Atlas the robot just got more human with this gymnastics routine

Oh shit, Atlas, "one of the most advanced humanoid robots ever built" according to DARPA, is now doing a gymnastics routine, and it's really good. Launched in 2013 by BostonDynamics for DARPA, this robot gets more and more human by the year. Both eerie and spectacular.

From BostonDynamics on YouTube:

Atlas uses its whole body -- legs, arms, torso -- to perform a sequence of dynamic maneuvers that form a gymnastic routine. We created the maneuvers using new techniques that streamline the development process. First, an optimization algorithm transforms high-level descriptions of each maneuver into dynamically-feasible reference motions. Then Atlas tracks the motions using a model predictive controller that smoothly blends from one maneuver to the next. Using this approach, we developed the routine significantly faster than previous Atlas routines, with a performance success rate of about 80%. For more information visit us at www.BostonDynamics.com.

Here is Atlas going for a walk on a winter day in 2016:

And Atlas presented to us in 2013:

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Boston Dynamic's robot dog is now for sale

Spot, the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, is now for sale. Sort of. From IEEE Spectrum:

But don’t pull out your credit card just yet. Spot may cost as much as a luxury car, and it is not really available to consumers. The initial sales, described as an “early adopter program,” is targeting businesses. Boston Dynamics wants to find customers in select industries and help them deploy Spots in real-world scenarios.

“What we’re doing is the productization of Spot,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert tells IEEE Spectrum. “It’s really a milestone for us going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field.”

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This robot tuna could become a swimming surveillance system

Do androids dream of electric sashimi? Read the rest

Watch the PuppetMaster, a robotic puppeteer, control marionettes

ETH Zurich engineers demonstrated a system enabling a robot to control a marionette. Although a robotic puppeteer is pretty damn cool, that's not the point of the research.

"Our long term goal is to enable robots to manipulate various types of complex physical systems – clothing, soft parcels in warehouses or stores, flexible sheets and cables in hospitals or on construction sites, plush toys or bedding in our homes, etc – as skillfully as humans do," they write in their technical paper. "We believe the technical framework we have set up for robotic puppeteering will also prove useful in beginning to address this very important grand-challenge."

(via IEEE Spectrum)

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Robotic bird inspired by seagull steals show at World Robot Conference in China

The fifth annual World Robot Conference was open to the public in Beijing last Thursday, August 22, and this bionic flying bird based on a herring gull was one of the more spectacular sights.

Other robots on show at the annual event in China included robo-superheroes, and Taiji-playing robots.

Rough cut of video from Reuters is here (no reporter narration).

[via] Read the rest

This robotic jar opener may help folks who have trouble opening jars

There are many reasons one may not have the ability to open a jar. This Robo Twist has lowered my usefulness around my mother's kitchen.

It is loud, but the jars get opened. Can't have it all.

Robo Twist Jar Opener via Amazon Read the rest

The word "robot" originated in this 1921 Czech play

In 1920, Czech writer Karel Čapek penned a play titled R.U.R., a cautionary tale about technology's potential to dehumanize. Read the rest

This war-dialing safe-cracker opens combination safes

The war-dialing safe-opener takes a maximum of 8 hours to open a safe. Read the rest

This tiny robot bug can survive getting stepped on

This tiny "soft" robot, just 3cm long, zips along at 20 of its body lengths per second. It can also carry heavy things, like peanuts in the shell, but that slows it down a bit. And amazingly, you can step on it and it won't die. Over at IEEE Spectrum, Ivan Ackerman writes about the little robot developed by researchers from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley:

It takes a scanning electron microscope to actually see what the robot is made of—a thermoplastic layer is sandwiched by palladium-gold electrodes, bonded with adhesive silicone to a structural plastic at the bottom. When an AC voltage (as low as 8 volts but typically about 60 volts) is run through the electrodes, the thermoplastic extends and contracts, causing the robot’s back to flex and the little “foot” to shuffle...

