All posts in “Science”

This prosthetic arm combines manual control with machine learning

Prosthetic limbs are getting better every year, but the strength and precision they gain doesn’t always translate to easier or more effective use, since amputees have only a basic level of control over them. One promising avenue being investigated by Swiss researchers is having an AI take over where manual control leaves off.

To visualize the problem, imagine a person with their arm amputated above the elbow controlling a smart prosthetic limb. With sensors placed on their remaining muscles and other signals, they may fairly easily be able to lift their arm and direct it to a position where they can grab an object on a table.

But what happens next? The many muscles and tendons that would have controlled the fingers are gone, and with them the ability to sense exactly how the user wants to flex or extend their artificial digits. If all the user can do is signal a generic “grip” or “release,” that loses a huge amount of what a hand is actually good for.

Here’s where researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) take over. Being limited to telling the hand to grip or release isn’t a problem if the hand knows what to do next — sort of like how our natural hands “automatically” find the best grip for an object without our needing to think about it. Robotics researchers have been working on automatic detection of grip methods for a long time, and it’s a perfect match for this situation.

epfl roboarm

Prosthesis users train a machine learning model by having it observe their muscle signals while attempting various motions and grips as best they can without the actual hand to do it with. With that basic information the robotic hand knows what type of grasp it should be attempting, and by monitoring and maximizing the area of contact with the target object, the hand improvises the best grip for it in real time. It also provides drop resistance, being able to adjust its grip in less than half a second should it start to slip.

The result is that the object is grasped strongly but gently for as long as the user continues gripping it with, essentially, their will. When they’re done with the object, having taken a sip of coffee or moved a piece of fruit from a bowl to a plate, they “release” the object and the system senses this change in their muscles’ signals and does the same.

It’s reminiscent of another approach, by students in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, in which the arm is equipped with a camera in the palm that gives it feedback on the object and how it ought to grip it.

It’s all still very experimental, and done with a third-party robotic arm and not particularly optimized software. But this “shared control” technique is promising and could very well be foundational to the next generation of smart prostheses. The team’s paper is published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.

Watch JAXA’s HTV-8 mission launch aboard a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIB rocket live

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Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’s Launch Services division is all set to send a crucial cargo payload to the International Space Station from JAXA today. The launch is scheduled for 6:33 AM Japan Standard Time (5:33 PM ET/2:33 PM PT), and will take off from Tanegashima Island, at JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Center.

The rocket used for this launch is the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) H-IIB, and this is the eighth flight launch of the H-11 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) that MHI designed and built in Japan.

In the H-IIB configuration, the MHI-built rocket that will transport he HTV includes a liquid propellant central core, along with four solid propellant rocket boosters to give it additional life capacity. This particular mission will see the HTV loaded with 5.3 metric tons (just under six U.S. tons) of supplies for the ISS on board in both pressurized and unpressurized cargo containers which divvy up the total capacity.


One of the crucial pieces of cargo going up is a small satellite deployment device called ‘Kibo’ created by the Kyushu Institute of Technology and the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Science. It’ll be used to deploy a range of super compact ‘CubeSats’ also on board, including a propulsion tech demo create by the University of Tokyo and startup Space BD, which is the first company awarded a contract by JAXA to be the commercial operator for deploying smallsats from the ISS via Kibo.

NASA TV will be carrying the launch live via the stream above, with their coverage kicking off around 5 PM ET (2 PM PT/6 AM JST).

Q-CTRL raises $15M for software that reduces error and noise in quantum computing hardware

As hardware makers continue to work on ways of making wide-scale quantum computing a reality, a startup out of Australia that is building software to help reduce noise and errors on quantum computing machines has raised a round of funding to fuel its U.S. expansion.

Q-CTRL is designing firmware for computers and other machines (such as quantum sensors) that perform quantum calculations to identify the potential for errors, making them more resistant and able to stay working for longer (the Q in its name is a reference to qubits, the basic building block of quantum computing). The startup is today announcing that it has raised $15 million, money that it plans to use to double its team (currently numbering 25) and set up shop on the West Coast, specifically Los Angeles.

