Wednesday, January 31, 2007

U.S. university to build 'soft-bodied' robots

Forget the humanoid Asimo and Roomba, the roaming vacuum. The next generation of robots will be soft-bodied, providing more flexibility than their stiff-jointed cousins, according to researchers at Tufts University.
The Medford, Mass. university launched the new initiative focused on the science and engineering of a new class of soft-bodied robots with the announcement of $730,000 in funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, Calif.
The new field will combine biology, bio-engineering and nanotechnology to create a flexible breed of robots capable of performing tasks requiring greater mobility, such as search and rescue missions or repair and maintenance during space exploration missions.
"Our overall goal is to develop systems and devices — soft-bodied robots — based on biological materials and on the adaptive mechanisms found in living cells, tissues and whole organisms," said co-director David Kaplan, a professor of biomedical engineering.
While Honda's Asimo robot is meant to resemble a humanoid, it is made mostly of stiff materials incapable of the kinds of flexible actions common in biology, said Kaplan's co-director, biology Prof. Barry Trimmer.
It is Trimmer's work in studying caterpillars that first provided insights into how to build a soft-bodied robot. The caterpillar is unique in that its fluid and flexible movements are controlled with a simple brain and without the use of joints. Kaplan's work has focused on engineering strong yet flexible fibres.
The two hope the new class of robots will be continuously deformable and capable of collapsing into small volumes. Their work will focus on control systems, bionic materials, robot design and construction, and the development of operating systems to run the robots.
Roboticists have long tried to emulate animal motions such as walking, but only recently has the idea of softer materials begun to play a role in robot design.
In 2005 researchers at the University of California Berkeley began work on a robot modelled after the octopus, which is capable of walking underwater on two of its arms despite having no joints in its limbs.

Original Article

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Terminator cometh

At 3 feet tall and a whopping 200 pounds, it wouldn't pass a physical, but it fires a machine gun with half-mile accuracy and doesn't flinch.

The latest infantryman is electronic -- a gun-toting robot developed at Picatinny Arsenal.

Engineers at the Army weapons research post in Rockaway Township hope to send the machine, the first of its kind, into combat this year.

They envision the robot rolling through city streets in search of the enemy, while troops operate it from a half-mile away.

Unlike its human counterparts, it doesn't run out of breath, and it can hit a pie plate from about 900 yards. A soldier might need to be about 600 yards closer to boast the same level of accuracy.

It goes "places you don't want to send a soldier," said Rudy Roehrich, a Picatinny engineer who helped design and test the machine.

Picatinny has been working on the $3.2 million program for several years, wrestling with how to ensure the robo-soldier fires only when it's commanded.

It's also taken some time to convince Army brass of the remote-controlled machine's potential.

"The Army is not used to machines doing their work," Roehrich said. "When you put a gun on it, they say, 'What's a soldier going to do? I don't trust that too much.' It's a culture change."

One of the biggest tests has been ensuring the robot does only what it's told. Troops operate the machine from a suitcase-size computer that lets them peer through the robot's five cameras and drive it by tilting a joystick.

Soldiers must stay in constant communication with the robot and give it a series of computerized commands before the M249 machine gun fires.

"It can't arm and fire if everything is not exactly right," Roehrich said. The robot soldier also is said not to be invincible, although Picatinny engineers would not specify exactly how it could be destroyed in combat.

Arsenal engineers see the $250,000 robot -- known as Special Weapons Observation Remote Reconnaissance Direct-Action System, or SWORDS -- as a way to keep troops out of harm's way.

It also may be a harbinger of things to come.

The idea for the gun-toting robot developed about three years ago when troops in Afghanistan asked for a device that could crawl through caves.

Picatinny engineers attached several weapons to the TALON robot, which the military has used for several years to disarm roadside bombs and mines. But it was the machine-gun version that troops found most helpful because of its ability to fire fast and far.

Contractor Foster-Miller in Massachusetts is making 10, and 83 more are planned to be built.

The Army is still reviewing the robot, but engineers hope to get it to U.S. units this year and, after training, to Iraq, said Picatinny project officer Kim Jones.

So far, a SWORDS prototype has been a hit, said retired Sgt. 1st Class Dave Platt, who runs robot training sessions at Fort Benning, Ga.

While some older troops are hesitant about using it and can be "set in their ways," the younger ones are excited to learn how it works, Platt said.

"They'd rather use this than stand in 130-degree heat with 100 pounds of armor and ammunition," said Platt, who works for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Florida.


Engineers are racing to unveil the world’s first robot capable of building a house at the touch of a button.

The first prototype — a watertight shell of a two-storey house built in 24 hours without a single builder on site — will be erected in California before April.

