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MIT Helps Delivery Robots Navigate to Your Front Door

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Autonomous robots already roam sidewalks across the US, delivering packages and food to customers’ doorsteps—assuming they can find the front door.

Traditionally, robotic navigation requires mapping an area in advance, then using algorithms to guide the device toward specific GPS coordinates.

But MIT has a better idea: Engineers developed a new approach that enables a robot to use context clues to plan the route to its destination—described in general terms like “front door” or “garage.”

This technique, according to the institute, greatly reduces the amount of time the bot needs to explore a property and identify its target. Plus, it doesn’t rely on maps of specific residences.

“We wouldn’t want to have to make a map of every building that we’d need to visit,” Michael Everett, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said in a statement. “With this technique, we hope to drop a robot at the end of any driveway and have it find a door.”

The recent introduction of natural language to machine-learning systems lets robots recognize objects by their semantic label: A door is a door, not just a solid, rectangular obstacle.

“Now we have an ability to give robots a sense of what things are, in real time,” Everett explained.

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In collaboration with MIT professor Jonathan How and Justin Miller of the Ford Motor Company, Everett used the semantic SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) algorithm to build a map of the robot’s environment as it moved, using semantic labels and a depth image.

To speed up the robot’s path-planning, the team developed a “cost-to-go” algorithm, which converts  a semantic map into something representing locations far from and close to any given goal.

For instance, the sidewalk—coded in yellow in a semantic map—might be translated by the cost-to-go algorithm as a darker region in the new map. While a driveway, which gets progressively lighter as it approaches the front door, may be the lightest region in the new map.

Researchers trained their new algorithm on satellite images from Bing Maps, containing 77 houses from one urban and three suburban neighborhoods.

They also applied masks to each image to mimic the partial view a robot’s camera would likely have as it traverses a yard.

“Part of the trick to our approach was [giving the system] lots of partial images,” according to How. “So it really had to figure out how all this stuff was interrelated. That’s part of what makes this work robustly.”

In a simulation, the group’s new cost-to-go technique found the front door 189 percent faster than classical navigation algorithms.

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Axiom Space to Build Private Room for Rent on ISS

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NASA is making good on its promise to open the International Space Station to tourism and commercial venues.

The agency has selected Axiom Space of Houston, Texas, to provide at least one habitable module for attachment to the ISS.

In June, the civilian space program announced plans to allow businesses—including filmmakers and private astronauts—use of the orbiting laboratory’s facilities for up to 30 days.

“Axiom’s work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.

NASA previously banned any commercial use of the Space Station and prohibited astronauts from taking part in for-profit research.

A change of heart, however, has turned developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit into part of NASA’s five-point plan for opening the ISS to marketing opportunities.

“We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration,” Bridenstine said. “It is a similar partnership that this year will return the capability of American astronauts to launch to the Space Station on American rockets from American soil.”

Other elements include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use; enabling private astronaut missions to the station; stimulating long-term, sustainable interest in these services; and quantifying NASA’s long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit.

“This partnership between NASA and Axiom Space—a Houston, Texas, original—illustrates how critically important the International Space Station is, and will continue to be, for developing new technologies for low-Earth orbit and beyond, and for continuing America’s leadership in space,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a statement.

“Houston is known as Space City for a reason,” he continued, “and I look forward to this great Space City company and NASA turning this announcement into reality.”

NASA also plans to develop a free-flying commercial destination, independent of the ISS, to help meet long-term needs in low-Earth orbit beyond the life of the station.

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U.S. Senator Urges Tesla to Fix ‘Misleading’ Autopilot

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A U.S. Congress member is urging Tesla to adopt “common sense” changes to its Autopilot system to boost safety.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)—a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee—on Friday released recommendations from his review of the infamous driver assistance system.

The semi-autonomous function includes adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, emergency braking, semi-automated steering, parking assist, and the ability to recall the vehicle from a parking place.

The one thing it’s lacking, however, is total autonomy.

Despite repeated reminders that Autopilot is “intended for use with a fully attentive driver, who has their hands on the wheel and is prepared to take over at any time,” folks still think it’s OK to doze off during the commute and let their car do the navigating.

