Judgement Day Update: The Robotic Bartender and DARPA’s Latest Hand

robot_bartenderRobots have come a long way in recent years, haven’t they? From their humble beginnings, servicing human beings with menial tasks and replacing humans on the assembly line, they now appear poised to take over other, more complex tasks as well. Between private companies and DARPA-developed concepts, it seems like just a matter of time before a fully-functioning machine is capable of performing all our work for us.

One such task-mastering robot was featured at the Milan Design Week this year, an event where fashion tales center stage. It’s known as the Makr Shakr, a set of robotic arms that are capable of mixing drinks, slicing fruit, and capable of making millions of different recipes. The result of a collaborative effort between MIT SENSEable City Lab and Carlo Ratti Associati, an Italian architecture firm, this robot is apparently able to match wits with any human bartender.

robot_bartender1While at the Milan Design Week, the three robotic arms put on quite the show, demonstrating their abilities to a crowd of wowed spectators. According to the website, this technology is not just a bar aid, but part of a larger movement in robotics:

Makr Shakr aims to show the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ paradigm through the simple process design-make-enjoy, and in just the time needed to prepare a new cocktail.

In a press release, the company described the process. It begins with the user downloading an app to create their order to the smartphone as well as peruse the recipes that other users have come up with. They then communicate the order to the Makr Shakr and “[the] cocktail is then crafted by three robotic arms, whose movements reproduce every action of a barman–from the shaking of a Martini to the muddling of a Mojito, and even the thin slicing of a lemon garnish.”

robot_bartender2Inspired by the ballerina Roberto Bolle, whose “movements were filmed and used as input for the programming of the Makr Shakr robots”, the arms appear most graceful when they do their work. In addition, the design system monitors exactly how much booze each patron is consuming, which, in theory, could let the robot-bartenders know when it’s time to cut off designers who have thrown back a few too many.

Check out the video of the Makr Shakr in action:

Another major breakthrough comes, yet again, from DARPA. For years now, they have been working with numerous companies and design and research firms in order to create truly ambulatory and dextrous robot limbs. In some cases, as with the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), this involves creating a machine that can carry supplies and keep up with troops. In others, this involves the creation of robotic hands and limbs to help wounded veterans recover and lead normal lives again.

And you may recall earlier this year when DARPA unveiled a cheap design for a robotic hand that was able to use tools and perform complex tasks (like changing a tire). More recently, it showcased a design for a three-fingered robot, designed in conjunction with the firm iRobot – the makers of the robotic 3D printer – and with support from Harvard and Yale, that is capable of unlocking and opening doors. Kind of scary really…


The arm is the latest to come out of the Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program, a program designed to create robots that are no longer expensive, cumbersome, and dependent on human operators. Using a Kinect to zero in on the object’s location before moving in to grab the item, the arm is capable of picking up thin objects lying flat, like a laminated card or key. In addition, the hand’s three-finger configuration is versatile, strong, and therefore capable of handling objects of varying size and complexity.

When put to the test (as shown in the video below), the hand was able to pick up a metal key, insert it into a lock, and open a door without any assistance. Naturally, a human operator is still required at this stage, but the use of a Kinect sensor to identify objects shows a degree of autonomous capability, and the software behind its programming is still in the early development phase.

And while the hand isn’t exactly cheap by everyday standards, the production cost has been dramatically reduced. Hands fabricated in batches of 1,000 or more can be produced for $3,000 per unit, which is substantially less than the current cost of $50,000 per unit for similar technology. And as usual, DARPA has its eye on future development, creating hands that would be used in hazardous situations – such as diffusing IEDs on the battlefield – as well as civilian and post-combat applications (i.e. prosthetics).

And of course, there’s a video for the ARM in action as well. Check it out, and then decide for yourself if you need to be scared yet:

fastcoexist.com, singularityhub.com
, makrshakr.com

Big News in Quantum Computing!

