SAN JOSE, Calif.—The benefit of advanced neural networks, one of the building blocks of artificial intelligence, is that they're constantly learning on their own, unsupervised by human programmers. That's fine for, say, helping Google Photos automatically tag family members in your recent vacation album, but such unsupervised learning doesn't quite cut it for AI-powered physical robots, which could cause grave injury or death if they malfunction.
So Nvidia, which makes the GPUs used in many machine learning supercomputers, designed a robot simulator—a virtual sandbox for AI-powered bots to play around in and allow engineers to monitor and test their behavior to make sure they won't go dangerously on the fritz.
Unveiled at Nvidia's GTC developers conference here on Wednesday, the Isaac robot simulator is essentially a video game. It's based on Epic Games's Unreal Engine, the software suite that studios use to design everything from first-person shooters to architectural visualizations. In Isaac's case, the Unreal Engine lets robot makers program realistic test scenarios. The software can host a virtually unlimited number of robots, each one performing a slightly different version of a common task.
At GTC, Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang offered an example of how Isaac could help test the skills of a robot hockey player. The software can render hundreds of the stick-wielding hockey bots, all attempting to shoot a puck into an unattended goal. Engineers can monitor the simulation and simply delete the robots with lower shooting percentages.
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Beyond hockey gimmicks, Nvidia believes the Isaac software will be useful for training and improving the abilities of robots used in search and rescue, home health care, and factory production lines, among other mission-critical applications. Not only will it let engineers reduce testing timeframes from months to minutes, but it will also allow them to perform worst-case scenario tests that would be too dangerous in the real world.
Nvidia, which has morphed itself from a gaming graphics card manufacturer into an artificial intelligence powerhouse in recent years, already has a separate robot development platform called Jetson. Isaac will complement robots built with Jetson, which include Toyota's humanoid bots and the roving Starship delivery wagons that have popped up on city streets around the US.
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