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Abstraction in Informational Organisms

Posted 9 May 2013 at 19:07 UTC by steve

The history of computers is the history of abstraction. Early calculating machines, like Leibniz's Stepped Reckoner, hid the calculating process from the user, but still required the user to input numbers and provided numbers as output. With the advent of Turing-complete machines, we reached the first major abstraction level of using symbols to represent things. A paper by Federico Gobbo and Marco Benini titled, The Minimal Levels of Abstraction in the History of Modern Computing (PDF format), goes a bit further. It takes up the notion of thinking about modern machines in terms of the relation between operators, programmers, users, and computers as an interconnected informational organism or inforg, so that we can consider further levels of abstraction that have emerged. From the paper:

This point (symbolic representation) was the big change of the modern era, where the universal computing machinery started to hide some symbolic interpretation of numbers through abstractions and organisations in parallel, where each LoO (Level of Organization) is the externalisation of the correspondent LoA (Level of Abstraction). The more computers developed, the more information got hidden and needed reconstruction on demand: to correctly explain this historical process, we [propose] here a constructive based formalism

The authors consider the gradual increase in abstraction as more and more details about the underlying computation are hidden from the human elements of the inforg. First, the Von Neumann Machine, then the concept of an Operating System and applications. Then applications are abstracted into a visible part (the GUI) and an invisible part. Additional abstractions are introduced for interactivity, multitasking, distributed processing. As the abstractions accumulate, the separation between humans in the inforg (the programmer and the user) increase. How will robotics and AI affect this evolving relationship? For more historical background on their ideas, see From Computing Machineries to Cloud Computing: The Minimal Levels of Abstraction of Inforgs through History (PDF format).

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Robots Podcast #129: Controlled flight of insect-sized rob

Posted 6 May 2013 at 17:09 UTC by John_RobotsPodcast

While they don't yet have on-board sensors, processors, or power, these tiny flying robots are nevertheless a dramatic step forward in the effort to create autonomous flying robots modeled on flies or bees. Part of the Micro Air Vehicles Project (a.k.a. Robobees) of the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, within the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in collaboration with the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Both the physical design, which provides the ability to apply torque around all three axis, and the control algorithms were created by a team composed of graduate students Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon and postdoc fellow Sawyer Fuller, under the direction of Professor Robert Wood, himself the subject of a previous Robots Podcast episode. They share authorship of the paper Controlled Flight of a Biologically Inspired, Insect-Scale Robot which appeared in the May 3rd issue of Science.

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Best Robot Photos of the Week

Posted 3 May 2013 at 20:35 UTC by steve

This edition of best robot photos of the week includes an Officer Mac robot from the Computer History Museum, Colin Angle's telepresence bot, an industrial cheese robot, a Dalek, a robo-dragonfly, a sexy wearable R2-D2, an octopod drone, some giant robot ants, and other assorted treats. 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! 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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Robo Raven Achieves Bird-like Flight

Posted 2 May 2013 at 22:24 UTC by steve

Ornithopers have been around for many years and robots based on the concept are not new. But, according to a UMD news release, researchers there have made some new breakthroughs on this old idea by finally designing a robot bird that independently controls the flapping of each wing. This means the robot can fly much like a real bird, adapting to wind speed changes and performing aerobatic maneuvers. From Professors S. K. Gupta's blog post about the project:

Real birds are able to precisely control each wing during flight which enables them to do all sorts of aerobatic maneuvers. This has been a very difficult feat to achieve in bird-inspired robots. In fact, prior efforts (including our own) utilized only simple wing motions where both wings are driven by a single motor. So motions of two wings are coupled. Minor adjustments can be made in wing motions by using small secondary actuators. But two wings cannot move completely independently. In the past, any major change in the wing motion had to be accomplished by doing a hardware change on the ground. Clearly this limited how close a robotic bird came to the real bird in terms of the flight characteristics.

