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Military Robotics

Human Rights Groups Fight Killer Robots

Posted 21 Nov 2012 at 19:23 UTC by steve

We've posted more stories on robot ethics over the years than I can count. The general public and lawmakers still seem ignorant of the issues and even many roboticists still seem unclear on the import of autonomous robots that can make the decision of when to kill and who to kill without a human in the loop at all. But each day we come closer to having fully autonomous war robots. Some researchers, like Ronald Arkin, believe we can create robots that fight only for us and kill only in an ethical fashion. Other researchers, like Noel Sharkey, have warned that we shouldn't build autonomous weapons and that, if we do, they will eventually be copied and turned on us as well. A good comparison of Arkin's and Sharkey's views can be found in Part 1 and Part 2 of the Robots podcast on Robot Ethics. The latest development in this area is the publication of a 50-page report by Human Rights Watch called Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots (PDF format). From the report:

Based on the threats fully autonomous weapons would pose to civilians, Human Rights Watch and IHRC make the following recommendations, which are expanded on at the end of this report:
  • Prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument.
  • Adopt national laws and policies to prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.
  • Commence reviews of technologies and components that could lead to fully autonomous weapons. These reviews should take place at the very beginning of the development process and continue throughout the development and testing phases.

Noel Sharkey was a technical reviewer on their report and provided input. Even if it's too late to stop the development of fully autonomous robots or Apocalyptic AI, it's well worth reading this report, which covers a lot of interesting points. If not an outright ban, it's likely we'll at least seen changes to existing laws as well as new ethics requirements researchers. While we have yet to reach the point of fully autonomous killer robots, several robots are quite close, such as the Northrop Grumman X-47B, pictured above, and the Samsung semi-autonomous Techwin SGR-A1 border guard which can fire on and kill humans. If you're not up for reading the full report, read on to see the short video released by the Human Rights Initiative to summarize the content.
CC licensed image of X47B from flickr user US DoD

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Robots

Black Friday for Robot Builders

Posted 20 Nov 2012 at 17:36 UTC by steve

It's almost time once again for Black Friday, the annual, post-Thanksgiving chaos of consumerism in the United States. As long as it's happening, we might as well point out a few bargains that will be of interest to robot builders. Pololu's Black Friday sale begins at midnight on Thursday. Exact details are still under wraps but based on previous years, it will be well worth checking out. Rick Stiles of Trossen Robotics let us in on the details of their sale:

We'll be running 2 promotions from Black Friday through Cyber Monday. The coupon code "Cyber2012" will be a 20% discount on the following products: the PhantomX Reactor Robot Arm Kit, PhantomX Pincher Robot Arm Kit, PhantomX AX-12 Quadruped Comprehensive Kit, PhantomX AX Hexapod Comprehensive Kit, and the ArbotiX Commander v2.0. The same coupon code is also good for 10% off anything else in the store.

Mail order surplus electronic company Electronic Goldmine has Black Friday specials planned but hasn't announced them yet. They have an email sign up for those who want an early warning. BG Micro has some specials, more specials, and a "virtual sidewalk sale" going on. SparkFun is skipping Black Friday but taking part in Cyber Monday with an offer of free shipping on all orders. American Science and Surplus has some typically bizarre items on sale. And it's usually worth checking Amazon for Roombas, or other home robots or robot toys and maybe at Harbor Freight's Black Friday sale for tools. If you hear about any others, let us know and we'll update this posting.

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Interviews

Robots Podcast #117: Chris Chesher

Posted 20 Nov 2012 at 16:19 UTC by John_RobotsPodcast

Chris Chesher

Dr. Chris Chesher is a senior lecturer in Digital Cultures, and is currently conducting research into the cultures of contemporary robotics, in association with the Centre for Social Robotics at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. His research investigates how various technologies become historically woven through social structures and cultural practices. He brings a new and interesting perspective as his approach mixes science and technology studies, media studies and ethnography in an effort to understand robotic technologies and everyday-life.

