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These Cardboard Drones Are (Highly Useful) Paper Airplanes for the Military

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Otherlab

The U.S. military has started playing with paper airplanes. DARPA, the Defense Department’s technology lab, is funding research into inexpensive, biodegradable cardboard drones that can deliver supplies and then disappear, as the MIT Technology Review reports.

Designed by Otherlab, Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA) gliders are made of heavy-duty cardboard that ships flat, like IKEA furniture. They’re cheap to mass-produce, so it’s not risky to send them into remote areas where the military might otherwise lose another pricey drone. Soldiers can assemble them in the field if necessary.

There’s no engine or battery, just a small set of electronics to allow the glider to navigate to its destination. They can carry 2.2 pounds (one kilogram) of blood, medicine, or other humanitarian supplies into areas that don’t have road or plane access, including onto the battlefield.

According to Otherlab’s press release, a military transport plane stocked with hundreds of pre-programmed cardboard gliders could deliver supplies to an area the size of California in one go. However, this design is just a trial run for the concept. According to Air & Space magazine, Otherlab plans to make the final product out of mycelium (living root structures from mushrooms) that could be activated when the glider is released. The spores would digest the frame, and within a few days, the drone would disappear completely.

If you thought the military’s drone programs were secretive now, just wait until they have drones that can eat themselves.

[h/t MIT Technology Review]

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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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