There is a Robot That Learns to Play Jenga with humans

There is a Robot That Learns to Play Jenga with humans

Jenga—that game that needs careful use of agile and deft fingers, as well as careful consideration of which block can be removed without toppling the tower. Yup, that game! A robot can play that game.

Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a self-learning robot with a soft-pronged gripper, a force-sensing wrist cuff, and an external camera, which it uses to see and feel the structure of the Jenga tower and its individual blocks. The details of the Jenga-playing smart machine were published in the journal Science Robotics.

The machine-learning approach of the Jenga-playing robot could help robots in assembling small parts in a manufacturing line like mobile phones

The Jenga-playing Robot

With the information it receives from its camera, the robot can analyze and compare this information to the moves it has previously made. It considers the outcomes of those moves to make a calculation about which individual piece could be moved and how much force is needed to be used to remove the piece successfully. The robot “learns” in real-time about the best moves for different situations in the game.

Alberto Rodriguez, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, said the Jenga-playing smart machine achieved something that cannot be done by previous smart systems:

“Unlike in more purely cognitive tasks or games such as chess or Go, playing the game of Jenga also requires mastery of physical skills such as probing, pushing, pulling, placing, and aligning pieces. It requires interactive perception and manipulation, where you have to go and touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks. This is very difficult to simulate, so the robot has to learn in the real world, by interacting with the real Jenga tower. The key challenge is to learn from a relatively small number of experiments by exploiting common sense about objects and physics.”

How the Jenga-playing Robot learned to Play

For a robot to learn how to play Jenga, it would need at least tens of thousands of block-extraction attempts as initial data. The self-learning robot, however only needed about 300. The researchers used a more data-efficient way to let the robot to learn how to play Jenga. It is inspired by human cognition, the way we ourselves learn and approach the game.

The team used a customized industry-standard ABB IRB 120 robotic arm. It was first trained with 300 random extraction attempts on the Jenga tower. With each attempt, a computer would record the associated visual and force measurements of the move and mark each of them with a success or failure.

It clusters one attempt with many similar measurements and outcomes to represent one behavior to increase efficiency. This is the same way in which humans cluster similar behavior.

“The robot builds clusters and then learns models for each of these clusters, instead of learning a model that captures absolutely everything that could happen,” said Nima Fazeli, MIT graduate student and lead author of the paper.

Beyond Playing Jenga

This robot is not just a playing companion for those who cannot find someone to play Jenga with. The researchers highlighted that its ability to quickly learn the best way to carry out a task, not just from visual cues but from real situations, could be applied to creating robots that can do tasks that need careful physical interaction.

“In a cellphone assembly line, in almost every single step, the feeling of a snap-fit, or a threaded screw, is coming from force and touch rather than vision,” Rodriguez said. “Learning models for those actions is prime real-estate for this kind of technology.”

Experts Design a New Electricity System to Reduce Electricity Prices

Experts Design a New Electricity System to Reduce Electricity Prices

Have you ever found yourself asking why your electricity bills seem to be increasing even as your consumption remains the same? You are not alone. That is a problem that brings headaches to many homeowners. While there are many ways to save on electricity to lower the bills, there as just as many outside factors that spike electricity costs that you cannot control.

In the US, the price of electricity has increased for an average of 33 percent over the last 10 years. Factors that may affect electricity rates include the cost of generating fuel, utility expenses of the company, weather conditions, as well as the distribution cost through power lines.

But here’s a piece of good news! Researchers at the University of Waterloo have designed a new hybrid distribution system that could cut the prices of electricity by more than five percent, while also improving service reliability.

Two Kinds of Electric Current

The researchers explained their design in a paper published in the International Journal of Electrical Power & Energy Systems. Instead of just one type of electric current, it involves the integration of both kinds of electric current—alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC).

Currently, the world uses AC-only distribution systems to power homes around the world.  The researchers explained that this is because the power transformers can only accommodate AC in order to reduce voltage for more efficient distribution and increase voltage for greater long-distance transmission efficiency.

However, not all electronics are powered by AC. Your televisions, computers, and mobile phones, for example, require DC current which must be converted from the AC power that arrived at your home.  This conversion results to system loss which further burdens the electricity consumption.

New Hybrid System

In the new AC-DC hybrid system, the AC to DC converters were located at strategic points in the distribution system itself. This new system could increase efficiency by minimizing the conversions from one kind of current to the other.

