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Humanoids, tentacle robots, and a move against weaponization: 5 recent robotics stories

New studies, innovations, and concepts coming out of the robotics space.

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Robotics is an exciting field, with developments happening all the time, all around the world — including a new exoskeleton design that can help increase walking speed and reduce effort.

Here are 5 recent stories out of the robotics space, including a pilot project involving a humanoid robot, a robot with tentacles, and a call to action against weaponizing robots.

Tackling loneliness with robots

Designed by the team out of GeriPARTy Laboratory, a humanoid robot named Grace will visit a nursing home in Montreal twice a week for the next eight weeks, as part of a pilot project by the city’s Jewish General Hospital.

As the CBC reports, Grace will help keep residents company over 30-minute sessions, helping break social isolation and loneliness — common among seniors — with the ultimate goal of improved mental health. She will generate responses to speech, tell jokes, and do reading exercises, with movement programmed into her eyes, neck, and hands. 

According to Dr. Paola Lavin, a research associate at the hospital, staffing shortages mean that robots can fill a critical gap in care, acting as an assistant rather than replacement. “She could be working [throughout] the day without fatigue, without all the mental burden of dealing with very strong emotions as we humans usually do.”

“Looks like curly hair come to life”

A robot hand + something heavy, delicate, or strangely-shaped could be a recipe for disaster…or probably just not work at all. The human hand’s grip — and our opposable thumbs — is quite something, isn’t it? 

But a new robotic design out of Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) has solved this problem in a very tentacle-like fashion. Or, in this case, a whole mess of small pneumatic tubes that look like a combination of a horror movie’s menacing sea creature mixed with an arcade claw game when in action.

As the team at Harvard explain, typical robotic hands/grippers use embedded sensors, feedback loops, or advanced machine learning algorithms — plus operator skill — to grasp and hold objects. This easier way is actually inspired by nature, or more specifically, jellyfish. Alone their tentacles are quite weak. Together, they can effectively take hold of objects in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

Each filament is approximately a foot long, made from hollow rubber, with one side thicker than the other. When pressurized, the tub then “curls like a pigtail,” or as Andrew Liszewsky of Gizmodo describes it, “like curly hair come to life.” In the real world, this could mean a better grip on things like soft fruits and vegetables, delicate tissue in a medical setting, or irregular shaped, delicate objects like glassware in a fulfillment warehouse.

A pledge to push back on robot weaponization

Noted robotics company Boston Dynamics is leading a group of fellow robot-makers to pledge against adding weapons to their creations, and pushing back against those who try to do so.

As reported in an exclusive by Axios, an open letter signed by Agility Robotics, ANYbotics, Boston Dynamics, Clearpath Robotics, Open Robotics, and Unitree Robotics highlights the “erosion of consumer trust” in robots as a significant reason for distrust in the idea of weaponization:

We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues.” 

In a statement to Axios, Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter emphasizing trust:

“We are concerned about recent increases in makeshift efforts by individuals attempting to weaponize commercially available robots… For this technology to be broadly accepted throughout society, the public needs to know they can trust it. And that means we need policy that prohibits bad actors from misusing it.”

Read the full open letter here.

New robotics facility for Amazon Canada

It’s the first facility of its kind, and one of only five globally, but Amazon Canada’s YOW3 in Barrhaven, Ontario will create more than 2,500 jobs, and allow employees to work alongside cutting-edge technology. 

The facility will store up to 20 million items at a time, with Amazon’s ROBIN, RWC4, and Kermit robots operating within. Both ROBIN and RWC4 are robotic arms. The former can segment, grasp, manipulate, identify, and place packages onto a sort bot, while the latter sorts totes and builds pallets.

“By using robots, we can help employees with tasks that involve heavy lifting or repetitive movements,” said Harsh Khaitan of Amazon Canada. “We pilot and implement technology with the goal of increasing safety, improving our employee experience, and delivering for our customers.”

In addition to these robotics, the facility includes Canadian-made semi-automated packing station and stow stations.

A fast-paced robotic system with serious skills

Sure, AI might have the capacity to beat humans at board games, but what about a robot that can hold its own in a ping-pong match?

i-Sim2Real is a robotic system project out of Google. The goal of the project, as reported by TechCrunch, is to build a system that “can work with and around fast-paced and relatively unpredictable human behavior.” 

Learn more about the project from the team, and see it in action here:

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Using innovation and technology for climate change-related challenges

How will tech consumers respond to challenges created by climate change? Ericsson’s report reveals ten trends that show increased reliance on digital innovation.

