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by   -   November 13, 2013

For me, the highlight of IROS was the Uncanny Valley special session, although the sheer size of the IROS conference and the parallel iRex industrial and service robot expo also gave much food for thought. In particular, the new coworking robots from Kawada [video] and ABB look very interesting, but it’s clear that it still takes a long time for research to transition into robust applied robotics.

The premise of this question is that robotics companies are manufacturers and that there is choice between an open source and closed source business model.  Robotics companies are best thought of as service companies (even manufacturers, especially when moving beyond early adopters) and openness is not an ‘either/or’ choice, but rather a continuum.  In this day and age the question is, ‘What do you need to keep open create value for your customers?’

My company, TerrAvion, has been building a data delivery system for our robotics system on Amazon Web Services (AWS).  AWS (Question for another day: is AWS a cloud services robot?) is an excellent example of how to think about handling openness.  The platform is very open—the essential premise is that the customer can build any kind of web application on AWS they can imagine and code, while never having to buy or run a physical server.  Almost everything that could be touched by a customer is open.  There are tons of open source re-useable code and tools available freely to developers on AWS.

However, not everything is open.  We collect almost a terabyte of data a day when we run our system, so we store a lot of idle data in a sub-service of AWS, called Glacier, which is one of the cheapest ways to store data in the cloud, but it has long retrieval times.  Amazon publishes a lot of information about Glacier: speed, redundancy, expected loss over time, retrieval procedures — but nobody knows how Amazon really does it.  A magnetic tape storage solution is the most common belief, but there is also speculation that they use retired hard drives that are generally powered off.  Not to mention there are a bunch of back-end code and human procedures that remain secret.

In a sense, these tools could be open source.  I’d wager that whatever tool AWS uses to run Glacier runs on Linux in an open source language.  Some Glacier code may even be shared back with the community in bits and pieces.  It wouldn’t be crazy to think that the open software runs with some vendor-sourced proprietary components.  However, that whole side of the business is concealed from us.  All we know is that AWS’s combination of technology and organization allows them to store data a price almost no one else can match.

Amazon has achieved openness Nirvana.  They have a solution that functions as totally open from the customer’s perspective.  Customers completely understand how to use, functionally duplicate, hack, and interface with the AWS service.  However, at the same time Amazon manages to achieve secrecy and differentiation around their unique advantage, which is having the technology and processes for price leadership.

If robotics is actually a service industry, Amazon’s approach points to the correct way of thinking about the problem of openness.  What openness will help your customers?  What is it that your company does that is differentiated?  What actually enables you to create and maintain that advantage?  Robotics can be mostly open source and extract the advantages of unique and differentiated intellectual property.  Try on this idea for your domain, and let me know what you think.

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The IT economy has powerfully demonstrated what happens when companies can leverage open source infrastructure when they build new products and services.  A company like Google would never have come into existence had they not been able to rely from the beginning on solid open source tools like Python and GCC. IBM would arguably have not been able to make its immensely successful pivot from products to services without Linux.  How many startups these days begin as a cloud-hosted machine running some derivative of the venerable LAMP stack?  And increasingly the underlying cloud infrastructure itself is open.

While arguing by analogy is fraught with peril, I believe that the similarities between robotics and the rest of the IT world are strong enough to justify it.  In robotics, we have many shared problems to solve when developing a product or service, from low-level drivers to high-level capabilities, and all the developer libraries and tools in between.  I have yet to see a successful robotics business for whom any of that stuff is the competitive advantage.  Rather, success comes from the innovative composition and application of that technology in a form that somebody will pay for.  The hard part is figuring out what the robot should *do*.  By working together on the common underlying problems, we end up with better, more reliable solutions, and we free ourselves to spend more time at the application level, which is where we can differentiate ourselves.

In other words, I believe that open source is a great model for the robotics business as a whole.  Now, is it a good model for any individual company?  It certainly can be.  As examples, we see small-to-medium companies, such as Clearpath Robotics, Rethink Robotics, and Yujin Robot, which use ROS directly in their products. And we see larger companies, such as Bosch and Toyota, using ROS in R&D and prototyping efforts.  These are all profit-motivated companies making what is presumably a rational economic decision to rely on open source software.  They’re each holding something back that is their “special sauce,” whether that’s higher level application software, configuration data, customizations to the open source code, or the designs for the hardware.  And that’s expected: unless you’re in a pure consulting business (selling your time), then you need to own and control something that forms the basis of your product or service offering (to allow you to sell something other than your time).

