3D printing is also advancing the cause of bio-printed organs and, in one example, was used to print vascularized parts of a human heart.
Living in Japan, I get to see Pepper, Aibo, and other robots on pretty much a daily basis. The novelty of that experience is spreading to other countries, and robots are becoming a more visible addition to both our professional and private lives.
We can’t talk about robots and 2019 without mentioning Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, which went on sale for the general public.
Meanwhile, Google, Boston Dynamics’ former owner, rebooted their robotics division with a more down-to-earth focus on everyday uses they hope to commercialize.
SoftBank’s Pepper robot is working as a concierge and receptionist in various countries. It is also being used as a home companion. Not satisfied, Pepper rounded off 2019 by heading to the gym—to coach runners.
Indeed, there’s a growing list of sports where robots perform as well—or better—than humans.
2019 also saw robots launch an assault on the kitchen, including the likes of Samsung’s robot chef, and invade the front yard, with iRobot’s Terra robotic lawnmower.
In the borderlands of robotics, full-body robotic exoskeletons got a bit more practical, as the (by all accounts) user-friendly, battery-powered Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO went commercial.
Self-driving cars did not—if you will forgive the play on words—stay quite on track during 2019. The fallout from Uber’s 2018 fatal crash marred part of the year, while some big players ratcheted back expectations on a quick shift to the driverless future. Still, self-driving cars, trucks, and other autonomous systems did make progress this year.
Winner of my unofficial award for best name in self-driving goes to Optimus Ride. The company also illustrates that self-driving may not be about creating a one-size-fits-all solution but catering to specific markets.
Self-driving trucks had a good year, with tests across many countries and states. One of the year’s odder stories was a self-driving truck traversing the US with a delivery of butter.
A step above the competition may be the future slogan (or perhaps not) of Boeing’s self-piloted air taxi that saw its maiden test flight in 2019. It joins a growing list of companies looking to create autonomous, flying passenger vehicles.
2019 was also the year where companies seemed to go all in on last-mile autonomous vehicles. Who wins that particular competition could well emerge during 2020.
Blockchain and Digital Currencies
Bitcoin continues to be the cryptocurrency equivalent of a rollercoaster, but the underlying blockchain technology is progressing more steadily. Together, they may turn parts of our financial systems cashless and digital—though how and when remains a slightly open question.
One indication of this was Facebook’s hugely controversial announcement of Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency. The company faced immediate pushback and saw a host of partners jump ship. Still, it brought the tech into mainstream conversations as never before and is putting the pressure on governments and central banks to explore their own digital currencies.
Deloitte’s in-depth survey of the state of blockchain highlighted how the technology has moved from fintech into just about any industry you can think of.
One of the biggest issues facing the spread of many digital currencies—Bitcoin in particular, you could argue—is how much energy it consumes to mine them. 2019 saw the emergence of several new digital currencies with a much smaller energy footprint.
2019 was also a year where we saw a new kind of digital currency, stablecoins, rise to prominence. As the name indicates, stablecoins are a group of digital currencies whose price fluctuations are more stable than the likes of Bitcoin.
In a geopolitical sense, 2019 was a year of China playing catch-up. Having initially banned blockchain, the country turned 180 degrees and announced that it was “quite close” to releasing a digital currency and a wave of blockchain-programs.
Renewable Energy and Energy Storage
While not every government on the planet seems to be a fan of renewable energy, it keeps on outperforming fossil fuel after fossil fuel in places well suited to it—even without support from some of said governments.
One of the reasons for renewable energy’s continued growth is that energy efficiency levels keep on improving.
As a result, an increased number of coal plants are being forced to close due to an inability to compete, and the UK went coal-free for a record two weeks.
We are also seeing more and more financial institutions refusing to fund fossil fuel projects. One such example is the European Investment Bank.
Renewable energy’s advance is tied at the hip to the rise of energy storage, which also had a breakout 2019, in part thanks to investments from the likes of Bill Gates.
The size and capabilities of energy storage also grew in 2019. The best illustration came from Australia were Tesla’s mega-battery proved that energy storage has reached a stage where it can prop up entire energy grids.
Image Credit: Mathew Schwartz / Unsplash Continue reading →
Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum
With their jaw-dropping agility and animal-like reflexes, Boston Dynamics’ bioinspired robots have always seemed to have no equal. But that preeminence hasn’t stopped the company from pushing its technology to new heights, sometimes literally. Its latest crop of legged machines can trudge up and down hills, clamber over obstacles, and even leap into the air like a gymnast. There’s no denying their appeal: Every time Boston Dynamics uploads a new video to YouTube, it quickly racks up millions of views. These are probably the first robots you could call Internet stars.
