Machine Learning
Business Traveler|May 2017

Zurich is quietly becoming a world-leading destination for robotics, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing.

 

Jenny Southan

There is something uncanny about the way this dog-like robot moves – its skeletal frame whirs loudly as it marches on the spot, then moves side to side, and around in a circle in a strange dance. Built by a team in the Robotic Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), assistant professor Marco Hutter says the “ANYmal” is his newest creation.

Not only can it run but climb, crouch and jump. “We wanted to make something that was optimal from a robotics point of view,” he says. “We put springs in all the joints so we can use it in all sorts of environments.” As part of a pilot project, the ANYmal has been put to work on offshore oil and gas platforms where it can go about inspection tasks (often dangerous for humans) completely autonomously thanks to laser sensors and cameras.

I ask how it compares with the robot that was sent to Mars. “In general, space technology is very old,” says Hutter, walking me down the corridor and pointing to a dusty old unit on caterpillar tracks. “This was part of a study we were doing for the European Space Agency. But wheels are boring – legs are the future.”

Intelligence Hub

Founded in 1855, the ETH is Switzerland’s answer to MIT. Ranked one of the best universities in the world, more than 20 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to its alumni over the years, including Albert Einstein in 1921. Today it has 20,000 students and an annual budget of Sfr 1.7 billion ($1.7 billion), funded by taxpayers. “That is part of the reason the ETH is the best,” says professor Peter Seitz, a “sherpa” from its Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab (ieLab).

In a warehouse on the Science City campus, a short drive northwest of the old town, architects are using giant mechanical arms to explore new construction techniques that employ nothing more than loops of yarn and pebbles, for example, or 3D printed concrete. Aleksandra Anna Apolinarska, an architect in the Gramazio Kohler Research Lab at the ETH Zurich, says the days of mass production are behind us. “We think it is time for mass customization.”

From self-driving cars to augmented reality, the ETH is forging a new tomorrow in myriad ways. And with the help of ieLab, Seitz’s students have the opportunity to take ideas from the research stage to market. Between 1996 and 2016, 355 spin-off companies have been founded at the ETH, a number of which have been in the field of robotics.

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