Tag: robots

Apps and gadgets for the ‘Blade Runner’ future we didn’t ask for

Punks, monks and Harrison Ford running scared through a poisonous cityscape were just a few of the details that made the original Blade Runner feel like its environment was a standalone character in the film. It felt as alien and familiar as the way we live today, with an environment turning against us, a government that couldn't care less, and a corporate ruling class that would make the Tyrell Corporation jealous.

The dystopian world of Blade Runner felt like it had naturally come to be. Unlike the version of Blade Runner we seem to be living in now, which feels like someone threw a switch at New Year's, and surprise, we're living in hell. Suddenly we have to catch up to living in dystopian fiction really fast, lest we die from fires, hurricanes, connected Nazis or nuclear war. So it's probably best that we use every bit of tech to our advantage so we make it to the next noodle bar, as it were.

Roy Batty's survival kit

Despite the best efforts of our federal government to deny it, climate change is real and the planet has had enough of our foolishness. From hurricane destruction to extreme heat and cold, everyone needs to plan for a local disaster -- at the very least. The way things are now, with fires and floods, and even hurricanes hitting Ireland, it seems like we need to prepare for everything. But not everyone can afford a survival pod.

Survival kits start with the basics: A "go bag" to keep by the exit, a kit (or extra supplies) for staying in your house, and an off-site stash in case you have to literally run from disaster (such as a "car kit"). Pick one, or all three if you have the luxury. The American Red Cross has a good starting list, while the Disaster Supply Center has a multitude of readymade kits.

Now that we're living in a Blade Runner future on Krack, we'll have to fill in the details of true life in a future gone wrong. Like many in Northern California, this past week set a record for locals comparing life in San Francisco to existing in the film itself. That had a lot to do with the fires, which have us investing in daily-wear face masks and conditioned to air quality worse than Shanghai. We realize that we're just catching up with the rest of the world in so many ways in terms of life with poisoned air.

Prep your cyberpet

On the Set of 'Blade Runner'

As Pris surely knew, real animals are rare in Blade Runner's universe. Animals were the first to start dying of the pollution which pushed humans Off-World. From fires to dust to gale-force winds, or bombs, your kit needs a face mask with N95 and N100 ratings.

Sure, you can get any old thing at the hardware store or Amazon, but this is the future. You can take advantage of living in a time when even product designers are allergic to everything, and get an air mask fit for a city dweller. In many instances, these nouveau air-pollution masks are better than what you'll get in that prepper survival kit.

Great daily use (or temporary daily use) masks that look good are now a competitive market. For the Cal Fires, a number of SF locals grabbed a Vogmask off Amazon for getting around town. Other recommended masks that will make you actually want to wear it are those from Airinum and the Cambridge Mask Co.

If Pris had survived her encounter with Deckard, she'd surely have an animal companion -- and the gear to make her darling doggo or kitteh ready for anything. For starters, she'd make sure that sweet little manufactured beast stayed far away from any actual blade runners with GPS tracking. One option is the Whistle Pet Tracker; internet famous travel cat Willow stays connected with the Tabcat tracker and a long-range (no cell service needed) MarcoPolo Tracking System.

Pris would also have a Pet First Aid Kit, certainly, but for the oppressive heat in a climate gone wrong, she'd own a swamp cooler pup jacket or a canine cooling harness. Or like me, she'd have read about the woman fleeing the Cal Fires who put her 80-lb pit bull in a backpack and bicycled to safety, and would want a quick escape solution -- like a U-Pet escape pod.

Off-World isn't yet an option

Blade Runner

Fire is one thing, but looking at recent events, everyone will probably need waterproof everything. When you can, get a waterproof (or water-resistant) case for all your devices, or try to invest in the newest versions of things like the Kindle, which is now waterproof.

Harrison Ford's character Deckard drank whiskey -- Johnny Walker Black Label, to be precise -- so that's one way you might be able to avoid the poisonous drinking water of our collective future. For those who may find this impractical for daily applications, a top-end water filtration device is the gadget you want. The most advanced consumer model is the MSR Guardian™ Purifier, but day trippers living in the future-now will want a handheld UV water purifier like the SteriPen.

