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by   -   July 15, 2013

I am not sure how to describe the specifics of what policy makers should do, but I think there are two gaps that policy makers should think about that are associated with the economic development impact of robotics:

  1. sufficient funding to support an emerging robotics marketplace, and
  2. detailed descriptions of the innovations needed to solve specific problems.
by and   -   July 15, 2013

[RBI Editors]
As an active robotics investor, a leading authority on the business of robotics, and the author of The Robot Report and Everything Roboticyou are at the pulse of the field’s economic development. In a nutshell, what’s happening in robotics today?

[Frank Tobe]
I think the biggest thing happening today is the acceptance of the low-cost Baxter and Universal robots into SMEs and small factories everywhere.  Sales will likely be 2% of the total; 5% in 2014, and possibly 15% in 2015. That’s growth! And that’s before the big four robot makers start selling their low-cost entry robots for SMEs. This has more near-term promise than unmanned aerial or ground vehicles in agriculture and elsewhere. These co-robots are proving that we need more high-tech people and fewer low-skilled people in this globally competitive economy.

by   -   June 17, 2013

Well, I’m lucky enough to be a gentleman scientist, so I concurrently study problems on minimal dynamical control systems (optimizing performance to silicon ratios), power regeneration and efficiency, alien robot morphologies (weird bodies outside the conventional biomimetic), sensor design, situational awareness and integration, motor and mechanical operational extension, locomotion and loading, and anything else that allows for useful, clean, interesting, semi-perpetual automatons.

Y’know, the basics.  Bringing good things to life.  Moo Ha ha.

So robotics research is excellent for those with ADHD – the field’s problem and feature is it’s not just anything, it’s everything that’s techno fun. However every now and again there’s something that skitters, flops, pronks, spins, walks, tumbles, or bounces across the desk that could really use … a brain.

So the short answer is I’d put (other people’s) money into researching affordable competent minds that could help organize any mechanical body, sensor or environment they are given.  Small, quick, cheap, and with a voice interface so I can encourage it to effectiveness without a million keystrokes.  Power on and it asks “Hello, what is my name?”

Yes, that’d be handy.  Do they have an App for that yet?

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by   -   June 17, 2013

Community empowerment through massive robotic sensing.

There is no question we live in a world that is changing. Pollutants are changing the dynamics of the air we breathe, the water we drink and even the soil on which we live. Yet the power to measure pollution, measure human behavior (including Emergency Room visits) and correlate the values is held tightly by government and corporate players.  They have the money to focus on sensors and values that make their case, and they have the marketing skills to then present those values in the best possible light for reelection and for corporate profit.

But in fact those most touched by a changing world are ordinary citizens, and it is the citizen who has the potential to make decisions that immediately impact health and future legislation, from what neighborhood to live in to which politician to elect. Robotic sensing technologies are rapidly becoming less expensive, and with the right infusion of research I believe we could develop the networking, data visualization and interaction smarts to have global, publicly accessible information about all sources of pollution. This would empower citizens and communities to make far more informed decisions, and to fight biased information presentations with their own re-interpretation of source data. This will take new innovation in sensing technologies, networking, Big Data storage, search, retrieval and evaluation.

It is the stuff of robotics, through and through, applied to the deep goal of community empowerment at an international scale.

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by   -   May 15, 2013

Well it depends on what you mean by mainstream. For a number of  major industry sectors robotics is already mainstream. In assembly-line automation, for instance; or undersea oil well maintenance and inspection. You could argue that robotics is well established as the technology of choice for planetary exploration. And in human culture too, robots are already decidedly mainstream. Make believe robots are everywhere, from toys and children’s cartoons, to TV ads and big budget Hollywood movies. Robots are so rooted in our cultural landscape that public attitudes are, I believe, informed – or rather misinformed – primarily by fictional rather than real-world robots.

But I understand the sentiment behind the question. In robotics we have a shared sense of a technology that has yet to reach its true potential; of a dream unfulfilled.

