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June 16, 2019
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Stanford’s Doggo is a petite robotic quadruped you can (maybe) build yourself

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Got a few thousand bucks and a good deal of engineering expertise? You’re in luck: Stanford students have created a quadrupedal robot platform called Doggo that you can build with off-the-shelf parts and a considerable amount of elbow grease. That’s better than the alternatives, which generally require a hundred grand and a government-sponsored lab.

Due to be presented (paper on arXiv here) at the IEEE International Conference on Robots and Automation, Doggo is the result of research by the Stanford Robotics Club, specifically the Extreme Mobility team. The idea was to make a modern quadrupedal platform that others could build and test on, but keep costs and custom parts to a minimum.

The result is a cute little bot with rigid-looking but surprisingly compliant polygonal legs that has a jaunty, bouncy little walk and can leap more than three feet in the air. There are no physical springs or shocks involved, but by sampling the forces on the legs 8,000 times per second and responding as quickly, the motors can act like virtual springs.

It’s limited in its autonomy, but that’s because it’s built to move, not to see and understand the world around it. That is, however, something you, dear reader, could work on. Because it’s relatively cheap and doesn’t involve some exotic motor or proprietary parts, it could be a good basis for research at other robotics departments. You can see the designs and parts necessary to build your own Doggo right here.

“We had seen these other quadruped robots used in research, but they weren’t something that you could bring into your own lab and use for your own projects,” said Doggo lead Nathan Kau in a Stanford news post. “We wanted Stanford Doggo to be this open source robot that you could build yourself on a relatively small budget.”

In the meantime the Extreme Mobility team will be both improving on the capabilities of Doggo by collaborating with the university’s Robotic Exploration Lab, and also working on a similar robot but twice the size — Woofer.

Why is Facebook doing robotics research?

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It’s a bit strange to hear that the world’s leading social network is pursuing research in robotics rather than, say, making search useful, but Facebook is a big organization with many competing priorities. And while these robots aren’t directly going to affect your Facebook experience, what the company learns from them could be impactful in surprising ways.

Though robotics is a new area of research for Facebook, its reliance on and bleeding-edge work in AI are well known. Mechanisms that could be called AI (the definition is quite hazy) govern all sorts of things, from camera effects to automated moderation of restricted content.

AI and robotics are naturally overlapping magisteria — it’s why we have an event covering both — and advances in one often do the same, or open new areas of inquiry, in the other. So really it’s no surprise that Facebook, with its strong interest in using AI for a variety of tasks in the real and social media worlds, might want to dabble in robotics to mine for insights.

What then could be the possible wider applications of the robotics projects it announced today? Let’s take a look.

Learning to walk from scratch

“Daisy” the hexapod robot.

Walking is a surprisingly complex action, or series of actions, especially when you’ve got six legs, like the robot used in this experiment. You can program in how it should move its legs to go forward, turn around, and so on, but doesn’t that feel a bit like cheating? After all, we had to learn on our own, with no instruction manual or settings to import. So the team looked into having the robot teach itself to walk.

This isn’t a new type of research — lots of roboticists and AI researchers are into it. Evolutionary algorithms (different but related) go back a long way, and we’ve already seen interesting papers like this one:

By giving their robot some basic priorities like being “rewarded” for moving forward, but no real clue how to work its legs, the team let it experiment and try out different things, slowly learning and refining the model by which it moves. The goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes for the robot to go from zero to reliable locomotion from weeks to hours.

What could this be used for? Facebook is a vast wilderness of data, complex and dubiously structured. Learning to navigate a network of data is of course very different from learning to navigate an office — but the idea of a system teaching itself the basics on a short timescale given some simple rules and goals is shared.

Learning how AI systems teach themselves, and how to remove roadblocks like mistaken priorities, cheating the rules, weird data-hoarding habits and other stuff is important for agents meant to be set loose in both real and virtual worlds. Perhaps the next time there is a humanitarian crisis that Facebook needs to monitor on its platform, the AI model that helps do so will be informed by the autodidactic efficiencies that turn up here.

Leveraging “curiosity”

Researcher Akshara Rai adjusts a robot arm in the robotics AI lab in Menlo Park. (Facebook)

This work is a little less visual, but more relatable. After all, everyone feels curiosity to a certain degree, and while we understand that sometimes it kills the cat, most times it’s a drive that leads us to learn more effectively. Facebook applied the concept of curiosity to a robot arm being asked to perform various ordinary tasks.

Now, it may seem odd that they could imbue a robot arm with “curiosity,” but what’s meant by that term in this context is simply that the AI in charge of the arm — whether it’s seeing or deciding how to grip, or how fast to move — is given motivation to reduce uncertainty about that action.

