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Algorithms & Theory , Robotics , Manufacturing

Giving soft robots senses

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Detecting damage to buildings by observing their invisible vibrations

For Justin Chen, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), there is more to observe in the built environment than meets the eye. So much more, in fact, that he has designed his entire academic attention in CEE to center on structural health monitoring. “Everyday, people drive on bridges, enter buildings, obtain water through infrastructure, and so on,” Chen says. “The central question my collaborators and I are trying to answer is: How do we keep infrastructure operational, even when it’s battered by the elements?”

“MultiFab” 3D-prints a record 10 materials at once, no assembly required

3D printing is great, assuming that all you need to do is print one material for one purpose, and that you’re okay with it taking a few tries. But the technology is still far behind where it could be in reliably producing a variety of useful objects, with no assembly required, at a cost that doesn’t make you want to poke your eyes out with a 3D-printed fork.

Searching big data faster

For more than a decade, gene sequencers have been improving more rapidly than the computers required to make sense of their outputs. Searching for DNA sequences in existing genomic databases can already take hours, and the problem is likely to get worse.Recently, Bonnie Berger’s group at CSAIL has been investigating techniques to make biological and chemical data easier to analyze by, in some sense, compressing it.

Crash-proof computer systems

In a computer operating system, the file system is the part that writes data to disk and tracks where the data is stored. If the computer crashes while it’s writing data, the file system’s records can become corrupt. Hours of work could be lost, or programs could stop working properly.At a symposium this fall, MIT researchers will present the first file system that is mathematically guaranteed not to lose track of data during crashes. Although the file system is slow by today’s standards, the techniques the researchers used to verify its performance can be extended to more sophisticated designs. Ultimately, formal verification could make it much easier to develop reliable, efficient file systems.

Unlocking the key to obesity

Obesity is one of the biggest public health challenges of the 21st century. Affecting more than 500 million people worldwide, obesity costs at least $200 billion each year in the United States alone, and contributes to potentially fatal disorders such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.But there may now be a new approach to prevent and even cure obesity, thanks to a study led by researchers at CSAIL and Harvard Medical School and published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. By analyzing the cellular circuitry underlying the strongest genetic association with obesity, the researchers have unveiled a new pathway that controls human metabolism by prompting our adipocytes, or fat cells, to store fat or burn it away.

Could an AI-enabled pen change how we diagnose the brain?

For all of the advances in medical technology, many of the world’s most widely-used diagnostic tools essentially involve just two things: pen and paper.Tests such as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) and the Clock Drawing Test (CDT) are used to detect cognitive change arising from a wide range of causes, from strokes and concussions to dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Robots collaborate to deliver meds, supplies, and even drinks

If companies like Amazon and Google have their way, soon enough we will have robots air-dropping supplies from the sky. But is our software where it needs to be to move and deliver goods in the real world? This question has been explored for many years by researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who have worked on scenarios inspired by domains ranging from factory floors to drone delivery.

NSF's $13.1 million brain-research initiative includes Aude Oliva's work on memorability

CSAIL principal investigator Aude Oliva has received a special research award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of a $13.1 million initiative to support "transformative research in neural and cognitive systems." One of the NSF's 16 grants will go towards Oliva's work on "algorithmically explicit neural representation of visual memorability." Specifically, Oliva will look at how humans encode information, in order to predict what elements of images make them memorable or forgettable.Her team uses complex neuro-imaging technologies to record:1) where encoding happens in the human brain (spatial scale)2) when it happens (temporal scale), and

Teaching drones to fly solo

The popular term “drone,” which conjures images of remote-controlled flying zombies, is becoming less and less descriptive of the latest unmanned aerial vehicles. New applications are requiring more autonomy and intelligence from UAVs.“When people think about drones, they largely think of big military assets that are flying high in the sky where there’s not a whole lot of anything to hit,” says Nick Roy, director of CSAIL's Robust Robotics Group. “But there are a lot of applications for smaller scale UAVs working closer to the ground that require more autonomy, such as agricultural monitoring, package delivery, and situational awareness for first responders.”

Mounting attacks on Tor - and showing how to prevent them

With 2.5 million daily users, the Tor network is the world’s most popular system for protecting Internet users’ anonymity. For more than a decade, people living under repressive regimes have used Tor to conceal their Web-browsing habits from electronic surveillance, and websites hosting content that’s been deemed subversive have used it to hide the locations of their servers.

