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Robots Help Scientists Study Evolution

Posted 5 Dec 2012 at 17:41 UTC (updated 5 Dec 2012 at 17:41 UTC) by steve

A National Science Foundation news release profiles research being done at BEACON, an NSF center for the study of evolution in action. The "in action" part is the key to their work, as noted in the news release:

Evolution is not just something from the past. It also happens in real time. Bacteria mutate and resist antibiotics. Viruses reinvent themselves and elude new medications. Animals adapt their behavior in response to a changing planet. "It's not that what we're doing won't shed light on evolution over millions of years, but we also are able to study things we can actually observe with our eyes," says Erik Goodman. "We are looking at evolution in the real world."

Robots and AI software that use evolutionary algorithms play a key role in helping researchers to understand and duplicate what they see happening in nature. As they learn about evolution and computational biology, the researchers are also making some interesting advances in robot software itself, as in the work they've done in evolving robot behavior and evolution of cooperation in artficial systems. Their website is full of articles that will be of interest to roboticists and AI developers and includes plenty of introductory level topics like Evolution 101: Neuroevolution. Part of the NFS funding also goes to working with high school students and university students. Read on to see a video interview in which BEACON's principle researcher talks about his long term artificial evolution project. While not directly related to the robotics aspect, this work led to his interest in digital organisms and computation biology at BEACON.

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Milli-Moteins and Wobble Motors

Posted 4 Dec 2012 at 20:11 UTC by steve

It's been a few years since we posted an update on the DARPA Programmable Matter program. They've been funding a project at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms. The result is the Milli-Motein, a self-folding chain of one centimeter robotic modules based on proteins and powered by newly the invented Electropermanent Wobble Stepper Motor. The resulting 4 segment long prototype can transform from a straight line into any desired shape in 5 seconds. According to the researchers at MIT:

"The Milli-Motein is functional as programmable matter, able to reconfigure itself into several shapes on command. As far as we know, it is the highest-resolution chain-type programmable matter system built to date."

At present the Milli-Moteins can barely lift their own weight. So they are still a long way from Transformers or liquid metal Terminators but they still show some amazing potential. Just compare today's news to our story on DARPA's 2009 Programmable Matter milestone. You can learn more about the Milli-Motein project from the original research paper, Programmable Assembly with Universally Foldable Strings (Moteins) (PDF format) and from the more recent paper describing in great detail the Milli-Motein hardware and functionality, The Milli-Motein: A Self-Folding Chain of Programmable Matter with a One Centimeter Module Pitch (PDF format). Read on to see video of the Milli-Moteins in action as well graphics of the Wobble Motor design and an exploded diagram of a single Motein.

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Best Robot Photos of the Week

Posted 3 Dec 2012 at 20:01 UTC (updated 3 Dec 2012 at 20:02 UTC) by steve

Every week we post a collection of the best robot photos submitted by our readers to our robots.net flickr group. Why? Because everyone likes to see cool new robots! This week's collection includes, coincidentally, several alcohol related robots. There's a drunk graffiti robot, a Taiwan Beer display robot, even a collection of flasks bearing robot artwork. There's also the usual assortment of walking, flying, and rolling robots, both real and artistic. Want to see your robot here? Post it to flickr and add it to the robots.net flickr group. It's easy! 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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Random Robot Roundup

Posted 30 Nov 2012 at 18:44 UTC by steve

Bernard Froment sent us info about MOSAIC, his collaborative open hardware project to develop service robots. Speaking of service robots, Shannon let us know that the 2013 International Robotics Summit (Innorobo) for service robotics is coming up March 19-21 in Lyon, France. We noticed a tutorial on PID control for robots using an Arduino (it looks to be in Portuguese but that's what Google translate is for). The Open Hardware news site, FreeIO.org mentioned an interesting interview with Catarina Mota. Roboter Soong told us about the company he co-founded, Makeblock, which makes components for robot construction. Remember those killer robots we were talking about earlier this week? One of the X-47B prototypes was hoisted onto a Navy aircraft carrier for its first carrier take off and landing trials. NASA, meanwhile, has been busy reconsidering the advantages of analog vs digital electronics and produced an analog microchip that can perform Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) calculations super fast using only a few transistors where the equivalent digital circuit would require thousands; this could revolutionize onboard processing for space probes. The Swirling Brain sent a link to Toshiba's newest robot, which is designed to enter radioactive nuclear power plants that are too hot for humans. 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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HyTAQ: a Hybrid Terrestrial and Aerial Quadrotor

Posted 29 Nov 2012 at 17:11 UTC by steve

The Illinois Institute of Technology's Robotics Lab is working on an interesting variation of the popular quadrotor flying robot. They've added a rolling cage that allows the robot to roll along the ground as well as fly. Why would you want to do that? Because rolling requires a lot less power than flying. From the researchers:

Experimental results show that the hybrid robot can travel a distance 4 times greater and operate almost 6 times longer than an aerial only system. It also solves one of the most challenging problems in terrestrial robot design — obstacle avoidance. When an obstacle is encountered, the system simply flies over it.