“Minimizing power conversion requirements creates a simpler system with greater efficiency and less loss. As you reduce the number of converters, you also reduce the chances of service interruptions due to breakdowns,” said Haytham Ahmed, a postdoctoral fellow who led the research with electrical engineering colleagues at Waterloo.

The AC-DC hybrid system is created through a sophisticated computer modeling and optimization. The researchers highlighted that it has a good potential to be adopted on existing systems that need expansion or in new residential and commercial areas where there is a need to build a new system.

Projected Savings

Researchers compared the new AC-DC system with the current AC-only distribution system. It resulted in an estimated savings of about five percent.

This is not just due to less energy loss but also the lower infrastructure and production costs of electronic gadgets. The researchers explained that if DC-powered electronics no longer needed converters. Their prices would also be cheaper on top of the lesser electricity consumption.

“When you feel heat coming off the charger for your laptop, that is lost energy. We can eliminate those losses so we consume less power,” Ahmed explained.

It is Now Possible to Convert WiFi Signals to Electricity

It is Now Possible to Convert WiFi Signals to Electricity

The day when mobile phones, laptops, and other gadgets won’t need their batteries anymore is near. Scientists created a new technology that could convert WiFi signals to electricity that could power electronics.

The new device called ‘rectenna’ could tap into nearby WiFi signals or other AC electromagnetic waves and supply power to electronics in a large area. Additionally, it is made from flexible and inexpensive materials which can easily be fabricated.

The Science Behind the ‘Rectenna’

In a paper published in the journal Nature, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described how the rectennas work. It uses a flexible radio-frequency (RF) antenna which captures electromagnetic waves, including WiFi signals.

So where did the “rec-“ came from? To convert AC signal to electricity, the rectenna relies on a component known as a “rectifier,” which are typically made of either silicon or gallium arsenide. However, they are not flexible. And although they are not too expensive, they are inefficient in large areas.

The researchers created a novel two-dimensional semiconductor device made from molybdenum disulfide (MoS2). The device is just about three atoms thick, making it one of the world’s thinnest semiconductors.

“By engineering MoS2 into a 2-D semiconducting-metallic phase junction, we built an atomically thin, ultrafast Schottky diode that simultaneously minimizes the series resistance and parasitic capacitance,” said Xu Zhang, first author of the study. Parasitic capacitance is the condition in which certain materials store some electrical charge in electronics, slowing down the circuit. This is very common in all electronic devices

The antenna is connected to the semiconductor. As the AC signal travels to in it, it is converted into DC electricity which could be used to provide power to electronic circuits or recharge batteries. This way the rectenna could passively gather and transform the omnipresent Wi-Fi signals into much useful DC power.

Powering the ‘Electronic Systems of the Future’

After several experiments, the researchers found that when the device is exposed to Wi-Fi signals with typical power levels, which is around 150 microwatts, it can produce about 40 microwatts of power. This is enough to support a simple mobile display or silicon chips.

The innovation would be useful in supplying power to flexible and miniature electronics and wearables, which are too small for bulky and weighty batteries. It can also be used to certain medical devices, such as those which are implanted inside the body like a pacemaker. If these implantable medical devices leak lithium inside the body, it would be a great danger to patients.

The researchers also highlighted that the rectenna can be useful to future technological advances. Tomás Palacios co-author of the study and director of the MIT/MTL Center for Graphene Devices and 2D Systems in the Microsystems Technology Laboratories explained:

“What if we could develop electronic systems that we wrap around a bridge or cover an entire highway, or the walls of our office and bring electronic intelligence to everything around us? How do you provide energy for those electronics? We have come up with a new way to power the electronics systems of the future — by harvesting Wi-Fi energy in a way that’s easily integrated into large areas — to bring intelligence to every object around us.”

Artificial Skin Could Potentially Give Superhuman Perception

Artificial Skin Could Potentially Give Superhuman Perception

Scientists from the University of Connecticut and University of Toronto created a new type of sensor that could potentially be made to an artificial skin. This can protect and aid the perception of burn victims, or those who are losing their skin sensitivity?

However, why do we have to limit it to humane levels if we can create it to have superhuman abilities? Maybe like detecting dangerous conditions or electromagnetic waves.

How Important is Our Skin?
Skin is the largest organ in the body in terms of size. It covers almost every area in our body. Imagine if we don’t have skin. Environmental factors such as allergens, bacteria, fungus, viruses, water, chemicals, and others can freely enter our body. Many people will die every day from infection.