Read On | Tune In

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Robots

Best Robot Photos of the Week

Posted 19 Nov 2012 at 19:46 UTC by steve

This is the first of a new weekly feature on robots.net. Every week we'll post a collection of the best robot photos submitted by you to our robots.net flickr group. Why? Because everyone likes to see cool robots! This week's collection includes a little of everything to give you and idea of the sort of photos we'd like to see. Photos of real robots, robot competitions, robot being used in research and STEM education projects. But we'd also like to see robot art of all kinds, movie robot replica projects, vintage toy robots, pretty much anything related to robots. If you'd like to submit your robot photo for next week's collection, join our flickr group. If you're not already a flickr member, it's free and easy to sign up. Read on to see the best robot photos of the week!

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Robots

Random Robot Roundup

Posted 18 Nov 2012 at 18:30 UTC by steve

This week's dump of stories from the editor's in-box include an NFS news release about robobees, a story of NASA engineers building a fuel-cell powered UAV in their spare time to do wildlife surveillance and other ecological missions. A review of Thomas Nagel's new book on consciousness. We've also got a story about a US DOE initiative to develop a simple programming language for biology lab robots, called PaR-PaR. Reader Kra5h sent a link to his instructable on hacking the Snap Circuits Rover. FIRST robotics Team 3940 has created an Indiegogo campaign to fund AutiBot, a robot they're developing to help Autistic children. The FreeIO.org site is looking for suggestions of good electronics and embedded design books to recommend in their resources section and they've also put up a poll asking what open hardware project you'd like see them work on next. Lastly, Robots.net has started a new flickr group where you can post photos of your latest robot project. We'll be picking some weekly favorites from the group to post about here. Know any other robot news, gossip, or amazing facts we should report? Send 'em our way please. Don't forget to follow us on twitter and Facebook. And now you can add us to your Google+ circles too.

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Robots

Swarm Optimized Cartesian Ping-Pong, Anyone?

Posted 16 Nov 2012 at 20:37 UTC by steve

Engineers love to do crazy things and when they involve robots, we love to tell you about them. We've reported on a lot of ping-pong playing robots over the years but usually they're based on conventional industrial robot arms or humanoid arm designs. What if, instead of a multi-jointed arm, you wanted to design a cartesian ping-pong playing robot? That is, a robot that can only move linearly on an X, Y, and Z axis. That's the question Hossein Jahandideh and his fellow engineers asked themselves. And to make things more interesting, they used a Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO) algorithm to plan for the approach of the incoming ping-pong balls. The result is the paper, "Ball Striking Algorithm for a 3 DOF Ping-Pong Playing Robot Based on Particle Swarm Optimziation" (PDF format). From the paper:

"It has been shown that a robot as simple and low cost as a Cartesian robot holding a standard racket can be programmed to play ping-pong against a human player. A PSO-based algorithm was proposed to determine when and how to hit the ball. This algorithm, aside from having a near perfect success rate at throwing the ball to a specified target, can also be adjusted to follow various strategies, such as the ball reaching the target with maximum speed, or with maximum spin, etc."

The paper covers all the math developed to build and test a simulation of the cartesian ping-pong playing robot. The construction of an actual robot is still in the planning stages. We look forward to seeing video of their results. The authors note that the algorithms developed in the paper should be applicable to conventional, non-cartesian robots as well.

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Medical Robotics

NIH Funds UMB Brain Surgery Robot

Posted 15 Nov 2012 at 19:34 UTC by steve

According to a University of Maryland news release the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $2 million grant to UMD and UMB to further their development of a tiny surgical robot that would assist neurosurgeons in the removal of hard to reach brain tumors. The robot is known as the Minimally Invasive Neurosurgical Intracranial Robot (MINIR) and has been under development at the Robotics Automation & Medical System Laboratory for a number of years. The MINIR Prototype has been tested while under continuous magnetic resonance imaging. The grant will allow the development of a second-generation prototype, MINIR-II. From the MINIR website:

"We envision MINIR to be under the direct control of a human operator, with targeting information obtained exclusively from frequently-updated MRI. MINIR will be fully MRI compatible, so that frequently-updated MRI can be used to provide virtual visualization of the target by the human operator as the target's 3-dimensional shape changes during tumor removal."