A rival design, being pioneered in the East Midlands, with £1.2m of government funding, will include sunken baths, fireplaces and cornices. There are even plans for robots to supplant painters and decorators by spraying colourful frescoes at an affordable price.

By building almost an entire house from just two materials — concrete and gypsum — the robots will eliminate the need for dozens of traditional components, including floorboards, wooden window frames and possibly even wallpaper. It may eventually be possible to use specially treated gypsum instead of glass window panes.

Engineers on both projects say the robots will not only cut costs and avoid human delays but liberate the normal family homes from the conventional designs of pitched roofs, right-angled walls and rectangular windows.

“The architectural options will explode,” predicted Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who will soon unleash his $1.5m (£940,000) robot. “We will be able to build curves and domes as easily as straight walls.

“Your shoes, clothes and car are already made automatically, but your house is built by hand and it doesn’t make sense.”

At Loughborough University’s School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, the technology is being backed by a £1.2m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

It involves computer-controlled robotic nozzles which pipe quick-drying liquid gypsum and concrete to form walls, floors and roofs.

Inspired by the inkjet printer, the technology goes far beyond the techniques already used for prefabricated homes. “This will remove all the limitations of traditional building,” said Hugh Whitehead of the architecture firm Foster & Partners, which designed the “Gherkin” skyscraper in London and is producing designs for the Loughborough team. “Anything you can dream you can build.”

The robots are rigged to a metal frame, enabling them to shuttle in three dimensions and assemble the structure of the house layer by layer. The sole foreman on site operates a computer programmed with the designer’s plans.

The researchers in Los Angeles claim their robot will be able to build the shell of a house in 24 hours. “Compared to a conventional house, the speed of construction will be increased 200-fold and the building costs will be reduced to a fifth of what they are today,” said Khoshnevis.

The rival British system is likely to take at least a week but will include more sophisticated design features, with the computer’s nozzle weaving in ducts for water pipes, electrical wiring and ventilation within the panels of gypsum or concrete.

Jala El-Ali, structural designer at Buro Happold — the firm that helped design Arsenal’s new football stadium, which is shaped like a flying saucer — said future homes could carry features borrowed from ant hills, honeycombs or sea shells.

Dr Rupert Soar, in charge of the project at Loughborough, has travelled to Namibia to seek inspiration from termites, which construct giant mounds by regurgitating earth in intricate designs.

“If you ask a bricklayer to lay bricks in anything other than a straight line, you’ll run into problems,” said Soar. “But if you ask the robot to make a squiggly line it really doesn’t care.”

The robots will also create a smaller “carbon footprint” than conventional building methods; and, theoretically, a family could grind down a spare room when the children leave home.

Original Article

However, the robot appears to be afflicted by all-too-human obstacles. While the Americans’ first robot-built home is predicting a completion date of April, the Loughborough prototype is unlikely to be built for at least five years.

A Better Artificial Skin

A patient's skin cells, genetically modified and grown in a test tube, could provide the next generation of artificial skin. As a first step in creating such replacement skin, scientists in Cincinnati have engineered bacteria-resistant skin cells in the lab and are now testing them in animals. Ultimately, they hope to produce a type of artificial skin that can sweat, tan, and fight off infection.

"We're using genetic modification to try to get the cultured skin to behave more like normal skin," says Dorothy Supp, a researcher at the Cincinnati Shriners Hospital for Children who led the project.

Original Article

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Researchers Use Wikipedia To Make Computers Smarter

Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have found a way to give computers encyclopedic knowledge of the world to help them “think smarter,” making common sense and broad-based connections between topics just as the human mind does.

The new method will help computers filter e-mail spam, perform Web searches and even conduct electronic intelligence gathering at a much more sophisticated level than current programs, according to researchers Evgeniy Gabrilovich and Shaul Markovitch of the Technion Faculty of Computer Science. The findings will be presented next week in Hyderabad, India during the Twentieth International Joint Conference for Artificial Intelligence.

The program devised by the Technion researchers helps computers map single words and larger fragments of text to a database of concepts built from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which has over one million articles in its English-language version. The Wikipedia-based concepts act as “background knowledge” to help computers figure out the meaning of the text entered into a Web search, for instance.

Giving computers this deeper knowledge has been a long-standing problem in artificial intelligence, according to Markovitch. “Humans use a significant amount of background knowledge” to understand text, “but we didn’t know how to have computers access such knowledge,” he said.

Most Web search and e-mail filter programs appear smart by calculating how often certain words appear in two texts, Markovitch explained. “But what is common to all these applications is that the programs that actually do this kind of thing don’t understand text. They treat text as a collection of words, but they don’t understand the meaning of words.”

This shallow understanding is what makes an e-mail spam filter block all messages containing the word “vitamin,” but fail to block messages containing the word “B12.” “If the program never saw “B12” before, it’s just a word without any meaning. But you would know it’s a vitamin,” Markovitch said.

