IEEE University of Lahore

July 20th, 2019

Electrical muscle stimulation can speed up human reflexes. But can we use it without giving up control of our bodies?

We’re used to seeing robots with reflexes that are much faster than anything humans are capable of, but it’s not just high-speed actuators that make them so quick. Perception and control systems outperform our own nervous systems and brains, meaning that we can boost our own reaction times by just letting a robot take control of our muscles. It’s not very hard to do this—all it takes is electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), which uses electrode pads attached to the skin to gently shock your muscles, causing them to contract.

By adding sensors to an EMS system, physical reaction times can be significantly reduced, since the EMS is able to actuate your muscles much faster than your brain can. Essentially, you’d be a puppet, having surrendered your free will to a computer that can force you to move. This may not be a trade-off that you want to accept, which is why researchers from Sony and the University of Chicago are working on an EMS system that makes your reflexes noticeably faster without completely removing the feeling that you’re doing things yourself.

July 20th, 2019

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

ICRES 2019 – July 29-30, 2019 – London, U.K.
DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

July 19th, 2019

Dramatic cuts to the budget of the state’s only public university put its engineering programs in jeopardy

A thousand students enrolled in the University of Alaska’s engineering colleges in Fairbanks and Anchorage—the only engineering programs in the state—are probably wondering: What next? Administrators have few answers to offer as they confront Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy’s dramatic budget cuts to the state’s only public institution of higher education. 

The future of Alaska’s engineering colleges is now in jeopardy along with the rest of the University of Alaska (UA) system. Dozens of engineering faculty, researchers, and staff could see their positions eliminated, and even tenured faculty members could lose their jobs. Students may not be able to finish their degrees in the programs or locations in which they started.

And thanks to the failure of another state budget measure called the reverse sweep, many engineering students have already lost merit-based scholarships promised to them through the Alaska Performance Scholarship program. Engineering students at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) have lost more than US $1 million in scholarships that were awarded but not funded.

“The situation is looking rather grim,” says Kenrick Mock, interim dean for UAA’s College of Engineering. The college offers degree programs in computer science, electrical engineering, computer systems engineering, and project management among others.

Mock, who is in the Computer Science and Engineering Department, says budget cuts could mean losing one or two faculty members from a departmental staff of six, which currently supports 250 computer science majors and 50 computer systems engineering majors.

College- and department-level impacts won’t be clear until the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents decides later this month how best to restructure the system in light of the cuts. In the meantime, students, faculty, and staff are left to try to make sense of recent events.

On 28 June, Gov. Dunleavy vetoed US $130 million in state funding for the University of Alaska system for the fiscal year that began on 1 July—a step he said was necessary to contend with the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit, inflicted in large part by sluggish oil prices. Those cuts came on top of a $5 million reduction proposed by Alaska’s legislature.

Overall, state funding for the University of Alaska has been reduced by $136 million [PDF], or 41 percent, for the fiscal year that began 1 July. That translates to a 17 percent reduction to the University of Alaska’s total operating budget. Citing reputational damage caused by these cuts, the University of Alaska’s Board of Regents expects tuition, grant funding, and charitable donations to also drop, adding to a total loss of more than $200 million [PDF] in funding for the current fiscal year.

The University of Alaska operates three separately-accredited campuses in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau along with more than a dozen technical schools and other branches across the state.

Last week, some legislators scrambled to find 45 votes to override the governor’s veto. But Dunleavy made that task more difficult by calling for a special session in the city of Wasilla, far from the state’s capitol of Juneau, to discuss Alaska residents’ annual permanent fund dividend payments. That move effectively split the legislature, with those remaining in Juneau voting to override the veto (37-1), but failing to capture the required number of votes.

The University of Alaska is now widely expected to declare financial exigency [PDF], an emergency status that would allow administrators to take extreme measures to reduce costs by closing campuses, slashing salaries and programs, or laying off tenured faculty.

However, closing the university’s flagship Fairbanks campus would still not be enough to cover the shortfall. In response to budget cuts in previous years, the university has already suspended or discontinued more than 50 degree programs and certificates, including its MS in Engineering Management program.

On Monday, the UA Board of Regents said it would wait until 30 July to decide whether to declare financial exigency. In the meantime, some legislators in the House Finance Committee still hope to draft and pass on a new budget that would restore part or all of the university’s funding.

