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Medicine

Tiny New Robots Perform Eye Surgery (technologyreview.com) 29

A tiny new Robotic Retinal Dissection Device -- nicknamed "R2D2" -- can crawl into an incision in the eye and lift a membrane no more than a hundredth of a millimeter. "The cables that enable the robot to navigate are each 110 microns across, a little over the diameter of a human hair," reports the MIT Technology Review. The robot is controlled by a joystick (while providing a live camera feed to the ophthalmologist). In September an Oxford professor used it to perform the first operation inside the human eye, and since then five more patients have undergone robot-assisted operations at an Oxford hospital. In one procedure, a gene-therapy virus that stops retinal degeneration "was planted on the retina itself, a procedure only made possible by R2D2's unprecedented precision."
Robotic surgery is already happening. The article points out that Da Vinci, an elephant-sized surgical robot that repairs heart valves, "has operated on more than three million patients around the world." But the Oxford professor believes these tiny eye robots "will open the door to new operations for which the human hand does not have the necessary control and precision."
Medicine

Robotic Sleeve Mimics Muscles To Keep a Heart Beating (seeker.com) 41

randomErr writes: 5.7 million adults in the United States have heart failure each year with about 41 million worldwide. Currently, treatment involves surgically implanting a mechanical pump, called a ventricular assist device (VAD), into the heart. The VAD helps maintains the heart's function. But patients with VADs are at high risk for getting blood clots and having a stroke. Researchers at Harvard University and Boston Children's Hospital have created a soft robotic sleeve that doesn't have to be implanted. The robotic sleeve slips around the outside of the heart, squeezing it in sync with the natural rhythm. "This work represents an exciting proof of concept result for this soft robot, demonstrating that it can safely interact with soft tissue and lead to improvements in cardiac function," Conor Walsh, said in a press statement. Seeker reports: "The sleeve they developed is made from thin silicone and attaches to the outside of the heart with a combination of suction devices and sutures. It relies on soft, air-powered actuators that twist and compress in a way that's similar to the outer layer of muscle of a human heart. A gel coating reduces any friction between the sleeve and the organ. Because the sleeve is soft and flexible, it can be customized to fit not just the size and shape of individual hearts, but augment the organ's weaknesses. For example, if a patient's heart is weaker on the left side than the right, the sleeve can be tuned to squeeze with more authority on the left side. As the organ gains strength, the device can be adjusted." The study has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
NASA

NASA Is Making New Robots That Can Control Themselves (vice.com) 45

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: NASA wants humans and robots to work together as teams. To ensure that, the space agency's autonomous robotics group is currently developing new technology to improve how humans explore the solar system, and how robots can help. When NASA began working with remotely operated robots several years ago, Fong said the scientists needed a piece of software that would allow them to look at terrain and sensor data coming from autonomous robots. That led to the creation of VERVE, a "3D robot user interface," which allows scientists to see and grasp the three-dimensional world of remotely operated robots. VERVE has been used with NASA's K10 planetary rovers (a prototype mobile robot that can travel bumpy terrain), with its K-Rex planetary rovers (robot to determine soil moisture), with SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) on the International Space Station (ISS), and with the new robot Astrobee (a robot that can fly around the ISS). In 2013, NASA carried out a series of tests with astronauts on the ISS, during which astronauts who were flying 200 miles above Earth remotely operated the K10 planetary rover in California. Because of time delay, astronauts can't just "joystick a robot," said Maria Bualat, deputy lead of intelligent robotics group at the NASA Ames Research Center. "You need a robot that can operate on its own, complete tasks on its own," she said. "On the other hand, you still want the human in the loop, because the human brings a lot of experience and very powerful cognitive ability that can deal with issues that the autonomy's not quite ready to handle." That's why, according to NASA, human capabilities and robotic capabilities comprise a powerful combination.
Advertising

Drone Maker Lily Robotics Faked Promotional Video, Gets Sued For False Advertising and Misleading Business Practices (theregister.co.uk) 39

