Archive for the ‘AI and Robots’ Category


June 10, 2012

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Nokia Sensing X Challenge

May 30, 2012

The X PRIZE Foundation and Nokia have announced the launch of the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE – a $2.25 million global competition aimed at developing a new generation of health sensors and sensing technologies that can drastically improve the quality, accuracy and ease of monitoring a person’s health.

Improvements in these technologies will empower individuals to effortlessly monitor and collect their own real-time health data, providing both consumers and healthcare providers convenient access to critical information whenever and wherever they need it.

The announcement was made by X PRIZE Foundation Chairman and CEO Dr. Peter Diamandis and Nokia Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Henry Tirri during their keynote address at the Wireless Health Convergence Summit in San Diego.

“Partnering with Nokia is a natural fit for this competition. Health sensing technologies enabled by artificial intelligence, lab-on-a-chip, and digital imaging are advancing exponentially and will ultimately integrate with your phone. We need to expand sensor and sensing technology beyond disease management to areas such as public health and fitness,” said Dr. Diamandis.

“The Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE will bring about radical innovation in health sensors and sensing technologies, which paves the way for better choices in when, where, and how individuals receive care. Ultimately, healthcare will be more convenient, affordable, and accessible to consumers worldwide through these integrated digital health solutions.”

The inefficiencies and total cost of the U.S. healthcare system (and healthcare systems around the globe) has been a pressing social and political issue for many years. In the U.S., the total spent annually on the healthcare system is more than $2 trillion, which accounts for more than 15 percent of the nation’s GDP. Health sensors have the capacity to stem this trend. Consumer use of sensors and sensing solutions has the potential to improve, extend and ease delivery of healthcare services, as well as reduce costs to the benefit of health providers and patients.

“Nokia engages in Open Innovation on many different levels; this type of ‘grand challenge’ is not only a unique method of driving significant progress in a short space of time, but one which can also help to create an entire ecosystem,” said Dr. Tirri.

“This competition will enable us to realize the full potential of mobile sensing devices, leading to advances in sensing technology which can play a major role in transforming the lives of billions of people around the world.”

Holograms to replace people at New York airports

May 28, 2012

As the summer travel season gets underway, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has announced new initiatives to improve customer service for passengers at the region’s busiest airports.

More than 106 million passengers use the agency’s three major airports each year, which in addition to LaGuardia and Newark includes John F. Kennedy International Airport. The enhancements will provide immediate results just as air travel starts to increase during the busiest time of the year. These initiatives are the direct result of a customer survey conducted by the Port Authority of more than 10,000 air passengers who evaluated their experience.

Among the new initiatives will be a 20 percent increase in the number of Customer Care Representatives during peak hours, with 70 new agents. Currently, 350 customer care agents provide valuable information to help customers navigate the airport and public transportation options. They staff the airport’s welcome centres and other high-volume terminal areas like checkpoint entry and exit areas, and are easily identifiable by their red jackets.

Given the huge volumes of international travellers, the Customer Service Representatives speak a total of 27 different languages, with English and Spanish most prevalent.

To expand on the program, the Port Authority has created an innovative pilot plan that will see five “virtual” customer care representatives. These will be computerised, hologram-like avatars providing automated information to travellers in LaGuardia’s Central Terminal Building, Newark Liberty’s Terminal B and JFK’s Terminal 5 when they are installed in early July, at a cost of $180,000.

The avatars are not interactive, but Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye is quoted as saying he “hopes a future iteration of the talking machines will hold conversations with passengers.”

The technology has already been used in France and elsewhere, but this will be the first time it has appeared in North America.

For more info, see

First “microsubmarines” to clean oil spills

May 9, 2012

Scientists are reporting successful development and testing of the first self-propelled “microsubmarines” designed to pick up droplets of oil from contaminated waters and transport them to collection facilities. The report concludes that these tiny machines could play an important role in cleaning up oil spills, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico.

Different types of microengines are being developed, including devices that could transport medications through the bloodstream to diseased parts of the body. But no one has ever shown that these devices — 10 times thinner than a human hair — could help clean up oil spills. There is an urgent need for better ways of separating oil from water in the oceans and inside factories to avoid spreading oil-contaminated water into the environment.

