How to Train Your Robot with Brain Oops Signals

By Jeremy Hsu | March 6, 2017 4:03 pm
A system that interprets brain oops signals enables human operators to correct the robot's choice in real-time. Credit: Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

A system that interprets brain signals enables human operators to correct the robot’s choice in real-time. Credit: Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

Baxter the robot can tell the difference between right and wrong actions without its human handlers ever consciously giving a command or even speaking a word. The robot’s learning success relies upon a system that interprets the human brain’s “oops” signals to let Baxter know if a mistake has been made.

The new twist on training robots comes from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Boston University. Researchers have long known that the human brain generates certain error-related signals when it notices a mistake. They created machine-learning software that can recognize and classify those brain oops signals from individual human volunteers within 10 to 30 milliseconds—a way of creating instant feedback for Baxter the robot when it sorted paint cans and wire spools into two different bins in front of the humans.

“Imagine being able to instantaneously tell a robot to do a certain action, without needing to type a command, push a button or even say a word,” said Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL at MIT, in a press release. “A streamlined approach like that would improve our abilities to supervise factory robots, driverless cars and other technologies we haven’t even invented yet.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Drones Set to Target Christmas Island’s Feral Cats

By Jeremy Hsu | February 28, 2017 10:56 pm
Australian wildlife officials tested small drones as a possible way to drop poisoned cat bait on Christmas Island. Credit: Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia

Australian wildlife officials tested small drones as a possible way to drop poisoned cat bait on Christmas Island. Credit: Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia

In the land down under, feral cats slaughter an estimated 75 million native animals each day. That threat to biodiversity prompted the Australian government to declare it would kill 2 million feral cats over five years starting in 2015. As part of that campaign, officials plan to enlist a drone air force capable of dropping poisoned cat bait on the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

During flight tests last year, a Sky Hero drone performed airborne drops of cat bait that resembles breakfast sausage links made from kangaroo meat. That proof-of-concept test showed how drones could deliver cat bait to target areas at a cost three times cheaper than hiring manned light aircraft. Starting as soon as next year, wildlife officials could use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to drop toxic bait as part of the final phase of a plan to wipe out all feral cats on Christmas Island—a distant Australian territory located 2,650 kilometers northwest of the Western Australian capital of Perth. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: environment, technology, top posts

Suicide Robot Boat Blamed for Attack on Warship

By Jeremy Hsu | February 21, 2017 9:48 pm
Houthi rebels used a robot boat packed with explosives to attack a Saudi missile frigate on Jan. 30, 2017. Credit: USNI News

A video screenshot shows a robot boat packed with explosives just moments before it strikes a Saudi missile frigate and explodes on Jan. 30, 2017. Credit: USNI News

A suicide boat attack that killed two sailors aboard a Saudi warship was apparently carried out by an unmanned, remotely-controlled boat. The U.S. Navy says the incident likely represents the first ever use of a suicide robot boat as a weapon on the high seas.

Suicide boat bombings carried out by human crews willing to die in the attacks are nothing new. Such an attack killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others aboard the U.S.S. Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen on Oct. 20, 2000. But the deadly debut of the suicide robot boat as first reported by Defense News shows how fairly cheap weapons can be deployed against much more advanced warships without even requiring a human “martyr” to pilot the suicide boat. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

When US Navy Suicide Drones Went to War

By Jeremy Hsu | February 18, 2017 3:13 pm

An F6F Hellcat fighter converted into a suicide drone sits onboard the aircraft carrier USS Boxer during the Korean War in 1952. Credit: By USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An F6F Hellcat fighter converted into a suicide drone sits onboard the aircraft carrier USS Boxer during the Korean War. Credit: By USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During the Korean War, a life-or-death race took place between a U.S. Navy Hellcat fighter aircraft and a group of North Koreans on a railroad handcar. Apparently believing that the fighter was preparing to attack with its machine guns, the North Koreans frantically pumped the railroad handcar’s arm as they headed for the safety of a railroad tunnel. They made it inside just before the aircraft crashed into the hillside near the tunnel entrance.

The strange incident marked one of the U.S. Navy’s early experiments with suicide drones in 1952. These early drones tended to be older, obsolete aircraft outfitted with TV transmitters that allowed human pilots to see the drones’ cockpit perspective on a TV screen. That enabled the pilots to remotely control the drone aircraft from the relative safety of a nearby “mothership” or “mother plane” by using radio control. Each of the Hellcat drones was loaded up with a 2,000-pound bomb before becoming the first military drones launched from an aircraft carrier to enter combat. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Islamic State Video Shows Weaponized Drones at War

By Jeremy Hsu | February 1, 2017 1:10 am
A hobbyist drone operated by Islamic State drops a bomb on an Iraqi military Abrams tank. Credit:

A hobbyist drone operated by Islamic State drops a bomb on an Iraqi military Abrams tank. Credit: Middle East Media Research Institute

Islamic State’s weaponization of consumer drones that anyone can buy off the shelf or on Amazon has reached new heights during the battle for Mosul that has been raging since October 2016. A recent propaganda video released by Islamic State showed off the militant group’s increased confidence in using small quadcopter drones to hover in place and drop small bombs on Iraqi military forces. One snippet of the video even shows a drone’s bomb striking a U.S.-manufactured Abrams tank in use by the Iraqi military.

Iraqi military forces backed by the U.S. have faced a growing threat from small swarms of quadcopter drones as they battle to take back the city of Mosul from entrenched Islamic State fighters. The latter have used relatively cheap off-the-shelf drones to scout the battlefield from above, record propaganda videos of their suicide vehicle bombs, and even as improvised flying bombs. But the recent video obtained by the Middle East Media Research Institute from an Islamic State online channel provides a string of footage that shows drones dropping bombs on Iraqi soldiers and the Abrams tank.