The researchers also put together a prototype with two legs instead of one, which was able to demonstrate a potentially faster galloping gait by spending more time in the air. They suggest that robots like these could be used for “environmental exploration, structural inspection, information reconnaissance, and disaster relief,” which are the sorts of things that you suggest that your robot could be used for when you really have no idea what it could be used for. But this work is certainly impressive, with speed and robustness that are largely unmatched by other soft robots. An untethered version seems possible due to the relatively low voltages required to drive the robot, and if they can put some peanut-sized sensors on there as well, practical applications might actually be forthcoming sometime soon.

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Aquanaut, an autonomous submarine that transforms into a humanoid robot

Aquanaut is an autonomous submarine developed by Houston Mechatronics Inc. that transforms into a humanoid robot -- well, the upper half anyway -- to service underwater oil and gas rigs. IEEE Spectrum's Evan Ackerman took a dive with Aquanaut in a massive swimming pool that NASA uses to help train astronauts for microgravity. From IEEE Spectrum:

The HMI engineers, who often joke that building a Transformer has been one of their long-term career objectives, are convinced that it can be done. Aquanaut has been designed primarily for servicing subsea oil and gas installations. The companies that own and operate this infrastructure spend vast sums of money to inspect and maintain it. They rely on robotic technologies that haven’t fundamentally changed in decades, largely because of the challenge of working in such an extreme environment. For HMI, however, that’s not a problem: Of its 75 employees, over two dozen used to work for NASA. Extreme environments are what they’re best at.

HMI cofounder and chief technology officer Nic Radford spent 14 years working on advanced robotics projects at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. “I’ll grant you that getting into space is harder than getting underwater,” he says. “But space is a pristine environment. Underwater, things are extraordinarily dynamic. I haven’t decided yet whether it’s 10 times harder or 50 times harder for robots working underwater than it is in space..."

Aquanaut will not require a tether or a support ship. It will travel in submarine mode to its deepwater destination, where it’ll transform into its humanoid form, unfolding its powerful arms.

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How to build empathy with robots

Trying to see the world through someone else's eyes is a great way to build empathy and understanding between people. Turns out, this approach -- when taken literally -- also works with robots. Researchers from the University of Bourgogne, University of Trento, and their colleagues used a head-mounted display to put people "inside" a robot and then studied their "likeability and closeness towards the robot."

"We have demonstrated that by 'beaming' a participant into a robot we can change his or her attitude towards the robot," says University of Trento psychologist Francesco Pavani.

"By 'beaming', we mean that we gave the participants the illusion that they were looking through the robot's eyes, moving its head as if it were their head, look in the mirror and see themselves as a robot."

"Unlike exercises in which the participants couldn't t move the robot's head or do that in a coordinated manner with other body movements, in our study the experience of walking in the shoes of a robot led the participants to adopt a friendlier attitude, to perceive them as socially closer."

From the abstract of their scientific paper published in Scientific Reports:

When participant’ and robot’s head movements were correlated, participants felt that they were incorporated into the robot with a sense of agency. Critically, the robot they embodied was judged more likeable and socially closer. Remarkably, we found that the beaming experience with correlated head movements and corresponding sensation of embodiment and social proximity, was independent of robots’ humanoid’s appearance.

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Robotic nursing aide wins over both skeptical nurses and their patients

Diligent Robotics's Moxi is a robot created by Andrea Thomaz (a former robotics professor at UT Austin and Georgia Tech's Socially Intelligent Machines Lab) and Vivian Chu (one of Thomaz's former grad students); they funded by a National Science Foundation grant to create a robotic nursing aide that is designed to do routine, non-human-interaction chores for nurses with a minimum of effort from nurses. Read the rest

Humanoid robot goes for a stroll

This is Digit, a new bipedal bot from Agility Robotics, out for a stroll in its hometown of Albany, Oregon. Next year, you'll be able to order your own Digit, but the price hasn't been announced yet. From Agility Robotics:

Although still in testing, Digit is strong enough to pick up and stack boxes weighing up to 40 lb (18 kg), as well as durable enough to catch itself during a fall using its arms to decelerate. In addition to the physical changes, the control system for Digit has been overhauled to enable advanced behaviors such as stair climbing and footstep planning, all controlled through a robust API that can be accessed both onboard the robot and via a wireless link... Out-of-the-box, Digit will be up and walking within five minutes, even for users who are not legged locomotion control researchers.