That could mean lots of things — perhaps twisting the camera a little while identifying an object gives it a little bit of a better view, improving its confidence in identifying it. Maybe it looks at the target area first to double check the distance and make sure there’s no obstacle. Whatever the case, giving the AI latitude to find actions that increase confidence could eventually let it complete tasks faster, even though at the beginning it may be slowed by the “curious” acts.

What could this be used for? Facebook is big on computer vision, as we’ve seen both in its camera and image work and in devices like Portal, which (some would say creepily) follows you around the room with its “face.” Learning about the environment is critical for both these applications and for any others that require context about what they’re seeing or sensing in order to function.

Any camera operating in an app or device like those from Facebook is constantly analyzing the images it sees for usable information. When a face enters the frame, that’s the cue for a dozen new algorithms to spin up and start working. If someone holds up an object, does it have text? Does it need to be translated? Is there a QR code? What about the background, how far away is it? If the user is applying AR effects or filters, where does the face or hair stop and the trees behind begin?

If the camera, or gadget, or robot, left these tasks to be accomplished “just in time,” they will produce CPU usage spikes, visible latency in the image, and all kinds of stuff the user or system engineer doesn’t want. But if it’s doing it all the time, that’s just as bad. If instead the AI agent is exerting curiosity to check these things when it senses too much uncertainty about the scene, that’s a happy medium. This is just one way it could be used, but given Facebook’s priorities it seems like an important one.

Seeing by touching

Although vision is important, it’s not the only way that we, or robots, perceive the world. Many robots are equipped with sensors for motion, sound, and other modalities, but actual touch is relatively rare. Chalk it up to a lack of good tactile interfaces (though we’re getting there). Nevertheless, Facebook’s researchers wanted to look into the possibility of using tactile data as a surrogate for visual data.

If you think about it, that’s perfectly normal — people with visual impairments use touch to navigate their surroundings or acquire fine details about objects. It’s not exactly that they’re “seeing” via touch, but there’s a meaningful overlap between the concepts. So Facebook’s researchers deployed an AI model that decides what actions to take based on video, but instead of actual video data, fed it high-resolution touch data.

Turns out the algorithm doesn’t really care whether it’s looking at an image of the world as we’d see it or not — as long as the data is presented visually, for instance as a map of pressure on a tactile sensor, it can be analyzed for patterns just like a photographic image.

What could this be used for? It’s doubtful Facebook is super interested in reaching out and touching its users. But this isn’t just about touch — it’s about applying learning across modalities.

Think about how, if you were presented with two distinct objects for the first time, it would be trivial to tell them apart with your eyes closed, by touch alone. Why can you do that? Because when you see something, you don’t just understand what it looks like, you develop an internal model representing it that encompasses multiple senses and perspectives.

Similarly, an AI agent may need to transfer its learning from one domain to another — auditory data telling a grip sensor how hard to hold an object, or visual data telling the microphone how to separate voices. The real world is a complicated place and data is noisier here — but voluminous. Being able to leverage that data regardless of its type is important to reliably being able to understand and interact with reality.

So you see that while this research is interesting in its own right, and can in fact be explained on that simpler premise, it is also important to recognize the context in which it is being conducted. As the blog post describing the research concludes:

We are focused on using robotics work that will not only lead to more capable robots but will also push the limits of AI over the years and decades to come. If we want to move closer to machines that can think, plan, and reason the way people do, then we need to build AI systems that can learn for themselves in a multitude of scenarios — beyond the digital world.

As Facebook continually works on expanding its influence from its walled garden of apps and services into the rich but unstructured world of your living room, kitchen, and office, its AI agents require more and more sophistication. Sure, you won’t see a “Facebook robot” any time soon… unless you count the one they already sell, or the one in your pocket right now.

This clever transforming robot flies and rolls on its rotating arms

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There’s great potential in using both drones and ground-based robots for situations like disaster response, but generally these platforms either fly or creep along the ground. Not the “Flying STAR,” which does both quite well, and through a mechanism so clever and simple you’ll wish you’d thought of it.

Conceived by researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the “flying sprawl-tuned autonomous robot” is based on the elementary observation that both rotors and wheels spin. So why shouldn’t a vehicle have both?

Well, there are lots of good reasons why it’s difficult to create such a hybrid, but the team, led by David Zarrouk, overcame them with the help of today’s high-powered, lightweight drone components. The result is a robot that can easily fly when it needs to, then land softly and, by tilting the rotor arms downwards, direct that same motive force into four wheels.

Of course you could have a drone that simply has a couple of wheels on the bottom that let it roll along. But this improves on that idea in several ways. In the first place, it’s mechanically more efficient because the same motor drives the rotors and wheels at the same time — though when rolling, the RPMs are of course considerably lower. But the rotating arms also give the robot a flexible stance, large wheelbase and high clearance that make it much more capable on rough terrain.

