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Robots Podcast #119: Orbotix and Sphero

Posted 17 Dec 2012 at 03:05 UTC by John_RobotsPodcast

In Robots Podcast episode 119, reporter Per talks with Ian Bernstein about the hugely successful Sphero robot and the company he co-founded, Orbotix. A hardware tinkerer from a young age, Bernstein became involved with BEAM Robot Games. First attending New Mexico Tech then Colorado State University, he decided to start his own company after the options available at a career fair all bored him. In 2010, realizing the technology in smart phones far surpassed that being used in most consumer robots and wondering why those phones couldn't be used to control robots, he and cofounder Adam Wilson participated in an intensive, three-month program sponsored by startup accelerator TechStars, which helped them define and design their product, and helped them establish contacts through which they were able to find funding and a production facility they could work with. Sphero, the result of this process, is not just a product by a platform with its own growing ecosystem.

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Random Robot Roundup

Posted 15 Dec 2012 at 14:50 UTC by steve

First up this week, Pololu Robotics is having another sale, this one in honor of 12/12/12 and running through the end of the month. Lots of cool bargains from 12% to 50% off, so check it out! Casey let us know about his ATOMS Express Toys kickstarter campaign, a set of modular robotics actuators and sensors for LEGOs. Even cooler is an IndieGogo campaign for a palm-sized UAV based on a dragonfly and developed by robotics researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In less fun robot news, NYU student Josh Begley is tweeting every US Drone strike since 2002 and observers have noticed a distriburbing trend toward "double tap" strikes - that's a second strike on the same target shortly after the first to kill emergency responders. This is usually considered a war crime or terrorist act. After last month's story on the Human Rights Watch group's concern about autonomous killer robots, the DoD issued a new directive that says any autonomous robots "shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force" but denied any connection to the HRW report. Back to fun stuff, The Swirling Brain tipped us off to a Gizmodo story with video showing a "phallic UAV get all grabby with its scary six-foot arm". He also sent stories on a creepy Biomimetic robot with muscles and bones. 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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Aquatic Robotics

Meet the MIT Marine Robotics Team

Posted 14 Dec 2012 at 19:58 UTC by steve

MIT posted an article on the MIT Marine Robotic Team which serves as a good introduction to the group if you're not familiar with them. The team works on gliders, rafts, ROVs, AUVs, and other marine robots. The group is introducing future engineers to marine engineering and collaborates with other MIT groups such as the Society for Women Engineers and Keys to Empowerment Youth. A recent project allowed them to travel to Ketchikan, Alaska:

During their time in Alaska, the team also worked with middle school students and teachers by helping with a program called SeaGlide. The goal of SeaGlide is to introduce students to underwater vehicles and teach them how to create mini-gliders using water bottles and an arduino.

The article details the experiences of Jackie Sly, Adrian Tanner, and other team members as they focus on developing autonomous glider robots that will be used to detect oil plumes and ocean currents. For more details see the MIT article about the team.

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IEEE App puts Robots on your iPad

Posted 13 Dec 2012 at 22:38 UTC by steve

There's a new Robot iPad app out for robot fans. It was designed by the folks at IEEE Spectrum magazine and should appeal to anyone who's interested in robots. It's got lots of photos and video of cool robots that even kids will enjoy watching. There are also interviews with well-known roboticists that older, geekier iPad users may enjoy. Erico Guizzo, the robotics editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine writes:

I've been following your stories on robots.net for a long time, even before I started writing about robots at IEEE! Just wanted to let you know about an iPad app we're launching today, featuring 126 robots from 19 countries, with 360-degree views, interactive animations, hundreds of photos and videos, and more.

Rodney Brooks also gives the app his seal approval, saying it's a "state-of-the-art app with an incredible collection of robots including many of my old, dear friends". You can't beat that recommendation. It's almost enough to make me want to buy an Apple product. Ha, just kidding! Maybe an Android version is in the works? You can grab the Robots app from itunes for just $1.99 right now if you want to try it out. Read on to see some video of the Robots app in action.

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2012 Top 10 Robot Christmas Gift Ideas

Posted 12 Dec 2012 at 03:09 UTC by steve

It just wouldn't be Christmas without our annual top 10 list of the best Christmas gifts in the world for your favorite robot geek. Our three founding editors, steve, Rog-a-Matic, and The Swirling Brain spend most of the year on their in-depth analysis of robot gifting trends; processing mountains of statistical data and comparing thousands of robot components, all to present you with the most complete and accurate list of the best possible robot-related gifts. Or at least that's what they'd like you to think. Actually the selection process involves some late night Googling and a cup of really hot tea (the brownian motion used to prime the robot gift improbability generator). Anyway, our regular readers know how it works by now. A list of the ten best robot gifts we can think of for 2012, in ascending order of predicted roboticist desirability. Read on to see the list!

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Best Robot Photos of the Week

Posted 10 Dec 2012 at 17:20 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 fleet of quadcopters at Max Plank Institute, MIT's now retired Kismet robot, some art bots, movie bots, and a vintage robot or two. 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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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.

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