Robots will soon be able to imagine the future of their actions so they can figure out how to manipulate objects they have never encountered before.

Robotic learning technology developed by University of California researchers could help self-driving cars anticipate future events on the road and produce more intelligent robotic assistants in homes.

With what's been called "visual foresight", the robots can predict what their cameras will see if they perform a particular sequence of movements.

These robotic imaginations are still relatively simple for now - predictions made only several seconds into the future - but they are enough for the robot to figure out how to move objects around on a table without disturbing obstacles.

Advertisement

Crucially, the robot can learn to perform these tasks without any help from humans or prior knowledge about physics, its environment or what the objects are.

That's because the visual imagination is learned entirely from scratch from unattended and unsupervised exploration, where the robot plays with objects on a table.

After this play phase, the robot builds a predictive model of the world, and can use this model to manipulate new objects that it has not seen before.

"In the same way that we can imagine how our actions will move the objects in our environment, this method can enable a robot to visualise how different behaviours will affect the world around it," said Assistant Professor Sergey Levine, whose lab developed the technology.

"This can enable intelligent planning of highly flexible skills in complex real-world situations."

Duck, duck, dinosaur

Scientists have just described one of the strangest prehistoric specimens yet - a bird-like dinosaur related to the fearsome velociraptor.

A detailed 3D analysis allowed an international team of researchers to present the bizarre 75 million-year-old predator, named Halszkaraptor escuilliei, or Halszka, which had been preserved in a skeleton unearthed in Mongolia.

The creature, which lived during the Campanian stage of the Cretaceous era, sheds light on an unexpected amphibious lifestyle for raptorial dinosaurs.

Advertisement

Theropods encompass all carnivorous dinosaurs, including the largest land-living predators in the history of life on Earth, such as tyrannosaurus, and iconic agile hunters like velociraptor.

During 160 million years of the Mesozoic Era, theropods became the dominant predators on all continents, yet never conquered aquatic environments.

The creature, which lived during the Campanian stage of the Cretaceous era, sheds light on an unexpected amphibious lifestyle for raptorial dinosaurs. Photo / Lukas Panzarin
The creature, which lived during the Campanian stage of the Cretaceous era, sheds light on an unexpected amphibious lifestyle for raptorial dinosaurs. Photo / Lukas Panzarin

Although some theropods reportedly incorporated fish in their diet, proposed indications for aquatic locomotion associated with exclusively aquatic lifestyles remain controversial.

Yet this new swan-necked, flipper-forelimbed species now demonstrated that some bird-like dinosaurs did actually adopt a semi-aquatic lifestyle.

"The first time I examined the specimen, I even questioned whether it was a genuine fossil," said Andrea Cau, of Italy's Geological Museum Capellini.

Although Halszka was unique in many ways, certain parts of the skeleton, including the sickle-shaped "killer claws" on its feet, were shared with well-known dinosaurs such as velociraptor.

When it lived, it would have moved with a posture similar to short-tailed birds like ducks, but used its flipper-like forelimbs to manoeuvre in water, like penguins and other aquatic birds, relying on its long neck for foraging and ambush hunting.

"The peculiar morphology of Halszkaraptor fits best with that of an amphibious predator that was adapted to a combined terrestrial and aquatic ecology: a peculiar lifestyle that was previously unreported in these dinosaurs."

Beer as fuel

Chemists in the UK have made the first steps towards making sustainable petrol using beer as a key ingredient. Photo / 123RF
Chemists in the UK have made the first steps towards making sustainable petrol using beer as a key ingredient. Photo / 123RF

Here's something you wouldn't expect to see at the local service station.

Chemists in the UK have made the first steps toward making sustainable petrol using beer as a key ingredient.

It's commonly accepted that there is an urgent need for sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels for transportation to replace diesel and petrol.

One of the most widely used sustainable alternatives to petrol world-wide is bioethanol - in the US, gasoline is typically sold as a blend with up to 10 percent ethanol.

It's also know that ethanol is not an ideal replacement for petrol as it has issues such as lower energy density, it mixes too easily with water and can be fairly corrosive to engines.
A much better fuel alternative is butanol but this is difficult to make from sustainable sources.

Scientists from the University of Bristol's School of Chemistry have been working for several years to develop technology that will convert widely-available ethanol into butanol.

This has already been demonstrated in laboratory conditions with pure, dry ethanol but, if this technology is to be scaled up, it needs to work with real ethanol fermentation broths.

These contain a lot of water - about 90 percent - and other impurities, so the new technology has to be developed to tolerate that.

"The alcohol in alcoholic drinks is actually ethanol - exactly the same molecule that we want to convert into butanol as a petrol replacement," said Professor Duncan Wass, whose team led the research.

"So alcoholic drinks are an ideal model for industrial ethanol fermentation broths - ethanol for fuel is essentially made using a brewing process.

"If our technology works with alcoholic drinks - especially beer which is the best model - then it shows it has the potential to be scaled up to make butanol as a petrol replacement on an industrial scale."

The team's key finding is that their catalysts will convert beer - or specifically, the ethanol in beer - into butanol.

In demonstrating that catalysts work with a "real" ethanol mixture, the team have demonstrated a key step in scaling this technology up to industrial application.

"We wouldn't actually want to use beer on an industrial scale and compete with potential food crops," Wass added.

"But there are ways to obtain ethanol for fuel from fermentation that produce something that chemically is very much like beer - so beer is an excellent readily available model to test our technology."