Curiosity Saved The Robot

Due to several cyber attacks, RobotRabbi was down intermittently a few weeks.  We are now back, more stable and safer than ever.  We are excited to share with you a new design for RobotRabbi.  You will notice many new features to share and sign up for new posting.  As we begin anew, it makes me think about robots in their own infancy.

At a recent TEDx Talk in Cannes France, Pierre-Yves Oudeyer presented a novel concept of using robots to better understand the ways newborn mechanisms learn (see above). As any parent knows, a child’s brains and hands are used to fabricate and model the things a baby wants to better understand.  Play is critical to development during a time when the brain has the greatest plasticity.  Oudeyer explains that scientists also use fabrication to build new knowledge of the world around us. Scientists build large scale aquariums to understand ocean behavior and construct large computer simulations to understand spiral galaxies.

The idea of fabricating baby robots and providing them with the tools to learn is the central idea of this talk. Robots are given the tools to create their own experiments and exhibit forms of cognitive development. Curiosity is a large focus of robot learning. Pierre-Yves explains that children use curiosity as a learning mechanism but they do it in a very structured way. His team built robots that could learn, discover, and set their own goals.

The first experiment shown has two robots with quadraped bodies in a playground environment. Actions are performed, effects are logged into the internal database, and the robot tries to detect irregularities in the effects. This gives the robots the ability to make predictions about future states.  Robot brains choose experiments that they think will provide the most progress in their internal predictive algorithms. This allows the bots to gain new skills but also brings in a self-organization that occurs between the robot and its environment.  Eventually each robot creates a system of vocal interaction with the other robots. In the video it sounds like a cross between puppy and kitten mewling, and the sounds are transmitted between bots until they’re all making the same sounds.

Oudeyer emphasizes the link between the robots learning, curiosity, the robot body and the environment. He says that changing the body but keeping the same learning mechanism will create different cognitive learning stages, in a different order. The entire talk is fascinating and covers not just learning but also communication and languages.  At the end of the talk Oudeyer introduces Poppy, the open source 3d printed humanoid robot (similar to Intel’s Jimmy, see my previous post). He says that this robot will allow every lab, school or fabrication location to join the scientific exploration of robotic learning. Poppy is worth a few articles in and of itself, just on the immense scale of the project and the effort and skill required to build and program one of the bots.

As we look to robot learning for a paradigms of our own human development, the converse is also true.  Robots will eventually outgrow the lab and will be self-learning modules specific to their tasks gaining expertise with experience.

The Brain Behind The Machine

Usain Bolt vs. MIT's Robot

Everyone wants superpowers, but only a few are born with extraordinary abilities.  Usain Bolt’s speed (as indicated by his last name) is as close as we have to going as fast as a cheetah.  Well, that was true up until this week.  Now researchers at MIT have built a robotic cheetah that outpaces even the olympic sprinter.

While the robot is far from beating its mammal cousin, it does squash Bolt’s worldrecords. Show on the MIT lawn, the the robotic cheetah can reach a speed of 16 Km/h in a few seconds, where as its wild counterpart can reach 94 Km/h in matter of seconds. But this four legged metallic beast has the capability of reaching a maximum speed of 48 Km/h in less than a minute, surpassing Usain Bolt whose maximum speed is a world record 44.72 Km/h.

Cheetah robot jumping

According to MIT News, the 70 pound robot cheetah is controlled using an algorithm, which calculates the amount of pressure needed for the legs during each impact with the ground. As the algorithm controls the force of the robotic cheetah the researchers can speed up its movement in phases.

Sangbae Kim, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, said “Many sprinters, like Usain Bolt, don’t cycle their legs really fast. They actually increase their stride length by pushing downward harder and increasing their ground force, so they can fly more while keeping the same frequency.”

As the force based movement gives more control to the cheetah, it can accelerate even in difficult terrains and jump obstacles, which are not more than 30 cm tall.

One of the more cheetah like abilities of the robot is its stealth. The four legs of the cheetah robot is pushed forward by battery powered electric motors reducing sound where as other robots use gasoline engines for movement. This is a major advantage over Boston Dynamics’ quadrupeds.

Kim added “Our robot can be [as] silent and as efficient as animals. The only things you hear are the feet hitting the ground. This is kind of a new paradigm where we’re controlling force in a highly dynamic situation. Any legged robot should be able to do this in the future.”

Kim and his colleagues in MIT will present the details about the bounding algorithm during the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Chicago.  In the meantime, KIm’s team has received DARPA funding for the research which means that one day soon this robotic cat could eventually take a bite out of the snake of ISIS.

Patrick Star’s Robotic Cousin…

Before I talk robots, I must share with you a sad story about starfish.  One morning my seven year old turned to his Mom and said, you know what I am getting too old for Sponge Bob.  The yellow sponge and his best friend the pink starfish have been his faithful companions since toddlers, and now that he is entering second grade he has outgrown them.

