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Cassie the robot
Oregon State University’s Mikhail Jones takes a walk with Cassie the robot. (OSU Photo)

Walking robots that could potentially delivery your Amazon Prime package … robotic bees and robo-farms … a cheetah robot controlled by Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant: These are just a few of the gee-whiz concepts being discussed at Amazon’s secret MARS conference in Southern California.

MARS 2017 is designed to preview technologies in Machine learning, home Automation, Robotics and Space exploration.for a select audience. The festivities got under way on Sunday night with a giant-robot demonstration starring Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos.

Sessions are continuing this week, and although there’s no published agenda, the tweets from participants are dropping big hints about what’s going on. Here are five of the highlights:

Walking robots: Oregon-based Agility Robotics is showing off Cassie, a robot with ostrich-like legs that could someday be walking down the street, making deliveries. “This technology will simply explode at some point, when we create vehicles so automated and robots so efficient that deliveries and shipments are almost free,” Oregon State University’s Jonathan Hurst said last month.

Robo-farming: Researchers from the MIT Media Lab laid out their “Open Agriculture” concept for a tabletop-sized personal food computer, capable of growing crops inside a controlled environment.

Robotic bees: There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the problems facing honeybees, and bee-lieve it or not, researchers are thinking about using robots to fill the pollination gap. A Harvard team has been working on RoboBees for years, and a Japanese team recently showed off a different, drone-based concept. Even if flying robots don’t work out for pollinating crops, they could serve as a swarm of sensors.

Robotic creatures: MIT researchers demonstrated a cheetah robot controlled with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, and Harvard’s “octobot” also had a turn in the spotlight at MARS 2017. The octopus-like soft robot can’t swim yet – but when it does, will it be safe to go back into the water?

Robotic spaceship: Bezos has another venture called Blue Origin that’s focused on out-of-this-world ambitions. Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship, which made five trips to outer space and back, was on display at the conference. Those five trips were piloted autonomously, without a crew, but a new New Shepard could be carrying customers as early as next year.

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