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Responding to the challenges caused by changes to our climate, people are increasingly turning to technology and innovation for solutions.  

Ericsson’s recent report, 10 Hot Consumer Trends: Life in a Climate-Impacted Future, released on January 16, 2023, shows how consumers are impacted and how they’re responding. 

The report covers ten emerging trends along with statistics, revealing how technology use is shifting because of climate change. 

The Overall Picture

Despite societal changes expected to take place in the next decade, people will continue to go to school, earn incomes, take care of loved ones, and find time to fit in some fun. Increasingly, they will rely on connected digital devices to adapt to coming changes while trying to maintain normalcy in their daily lives.   

Key Statistics

Consulting with 15,145 early adopters of digital assistants, VR (virtual reality), and AR (augmented reality) technology across 30 cities worldwide, Ericsson uncovered these statistics. 

  • 59% believe technological innovation is necessary to solve coming challenges
  • 63% worry about higher costs of living
  • 54% feel global warming will directly impact their day-to-day lives
  • 68% would plan their days based on reducing energy costs
  • 45% would use personalized weather warning systems
  • 72% believe AI will help plan commutes and work tasks to reduce carbon footprints
  • 46% plan to capture clean rainwater with smart water catchers 
  • 65% see energy becoming a form of currency
  • 73% envision using AR glasses to go on virtual trips 

Ten Trends

One: Cutting Costs

As prices for daily necessities rise, consumers will use digital services to cut costs. Personal electricity consumption monitors will help reduce household energy consumption. Digital recipe assistants will monitor food prices and suggest balanced, economical meals. 

Two: Relying on the Internet

Demand for Internet reliance will grow to stay connected with family, friends, school, and work. Consumers will expect secure communications services. The Internet will become vital for accessing information during weather events. 

Three: Optimizing Schedules

Energy availability – not time – will be considered to optimize activity schedules. Energy costs will be prioritized over time efficiency. 

Four: Depending on AI

Using AI for increased safety will become commonplace, with people turning to AI for real-time advice in extreme weather. AI services will be used for green technology investing for financial security. 

Five: Changing Work Routines

Working from home at least part-time will continue, with digital services used to schedule workdays. Flex schedules can distribute energy use across regions to avoid sharp peaks of electricity consumption. 

Six: Using Smart Water Services

To prevent water scarcity and reduce costs, intelligent water catchers on roofs and balconies will capture clean rainwater. Built-in sensors at home will monitor water consumption. 

Seven: Turning Energy into Currency

Consumers will switch to renewable energy sources, and power-saving technologies will grow in demand. Early adopters see opportunities to make money by generating their own electricity. 

Eight: Shopping Digitally

Buying digital products will increase while buying physical goods will decrease. Hobbies, toys, games, and pastimes will go online. AI that questions unnecessary purchases will be used. 

Nine: Travelling Virtually

VR will be used to travel without leaving home. Realistic nature experiences of hiking in a forest or rowing on a lake can be recreated in living rooms.

Ten: Protecting Against Cheaters

Some consumers will try to bypass environmental restrictions by hacking the system and tapping into neighbors’ reserves. People will need to secure their water and electricity supplies to protect themselves from being hacked. 

Read Ericsson’s full report

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OpenAI, creator of ChatGPT, casts spell on Microsoft

OpenAI is the topic of conversation across multiple industries, and Microsoft is betting big on it.

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Greg Brockman, co-founder and chairman of OpenAI, says that a paid version of ChatGPT is in the works
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The hottest startup in Silicon Valley right now is OpenAI, the Microsoft-backed developer of ChatGPT, a much-hyped chatbot that can write a poem, college essay or even a line of software code.

Tesla tycoon Elon Musk was an early investor in OpenAI and Microsoft is reported to be in talks to up an initial investment of $1 billion to $10 billion in a goal to challenge Google’s world-dominating search engine.

If agreed, the cash injection by the Windows-maker would value OpenAI at a whopping $29 billion, making it a rare tech-world success when major players such as Amazon, Meta and Twitter are cutting costs and laying off staff.

“Microsoft is clearly being aggressive on this front and not going to be left behind on what could be a potential game-changing AI investment,” said analyst Dan Ives of Wedbush Securities.

Before the release of ChatGPT, OpenAI had wowed tech geeks with Dall-E 2, a software that creates digital images with a simple instruction.

Microsoft, which makes no secret of its AI ambitions, has integrated Dall-E 2 into several of its applications and now, according to a report in Bloomberg, the tech giant wants to graft ChatGPT to its Bing search engine to take on Google.