“With our methodology, however, the computer will use its Wikipedia-based knowledge base to infer that "B12" is strongly associated with the concept of vitamins, and will correctly identify the message as spam," he added.

Or, computers could look at a chunk of text about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction and know that it is conceptually related to topics such as the Iraq war and U.S. Senate debates on intelligence—even if those terms do not appear anywhere in the original text.

The method also helps computers figure out ambiguous terms—deciding, for instance, whether the word “mouse” refers to the computer device or the fuzzy animal. This can be especially important in translated documents, Markovitch said.

In the near future, the Technion researchers hope to improve their method by adding information from the Web page links inside Wikipedia articles. They are already pursuing a patent on their work, which they say will be of interest to the intelligence community and Web search engine companies, among others.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Israel's leading science and technology university. Home to the country’s winners of the Nobel Prize in science, it commands a worldwide reputation for its pioneering work in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water-resource management, materials engineering, aerospace and medicine. The majority of the founders and managers of Israel's high-tech companies are alumni. Based in New York City, the American Technion Society is the leading American organization supporting higher education in Israel, with 17 offices around the country.

January 4, 2007
Contact: Kevin Hattori (212) 407-6319
Original Article

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

An ATM for books

By Emily Maltby, FSB Magazine
December 14 2006: 9:36 AM EST

(FSB Magazine) -- Buying a book could become as easy as buying a pack of gum. After several years in development, the Espresso - a $50,000 vending machine with a conceivably infinite library - is nearly consumer-ready and will debut in ten to 25 libraries and bookstores in 2007. The New York Public Library is scheduled to receive its machine in February.

The company behind the Espresso is called On Demand Books, founded by legendary book editor Jason Epstein, 78, and Dane Neller, 56, but the technology was developed six years ago by Jeff Marsh, who is a technology advisor for New York City-based ODB (

The machine can print, align, mill, glue and bind two books simultaneously in less than seven minutes, including full-color laminated covers. It prints in any language and will even accommodate right-to-left texts by putting the spine on the right. The upper page limit is 550 pages, though by tweaking the page thickness and type size, you could get a copy of War and Peace (albeit tough to read) if you wanted.

Neller says that future versions of the machine will accommodate longer works with fewer hassles. Prices for the finished product will vary depending on locations, but the production cost is about a penny per page. (At right, FSB's interpretation.)

Some 2.5 million books are now available - about one million in English and no longer under copyright protection. On Demand accesses the volumes through Google and the Open Content Alliance, among other sources. Neller predicts that within about five years On Demand Books will be able to reproduce every volume ever printed.

Epstein says that the larger obstacles are consumer preference - the machine can't make you a latte - and convincing skeptics in the industry. But some early adopters are already sold on the idea.

Niko Pfund, a publisher at Oxford University Press, says the evolution away from traditional bookstores is only natural. "For hundreds of years the industry was unchanged," Pfund says. "Then audio came out. Now it's time for digital."

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New Research Could Lead to "Invisible" Electronics

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Imagine a car windshield that displays a map to your destination, military goggles with targets and instructions displayed right before a soldier's eyes or a billboard that doubles as a window.

Only in science fiction you say? Northwestern University researchers report that by combining organic and inorganic materials they have produced transparent, high-performance transistors that can be assembled inexpensively on both glass and plastics.

The results of this breakthrough, which brings such futuristic high-quality displays closer to reality, were published in the November 2006 issue of the journal Nature Materials.

Researchers have long worked on developing new types of displays powered by electronics without visible wires. But, until now, no one was able to develop materials for transistors that could be “invisible” while still maintaining a high level of performance.

“Our development provides new strategies for creating transparent electronics,” said Tobin J. Marks, the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Research Professor in Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and professor of materials science and engineering, who led the research. “You can imagine a variety of applications for new electronics that haven't been possible previously -- imagine displays of text or images that would seem to be floating in space.”

Transistors are used for all the switching and computing necessary in electronics, and, in displays, they are used to power and switch the light sources.

High-performance, transparent transistors could be combined with existing kinds of light display technologies, such as organic light-emitting diodes, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and electroluminescent displays, which are already used in televisions, desktop and laptop computers and cell phones.

To create their thin-film transistors, Marks' group combined films of the inorganic semiconductor indium oxide with a multilayer of self-assembling organic molecules that provides superior insulating properties.

The indium oxide films can be fabricated at room temperature, allowing the transistors to be produced at a low cost. And, in addition to being transparent, the transistors outperform the silicon transistors currently used in LCD screens and perform nearly as well as high-end polysilicon transistors.

Prototype displays using the transistors developed at Northwestern could be available in 12 to 18 months, said Marks. He has formed a start-up company, Polyera, to bring this and related technologies to market.