“I’m just trying to catch up and figure out what the heck is going on,” said William Schnabel, dean of the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), when reached for comment on Tuesday.

A six-hour drive north from Anchorage, the UAF College of Engineering and Mines has 650 students, including 65 pursuing master and doctoral degrees. Forty-five tenured or tenure-track faculty work there, along with 10 research faculty and 32 staff.

The college also includes the Institute for Northern Engineering, which hosts specialized research groups including the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and a consortium devoted to studying sustainable transportation in cold climates.

Schnabel is doing his best to stay positive while  grappling with the potential impact of the cuts. “We are absolutely going to be smaller in this college,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to do as many things. But the things we’re going to do are going to be excellent.”

For him, that will mean choosing which programs to invest in, and which to eliminate. “I don’t really plan that we’re going to take these budget cuts and spread them out evenly,” he says. “I think we’re going to drop programs, because I don’t want to keep all my programs and have everybody do it half-assed.”

“That will doom us,” he adds. “We have to be great at something in order to get students to Fairbanks.”

UAF engineering researchers are largely supported by grants and are therefore less likely to be cut than faculty who spend most of their time with students in classrooms. “The big danger with the research faculty is that they’ll just get fed up and leave,” Schnabel says.

Chris Hartman, who heads the computer science department at UAF, has fielded many questions from students about what the budget cuts means for their studies. “What I’m telling them is—I have no idea, but we will make sure that you have some path to graduation somehow,” he says.

Enrollment in many of UAF’s engineering programs has fallen in recent years (except computer science), which Schnabel says is a symptom of a statewide recession. Neither Schnabel nor Mock expect the engineering colleges to shut down completely, and other schools and programs could face worse fates, since there is strong industry support for engineering in Alaska.

Still, Schnabel worries that downsizing staff could cause the UAF college to lose ABET accreditation for those programs that remain, which he says would be “devastating” to the school and its students. “If you want to get an engineering license, you have to graduate form an ABET-accredited program,” he says. “And if you’re not accredited, you may as well not have a program.”

Chris Miller, president of Fairbanks-based engineering firm Design Alaska and an advisory board member for UAF’s College of Engineering and Mines, says his firm recruits heavily from UA engineering programs.

Of 44 technical staff members at Design Alaska, Miller estimates 65 percent are UA alums. Six UAF students are working at Design Alaska right now, and Miller says the firm hires UA grads for almost all of its entry-level positions.

“UA engineers understand working in Alaska, and being very cross-disciplined, self-reliant, and hands on,” Miller says. “We find Alaska-trained engineers ‘get it’ right away and perform well here.” He adds: “I have had countless people apply for jobs, and then look up Fairbanks, Alaska and say ‘no thanks’ to us.”

Computer science students who graduate from the Anchorage campus often become software developers, Mock says, and he estimates about 60 percent remain in the state. “In particular, the entrepreneurship community has been growing in Alaska and has already identified a shortage of programming talent as a gap, so the loss of our programs would have a definite impact on startups and the economy,” he says.

When students do leave the state to study engineering, they often never return, Schnabel adds. “Divesting in the engineering programs will send more good students away. So that’s a problem for the state,” he says.

Schnabel’s own son, Zeke, plans to start his freshman year of college at UAF’s College of Engineering and Mines this fall. He wants to study civil engineering. But given the university’s budget challenges, Schnabel says Zeke now thinks he may transfer and continue his studies out of state after his first year.

The first day of classes in Fairbanks is 26 August.

July 19th, 2019

Satellite start-up UbiquitiLink’s patented technology allows ordinary cellphones to use satellites like cell towers, bringing cheap messaging to millions

“Tens of thousands of people every year die because they have no connectivity,” says Charles Miller, CEO of satellite communications start-up UbiquitiLink. “That is coming to an end.”

It’s a bold claim from a young start-up that has only a launched a single experimental satellite to date, but Miller insists that UbiquitiLink has developed technology that enables everyday cellphones to communicate directly with satellites in orbit.

If true, this could enable a cheap and truly global messaging service without the need for expensive extra antennas or ground stations. For example, Miller points out that fishing is the one of the most dangerous industries in the world, with communications failures contributing to many of its over 20,000 deaths each year.

“Around the world, most fisherman can’t afford a satellite phone,” says Miller. “They’re living on the edge already. Now with the phone in their pocket that they [already own], they can get connected.”