Photo: Bob O’Connor
84 cm HEIGHT
25 kg WEIGHT
5.76 km/h SPEED
SENSING: Stereo cameras, inertial measurement unit, position/force sensors
ACTUATION: 12 DC motors
POWER: Battery (90 minutes per charge)
Boston Dynamics, once owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and now by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has long been secretive about its designs. Few publications have been granted access to its Waltham, Mass., headquarters, near Boston. But one morning this past August, IEEE Spectrum got in. We were given permission to do a unique kind of photo shoot that day. We set out to capture the company’s robots in action—running, climbing, jumping—by using high-speed cameras coupled with powerful strobes. The results you see on this page: freeze-frames of pure robotic agility.
We also used the photos to create interactive views, which you can explore online on our Robots Guide. These interactives let you spin the robots 360 degrees, or make them walk and jump on your screen.
Boston Dynamics has amassed a minizoo of robotic beasts over the years, with names like BigDog, SandFlea, and WildCat. When we visited, we focused on the two most advanced machines the company has ever built: Spot, a nimble quadruped, and Atlas, an adult-size humanoid.
Spot can navigate almost any kind of terrain while sensing its environment. Boston Dynamics recently made it available for lease, with plans to manufacture something like a thousand units per year. It envisions Spot, or even packs of them, inspecting industrial sites, carrying out hazmat missions, and delivering packages. And its YouTube fame has not gone unnoticed: Even entertainment is a possibility, with Cirque du Soleil auditioning Spot as a potential new troupe member.
“It’s really a milestone for us going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert says in an interview.
Photo: Bob O’Connor
150 cm HEIGHT
80 kg WEIGHT
5.4 km/h SPEED
SENSING: Lidar and stereo vision
ACTUATION: 28 hydraulic actuators
Our other photographic subject, Atlas, is Boston Dynamics’ biggest celebrity. This 150-centimeter-tall (4-foot-11-inch-tall) humanoid is capable of impressive athletic feats. Its actuators are driven by a compact yet powerful hydraulic system that the company engineered from scratch. The unique system gives the 80-kilogram (176-pound) robot the explosive strength needed to perform acrobatic leaps and flips that don’t seem possible for such a large humanoid to do. Atlas has inspired a string of parody videos on YouTube and more than a few jokes about a robot takeover.
While Boston Dynamics excels at making robots, it has yet to prove that it can sell them. Ever since its founding in 1992 as a spin-off from MIT, the company has been an R&D-centric operation, with most of its early funding coming from U.S. military programs. The emphasis on commercialization seems to have intensified after the acquisition by SoftBank, in 2017. SoftBank’s founder and CEO, Masayoshi Son, is known to love robots—and profits.
The launch of Spot is a significant step for Boston Dynamics as it seeks to “productize” its creations. Still, Raibert says his long-term goals have remained the same: He wants to build machines that interact with the world dynamically, just as animals and humans do. Has anything changed at all? Yes, one thing, he adds with a grin. In his early career as a roboticist, he used to write papers and count his citations. Now he counts YouTube views.
In the Spotlight
Photo: Bob O’Connor
Boston Dynamics designed Spot as a versatile mobile machine suitable for a variety of applications. The company has not announced how much Spot will cost, saying only that it is being made available to select customers, which will be able to lease the robot. A payload bay lets you add up to 14 kilograms of extra hardware to the robot’s back. One of the accessories that Boston Dynamics plans to offer is a 6-degrees-of-freedom arm, which will allow Spot to grasp objects and open doors.
Photo: Bob O’Connor
Spot’s hardware is almost entirely custom-designed. It includes powerful processing boards for control as well as sensor modules for perception. The sensors are located on the front, rear, and sides of the robot’s body. Each module consists of a pair of stereo cameras, a wide-angle camera, and a texture projector, which enhances 3D sensing in low light. The sensors allow the robot to use the navigation method known as SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, to get around autonomously.