Warning: The video shows graphic battlefield footage of a bomb exploding near a tank commander. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Why Distracted Drivers Matter for Automated Cars

By Jeremy Hsu | January 31, 2017 10:32 pm
The interior view of a Tesla Model S sedan that has an Autopilot system representative of advanced driver assist technologies. Credit: Tesla

The interior view of a Tesla Model S sedan that has an Autopilot system representative of advanced driver assist technologies. Credit: Tesla

When a 2015 Tesla Model S collided with a tractor trailer at highway intersection west of Williston, Florida, the resulting crash killed the Tesla driver. An investigation of the May 7, 2016 incident by federal investigators found that the Tesla car’s Autopilot driver-assist system was not at fault and showed that the driver had at least seven seconds to spot the tractor trailer prior to the crash. But the tragedy emphasized the fact that the latest automated cars still require drivers to pay attention and be ready to take back control of the wheel.

The need for human drivers to take control at least some of the time will last until automakers roll out the first fully driverless commercial vehicles. Most studies have understandably focused on how quickly drivers can take back control from future self-driving cars in emergency situations. But researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK found very few studies that looked at takeover reaction times in normal driving situations such as getting on and off of highways. Their new paper found such different takeover reaction times among individual drivers—anywhere from two seconds to almost half a minute—that they suggested automated cars should give drivers the flexibility to choose how much time they need. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

No ‘Westworld’ Can Contain the Real Rise of AI

By Jeremy Hsu | January 21, 2017 5:00 pm
A train carries human visitors to the futuristic amusement park of "Westworld" populated by robot hosts. Credit: HBO

A train carries human visitors to the futuristic amusement park of “Westworld” populated by robot hosts. Credit: HBO

Nobody would accuse the HBO show “Westworld” of being a sunny science fiction tale about artificial intelligence. The show features humanlike robot “hosts” who live, die, and live again to serve the fantasies of human guests visiting a Western-themed amusement park. But the dark premise of “Westworld” is still escapist fiction compared with real concerns surrounding the rise of artificial intelligence.

The lurking threat of a “Westworld” robot uprising begins with the premise of artificial intelligence (AI) confined within the boundaries of the amusement park. Human visitors wishing to play cowboy or cowgirl arrive in the Westworld amusement park on a train, indulge in their immersive vacation experience, and then leave on the train. The managed pleasures and dangers of the Wild West fantasy—supported by the robot hosts—remain cordoned off within the park and safely separated from the rest of the world.

But don’t mistake the enjoyable science fiction premise of “Westworld” for real life. Like the railroads that helped transform the Wild West, AI technologies have already begun sweeping across the land and and transforming the human communities they touch. They are poised to reshape the fundamental underpinnings of both individual human livelihoods and entire national economies. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Why Amazon Dreams of Flying Warehouses

By Jeremy Hsu | December 31, 2016 12:52 am
A delivery drone prototype operated by Amazon Prime Air. Credit: Amazon

A delivery drone prototype operated by Amazon Prime Air. Credit: Amazon

Amazon gets to play full-time Santa Claus by delivering almost any imaginable item to customers around the world. But the tech giant does not have a magical sleigh pulled by flying reindeer to carry out its delivery orders. Instead, a recent Amazon patent has revealed the breathtaking idea of using giant airships as flying warehouses that could deploy swarms of delivery drones to customers below.

Many patent filings related to new technology often indulge in fantastical flights of fancy. But it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate some of the truly wilder scenarios being imagined within this Amazon patent filing. One scene envisions human or robot workers going to work busily sorting packages aboard airships hovering 45,000 feet above major cities. Another scene imagines the airship’s kitchen whipping up hot or cold food orders that would be loaded onto delivery drones for delivery within minutes.

A third scene anticipates swarms of delivery drones dropping off orders of food or t-shirts to people attending concerts or sports games. Amazon’s patent filing even considers how the airships could fly at much lower altitudes to act as giant billboards or megaphones that advertise and sell items directly to the crowds below. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

7-Eleven Drone Deliveries to Rise in 2017

By Jeremy Hsu | December 30, 2016 5:46 pm
A Flirtey delivery drone carries an order from a 7-Eleven store in Reno, Nevada. Credit: Flirtey

A Flirtey delivery drone carries an order from a 7-Eleven store in Reno, Nevada. Credit: Flirtey

A dozen lucky 7-Eleven customers have already gotten to taste the possibilities of drone food delivery in Reno, Nevada. In November 2016, these customers experienced the futuristic thrill of placing 7-Eleven orders through an app and then watching a hovering delivery drone drop off their order within 10 minutes. Next year, 7-Eleven plans to expand on such drone deliveries in partnership with a company calling itself the “Uber of drone delivery.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts

Google Dreams of Drone Food Delivery for Six Dollars

By Jeremy Hsu | December 10, 2016 6:52 pm
A Project Wing drone belonging to the Google X labs performs a food delivery run at Virginia Tech. Credit: Google

A Project Wing drone belonging to the Google X labs performs a food delivery run at Virginia Tech. Credit: Google

Google has been dreaming of hot pizzas and freshly-made coffee descending from the sky to your doorstep. The Google X technologies lab has already begun delivering burritos to Virginia Tech students using its Project Wing drones. But the truly bold part of the Google X plan may be the goal of offering drone food delivery for just a $6 fee. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.
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