Dotnaught quotes a report from The Register: Lily Robotics says its decision on Thursday to shut down and return pre-order payments for a never-delivered drone, which came on the same day that San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon charged the company with false advertising and misleading business practices, was purely coincidental. According to a source familiar with the complaint filed against the company, Lily Robotics has known about the DA's investigation for several months. On the strength of a promotional video on YouTube in May 2015, embedded below, Lily Robotics raised more than $34 million in pre-order sales over the course of that year for a drone called Lily Camera. The flying gadget, when built, would be capable of being launched with a throw, following people, and recording them. But after pushing the delivery date back multiple times, Lily Robotics has yet to ship a single drone to its 60,000 prospective customers, according to the lawsuit filed against the company. In theory, Lily Robotics could face a fine of more than a hundred million dollars, depending upon the outcome of a trial, if it comes to that. The company faces potential fines for at least two business code violations subject to a civil penalty of $2,500 per violation, and there are some 60,000 individuals affected. In practice, however, such fines are usually orders of magnitude less, particularly if both sides agree on a settlement. The complaint against Lily, obtained by The Register, alleges that the company knowingly misled customers by creating a promotional video that purported to show video footage captured with a Lily drone prototype. "In fact, none of the video in the Promotional Video was shot by a Lily Camera," the complaint says. "Most notably, the POV footage used in the promotional video was filmed using a professional camera drone called the DJI Inspire." Among the Lily Camera prototypes present at the video shoot, the complaint says, the ones that could actually record video were able to do so because they had Go-Pro cameras mounted on them.
Robotics

Half the Work People Do Can Be Automated, Says McKinsey (techinasia.com) 409

Half the work people do in their jobs can be automated, according to a study published by McKinsey Global Institute. From a report: Instead of assessing the impact of automation on specific jobs, the study went to a more granular level by looking at the activities involved in various jobs. The logic is that every occupation has a range of activities, each with varying potential for automation. McKinsey found that 49 percent of the activities people are paid to do in the global economy can be automated with "currently demonstrated technology." That involves US$11.9 trillion in wages and touches 1.1 billion people. The study encompassed over 50 countries and 80 percent of the world's workers. China, India, Japan, and the US accounted for half of the total wages and employees. Not surprisingly, the two most populous countries, China and India, could see the largest impact of automation, potentially affecting 600 million workers -- which is twice the population of the US.
EU

Europe Calls For Mandatory 'Kill Switches' On Robots (cnn.com) 173

To combat the robot revolution, the European Parliament's legal affairs committee has proposed that robots be equipped with emergency "kill switches" to prevent them from causing excessive damage. Legislators have also suggested that robots be insured and even be made to pay taxes. "A growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics," said Mady Delvaux, the parliamentarian who authored the proposal. "To ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework." CNNMoney reports: The proposal calls for a new charter on robotics that would give engineers guidance on how to design ethical and safe machines. For example, designers should include "kill switches" so that robots can be turned off in emergencies. They must also make sure that robots can be reprogrammed if their software doesn't work as designed. The proposal states that designers, producers and operators of robots should generally be governed by the "laws of robotics" described by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. The proposal also says that robots should always be identifiable as mechanical creations. That will help prevent humans from developing emotional attachments. "You always have to tell people that robot is not a human and a robot will never be a human," said Delvaux. "You must never think that a robot is a human and that he loves you." The report cites the example of care robots, saying that people who are physically dependent on them could develop emotional attachments. The proposal calls for a compulsory insurance scheme -- similar to car insurance -- that would require producers and owners to take out insurance to cover the damage caused by their robots. The proposal explores whether sophisticated autonomous robots should be given the status of "electronic persons." This designation would apply in situations where robots make autonomous decisions or interact with humans independently. It would also saddle robots with certain rights and obligations -- for example, robots would be responsible for any damage they cause. If advanced robots start replacing human workers in large numbers, the report recommends the European Commission force their owners to pay taxes or contribute to social security.
Government

Pentagon Successfully Tests Micro-Drone Swarm (phys.org) 113

schwit1 quotes a report from Phys.Org: The Pentagon may soon be unleashing a 21st-century version of locusts on its adversaries after officials on Monday said it had successfully tested a swarm of 103 micro-drones. The important step in the development of new autonomous weapon systems was made possible by improvements in artificial intelligence, holding open the possibility that groups of small robots could act together under human direction. Military strategists have high hopes for such drone swarms that would be cheap to produce and able to overwhelm opponents' defenses with their great numbers. The test of the micro-drone swarm in October included 103 Perdix micro-drones measuring around six inches (16 centimeters) launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, the Pentagon said in a statement.
Biotech