The received wisdom has been that cellphones lack the power and sensitivity to communicate with satellites in orbit, which are in any case moving far too fast to form useful connections.

UbiquitiLink engineers tackled one problem at a time. For a start, they calculated that cellphones should—just—have enough power to reach satellites in very low earth orbits of around 400 kilometers, as long as they used frequencies below 1 GHz to minimize atmospheric attenuation. Messages would be queued until a satellite passes overheard—perhaps once a day at first, rising to hourly as more satellites are launched.

Satellites would use the same software found in terrestrial cell towers, with a few modifications. Signals would be Doppler shifted because of the satellite’s high velocity (around 7.5 kilometers/second).

“You have to compensate so that the phone doesn’t see that Doppler shift, and you have to trick the phone into accepting the time delay from the extra range,” says Miller. “Those two pieces are our secret sauce and are patented. The phone just thinks [the satellite is] a weak cell tower at the edge of its ability to connect to, but it tolerates that.”

UbiquitiLink also brushes off concerns about interference. In a filing with the FCC, the company noted that the downlink signal from its satellite “is very low and is intended to be the ‘tower of last resort.’” In cities, the satellite’s broadcasts would be drowned out by powerful urban cell towers, while in areas with no cell coverage at all, there is nothing to interfere with.

It is only in rural or suburban areas, with spare and widely separated towers, that interference is a potential concern. Even there, wrote UbiquitiLink, the design of cellular networks, and the fact that the satellite uses time-sharing protocols, means just a 0.0000117 percent of a conflict, which would last only a very short time.

The technology has already been tested. In February, an experimental satellite briefly connected with cellular devices in New Zealand and the Falkland Islands before a computer on board failed. “This limited our ability to test but we got enough data to demonstrate the key fundamentals we couldn’t from the ground,” says Miller.

UbiquitiLink is now planning to try again. In a few days, its latest orbital cell tower will launch on board a SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station. Later this summer, the payload will be attached to a Cygnus capsule that brought supplies on a previous mission. When the capsule is jettisoned for its return to Earth, UbiquitiLink’s device will piggyback on it, hopefully for six months, testing 2G and LTE cell connections with wireless operators in up to a dozen countries.

Miller says UbiquitiLink has trial agreements with nearly 20 operators around the world, and plans to operate a basic messaging service in 56 countries. “From their perspective, we’re a roaming provider that extends their network everywhere. They keep the customer relationship and we’re just a wholesale provider. It’s a win-win relationship,” he says.

This week, the company also raised another $5.2 million in funding from venture capital firm run by Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, bring its total capitalization to over $12 million.

If these tests go well, UbiquitiLink wants to start launching operational satellites next year, with plans for several thousand satellites by 2023. Today’s smartphones could connect to UbiquitiLink’s satellites by simply downloading an app, and even a handful could provide a useful service, says Miller: “With 3 to 6 microsatellites, we can provide global coverage everywhere between +55 and -55 degrees latitude several times a day. Not all the 5 billion people with a phone will want to use that. But even if just one in a hundred thinks a periodic service is good enough, that’s still 50 million people.”

Beyond emergency messaging, UbiquitiLink is targeting internet of things users who might balk at buying additional hardware. “Most cars come off the assembly line today with a cellular chip already installed, for security or over the air updates,” says Miller. “Those cars will now stay connected everywhere.”

If UbiquitiLink’s technology works at scale, it could undercut other satellite start-ups, like Swarm, that are pinning their hopes on selling millions of earth stations for IoT. But UbiquitiLink is not shunning traditional satellites completely. The test device launching this weekend will use rival Globalstar’s satellites for telemetry, tracking and control.

July 18th, 2019

Machine learning algorithms that combine clinical and molecular data are the “wave of the future,” experts say

A man walks into a doctor’s office for a CT scan of his gallbladder. The gallbladder is fine but the doctor notices a saclike pocket of fluid on the man’s pancreas. It’s a cyst that may lead to cancer, the doctor tells him, so I’ll need to cut it out to be safe.

It’ll take three months to recover from the surgery, the doctor adds—plus, there’s a 50 percent chance of surgical complications, and a 5 percent chance the man will die on the table.

An estimated 800,000 patients in the United States are incidentally diagnosed with pancreatic cysts each year, and doctors have no good way of telling which cysts harbor a deadly form of cancer and which are benign. This ambiguity results in thousands of unnecessary surgeries: One study found that up to 78 percent of cysts for which a patient was referred to surgery ended up being not cancerous.