^For many years, scientists have looked at the field of quantum machinery as the next big wave in computing. Whereas conventional computing involves sending information via a series of particles (electrons), quantum computing relies on the process of beaming the states of these particles from one location to the next. This process, which occurs faster than the speed of light since no movement takes place, would make computers exponentially faster and more efficient, and lead to an explosion in machine intelligence. And while the technology has yet to be realized, every day brings us one step closer…

One important step happened earlier this month with the installment of the D-Wave Two over at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab (QAIL) at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, NASA has announced that this is precisely what they intend to pursue. Not surprisingly, the ARC is only the second lab in the world to have a quantum computer.  The only other lab to possess the 512-qubit, cryogenically cooled machine is the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which upgraded to a D-Wave Two in 2011.

D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip
D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip

And while there are still some who question the categorization of the a D-Wave Two as a true quantum computer, most critics have acquiesced since many of its components function in accordance with the basic principle. And NASA, Google, and the people at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) even ran some tests to confirm that the quantum computer offered a speed boost over conventional supercomputers — and it passed.

The new lab, which will be situated at NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the Ames Research Center, will be operated by NASA, Google, and the USRA. NASA and Google will each get 40% of the system’s computing time, with the remaining 20% being divvied up by the USRA to researchers at various American universities. NASA and Google will primarily use the quantum computer to advance a branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning, which is tasked with developing algorithms that optimize themselves with experience.

nasa-ames-research-center-partyAs for what specific machine learning tasks NASA and Google actually have in mind, we can only guess. But it’s a fair bet that NASA will be interested in optimizing flight paths to other planets, or devising a safer/better/faster landing procedure for the next Mars rover. As for Google, the smart money says they will be using their time to develop complex AI algorithms for their self-driving cars, as well optimizing their search engines, and Google+.

But in the end, its the long-range possibilities that offer the most excitement here. With NASA and Google now firmly in command of a quantum processor, some of best and brightest minds in the world will now be working to forward the field of artificial intelligence, space flight, and high-tech. It will be quite exciting to see what they produce…

photon_laserAnother important step took place back in March, when researchers at Yale University announced that they had developed a new way to change the quantum state of photons, the elementary particles researchers hope to use for quantum memory. This is good news, because it effectively demonstrated that true quantum computing – the kind that utilizes qubits for all of its processes – has continually eluded scientists and researchers in recent years.

To break it down, today’s computers are restricted in that they store information as bits – where each bit holds either a “1″ or a “0.” But a quantum computer is built around qubits (quantum bits) that can store a 1, a 0 or any combination of both at the same time. And while the qubits would make up the equivalent of a processor in a quantum computer, some sort of quantum Random Access Memory (RAM) is also needed.

Photon_follow8Gerhard Kirchmair, one of Yale researchers, explained in a recent interview with Nature magazine that photons are a good choice for this because they can retain a quantum state for a long time over a long distance. But you’ll want to change the quantum information stored in the photons from time to time. What the Yale team has developed is essentially a way to temporarily make the photons used for memory “writeable,” and then switch them back into a more stable state.

To do this, Kirchmair and his associates took advantage of what’s known as a “Kerr medium”, a law that states how certain mediums will refract light in a different ways depending on the amount shined on it. This is different from normal material materials that refract light and any other form of electromagnetic field the same regardless of how much they are exposed to.

Higgs-bosonThus, by exposing photons to a microwave field in a Kerr medium, they were able to manipulate the quantum states of photons, making them the perfect means for quantum memory storage. At the same time, they knew that storing these memory photons in a Kerr medium would prove unstable, so they added a vacuum filled aluminum resonator to act as a coupler. When the resonator is decoupled, the photons are stable. When resonator is coupled, the photons are “writeable”, allowing a user to input information and store it effectively.

This is not the first or only instance of researchers finding ways to toy with the state of photons, but it is currently the most stable and effective. And coupled with other efforts, such as the development of photonic transistors and other such components, or new ways to create photons seemingly out of thin air, we could be just a few years away from the first full and bona fide quantum processor!

Sources: Extremetech.com, Wired.com, Nature.com