Since ChatGPT was introduced in November, the prowess of this chatbot has aroused the curiosity and fascination of internet users.

It is capable of formulating detailed and human-like answers on a wide range of subjects in a few seconds, raising fears that it is vulnerable to misuse by school cheats or for disinformation.

‘Not cheap’

The dizzying success is due in part to OpenAI’s clever marketing strategy in which it made its research accessible to non-experts, said AI specialist Robb Wilson, founder of OneReach.ai, a software company.

“Having this technology available to technologists was one thing. Offering it in a chat user interface and allowing non-developers to start playing with it ignited a conversation,” he said.

Founded in late 2015, OpenAI is led by Sam Altman, a 37-year-old entrepreneur and former president of startup incubator Y Combinator.

The company has counted on the financial support of prestigious contributors from the start, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, investor Peter Thiel and Musk.

The multi-billionaire served on OpenAI’s board until 2018, but left to focus on Tesla, the electric vehicle company.

The startup also relies on a team of computer scientists and researchers led by Ilya Sutskever, a former Google executive who specializes in machine learning.

OpenAI, which did not respond to AFP’s inquiries, had about 200 employees by 2021, according to a query made directly on ChatGPT.

For now, despite the excitement generated by ChatGPT, the company has yet to find a path to financial independence.

Founded as a nonprofit, the startup became a “capped for-profit” company in 2019 to attract more investors and this week co-founder Greg Brockman said that a paid version of ChatGPT was in the works.

The search for funding seems necessary for a company with exorbitant expenses.

In a Twitter exchange with Musk in early December, Altman acknowledged that each conversation on ChatGPT costs OpenAI several US cents.

According to estimates by Tom Goldstein, an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s computer science department, the company is shelling out $100,000 a day for its bot, or about $3 million a month.

Partnering with Microsoft, which provides the startup with its remote computing services, could cut costs, but “either way, it’s not cheap,” Goldstein said.

“Some say it’s wasteful to pour these kinds of resources… into a demo,” he added.

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Three stories from Canada’s tech landscape

An event series for Black entrepreneurs, Indigenous innovation, and a Canadian-made, one-of-a-kind EV.

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Ongoing reports of an overall slowdown — including layoffs — in Canada’s tech ecosystem have been happening for much of the latter half of 2022. Funding took a bit of a tumble, amid stock market slumps, inflation, and a looming recession.

That said, there are still plenty of entrepreneurs, tech leaders, and innovators across Canada making serious moves. Here are three such stories.

Celebrating Black founders and tech leaders

Black tech entrepreneurs in Alberta are getting the change to pitch their businesses to investors and connect with fellow founders, thanks to a new events series from Innovate Calgary.

The series, called Black Founders in Tech, started in November out of the University of Calgary’s business incubator, with seven founders making their pitches. Prior to their pitch, participants were matched with a mentor and coach to help with preparation.

As Innovate Calgary’s Jerome Morgan explained to CBC, “We listened to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of colour] founders, and they said, ‘We want to be celebrated and not just be a corner of the innovation ecosystem.’”

“In [the] industry there aren’t that many colourful faces all in one room and it was pretty cool,” added pitch finalist Sean Hervo. “You could feel the love and energy in there. We were high-fiving and cheering each other on.”

Learn more about the event series from CBC

Canada’s first Indigenous-owned bioenergy facility

NorSask Forest Products, a bioenergy plant owned by The Meadow Lake Tribal Council (comprising nine First Nations in northwestern Saskatchewan), is turning wood waste into heat and power.

After 50 years of the sawmill burning its wood waste — a practice that has largely been abandoned or banned in most of the country — the bioenergy centre works in a closed-loop system. As Tina Rasmussen, chief business officer for MLTC and a member of the Flying Dust First Nation explained to CBC, such a system allows for the use of 100% of the tree. Air pollution control devices help remove particulates and break down pollutants into ash. 

The facility generates 8.3 megawatts of power, able to power approximately 5,000 homes. 

Dig deeper into the story from CBC

Showcasing Canada’s EV and manufacturing potential at CES

The Consumer Electronics Show is one of the biggest tech events in the world, and a unique piece of Canadian tech was on showcase.
Project Arrow is a concept vehicle by The Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association of Canada. It’s made of materials from 50 Canadian parts suppliers, built to show the auto sector’s ability to manufacture EVs and to answer Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call for zero-emissions by 2050. The Arrow is the first original, full-build, zero-emission concept vehicle.

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