The skin also regulates our body heat through sweating, creates important vitamin D from the sun, and protects our body against harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.

But the importance of our skin does not just stop from that. Often taken for granted is our skin’s ability to perceive pressure, temperature, and vibration, which is also critical for our safety. This is the reason why burn victims, those who have lost skin sensitivity and those with prosthetic limbs often hurt themselves unintentionally.

Sensor to Skin Perception
In a paper published in Advanced Materials, researchers created a sensor which could mimic the perception properties of skin. The sensor has a “rubber exterior” which is completely sealed and waterproof.

It is made with a silicone tube wrapped in a copper wire. The tube is filled with a special fluid made of nanoparticles of iron oxide. As the nanoparticles rub around the inside of the silicone tube, it would create an electric current. The copper wire around the tube would then picks up the electric currents as a signal.

When the tube touched is bumped by something experiencing pressure or sound waves, the sensor will send a signal. This signal is different depending on each situation. That is, there are different types of signals produced for the two senses making it easier to differentiate between the three.

Additionally, the sensor could pick up different signals for electromagnetic fields. After several demonstrations, they found that a person moving around while carrying the sensor could differentiate and identify the electrical signals caused by walking, jumping, running, and swimming.

Superhuman Skin Perception?
If the sensor could do these, how about other things that are beyond human capability? “It would be very cool if it had abilities human skin does not; for example, the ability to detect magnetic fields, sound waves, and abnormal behaviors,” said Islam M. Mosa, one of the authors of the study said.

The researcher said they are not looking for something like indestructible iron skin from superhero comics. Instead, the goal is something that could help people to detect possible dangers. For example, send a warning to workers on areas with dangerously high magnetic fields.

The sensor has not yet tested the sensor on hot and cold temperatures, but they suspect it will send different signals for those as well. If not, they will have to tweak and reconfigure it a bit. The researchers added that their next plan is to make the sensor flat, like skin and test if it still works.

“The inspiration was to make something durable that would last for a very long time, and could detect multiple hazards,” Mosa stated.

Warning! Too Much Screen Time Interferes Child Development

Warning! Too Much Screen Time Interferes Child Development

One of the problems of many parents nowadays is their children’s screen time. Persuading kids to take time off from their gadgets often does not end nicely. But here’s another reason to limit your children’s screen time—it is linked to their future development.

In a paper published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that toddlers 2-3 years old who spend a lot of time staring at screens have poorer performance on their developmental screening tests at 3-5 years old.

Critical Stage of Development

The development of children unfolds rapidly in the first 5 years of life, which is a critical period of growth and maturation. The researchers highlighted that too much screen time can negatively affect children’s natural development ability. This can also affect their readiness for school entry.

By spending too much time on screens, children might miss important opportunities to practice their motor, communication, and interpersonal skills. The researchers explained:

“For example, when children are observing screens without an interactive or physical component, they are more sedentary and, therefore, not practicing gross motor skills, such as walking and running, which in turn may delay development in this area. Screens can also disrupt interactions with caregivers by limiting opportunities for verbal and nonverbal social exchanges, which are essential for fostering optimal growth and development.”

Screen Time and Child Development

The researchers gathered data from 2,441 mothers and children in Canada. The mothers were given questionnaires on how much time children spent using electronics on a typical weekday and weekend. They were also asked questions related to the child’s performance on developmental tests at ages 24, 36 and 60 months. The developmental test can assess children’s growth in motor skills, problem-solving and communication, personal social skills.

Results revealed that longer screen time at 24 months was linked to poorer performance on developmental screening tests at 36 months. On the other hand, longer screen time at 36 months was linked with lower scores on developmental screening tests at 60 months.

“Excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally; it is recommended that pediatricians and health care practitioners guide parents on appropriate amounts of screen exposure and discuss potential consequences of excessive screen use,” the researchers wrote.

Recommended Screen Time Limit

“On average, the children in our study were viewing screens two to three hours per day. This means that the majority of the children in our sample are exceeding the pediatric guidelines of no more than one hour of high-quality programming per day,” said Sheri Madigan, first author of the study from the University of Calgary.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the recommended limit of screen time in children 2-5 years old is just one hour a day. Sheri likened screen time to junk food, “In small doses, it’s OK, but in excess, it has consequences.”

This screen time includes watching television programs, movies, videos, or stories on a VCR or DVD player. As well as using a computer, gaming system, mobile phone, laptop or other screen-based devices.