Fortunately, open source software is entirely compatible with such business models.  In fact, it was our hope to one day see such commercial users of ROS that led us to choose a permissive license (BSD, or Apache 2) for the code that we developed.  We’re now witnessing, with the debut of so many new robotics companies, the fruits of those earlier labors in building a shared development platform.

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To be able to choose between proprietary software packages is to be able to choose your master. Freedom means not having a master. Freedom means not using proprietary software.

– Richard Stallman, open systems advocate

Certainly robotics has its share of proprietary software and control systems. Each robot manufacturer markets their products based on the need for secure, proprietary and un-shared systems so that they can ensure stability and control. Whole industries have been set up to bridge those proprietary barriers so that multi-vendor solutions can happen.

Two prominent people in the robotics industry had a discussion on the subject last year. In a spirited cocktail party debate in Lyon, France at InnoRobo 2012, an innovation forum and trade show for service robotics, Colin Angle and Robert Bauer argued their points of view.

Left: Robert Bauer, Executive Director, Commercialization, Willow Garage. Right: Colin Angle, Chairman of the Board, co-founder and CEO, iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT).

Angle suggested that freely providing such a key and critical component as the robotic operating and simulation system – and the extensive libraries that go with it – as the Open Source Robotics Foundation (previously Willow Garage) does with their open source and unprotected robotic operating system (ROS) – was tantamount to letting the biggest consumer giant(s) gobble up any mass market applications and re-market them globally at low cost because they already have (or could easily reverse-engineer) the hardware and could produce it cheaply, the operating system was free courtesy of ROS, and the only real cost was the acquisition of the application(s).

Angle thought that it was dangerous and led to losing a potentially American/European market to offshore commodity conglomerates, and said:

Robotics innovation represents a tremendous opportunity for economic growth akin to automobiles, aerospace and information technology. If we are to freely share our ‘intellectual capital’ on the open market we risk losing the economic engine that will advance our economies and send growth and jobs overseas.

Cover of 3/19/2012 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine.

The issue of losing trade secrets to foreign conglomerates has been a continuing focus at Bloomberg Businessweek magazine:

In November, 14 U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report describing a far-reaching industrial espionage campaign by Chinese spy agencies. This campaign has been in the works for years and targets a swath of industries: biotechnology, telecommunications, and nanotechnology, as well as clean energy. “It’s the greatest transfer of wealth in history,” said General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency.

Bauer said that Willow Garage’s objectives with ROS was to stimulate the industry by enabling participants to not have to reinvent the many cross-science elements of robotics ventures; to reuse software because it saves developer time and allows researchers to focus on research. By giving them free access to the tools, libraries and simulation capabilities of ROS, and access to the PR2s that are available for testing and experimentation, Willow Garage hoped to advance the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics technologies.

Bauer also said that, once a successful app was developed, at that point the new endeavor would likely lock down the operating system and application software in order to protect their invention.

Angle suggested that what the robotic industry needs for inspiration is successful robotics companies – profitable companies with millionaire employees selling in-demand products; not more notches on the oversized belts of big offshore conglomerates. Further, he said that unless ROS is protected and made stable and secure, it could never be used for sensitive (defense, space, security) solutions, and until it became rugged, secure and stable, it could never be used in factories, which cannot afford down time from either their robots or software.

Since that time, solutions that bridge the open vs. shut debate are showing up in many sectors:

  • Willow Garage has transitioned ROS to two different non-profit foundations to continue development of ROS and ROS-Industrial: The Open Source Robotics Foundation and the ROSIndustrial.org.
  • ROS-Industrial is a new effort to enable closed industrial systems to at least have a “front end” to make available the introduction of new sensors, make robot programing and simulation easier, and take advantage of the wealth of new talent exposed to ROS in academia.
  • Start-up companies selling co-robots are using ROS and beginning to share application software. Danish Universal Robots and Rod Brooks’ Rethink Robotics both use ROS for software development but not for control systems. Rethink Robotics plans to offer an SDK capability with an app store for robotics applications shared by other Baxter users sometime in 2014. The SDK is already available in the academic version of Baxter.
  • Industrial robot makers are beginning to provide ROS-like capabilities in the form of updated software and simulation suites, e.g., ABB Robotics recently introduced RobotStudio which is a GIS interface to ABB’s proprietary internals for robot simulation and programming.

