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Photo: Associated Press.
Marc Raibert, founder and chair of Boston Dynamics, with an Atlas robot that can dance with near-human fluidity.

We can probably all think of discoveries that initially seem frivolous or peculiar and later turn out to be important to humanity. So perhaps we shouldn’t laugh too much about a robot dancing to Motown. Who can tell what will come of it?

Rodrique Ngowi writes at the Associated Press (AP), “The man who designed some of the world’s most advanced dynamic robots was on a daunting mission: programming his creations to dance to the beat with a mix of fluid, explosive and expressive motions that are almost human.

“The results? Almost a year and half of choreography, simulation, programming and upgrades that were capped by two days of filming to produce a video running at less than 3 minutes. The clip, showing robots dancing to the 1962 hit ‘Do You Love Me?’ by The Contours, was an instant hit on social media, attracting more than 23 million views during the first week.

“It shows two of Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas research robots doing the twist, the mashed potato and other classic moves, joined by Spot, a doglike robot, and Handle, a wheeled robot designed for lifting and moving boxes in a warehouse or truck. …

“[Says Boston Dynamics founder and chairperson Marc Raibert], ‘We didn’t want a robot doing robotlike dancing. We wanted it to do human dancing and, you know, when a human dances, the music has a beat and their whole body moves to it — their hands, their body, their head,’ he says. …

‘It looked like the robot was having fun and really moved with the music. And I think that had a lot to do with the result of the production.’

“Teaching robots to dance with fluid and expressive motions was a new challenge for a company that spent years building robots that have functional abilities like walking, navigating in rough terrain, pick things up with their hands and use attached advanced sensors to monitor and sense many things, Raibert says.

“ ‘You know, our job is to try and stretch the boundaries of what robots can do, both in terms of the outer research boundary, but also in terms of practical applications. And I think when people see the new things that robots can do, it excites them,’ he says.

“The advanced Atlas robot relies on a wide array of sensors to execute the dance moves, including 28 actuators — devices that serve as muscles by converting electronic or physical signal into movement — as well as a gyroscope that helps it to balance, and three quad-core onboard computers, including one that processes perception signals and two that control movement. …

“ ‘We’ve gotten calls from all around the world,’ Raibert says. ‘We got a call from one of the sound engineers who had recorded the original Contours performance back in the ’60s. And he said that his whole crew of Motown friends had been passing it around.’ “

More at AP, here.

A dancing Atlas robot at Boston Dynamics.

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Photo: Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe
Research scientist Hen-Wei Huang talked about Spot the robot during a demonstration at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

When Boston Dynamics first launched its robot dog, people regarded it more as a toy with fancy tricks than as a serious partner in the working world.

Then came coronavirus.

As Hiawatha Bray reports at the Boston Globe, the robot’s remarkable agility is one reason it has become useful for screening potential Covid-19 victims safely.

Bray writes, “At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the first encounter a potentially infected person might have is not with a doctor or nurse swathed in protective gear, but with a talking, animal-like robot that looks like it might have wandered off the set of ‘Star Wars.’

“Spot, the agile walking robot from Waltham-based Boston Dynamics, gained Internet notoriety for showing off its dance moves on YouTube. But now it’s going to work in the real world, striding into the danger zone, armed only with an iPad. The robot is posted just outside the hospital, not so much as a sentinel, but as an intake worker that will help doctors safely interview people who fear they may have been infected with the coronavirus. …

“The yellow-and-black Spot robot, which resembles a large dog, is positioned inside a big white tent set up in front of the hospital’s main entrance as a triage area for potential COVID-19 cases. It is fitted with an iPad that displays a physician located safely inside the hospital who can use the device’s camera to see the patient’s physical condition. The doctor can talk to the patient through the built-in microphone and a mounted speaker, asking standard diagnostic questions.

“The physician is also able to remotely control Spot, directing the machine to move around for a better perspective of the patient. …

‘Most people have been very excited to be interacting with this robot and mostly see it as something that is cool and fun,’ [said emergency room doctor Farah Dadabhoy].

“Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics’ vice president of business development, said that as early as February the company began receiving inquiries from hospitals worldwide. Was it possible, they asked, to use a Spot robot to conduct triage interviews? …

“Many had set up their COVID triage areas outdoors, on lawns or in parking lots. On such uneven surfaces, ‘traditional robotics doesn’t make sense,’ he said. ‘We need something that can handle this difficult terrain.’ …

“Doctors at the Brigham had also been looking into automated triage. In cooperation with engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they worked on remote diagnostic sensors, but they needed a robot to carry them. So in March they reached out to Boston Dynamics.

“The result was a specially modified Spot, featuring the iPad and a little carrying pouch mounted near the robot’s ‘tail.’

“There’s nothing flashy about the pouch, but it’s quite practical. It allows Spot to deliver small items such as bottled water to infected patients, without the need to send in a nurse. Personnel can’t approach a COVID-infected patient, even for something as simple as giving him a bottle of water, without putting on safety gear. … With the medical version of Spot, health care workers can just put the bottle in the pouch and have it marched over to the patient. And the moisture-resistant robot is designed to be sanitized easily.