CS alum's "BubbleSort" magazine aims to get young girls excited about coding

This week represents the publication of the inaugural issue of BubbleSort, a Kickstarter-funded magazine founded by an MIT alum that's aimed at getting high-school girls interested in computer science.The zine, which earned more than $60,000 on Kickstarter, will feature cartoons and comics that explain concepts such as cryptography, recursion, sorting and computer graphics. The first issue, titled "How Do Calculators Even," includes introductions to hardware hacking and logic circuits.BubbleSort was founded by Amy Wibowo, an MIT alum who quit her job as an engineer at Airbnb, where she had worked for three years, to focus on the zine.

How to compute with data you can't see

This week MIT professor Nickolai Zeldovich and his former student Raluca Popa wrote in IEEE Spectrum about new approaches to data encryption being pioneered by CSAIL computer scientists."Not long ago, hackers stole about 40 million debit- and credit-card records from Target, another 56 million records from Home Depot, and nearly 5 million patient records from hospital operator Community Health Systems. And this past June, personal information about millions of federal employees was taken from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. These are just a few thunderclaps in the perfect storm of cyberattacks and data breaches making headlines recently.

Robots that can recognize objects? A SLAM dunk

John Leonard’s group at CSAIL specializes in SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, the technique whereby mobile autonomous robots map their environments and determine their locations.Last week, at the Robotics Science and Systems conference, members of Leonard’s group presented a new paper demonstrating how SLAM can be used to improve object-recognition systems, which will be a vital component of future robots that have to manipulate the objects around them in arbitrary ways.The system uses SLAM information to augment existing object-recognition algorithms. Its performance should thus continue to improve as computer-vision researchers develop better recognition software, and roboticists develop better SLAM software.

What better wind-speed prediction can do for the energy industry

When a power company wants to build a new wind farm, it generally hires a consultant to make wind speed measurements at the proposed site for eight to 12 months. Those measurements are correlated with historical data and used to assess the site’s power-generation capacity.This month CSAIL researchers will present a new statistical technique that yields better wind-speed predictions than existing techniques do — even when it uses only three months’ worth of data. That could save power companies time and money, particularly in the evaluation of sites for offshore wind farms, where maintaining measurement stations is particularly costly.

Predicting what customers want - MIT spin-off develops choice-modeling software

U.S. retail chains often rely on intuition in choosing which products, from a vast inventory, will sell best at stores across the nation. Now MIT spinout Celect is refining this process with novel data analytics, revealing interesting insights into how retailers can optimize their shelf space. Co-founded by CSAIL principal investigator Devavrat Shah and MIT professor Vivek Farias, Celect develops software that crunches a store’s sales and inventory data — and, sometimes, online buying data — to determine which products local customers want to buy.

Cutting cost and power consumption for big data

Random-access memory, or RAM, is where computers like to store the data they’re working on. A processor can retrieve data from RAM tens of thousands of times more rapidly than it can from the computer’s disk drive.But in the age of big data, data sets are often much too large to fit in a single computer’s RAM. The data describing a single human genome would take up the RAM of somewhere between 40 and 100 typical computers.Flash memory — the type of memory used by most portable devices — could provide an alternative to conventional RAM for big-data applications. It’s about a tenth as expensive, and it consumes about a tenth as much power.

Computer program fixes old code faster than expert engineers

Last year, MIT computer scientists and Adobe engineers came together to try to solve a major problem that many companies face: bit-rot.A good example is Adobe’s successful Photoshop photo editor, which just celebrated its 25th birthday. Over the years Photoshop had accumulated heaps of code that had been optimized for what is now old hardware.“For high-performance code used for image-processing, you have to optimize the heck out of the software,” says CSAIL researcher Saman Amarasinghe. “The downside is that the code becomes much less effective and much more difficult to understand.”

Micali named Carnegie “Great Immigrant” in New York Times

Today it was announced that CSAIL researcher Silvio Micali has been named a “Great Immigrant” by Carnegie Corporation of New York —one of 39 naturalized citizens across the country to be honored in 2015. Every July 4 since 2006, Carnegie Corporation has recognized the contributions of immigrants through its “Great Immigrants: The Pride of America” initiative, which includes a full-page ad in The New York Times. Micali joins the likes of past honorees such as scientist Albert Einstein, architect Frank Gehry and musician Itzak Perlman.

Can we predict which students will drop out of MOOCs?

