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Watch this little robot transform to get the job done – TechCrunch

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Robots just want to get things done, but it’s frustrating when their rigid bodies simply don’t allow them to do so. Solution: bodies that can be reconfigured on the fly! Sure, it’s probably bad news for humanity in the long run, but in the meantime it makes for fascinating research.

A team of graduate students from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania made this idea their focus and produced both the modular, self-reconfiguring robot itself and the logic that drives it.

Think about how you navigate the world: If you need to walk somewhere, you sort of initiate your “walk” function. But if you need to crawl through a smaller space, you need to switch functions and shapes. Similarly, if you need to pick something up off a table, you can just use your “grab” function, but if you need to reach around or over an obstacle you need to modify the shape of your arm and how it moves. Naturally you have a nearly limitless “library” of these functions that you switch between at will.

That’s really not the case for robots, which are much more rigidly designed both in hardware and software. This research, however, aims to create a similar — if considerably smaller — library of actions and configurations that a robot can use on the fly to achieve its goals.

In their paper published today in Science Robotics, the team documents the groundwork they undertook, and although it’s still extremely limited, it hints at how this type of versatility will be achieved in the future.

The robot itself, called SMORES-EP, might be better described as a collection of robots: small cubes (it’s a popular form factor) equipped with wheels and magnets that can connect to each other and cooperate when one or all of them won’t do the job. The brains of the operation lie in a central unit equipped with a camera and depth sensor it uses to survey the surroundings and decide what to do.

If it sounds a little familiar, that’s because the same team demonstrated a different aspect of this system earlier this year, namely the ability to identify spaces it can’t navigate and deploy items to remedy that. The current paper is focused on the underlying system that the robot uses to perceive its surroundings and interact with it.

Let’s put this in more concrete terms. Say a robot like this one is given the goal of collecting the shoes from around your apartment and putting them back in your closet. It gets around your apartment fine but ultimately identifies a target shoe that’s underneath your bed. It knows that it’s too big to fit under there because it can perceive dimensions and understands its own shape and size. But it also knows that it has functions for accessing enclosed areas, and it can tell that by arranging its parts in such and such a way it should be able to reach the shoe and bring it back out.

The flexibility of this approach and the ability to make these decisions autonomously are where the paper identifies advances. This isn’t a narrow “shoe-under-bed-getter” function, it’s a general tool for accessing areas the robot itself can’t fit into, whether that means pushing a recessed button, lifting a cup sitting on its side, or reaching between condiments to grab one in the back.

A visualization of how the robot perceives its environment.

As with just about everything in robotics, this is harder than it sounds, and it doesn’t even sound easy. The “brain” needs to be able to recognize objects, accurately measure distances, and fundamentally understand physical relationships between objects. In the shoe grabbing situation above, what’s stopping a robot from trying to lift the bed and leave it in place floating above the ground while it drives underneath? Artificial intelligences have no inherent understanding of any basic concept and so many must be hard-coded or algorithms created that reliably make the right choice.

Don’t worry, the robots aren’t quite at the “collect shoes” or “collect remaining humans” stage yet. The tests to which the team subjected their little robot were more like “get around these cardboard boxes and move any pink-labeled objects to the designated drop-off area.” Even this type of carefully delineated task is remarkably difficult, but the bot did just fine — though rather slowly, as lab-based bots tend to be.

The authors of the paper have since finished their grad work and moved on to new (though surely related) things. Tarik Tosun, one of the authors with whom I talked for this article, explained that he’s now working on advancing the theoretical side of things as opposed to, say, building cube-modules with better torque. To that end he helped author VSPARC, a simulator environment for modular robots. Although it is tangential to the topic immediately at hand, the importance of this aspect of robotics research can’t be overestimated.

You can find a pre-published version of the paper here in case you don’t have access to Science Robotics.

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Airbnb’s party-pooper tech claims to stop likely party-throwers from renting

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Airbnb really wants to shut down parties in its rentals. On Tuesday, the company announced the deployment of “anti-party tools” that it claims will help identify users who are likely to throw a party and prevent them from renting a property.

Airbnb is launching the tools in the US and Canada, it said. The tools use an algorithm that flags “potentially high-risk reservations” by looking at user characteristics like “history of positive reviews (or lack of positive reviews), length of time the guest has been on Airbnb, length of the trip, distance to the listing, weekend vs. weekday, among many others.”

“This anti-party technology is designed to prevent a reservation attempt from going through,” Airbnb said. “Guests who are unable to make entire home bookings due to this system will still be able to book a private room (where the Host is more likely to be physically on site) or a hotel room through Airbnb.”