Your biggest asset in a dystopian climate change emergency might just be your backups. You can make your backup with a reputable cloud service, like Crashplan or iCloud. But to be safe from today's security threats, you should have a secure backup hard drive that you keep at home (or in another safe place) and one that you can grab and go.

This portable drive can hold copies of everything you might have to leave behind, from family photos to scans of your passport. It should also be waterproof, shock-proof, and password protected. The gold standard for this type of external hard drive is IOSafe, which claims to also be fireproof. For a small drive to keep in a bag, in case the replicant hunters come looking for you or a hurricane strikes out of nowhere, consider a Silicon Power drive, with small versions storing up to 4TB.

Power will be a concern, no matter if you're in a sci-fi climate disaster future or just on the go in our Blade Runner day-to-day lives. For those who are oppressed by the sun, solar chargers are now easy to use and take everywhere with you. Adafruit's DIY solar charger tutorials will have your devices constantly charged, and can help you keep others charged as well.

If your modern-day Blade Runner experience doesn't include DIY tinkering, the American Red Cross FRX3+ All Purpose Weather and Radio Charger has it all. It includes a NOAA AM/FM weather alert radio, LED flashlight, a charger via its USB port, and it stays powered for a week when fully charged via hand crank, its solar panel, or its 2600 mAh rechargeable battery.

Alcon Entertainment

Apps for humans and replicants alike

One of the apps that made day to day living safe in the Bay Area over the past two weeks was AirVisual's air quality app. More immediate than local alerts, it let us know when we needed to wear masks to go to the grocery store, and when we'd expect to get a break with some fresh air.

That said, many were stuck inside worrying how fast we were dying from the air in our apartments. That's where the AirVisual Pro would come in handy, showing inside air quality as well as that outside our doors. Yet, inside is really where it counts in polluted dystopias like ours, which is why an air purifier is probably the "coolest" gift anyone can give in this coming holiday season. For the most tech-inclined, Dyson's pricey hot-cool air purifier is definitely the Cadillac of purifiers, and comes with its own app to help you monitor your space.

Radiation wasn't an influence on the original Blade Runner's storytelling, but it might be in ours. In case our dystopia takes a Fallout 4 turn, Idaho National Laboratory scientists created an Android app for detecting radiation -- and they tested it on several different smartphone models (Samsung Nexus S, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung SIII and LG Nexus 4).

The CellRAD app wasn't released to the public, but a similar app called Radiation Alarm works on the same functionality. It uses an Android's camera app to detect gamma radiation, as long as you follow the instructions closely (and keep the camera covered to get a reading).

There are apps I wish I'd had before the fires, and apps I've found that make me glad I'm installing them now. Climate change has made Weather alert apps completely invaluable. Weather Underground, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, RainAware, and Hurricane by the American Red Cross would've helped me decide to get an air purifier in time, and will probably save me and my replicant cat before the next disaster.

It's too bad that IBM's mesh network weather alert app isn't available in America yet, but I'm setting an alert to download it when it can help us out. This will negate the need to have cell service to get alerts, and I wonder how many lives it might've saved this year so far.

Should hurricanes hit San Francisco, or if Deckard comes looking for me and my friends, I've now got the Red Panic Button. This app sends email, text, and GPS coordinates to trusted contacts in the event of an emergency, as well as notifying 911. The "ICE" app (In Case of Emergency) from American Red Cross keeps an unlocked medical alert on the lockscreen of my phone, just in case.

While we're on the subject, the American Red Cross has its problems, but the apps they provide are invaluable. Those include a Shelter Finder app, a hurricane/wildfire/earthquake app, and their first aid apps. The medial aid apps come in both human and pet versions, and they are stored offline should you end up without cell service and need to save a fellow replicant's life.

Some might say that Blade Runner was just a movie. But for the rest of us, it's suddenly a way of life, and also a guide to survival. Hopefully this little guide helps, too.

Images: Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images (Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty); Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images (Joanna Cassidy as Zhora Salome with Snake); Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images (Harrison Ford and Edward James Olmos as Deckard and Gaff); Alcon Entertainment / Blade Runner 2049 (Weather display)


Wireless charging will make drones always ready to fly

Drones are great until you realize running all those propellers, a camera, GPS and other assorted technology bits are a real drain on the battery. If you're just using one for images it's not too big of a deal. But if you're using one for surveying, security or delivering burritos, swapping out batteries all the time can be a huge pain and time suck. Fortunately, there's a new wireless charging landing pad on its way.