Now there’s a machine learning algorithm that could help. Described today in the journal Science Translational Medicine, surgeons and computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University have built a test called CompCyst (for comprehensive cyst analysis) that is significantly better than today’s standard-of-care—a.k.a. doctor observations and medical imaging—at predicting whether patients should be sent home, monitored, or undergo surgery.

July 18th, 2019

Trap-jaw ants inspired these small, autonomous swarm robots

Small robots are appealing because they’re simple, cheap, and it’s easy to make a lot of them. Unfortunately, being simple and cheap means that each robot individually can’t do a whole lot. To make up for this, you can do what insects do—leverage that simplicity and low-cost to just make a huge swarm of simple robots, and together, they can cooperate to carry out relatively complex tasks.

Using insects as an example does set a bit of an unfair expectation for the poor robots, since insects are (let’s be honest) generally smarter and much more versatile than a robot on their scale could ever hope to be. Most robots with insect-like capabilities (like DASH and its family) are really too big and complex to be turned into swarms, because to make a vast amount of small robots, things like motors aren’t going to work because they’re too expensive.

The question, then, is to how to make a swarm of inexpensive small robots with insect-like mobility that don’t need motors to get around, and Jamie Paik’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL has an answer, inspired by trap-jaw ants.

July 17th, 2019

Revolutionize Your Design and Test Workflow

Agile software development profoundly transformed software development in the 1900s. Far more than a process; Agile created a new way to work.

Today, a similar transformation is happening in test and measurement. TestOps is an innovative approach to product design and test which improves workflow efficiency and speeds product time to market.

Learn more about TestOps and how to accelerate your product development workflow.


July 17th, 2019

A material called ZIF-8 swells up when carbon dioxide molecules are trapped inside, new images reveal

A new kind of molecular-scale microscope has been trained for the first time on a promising wonder material for carbon capture and storage. The results, researchers say, suggest a few tweaks to this material could further enhance its ability to scrub greenhouse gases from emissions produced by traditional power plants.

The announcement comes in the wake of a separate study concerning carbon capture published in the journal Nature. The researchers involved in that study found that keeping the average global temperature change to below 1.5 degrees C (the goal of the Paris climate accords) may require more aggressive action than previously anticipated. It will not be enough, they calculated, to stop building new greenhouse-gas-emitting power stations and allow existing plants to age out of existence. Some existing plants will also need to be shuttered or retrofitted with carbon capture and sequestration technology.

July 16th, 2019

Humans may not be doomed at soccer quite yet

RoboCup 2019 took place earlier this month down in Sydney, Australia. While there are many different events including RoboCup@Home, RoboCup Rescue, and a bunch of different soccer leagues, one of the most compelling events is middle-size league (MSL), where mobile robots each about the size of a fire hydrant play soccer using a regular size FIFA soccer ball. The robots are fully autonomous, making their own decisions in real time about when to dribble, pass, and shoot.

The long-term goal of RoboCup is this:

By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.

While the robots are certainly not there yet, they’re definitely getting closer.

July 16th, 2019

A synthesizer that defined the sound of a generation

1982 was a big year for music. Not only did Michael Jackson release Thriller, the bestselling album of all time, but Madonna made her debut. And it saw the launch of the Commodore 64 microcomputer. Thanks to the C64, millions of homes were equipped with a programmable electronic synthesizer, one that’s still in vogue.

The C64 became the bestselling computer of all time (some 17 million were sold) largely because it had graphics and sound capabilities that punched way above the system’s price tag: US $600 on release, soon falling to $149. Like many machines from that era, the C64 has a devoted following in the retrocomputing community, and emulators are available that let you run nearly all its software on modern hardware. What’s unusual is that a specific supporting chip inside the C64 has also retained its own dedicated following: the 6581 SID sound chip.

The C64 was developed by MOS Technology in 1981. MOS had already had a hit in the microcomputing world with its creation of the 6502 CPU in 1975. That chip—and a small family of variants—was used to power popular home computers and game consoles such as the Apple II and Atari 2600. As recounted in IEEE Spectrum’s March 1985 design case history [PDF] of the C64 by Tekla S. Perry and Paul Wallich, MOS originally intended just to make a new graphics chip and a new sound chip. The idea was to sell them as components to microcomputer manufacturers. But those chips turned out to be so good that MOS decided to make its own computer.