Thus as the debate rages on, so too do the very pragmatic solutions that are necessary to make things move forward and work.

The best solutions often involve multiple vendors. Look at the Tesla factory. Integrating their software and control systems into the larger manufacturing system, or even between different systems on a line, involves serious and talented programming — a process that everyone agrees needs to be simplified and made less costly.

ROS-like products are fine for development and simulation, and because they are prevalent in most of academia, new hires are familiar with what it does and how it works. But that’s when those new hires are confronted with the complexities of proprietary software and teaching pendants. I’ve heard it said that it’s like going back to the mainframe era of computing. At the least, it involves learning old-style coding languages.

Most of the big robot manufacturers are beginning to make an effort to improve their training and programming methods, to get them onto more practical tablets, and to provide offline simulation. But the going is slow, hence the argument for open source rages on. The truth appears to be in the middle: older systems need to be updated and yet still retain their proprietary nature. Mix and match between vendors is a fact of life and needs to be accommodated either by the use of ROS-Industrial or by the robot manufacturers themselves in the form of a new set of standards and interfaces.

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by   -   September 16, 2013

A quality learning experience centered on robotics is hard to find for many students who lack STEM resources through their own schools. Although new science standards hope to improve the situation, K-12 schools are struggling to provide a basic STEM education, let alone opportunities involving more specialized lessons in robotics. So on more than one occasion, I have talked to parents who are struggling to find rewarding opportunities for their children. Fortunately, even if one lives in a “robot desert,” today there are many online and physical resources that can provide rich, self-guided education on robotics.

by   -   September 15, 2013

We look for good people from all over the world who have had some formal education in robotics theory, particularly in the basics of kinematics, perception, and cognition. Many universities offer courses in these areas.

In addition, so much of robotics today depends on software that it is important for roboticists to be well versed in programming languages (C++, Java, Python), if not computer science and software engineering in general.

I always tell people “Take every computer course you can! Learn everything there is to know about computers!”

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by   -   September 15, 2013

In the past, a robotics education started with any inspiration that filtered through the sparse media of the time. Imagine a dull illness during a bland winter, black and white TV on a fuzzy channel, and then out of nowhere, mom drops a Jack Kirby ‘Fantastic Four’ comic on your sickbed.

In full color.

For those who remember, King Kirby was a genius at thick rendered, forced perspective sci-fi illustrations: spaceships, weapons, and best of all robots in immaculate detail, exciting situations, and traceable isomorphic projection.

Robotic education starts then, tracing and drawing your plans, usually in crayon.  That kind of inspiration is vital to keep the obsessiveness to face the thousands of hours needed before you have something you can be proud of (or paid for).

Following the sketches come the personal discoveries and skills needed to remove your hardware fears: Tinkertoys, Lego, Meccano, balsa airplanes, general disassembly (no alarm clock is safe!), car repair, welding shop, and (if you can afford it) servo-based RC items which give an instinctive feel for  set-point positioning and materials strength.

(Your electric screwdriver is your best learning tool, so get a good one.)

After that, a quality robotics education can be picked up pretty much anywhere, provided you’re an ADHD polyglot with a hankering for electronics, electrics, power systems, industrial and product design, acoustics, physics, statics, materials science, animation, behavioral rendering, dynamics, AI, firmware and app programming, illumination focusing and filters, sensors, vision systems, gradient optimization, interfaces and protocols, haptics … (list continues ad-infinitum as speaker fades into distance, then back up), then you’ll be fine.

But first and always …

When I occasionally get to lecture before K-through-12s with a dozen various  robots, I like to point out that: ‘Robotics isn’t one thing, it’s *everything* that makes technology cool brought together. What you’re learning in school *now* applies to how these work.’

Then I get one of my robots to burp animatedly, to emphasize the point.

Afterwards the class plays with the bots and fights over the remotes, but sometimes you get a kid who asks insightful questions, wants specific details, shows a deliberate interest, and a fascination with what now might be possible.  Something he never thought accessible before.

Inspiration delivered?

One in a thousand.

Good luck kid.

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by   -   September 15, 2013

At the high school or middle school level there is no single best way for students to get a robotics education: there are many ways, and each way reaches the students differently. The easiest way is for students to join an established team: FIRST® Robotics (FLL, FTC, or FRC) teams, VEX robotics teams, BEST Robotics teams, and Botball teams. For a shorter-term experience, students can enroll in various summer camps at a local science center or other locations.  Finally, their teachers can offer to integrate commercially-available Hummingbird Robotics kits into the curriculum at multiple levels.