This Series A is coming from a list of backers that speaks to the startup’s success to date in courting quantum hardware companies as customers. Led by Square Peg Capital — a prolific Australian VC that has backed homegrown startups like Bugcrowd and Canva, but also those further afield such as Stripe — it also includes new investor Sierra Ventures as well as Sequoia Capital, Main Sequence Ventures, and Horizons Ventures.

Q-CTRL’s customers are some of the bigger names in quantum computing and IT such as Rigetti, Bleximo and Accenture, among others. IBM — which earlier this year unveiled its first commercial quantum computer — singled it out last year for its work in advancing quantum technology.

The problem that Q-CTRL is aiming to address is basic but arguably critical to solving if quantum computing ever hopes to make the leap out of the lab and into wider use in the real world.

Quantum computers and other machines like quantum sensors, which are built on quantum physics architecture, are able to perform computations that go well beyond what can be done by normal computers today, with the applications for such technology including cryptography, biosciences, advanced geological exploration and much more. But quantum computing machines are known to be unstable, in part because of the fragility of the quantum state, which introduces a lot of noise and subsequent errors.

As Frederic pointed out recently, scientists are confident that this is ultimately a solvable issue. Q-CTRL is one of the hopefuls working on that, by providing a set of tools that runs on quantum machines, visualises noise and decoherence, and then deploys controls to “defeat” those errors.

Q-CTRL currently has four products it offers to the market, Black Opal, Boulder Opal, Open Controls and Devkit — aimed respectively at students/those exploring quantum computing, hardware makers, the research community, and end users/algorithm developers.

Q-CTRL was founded in 2017 by Michael Biercuk, a Professor of Quantum Physics & Quantum Technology at the University of Sydney and a Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, who studied in the U.S., with a PhD in physics from Harvard.

“Being at the vanguard of the birth of a new industry is extraordinary,” he said in a statement. “We’re also thrilled to be assembling one of the most impressive investor syndicates in quantum technology. Finding investors who understand and embrace both the promise and the challenge of building quantum computers is almost magical.”

Why choose Los Angeles for building out a U.S. presence, you might ask? Southern California, it turns out, has shaped up to be a key area for quantum research and development, with several of the universities in the region building out labs dedicated to the area, and companies like Lockheed Martin and Google also contributing to the ecosystem. This means a strong pipeline of talent and conversation in what is still a nascent area.

Given that it is still early days for quantum computing technology, that gives a lot of potential options to a company  like Q-CTRL longer-term: the company might continue to build a business as it does today, selling its technology to a plethora of hardware makers and researchers in the field; or it might get snapped up by a specific hardware company to integrate Q-CTRL’s solutions more closely onto its machines (and keep them away from competitors). Or, it could make like a quantum particle and follow both of those paths at the same time.

“Q-CTRL impressed us with their strategy; by providing infrastructure software to improve quantum computers for R&D teams and end-users, they’re able to be a central player in bringing this technology to reality,” said Tushar Roy, a partner at Square Peg. “Their technology also has applications beyond quantum computing, including in quantum-based sensing, which is a rapidly-growing market. In Q-CTRL we found a rare combination of world-leading technical expertise with an understanding of customers, products and what it takes to build an impactful business.”

At-home blood testing startup Baze rakes in $6 million from Nature’s Way

By now, the venture world is wary of blood testing startups offering health data from just a few drops of blood. However, Baze, a Swiss-based personal nutrition startup providing blood tests you can do in the convenience of your own home, collects just a smidgen of your sanguine fluid through an MIT manufactured device, which, according to the company, is in accordance with FDA regulations.

The idea is to find out (via your blood sample) what vitamins you’re missing out on and are keeping you from living your best life. That seems to resonate with folks who don’t want to go into the doctor’s office and separately head to their nearest lab for testing.

And it’s important to know if you are getting the right amount of nutrition — Vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic affecting calcium absorption, hormone regulation, energy levels and muscle weakness. An estimated 74% of the U.S. population does not get the required daily levels of Vitamin D.

“There are definitely widespread deficiencies across the population,” CEO and Baze founder Philipp Schulte tells TechCrunch. “[With the blood test] we see that we can actually close those gaps for the first time ever in the supplement industry.”

While we don’t know exactly how many people have tried out Baze just yet, Schulte says the company has seen 40% month-over-month new subscriber growth.