“The current version of Spot is only good for conducting interviews. But the Brigham will soon deploy an upgraded model with cameras that can measure a patient’s respiration rate and body temperature, with no need to make physical contact. …

The company said it is giving its medical hardware and software designs at no charge to any robotics company that cares to use them. Perry said Boston Dynamics has already had talks with a Canadian maker of wheeled robots.

Read more at the Globe, here.

Spot the Robot Dog in an earlier career as a YouTube dancing sensation.

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Here’s a new idea for keeping waterways clean, and wouldn’t you know, the idea comes from the Netherlands.

David Z. Morris reports at Fortune magazine that at the September “World Port Days conference, the Port of Rotterdam debuted a pair of aquatic drones to help the port operate more efficiently and cleanly. One is the Waste Shark, an autonomous vessel to gather waste from the port’s busy waters before it can be washed out to sea. …

“According to Silicon Angle, The Waste Shark can gather up to 500 kilograms of waste, or 1120 pounds, before returning it to a collection point. The vessel also gathers data about water quality, and designs more efficient collection routes as it learns over time. …

“The craft, developed by RanMarine, could help curb the mounting environmental threat of ocean waste. Last year, there were an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean, with 269,000 tons floating on the surface—and doing serious harm to ocean life.” More.

Those of you who followed Erik’s relatives’ summer sailing adventure from Denmark to the Mediterranean will recall how dangerous floating debris can be. Reminisce here.

Photo: RanMarine
The Waste Shark autonomous waste collector. 

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At my husband’s college reunion yesterday, we heard a former classmate talk about a wonderfully innovative school he founded  in San Diego (High Tech High).

After hearing that a fairly typical class project was developing a genetic bar code to identify endangered species in the bush, my husband wondered how such an inventive school can function in today’s teaching-to-the-test world. I myself figured that whatever the kids absorb from meaningful projects and cutting-edge teaching they absorb deeply enough to pass tests if they need to.

And when I think of the lengths to which test mania is going, I think more schools should learn from High Tech High. Consider the latest testing aberration: robots grading essays.

Les Perelman at the Boston Globe gives examples:

” ‘According to professor of theory of knowledge Leon Trotsky, privacy is the most fundamental report of humankind. Radiation on advocates to an orator transmits gamma rays of parsimony to implode.

“Any native speaker over age 5 knows that the preceding sentences are incoherent babble. But a computer essay grader, like the one Massachusetts may use as part of its new public school tests, thinks it is exceptionally good prose.

“PARCC, the consortium of states including Massachusetts that is developing assessments for the Common Core Curriculum, has contracted with Pearson Education, the same company that graded the notorious SAT essay, to grade the essay portions of the Common Core tests. Some students throughout Massachusetts just took the pilot test, which wasted precious school time on an exercise that will provide no feedback to students or to their schools.

“It was, however, not wasted time for Pearson. The company is using these student essays to train its robo-grader to replace one of the two human readers grading the essay, although there are no published data on their effectiveness in correcting human readers.

“Robo-graders do not score by understanding meaning but almost solely by use of gross measures, especially length and the presence of pretentious language. The fallacy underlying this approach is confusing association with causation. A person makes the observation that many smart college professors wear tweed jackets and then believes that if she wears a tweed jacket, she will be a smart college professor.” More here.

Uh-oh. Sounds like the children’s book Petunia. Fortunately, a timely explosion taught the silly goose that books have pages you need to read, that carrying a book under your wing doesn’t make you smart.

More explosions needed.

Photo: blog.spoongraphics.co.uk

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Back in August, the Ideas section of the Sunday Globe had a short piece by Kevin Hartnett on a robot that creates art. Well, a robot that copies art. It’s a discomforting notion.

“When you watch an artist paint,” writes Hartnett, “individual brush strokes can seem random. It’s often not until close to the very end that the image the painter is after becomes clear. This is doubly true when you watch e-David, the robot painter, at work. e-David (the name stands for ‘Drawing Apparatus for Vivid Image Display’) was created by a team of engineers at the University of Konstanz in Germany. It’s a former welding robot that has been retrofitted to reproduce, brush stroke by brush stroke, existing works of art. The robotic arm has access to five different brushes and 25 colors of paint, and after each dab of paint, it takes a photograph of what it has painted so far. Computer software analyzes the photograph and tells e-David where to place the next brush stroke.

“The strangeness of the process is especially evident when e-David signs the art at the end, beginning by making the dot over the ‘i’ and then writing the rest of its name backwards.” More.

Having recently read an amusing novel about the Gardner heist, The Art Forger, I can’t help thinking that e-David could have quite a career — maybe not fooling any experts but at least making serviceable reproductions.

Photo: Oliver Deussen, University of Konstanz
Painting by e-David, a robot

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We are going to the opera tonight, and I’m remembering the last opera we saw, by MIT Media Lab innovator Tod Machover.

It was called Death and the Powers, and it was about a genius who wanted to live forever and figured out how to convert himself into a sort of computer after death. Given that it had lyrics by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, I thought it would be great, but it was nowhere near as good as Machover’s Resurrection, a Tolstoy story adapted by MIT’s Laura Harrington. (The robots in Death and the Powers were cute anyway.)

Machover is a tremendously interesting and prolific musician. Here he talks about how music can bring back memories, not unlike Proust’s petit madeleine.

Below he explains how his “hyper instruments” have drawn people of all types, including the elementary school classes he visits, into the joy of music making.

 

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