Photo: Bob O’Connor
In addition to its autonomous behaviors, Spot can also be steered by a remote operator with a game-style controller. But even when in manual mode, the robot still exhibits a high degree of autonomy. If there’s an obstacle ahead, Spot will go around it. If there are stairs, Spot will climb them. The robot goes into these operating modes and then performs the related actions completely on its own, without any input from the operator. To go down a flight of stairs, Spot walks backward, an approach Boston Dynamics says provides greater stability.
Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum
Spot’s legs are powered by 12 custom DC motors, each geared down to provide high torque. The robot can walk forward, sideways, and backward, and trot at a top speed of 1.6 meters per second. It can also turn in place. Other gaits include crawling and pacing. In one wildly popular YouTube video, Spot shows off its fancy footwork by dancing to the pop hit “Uptown Funk.”
Photo: Bob O’Connor
Atlas is powered by a hydraulic system consisting of 28 actuators. These actuators are basically cylinders filled with pressurized fluid that can drive a piston with great force. Their high performance is due in part to custom servo valves that are significantly smaller and lighter than the aerospace models that Boston Dynamics had been using in earlier designs. Though not visible from the outside, the innards of an Atlas are filled with these hydraulic actuators as well as the lines of fluid that connect them. When one of those lines ruptures, Atlas bleeds the hydraulic fluid, which happens to be red.
Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum
The current version of Atlas is a thorough upgrade of the original model, which was built for the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015. The newest robot is lighter and more agile. Boston Dynamics used industrial-grade 3D printers to make key structural parts, giving the robot greater strength-to-weight ratio than earlier designs. The next-gen Atlas can also do something that its predecessor, famously, could not: It can get up after a fall.
Walk This Way
Photo: Bob O’Connor
To control Atlas, an operator provides general steering via a manual controller while the robot uses its stereo cameras and lidar to adjust to changes in the environment. Atlas can also perform certain tasks autonomously. For example, if you add special bar-code-type tags to cardboard boxes, Atlas can pick them up and stack them or place them on shelves.
Photos: Bob O’Connor
Atlas’s control software doesn’t explicitly tell the robot how to move its joints, but rather it employs mathematical models of the underlying physics of the robot’s body and how it interacts with the environment. Atlas relies on its whole body to balance and move. When jumping over an obstacle or doing acrobatic stunts, the robot uses not only its legs but also its upper body, swinging its arms to propel itself just as an athlete would.
This article appears in the December 2019 print issue as “By Leaps and Bounds.” Continue reading →
Last time we saw Agility Robotics’ Digit biped, it was picking up a box from a Ford delivery van and autonomously dropping it off on a porch, while at the same time managing to not trip over stairs, grass, or small children. As a demo, it was pretty impressive, but of course there’s an enormous gap between making a video of a robot doing a successful autonomous delivery and letting that robot out into the semi-structured world and expecting it to reliably do a good job.
Agility Robotics is aware of this, of course, and over the last six months they’ve been making substantial improvements to Digit to make it more capable and robust. A new video posted today shows what’s new with the latest version of Digit—Digit v2.
We appreciate Agility Robotics foregoing music in the video, which lets us hear exactly what Digit sounds like in operation. The most noticeable changes are in Digit’s feet, torso, and arms, and I was particularly impressed to see Digit reposition the box on the table before grasping it to make sure that it could get a good grip. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell what’s new, so we asked Agility Robotics’ CEO Damion Shelton to get us up to speed.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the differences between Digit v1 and v2? We’re particularly interested in the new feet.
Damion Shelton: The feet now include a roll degree of freedom, so that Digit can resist lateral forces without needing to side step. This allows Digit v2 to balance on one foot statically, which Digit v1 and Cassie could not do. The larger foot also dramatically decreases load per unit area, for improved performance on very soft surfaces like sand.
The perception stack includes four Intel RealSense cameras used for obstacle detection and pick/place, plus the lidar. In Digit v1, the perception systems were brought up incrementally over time for development purposes. In Digit v2, all perception systems are active from the beginning and tied to a dedicated computer. The perception system is used for a number of additional things beyond manipulation, which we’ll start to show in the next few weeks.
The torso changes are a bit more behind-the-scenes. All of the electronics in it are now fully custom, thermally managed, and environmentally sealed. We’ve also included power and ethernet to a payload bay that can fit either a NUC or Jetson module (or other customer payload).
What exactly are we seeing in the video in terms of Digit’s autonomous capabilities?
At the moment this is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade. This is v2 hardware, so there’s one more full version in development prior to the 2020 launch, which will expand the autonomy envelope significantly.