MOOCs — massive open online courses — grant huge numbers of people access to world-class educational resources, but they also suffer high rates of attrition. To some degree, that’s inevitable: Many people who enroll in MOOCs may have no interest in doing homework, but simply plan to listen to video lectures in their spare time. Others, however, may begin courses with the firm intention of completing them but get derailed by life’s other demands. Identifying those people before they drop out and providing them with extra help could make their MOOC participation much more productive.

Ron Rivest named Institute Professor - one of only 23 in MIT history

CSAIL researcher Ron Rivest is one of three faculty members to be named an MIT Institute Professor. He is one 13 at MIT, along with 10 Institute Professors emeriti. Their new appointments are effective July 1, making them the first faculty members to be named Institute Professors since 2008.“Their fields could not be more different,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “Yet each is an explorer, creator, and teacher of the first order. Together they reflect the standard of faculty excellence that is a signature of MIT.”

"CodePhage" system automatically fixes bugs, without the original source code

This month CSAIL researchers presented a new system that repairs dangerous software bugs by automatically importing functionality from other, more secure applications. Remarkably, the system, dubbed CodePhage, doesn’t require access to the source code of the applications whose functionality it’s borrowing. Instead, it analyzes the applications’ execution and characterizes the types of security checks they perform. As a consequence, it can import checks from applications written in programming languages other than the one in which the program it’s repairing was written. Once it’s imported code into a vulnerable application, CodePhage can provide a further layer of analysis that guarantees that the bug has been repaired.

Articles

Machines that learn like people

Object-recognition systems are beginning to get pretty good — and in the case of Facebook’s face-recognition algorithms, frighteningly good.But object-recognition systems are typically trained on millions of visual examples, which is a far cry from how humans learn. Show a human two or three pictures of an object, and he or she can usually identify new instances of it.

Deep-learning algorithm predicts photos’ memorability at “near-human” levels

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have created an algorithm that can predict how memorable or forgettable an image is almost as accurately as humans — and they plan to turn it into an app that subtly tweaks photos to make them more memorable.For each photo, the “MemNet” algorithm — which you can try out online by uploading your own photos — also creates a heat map that identifies exactly which parts of the image are most memorable.

CSAIL shows off demos to 150 high-schoolers for “Hour of Code”

On Friday, MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) hosted 150 local high school students for its second annual “Hour of Code” event, tied to the international initiative focused on getting kids interested in programming.Researchers showed off robots, 3-D-printing technology, and other projects to math and computer science students from schools throughout the greater Boston area, including Cambridge, Charlestown, Roxbury, and Somerville.The event also included a surprise video message from John Green, author of the bestselling young-adult novels-turned-movies “The Fault In Our Stars” and “Papertowns.” Green commended the students on participating the event and elaborated on why coding is important.

Does Google's quantum computer live up to the hype?

This week, a group of Google researchers released a paper claiming that in their experiments, a quantum algorithm running on their D-Wave machine was 100 million times faster than a comparable classical algorithm.CSAIL researcher and MIT professor Scott Aaronson has been following the D-Wave story for years. MIT News asked him to help make sense of the Google researchers’ new paper.Q: The Google researchers’ paper focused on two algorithms: simulated annealing and quantum annealing. What are they?

Computer drawings fool human judges, pass “visual Turing test”

Researchers at CSAIL, New York University, and the University of Toronto have developed a computer system whose ability to produce a variation of a character in an unfamiliar writing system, on the first try, is indistinguishable from that of humans. That means that the system in some sense discerns what’s essential to the character — its general structure — but also what’s inessential — the minor variations characteristic of any one instance of it.

Piotr Indyk named ACM fellow

The Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) has named CSAIL researcher Piotr Indyk a 2015 Fellow for “contributions to high-dimensional geometric computing, streaming/sketching algorithms, and the Sparse Fourier Transform.Indyk is among only 1 percent of ACM members to receive the distinction, according to the association’s press release.Chosen from universities, corporations and research labs, ACM fellows are selected for contributions that provide key knowledge to the computing field and generate multiple technology advances in industry, commerce, healthcare, entertainment and education.“We are very proud of Piotr for being selected to be part of such esteemed company,” said CSAIL Director Daniela Rus.