The WiBotic PowerPad is a three-foot by three-foot landing station that comes with an onboard charger that can be attached to pretty much any drone according to the company. The company says the weather-resistant platform can be mounted pretty much anywhere and can help alleviate the need to handle drones that run automated flights on a regular basis.

The PowerPad also can serve as a waypoint for long-distance flights. If a drone needs to survey a large plot of land, it can stop and recharge at regular intervals on distributed platforms. No word on pricing or when the pad will be available, but there are sure to more than a few companies interested in reducing the time they spend swapping batteries while gathering data about battery health in the drones they have deployed.

WiBotic PowerPad for Drones from WiBotic Inc. on Vimeo.

Via: Geek Wire

Source: WiBotic


This week’s ‘live’ giant robot battle was fake

We've been following the development of the giant robot battle for years now, and it finally took place earlier this week. Engadget writer Saqib Shah said of the live stream, "the entire event may have been as choreographed as a WWE match, but it was strangely watchable regardless." Well, it turns out that Saqib was right on the nose. Motherboard revealed, in a move that broke all our hearts, that there was absolutely nothing "live" about the "live streamed" fight. The actual epic robot battle took place over days, and the constant repairs were removed from the footage.

It's worth mentioning that it's impressive that the battle between the USA's Eagle Prime and Japan's Kuratas took place at all. These were two technologically complex robots, and it's utterly unsurprising that they were delicate enough to need maintenance throughout the process. It's encouraging to look at this as an experiment, and the start of something fun, rather than being disappointed that it was so scripted. The fact that it wasn't actually live doesn't take away from the fact that this did actually happen.

But the flip side is that it is disappointing. There's no getting around that. You can't bill an event as "live" and film it over multiple days and edit out important stuff. (Well, clearly you can and they did, it's just. No.) If we don't actually have actual giant robots that can fight one another in an epic robot-to-robot battle, then what do we have left in the world? What can we cling to for hope, if not giant robots? It's a sad, sad day for us all.

Via: The AV Club

Source: Motherboard


Octopus-like rubber skin could lead to shape-shifting robots

Octopuses are awe-inspiring creatures. They're smart, and they can camouflage themselves by changing colors and changing the texture of their skin to mimic the environment's. A group of scientists from Cornell University in New York and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts wanted to give soft robots the same ability, so they created a synthetic elastic skin that can morph into different shapes and change textures.

The team designed a material based on the muscle underneath octopus skin that controls the animal's dermal papillae. Those are the protrusions in the cephalopod's skin that pop up when it wants to blend into its surroundings. That material is composed of several layers, including a fiber mesh and the rubber skin itself. When you pump air into the structure, some parts of the skin expand, while others get held back by the mesh to form various shapes, like rocks and plants.

The team still has a lot of work to do to perfect their creation, including giving it the ability to form multiple shapes at once. But in the future, the material could be used not to only to create soft robots with the ability to camouflage themselves, but also to immersive VR experiences. Imagine coming across a strange alien from another planet and being able to touch its skin with the help of a prop. Sounds cool, doesn't it?

Source: IEEE Spectrum


Google’s AlphaGo AI no longer requires human input to master Go

Google's AlphaGo already beat us puny humans to become the best at the Chinese board game of Go. Now, it's done with humans altogether. DeepMind, the Alphabet subsidiary behind the artificial intelligence, just announced AlphaGo Zero. The latest iteration of the computer program is the most advanced yet, outperforming all previous versions. It's also different from its predecessors in one uniquely significant way: Whereas the older AlphaGos trained in Go from thousands of human amateur and professional games, Zero foregoes the need for human insight altogether. Like the unpopular kid in class, it will learn simply by playing alone, and against itself.

What sounds like a sad, lonesome existence, is already paying dividends. Zero whitewashed the previous (champion-beating) version of Go by 100 games to nil. That victory came after just three days of training. After 40 days of internal Go playing, it beat the Master version (the same program that triumphed over world number one Ke Jie in May) 89-11 -- making it "arguably the strongest Go player in history."