As seen in the rendering above, the MINIR robot will fit inside the MRI scanner with the patient, allowing surgery to be done while the patient remains in the MRI machine. For all the details, you can check out the paper, "Toward a Meso-Scale SMA-Actuated MRI-Compatible Neurosurgical Robot" (PDF format). Other papers about the MINIR robot may be found on the MINIR project webpage. Read on to see photos and video of the earliest MINIR prototype in action.

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Hardware

OLinuXino Nano-ITX Open Hardware SBC

Posted 14 Nov 2012 at 17:03 UTC by steve

Move over, Raspberry Pi, there's another open hardware single board computer (SBC) out to win your hearts and minds. The weirdly named Olimex OLinuXino is making the news today on PCWorld, Slashdot, and FreeIO. The OLinuXino sounds like it might be Xenu's computer of choice. But in reality, it's a Nano-ITX with a 1 GHz ARM A13 Cortex A8 CPU with 3D Mali400 GPU. No word yet on whether there's source for the Mali400 GPU driver but a free software driver project called Lima exists. The board has 512MB of RAM, VGA out, SD slot, USB, audio in/out, a Real time clock, a UEXT connector that supports modules with Zigbee and bluetooth. It also has some GPIO pins, 3 I2C, 2 UARTs. Like many ARM SBCs, it lacks any A/D or D/A, which may be problematic for robotics users. But with the addition of an Arduino to handle I/O, this might make an interesting robotics controller. The board can run a variety of GNU/Linux distros like debian and can also run the Linux-based Android distro used on most mobile devices. Cost for all this open hardware goodness? About $57 USD.

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Military Robotics

DARPA Working on Sub-stalking Robots

Posted 13 Nov 2012 at 17:33 UTC by steve

A DARPA program is developing autonomous underwater robots that will stalk submarines and continuously report their location and movements. In particular, these robots will look for the quiet diesel submarines that are becoming more common and perceived as a threat to both military and civilian maritime activity. Russian and France are selling these inexpensive ($200-$300 million) submarines like crazy to anyone who wants them and at least 40 nations now own and operate them including tiny countries like Venezuela. From DARPA's news release, program manager Scott Littlefield says:

“Key features and technology for the vessel include advanced software, robust autonomy for safe operations in accordance with maritime laws, and innovative sensors to continuously track the quietest of submarine targets. Our goal is to transition an operational game-changer to the Navy. This should create an asymmetry to our advantage, negating a challenging submarine threat at one-tenth their cost of building subs."

DAPRA calls the robots Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessels (ACTUV). In August DARPA awarded a $58 million, 3 year contract to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Yesterday, CMU NREC announced they'd been selected as part of a team assembled by SAIC to build and test the ACTUV robot.

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Science

Reasoning Without Language

Posted 12 Nov 2012 at 17:33 UTC by steve

An interesting 2009 paper by Ronaldo Vigo and Colin Allen has been released online, titled How to reason without words: inference as categorization (PDF format). The paper takes on the common idea that reasoning is a singularly human activity that relies on our language-based conception of inference. The alternative model of reasoning presented in the paper could apply to nonhuman animals as well as to robots. From the introduction:

We describe an alternative framework that is capable of providing a unified approach to reasoning and the subsymbolic perceptual processes underlying similarity assessment, discrimination, and categorization. The framework is provided by the modal similarity theory (MST) of Vigo (2008), which we describe in ‘‘Modal similarity theory’’.

The paper looks at similarities and differences between the reasoning abilities of animals such as dogs and young human children. It then attempt to build a plausible case for how inference could be accomplished without language. An experiment involving similarity assessment of iconic images is described. A connection is drawn between similarity assessment and boolean operators. Finally they propose that reasoning is based on more fundamental, non-linguistic processes that include discrimination, categorization, and similarity assessment.

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