The question asks what is the single biggest obstacle. In my view some of the biggest  immediate obstacles are not technical but human. Let me explain with an example. We already have some very capable tele-operated robots for disaster response. They are rugged, reliable and some are well field-tested. Yet why it is that robots like these are not standard equipment with fire brigades? I see no technical reason that fire tenders shouldn’t have, as standard, a compartment with a tele-operated robot – charged and ready for use when it’s needed. There are, in my view, no real technical obstacles. The problem I think is that such robots need to become accepted by fire departments and the fire fighters themselves, with all that this entails for training, in-use experience and revised operational procedures.

In the longer term we need to ask what it would mean for robotics to go mainstream. Would it mean everyone having a personal robot, in the same we all now have personal computing devices? Or, when all cars are driverless perhaps? Or, when everyone whose lives would be improved with a robot assistant, could reasonably expect to be able to afford one? Some versions of mainstream are maybe not a good idea: I’m not sure I want to contemplate a world in there are as many personal mobile robots, as there are mobile phones now (~4.5 billion). Would this create robot smog, as Illah Nourbakhsh calls it in his new book Robot Futures?

Right now I don’t have a clear idea of what it would mean for robots to go mainstream, but one thing’s for sure: we should be thinking about what kind of sustainable, humanity benefitting and life enhancing mainstream robot futures we really want.

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by   -   May 15, 2013

The biggest obstacle to broader adoption of robotics is that only experienced roboticists can develop robotics applications.  To make a robot reliably and robustly do something useful, you need a deep understanding of a broad variety of topics, from state estimation to perception to path planning.  While few people in the world have this expertise, many people can write software.  What we need is more of those software developers involved in the business of developing robotics applications.

I say “applications” to distinguish this work from that of developing new algorithms or core building blocks.  Making an analogy to traditional software development, I don’t need to understand how process schedulers, or file systems, or memory managers work in order to develop useful desktop applications.  And I don’t need to know the details of DNS, web servers, or web sockets to develop portable web applications.  Knowing more about the underpinnings of the system will always be useful, of course.  But the key is that, once the building blocks are established, understood, documented, and tutorialized, the barrier has been greatly lowered: you just need to be able to write code.

Beyond just getting more people working with robots, we need better ideas for how robotics technology can be usefully and profitably employed to support people in their everyday lives.  My experience in the robotics community over the last 15 years has convinced me that roboticists are pathologically bad at coming up with application ideas.  We’re enamored of the technology, which is good in that it motivates us to work hard on important problems.  But it also leads us to concentrate on “robotic” solutions to problems, without regard to what people who experience those problems really need.  We can fix this problem by adding orders of magnitude more developers to our community, each of whom comes with a new and different perspective. And we can do that by making the development of robotics applications accessible to any competent programmer.

The Android and iOS platforms made it possible for people with no more than a passing understanding of 3G, GPS, or touch screens to build useful, even world-changing mobile applications.  We can do the same for robotics.  We’re on the right path, with a lot of effort going into open, shared software platforms for robotics.  We just need to keep pushing, and to keep the non-robotics engineer in mind when we’re building things.

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by   -   May 15, 2013

From experience, the single biggest obstacle to personal robotic markets is cost, both in money and time. Robots have the disadvantage of being over-promoted in fictional media while over-priced on the shelves. Sci-fi is fine to inspire if builders feel the money-time is justified, but the number of half-finished robots internationally greatly outnumber those completed, more’s the pity.

Frustration is compounded when the budding obsessive-compulsive hits what I call the ‘complexity barrier’, where for a linear increase in device competence, an exponential increase in money-time is required.  This often leads to a condition I call FIBA (for “F&@k It, Build Another”) where enthusiasm fades as prototypes fall further into dusty closets.

The problem with FIBA is that the evolutionary discoveries and skills from completing the mechanoid never resolve.  Also, unlike failed code, film, books, or other virtual projects, the half-finished device will be too expensive to throw away and will likely to haunt the builders ambitions for years (dammit!).