“This is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade”
—Damion Shelton, Agility Robotics
What are some unique features or capabilities of Digit v2 that might not be obvious from the video?
For those who’ve used Cassie robots, the power-up and power-down ergonomics are a lot more user friendly. Digit can be disassembled into carry-on luggage sized pieces (give or take) in under 5 minutes for easy transport. The battery charges in-situ using a normal laptop-style charger.
I’m curious about this “stompy” sort of gait that we see in Digit and many other bipedal robots—are there significant challenges or drawbacks to implementing a more human-like (and presumably quieter) heel-toe gait?
There are no drawbacks other than increased complexity in controls and foot design. With Digit v2, the larger surface area helps with the noise, and v2 has similar or better passive-dynamic performance as compared to Cassie or Digit v1. The foot design is brand new, and new behaviors like heel-toe are an active area of development.
How close is Digit v2 to a system that you’d be comfortable operating commercially?
We’re on track for a 2020 launch for Digit v3. Changes from v2 to v3 are mostly bug-fix in nature, with a few regulatory upgrades like full battery certification. Safety is a major concern for us, and we have launch customers that will be operating Digit in a safe environment, with a phased approach to relaxing operational constraints. Digit operates almost exclusively under force control (as with cobots more generally), but at the moment we’ll err on the side of caution during operation until we have the stats to back up safety and reliability. The legged robot industry has too much potential for us to screw it up by behaving irresponsibly.
It will be a while before Digit (or any other humanoid robot) is operating fully autonomously in crowds of people, but there are so many large market opportunities (think indoor factory/warehouse environments) to address prior to that point that we expect to mature the operational safety side of things well in advance of having saturated the more robot-tolerant markets.
[ Agility Robotics ] Continue reading →
How each of us sees the world is about to change dramatically.
For all of human history, the experience of looking at the world was roughly the same for everyone. But boundaries between the digital and physical are beginning to fade.
The world around us is gaining layer upon layer of digitized, virtually overlaid information—making it rich, meaningful, and interactive. As a result, our respective experiences of the same environment are becoming vastly different, personalized to our goals, dreams, and desires.
Welcome to Web 3.0, or the Spatial Web. In version 1.0, static documents and read-only interactions limited the internet to one-way exchanges. Web 2.0 provided quite an upgrade, introducing multimedia content, interactive web pages, and participatory social media. Yet, all this was still mediated by two-dimensional screens.
Today, we are witnessing the rise of Web 3.0, riding the convergence of high-bandwidth 5G connectivity, rapidly evolving AR eyewear, an emerging trillion-sensor economy, and powerful artificial intelligence.
As a result, we will soon be able to superimpose digital information atop any physical surrounding—freeing our eyes from the tyranny of the screen, immersing us in smart environments, and making our world endlessly dynamic.
In the third post of our five-part series on augmented reality, we will explore the convergence of AR, AI, sensors, and blockchain and dive into the implications through a key use case in manufacturing.
A Tale of Convergence
Let’s deconstruct everything beneath the sleek AR display.
It all begins with graphics processing units (GPUs)—electric circuits that perform rapid calculations to render images. (GPUs can be found in mobile phones, game consoles, and computers.)
However, because AR requires such extensive computing power, single GPUs will not suffice. Instead, blockchain can now enable distributed GPU processing power, and blockchains specifically dedicated to AR holographic processing are on the rise.
Next up, cameras and sensors will aggregate real-time data from any environment to seamlessly integrate physical and virtual worlds. Meanwhile, body-tracking sensors are critical for aligning a user’s self-rendering in AR with a virtually enhanced environment. Depth sensors then provide data for 3D spatial maps, while cameras absorb more surface-level, detailed visual input. In some cases, sensors might even collect biometric data, such as heart rate and brain activity, to incorporate health-related feedback in our everyday AR interfaces and personal recommendation engines.
The next step in the pipeline involves none other than AI. Processing enormous volumes of data instantaneously, embedded AI algorithms will power customized AR experiences in everything from artistic virtual overlays to personalized dietary annotations.
In retail, AIs will use your purchasing history, current closet inventory, and possibly even mood indicators to display digitally rendered items most suitable for your wardrobe, tailored to your measurements.
In healthcare, smart AR glasses will provide physicians with immediately accessible and maximally relevant information (parsed from the entirety of a patient’s medical records and current research) to aid in accurate diagnoses and treatments, freeing doctors to engage in the more human-centric tasks of establishing trust, educating patients and demonstrating empathy.