That has garnered the attention of supplement company Nature’s Way, which has partnered with the company and just added $6 million to the coffers to help Baze ramp up marketing efforts in the U.S.

Screen Shot 2019 08 30 at 2.27.12 PMI had the opportunity to try out the test myself. It’s pretty simple to do. You just open up a little pear-shaped device, pop it on your arm and then press it to engage and get it to start collecting your blood. After it’s done, plop it in the provided medical packaging and ship it off to a Baze contracted lab.

I will say it is certainly more convenient to just pop on a little device myself — although it might be tricky if you’re at all squeamish as you’ll see a little bubble where the blood is being sucked from your arm. For anyone who hesitates, it might be easier to just head to a lab and have another human do this for you.

The price is also nice, compared to going to a Quest Diagnostics or LabCorp, which can vary depending on what vitamins you need to test for individually. With Baze it’s just $100 a pop + any additional supplements you might want to buy via monthly subscription after you get your results.

Baze’s website will show your results within about 12 days (though Schulte tells TechCrunch the company is working on getting your results faster). It does so with a score and then displays a range of various vitamins tested.

I was told that, overall, I was getting the nutrients I require with a score of 74 out of 100. But I’m already pretty good at taking high quality vitamins. The only thing that really stuck out was my zinc levels, which I was told was way off the charts high after running the test through twice. Though I suspect, as I am not displaying any symptoms of zinc poisoning, this was likely the result of not wiping off my zinc-based sunscreen well enough before the test began.

For those interested in conducting their own at-home test and aren’t afraid to prick themselves in the arm with something that looks like you might have it on hand in the kitchen, you can do so by heading over to Baze and signing up.

Softly, softly, catchy jelly: This ‘ultragentle’ robotic gripper collects fragile marine life

The creatures of the depths live in a very different world — one lethal to us. But our world is lethal to them as well, all sharp edges and rapid movements. If we’re to catch and learn about the soft-bodied denizens of the deep, our machines too must be soft — and that’s what this Harvard robotics research is all about.

Collection of samples from the deep ocean is a difficult task to do safely: Although these animals are subject to pressures and temperatures well beyond what any surface creature could handle, they are nevertheless very easily damaged by handling. Existing methods to collect them for study often involve sucking them into little containers that are kept pressurized and brought to the surface. But it would be nice to be able to snatch an intriguing critter up and inspect it in vivo, wouldn’t it?

To that end researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have been working on simpler, safer ways to entrap these creatures temporarily, letting them go seconds or minutes later once the collector has gotten some good images or (I don’t know) sampled some mucus.

A little more than a year ago, they created an “underwater Pokeball,” a kind of soft geodesic form that could close around something like a jelly or drifting fish. But even with that kind of method, there’s still the possibility that it could get squished during closure.

So they continued their work, pursuing instead “noodle-like appendages” that, when not activated, are as pliable and harmless as cooked spaghetti, or rather fettuccine considering their shape.

Each “finger” is made of an “elastic yet tough silicone matrix,” and inside it are tiny fibers that remain slack when not in use, but which can be stiffened using a tiny amount of hydraulic pressure. This causes the whole finger to bend in a specific direction, in this case inwards at the same time as the others, scooping whatever is in their range into the soft 3D-printed “palm.” The grip is soft enough that it won’t harm the creature, but firm enough that it can’t just wriggle out.


Sinatra et al. / Science Robotics

At that point the researchers are free to do what they wish, though presumably after taking such care to catch the animal unharmed, they won’t be doing anything too rough with it.

There are few limitations on the size or length of the fingers, meaning they can be customized for different operations. The device you see pictured was made to be effective in catching common jellies, but the whole thing could easily be scaled up or down to handle bigger or smaller animals.

Of course the whole thing can be attached to a submersible, but it’s small and simple enough that it can also be made into a handheld gadget for manual sampling, should that what a given researcher prefers. They put together a prototype and “demonstrated the use of this hand-held soft gripper to successfully perform gentle grasping of three canonical jellyfish species.”

Here’s hoping this means less shredded jellies in our oceans, and perhaps one day you’ll be able to rent such a grabber while snorkeling and have a chance to examine fragile marine life closely without having to grab it with your hands (not recommended).

The researchers’ work was published today in the journal Science Robotics.