It doesn’t inspire, especially when Hollywood (and nature) makes it seem so easy.  There has to be a way to reduce all the factors so that robots can be put together at a price appropriate not just to encourage robo-evolution, but also allow users to put them at risk.  Right now conventional personal robots are precious things subject to de-acceleration trauma, but the best discoveries I’ve had have not been from artificial life, but artificial danger.  We can simulate a robot, but not the real-world it lives in, and how it deals with those problems provide vital clues for subsequent generations (robots and builders alike).  We have to get them cheap enough so they can make mistakes, or they/we will never learn … the vital step to proctoring these creatures into reality.

It’s a forced evolution, and sometimes painful/funny to watch, but if you’ve got a dozen of these dumbos in the lab, let’s see what the dog thinks of one.

Speaking of, anyone know how to get fang marks out of aluminum?

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by   -   April 15, 2013

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-worker-climbing-upwards-ladder-image19289039These days it is hard to read an article about the future of robots that does not include a reference to jobs. As a pure roboticist I object to the constant connection between the two, but as a concerned citizen I think it is a very worthwhile discussion.  Since the year 2000, the US has lost more than 6 million manufacturing jobs — that is more than 1/3 of all direct manufacturing jobs in the US and the fastest drop in a single decade on record.

by   -   April 14, 2013

There is no doubt that robots, and automation in general, replace humans in the work-force: all productivity-enhancing tools, by definition, result in a decrease in the number of man-hours required to perform a given task. 

This Robotics By Invitation contribution is part of Robohub’s Jobs Focus.

There may be some regional effects that result in an immediate increase in jobs (for example, setting up a new manufacturing plant and hiring workers to maintain the machines), but the global effect is indisputable: overall, robots replace human workers.

What is also true, however, is that robots create jobs as well.  This is simply Economics 101: there is a redistribution of labor from low skilled jobs – what robots can do now, and the foreseeable future – to higher skilled jobs. An analogy from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture: “In 1790, 93% of the population of the United States was rural, most of them farmers. By 1990, only 200 years later, barely 2% of our population are farmers.”  What is also true is that there are many more software engineers now than there were in 1790; or mechanics; or physiotherapists; or professional athletes; or artists.

So the debate about robots replacing human workers is, for the most part, a tired and old one; just replace the word ‘robot’ with any productivity-enhancing tool or development. And as long as the process is gradual, one can reasonably argue that society benefits as a whole.

But the question does have merit, because human workers are at an artificial disadvantage relative to their robot counterparts, and the culprit is artificially low interest rates.  Large companies such as Procter and Gamble can issue 10 year corporate bonds that have astronomically low yields of 2.3%.  With money so cheap, productivity tools – such as robots – that would not be economically viable under normal interest rates and yields are now a bargain.  Why should a company ‘rent’ labor (a human worker) when it can ‘buy’ it (a robot)?  Have we not seen this storyline before?

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See all the posts in Robohub’s Jobs Focus →

 

[Photo credit: Petr Kratochvil.]

by   -   April 14, 2013

Robots do kill jobs but they’re crappy jobs, so good riddance.  If you’ve ever had a job you were desperate for the money, but immediately regretted after you got it, then you know what I mean.

This Robotics By Invitation contribution is part of Robohub’s Jobs Focus.

The anxiety occurs when robots have anthropomorphic similarities that people wrongly associate with human ambition.  When a (semi) humanoid takes away the whole menial job that used to be done by a person, there’s an instinctive focus to blame the machine, not the corporation optimizing its bottom line.  Optimizing tasks to reduce costs is a good thing.  It’s just a shame we haven’t kept up with the social reforms needed so people who had those jobs before could find better jobs now.

So the short answer is robot-brained corporations kill jobs.  Robots are just the anthropomorphic patsies that get blamed.

Still, now I have to go and stare worriedly at my toaster.