So far, the Robo Raven has flown in 10 MPH winds, and performed realistically enough to provoke a local hawk into attacking it. The robot is capable of carry a small payload and flown with a video camera attached. The robot can also be launched from a ground vehicle or ground robot. For more see the Maryland Robotics Center article Flapping Wing Miniature Air Vehicles. For the history and specifications of this and other bird-inspired robots built at UMD, see the article Flapping Wing Micro Air Vehicle Designs by SK Gupta's Group. Gupta has also written an interesting survey of similar robots titled, "A review of bird-inspired flapping wing miniature air vehicle designs" (PDF format). And you knew we had to have video of this bot in action, right? Read on to watch it fly!

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Do You Empathize with Tortured Robots?

Posted 25 Apr 2013 at 22:54 UTC by steve

Given our current understanding of how mirror neurons and human emotion works, a new study from the University of Duisburg Essen should come as no surprise. Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten and other researchers used fMRI to measure the reaction in human test subjects who watched video of a Pleo robot being either tortured or treated with affection. They also watched video of a fellow human treated either badly or affectionately. The test subjects exhibited similar reactions to the treatment of both the robot and the human, with only the intensity of their emotion varying. The bigger question, it seems to me, is whether we understand emotion and empathy well enough to add those qualities to our robots, so they'll feel empathy toward us as well. The original news release (in German) is available on the University website. An English language version is available on Eurekalert. IEEE Spectrum posted a more in-depth description of the research. And, if you can bare to watch, read on for the Pleo torture video.

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Intelligence from Causal Entropic Forces

Posted 24 Apr 2013 at 19:01 UTC (updated 24 Apr 2013 at 19:01 UTC) by steve

You may recall our 2012 story, The Universe, The Internet, and the Brain about a paper identifying similarities between the structure and dynamics of the brain and the universe. Now, a new paper from Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross proposes a more dramatic connection: universes that produce more entropy (or disorder) over their lifetimes tend to have more favorable properties for the existence of intelligent beings. The paper describes how two attributes of intelligence, tool use and social cooperation, emerge spontaneously in simple physical system due to "causal entropic forces". According to the paper, these forces provide the motivation behind adaptive behavior. From the paper:

Recent advances in fields ranging from cosmology to computer science have hinted at a possible deep connection between intelligence and entropy maximization. In cosmology, the causal entropic principle for anthropic selection has used the maximization of entropy production in causally connected space-time regions as a thermodynamic proxy for intelligent observer concentrations in the prediction of cosmological parameters. In geoscience, entropy production maximization has been proposed as a unifying principle for nonequilibrium processes underlying planetary development and the emergence of life. In computer science, maximum entropy methods have been used for inference in situations with dynamically revealed information, and strategy algorithms have even started to beat human opponents for the first time at historically challenging high look-ahead depth and branching factor games like Go by maximizing accessible future game states

For more details, including the math, see the short paper, which was published in the 19 April 2013 issue of Physical Review Letters, Causal Entropic Forces (PDF format). You can also read a longer Inside Science article about the ideas in the paper along with comments from other researchers, Physicist Proposes New Way To Think About Intelligence. Or read on to see a short video showing software demonstrations of simple systems driven by entropic forces that spontaneously learn pole balancing, a simplified type of tool use, and social interaction.

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Random Robot Roundup

Posted 22 Apr 2013 at 20:10 UTC by steve

I returned from a few days at the VEX Robotics World Championship to find our inbox full of news, so let's start things back up with a news roundup! (and, yes, pics of the VEX championship will be posted in a few days).

  • DARPA has announced a super tiny single chip TIMU (timing and intertial measurement unit) to help your robot find its way when GPS fails.
  • We noticed an EE Times article on a German company developing multicore artificial nervous systems for robots.
  • The White House has announced the BRAIN Initiative to help further brain research and keep the results in the public domain where they can be used by everyone for innovation.
  • The International Space Station just got a little safer. NASA is migrating the ISS from Windows to GNU/Linux. No more blue screen of death in space, plus they can now freely "patch, adjust, and adapt" their software without worrying about legal problems with Microsoft. And they'll get better integration with the GNU/Linux based Robonaut robot who lives aboard the ISS.
  • Walter Farah sent us a link to a draft of his new paper: Medical Robotics. Cardiac Catheterization. Relations Substantially Equivalent
  • Robots.net social media milestones: Our Facebook page is closing in on 2,000 followers. Our new Google Plus page just passed 1,000 followers and is growing fast. But, for now at least, our twitter feed still beats them both with 2,300 followers