Airbnb has earned scorn and even lawsuits due to hosting sites with a reputation for turning into large gatherings that range from annoyingly loud to destructive. Some of these parties have even culminated in deadly violence. The latter includes a widely publicized 2019 shooting at an Airbnb party in Orinda, California, that left five dead.

Later that year, Airbnb banned properties meant for parties. In 2020, it announced age-based restrictions that prevented people under 25 from renting local homes unless they had at least three positive and zero negative reviews or planned a long-term stay.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Airbnb issued a temporary ban on parties at rental properties but made the ban permanent on June 28, citing “feedback from the longstanding and trusted members of our global Host community.”

Airbnb hasn’t directly pointed to shootings on Airbnb properties as the reason for its war on parties. Instead, it referenced “a commitment to our Host community—who respect their neighbors and want no part of the property damage and other issues that may come with unauthorized or disruptive parties.”

The company has been piloting the algorithm in Australia since October and claimed that there has been a 35 percent drop in the number of unauthorized parties reported since. The figure shows that Airbnb still has a long way to go before it can guarantee renters won’t throw parties while the host is out of town. And some of the factors Airbnb is relying on may not have any relevance to the potential for partying, depending on the renter.

In June, Airbnb said that it suspended more than 6,600 people from its platform for trying to party.

This story has been updated to correct the location of Orinda, California.

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Report: Apple will hold next iPhone-focused event on September 7

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Enlarge / The iPhone 13 Pro Max.

Samuel Axon

Three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and new iPhones in September. Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reports that this year’s iPhone event will be held on Wednesday, September 7th.

According to Gurman, the non-pro iPhone 14 lineup will axe the 5.4-inch mini display size that Apple has sold for the last couple of generations. The standard 6.1-inch model will instead be joined by a large-screened 6.7-inch version, matching the screen size of the current iPhone Pro Max model. But these phones will also continue to use the current Apple A15 Bionic chip and will look externally similar to the iPhone 13.

The iPhone 14 Pro will reportedly be more exciting, replacing the current camera notch with a pair of pinhole cutouts for the front-facing camera and FaceID scanner; many Android phones have already switched to similar pinhole cutouts to save screen space. The Pro phones will also reportedly get a faster chip and an even-larger three-lens camera assembly anchored by a 48-megapixel wide-angle camera plus 12-megapixel ultra-wide and telephoto cameras.

Apple also plans to introduce new Apple Watches, the report says. The Series 8 watches will reportedly include a standard model that looks similar to the current Series 7, plus a long-rumored larger and more “rugged” titanium model with more battery life and additional fitness tracking features.

The basic Apple Watch SE will reportedly receive a faster chip—the current SE uses an Apple S5, and a new one could use an S6, S7, or some newer as-yet unannounced chip. This new SE model will hopefully mean the end of the long-lived Apple Watch Series 3, which the company still sells even though it won’t be receiving the watchOS 9 update this fall.

A September 7th announcement for the new iPhones and watches probably means at least some new devices will be available to buy toward the middle of the month, roughly coinciding with the release of iOS 16—Gurman says that Apple Store employees have been told to prepare for a September 16th launch.

Apple often holds an iPad- and Mac-focused event in October to complement the September event, which is when we’d expect to see updates to those products and the release of macOS Ventura and the reportedly delayed iPadOS 16. Gurman predicts we’ll finally see a USB-C version of the low-end iPad, new M2-based iPad Pros, and updated Mac mini and MacBook Pros before the end of the year.

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New macOS 12.5.1 and iOS 15.6.1 updates patch “actively exploited” vulnerabilities

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Apple has released a trio of operating system updates to patch security vulnerabilities that it says “may have been actively exploited.” The macOS 12.5.1, iOS 15.6.1, and iPadOS 15.6.1 updates are available for download now and should be installed as soon as possible.

The three updates all fix the same pair of bugs. One, labeled CVE-2022-32894, is a kernel vulnerability that can allow apps “to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges. The other, CVE-2022-32893, is a WebKit bug that allows for arbitrary code execution via “maliciously crafted web content.” Both discoveries are attributed to an anonymous security researcher. WebKit is used in the Safari browser as well as in apps like Mail that use Apple’s WebViews to render and display content.

Apple didn’t release equivalent security patches for macOS Catalina or Big Sur, two older versions of macOS that are still receiving regular security updates. We’ve contacted Apple to see whether it plans to release these patches for these older OSes, or if they aren’t affected by the bugs and don’t need to be patched.

Apple’s software release notes for the updates don’t reference any other fixes or features. Apple is actively developing iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura, and those updates are due out later this fall.

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