A Squishy Clockwork BioBot Releases Doses of Drugs Inside the Body (ieee.org) 15

the_newsbeagle writes: Making micro-machines that work inside the body is tricky, because hard silicon and metal devices can cause problems. So bioengineers are working on soft and squishy gadgets that can be implanted and do useful work. Here's a soft biobot that's modeled on a Swiss watch mechanism called a Geneva drive. With every tick forward, the tiny gizmo releases a dose of drugs. Getting the material properties just right was a challenge. "If your material is collapsing like jello, it's hard to make robots out of it," says inventor Samuel Sia.
Businesses

Amazon's Robot Workforce Grows By 50 Percent In Just One Year (siliconrepublic.com) 49

Amazon hires a lot of people. But the expansion of its army of orange-wheeled robots is more than keeping pace. An anonymous reader writes: E-commerce and cloud giant Amazon has revealed that it now has 45,000 robots across 20 fulfilment centres around the world. This is a 50 percent increase on the same time last year, when the company said that it employed 30,000 robots alongside its 306,000 people. Amazon uses the robots to automate the picking and packing process at large warehouses. The robots are 16in tall and weigh 145kg. They can travel at 5mph and can carry packages that weigh 317kg. The robots became part of the company's workforce when Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012 for $775m.
AI

Japanese White-Collar Workers Are Already Being Replaced by Artificial Intelligence (qz.com) 370

Most of the attention around automation focuses on how factory robots and self-driving cars may fundamentally change our workforce, potentially eliminating millions of jobs. But AI that can handle knowledge-based, white-collar work is also becoming increasingly competent. From a report on Quartz: One Japanese insurance company, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, is reportedly replacing 34 human insurance claim workers with "IBM Watson Explorer," starting by this month. The AI will scan hospital records and other documents to determine insurance payouts, according to a company press release, factoring injuries, patient medical histories, and procedures administered. Automation of these research and data gathering tasks will help the remaining human workers process the final payout faster, the release says.
Businesses

Foxconn Boosting Automated Production in China (digitimes.com) 71

Foxconn Electronics is automating production at its factories in China in three phases, aiming to fully automate entire factories eventually, according to general manager Dai Jia-peng for Foxconn's Automation Technology Development Committee. From a report on DigiTimes: In the first phase, Foxconn aims to set up individual automated workstations for work that workers are unwilling to do or is dangerous, Dai said. Entire production lines will be automated to decrease the number of robots used during the second phase, Dai noted. In the third phase, entire factories will be automated with only a minimal number of workers assigned to production, logistics, testing and inspection processes, Dai indicated.
Robotics

Mining Companies Are Using Autonomous Trucks, Drills and Trains To Boost Efficiency, Reduce Employees (technologyreview.com) 94

schwit1 quotes a report from MIT Technology Review: Mining companies are rolling out autonomous trucks, drills, and trains, which will boost efficiency but also reduce the need for human employees. Rio Tinto uses driverless trucks provided by Japan's Komatsu. They find their way around using precision GPS and look out for obstacles using radar and laser sensors. The company's driverless trucks have proven to be roughly 15 percent cheaper to run than vehicles with humans behind the wheel -- a significant saving since haulage is by far a mine's largest operational cost. Trucks that drive themselves can spend more time working because software doesn't need to stop for shift changes or bathroom breaks. They are also more predictable in how they do things like pull up for loading. "All those places where you could lose a few seconds or minutes by not being consistent add up," says Rob Atkinson, who leads productivity efforts at Rio Tinto. They also improve safety. The driverless locomotives, due to be tested extensively next year and fully deployed by 2018, are expected to bring similar benefits. They also anticipate savings on train maintenance, because software can be more predictable and gentle than any human in how it uses brakes and other controls. Diggers and bulldozers could be next to be automated.
Robotics