Image Credit: PHD Ventures.
Convergence in Manufacturing
One of the nearest-term use cases of AR is manufacturing, as large producers begin dedicating capital to enterprise AR headsets. And over the next ten years, AR will converge with AI, sensors, and blockchain to multiply manufacturer productivity and employee experience.
(1) Convergence with AI
In initial application, digital guides superimposed on production tables will vastly improve employee accuracy and speed, while minimizing error rates.
Already, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — whose airlines supply 82 percent of air travel — recently implemented industrial tech company Atheer’s AR headsets in cargo management. And with barely any delay, IATA reported a whopping 30 percent improvement in cargo handling speed and no less than a 90 percent reduction in errors.
With similar success rates, Boeing brought Skylight’s smart AR glasses to the runway, now used in the manufacturing of hundreds of airplanes. Sure enough—the aerospace giant has now seen a 25 percent drop in production time and near-zero error rates.
Beyond cargo management and air travel, however, smart AR headsets will also enable on-the-job training without reducing the productivity of other workers or sacrificing hardware. Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, implemented Bosch’s Re’flekt One AR solution to gear technicians with “x-ray” vision: allowing them to visualize the insides of Range Rover Sport vehicles without removing any dashboards.
And as enterprise capabilities continue to soar, AIs will soon become the go-to experts, offering support to manufacturers in need of assembly assistance. Instant guidance and real-time feedback will dramatically reduce production downtime, boost overall output, and even help customers struggling with DIY assembly at home.
Perhaps one of the most profitable business opportunities, AR guidance through centralized AI systems will also serve to mitigate supply chain inefficiencies at extraordinary scale. Coordinating moving parts, eliminating the need for manned scanners at each checkpoint, and directing traffic within warehouses, joint AI-AR systems will vastly improve workflow while overseeing quality assurance.
After its initial implementation of AR “vision picking” in 2015, leading courier company DHL recently announced it would continue to use Google’s newest smart lens in warehouses across the world. Motivated by the initial group’s reported 15 percent jump in productivity, DHL’s decision is part of the logistics giant’s $300 million investment in new technologies.
And as direct-to-consumer e-commerce fundamentally transforms the retail sector, supply chain optimization will only grow increasingly vital. AR could very well prove the definitive step for gaining a competitive edge in delivery speeds.
As explained by Vital Enterprises CEO Ash Eldritch, “All these technologies that are coming together around artificial intelligence are going to augment the capabilities of the worker and that’s very powerful. I call it Augmented Intelligence. The idea is that you can take someone of a certain skill level and by augmenting them with artificial intelligence via augmented reality and the Internet of Things, you can elevate the skill level of that worker.”
Already, large producers like Goodyear, thyssenkrupp, and Johnson Controls are using the Microsoft HoloLens 2—priced at $3,500 per headset—for manufacturing and design purposes.
Perhaps the most heartening outcome of the AI-AR convergence is that, rather than replacing humans in manufacturing, AR is an ideal interface for human collaboration with AI. And as AI merges with human capital, prepare to see exponential improvements in productivity, professional training, and product quality.
(2) Convergence with Sensors
On the hardware front, these AI-AR systems will require a mass proliferation of sensors to detect the external environment and apply computer vision in AI decision-making.
To measure depth, for instance, some scanning depth sensors project a structured pattern of infrared light dots onto a scene, detecting and analyzing reflected light to generate 3D maps of the environment. Stereoscopic imaging, using two lenses, has also been commonly used for depth measurements. But leading technology like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and Intel’s RealSense 400-series camera implement a new method called “phased time-of-flight” (ToF).
In ToF sensing, the HoloLens 2 uses numerous lasers, each with 100 milliwatts (mW) of power, in quick bursts. The distance between nearby objects and the headset wearer is then measured by the amount of light in the return beam that has shifted from the original signal. Finally, the phase difference reveals the location of each object within the field of view, which enables accurate hand-tracking and surface reconstruction.
With a far lower computing power requirement, the phased ToF sensor is also more durable than stereoscopic sensing, which relies on the precise alignment of two prisms. The phased ToF sensor’s silicon base also makes it easily mass-produced, rendering the HoloLens 2 a far better candidate for widespread consumer adoption.