My educational robotics experience ranges from FRC- and FLL-level FIRST robotics teams to using the Hummingbird Robotics kits in the classroom and at summer camp.  For the past three years I have worked with the Girls of Steel FIRST Robotics team at Carnegie Mellon University as a high school faculty advisor/business mentor, and in each of the past two years my high school human anatomy students at The Ellis School used Hummingbird Robotics kits to create a robotic arm as a part of the unit on muscles. Most recently, my robot arm lab lesson was successfully adapted for middle school students in a C-MITES summer camp at CMU called “Anatomy and Robotics.”

theresa_richards_arm

The greater Pittsburgh area in Pennsylvania is a wonderful place to get a robotics education if you are a middle school or high school student.  Teachers here have access to workshops and professional development programs so they can be trained to bring robotics into the classroom using the Hummingbird Robotics kit or the LEGO Robotics kits. Students can enroll in summer camps to learn robotics at the Carnegie Science Center, Carnegie Mellon University, or Sarah Heinz House, and they can join FIRST or VEX community robotics teams at CMU (Girls of Steel) and Sarah Heinz House or the teams at their schools.

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by   -   September 15, 2013

We are looking for researchers who are highly motivated, and who are passionate about seeing the results of their research come to fruition and be used by industry or the public. They should have a demonstrated ability to conduct internationally-recognized, cutting-edge research in robotics, and have a great publication record.

We expect senior staff to have experience in acquiring new project funding and transitioning technologies to applications. Our roboticists should also have a strong interest in deploying robotic technologies in new domains, and in demonstrating these technologies in the field.

Our staff come from all over the world. We have no preference for geographic region. We want the best staff possible – it’s as simple as that.

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by   -   September 15, 2013

When hiring at BlueBotics, we first assess the personal profile, soft competencies, and team compatibility. After that, we go into a deep technical assessment.

Today, the product sales with the ANT navigation product line are becoming more important than the custom-specific engineering services we provide for mobile robotics. This means that we mainly hire specialists, and we plan for them to be active in production, quality control, deployment, and support.

We still hire also R&D personnel, but we primarily want to have the best specialists, not necessarily robotics generalists. Of course, we value a background in robotics, but this is not a must.

We firstly search within our network, and especially look to our contacts at EPFL and ETH. I also look into all the spontaneous offers we regularly receive and post the profile in my LinkedIn network. Finally, we use local head hunters.

We then get quite a bunch of CVs, which we assess internally before starting with face-to-face meetings.

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robohub.org-robots_on_tourAs a robot animator I can attest to the fact that robots don’t “need” heads to be treated as social entities. Research has shown that people will befriend a stick as long as it moves properly [1].

We have a long-standing habit of anthropomorphizing things that aren’t human by attributing to them human-level personality traits or internal motivations based on cognitive-affective architectures that just aren’t there. Animators have relied on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief and, in essence, co-animate things into existence: from a sack of flour to a magic broom. It’s possible to incorporate the user’s willingness to bring a robot to life by appropriately setting expectations and being acutely aware of how the context of interaction affects possible outcomes.

In human lifeforms, a head usually circumscribes a face, whereas in a robot a face can be placed anywhere. Although wonderfully complex, in high degree of freedom (DOF) robot heads, the facial muscles can be challenging to orchestrate with sufficient timing precision. If your robot design facilitates expression through the careful control of the quality of motion rendered, a head isn’t necessary in order to communicate essential non-verbal cues. As long as you consider a means for revealing the robot’s internal state, a head simply isn’t needed. A robot’s intentions can be conveyed through expressive motion and sound regardless of its form or body configuration.

[1] Harris, J., & Sharlin, E. (2011, July). Exploring the affect of abstract motion in social human-robot interaction. In RO-MAN, 2011 IEEE (pp. 441-448). IEEE.

 

by   -   August 15, 2013

Robohub.org-baxterAre you curious about what your future robotic assistants will look like?

My bet is that by the time you buy your very first robotic butler, it will have a friendly head on it that moves. In fact, it would be a good idea to make robots with heads if they are intended to share spaces and objects with people. That’s because the head is a really expressive part of our body we naturally use (a lot) to convey essential information to each other.  Robots will need to do the same if they are going to hang out with us soft-tissued human beings at our homes and offices.