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by   -   March 16, 2013

Robots have already changed the face of modern warfare, particularly through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called “drones.” Currently, armed drone aircraft are in widespread use transnationally and have proven highly effective. A current trend is for these huge aircraft to shrink into smaller forms. The US Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047 describes sought-after future scenarios in which insect-sized unmanned aerial vehicles infiltrate buildings and either spy on the occupants or deliver lethal payloads directly to individual targets. Current drones are the size of small buildings and they typically kill one civilian for every five combatants using flagrant missile attacks, thereby creating an ongoing international relations nightmare. It isn’t hard to see why smaller, more subtle, and better-targeted drones are in development.

The most worrisome aspect of the plunging cost and climbing sophistication of drone technology is to consider its domestic use in the United States. Although I don’t expect to see armed Predator drones cruising American cities, it is obviously very tempting to employ smaller versions for domestic law enforcement applications (e.g., surveillance during hostage negotiations). How long until similar devices are sent to hover over high-crime areas? We are already confronting novel privacy issues with the advent of Google Glass, increasingly invasive social networks, and sensor-laden smart phones. As drones of all shapes and sizes proliferate abroad, I won’t be surprised when we start to see their appropriate use join the ongoing privacy discussion in the US.

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by   -   March 13, 2013

Robot machines have been shaping the future of war since the first siege engines appeared in ancient times (I like to think the Trojan Horse was motorized).  Now with technology significantly extending our military reach and impact, small surgical-strike war is becoming more assured, though not — I’m glad to say — cheaper.  Humans are still the best cost-to-benefit weapons for the battlefield and will be so for quite a while.  That offers hope as the personal risks, regardless of ideology, become universally recognized as too damn high.

What also assures me comes from my years of robot gaming: when you have battles between autonomous robots, people just don’t care, as there are no human egos bolstered or defeated by the outcome.  Machines beating on machines has no emotional connection for us, which is where the ceiling of robot-soldier tolerance might stall.

What will be horrific is the first time a humanoid soldier machine is broadcast hurting or killing humans in a war setting.  When I worked in vision technology, we were asked how would a machine tell the difference between a group of soldiers and a pack of boy scouts from a distance?  It couldn’t, which is why human judgement is still the means by which a trigger is pulled.  Even still, when that video broadcasts, everyone in the world will know our place as the dominant species has just become … less so.

But the question comes down to who gets blamed when a robot commits an atrocity?  Without human frailty to take blame on site, is it the remote pilots, the generals, the politicians?  Sadly the precedent for blame-free robot conflict is being settled by beltway-lawyers now.  A new cold war where you’ll be able to legally and blamelessly use a killer-drone App, though you’ll still go to jail for downloading a movie.

Because that’d be immoral.

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by   -   March 13, 2013

How will robots shape the future of war?  I don’t know. I think that the more important question, however, is: what role should robots have in warfare?

In my answer I have tried (as much as is humanly possible) to put myself in the role of an alien dispassionately analyzing the situation.  And when I do, I keep returning to the following conclusion: the best possible outcome for humanity would be for robots to not play any part (with the possible exception of purely defensive roles such as defusing mines) in warfare whatsoever.

If I were an alien, this is what I would first observe:

  1. The ability for the average human to create tools that can harm others is rapidly increasing. This is especially the case for robots and intelligent machines: sensors, actuators, computing platforms, power systems, and other enabling technologies are continually becoming less expensive, more powerful, and more widely available. The result is that increasingly large numbers of people are becoming capable of delivering payloads accurately and over great distances.
  2. The knowledge required to create robots, intelligent machines, and the algorithms that bring them to life are widely accessible and impossible to suppress; knowledge wants to be free in the same way that entropy wants to increase.
  3. Humans have an incredibly strong sense of fairness, and their own research supports this. One of their greatest triumphs as a species is their ability to channel traits such as tribalism, aggression, and competitiveness – the same traits that lead to warfare – to a benign medium that results in their great joy and entertainment, not to mention a significant economic activity: organized sports. Central to this incredible accomplishment is the establishment of well-defined rules and regulations that strive to ensure a fair competition.