“Autopilot is a flawed system, but I believe its dangers can be overcome,” Markey said in a statement.

The senator launched his investigation after media reports suggested Tesla drivers are finding ways to circumvent safety alerts and the automatic shut-off feature designed to activate when an Autopilot user stops paying attention.

Posted online, workarounds include resting the driver’s hand at the six o’ clock position and wedging a water bottle or firm orange into the steering wheel.

Markey in November requested that Tesla address safety flaws in its Autopilot system, asking, among other things, about the vehicle maker’s testing process and what action it is taking to improve Autopilot for future models.

His latest statement, posted last week, includes specific recommendations, like remarketing Autopilot, which Markey called “an inherently misleading name.”

“This rebranding would significantly reduce the confusion that encourages driver misuse of the technology,” according to the press release.

Markey also suggested building in backup monitoring systems that track driver engagement in different ways.

“This kind of technological redundancy,” the politician explained, “would promote safety by making sure that one system is always monitoring a driver’s attention, even if another sensor fails or is tricked by the user.”

The family of a Tesla owner killed when his Model X crashed into a concrete highway median in California sued the firm in May. The lawsuit alleged the engaged Autopilot feature was “defective,” and caused the death of Apple engineer Walter Huang.

The company did not immediately respond to Geek’s request for comment.

“I have been proud to work with Tesla on advancing cleaner, more sustainable transportation technologies. But these achievements should not come at the expense of safety,” Markey said.

“That’s why I’m calling on Tesla to use its resources and expertise to better protect drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and all other users of the road,” he continued. “Tesla can and must do more to guarantee the safety of its technology.”

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Seattle District First to Allow Mobile Voting in Local Election

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Voters across Seattle’s King County can now cast ballots via smartphone.

This historic moment for American democracy comes with a catch, though.

Online voting is available only for the King Conservation District Board of Supervisors election—a contest “so obscure,” the Seattle Times explained, voters must specifically request a ballot.

King Conservation District elections typically draw voter turnout of no more than three percent, according to the paper.

Polls are now open: Use your name and birthdate to log into the Democracy Live web portal through a mobile browser. Once the ballot is complete, verify your submission and sign the screen.

Electronic entries returned by 8 p.m. PT on Feb. 11 (election day) will be printed and counted toward the final tally.

“This is the most fundamentally transformative reform you can do in democracy,” Bradley Tusk, founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies, a nonprofit working with the county to implement this mobile voting pilot.

Mobile voting dates back to May 2018, when the Voatz app opened to two counties in West Virginia for initial testing of the technology.

Following a successful pilot, the option was extended to military and overseas voters during the November 2018 general election, and then during the May 2019 Denver municipal poll.

Utah and Oregon followed suit, and by the end of last year had implemented mobile voting pilots in their respective states.

The KCD in Washington marks the first time mobile voting is available to all eligible registered constituents.

“This election could be a key step in moving toward electronic access and return for voters across the region,” King County Director of Elections Julie Wise told the Times.

The polarizing move, as NPR pointed out, will likely fan the flames of controversy regarding voting access-versus-voting security.

While the U.S. lags far behind most developed democracies in terms of election turnout rates, digital voting technology has let the country down before. (Russian cyberattacks, anyone?)

“There’s a lot of things we do online—banking, health records—that are also of concern for people that are secure,” Wise said. “I’ve vetted this, technology experts in the region have vetted this to ensure that this is a safe, secure voting opportunity.”

Specialists, however, have warned against mobile voting, arguing that technology has not yet advanced enough, and that the internet will “never be safe or transparent enough for something as important as democracy,” NPR reported.

But that won’t stop Tusk Philanthropies, which is determined to step into the future of voting—no matter how much convincing it takes.

“Everyone who doesn’t want this to happen is never going to say, ‘We oppose mobile voting because we don’t want higher turnout,’” company chief Tusk said. “They’re going to say, ‘It’s not safe.’ And if we have proven 30, 40, 50 times over that it is safe, it’s a lot harder for those objections and arguments to fly.”

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