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Is mimicking human biology the path forward to developing human-like AI?

ECCEROBOT, billed by its designers at the University of Sussex as the “world’s first anthropomimetic robot,” was designed to mimic the form and function of the human body. Engineers created a synthetic skeleton to which they attached synthetic tendons and “muscles” with the goal of developing a robot that moves and interacts with the world as we do. Ultimately, researchers want to know if and how having a human-like body may help the machine develop human-like intelligence.

The concept is interesting and I think this type of research, from an engineering standpoint, could potentially have great use for development of artificial limbs and bionic body parts, which users require to match “the originals” as closely as possible. As an generalized approach for building humanoid robots, however, I’m not convinced that trying to copy biology as closely as possible is the most efficient or effective way to go. After all, biology and evolution are messy, and even if we did want to copy biological structures exactly, we are far from having adequate technology and materials to do so.

Given these physical limitations I’m interested to see how the software that powers ECCEROBOT might “learn” and develop. An alternative approach with the same goal might be letting an AI interact with avatars and virtual objects in a detailed virtual world, but again, we’ve got a long way to go before that becomes a viable research path.

ECCEROBOT and other humanoid robots are going to be featured in a BBC documentary, “The Hunt for AI,” which will air tomorrow.

(Via Techland)

Google unveils concept video for augmented reality glasses

Earlier this year several media outlets reported that Google was working on a pair of Android-powered augmented reality “goggles” that would overlay information on their user’s visual field. Today, Google officially acknowledged the project, called “Project Glass,” and unveiled a concept video that shows how this device might allow people to more seamlessly view and capture information:

I know a first generation product like this will have bugs to work out, but I still want a pair so bad.

New Boston Dynamics four-legged robot runs 18 miles per hour

The Cheetah, a DARPA project created by Boston Dynamics, is a four-legged robot built for speed. Specifically, this video shows the Cheetah hitting 18 miles an hour, which breaks the previous record set by a legged robot by 4.9 miles per hour – a record that has stood for about 23 years.

Unmanned drones raising questions as they move from the battlefield to the backyard

Drone aircraft – whether outfitted for reconnaissance or combat – have changed the way humans conduct warfare. Now, civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) armed with cameras are finding their way onto the market for purposes ranging from filmmaking to real estate, and raising a lot of questions along the way.

In California, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department sent warning letters to the California Association of Realtors informing them that using drones to capture video footage of homes for sale violates (as yet non-existent) Federal Aviation Association rules for unmanned aircraft that fly below 400 feet.  And FilmL.A., who “coordinate and process permits for on-location motion picture, television and commercial production” aren’t happy with UAVs shooting video since it’s cheaper than capturing footage the conventional way and doesn’t require crane and jib operators (who are represented by FilmL.A.) to get shots from on-high.

The FAA is expected to issue regulations for unmanned aircraft in the near future, but as UAVs and video equipment get smaller and less expensive, I expect the popularity of civilian UAVs to grow significantly. In fact, there are already communities of UAV enthusiasts online that can show you how to get started for a very reasonable cost.

Win one for the (universal jamming) gripper

Back in 2010, researchers at the University of Chicago and Cornell University (PDF warning) unveiled a “universal jamming gripper” that served as an alternative to a robotic claw or hand for gripping and manipulating objects. The gripper is brilliant in its simplicity – essentially, it’s a rubber balloon filled with “granular material.” To grab hold of an object, the gripper wraps itself around the object and then air is pumped out of the balloon, forming a tight grasp. To release the object, air is pumped back into the balloon, loosening the grasp, or even propelling the object a short distance.

For precise object manipulation, the design leaves something to be desired when compared to, say, a hand or even something like a tentacle. However, for an appendage designed to quickly and easily pick up and release a wide variety of objects with different shapes and sizes, it works remarkably well, as demonstrated in the below video:

What I love most about this gripper is the radical departure from traditional gripper designs, like the aforementioned claw or hand. Many times roboticists tend to mimic biological forms, which is well and good for certain applications, but can also be limiting. This gripper is totally unlike a hand, but still works well while being simple, inexpensive and practical.

(Via Wired)

“World’s first” procedure allows woman to grow femur to fit bionic leg

For some above-the-knee amputees, it can be difficult to fit a prosthetic if the remaining stump is too short. In such cases, amputees must walk with crutches or use a wheelchair. Marny Cringle was one such case when her left leg was amputated after a train accident. For several months, however, Cringle has undergone a painful treatment designed to lengthen her remaining femur a full two inches, which will enable her to be fitted for a new bionic limb:

The next step is for surgeons at the Macquarie University Hospital in Sydney to anchor the top part of the bionic leg into her femur, where muscle and bone will gradually grow around it.

It will be the first time someone has successfully had both a bone stump lengthened and a bionic limb fitted, but for former wheelchair tennis champion Cringle it is much more than that.

“Just to be able to walk with two hands free is something I’m really looking forward to,” she said. “And to be able to cuddle someone without having to have crutches hanging off me — it’s those minor things.”

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Munjed Al Muderis, who will head the operation, described the procedure as “the future for amputee patients worldwide.”