Starfish have fascinated people even before Patrick Star became famous.  Now, the good scientists at Harvard have taken their passion to a new level with a flexible robot starfish made out of indestructible silicone rubber. that can crawl through fire and over snow even after being run over by a car.  The starbot undulates and walks using compressed air that is forced in and out of many tiny pneumatic channels running through its limbs, like a ballon being inflated and deflated. These soft robots, inspired by creatures such as starfish, worms, and squid, could one day squirm through obstacle courses that might prove challenging or impossible for metallic robots (think disaster recovery missions under rubble).
soft-robots-0914-mdnAs discussed several times previously on this blog, soft robots are far simpler, faster and cheaper to make than their metallic cousins. The secret is in their rubberiness which makes them resistant to some of the kinds of damage that can impair rigid robots, such as bumps, scrapes, falls, and twists. And, importantly, these new soft bots don’t need tethers connecting them to external air supplies, a factor that limited their predecessors.

This version carries its own air pump. “This is a key milestone on the way to reaching one of the potential applications of soft robotics—a system for search and rescue or other autonomous operations, which would be very difficult to do if you had to rely on a tether,” says lead study author Michael Tolley, a roboticist at Harvard University.

The new four-legged soft robot is a little more than two feet long, making it more than four times bigger than earlier versions and large enough to carry a lithium-polymer battery pack, miniature air compressors, electronic circuits that serve as the robot’s brain, and a lightweight camera to wirelessly transmit video and audio. The scientists used a tougher silicone rubber that can withstand more than twice as much internal air pressure as earlier models. In addition, they added microscopic hollow glass spheres into the silicone rubber to reduce the robot’s weight, while including Kevlar fibers to prevent the robot from bursting because of internal pressure.

“It’s about as stiff as a rubber eraser,” Tolley says.

The robot could operate for up to two hours on a flat surface, walking at speeds of roughly one foot per minute and capable of carrying payloads of up to 17.6 lbs. That’s 60 percent more than the bot’s own weight. In testing, it withstood a snowstorm, a trough of water, direct exposure to flames from a Bunsen burner, and the crushing force of being run over by a car. In sum, the parts cost $1,111.

Roboticist Vytas SunSpiral at NASA Ames Research Center, was impressed. “The ability to make a larger and lighter untethered version of their prior groundbreaking robot is very significant,” he says. “I have been fascinated by soft robots for years, but have been concerned that they would not be able to carry their own compressors and power supplies. This work has demonstrated that it is indeed possible, and I’m very excited to see how future prototypes will build upon this success.

“One weakness in the prototype is that the air pumps are slow, requiring on the order of seconds to work. In the future, Tolley says, perhaps miniature combustion engines could propel them far more quickly. The researchers also say they could make the robots faster by such as tinkering with their feet and their internal network of pneumatic channels. And future versions could have more advanced onboard electronics that allow a robot to sense and react to its environments autonomously.

“Rigid systems are fragile, and most of the robots built to date can only work in very limited and controlled conditions,” SunSpiral says. “Research like this is showing us how to design, build, and control robotic systems which will be far more resilient and adaptable to the complexity of the real dynamic and chaotic world that we all live in.”

So maybe when Nickelodeon hears about this, they will updated the cartoon series to have Patrick Star(bot) partner with Space Ghost…

Next Summer’s Big Swarm – BioBots

I am back after a two week hiatus in the country, where I purposely removed myself from all things robotic. The only buzz was from the occasional bee interrupting our outdoor lunch, which brings me to my first September post…

While the folks at Harvard are busy working on a robobee to save the hive, I think the more interesting summer inspired story is the robotic moth and his cousin the dreaded cockroach.

These insect creations are the brianchilds of North Carolina State University researchers that have developed methods for electronically manipulating the flight muscles of moths. The work opens the door to the development of remotely controlled moths, or “biobots,” for use in emergency response.

“In the big picture, we want to know whether we can control the movement of moths for use in applications such as search and rescue operations,” says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “The idea would be to attach sensors to moths in order to create a flexible, aerial sensor network that can identify survivors or public health hazards in the wake of a disaster.”

This is not the first time that the mad Dr. Doolittle has manipulated living organisms, his previous biobot creations included remote controlled cockroaches, as show in an earlier CNN piece:

Bozkurt’s newest biobot, the moth, opens the door to not only disaster recovery uses, but the most powerful covert tool since the microphone bug found in Ambassador George Kennan’s office in 1952 (planted seven years earlier by the Russians).

According to Dr. Bozkurt, “we’re optimistic that this information will help us develop technologies to remotely control the movements of moths in flight… that’s essential to the overarching goal of creating biobots that can be part of a cyberphysical sensor network.”

But Bozkurt stresses that there’s a lot of work yet to be done to make moth biobots a viable tool.

“We now have a platform for collecting data about flight coordination,” Bozkurt says. “Next steps include developing an automated system to explore and fine-tune parameters for controlling moth flight, further miniaturizing the technology, and testing the technology in free-flying moths.”

Today, Bozkurt is attaching electrodes while the moth is still in its cocoon. As the moth grows into caterpillar and undergoes metamorphosis as a winged adult the wires become fully integrated into the dipteran’s biological system. In his new published paperBozkurt’s research team stated that they now have a greater understanding of precisely how a moth coordinates its muscles during flight, so it will eventually be able to control them as a fully functional robotic insect.

I guess we will have to wait until next summer to see Bozkurt’s moths flying around our living room chandeliers (recording our every word)…