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Collision-based Unorganized Machines

Posted 8 Dec 2012 at 16:51 UTC by steve

Alan Turing, who probably got there first no matter how exotic your approach to artificial intelligence, once had the idea of "unorganized machines". He was thinking of possible ways that the initial neural networks might form a newborn baby's brain. One of his ideas was a collection of initially random logic gates that cold self-organize or be trained for particular tasks over time. He saw this as a possible approach to realize intelligent machines. We could implement such an idea today in hardware or software but what about using chemistry? This is exactly what researchers at the Unconventional Computing Group at the University of the West of England are doing. As described in their recent paper, "Toward Turing's A-Type Unorganized Machines in an Unconventional Substrate: A Dynamic Representation in Compartmentalised Excitable Chemical Media" (PFD format):

Collision-based computing exploits the interaction of moving elements and their mutual effects upon each other’s movement wherein the presence or absence of elements at a given point in space and time can be interpreted as computation. Collision-based computing is here envisaged within recurrent networks of BZ vesicles, i.e., based upon the movement and interaction of waves of excitation within and across vesicle membranes ... A-type unorganised machines can therefore be envisaged within networks of BZ vesicles using the three-vesicle construct for the NAND gate nodes, together with chains of vesicles to form the connections between them.

The BZ (Belousov Zhabotinsky) medium is a chemical concoction of sulphuric acid, sodium bromated, cyclohexadione, and a few other chemicals, the result is pictured above. Think of it as a collection of bubbles that form something like neural networks where the signals are waves passing through the points where the bubbles touch, forming logic gates and other types of circuits. Researchers have described lots of common logic components including AND, NAND, NOR XOR, inverters, adders, and more. They've formed memory circuits and other more complex circuits. An interesting overview of the logic gates can be found in a set of slides from the talk, Neural Isomorphisms of Adaptive Belousov Zhabotinsky Encapsulated Vesicles (PFD format). So who knows, instead of robots with positronic brains, we may end up with robots who have chemicals sloshing around in their heads! (and does BZ remind anyone else of the Mathmos from Barbarella?)

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Random Robot Roundup

Posted 7 Dec 2012 at 17:12 UTC by steve

Time for our weekly roundup of robots stories you've sent us. Tim Smith reminded us that ROS, the open source robot operating system, celebrated a five year anniversary last month. Robotics Business Review posted an update on Kevin Warwick, the well-known professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading. CMU's Robotics Institute has launched a new robot news website called Robot Radar which will feature experts putting mainstream media robot news into perspective. Mainstream media like The New Yorker, who asked in a recent article whether your driversless car should drive off the road and kill you to save a busload of children. A recent MIT study discovered the unsurprising fact that flying a teleoperated drone mostly consists of long periods of boredom. The The Swirling Brain told us about a new SyFy show which will feature humanoid boxing "robots" (well, robot-looking kinetic sculptures or something anyway). He also pointed out an interest new Honda robot called Hearbo that is designed to interpret ambient sound much like humans, listening for voices or other recognizable sounds and pinpointing them in space. 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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Spaun: The First Working Brain Simulation

Posted 6 Dec 2012 at 18:55 UTC (updated 6 Dec 2012 at 19:00 UTC) by steve

We've reported on a lot of large-scale brain simulations in the past including a partial mouse brain, a rat neocortex and (maybe) a cat brain. None of those simulation actually did anything. Their goal was to simulate the neural network but nothing more. SPAUN is something different. The name stands for Semantic Pointer Architecture: Unified Network. The SPAUN simulation is described in the recently published paper, SPAUN: A Perception-Cognition-Action Model Using Spiking Neurons (PDF format). One of the authors, Chris Eliasmith, has a book coming out soon that details the Semantic Pointer Architecture (SPA) in more detail and describes its basis in the Neural Engineering Framework (NEF). From the paper:

We present a large-scale cognitive neural model called Spaun (Semantic Pointer Architecture: Unified Network), and show simulation results on 6 tasks (digit recognition, tracing from memory, serial working memory, question answering, addition by counting, and symbolic pattern completion). The model consists of 2.3 million spiking neurons whose neural properties, organization, and connectivity match that of the mammalian brain. Input consists of images of handwritten and typed numbers and symbols, and output is the motion of a 2 degree-of-freedom arm that writes the model’s responses. Tasks can be presented in any order, with no “rewiring” of the brain for each task. Instead, the model is capable of internal cognitive control (via the basal ganglia), selectively routing information throughout the brain and recruiting different cortical components as needed for each task.

As with any model, it's not as cool as the real thing. In SPAUN's case, the model doesn't learn synaptic connection wegiths, those were derived by the researchers. The SPAUN simulation has only a single fixed "eye" and a single two-jointed arm. Further, SPAUN can only perform tasks related to series or lists of numbers. Still SPAUN is an entire working neural system that includes visual perception, cognition, and motor action, which represents a useful advance in the field of brain simulation. Continued work on this type of model will undoubtedly shed more light on human cognition as well as robotics and AI. And you knew we couldn't stop with just a description of something this cool, so read on to see some videos of SPAUN actually doing its thing.

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Robots Podcast #118: The Wambots Team

Posted 5 Dec 2012 at 17:58 UTC by John_RobotsPodcast

photo of Thomas Bräunl

Thomas Bräunl is Professor at the University of Western Australia and leader of the Robotics & Automation Lab. He tells us about the first MAGIC Challenge (Multi Autonomous Ground-Robotics International Challenge) that took place in 2010 in Adelaide, South Australia.

Read On | Tune In

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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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