There are other technical elements that define the new AI, which you can dig into courtesy of DeepMind's paper, published in the scientific journal Nature. But removing the "constraints of human knowledge" has been the most liberating factor, according to the company's CEO Demis Hassabis.

In doing so, DeepMind is even closer to decoding one of the biggest hurdles facing AI: The reliance on vast amounts of data training. Whether this approach will work outside the confines of a strategic board game, however, remains to be seen. DeepMind, at least, believes it could have far-reaching implications. "If similar techniques can be applied to other structured problems, such as protein folding, reducing energy consumption or searching for revolutionary new materials, the resulting breakthroughs have the potential to positively impact society," writes the company in its blog post.

Source: DeepMind, Nature


Los Angeles police will test drones despite privacy concerns

American police have certainly used drones before, but not on this scale. The Los Angeles Police Commission has voted in favor of letting the LAPD fly drones in a year-long pilot program, making it the largest US police department to ever rely on the robotic aircraft. The force will use the drones for aerial searches, recon in tense situations (think: standoffs) and other tasks where officers would otherwise be at risk. The machines could save lives, according to the LAPD, but there were numerous concessions made to address privacy concerns -- and some people still aren't convinced these limits will prevent abuse.

The trial's rules restrict flights to SWAT team members in dangerous situations, such as when there's a heavily armed suspect on the loose. Drones will also be allowed for search and rescue missions. Every flight has to be approved, documented and reviewed, and there's a ban on facial recognition software. The Police Commission will receive and publish quarterly reports to track the drones' performance.

Critics, however, are worried that what the police say they'll do and what they'll actually do are two different things. As we've seen in the past, the LAPD isn't always forthright in its use of technology. Activists and lawyers are concerned that the police will be tempted to use drones for questionable surveillance (such as monitoring neighborhoods or tracking protesters), or that they'll outfit the drones with weapons. The LAPD actually obtained two drones in 2014, but scrapped plans to fly them due to precisely these kinds of public objections -- people aren't necessarily going to warm to the idea just because there are a few guidelines in place.

Via: Ars Technica

Source: LA Times


The robots that will sweep Earth’s skies

After six years in space, China's first orbital station, the Tiangong-1 (aka the "Heavenly Palace") has finally outlived its operational limits and begun its descent back to Earth. It's expected to re-enter the atmosphere in a few months, whereupon a majority of the 9.3-ton station should burn up before reaching the surface. This is how defunct satellites are supposed to be disposed of. Unfortunately, until very recently, that hasn't often been the case.

For the past 50 years, we've been filling Low Earth Orbit with defunct satellites, launch vehicle upper stages, and various bits of broken spacecraft (including frozen water, coolant and paint flecks). Most of this comes from failed launches or spent experiments. In 1963, for example, the US military unloaded 480 million needle-sized antennas into orbit to see if they'd act as a crude radio reflector array. The idea was that radio signals from Earth would bounce up into the atmosphere and bounce back down off of them, enabling longer distance radio service. Though satellite communications have since made this technology obsolete, those antennas are still up there, just floating around waiting to go full-on Gravity with a passing satellite.

By the start of the 21st century, LEO had become increasingly crowded with satellites -- more than 7,000 have been launched since Sputnik first circled the globe -- though only 1,500 of them remain active. That number is expected to swell to more than 18,000 man-made objects in orbit in the coming decades as private industry begins sending up communications and observation satellites in addition to national governments. In fact, of the 98 launches that took place worldwide in 2016, nearly half carried private communications satellites.

Today, there are an estimated 20,000 pieces of debris bigger than a softball in Low Earth Orbit and another 50,000 the size of a marble. We're not sure how much junk smaller than that is in orbit -- it could be on the magnitude of tens of millions -- because we lack the technology to track them from the ground. This trend is sure to cause havoc if we don't start cleaning up after ourselves.

In some ways it already has. In 2007, China destroyed its Fengyun-1C weather satellite with a ballistic missile as a show of force to the international community. Doing so spread more than 3,000 pieces of debris throughout LEO. America's response a few months later, blew a defunct spy satellite to smithereens, though a majority of that debris field reportedly re-entered the atmosphere. Two years later, in 2009, a defunct Russian satellite crashed into an American Iridium satellite, spreading another 2,000 bits of space junk.

