San Francisco–based artificial intelligence company OpenAI has developed a algorithm to teach robots actions and tasks using virtual reality (VR). Previously, robots relied on human demonstration or having their parts moved physically to learn and complete a task. Making use of a vision network and an imitation network, robots first learn what actions or processes are possible and then develop a strategy for mimicking the actions depicted in a VR scene. "The vision network ingests an image from the robot’s camera and outputs state representing the positions of the objects," according to an OpenAI press release. "In order to predict the action effectively, the robot must learn how to infer the relevant portion of the task from the first demonstration." [TechXplore]

Yaghoob Farnam, an assistant professor of engineering and director of the Advanced and Sustainable Infrastructure Materials research group at Drexel University, is developing an improved concrete recipe that reduce road deterioration caused by a chemical reaction instigated by deicer salt using byproducts from coal furnaces and the smelting process. "There is a great push to use these power industry byproducts because they take up space and some of them can be harmful to the environment,” Farnam said in a press release. “We believed that portions of the byproducts such as fly ash, slag, and silica fume could be used to make concrete that is both durable and cheaper, because it uses recycled materials.” [Drexel University]

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed Synthetic Sensors, a product designed to make integrating smart-home systems easier. The hub tracks ambient environmental data when plugged in to an outlet, acting as a sensor for the entire space—and it could replace conventional methods of linking devices, such as retrofitting appliances with sensor tags. Synthetic Sensors automatically collect information and upload it to a cloud backend via Wi-Fi, and "machine learning" turns generated results into recognizable events. For example, the sensor can identify a sound pattern such as a faucet running and create a “synthetic” sensor to trigger a nearby electric paper-towel dispenser or other Internet of Things behaviors. [Wired]

ICYMI: In his new book, Transmaterial Next, Blaine Brownell, AIA, (a regular contributor to ARCHITECT) explores more than 100 material innovations. [ARCHITECT]

Singapore-based architectural firm Ministry of Design developed the Robotics Application Centre of Excellence lab to display the latest industrial robots and train engineers to create “an engaging and future-forward spatial experience that denotes the idea of industrial automation and precision.” The lab, which opened in January, features an all-black lobby with angled LED strips on the ceiling and walls, and an interior clad with a “second skin” of aluminum tubes and custom LED strips. Through the design of the lab, the firm hopes to inspire more people to use robotics automation in their everyday work. [Engadget]

Researchers at the University of Newcastle, in Australia, are developing lightweight, plastic solar panels intended as a tool for disaster relief. Electronic ink is printed onto five layers of extremely thin plastic sheets that are then encapsulated by two protective layers of plastic. "What we do know right now is that if there's a disaster the first thing people need is power," said creator Paul Dastoor in an ABC News article. The technology is still being tested—100 square meters (approximately 1,080 square feet) of panels are currently installed on a test site on the campus—but the team aims for the technology to go on the market within three years. [ABC News Australia]

Foster + Partners' office in Silicon Valley and Chattanooga, Tenn.–based startup Branch Technology have been awarded first place in NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 2: Level 1 competition. According to NASA's website, the competition was created to spur the development of technologies to fabricate extraterrestrial shelters for human habitation. For this phase, teams were asked to use recycled materials and indigenous Martian soil to 3D-print a truncated cone and cylinder, which was then subjected to compression testing. [Foster + Partners]

As part of a mobile workshop for the American Planning Association (APA) National Planning Convention, Perkins+Will has developed a VR experience to test providing easy access to VR for large groups working on urban revitalization projects. "With new low-tech solutions such as cardboard goggles and web-based platforms, VR can be an easy and accessible way to engage communities and share the experience of urban-scale interventions," Perkins+Will writes in a blog post. As part of the workshop, APA tour participants walked through Sea View Healthy Community—an abandoned healthcare campus—wearing cardboard VR goggles that showed potential designs for restoring the campus buildings as well as a revitalized version of the neighborhood. [Perkins+Will]