This ultrasonic gripper could let robots hold things without touching them

If robots are to help out in places like hospitals and phone repair shops, they’re going to need a light touch. And what’s lighter than not touching at all? Researchers have created a gripper that uses ultrasonics to suspend an object in midair, potentially making it suitable for the most delicate tasks.

It’s done with an array of tiny speakers that emit sound at very carefully controlled frequencies and volumes. These produce a sort of standing pressure wave that can hold an object up or, if the pressure is coming from multiple directions, hold it in place or move it around.

This kind of “acoustic levitation,” as it’s called, is not exactly new — we see it being used as a trick here and there, but so far there have been no obvious practical applications. Marcel Schuck and his team at ETH Zürich, however, show that a portable such device could easily find a place in processes where tiny objects must be very lightly held.

A small electric component, or a tiny oiled gear or bearing for a watch or micro-robot, for instance, would ideally be held without physical contact, since that contact could impart static or dirt to it. So even when robotic grippers are up to the task, they must be kept clean or isolated. Acoustic manipulation, however, would have significantly less possibility of contamination.

Another, more sinister-looking prototype.

The problem is that it isn’t obvious exactly which combination of frequencies and amplitudes are necessary to suspend a given object in the air. So a large part of this work was developing software that can easily be configured to work with a new object, or programmed to move it in a specific way — rotating, flipping or otherwise moving it at the user’s behest.

A working prototype is complete, but Schuck plans to poll various industries to see whether and how such a device could be useful to them. Watchmaking is of course important in Switzerland, and the parts are both small and sensitive to touch. “Toothed gearwheels, for example, are first coated with lubricant, and then the thickness of this lubricant layer is measured. Even the faintest touch could damage the thin film of lubricant,” he points out in the ETHZ news release.

How would a watchmaker use such a robotic arm? How would a designer of microscopic robots, or a biochemist? The potential is clear, but not necessarily obvious. Fortunately, he has a bit of fellowship cash to spend on the question and hopes to spin it off as a startup next year if his early inquiries bear fruit.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

Whatever happened to the Next Big Things?

In tech, this was the smartphone decade. In 2009, Symbian was still the dominant ‘smartphone’ OS, but 2010 saw the launch of the iPhone 4, the Samsung Galaxy S, and the Nexus One, and today Android and iOS boast four billion combined active devices. Smartphones and their apps are a mature market, now, not a disruptive new platform. So what’s next?

The question presupposes that something has to be next, that this is a law of nature. It’s easy to see why it might seem that way. Over the last thirty-plus years we’ve lived through three massive, overlapping, world-changing technology platform shifts: computers, the Internet, and smartphones. It seems inevitable that a fourth must be on the horizon.

There have certainly been no shortage of nominees over the last few years. AR/VR; blockchains; chatbots; the Internet of Things; drones; self-driving cars. (Yes, self-driving cars would be a platform, in that whole new sub-industries would erupt around them.) And yet one can’t help but notice that every single one of those has fallen far short of optimistic predictions. What is going on?

You may recall that the growth of PCs, the Internet, and smartphones did not ever look wobbly or faltering. Here’s a list of Internet users over time: from 16 million in 1995 to 147 million in 1998. Here’s a list of smartphone sales since 2009: Android went from sub-1-million units to over 80 million in just three years. That’s what a major platform shift looks like.

Let’s compare each of the above, shall we? I don’t think it’s an unfair comparison. Each has had champions arguing it will, in fact, be That Big, and even people with more measured expectations have predicted growth will at least follow the trajectory of smartphones or the Internet, albeit maybe to a lesser peak. But in fact…

AR/VR: Way back in 2015 I spoke to a very well known VC who confidently predicted a floor of 10 million devices per year well before the end of this decade. What did we get? 3.7M to 4.7M to 6M, 2017 through 2019, while Oculus keeps getting reorg’ed. A 27% annual growth rate is OK, sure, but a consistent 27% growth rate is more than a little worrying for an alleged next big thing; it’s a long, long way from “10xing in three years.” Many people also predicted that by the end of this decade Magic Leap would look like something other than an utter shambles. Welp. As for other AR/VR startups, their state is best described as “sorry.”

Blockchains: I mean, Bitcoin’s doing just fine, sure, and is easily the weirdest and most interesting thing to have happened to tech in the 2010s; but the entire rest of the space? I’m broadly a believer in cryptocurrencies, but if you were to have suggested in mid-2017 to a true believer that, by the end of 2019, enterprise blockchains would essentially be dead, decentralized app usage would still be measured in the low thousands, and no real new use cases would have arisen other than collateralized lending for a tiny coterie — I mean, they would have been outraged. And yet, here we are.

Chatbots: No, seriously, chatbots were celebrated as the platform of the future not so long ago. (Alexa, about which more in a bit, is not a chatbot.) “The world is about to be re-written, and bots are going to be a big part of the future” was an actual quote. Facebook M was the future. It no longer exists. Microsoft’s Tay was the future. It really no longer exists. It was replaced by Zo. Did you know that? I didn’t. Zo also no longer exists.