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Swidl: robot picks up gooey spills without losing their shapes

Swidl is a robot that can quickly slide its thin flat tongue underneath gooey spills without disrupting their shapes. I can't begin to imagine a purpose for it other than forensic-grade vomit archiving (the given example is ... meat towels?) but it's amazing to watch in action. Thluuuuuuuup! Read the rest

Brains of people with extra fingers could inspire new robotic control systems

One in 500 people are born with polydactyly, extra fingers or toes. Researchers at University of Freiburg in Germany, Imperial College London and Université de Lausanne / EPFL in Switzerland studied two people with well-formed usable sixth fingers between the thumb and first fingers on both hands to understand how their brains deal with the "extra workload" of controlling those digits. According to Imperial College bioengineer Etienne Burdet, high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that "the polydactyl individual's brains were well adapted to controlling extra workload, and even had dedicated areas for the extra fingers. It's amazing that the brain has the capacity to do this seemingly without borrowing resources from elsewhere." From Imperial College London:

Polydactyl participants also performed better at many tasks than their non-polydactyl counterparts. For instance, they were able to perform some tasks, like tying shoelaces, with only one hand, where two are usually needed... (See video above.)

The international team of authors say the findings might serve as blueprint for the developing artificial limbs and digits to expand our natural movement abilities. For example, giving a surgeon control over an extra robotic arm could enable them to operate without an assistant...

However, (lead author Carsten Mehring of Freiburg University) warned that people with robotic extra limbs may not achieve as good control as observed in the two polydactyl subjects. Any robotic digits or limbs wouldn’t have dedicated bone structure, muscles, tendons or nerves.

In addition, subjects would need to learn to use extra fingers or limbs, much like how an amputee learns how to use a prosthetic arm.

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Stop saying "robots are coming for your job"; start saying "Your boss wants to replace you with a robot"

Tech reporter and sf writer Brian Merchant (previously) calls our attention to the peculiar construction of the problem statement in articles about automation and obsolescence, in which "robots are coming to steal your job." Read the rest

Pogoing robot looks like it's having fun bouncing through an obstacle course

Salto is a single-legged, hopping robot that its UC Berkeley inventors compare to a "hyper-aggressive pogo-stick." Previously, Salto was constrained to a highly-structured indoor environment with a motion caption system. Now though, roboticists Justin Yim and Eric Wang have imbued Salto with the onboard smarts to bounce freely through the world albeit still under human control. From UC Berkeley:

Salto’s single, powerful leg is modeled after those of the galago, or Senegalese bush baby. The small, tree-dwelling primate’s muscles and tendons store energy in a way that gives the spry creature the ability to string together multiple jumps in a matter of seconds. By linking a series of quick jumps, Salto also can navigate complex terrain — like a pile of debris — that might be impossible to cross without jumping or flying.

“Unlike a grasshopper or cricket that winds up and gives one jump, we’re looking at a mechanism where it can jump, jump, jump, jump,” (UC Berkeley robotics professor Ronald) Fearing said. “This allows our robot to jump from location to location, which then gives it the ability to temporarily land on surfaces that we might not be able to perch on.”

From IEEE Spectrum:

...The researchers expect that “higher precision estimation and control can enable jumping on more finely varied surfaces like stairs, furniture, or other outcroppings” as well as “soft substrates like upholstery or natural foliage.”

The researchers tell us that Salto’s hardware is capable enough at this point that aside from potentially upgrading the motor or battery for more jumping power or run time, the focus now will be on new behaviors, although they’re toying with the idea of adding some kind of gripping foot so that Salto can launch from, and land on, tree branches (!).

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