You can watch FSTAR fly, roll, transform, flatten and so on in the following video, prepared for presentation at the IEEE International Convention on Robotics and Automation in Montreal:

The ability to roll along at up to 8 feet per second using comparatively little energy, while also being able to leap over obstacles, scale stairs or simply ascend and fly to a new location, give FSTAR considerable adaptability.

“We plan to develop larger and smaller versions to expand this family of sprawling robots for different applications, as well as algorithms that will help exploit speed and cost of transport for these flying/driving robots,” said Zarrouk in a press release.

Obviously at present this is a mere prototype, and will need further work to bring it to a state where it could be useful for rescue teams, commercial operations and the military.

Google’s Translatotron converts one spoken language to another, no text involved

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Every day we creep a little closer to Douglas Adams’ famous and prescient babel fish. A new research project from Google takes spoken sentences in one language and outputs spoken words in another — but unlike most translation techniques, it uses no intermediate text, working solely with the audio. This makes it quick, but more importantly lets it more easily reflect the cadence and tone of the speaker’s voice.

Translatotron, as the project is called, is the culmination of several years of related work, though it’s still very much an experiment. Google’s researchers, and others, have been looking into the possibility of direct speech-to-speech translation for years, but only recently have those efforts borne fruit worth harvesting.

Translating speech is usually done by breaking down the problem into smaller sequential ones: turning the source speech into text (speech-to-text, or STT), turning text in one language into text in another (machine translation), and then turning the resulting text back into speech (text-to-speech, or TTS). This works quite well, really, but it isn’t perfect; Each step has types of errors it is prone to, and these can compound one another.

Furthermore, it’s not really how multilingual people translate in their own heads, as testimony about their own thought processes suggests. How exactly it works is impossible to say with certainty, but few would say that they break down the text and visualize it changing to a new language, then read the new text. Human cognition is frequently a guide for how to advance machine learning algorithms.

Spectrograms of source and translated speech. The translation, let us admit, is not the best. But it sounds better!

To that end researchers began looking into converting spectrograms, detailed frequency breakdowns of audio, of speech in one language directly to spectrograms in another. This is a very different process from the three-step one, and has its own weaknesses, but it also has advantages.

One is that, while complex, it is essentially a single-step process rather than multi-step, which means, assuming you have enough processing power, Translatotron could work quicker. But more importantly for many, the process makes it easy to retain the character of the source voice, so the translation doesn’t come out robotically, but with the tone and cadence of the original sentence.

Naturally this has a huge impact on expression and someone who relies on translation or voice synthesis regularly will appreciate that not only what they say comes through, but how they say it. It’s hard to overstate how important this is for regular users of synthetic speech.

The accuracy of the translation, the researchers admit, is not as good as the traditional systems, which have had more time to hone their accuracy. But many of the resulting translations are (at least partially) quite good, and being able to include expression is too great an advantage to pass up. In the end, the team modestly describes their work as a starting point demonstrating the feasibility of the approach, though it’s easy to see that it is also a major step forward in an important domain.

The paper describing the new technique was published on Arxiv, and you can browse samples of speech, from source to traditional translation to Translatotron, at this page. Just be aware that these are not all selected for the quality of their translation, but serve more as examples of how the system retains expression while getting the gist of the meaning.

Lambs, the radiation-proof underwear company formerly known as Spartan, is now selling beanies

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Earlier this year, Spartan, the French manufacturer of a silver-lined underwear designed to block EMF radiation from cell phones and wireless routers, relocated to the U.S. and raised some capital from the Los Angeles-based investment firm, Science.

Now the company has relaunched as Lambs and is adding a radiation-proof silver-lined beanie to its $29-per-pair underwear already on sale in the U.S. The company’s goal is to capitalize on paranoia around the effects of cell phone radiation on health and possible links to cancer.

Any link between exposure to radiation from cell phones or wi-fi and cancer or other deleterious health effects is tenuous at best, according to the American Cancer Society, but that didn’t stop Lambs (nee’ Spartan) from launching at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2017 with a pitch designed to prey on fears about the potential health risks.

Indeed, there are no studies that definitively prove a link between radiation emitted by cell phones and cancer. The most serious health risk associated with cell phones is an accident caused by distracted driving, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The three co-founders Arthur Menard, Pierre Louis Boyer, and Thomas Calichiama were undeterred by the science and — spurred on by capital from Science — are expanding on their product line.

Since relocating to the U.S., the team went back to the drawing board and redesigned their underpants to align more with American tastes.

Now, the new and improved underwear and new beanie are going to be available to anyone who wants bacteria-resistant, silver-lined, underwear and headwear so they can wrap precious metals around their family jewels.

The company also plans to launch a line of t-shirts later this year. A line of women’s underwear is also on the roadmap.

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