The research on this project is being done by Arash Kalantari and Matthew Spenko of IIT. The lab is also working other interesting projects including perched landing of micro air-vehicles, agile non-holonomic robots, and omnidirectional rough terrain robots. See the Robotics Lab research projects page to read more about out their other robots. Read on to see video of the HyTAQ robot rolling and flying.

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Super-Strong Nanotech Artificial Muscles

Posted 28 Nov 2012 at 19:48 UTC by steve

One of the problems with the artificial muscles commonly used in robots is their poor performance compared to biological muscles. This is an important reason why they generally have not found favor as a replacement for conventional motors. A new artificial muscle developed at the University of Texas at Dallas Nanotech Institute may change that. Researchers there, led by Ray Baughman, are working on muscles made from carbon nanotubes, twisted into yarn and filled with paraffin wax. The resulting muscles can lift 100,000 times their own weight and generate 85 time the mechanical power of natural, biological muscles. According to Baughman,

"Because of their simplicity and high performance, these yarn muscles could be used for such diverse applications as robots, catheters for minimally invasive surgery, micromotors, mixers for microfluidic circuits, tunable optical systems, microvalves, positioners and even toys."

The coiled nature of the yarn provides two additional applications. First it can twist and untwist at up to 11,500 RPM, allowing it be used in much the same way as the rubber band that powers a model airplane. Second, the yarn can be sewn into fabrics which then have macro-level properties that can change in the presence of certain chemicals, lighting conditions, or temperature levels. A paper on the latest development appeared in the 16 Nov issue of Science. Unfortunately Science is a pay-walled journal so it's not generally available yet. You can, however, read other related papers on the Nanotech Institute's publications page. You can also get a little more info from the recent UTD news release. Read on to see video of the super-muscles lifting weights and doing other cool things.

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The Universe, The Internet, and The Brain

Posted 27 Nov 2012 at 19:38 UTC by steve

A recently published paper, titled Network Cosmology (PDF format) has demonstrated remarkable similarities in the structure and dynamics of several large scale networks that you may have heard of: the human brain, The Internet, and universe. The paper is by six researchers including Dmitri Krioukov, perhaps best known as the scientist whose four page physics paper titled "Proof of Innocence" (PDF format) was presented to the judge in court, saving Dmitri from a $300 traffic ticket. Having avoided his traffic fine, Dmitri and friends went on to demonstrate that many complex networks from the brain to the entire universe seems to be governed by similar underlying laws. To do this, they looked at the math of causal sets a representation of the quantum gravity that underlies spacetime. From the paper:

"We show that the structure of these networks in de Sitter spacetime, such as our accelerating universe, is remarkably similar to the structure of complex networks -- the brain or the Internet, for example. [...] We show that as a consequence of a simple geometric duality, the growth dynamics of complex networks and de Sitter causal sets are asymptotically identical. These findings suggest that unexpectedly similar mechanisms may shape the large-scale structure and dynamics of complex systems as different as the brain, the Internet, and the universe."

According to the researchers, the probability of the equivalence between all these complex networks being pure coincidence is very low, so there's almost certainly some fundamental law at work. It would be very interesting to identify and understand a new law of physics that affects the emergence of four-dimensional space from the quantum vacuum, the development of our brains, and the dynamics of our social network of friends. The paper contains lots of math, so we recommend against reading it while you're driving.

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Best Robot Photos of the Week

Posted 26 Nov 2012 at 17:25 UTC by steve

Every week we post a collection of the best robot photos submitted by our readers to our robots.net flickr group. Why? Because everyone likes to see cool new robots! This week's collection includes a law enforcement robot from Knoxville, a variety of robot art, some robot toys, hobby robots, and even a cat that likes robots. If you'd like to submit your robot photos, join the robots.net 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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Medical Robotics

Can Robots Motivate the Eldery to Exercise?

Posted 22 Nov 2012 at 15:08 UTC by steve

The USC Robotics Research Lab recently posted a journal paper online that appeared in the August 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE, titled Using Socially Assistive Human-Robot Interaction to Motivate Physical Exercise for Older Adults (PDF format). That title may give you visions of Bender chasing elderly people around the room with a deadly weapon; or perhaps Pusher and Shover robots. But what authors Juan Fasola and Maja j. Matarić are talking about is nothing like that. From the paper:

"This paper focuses on the design methodology, implementation details, and user study evaluations of a SAR system that aims to motivate and engage elderly users in physical exercise as well as social interaction to help address the physical and cognitive healthcare needs of the growing elderly population. SAR systems equipped with such motivational, social, and therapeutic capabilities have the potential to facilitate elderly individuals to live independently in their own homes, to enhance their quality of life, and to improve their overall health."

The robot, named Bandit, is a biomimetic anthropomorphic robot, which in this case means a vaguely humanoid torso mounted on a wheeled platfrom. The robot attempts to engage the elderly person in a variety of games, some of which involve making arm gestures and asking the human to imitate them. The robot observes and offers advice as they attempt to repeat the exercise. Studies of interactions with elderly volunteers seems to support the idea that the robot can succeed at motivating exercise in way humans find enjoyable. You can learn more about the project on the UCS Interaction Lab Robot Exercise System webpage. Read on to see photos and video of Bandit in action.

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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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