Our top 15 Tweets of 2015

We’ve been active on Twitter this year, sending out more than 600 Tweets about computer science, technology, and research to an audience of more than 14,000 followers that has nearly doubled over the last 12 months. Walk down memory lane with us as we look at our top 15 Tweets of 2015 (as determined by number of Retweets.) Be sure to follow us to stay updated on the latest news from the lab. 1. ARPANET - 459 RTs


Ad-blocking alternative gives back to websites based on your browsing

The vast majority of online content is free to access, which is great for consumers but not so fair to creators. We “pay” via the intimate browsing data we give to content providers and the attention we pay to advertisements - and this gives folks like MIT professor David Karger pause.“I don’t think it’s right that the only options are to subscribe to a specific outlet, to see distracting ads, or to give up our privacy,” says Karger, a researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Consumers have come to hate ads, to the point that almost 200 million people around the world actively use ad-blocking software. Is there a better option?

Victor Zue named AAAS Fellow

This week CSAIL principal investigator Victor W. Zue was one of three MIT faculty members to be elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), according to the journal Science.The new fellows are part of a group of 347 AAAS members elected by their peers in recognition of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. This year’s fellows will be honored at a ceremony on Feb. 13, 2016, at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington.

What are your apps hiding?

CSAIL researchers have found that much of the data transferred to and from the 500 most popular free applications for Google Android cellphones make little or no difference to the user’s experience.Of those “covert” communications, roughly half appear to be initiated by standard Android analytics packages, which report statistics on usage patterns and program performance and are intended to help developers improve applications.“The interesting part is that the other 50 percent cannot be attributed to analytics,” says CSAIL postdoc Julia Rubin, who led the new study. “There might be a very good reason for this covert communication. We are not trying to say that it has to be eliminated. We’re just saying the user needs to be informed.”

Rising Stars workshop helps female researchers network, job-search

Success in higher education, especially for women in computer science and electrical engineering, takes a network. And while some connections are only a text message or tweet away, the personal touch still matters, and it works differently.For graduate students like Judy Hoffman, who studies adaptive learning algorithms at the University of California at Berkeley, there is no substitute for actually meeting fellow women engineers and computer scientists in person. To make this happen, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) hosts “Rising Stars in EECS,” a three-day workshop for graduate students and postdocs who are considering careers in academic research.

Wish your smartphone could Photoshop? Image-processing technique cuts bandwidth use 98%

As smartphones become people’s primary computers and their primary cameras, there is growing demand for mobile versions of image-processing applications. Image processing, however, can be computationally intensive and could quickly drain a cellphone’s battery. Some mobile applications try to solve this problem by sending image files to a central server, which processes the images and sends them back. But with large images, this introduces significant delays and could incur costs for increased data usage.

How to make better visualizations

Spend 10 minutes on social media, and you’ll learn that people love infographics. But why, exactly, do we gravitate towards articles with titles like “24 Diagrams to Help You Eat Healthier” and “All You Need To Know About Beer In One Chart”? Do they actually serve their purpose of not only being memorable, but actually helping us comprehend and retain information? Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Harvard University are on the case.

The basis for all cryptography

“Indistinguishability obfuscation” is a powerful concept that would yield provably secure versions of every cryptographic system we’ve ever developed and all those we’ve been unable to develop. But nobody knows how to put it into practice.

The NBA season starts today, and we want to help

Today represents the first day of the 2015-2016 NBA season, and we want to help.Well, sort of. Over the years, CSAIL researchers have regularly participated in the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where computer scientists and mathematicians come together to discuss research on big data and sports.Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it's the world's biggest student-run conference and one that attracts representatives from more than 80 professional sports teams and students from over 170 countries.Here are a few take-aways that might be of assistance to players and coaches this season.

It's official: STEM now includes computer science, according to the US government

This month the STEM Education Act of 2015, which expands the definition of STEM—an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—to include computer science programs, was signed into law.As Education Week reports, the new law does not add funding, but it does expand the kinds of STEM programs that can be run and funded by federal government agencies to include computer science.The bill had bipartisan support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was introduced by Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, along with Elizabeth Esty (D-CT).

Machine-learning expert Jegelka wins major German award

This week CSAIL principal investigator Stefanie Jegelka received a prestigious German prize for her research efforts in machine learning. Considered the highest recognition awarded by the German Pattern Recognition Society, the “Deutscher Mustererkennungspreis” prize is given to an outstanding young researcher in machine learning or computer vision under the age of 35. Jegelka is the first woman to receive the award.

"Data Science Machine" crunches numbers faster and more effectively than most humans

Big-data analysis consists of searching for buried patterns that have some kind of predictive power. But choosing which “features” of the data to analyze usually requires some human intuition. In a database containing, say, the beginning and end dates of various sales promotions and weekly profits, the crucial data may not be the dates themselves but the spans between them, or not the total profits but the averages across those spans.