To apply inertial measurement—typically used in airplanes and spacecraft—the HoloLens 2 additionally uses a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. Further equipped with four “environment understanding cameras” that track head movements, the headset also uses a 2.4MP HD photographic video camera and ambient light sensor that work in concert to enable advanced computer vision.
For natural viewing experiences, sensor-supplied gaze tracking increasingly creates depth in digital displays. Nvidia’s work on Foveated AR Display, for instance, brings the primary foveal area into focus, while peripheral regions fall into a softer background— mimicking natural visual perception and concentrating computing power on the area that needs it most.
Gaze tracking sensors are also slated to grant users control over their (now immersive) screens without any hand gestures. Conducting simple visual cues, even staring at an object for more than three seconds, will activate commands instantaneously.
And our manufacturing example above is not the only one. Stacked convergence of blockchain, sensors, AI and AR will disrupt almost every major industry.
Take healthcare, for example, wherein biometric sensors will soon customize users’ AR experiences. Already, MIT Media Lab’s Deep Reality group has created an underwater VR relaxation experience that responds to real-time brain activity detected by a modified version of the Muse EEG. The experience even adapts to users’ biometric data, from heart rate to electro dermal activity (inputted from an Empatica E4 wristband).
Now rapidly dematerializing, sensors will converge with AR to improve physical-digital surface integration, intuitive hand and eye controls, and an increasingly personalized augmented world. Keep an eye on companies like MicroVision, now making tremendous leaps in sensor technology.
While I’ll be doing a deep dive into sensor applications across each industry in our next blog, it’s critical to first discuss how we might power sensor- and AI-driven augmented worlds.
(3) Convergence with Blockchain
Because AR requires much more compute power than typical 2D experiences, centralized GPUs and cloud computing systems are hard at work to provide the necessary infrastructure. Nonetheless, the workload is taxing and blockchain may prove the best solution.
A major player in this pursuit, Otoy aims to create the largest distributed GPU network in the world, called the Render Network RNDR. Built specifically on the Ethereum blockchain for holographic media, and undergoing Beta testing, this network is set to revolutionize AR deployment accessibility.
Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt (an investor in Otoy’s network), has even said, “I predicted that 90% of computing would eventually reside in the web based cloud… Otoy has created a remarkable technology which moves that last 10%—high-end graphics processing—entirely to the cloud. This is a disruptive and important achievement. In my view, it marks the tipping point where the web replaces the PC as the dominant computing platform of the future.”
Leveraging the crowd, RNDR allows anyone with a GPU to contribute their power to the network for a commission of up to $300 a month in RNDR tokens. These can then be redeemed in cash or used to create users’ own AR content.
In a double win, Otoy’s blockchain network and similar iterations not only allow designers to profit when not using their GPUs, but also democratize the experience for newer artists in the field.
And beyond these networks’ power suppliers, distributing GPU processing power will allow more manufacturing companies to access AR design tools and customize learning experiences. By further dispersing content creation across a broad network of individuals, blockchain also has the valuable potential to boost AR hardware investment across a number of industry beneficiaries.
On the consumer side, startups like Scanetchain are also entering the blockchain-AR space for a different reason. Allowing users to scan items with their smartphone, Scanetchain’s app provides access to a trove of information, from manufacturer and price, to origin and shipping details.
Based on NEM (a peer-to-peer cryptocurrency that implements a blockchain consensus algorithm), the app aims to make information far more accessible and, in the process, create a social network of purchasing behavior. Users earn tokens by watching ads, and all transactions are hashed into blocks and securely recorded.
The writing is on the wall—our future of brick-and-mortar retail will largely lean on blockchain to create the necessary digital links.
Integrating AI into AR creates an “auto-magical” manufacturing pipeline that will fundamentally transform the industry, cutting down on marginal costs, reducing inefficiencies and waste, and maximizing employee productivity.
Bolstering the AI-AR convergence, sensor technology is already blurring the boundaries between our augmented and physical worlds, soon to be near-undetectable. While intuitive hand and eye motions dictate commands in a hands-free interface, biometric data is poised to customize each AR experience to be far more in touch with our mental and physical health.
And underpinning it all, distributed computing power with blockchain networks like RNDR will democratize AR, boosting global consumer adoption at plummeting price points.
As AR soars in importance—whether in retail, manufacturing, entertainment, or beyond—the stacked convergence discussed above merits significant investment over the next decade. The augmented world is only just getting started.
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This article originally appeared on Diamandis.com
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