The Internet of Things: let’s look at a few recent headlines, shall we? “Why IoT Has Consistently Fallen Short of Predictions.” “Is IoT Dead?” “IoT: Yesterday’s Predictions vs. Today’s Reality.” Spoiler: that last one does not discuss about how reality has blown previous predictions out of the water. Rather, “The reality turned out to be far less rosy.”

Drones: now, a lot of really cool things are happening in the drone space, I’ll be the first to aver. But we’re a long way away from physical packet-switched networks. Amazon teased Prime Air delivery way back in 2015 and made its first drone delivery way back in 2016, which is also when it patented its blimp mother ship. People expected great things. People still expect great things. But I think it’s fair to say they expected … a bit more … by now.

Self-driving cars: We were promised so much more, and I’m not even talking about Elon Musk’s hyperbole. From 2016: “10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020.” “True self-driving cars will arrive in 5 years, says Ford“. We do technically have a few, running in a closed pilot project in Phoenix, courtesy of Waymo, but that’s not what Ford was talking about: “Self-driving Fords that have no steering wheels, brake or gas pedals will be in mass production within five years.” So, 18 months from now, then. 12 months left for that “10 million” prediction. You’ll forgive a certain skepticism on my part.

The above doesn’t mean we haven’t seen any successes, of course. A lot of new kinds of products have been interesting hits: AirPods, the Apple Watch, the Amazon Echo family. All three are more new interfaces than whole new major platforms, though; not so much a gold rush as a single vein of silver.

You may notice I left machine learning / AI off the list. This is in part because it definitely has seen real qualitative leaps, but a) there seems to be a general concern that we may have entered the flattening of an S-curve there, rather than continued hypergrowth, b) either way, it’s not a platform. Moreover, the wall that both drones and self-driving cars have hit is labelled General Purpose Autonomy … in other words, it is an AI wall. AI does many amazing things, but when people predicted 10M self-driving cars on the roads next year, it means they predicted AI would be good enough to drive them. In fact it’s getting there a lot slower than we expected.

Any one of these technologies could define the next decade. But another possibility, which we have to at least consider, is that none of them might. It is not an irrefutable law of nature that just as one major tech platform begins to mature another must inevitably start its rise. We may well see a lengthy gap before the next Next Big Thing. Then we may see two or three rise simultaneously. But if your avowed plan is that this time you’re totally going to get in on the ground floor — well, I’m here to warn you, you may have a long wait in store.


Android – TechCrunch

Huawei can buy from US suppliers again — but things will never be the same

U.S. President Donald Trump has handed Huawei a lifeline after he said that U.S. companies are permitted to sell goods to the embattled Chinese tech firm following more than a month of uncertainty.

It’s been a pretty dismal past month for Huawei since the American government added it and 70 of its affiliates to an “entity list” which forbids U.S. companies from doing business with it. The ramifications of the move were huge across Huawei’s networking and consumer devices businesses. A range of chip companies reportedly forced to sever ties while Google, which provides Android for Huawei devices, also froze its relationship. Speaking this month.

All told, Huawei founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei said recently that the ban would cost the Chinese tech firm — the world’s third-larger seller of smartphones — some $ 30 billion in lost revenue of the next two years.

Now, however, the Trump administration has provided a reprieve, at least based on the President’s comments following a meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping at the G20 summit this weekend.

“US companies can sell their equipment to Huawei. We’re talking about equipment where there’s no great national security problem with it,” the U.S. President said.

Those comments perhaps contradict some in the US administration who saw the Huawei blacklisting as a way to strangle the company and its global ambitions, which are deemed by some analysts to be a threat to America.

Despite the good news, any mutual trust has been broken and things are unlikely to be the same again.

America’s almost casual move to blacklist Huawei — the latest in a series of strategies in its ongoing trade battle with China — exemplifies just how dependent the company has become on the U.S. to simply function.

Huawei has taken steps to hedge its reliance on America, including the development of its own operating system to replace Android and its own backup chips, and you can expect that these projects will go into overdrive to ensure that Huawei doesn’t find itself in a similar position again in the future.

Of course, decoupling its supply chain from US partners is no easy task both in terms of software and components. It remains to be seen if Huawei could maintain its current business level — which included 59 million smartphones in the last quarter and total revenue of $ 107.4 billion in 2018 — with non-US components and software but this episode is a reminder that it must have a solid contingency policy in case it becomes a political chess piece again in the future.

Beyond aiding Huawei, Trump’s move will boost Google and other Huawei partners who invested significant time and resources into developing a relationship with Huawei to boost their own businesses through its business.

Indeed, speaking to press Trump, Trump admitted that US companies sell “a tremendous amount” of products to Huawei. Some “were not exactly happy that they couldn’t sell” to Huawei and it looks like that may have helped tipped this decision. But, then again, never say never — you’d imagine that the Huawei-Trump saga is far from over despite this latest twist.


Android – TechCrunch