Avatar-Style Manned Robot Takes First Steps In South Korea (valuewalk.com) 42

An anonymous reader quotes a report from ValueWalk: A robot designed by a veteran of science fiction blockbusters which bear a striking resemblance to the military robots seen in the movie Avatar has taken its first baby steps. The robot standing in a room on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea stands four meters (13 feet) tall and weighs 1.5 tons. In a Facebook post, designer Vitaly Bulgarov said, "Everything we have been learning so far on this robot can be applied to solve real-world problems." His previous work experience includes work on film series such as Transformers, Terminator and Robocop, reports phys.org. Its creators at the Hankook Mirae Technology, a robotics company in South Korea, claim it is the world's first. About 30 engineers there worked hard conducting initial tests Tuesday afternoon, notes phys.org. For the engineers, it was a challenge to build the giant robot because the unprecedented scale meant they had nothing to refer to. Company chairman Yang Jin-Ho said, "Our robot is the world's first manned bipedal robot and is built to work in extreme hazardous areas where humans cannot go (unprotected)." A pilot sitting inside the robot's torso made some limb movements, and the robot, Method-2, mimicked them with his metal arms, each weighing 130 kilograms (286 pounds). It is so huge that it is twice the size of a tall man, and when it takes a step, the ground shakes with a loud whirring of motors. Method-2 has grabbed the media's attention due to its enormous size, but its creators say that the core achievement of the project is the technology they developed. How the robot will be used is unclear so far, but it is seen more as a test-bed for various technologies that will make it possible for the creators to build robots of any type and size in the future, notes phys.org.
Robotics

Humans Marrying Robots? Experts Say It's Really Coming (fortune.com) 366

If you were rooting for fictitious chatacters Dolores and William to make it work on HBO's Westworld, just wait a few more decades and their relationship may be able to exist in real life. That's right, a few experts say marriage will be legal between humans and robots by 2050. From a report on Fortune: At a conference last week called "Love and Sex with Robots" at Goldsmith University in London, David Levy, author of a book on human-robot love, made the bold prediction. And while some other experts were skeptical, Adrian Cheok, a professor at City University London and director of the Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore, supported Levy's idea. "That might seem outrageous because it's only 35 years away. But 35 years ago people thought homosexual marriage was outrageous," Cheok said. "Until the 1970s, some states didn't allow white and black people to marry each other. Society does progress and change very rapidly."
China

China 'Smart Restaurant' Uses Facial Recognition To Make Meal Suggestions (techcrunch.com) 61

An anonymous reader quotes TechCrunch's report about Baidu's newest project: The search giant sometimes referred to as the 'Google of China' partnered with KFC to open a new "smart restaurant" in Beijing, which employs facial recognition to make recommendations about what customers might order, based on factors like their age, gender and facial expression... image recognition hardware installed at the KFC will scan customer faces, seeking to infer moods, and guess other information including gender an age in order to inform their recommendation... And the setup also has built-in recognition, so if you're a return customer, it can 'remember' what you ordered before and suggest your past favorites.
Baidu has also worked on another KFC restaurant in Shanghai where the orders were taken by a voice-activated robot.
Robotics

Stanford Built a Humanoid Submarine Robot To Explore a 17th-Century Shipwreck (ieee.org) 47

schwit1 quotes a report from IEEE Spectrum: Back in April, Stanford University professor Oussama Khatib led a team of researchers on an underwater archaeological expedition, 30 kilometers off the southern coast of France, to La Lune, King Louis XIV's sunken 17th-century flagship. Rather than dive to the site of the wreck 100 meters below the surface, which is a very bad idea for almost everyone, Khatib's team brought along a custom-made humanoid submarine robot called Ocean One. In this month's issue of IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, the Stanford researchers describe in detail how they designed and built the robot, a hybrid between a humanoid and an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and also how they managed to send it down to the resting place of La Lune, where it used its three-fingered hands to retrieve a vase. Most ocean-ready ROVs are boxy little submarines that might have an arm on them if you're lucky, but they're not really designed for the kind of fine manipulation that underwater archaeology demands. You could send down a human diver instead, but once you get past about 40 meters, things start to get both complicated and dangerous. Ocean One's humanoid design means that it's easy and intuitive for a human to remotely perform delicate archeological tasks through a telepresence interface.

schwit1 notes: "Ocean One is the best name they could come up with?"