The team developed so-called microsubmarines, which require very little fuel and move ultrafast, to see whether these small engines could help clean up oil. Tests showed that the cone-shaped microsubmarines can collect droplets of olive oil and motor oil in water and transport them through the water. The microsubs have a special surface coating, which makes them “superhydrophobic,” or extremely water-repellent and oil-absorbent.

“These results demonstrate the potential of the superhydrophobic-modified microsubmarines for facile, rapid and highly efficient collection of oils in oil-contaminated water samples,” say the researchers. The full report appears in the journal ACS Nano.

Google’s futuristic, Internet-connected glasses

April 8, 2012

Google this week announced “Project Glass” – a research and development program which aims to prototype and build an augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display.

Although this technology is not a new idea, the project is gaining media attention due to its backing by such a high-profile company, as well as the design concepts which are smaller and slimmer than previous versions of head-mounted displays. These early demos appear to more closely resemble normal eyeglasses, where the lens is replaced by a heads-up display, and may be integrated into people’s day-to-day eyewear in the future.

Project Glass is part of Google X Lab, a secret facility which has worked on other futuristic technologies including a self-driving car. The project’s intended purpose is to allow hands-free displaying of information currently found on smartphones, while providing interaction with the Internet via natural language voice commands, in a manner similar to the iPhone application Siri.

The New York Times reports that the glasses will be available for “around the cost of current smartphones” – $250 to $600 – by the end of 2012.

DARPA’s “Cheetah” Sets Land Speed Record for Legged Robots

March 5, 2012

The use of ground robots in bomb disposal missions already saves many lives and prevents thousands of other casualties. If the current limitations on mobility and manipulation can be overcome, robots could far more effectively assist the military across a greater range of missions. DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program seeks to create and demonstrate major scientific and engineering advances that could achieve this goal.

The video below shows a demonstration of the “Cheetah” robot galloping at speeds of up to 18 mph (29 km/h), setting a new land speed record for legged robots. The previous record was 13.1 mph (21 km/h), set in 1989.

The robot’s movements are modelled on those of fast-running animals in nature. The machine increases its stride and speed by flexing and un-flexing its back on each step, much as an actual cheetah does.

The current version runs on a laboratory treadmill where it is powered by an off-board hydraulic pump, and uses a boom-like device to keep it running in the centre of the treadmill. Testing of a free-running prototype is planned for later this year.

While the M3 program conducts basic research and is not focused on specific military missions, the technology it aims to develop could have a wide range of potential military applications.

The contractor for DARPA is Boston Dynamics, who also designed the “BigDog” and “PETMAN”.

Driverless cars can be licensed in Nevada

February 27, 2012

Nevada has become the first state in the US to allow self-driving autonomous vehicles on public roads.

The newly approved regulations, which come into effect on Thursday 1st March, require two drivers in every car – one in the front seat, to take back control in an emergency. The vehicles must also be fitted with a data recorder, to collect information in the event of a crash.

In creating the regulations, the Department of Motor Vehicles partnered with Google, auto manufacturers, testing professionals, insurance companies, universities and law enforcement, all with a common vision of saving lives.

Several other states currently have bills in front of their legislators that will follow Nevada into the future.

You will be able to distinguish an autonomous test vehicle by the red license plate it displays. When the technology is ready for general public use, a green license plate will be displayed on vehicles using it.

2011 – A look back (part 1)

January 4, 2012

To kick off 2012, here’s a look back at some of the events, trends, scientific and technological advances that shaped 2011.

These have been divided into categories for ease of reference.

AI & Robots

2011 witnessed a major milestone in artificial intelligence, as the Watson supercomputer defeated two human champions on the Jeopardy! quiz show. This computer proved capable of answering questions posed in natural language on a wide range of subjects. Though some are skeptical over whether it displayed “intelligence”, its performance was undoubtedly impressive.

Advances in robotics technology this year were also significant. They included PETMAN, a humanoid machine from Boston Dynamics with eerily realistic movements. There were also quadro-copters, able to hit a ball to-and-fro while hovering in the air (and even construct a tower), a revamped Asimo with enhanced capabilities, a new version of the NAO robot, and a major step towards microscopic, remote-controlled robots that could one day travel inside the human body. One of the more bizarre developments came from Japan, in the form of a flexible bionic mouth able to replicate human singing.

The number of robots worldwide continued to grow rapidly and is now on course to reach 100 million by 2020.