For example, when people are attending to something, they tend to be looking at the thing they are attending to. People also look at the direction they are headed when they walk, and make eye contact when they talk. People nod with their head when they want to show agreement about what is being said. Without these nonverbal cues from the head interacting with each other would be much more difficult, because we wouldn’t know what each other are doing.

Rodney Brooks, a pioneer in robotics and now Chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics, had this in mind when he built Baxter. Although Baxter’s arms are as bulky-looking as its traditional industrial robotics predecessors, one of the innovative components of it is the fact that it features a moving head that makes its interaction with not-so-trained users very intuitive

If robots are to do meaningful things around us in a safe manner, it’s essential that we know what the robot is attending to, where it is headed, and what it is about to do – a lot of which a robot head can help with. That way, we won’t have to be a roboticist to know when it is safe to be around a robot holding on to a giant knife to make you cucumber salad. <optionally embed cucumber slicing robot

Robohub.org-Kuka_mobileI don’t know about you, but if something has a head I assume it has thoughts. When watching a movie I stare at the character’s face because I want to know what they feel. So for me a head’s a pretty important thing. If I’m going to talk with a robot I’d like it to have some kind of discernable head. It’s a useful thing if you want people to have warm fuzzy feelings about your robot. Its useful if people are interfacing with the robot.

Simply: a head allows a face, and a face allows interface.

So a head’s only needed if the robot has to interface with people (or other headed animals, say). A head is a design feature but the main function of an android is its form: it has to look like humans. Giving it a head is a function-follows-form decision. Wasn’t it Hunter S. Thompson who wrote, “Kill the head and the body will die?” Well, this should not be the case for military robots. The beheaded design can be improved. Saying that all robots need to have faces is like saying all animals need to have gills. For the deadly, dangerous, and downright dastardly work that robots today need to perform, like gastro-intestinal surgery, or military surveillance, a head won’t do much more than get stuck or blown off.

A head, like hands or a face, is a design decision that’s best left for the robots working directly with humans.

Robohub.org-Roboy-headThe obvious answer to this question is “No: there are lots of robots without heads.” It’s not even clear that social robots necessarily require a head, as even mundane robots like the Roomba are anthropomorphized (taking on human-like qualities) without a head. A follow-up question might be, “How are heads useful?” For humans, the reasons are apparent: food intake, a vessel for our brain, a locus for sensors (eyes and ears), and high-bandwidth communication via expression. What about for robots …?

  • Food intake: Probably not.
  • Computational storage: Again, probably not.
  • Location for sensors: Indeed, the apex of a robot is a natural, obstacle-free vantage point for non-contact sensors. But a “head” form factor is not a strict requirement.
  • Emotion and expression: Ah, the real meat of this question… “Do robots need to express emotion?”

This is a funny question to ask someone who once (in)famously advocated for either (A) extremely utilitarian designs: “I want my eventual home robot to be as unobtrusive as a trashcan or dishwasher”, or (B) designs unconstrained by the human form factor: “Why not give robots lots of arms (or only one)? Why impose human-like joint limits, arm configurations, and sensing? We can design our own mechanical lifeforms!”

My views have softened a bit over time. Early (expensive) general-purpose home robots will almost certainly have humanoid characteristics and have heads with the ability to express emotions (i.e. be social) — if nothing else, to appeal to the paying masses. And these robots will be useful: doing my laundry, cleaning my dishes, and cooking my meals. In the early attempts, I will still find their shallow attempts at emotion mundane and I will probably detest the sales pitches about “AI” and “robots that feel.” But as the emotional expressions become more natural and nuanced, and the robots become more capable, I will probably warm up to the idea myself.

TL;DR: No, many robots do not need heads. Even social robots may not need heads, but (whether I want them to or not) they probably will, because paying consumers will expect it.

Policy is really about long-term thinking — a process we should do but don’t do for various reasons. Though China is a notable exception, very few governments make long-term planning a priority.

Corporations are more disciplined and less prevailed upon by conflicting interests than governments; hence long-term planning is a regular part of their management practice. But corporations have neither ethics nor loyalties, and often do marginally (if not outright) immoral things to preserve the profitability of the company over the welfare of the community and workforce.

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We pose timely questions of importance to the robotics community and ask our panel of experts to answer.


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