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MIT Robot Learns to ID Objects by Sight, Touch

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Humans’ five senses work together to reveal what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.

But robots are still learning to understand different tactile signals.

To move the process along, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) developed a predictive AI that can learn to see by touching, and learn to feel by seeing.

The system creates realistic signals from visual inputs to predict with which object it is making physical contact.

Using a KUKU robot arm and GelSight tactile sensor (designed by another group at MIT), researchers recorded nearly 200 objects—tools, household products, fabrics, etc.—being touched more than 12,000 times.

By breaking down those video clips into static frames, the team compiled a dataset of more than 3 million visual/tactile-paired images, known as “VisGel.”

“By looking at the scene, our model can imagine the feeling of touching a flat surface or a sharp edge,” lead study author Yunzhu Li, a CSAIL PhD student, said in a statement.

“By blindly touching around, our model can predict the interaction with the environment purely from tactile feelings,” he continued. “Bringing these two senses together could empower the robot and reduce the data we might need for tasks involving manipulating and grasping objects.”

During testing, if the model was fed tactile data on a shoe, for instance, it could produce an image of where the shoe was most likely to be touched. The same goes for a computer mouse, box, cup, T-shirt, hammer—whatever its automated heart desires.

This type of ability, CSAIL said, could be useful for tasks in which there is no visual data: like when a light is off, or someone is indiscriminately reaching into an unknown area.

Moving forward, the team plans to increase the size and diversity of its dataset  by collecting input in more unstructured areas (i.e. outside a controlled environment). Or by using a new MIT-designed tactile smart-glove.

Even with the help of a sensor-packed mitt, there are certain details that can be tricky to infer from switching models—details that even humans can’t ascertain without using more than one sense. Like identifying the color of an object by touching it or determining how soft a sofa is without actually pressing on it.

CSAIL invented a similar system earlier this year: The “RoCycle” uses a soft Teflon hand covered in tactile sensors to detect an object’s size and stiffness—no visual cues necessary.

Basically, it squeezes cups, boxes, and cans to determine their makeup, and, ultimately, their recyclability.

A collaboration with Yale University, RoCycle demonstrates the limits of sight-based sorting; it can distinguish between two identical-looking Starbucks cups made of paper and plastic that would give vision systems (and the human eye) trouble.

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Join Apple’s Health Studies With New Research App

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Apple is launching three health studies in conjunction with its new Research app, available to download now from the App Store.

Enroll now to contribute to potentially groundbreaking medical discoveries: All you need is an iPhone or Apple Watch, a pulse, and, in one case, a menstrual cycle.

Conducted in partnership with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Women’s Health Study focuses on how women’s periods relate to their overall health.

In what Apple claims is the “first long-term study of this scale and scope,” the study will use iDevices to collect data like cycle tracking information, and use monthly surveys to understand each participant’s unique menstrual experience.

Sounds like a blast.

“Treating the menstrual cycle as a vital sign, such as heart rate or blood pressure, could lead to the earlier detection of many health conditions, both gynecological and systemic, as well as a better understanding of women’s reproductive health and health needs overall,” according to study researcher Shruthi Mahalingaiah, an assistant professor at Harvard Chan School.

“We are uniquely poised to translate this data into discovery that will lead to better awareness and empowerment around women’s health issues on a global scale,” she said in a statement.

The Research app only shares data when a user approves, and includes a detailed consent for each study that allows a user to control the type of data shared. (Photo Credit: Apple)

If the female reproductive system isn’t your thing, you can sign up for Apple’s Heart and Movement Study, which measures the quality and quantity of a person’s movement, or the Apple Hearing Study, set to explore how headphone usage and environmental sound exposure can impact hearing over time.

“In the past it’s been very difficult to quantify behavioral factors. With data from smartphones and wearable devices, we can eventually measure these factors unobtrusively over long periods of time,” analyst Jukka-Pekka Onnela, associate professor at Harvard Chan School, said. 

“This is scientifically incredibly exciting,” he continued. “And I believe that this research will enable more effective and more personalized interventions in the future.”

With regards to privacy, Apple emphasized the promise that user data will not be sold. You decide which studies to join and when to leave, and control what types of information are shared.

Studies must inform participants how their data supports the research.