World robot population 2000-2011

Biology & Medicine

2011 saw a multitude of breakthroughs and discoveries in medicine. Among the most notable was an HIV vaccine trial that received the go-ahead from the FDA, following two decades of research by Canadian scientists. Gene therapy was also shown to protect mice from HIV transmission.

Meanwhile, a new leukaemia treatment was described by some as “the biggest advance in cancer research in decades”.

At a medical conference in Chicago, two new drugs for skin cancer were unveiled and received similar praise as “the biggest breakthrough in melanoma treatment for more than 30 years”.

A trial involving heart failure patients – treated with stem cells to repair their severely damaged hearts – resulted in triple the improvement researchers had predicted. It was the first time this had been done in humans and was described as “the biggest breakthrough in treating heart attacks for a generation”.

In Sweden, the first synthetic organ transplant – using an artificial windpipe coated with stem cells – saved the life of a man diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The world’s first tissue-engineered urethras were also developed using patients’ own cells.

Other advances included a universal flu vaccine that could potentially kill all strains, a pill preventing Type 2 diabetes in 72% of patients, trials of a pancreatic cancer vaccine, a breakthrough in the treatment of sickle cell anaemia, the beginning of human trials for a malaria vaccine, another step towards an obesity drug, a new dye to illuminate hard-to-spot tumours, and prostate cancer being cured in mice.

Researchers found three more genes linked to the most common form of breast cancer, as well as five genes linked to Alzheimer’s.

Progress was made in identifying the root molecular cause of aging (triggered by a gene called p53) and a telomerase activator known as T-65 was shown to increase telomere length and prolong the lifespan of adult/old mice, without cancerous side effects. Researchers also identified a new group of mitochondrial proteins, the absence of which allows other protein groups to stabilise the genome and could delay the onset of age-related diseases.

A new way of delivering drugs to the brain was discovered, using the body’s own exosomes.

Meanwhile, genome editing was achieved for the first time in mice, to cure a life-threatening blood disease. This method, which repairs flaws in the genetic code of a living animal, could one day be applied to humans.

India almost completely eradicated polio in 2011, through an extensive vaccination program. Only a single case of polio was reported during the whole of the year – compared with 42 in 2010, and 741 in 2009.

Also in 2011, the United Nations declared that a once-widespread cattle disease, rinderpest, had been globally eradicated.

The world's first synthetic organ transplant

The world's first synthetic organ transplant

Business & Politics

2011 was of course dominated by the eurozone crisis, which saw Greece in the spotlight for much of the year. Embroiled in economic, political and social turmoil, the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, and the main opposition leader agreed to form a “national unity” coalition government. This was needed to pass highly unpopular austerity plans, secure bailout funds and prevent the country from defaulting on its debt. As part of this deal, Papandreou agreed to resign.

Italy faced major problems too. Its cost of borrowing on 10-year bonds reached more than 7%, the highest since the euro was founded in 1999. This prompted the European Central Bank to intervene and was followed by Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation.

Europe as a whole remains highly vulnerable going into 2012, with no end in sight to the ongoing crisis. According to a BBC poll of leading economists, the continent will fall back into recession. Funding needs are estimated at over €800 billion for this year, with €215 billion euros for Italy alone. French banks have €310 billion of exposure to Italy, while German banks have €155 billion of exposure to France. The FTSE 100 finished 2011 almost 10% lower than at the start of the year.

America’s debt continued to rise, passing 100% of GDP and reaching $15 trillion by December. The last time it rose this high was during World War II. Its triple-A credit rating was also downgraded for the first time. There was some good news, however, as unemployment fell, from 9.4 down to 8.6% (the lowest since March 2009).

China continued to have strong economic growth in 2011 and surpassed the United States as the leading manufacturer. However, more signs emerged of a looming real estate bubble, and the IMF also warned that government-controlled banks could be storing up imbalances potentially hampering future growth.

2011 also witnessed the Arab Spring (interactive timeline here), the Libyan civil war and overthrow of Gaddafi, the death of Osama bin Laden, the birth of a new country, widespread looting and fires in England, the Occupy movement and the end of the Iraq War.

The year ended with tension between Iran and the US over the Strait of Hormuz – a strategically vital waterway, through which almost 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.

Two highly controversial bills – SOPA and NDAA – were debated in the US (the latter being signed into law on 31st December).