Videos

VIDEO: Turning WiFI into "X-ray vision" (CBS News)

CBS News' "This Morning with Charlie Rose" just profiled CSAIL research that turns wireless signals into "x-ray vision" that can detect people through walls.From the story:"No cell phone, no pendant, no sensor. It's purely based on wireless signals that reflect off our bodies and come back to the device," Katabi said.The researchers came up with this groundbreaking idea based on their work with wireless networks. "The question was, can you use wireless networks or Wi-Fi for purposes other than communications. Can you sense the environment with it?" said Fadel Adib, a student researcher at MIT. "As the research evolved, we realized we could sense a person on the other side of the wall."

CSAIL founder & computing pioneer Bob Fano turns 98

Today lab members celebrated the 98th birthday of Professor Emeritus Robert “Bob” Fano, who 52 years ago founded MIT’s Project MAC, the predecessor to CSAIL.In 1963 The Italian-born Fano co-founded Project MAC, a project focused on developing time-sharing computers. The project laid the foundation for many of today's software systems and helped the computer evolve from its academic roots as a technology that would be of interest to the wider public. (In 1970 Project MAC was renamed the Laboratory of Computer Science; in 2003 it merged with the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to become CSAIL.)

NASA gives CSAIL 6-ft-tall humanoid robot to develop software for future space missions

This week NASA announced that MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is one of just two institutions who will receive “R5,” a six-foot, 290-pound humanoid robot also known as “Valkyrie” that will serve on future space missions to Mars and beyond.A group led by CSAIL principal investigator Russ Tedrake will develop algorithms for the robot as part of NASA’s upcoming Space Robotics Challenge, which aims to create more dexterous autonomous robots that can help or even take the place of humans “extreme space” missions. (NASA’s challenge is divided into a virtual competition using robotic simulations, and a physical competition using the robot.)

A "spot-the-difference" AI could help architects detect structural defects

At the Siggraph Asia conference this week, MIT researchers presented a pair of papers describing techniques for either magnifying or smoothing out small variations in digital images.The techniques could be used to produce more polished images for graphic-design projects, or, applied in the opposite direction, they could disclose structural defects, camouflaged objects, or movements invisible to the naked eye that could be of scientific interest.

System automatically converts 2-D video to 3-D

By exploiting the graphics-rendering software that powers sports video games, researchers at MIT and the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) have developed a system that automatically converts 2-D video of soccer games into 3-D. The converted video can be played back over any 3-D device — a commercial 3-D TV, Google’s new Cardboard system, which turns smartphones into 3-D displays, or special-purpose displays such as Oculus Rift. The researchers presented the new system last week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Multimedia conference.

Next in 3D-printing: the "zoolophone," a new musical instrument made of animal shapes

In creating what looks to be a simple children’s musical instrument—a xylophone with keys in the shape of zoo animals—computer scientists at CSAIL, Columbia, Harvard and Disney Research have demonstrated that sound can be controlled by 3D-printing shapes.The team designed an optimization algorithm and used computational methods and digital fabrication to control acoustic properties—both sound and vibration—by altering the shape of 2D and 3D objects. Their work—“Computational Design of Metallophone Contact Sounds”—will be presented at SIGGRAPH Asia on November 4 in Kobe, Japan.

VIDEO: Autonomous soft robot uses its "tongues" to jump, bounce and roll

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have developed a soft robotic cube that uses a series of spring-loaded metal tongues to jump, bounce and roll along rocky terrain.The three-inch-wide, seven-ounce cube is able to jump more than a two-and-half times its height (upwards of eight inches vertically). Take that, Blake Griffin!

How financial engineering can cure cancer

We are making breakthroughs almost weekly in our understanding of cancer and other deadly diseases, both in how to treat and – in some cases – how to cure them. So why is funding for early stage biomedical research and development declining just when we need it most?CSAIL principal investigator Andrew Lo discusses the pharmaceutical industry, and how tools from financial engineering could help incentive investors to fund cancer-research.

Learn about Big Data online! Enroll now in CSAIL-taught course

Sign Up Now for Fall Session of "Tackling the Challenges of Big Data"Starting October 6 MIT Professional Education will be offering a new installment of the online professional course, "Tackling the Challenges of Big Data". Twelve faculty experts from CSAIL will lead the course with enhanced features that include an improved platform, an extended duration, and archived access to video tutorials.