“[This] marks an important moment as we embark on research initiatives that may offer incredible learnings in areas long sought after by the medical community,” Apple’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams said.

“Participants on the Research app,” he explained, “have the opportunity to make a tremendous impact that could lead to new discoveries and help millions lead healthier lives.”

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Watch: Real-Life Iron Man Smashes Jet-Powered Suit Record

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Move over, Tony Stark: Real-life Iron Man Richard Browning just broke the record for fastest speed in a body-controlled jet engine-powered suit (wind-guided) at 85.06 mph.

The British inventor, founder of Gravity Industries, more than doubled the previous achievement of 32.02 mph—which he set in 2017.

Against the colorful backdrop of Brighton Pier in South East England, Browning took to the sky Thursday as the showpiece for this year’s “Spirit of Adventure”-themed Guinness World Records Day.

Real-life Iron Man Richard Browning smashed his jet-powered suit record by flying at 85 mph along Brighton Pier. (Photo Credit: Guinness World Records)

The annual celebration sees thousands of people from around the world come together to become title holders.

Among them, Richard Browning, whose suit—the direction of which is controlled by body movement alone—propelled him to new heights (figuratively and literally speaking).

“I’m really pleased,” he said after the flight.

Browning completed two-way runs along the pier, the average speed of which was reported, to take into account inconsistencies like wind speed and direction.

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“I was confident we should be able to do it, but that’s very different to coming here and actually achieving it,” he said. “You can never discount the possibility of having a technical problem, so I’m really pleased we’ve delivered what we’ve done.”

This week’s demonstration is actually the fastest Browning has ever flown: In training, he reached top speeds of about 75 mph.

“I didn’t think we’d break what we did in training,” he said. “So I’m very chuffed.”

Watching the first-person video captured by Browning’s helmet cam is intoxicating—until the feeling that I’m falling uncontrollably washes over me. Add to that the Doctor Octopus-esque suit and my complete lack of core muscle, and I think I’ll just sit this one out.

Browning completed two-way runs along the pier, which were required for the average speed to be taken, to even out inconsistencies such as wind speed and direction. (Photo Credit: Guinness World Records)

“It truly feels like that dream of flying you have sometimes in your sleep. You are entirely and completely free to move effortlessly in three dimensional space and you shed the ties of gravity,” Browning explained.

Thankfully Unfortunately for the rest of us, it will be a while before we’re experiencing the same freedom.

“It’s not the future of transportation in its current form. It’s a bit like a Formula 1 car or the prices at fashion shows,” according to the inventor. “Neither are entirely practical but hopefully an inspiring and engaging insight into what the future might be.”

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Google Teaches You to Pronounce Difficult Words

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There is no shame in mispronouncing words: Even Benedict Cumberbatch needs help sometimes.

But whether you’ve been mangling “mischievous” or garbing “GIF,” Google’s new experimental pronunciation tool can help.

The function, built directly into Search, lets users practice how to say words.

Previously, queries like “How to pronounce quokka” offered only a brief audio clip.

Now, users can practice saying “quokka” into their handset’s microphone and receive feedback on what, if anything, can be adjusted.

The mobile feature is rolling out in American English first, with Spanish soon to follow.

You can also try it on desktop, where a friendly voice told me how to pronounce “quinoa” in American and British English. (It is disappointingly exactly the same.)

“Studies have shown that practicing how to say a word can be helpful for remembering it, especially when you’re learning a new language,” Tal Snir, senior product manager for Search, wrote in a blog announcement.

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Using machine learning, Google can automatically recognize spoken words as individual soundbites, then cross-reference pronunciations.

If you’re practicing the word “asterisk,” for instance, the algorithm analyzes how you said the word and recognizes that the last soundbite was pronounced “rict,” instead of “uhsk.”

Based on this, it provides feedback that you’re stupid and need to learn how to properly speak English you can improve.

Auditory cues are great. But I’m a visual learner, and retain information best when looking at related images. Which is why Google also includes photos for additional context.

Not all words are easily described with a picture, so Google is starting with nouns and plans to expand into more parts of speech.

“Advances in speech recognition and machine learning can improve the way we learn about languages,” Snir said. “We hope these new features give you a creative, more effective way to practice, visualize, and remember new words.”

Keep an ear out for more languages, accents, and regions in the future.

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