Government

White House: US Needs a Stronger Social Safety Net To Help Workers Displaced by Robots (recode.net) 635

The White House has released a new report warning of a not-too-distant future where artificial intelligence and robotics will take the place of human labor. Recode highlights in its report the three key areas the White House says the U.S. government needs to prepare for the next wave of job displacement caused by robotic automation: -- Fund more research in robotics and artificial intelligence in order for the U.S. to maintain its leadership in the global technology industry. The report calls on the government to steer that research to support a diverse workforce and to focus on combating algorithmic bias in AI.
-- Invest in and increase STEM education for youth and job retraining for adults in technology-related fields. That means offering computer science education for all K-12 students, as well as expanding national workforce retraining by investing six times the current amount spent to keep American workers competitive in a global economy.
-- Modernize and strengthen the federal social safety net, including public health care, unemployment insurance, welfare and food stamps. The report also calls for increasing the minimum wage, paying workers overtime and and strengthening unions and worker bargaining power.

The report says the government, meaning the the incoming Trump administration, will have to forge ahead with new policies and grapple with the complexities of existing social services to protect the millions of Americans who face displacement by advances in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence. The report also calls on the government to keep a close eye on fostering competition in the AI industry, since the companies with the most data will be able to create the most advanced products, effectively preventing new startups from having a chance to even compete.

Government

The UN Will Consider Banning Killer Robots (hrw.org) 210

Friday the United Nations agreed to discuss a ban on "killer robots" in 2017. The 123 signatories to a long-standing conventional weapons pact "agreed to formalize their efforts next year to deal with the challenges raised by weapons systems that would select and attack targets without meaningful human control," according to Human Rights Watch. "The governments meeting in Geneva took an important step toward stemming the development of killer robots, but there is no time to lose," said Steve Goose, arms director of Human Rights Watch, a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. "Once these weapons exist, there will be no stopping them. The time to act on a pre-emptive ban is now."
schwit1 reminded us that IEEE Spectrum ran a guest post Thursday by AI professor Toby Walsh, who addressed the U.N. again this week. "If we don't get a ban in place, there will be an arms race. And the end point of this race will look much like the dystopian future painted by Hollywood movies like The Terminator."
AI

Microsoft Formally Introduces Zo, Its Latest AI-Powered Chatbot (windowscentral.com) 56

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Windows Central: Microsoft is surging forward with its commitment to artificial intelligence (AI), formally announcing its latest chatbot, Zo. In a post outlining its commitment to AI, Microsoft introduced Zo as the next chapter in the evolution of its attempts to create a social chatbot. Zo is built on the back of the same technology that powers Microsoft's other chatbots in China and Japan, Xiaoice and Rinna. Zo is meant to learn from her interactions with humans, and is able to respond to conversations with her own personality. In a nod to an awkward turn of events involving Microsoft's last attempt at a social chatbot, Tay, the company notes that Zo has guards in place to prevent exploitation. While you can currently only strike up a conversation with Zo on Kik messenger, Microsoft says it has plans to bring the chatbot to Skype and Facebook Messenger as well. Still, if you use Kik, you can start a conversation up with Zo now. Otherwise, head to Zo.ai to request an invite to chat with the bot on Messenger when it's available.
Robotics

Robots Are Already Replacing Fast-Food Workers (recode.net) 414

An anonymous reader quotes Recode: Technology that replaces food service workers is already here. Sushi restaurants have been using machines to roll rice in nori for years, an otherwise monotonous and time-consuming task. The company Suzuka has robots that help assemble thousands of pieces of sushi an hour. In Mountain View, California, the startup Zume is trying to disrupt pizza with a pie-making machine. In Shanghai, there's a robot that makes ramen, and some cruise ships now mix drinks with bartending machines.

More directly to the heart of American fast-food cuisine, Momentum Machines, a restaurant concept with a robot that can supposedly flip hundreds of burgers an hour, applied for a building permit in San Francisco and started listing job openings this January, reported Eater. Then there's Eatsa, the automat restaurant where no human interaction is necessary, which has locations popping up across California.

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