Categories
AI

Want to make robots run faster? Try letting AI take control

Quadrupedal robots are becoming a familiar sight, but engineers are still working out the full capabilities of these machines. Now, a group of researchers from MIT says one way to improve their functionality might be to use AI to help teach the bots how to walk and run.

Usually, when engineers are creating the software that controls the movement of legged robots, they write a set of rules about how the machine should respond to certain inputs. So, if a robot’s sensors detect x amount of force on leg y, it will respond by powering up motor a to exert torque b, and so on. Coding these parameters is complicated and time-consuming, but it gives researchers precise and predictable control over the robots.

An alternative approach is to use machine learning — specifically, a method known as reinforcement learning that functions through trial and error. This works by giving your AI model a goal known as a “reward function” (e.g., move as fast as you can) and then letting it loose to work out how to achieve that outcome from scratch. This takes a long time, but it helps if you let the AI experiment in a virtual environment where you can speed up time. It’s why reinforcement learning, or RL, is a popular way to develop AI that plays video games.

This is the technique that MIT’s engineers used, creating new software (known as a “controller”) for the university’s research quadruped, Mini Cheetah. Using reinforcement learning, they were able to achieve a new top-speed for the robot of 3.9m/s, or roughly 8.7mph. You can watch what that looks like in the video below:

As you can see, Mini Cheetah’s new running gait is a little ungainly. In fact, it looks like a puppy scrabbling to accelerate on a wooden floor. But, according to MIT PhD student Gabriel Margolis (a co-author of the research along with postdoc fellow Ge Yang), this is because the AI isn’t optimizing for anything but speed.

“RL finds one way to run fast, but given an underspecified reward function, it has no reason to prefer a gait that is ‘natural-looking’ or preferred by humans,” Margolis tells The Verge over email. He says the model could certainly be instructed to develop a more flowing form of locomotion, but the whole point of the endeavor is to optimize for speed alone.

Margolis and Yang say a big advantage of developing controller software using AI is that it’s less time-consuming than messing about with all the physics. “Programming how a robot should act in every possible situation is simply very hard. The process is tedious because if a robot were to fail on a particular terrain, a human engineer would need to identify the cause of failure and manually adapt the robot controller,” they say.

Mini Cheetah gets the once-over from a non-robot dog.
Image: MIT

By using a simulator, engineers can place the robot in any number of virtual environments — from solid pavement to slippery rubble — and let it work things out for itself. Indeed, the MIT group says its simulator was able to speed through 100 days’ worth of staggering, walking, and running in just three hours of real time.

Some companies that develop legged robots are already using these sorts of methods to design new controllers. Others, though, like Boston Dynamics, apparently rely on more traditional approaches. (This makes sense given the company’s interest in developing very specific movements — like the jumps, vaults, and flips seen in its choreographed videos.)

There are also faster-legged robots out there. Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah bot currently holds the record for a quadruped, reaching speeds of 28.3 mph — faster than Usain Bolt. However, not only is Cheetah a much bigger and more powerful machine than MIT’s Mini Cheetah, but it achieved its record running on a treadmill and mounted to a lever for stability. Without these advantages, maybe AI would give the machine a run for its money.

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Categories
Computing

Windows 11 Blocks App Letting You Switch Web Browsers

Windows 11 is now blocking the popular app EdgeDeflector, which provides better ability to select alternative web browsers.

The discovery was made in a new build of Windows 11 through the Insider Program, where Microsoft is now blocking applications that sidestep certain restrictions to change web browsers within the operating system.

Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

You can still change your default web browser to Chrome or Firefox, but as Windows users know, this won’t apply to every situation found in Windows. That’s due to something called the “edge:// protocol,” which a method used by Microsoft within certain elements in Windows, such as the News and Interest widgets.

The protocol ensures that it’ll only open URL links in its Edge browser. It’s implemented within Windows Search as well. Understandably, it’s been a controversial feature as it even circumvents a user’s default browser choice.

Developers have offered alternative apps, such as EdgeDeflector, that allow you to redirect links to a preferred browser, but Microsoft has now made such workarounds worthless through the latest Windows 11 update (build 22494), which is currently available for Insider members.

The developer of EdgeDeflector — home to 500,000 users — has confirmed that Microsoft has effectively disabled his application. As stated in the blog post, the developer, Daniel Aleksandersen, insists that “this isn’t a bug in the Windows Insider preview build. Microsoft has made specific changes to how Windows handles the microsoft-edge:// protocol.”

He added that while he can technically provide a way to bypass Microsoft’s strategy to make apps like EdgeDeflector futile, it would require “destructive changes” to Windows. These alterations to the program’s code would cause several issues for users, the developer stressed. Aleksandersen has thus decided to cease updating the app.

Your web browser is probably the most important — if not the only — app you regularly use.

In October, Brave became the first web browser to incorporate support against Microsoft’s URL scheme by introducing the same functionality EdgeDeflector delivers. Mozilla developer Masatoshi Kimura has also written patches to integrate the protocol into Firefox.

Aleksandersen states that the move by Microsoft is an anticompetitive practice that regulators “just haven’t caught up with yet.”

“Your web browser is probably the most important — if not the only — app you regularly use. Microsoft has made it clear that its priorities for Windows don’t align with its users’.”

This change is only effective in future builds of Windows 11, so as of now, it’s only a preview of what’s to come.

Editors’ Choice




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Categories
Tech News

Oh great, Apple is letting Parler back onto the App Store

In wonderful news for far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists, Apple is letting Parler back onto the App Store.

The iPhone maker banned the controversial app in January after receiving complaints that the service had been used to coordinate the siege on the US Capitol.

The Silicon Valley giant also found posts on the social network that “encouraged violence, denigrated various ethnic groups, races, and religions, glorified Nazism, and called for violence against specific people.”

[Read: The biggest tech trends of 2021, according to 3 founders]

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in April that he hoped the company would return, after putting in the “moderation that’s required to be on the store.”

His wish has now been fulfilled. In a letter to US Senator Mike Lee and Congressman Ken Buck, Apple said Parler has submitted changes to the app that will allow it re-enter the App Store:

Parler has proposed updates to its app and the app’s content moderation practices, and the App Review Team has informed Parler as of April 14 2021 that its proposed updated app will be approved for reinstatement to the App Store. Apple anticipates that the updated Parler app will become available immediately upon Parler releasing it.

Buck described the decision as “a huge win for free speech.”

Folks with Android devices, however, will have to look elsewhere for their daily dose of bigotry — Parler still isn’t available on Google Play.

Buthey could soon find an appealing alternative. Donald Trump will supposedly launch his own social media platform in the next couple of months. I can hardly wait.

 



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