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Robotic

Alibaba is developing its own driverless cars

The Chinese tech giant comes to the self-driving game later than rivals Baidu and Tencent, but says it will build an entire ecosystem around autonomous cars. The news: Alibaba confirmed today that it’s testing its own self-driving vehicle technology. The effort is led by Gang Wang, a scientist at the company’s AI lab and one of MIT Technology Review‘s 35 Innovators Under 35 in 2017.

Backstory: This isn’t Alibaba’s first dalliance with the auto industry. Early this year, it invested in Xiaopeng Motors, a startup developing electric cars. It also formed a partnership with Chinese carmaker SAIC to build internet-connected vehicles and associated infrastructure.

More than cars: Alibaba says it has bigger ambitions than just robotic taxis. In June 2016, the company launched an AI-powered “city brain” system in Hangzhou, where it’s headquartered, to crunch data from mapping apps and increase traffic efficiency. Simon Hu, the president of Alibaba Cloud, says the firm’s ultimate goal is to produce the kind of autonomous driving that uses data like that so transportation is fully integrated into urban infrastructure.

Why it matters: China is scrambling to compete with America in developing driverless cars as quickly as possible.

This news is another sign that it really means business.

Image credit:

  • Denys Nevozhai | Unsplash

To get smarter AI, DARPA wants to get inside our brains

The Pentagon’s outside-the-box research group thinks pushing AI forward means better understanding how our own brains work. Background: DARPA has developed human-computer interface devices that let paralyzed patients learn to move robotic limbs. But there’s a problem: the brain never stops learning and experimenting with new ways to carry out tasks, and the software that translates brain signals into commands for robotic limbs can’t keep up.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, a director at DARPA says AI could help. How to do it: DARPA wants to use reinforcement learning, a process where machines learn by trial and error, to improve their software. Reinforcement learning has proven great at playing video games, but everyday movements like grabbing a cup are much more complicated.

To create AI that can accomplish DARPA’s goals, we will need more insight into how the brain does these tasks and others so effortlessly. But: At the moment this kind of tech is a dream, not a reality. Tech companies are spending billions on AI, but for the most part interfacing with the brain isn’t on their agenda.

And we still don’t understand much about how the brain achieves its incredible ability to keep learning and adapting.

So yeah, there’s a long way to go before AI-powered robotic limbs are commonplace.

Disney’s Avatar park will soon feature a giant walking mech suit

Disney opened its impressive, immersive Pandora: The World of Avatar park last year, allowing visitors to go to go and experience the world of James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar. Disney announced that it’s making a rather cool addition to the the park: a towering, walking mech suit that will be piloted by actors.

The 12-acre park features its own story set a generation after the film, in a place called the Valley of Mo’ara, where tourists are brought to the planet via a company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE). They get to explore the planet’s ecosystem and even take control of an Avatar to fly a wild Banshee.

Now, they’ll get to encounter an actor operating the giant robotic suit, known as the Pandora Utility Suit, who will “tell the story of Pandora and their experience and what it’s like to be on this planet,” according to Show Director Tony Giordano.

They look impressive, topping out at 10 feet in height, and feature articulated hands and movable limbs

The Disney Parks Blog showed off a behind-the-scenes video of the suit in action, and Giordano says that it “was like Christmas when I saw the suit walk towards me, and [heard] the guy talking to me, telling me about Pandora.” Last year, Bryan Bishop wrote that theme parks like Disney’s Pandora park are the next step in immersive entertainment, allowing visitors to viscerally experience the worlds that they’re a fan of.

These suits — real walking mechs — look as though they’re really something out of James Cameron’s fictional world, and should really drive home the feeling of being on Pandora.

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The suits are a bit different from the Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) mech suits seen in the film: “these are actually suits that have been developed by scientists to go out into the wilderness to explore the plant life and the animals,” explains Executive Producer Laura Offerdahl.

According to Disney, once the suit is deployed to the park on April 22nd, it’ll traverse “the land daily, its pilot will interact with guests, share details about the land’s otherworldly landscape, and highlight the importance of preserving nature.” Let’s hope it doesn’t fall on someone.

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