"It's a serious, serious challenge," Launchspace founder, Marshall Kaplan, told Space.com in 2013. "This is not a U.S. problem... it's everybody's problem. And most of the people that produced the debris, the serious offenders, like Russia, China, and the United States, are not going to spend that kind of money. It's just not a good investment."

"We've reached the point of no return," he continued. "The debris will continue to get worse in terms of collision threats... even if not another satellite were launched, the problem will continue to get worse."

This cascade of collisions is known as the Kessler Syndrome, named for former head of NASA's space debris program, Donald Kessler. He mathematically proved in the 1970s that there is a saturation point of how much stuff we can place into LEO. Once we reach that critical mass, the items in that orbit are sure to set off a massive collision cascade, even if we don't place any additional objects in that orbit. "If we're not at the critical mass, we're pretty close to it," Kessler told The Atlantic in 1998.

But it's not just our satellite communications that are in danger of being destroyed, all that space trash poses serious threats to manned missions as well. In 1983, a fleck of paint travelling at around 17,000 MPH, struck the windshield of the Challenger space shuttle and left a pea-sized pit. This happened with such startling regularity (read: literally during every mission) that NASA took to orbiting the shuttle upsidedown and backwards (relative to its direction of travel) so that the rockets would take the brunt of the impacts rather than the crew cabin.

The ISS isn't much better off. That 2009 collision between the Russian and American satellites forced the ISS crew to scramble for safety aboard the Soyuz spacecraft should a piece of debris blast through the station's hull.

Despite the dangers, there's plenty we can do to mitigate the damage that this debris does. The first step is to know what, and how much of it, we're dealing with. The Department of Defense has established the Space Surveillance Network to do just that. The SSN is able to track objects as small as 2 inches across at LEO and as small as 3 feet in geosynchronous orbit -- around 21,000 of them in total.

The system doesn't track each item continuously but rather uses a predictive method that calculates their orbital momentum so ground-based observers can "check in" with individual objects by pointing their telescopes to where and when the item should be overhead. All together, the DoD's array of sensors and telescopes, which are spread from Hawaii to Greenland to the Indian Ocean, observe around 80,000 satellites (and pieces thereof) every day.

Of course, simply knowing where these debris fields are doesn't alleviate the threat that they pose. We've got to come up with a means of inciting that space junk to fall back to the surface. And while nobody has managed to successfully deploy an orbital debris reclamation system yet, a number of space agencies are working on everything from magnetized wire lanyards and gigantic nets to "space brooms" and kamikaze robo-grapplers.

In 2012, NASA granted North Carolina-based Star Technology and Research $1.9 million to develop the ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE). This device, upon reaching orbit, would unfurl a 6-mile long tether which generates an attractive field as it moves through the Earth's magnetic field. When the EDDE encounters a piece of space junk it captures it in a large net and drops the ensnared garbage into a lower orbit where the thicker atmosphere pulls it out of orbit. This is essentially the same process that JAXA's Kounotori 6 spacecraft was attempting when a technical glitch caused that mission to fail earlier this year.

The European Space Agency has floated a similar idea except that in addition to, or even perhaps instead of, their orbital garbage truck would hunt its quarry using a tethered harpoon. It's part of the ESA's e.Deorbit mission which is scheduled to launch in 2021. The harpoon, which is being developed by Airbus Defense and Space, is just one of the proposed capture methods that will be tried during that mission.

Accurately piercing the hull of a defunct satellite using a space harpoon in microgravity is as technically challenging as it sounds. So rather than try to spear and reel in derelict objects, the startup Swiss Space Systems (S3), has devised a robotic grappler that clamps onto debris and drags it into the atmosphere. Dubbed the Clean Space One project, this 66-pound janitor satellite would be about the size of a breadbox. After being launched from the European Suborbital Reusable Shuttle in 2018, the CSO is tasked with tracking and capturing a non-operational Swisscube satellite, then dragging it back to Earth. The mission is expected to cost around $16 million.

One problem persistent debris capturing satellites like the ESA's e.Deorbit face is maintaining a steady supply of propellent. You don't want your janitor satellite to become another piece of debris simply because it ran out of power. Texas A&M University is working on a clever solution to that issue with the Space Sweeper with Sling-Sat (4S). This satellite would first capture a piece of debris then whip around, slinging the trash into the atmosphere while pushing itself into the path of its next target. By repeating this process, the 4S should be able to hop from one bit of trash to the next without having to expend an expensive and limited supply of fuel.