According to a story in the Daily Mail, it appears Cringle will be receiving a Genium Prosthetic Knee System, which claims to be the “world’s only microprocessor controlled knee that can anticipate your movements and adapt instantaneously in order to function as close to a natural leg as possible.”

Cringle is expected to have her new leg fitted in April 2012.

Are scientists closer to developing resveratrol-based drugs?

Resveratrol is one of those wonder supplements purported to have many beneficial health effects, including increased longevity, anti-inflammatory properties, cancer-fighting properties, and more. Although animal studies have provided some evidence for these claims, human studies have been mixed.

Even with somewhat thin existing evidence of its benefits in humans, resveratrol has proven to be very popular as a nutritional supplement. Recent studies, however, may have cracked the code of how resveratrol can benefit health, and may open the door for resveratrol-based drugs:

“Resveratrol has potential as a therapy for diverse diseases such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease,” study author Dr. Jay Chung, chief of the Laboratory of Obesity and Aging Research at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said in an institute news release. “However, before researchers can transform resveratrol into a safe and effective medicine, they need to know exactly what it targets in cells.”

Resveratrol appears to inhibit proteins called phosphodiesterases (PDEs), which help regulate cell energy, according to the researchers.

Some previous studies suggested that resveratrol’s primary target is sirtuin 1, but the authors of this new study doubted that when they found that resveratrol activity required another protein called AMPK. This would not be the case if resveratrol directly interacted with sirtuin 1.

The researchers analyzed the metabolic activity in cells treated with resveratrol and identified the protein PDE4 in the skeletal muscle as the principal target for the health benefits of resveratrol.

Details of the study are published in the current edition of Cell – a summary can be found here.

National Research Council: More nanotechnology safety studies needed

Today the U.S. National Research Council announced the results of a study designed to help us learn what we don’t know about potential hazards of nanotechnology, and they came to the conclusion that… we need more studies. In addition to their recommendation of spending an additional $24 million per year to study how nanotech might negatively impact human health and the environment, they also proposed the creation of a federal agency to “integrate research by private business, universities and international groups.”

“Despite the promise of nanotechnology, without strategic research into emergent risks associated with it — and a clear understanding of how to manage and avoid potential risks — the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology-based materials, products, and processes is uncertain,” said the study by a committee of 19 scientists.

There is insufficient understanding about the environmental, health and safety effects of engineered nanotechnology materials (ENMs). Little progress has been made on the health effects of ENMs that have been swallowed, inhaled or absorbed by humans, it said.

There also has been little research on potential damage from more-complex ENMs that are expected to come into the market in the next decade.

The federal Centers for Disease Control says there are indications “that nanoparticles can penetrate the skin or move from the respiratory system to other organs.”

Existing research shows that certain nanoparticles – such as carbon nanotubes – may have significant negative health effects, including being implicated in certain cancers. As ENMs find their way into new products, more research will be required to put the public’s mind at ease, if nothing else.

New chip models two neurons, one synapse

Researchers at MIT have developed a new computer chip that models a single human brain synapse, forming a structure by which two artificial “neurons” can exchange information. The inventors have big plans for this technology, noting if scaled up, could form the foundation for “neural prosthetic devices.” They wouldn’t stop there, however:

The MIT researchers plan to use their chip to build systems to model specific neural functions, such as the visual processing system. Such systems could be much faster than digital computers. Even on high-capacity computer systems, it takes hours or days to simulate a simple brain circuit. With the analog chip system, the simulation is even faster than the biological system itself.

Another potential application is building chips that can interface with biological systems. This could be useful in enabling communication between neural prosthetic devices such as artificial retinas and the brain. Further down the road, these chips could also become building blocks for artificial intelligence devices, Poon says.

The article notes the human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons, each with synapses to many other brain cells. Obviously it will take an enormous feat of engineering to scale this new chip to a point where it would begin to simulate any degree of biological intelligence (for reference, a fruit fly has about 100,000 neurons).

Even if modeling biological systems is a dead-end path to strong AI, this technology could at least teach us a great deal about the brain, and if it puts us on a path to neural prosthetics, would be a tremendous breakthrough.

“Artificial pancreas” enters U.S. clinical trials

For diabetics, the days of having to prick a finger to draw blood, measure blood glucose with a monitor and administer insulin via hypodermic syringe may soon be in the past. Although accurate glucose monitors and insulin pumps have existed for many years, a new “artificial pancreas” combines these components – along with a small computer – into a wearable unit that can continually monitor the body’s insulin levels and uses an algorithm to calculate the appropriate amount of insulin to administer.

The consequences of poorly-managed diabetes can be dire. In the short-term, low blood glucose can lead to emergency situations like diabetic seizures or comas. In the long-term, complications of diabetes can range from neuropathy to foot ulcers.

Being able to use an accurate, all-in-one device to keep blood glucose levels in check is a crucial development not only from a convenience standpoint, but also removes the element of human error in determining how much insulin to administer. In fact, one clinical trial participant who is testing the artificial pancreas noted that when he estimated his insulin dosages, “his glucose levels were out of the recommended range four times more often than when the algorithm did the work.”

The artificial pancreas is expected to be approved by the U.S. FDA in the next three to five years.