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Ryan Truby, Michael Wehner, and Lori Sanders, Harvard University.

The Octobot Is Soft, Autonomous, and Stinkin’ Adorable

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Ryan Truby, Michael Wehner, and Lori Sanders, Harvard University.

The robot uprising, when it comes, may be much cuter and squishier than previously imagined. Scientists have created the world’s first all-soft, completely autonomous robot: a translucent miniature octopus that glows in the dark. They described the project in the journal Nature. 

Inventors have been copying nature’s tricks for a long time. The hooks and loops of Velcro were inspired by a prickly thistle burr, while Japanese bullet trains borrow their shape from a kingfisher's streamlined bill. One of the most exciting frontiers in technology today is soft robotics, which attempts to repurpose the stretchy, squashy limbs and bodies of animals like octopuses, worms, and sea slugs. Effective soft robots could change the way we explore our planet, conduct search and rescue missions, and even administer medical care. 

But producing a successful squish has proven much harder than nature makes it look. Robots need power supplies and control mechanisms, which usually take the form of hard metal and plastic batteries and circuit boards. 

To get around this issue, engineers at Harvard University turned to chemistry and 3D printing. Within the octobot’s translucent body are two fuel reservoirs filled with hydrogen peroxide. The reservoirs feed into small, thin channels that carry hydrogen peroxide to a liquid logic circuit filled with platinum-infused ink. The ink reacts with the hydrogen, thereby creating large quantities of gas, which then inflates the arms. The three systems—body, logic circuit, and power supply—work in tandem to get the octobot moving. 

Take a look:

Precious and excellent though it may be, the octobot is not ready for prime time quite yet. "This research is a proof of concept," study co-first author Ryan Truby said in a statement. "We hope that our approach for creating autonomous soft robots inspires roboticists, material scientists and researchers focused on advanced manufacturing."

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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Aibo, Sony’s Failed Robot Dog, Is Returning as a Smart Home Device
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When Sony released its robotic dog Aibo in 1999, marketing it as “Man’s Best Friend for the 21st Century,” sales were impressive. But the public fascination didn’t last forever. Even though it was low-maintenance and allergy-free, most dog-lovers still preferred the pets they had to clean up after and feed. Aibo was discontinued seven years later.

Now, Mashable reports that Aibo is making a comeback, and it’s been given a few updates to make it a better fit for the current decade. When the robot companion returns to shelves in spring of 2018, it will double as a smart home device. That’s a big step up from the early Aibos, which couldn’t do much beyond playing fetch, wagging their tails, and singing the occasional song.

Sony’s original Aibo team, which was redistributed throughout the company in 2006, has reformed to tackle the project. Instead of trying to replace your flesh-and-blood Fido at home, they’ve designed a robot that can compete with other AI home speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home. The new dog can connect to the internet, so owners will be able to command it to do things like look up the weather as well as sit and fetch. Aibo will run on an open source software, which means that third party developers will be able to program new features that Sony doesn’t include in the initial release.

While Aibo is often remembered as a turn-of-the-millennium failure, it's still beloved in some communities. In 2015 The New York Times published a short documentary profiling owners in Japan who struggle to care for their robots as parts become scarce. When the pets break down for good, some of them even hold Aibo funerals. It will soon became clear if the 2018 models inspire a cult following of their own.

[h/t Mashable]

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