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 Podcast #128: Ethical/Social/Legal Issues

Posted 21 Apr 2013 at 17:56 UTC by John_RobotsPodcast

photo of Pericle Salvini

In Robots Podcast episode #128, interviewer Per talks with Pericle Salvini from Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna about his work with social, ethical, and legal issues in robotics. He tells us about the RoboLaw project that will provide advice to the European Union as it creates laws concerning robotics.

Read On | Tune In

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UAVs for Weather and Environmental Research

Posted 15 Apr 2013 at 19:19 UTC by steve

Researchers at the University of Virginia are testing UAVs as potential replacements for weather balloons which could simplify some types of weather and climate measurements. A recent UVA news release describes the use of a hexcopter "drone" that rises up to 30 meters into the boundary layer of the atmosphere while taking precise sensor readings. From the news release:

It will measure humidity and temperature, and possibly one day wind speed and direction. Currently, we usually have to take these measurements with a helium balloon, and conditions can be difficult. The copter is a way to take such measurements more continuously and easily.

This idea sounds similar in principal to the ocean float robots, which move between the ocean surface and depths measuring conditions and report the sensor data back to researchers. Right now this UAV is being used primarily as a proof-of-concept model in the classroom at University of Virginia's Department of Environmental Sciences. If the use of UAVs for weather measurements become widespread it could lead to another very accurate source for global climate data. For more, read on to see a video of weather drone in action.

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Language and Spatio-temporal Cognition

Posted 12 Apr 2013 at 20:32 UTC (updated 12 Apr 2013 at 20:35 UTC) by steve

We're all familiar with the checkered history of the Whorf Hypothesis; the idea that a person's worldview and cognition are limited by their language. At first it was widely accepted, to the point it evolved into an urban legend about Eskimo words for snow, allowing them to conceptualize it differently than English speakers. Eventually this was recognized as nonsense. It was easy in practice to translate any idea of snow between languages without either language speaker having trouble conceptualizing and agreeing on the meanings. Then, when Whorfianism seemed on the decline, scientists discovered real, testable cases where natural language affects the brain's development and capabilities. The best known is in languages lacking words for relative direction such as left and right, having instead only absolute direction such as east and west. In this case, the brain develops the ability to maintain constant awareness of absolute cardinal positioning in a way relative direction speakers are incapable of. Lera Boroditsky, a Standord University researcher in the fields of neuroscience and symbolic systems, wanted to find out if these cardinal oriented languages affect the brain's temporal capacities as well. She's done a fascinated piece for the Edge blog on this subject. Here's an excerpt:

"I gave people a really simple task. I would give them a set of cards, and the cards might show a temporal progression, like my grandfather at different ages from when he was a boy to when he's an old man. I would shuffle them, give them to the person, and say "Lay these out on the ground so that they're in the correct order." If you ask English speakers to do this, they will lay the cards out from left to right. And it doesn't matter which way the English speaker is facing. So if you're facing north or south or east or west, the cards will always go left to right. Time seems to go from left to right with respect to our bodies. If you ask Hebrew speakers to do this, or Arabic speakers, they're much more likely to lay the cards out from right to left. That suggests that something about the writing direction in a language matters in how we imagine time. But nonetheless, time is laid out with respect to the body."

The results she got were unlike any system of temporal organization seen before. Instead of organizing time left to right or in some other system relative to the speaker's body, they organized it in an absolute coordinate system regardless of which way they were oriented when they began the experiment. These results prompted Lera to look for other testable differences in cognition among more conventional languages like English, Russian, and Hebrew. She talks about various examples such as finding that kids who speak genderless languages take longer to understand the differences between the sexes. There's also an amusing aside about language and causality based on the incident in which Dick Cheney shoots a hunting partner in the face. Read the full document, Encapsulated Universes over at the Edge, or watch the video. Either way it's an interesting reminder of the important relation between intelligence and language.

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