But what if we didn't need to send new robots into orbit to capture the olds ones? In 2011, Raytheon BBN Technologies and the University of Michigan teamed up to devise the Space Debris Elimination (SPaDE) system. Rather than rely on satellites, SPaDE would puff concentrated bursts of atmospheric gas into the paths of LEO debris. The added friction from these gasses should be sufficient to slow the debris down enough that it falls back to Earth. Unfortunately, the SPaDE project never got beyond the drawing board.

Then again, why even expend the effort to drag dead satellites into the atmosphere when you can simply repurpose their functional (albeit unpowered) pieces? That's what DARPA hopes to do with its Phoenix project. This system would rely on a new class of microsatellites, dubbed "satlets", which would seek out and affix themselves to dead satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Each satlet would restore an essential satellite function (ie power, movement control or sensors) and share data, power and thermal management capabilities among themselves. By connecting these devices in different combinations, deactivated satellites could be resurrected and their operational lifespans drastically increased. DARPA expects to launch a demonstrator mission around 2020 and commercialize the technology shortly thereafter.

This mission could prove valuable for both the military and the commercial space industry, DARPA program Manager Gordon Roesler told Via Satellite in 2015, wherein a civilian firm would own and operate the satellites themselves and the military "could just pay a commercial operator for the service."

Despite the myriad capture options that these various systems offer, they all share one aspect in common: not one of them is ready to be put into service. It's not economically viable at this point to send up robots like the d.Deorbit to dispose of a single piece of space junk and likely won't be for years to come. What's more, the government may soon face a legal minefield in its cleanup efforts as more and more privately-owned satellites come to occupy and operate in LEO.

"Removal from orbit, collision avoidance, satellite servicing and repair, satellite recycling in orbit, debris storage locations, change to using a 'stable plane' at higher altitudes especially in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO)... are all possibilities," Donald Kessler told Space.com in 2013. "Some are mutually exclusive and may not be appropriate at all altitudes, while others could combine to be more effective."

"I believe it is time that the international community takes a serious look at the future of space operations," he concluded. "There's need to begin a process to answer these questions and determine which path will most effectively provide a sustainable environment for spacecraft in Earth orbit."


USA and Japan’s giant robot battle was a slow, brilliant mess

The oft-delayed giant robot fight has finally taken place. On Tuesday, Team USA's mechs scrapped it out with Japan's behemoth in an abandoned steel mill for the world to watch. There could only be one victor, and it proved to be the red, white, and blue. Yes, the MegaBots team representing America came out on top, but not before three gruelling rounds of robopocalypse.

Those who tuned into Twitch to view the action, saw Team USA's Iron Glory get knocked down by Japan's Kuratas bot straight out the gate. Its paintball canon clearly no match for its 13-foot rival's half-ton fist. In the second round, the MegaBots pilots came back with the newer Eagle Prime machine, itself decked out with a mechanical claw and gattling gun. But, they still struggled to land a deadly blow, instead getting stuck to their foe -- with Kuratas' drone sidekick making life that much harder. Then, in the final round, things got grizzly. Eagle Prime whipped out a chainsaw to dismember Suidobashi Heavy Industry's juggernaut and end the carnage.

Okay, so Team USA had the unfair advantage of using two bots, and the entire event may have been as choreographed as a WWE match, but it was strangely watchable regardless. If you missed the fight, you can catch it in full on YouTube.

With a win under its belt, the MegaBots team now wants to start a full-blown giant robots sports league. And, there's at least one contender waiting in the wings.

Source: MegaBots


Stretchable ‘skin’ gives robots the sense of touch

Robots show a lot of promise as first responders, but they can't effectively dismantle bombs or perform delicate first aid procedures if they can't feel what they're touching. To remedy that problem, a team of engineers from the University of Washington and UCLA have developed stretchable skin that can cover any part of a robot. The skin can give a machine the power to sense vibrations and shear force, or the unaligned forces that push one part of the body in one direction and another part in the opposite.