Creation of the sound chip fell to a young engineer called Robert Yannes. He was the perfect choice for the job, motivated by a long-standing interest in electronic sound. Although there were some advanced microcomputer-controlled synthesizers available, including the Super Sound board designed for use with the Cosmac VIP system, the built-in sound generation tech in home computers was relatively crude. Yannes had higher ambitions. “I’d worked with synthesizers, and I wanted a chip that was a music synthesizer,” Yannes told Spectrum in 1985. His big advantage was that MOS had a manufacturing fab on-site. This allowed for cheap and fast experimentation and testing: “The actual design only took about four or five months,” said Yannes.

On a hardware level, what made the 6581 SID stand out was better frequency control of its internal oscillators and, critically, an easy way for programmers to control what’s known as the sound envelope. Early approaches to using computers to generate musical tones (starting with one by Alan Turing himself) produced sound that was either off or on at a fixed intensity, like a buzzer. But most musical instruments don’t work that way: Think of how a piano note can be struck sharply or softly, and how a note can linger before decaying into silence. The sound envelope defines how a note’s intensity rises and falls. Some systems allowed the volume to be adjusted as the note played, but this was awkward to program. Yannes incorporated data registers into the 6581 SID so a developer could define an envelope and then leave it to the chip to control the intensity, rather than adjusting the intensity by programming the CPU to send volume-control commands as notes played (something few developers bothered to attempt).

The SID chip has three sound channels that can play simultaneously using three basic waveforms, plus a fourth “noise” waveform that produces rumbling to hissing static sounds, depending on the frequency. The chip has the ability to filter and modulate the channels to produce an even wider range of sounds. Some programmers discovered they could tease the chip into doing things it was never designed to do, such as speech synthesis. This was perhaps most famously used in Ghostbusters, a 1984 game based on the movie of the same name in which the C64 would utter low-fidelity catchphrases from the movie, such as “He slimed me!”

But stunts like speech synthesis aside, the SID chip’s design meant that home computer games could have truly musical soundtracks. Developers started hiring composers to create original works for C64 games—indeed, some titles today are solely remembered because of a catchy soundtrack.

Unlike in modern game development, in which soundtrack creation is technically similar to conventional music recording (up to, and including, using orchestras and choirs), these early composers had to be familiar with how the SID chip was programmed at the hardware level, as well as its behavioral quirks. (Because the chip got to market so quickly, MOS’s documentation of the 6581 SID was notoriously lousy, with Yannes acknowledging to Spectrum in 1985 that “the spec sheet got distributed and copied and rewritten by various people until it made practically no sense anymore.”)

At the time, these composers were generally unknown outside the games industry. Many of them moved on to other things after the home computer boom faded and their peculiar hybrid combination of musical and programming expertise was less in demand. In more recent years however, some of them have been celebrated, such as the prolific Ben Daglish, who composed the music for dozens of popular games.

Daglish (who created my favorite C64 soundtrack, for 1987’s Re-Bounder) was initially bemused that people in the 21st century were still interested in music created for, and by, the SID chip, but he became a popular guest at retrocomputing and so-called chiptunes events before his untimely death in late 2018.

Chiptunes (also known as bitpop) is a genre of original music that leans into the distinctive sound of 1980s computer sound chips. Some composers use modern synthesizers programmed to replicate that sound, but others like to use the original hardware, especially the SID chips (with or without the surrounding C64 system). Because the 6581 SID hasn’t been in production for many years, this has resulted in a brisk aftermarket for old chips—and one that’s big enough that crooks have made fake chips, or reconditioned dead chips, to sell to enthusiasts. Other people have created modern drop-in replacements for the SID chip, such as the SwinSID.

There are several options if you’d like to listen to a classic C64 game soundtrack or a modern chiptune without investing in hardware. You can find many on YouTube, and projects like SOASC= are dedicated to playing tunes on original SID chips and recording the output using modern audio formats. But for a good balance between modern convenience and hard-core authenticity, I’d recommend using a player like Sidplay, which emulates the SID chip and can play music data extracted from original software code. Even after the last SID chip finally burns out, its sound will live on.

An abridged version of this article appears in the July 2019 print issue as “Chip Hall of Fame: SID 6581.”