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street protesters. Credit: Thomas Good / NLN

Aldebaran Robotics launches a new generation of its humanoid robot

December 11, 2011

Aldebaran Robotics has released the latest version of its NAO robot — NAO Next Gen – an autonomous, programmable humanoid robot. Headquartered in Paris, this French startup company has already had success with earlier models. The first prototype was developed in 2005, with a finalised version being used in 2008 for that year’s Robot Soccer World Cup, an international robotics competition. Since then, over 2,000 units have been sold worldwide.

This latest generation has numerous upgrades, thanks to increased computing power, which includes a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor. It now features a higher level of interaction, more accuracy, faster and more reliable “Nuance” voice recognition, smart torque control, improved walking algorithms and measures to cut down on unwanted collisions.

When listening to human speech, it has a new functionality called “word spotting”, which is capable of isolating and interpreting a specific word within a sentence or conversation. It also has two HD cameras, attached to a field-programmable gate array (FPGA). This setup allows simultaneous reception of two video streams, significantly increasing speed and performance in face-and-object recognition, even under poor lighting conditions.

As before, the $15,000 robot is aimed squarely at researchers, developers and universities. However, a version for use by the general public is to be launched in late 2012.

For more information, including a video, see the official website:

NAO Next Gen. Credit: Aldebaran Robotics

Mimicking the brain, in silicon

November 18, 2011

A new computer chip models how neurons communicate with each other at synapses

For decades, scientists have dreamed of building computer systems that could replicate the human brain’s talent for learning new tasks.

MIT researchers have now taken a major step toward that goal by designing a new computer chip that mimics how the brain’s neurons adapt in response to new information. This phenomenon, known as plasticity, is believed to underlie many brain functions, including learning and memory.

With about 400 transistors, the silicon chip can simulate the activity of a single brain synapse – a connection between two neurons that allows information to flow from one to the other. The researchers anticipate this chip will help neuroscientists learn much more about how the brain works, and could also be used in neural prosthetic devices such as artificial retinas, says Chi-Sang Poon, a principal research scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

Poon is the senior author of a paper describing the chip in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. Guy Rachmuth, a former postdoc in Poon’s lab, is lead author of the paper. Other authors are Mark Bear, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, and Harel Shouval of the University of Texas Medical School.

Modeling synapses

There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain, each of which forms synapses with many other neurons. A synapse is the gap between two neurons (known as the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons). The presynaptic neuron releases neurotransmitters, such as glutamate and GABA, which bind to receptors on the postsynaptic cell membrane, activating ion channels. Opening and closing those channels changes the cell’s electrical potential. If the potential changes dramatically enough, the cell fires an electrical impulse called an action potential.

All of this synaptic activity depends on the ion channels, which control the flow of charged atoms such as sodium, potassium and calcium. Those channels are also key to two processes known as long-term potentiation (LTP) and long-term depression (LTD), which strengthen and weaken synapses, respectively.

The MIT researchers designed their computer chip so that the transistors could mimic the activity of different ion channels. While most chips operate in a binary, on/off mode, a current flows through the transistors on the new brain chip in analog, not digital, fashion. A gradient of electrical potential drives current to flow through the transistors just as ions flow through ion channels in a cell.

“We can tweak the parameters of the circuit to match specific ion channels,” Poon says. “We now have a way to capture each and every ionic process that’s going on in a neuron.”

Previously, researchers had built circuits that could simulate the firing of an action potential, but not all of the circumstances that produce the potentials. “If you really want to mimic brain function realistically, you have to do more than just spiking. You have to capture the intracellular processes that are ion channel-based,” Poon says.

The new chip represents a “significant advance in the efforts to incorporate what we know about the biology of neurons and synaptic plasticity onto CMOS [complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor] chips,” says Dean Buonomano, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California at Los Angeles, adding that “the level of biological realism is impressive.”

The MIT researchers plan to use their chip to build systems to model specific neural functions, such as the visual processing system. Such systems could be much faster than digital computers. Even on high-capacity computer systems, it takes hours or days to simulate a simple brain circuit. With the analog chip system, the simulation is even faster than the biological system itself.

Another potential application is building chips that can interface with biological systems. This could be useful in enabling communication between neural prosthetic devices such as artificial retinas and the brain. Further down the road, these chips could become building blocks for artificial intelligence devices, Poon says.