Ever slid your finger across a flat surface? You'll notice that a part of your flesh under the nail bulges out in the opposite direction of where you're sliding to, while the other side gets pulled taut. That's shear force at work -- and that's one of the things the artificial skin can mimic. See, the team embedded very, very tiny serpentine channels throughout the stretchable material and filled them with electrically conductive liquid metal. As the University of Washington explains:

"As the robot finger slides along a surface, serpentine channels embedded in the skin and filled with electrically conductive liquid metal stretch on one side of the [robotic] finger and compress on the other. This changes the amount of electricity that can flow through the channels, which can be correlated with shear force and vibration."

By giving the skin the ability to sense vibrations and forces, team leader Jonathan Posner said "we have achieved a level of sensitivity and precision that's consistent with human hands." It's an important breakthrough, which could lead to robots that can perform delicate surgery and disarm explosives without the need for remote human operators.

Source: University of Washington


Intel aims to conquer AI with the Nervana processor

Intel makes some pretty fast chips, but none are very efficient at the hottest thing in computing right now: Artificial intelligence (AI). Deep-learning apps that do computer vision, voice recognition and other tasks mostly just need to run matrix calculations on gigantic arrays -- something that doesn't suit general-purpose Core or Xeon chips. Now, thanks to its purchase of deep learning chipmaker Nervana, Intel will ship its first purpose-built AI chips, the Nervana Neural Processor family (NNP), by the end of 2017.

Intel enlisted one of the most enthusiastic users of deep learning and artificial intelligence to help out with the chip design. "We are thrilled to have Facebook in close collaboration sharing their technical insights as we bring this new generation of AI hardware to market," said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich in a statement. On top of social media, Intel is targeting healthcare, automotive and weather, among other applications.

Unlike its PC chips, the Nervana NNP is an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) that's specially made for both training and executing deep learning algorithms. "The speed and computational efficiency of deep learning can be greatly advanced by ASICs that are customized for ... this workload," writes Intel's VP of AI, Naveen Rao.

The chips are designed to do matrix multiplication and convolutions, among the most common calculations done by deep learning programs. Intel has eliminated the generalized cache normally seen on CPUs, instead using special software to manage on-chip memory for a given algorithm. "This enables the chip to achieve new levels of compute density and performance for deep learning," says Rao.

The goal of this new architecture is to develop a processor that is flexible enough to handle Deep learning workloads and scalable enough to handle high intensity computation requirements by making core hardware components as efficient as possible.

The chip is also designed with high-speed interconnects both on and off the chip, allowing for "massive bi-directional data transfer." That means if you link a bunch of the chips together, they can act as a huge virtual chip, allowing for increasingly larger deep-learning models.

Oddly, the Nervana NNP uses a lower-precision form of integer math called Flexpoint. "Neural networks are very tolerant to data 'noise' and this noise can even help them converge on solutions," Rao adds. At the same time, using lower-precision numbers allowed designers to increase so-called parallelism, reducing latency and increasing bandwidth.

NVIDIA has famously pushed Intel to the side of the road in AI thanks to a sort of lucky accident. As it happens, the GPUs it uses in graphics cards and supercomputers are the best option for training AI algorithms -- though not executing them -- so companies like Google and Facebook have been using them that way. Meanwhile, Intel's arch-rival Qualcomm has been working on chips that are exceptionally good at executing AI programs.

Intel is no doubt hoping to change that formula with the Nervana NNP chips, which are efficient at both AI training and execution. The company says it has "multiple generations" of the chips in the pipeline, and obviously has the manufacturing and sales infrastructure needed to pump them out in volume and get them into clients' hands. Intel is also working on a so-called neuromorphic chip called Loihi that mimics the human brain, and of course has the Myriad X chip designed specifically for machine vision.

While Intel is hoping to at least catch up to NVIDIA, the latter isn't exactly standing still. It recently released the V100 chip specifically for AI apps, and hired Clément Farabet as VP of AI infrastructure, likely with the aim of making chips that are just as good at running deep learning programs as they are at training them. At the same time, Google has built its own "Tensor Processing Unit" (TPU) that it strictly uses in its own data centers, and IBM has a neuromorphic chip dubbed "True North." In other words, if you think we've reached peak AI, you haven't seen anything yet.