Soft robotic gripper can pick up and identify wide array of objects

Robots have many strong suits, but delicacy traditionally hasn’t been one of them. Rigid limbs and digits make it difficult for them to grasp, hold, and manipulate a range of everyday objects without dropping or crushing them.Recently, CSAIL researchers have discovered that the solution may be to turn to a substance more commonly associated with new buildings and Silly Putty: silicone.At a conference this month, researchers from CSAIL Director Daniela Rus’ Distributed Robotics Lab demonstrated a 3-D-printed robotic hand made out of silicone rubber that can lift and handle objects as delicate as an egg and as thin as a compact disc.

Self-driving golf carts

At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in September, members of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and their colleagues will describe an experiment conducted over six days at a large public garden in Singapore, in which self-driving golf carts ferried 500 tourists around winding paths trafficked by pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occasional monitor lizard. The experiments also tested an online booking system that enabled visitors to schedule pickups and drop-offs at any of 10 distinct stations scattered around the garden, automatically routing and redeploying the vehicles to accommodate all the requests.

Detecting damage to buildings by observing their invisible vibrations

For Justin Chen, a PhD student in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), there is more to observe in the built environment than meets the eye. So much more, in fact, that he has designed his entire academic attention in CEE to center on structural health monitoring. “Everyday, people drive on bridges, enter buildings, obtain water through infrastructure, and so on,” Chen says. “The central question my collaborators and I are trying to answer is: How do we keep infrastructure operational, even when it’s battered by the elements?”

“MultiFab” 3D-prints a record 10 materials at once, no assembly required

3D printing is great, assuming that all you need to do is print one material for one purpose, and that you’re okay with it taking a few tries. But the technology is still far behind where it could be in reliably producing a variety of useful objects, with no assembly required, at a cost that doesn’t make you want to poke your eyes out with a 3D-printed fork.

Robots collaborate to deliver meds, supplies, and even drinks

If companies like Amazon and Google have their way, soon enough we will have robots air-dropping supplies from the sky. But is our software where it needs to be to move and deliver goods in the real world? This question has been explored for many years by researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who have worked on scenarios inspired by domains ranging from factory floors to drone delivery.

Teaching drones to fly solo

The popular term “drone,” which conjures images of remote-controlled flying zombies, is becoming less and less descriptive of the latest unmanned aerial vehicles. New applications are requiring more autonomy and intelligence from UAVs.“When people think about drones, they largely think of big military assets that are flying high in the sky where there’s not a whole lot of anything to hit,” says Nick Roy, director of CSAIL's Robust Robotics Group. “But there are a lot of applications for smaller scale UAVs working closer to the ground that require more autonomy, such as agricultural monitoring, package delivery, and situational awareness for first responders.”

Robots that can recognize objects? A SLAM dunk

John Leonard’s group at CSAIL specializes in SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, the technique whereby mobile autonomous robots map their environments and determine their locations.Last week, at the Robotics Science and Systems conference, members of Leonard’s group presented a new paper demonstrating how SLAM can be used to improve object-recognition systems, which will be a vital component of future robots that have to manipulate the objects around them in arbitrary ways.The system uses SLAM information to augment existing object-recognition algorithms. Its performance should thus continue to improve as computer-vision researchers develop better recognition software, and roboticists develop better SLAM software.

Stonebraker officially accepts $1m Turing Award, "Nobel Prize for computing"

Michael Stonebraker, a CSAIL researcher who has revolutionized the field of database management systems (DBMSs) and founded multiple successful database companies, just accepted the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) A.M. Turing Award, often referred to as “the Nobel Prize of computing.” This year marks the first time that the Turing Award comes with a Google-funded $1 million prize. ACM said that Stonebraker “invented many of the concepts that are used in almost all modern database systems ... and founded numerous companies successfully commercializing his pioneering database technology work.”

Origami robot self-folds, crawls, climbs, swims, self-destructs

A team of CSAIL researchers have developed a printable origami robot that folds itself up from a flat sheet of plastic when heated and measures about a centimeter from front to back.Weighing only a third of a gram, the robot can swim, climb an incline, traverse rough terrain, and carry a load twice its weight. Other than the self-folding plastic sheet, the robot’s only component is a permanent magnet affixed to its back. Its motions are controlled by external magnetic fields.“The entire walking motion is embedded into the mechanics of the robot body,” says Cynthia R. Sung, a CSAIL graduate student and one of the robot’s co-developers. “In previous [origami] robots, they had to design electronics and motors to actuate the body itself.”