Robot takes first steps towards building artificial lifeforms

A robot equipped with sophisticated AI has successfully simulated the creation of artificial lifeforms, in a key first step towards the eventual goal of creating true artificial life.

The robot, which was developed by scientists at the University of Glasgow, was able to model the creation of artificial lifeforms using unstable oil-in-water droplets. These droplets effectively played the role of living cells, demonstrating the potential of future research to develop living cells based on building blocks that cannot be found in nature.

Significantly, the robot also successfully predicted their properties before they were created, even though this could not be achieved using conventional physical models.

The robot, which was designed by Glasgow University’s Regius Chair of Chemistry, Professor Lee Cronin, is driven by machine learning and the principles of evolution.

It has been developed to autonomously create oil-in-water droplets with a host of different chemical makeups and then use image recognition to assess their behaviour.

Using this information, the robot was able to engineer droplets to have different properties­. Those which were found to be desirable could then be recreated at any time, using a specific digital code.

“This work is exciting as it shows that we are able to use machine learning and a novel robotic platform to understand the system in ways that cannot be done using conventional laboratory methods, including the discovery of ‘swarm’ like group behaviour of the droplets, akin to flocking birds,” said Cronin.

“Achieving lifelike behaviours such as this are important in our mission to make new lifeforms, and these droplets may be considered ‘protocells’ – simplified models of living cells.”

One of the oil droplets created by the robot

The research, which is published today in the journal PNAS, is one of several research projects being undertaken by Cronin and his team within the field of artificial lifeforms.

While the overarching goal is moving towards the creation of lifeforms using new and unprecedented building blocks, the research may also have more immediate potential applications.

The team believes that their work could also have applications in several practical areas, including the development of new methods for drug delivery or even innovative materials with functional properties.

Ocado unveils dexterous robot that it hopes will work alongside humans

Fears that robots may one day steal humans’ jobs may be eased a little depending on how the world receives a prototype collaborative robot (cobot) designed to work alongside maintenance technicians.

The EU funded SecondHands project, which kicked off in 2015, aims to build a collaborative robot to offer support to maintenance technicians working in the warehouse of the online supermarket Ocado.

The prototype cobot, revealed today, which has the official title ARMAR-6, will eventually act as a second pair of hands that will assist engineering technicians when they are in need of help, and will be capable of handling tools or manipulating objects like ladders, pneumatic cylinders and bolts.

“I’ve been here for about seven years now and initially I was hired with a view to getting robots to pack the shopping,” said Graham Deacon, Robotics Research team leader at Ocado Technology.

“Things have moved on a bit since then and one of the things that we’re working on now is a project called SecondHands. This is developing a robot to assist our maintenance technicians. It’s called SecondHands because it’s literally meant to be a second pair of hands for the technician to get their work done.”

Ocado’s cobot was developed collaboratively by Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Sapienza Università di Roma and University College London.

Images and video courtesy of Ocado

Each research team, together with Ocado’s own robotics department, contributed a different component that when put together make up the complete robot (part of me hopes someone shouted ‘It’s Megazord time’ when they were done with their part).

So, for example, KIT took care of the development of the cobot including its entire mechatronics, software operating system and control as well as robot grasping and manipulation skills, while EPFL handled human-to-robot interactions and action skills learning.

Rather than going straight onto the warehouse floor, the cobot has been delivered to the Ocado Technology robotics research lab where experiments to evaluate the integrated research components from all project partners is currently taking place.

Ocado hasn’t given any indication yet when we can expect the cobot to be working alongside its human brethren.