And this is what I would then conclude:

Dominant powers are being seduced by the advantages that robots can bring to the battlefield.  In the short term, this is a perfectly rational strategy. In the long term, however, this leads to an arms race. Even though a dominant power may be able to maintain its lead by continually developing robotic weapons, the capabilities of its adversaries, while inferior, will co-develop and eventually reach levels that will allow them to inflict catastrophic damage. 

Furthermore, asymmetric warfare insidiously erodes the sense of fairness outlined in point 3, with detrimental consequences for both sides.  The losing side is disenfranchised, which coupled with points 1 and 2 above, is extremely destabilizing. The winning side loses its moral compass and the fabric that holds its society together begins to unravel, leading to home-grown disenfranchisement and destabilization there as well. 

The net result of this robotic arms race will be a high-volatility stalemate, with dangerous weapons available to the masses and a lack of social restraint to prevent their indiscriminate use.    

If I were an alien, and thus immune to personal and economic factors that could influence my impartiality (such as having a loved one in combat, or being employed by a weapons dealer or manufacturer), I could only conclude that humanity would greatly benefit from imposing strict and far-reaching bans on the use of robotic technology in warfare.

As a human, not only am I skeptical that this will happen, I admit that my personal views are situation dependent: if my daughter were in combat, I wouldn’t care about asymmetry or fairness, I would want her to be as safe as possible. I don’t think that this makes me a hypocrite, it just makes me human.

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by   -   February 15, 2013

I would like to start from the other side: “Why is robotics great in creating new technologies and poor in creating new businesses?”. Well, someone may disagree, but I really think that robotics is great in creating new technologies. However, almost everyone agrees that robotics is poor in creating new businesses.

In my opinion, this is due to two main reasons:

  1. Robotics is DIFFICULT! It is a multidisciplinary field, where you have to put together the best from several worlds, and make it work. This results in huge integration challenges, which are as complex, or even more complex, than the technology itself.
  2. Robotics is EXPENSIVE! Being an expensive technology makes it challenging to find viable business models for new markets.

Based on that, a successful funding scheme should foster the transition from research and technology to integration and business. This does not mean that one should directly fund companies, but that the funding scheme should enforce market orientation. In addition to the fundamental research, a successful funding scheme should put in place a combination of market oriented technological research, development of integration solutions, and pre-commercial procurement. This should, hopefully, help new robotics applications to reach the market.

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by   -   February 15, 2013

Funding new robotic projects in America is mostly done two different ways:

(1) strategic funding from NASA, DARPA, DoD, NSF and other government organizations to do the pure science involved in solving stumbling blocks in robotics, and

(2) entrepreneurial-initiated funding from friends and family, angel investors, VCs and “special people” like Scott Hassan, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, or Sergey Brin.

In addition, some funding is available via macro programs such as the Roadmap for US Robotics, which don’t move at the same speed as the entrepreneur-initiated projects.

Finally, surrounding each of the major universities involved in robotics research and education are clusters of support networks working with and supplementing the universities’ own commercialization activities. Stanford and UC Berkeley in the Bay Area of California; Georgia Tech in Atlanta; CMU in Pittsburgh; and MIT and Harvard in Boston. All of these clusters and commercialization activities are without government stimulus or direction.

Willow Garage is a perfect example of the benefits of special people: Scott Hassan had a vision to jump-start robotics – particularly the open source software side – and he invested hundreds of millions of dollars in that pursuit. From Willow Garage came seven notable spin-offs including an ongoing non-profit to perpetuate ROS.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page from Google established Google X-Labs, invested in Tesla Motors, and many more.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has set up a fund that has invested in all sorts of start-ups: from Uber to Behance to Linden Labs.

The real excitement comes from the special people: They not only enthusiastically give back with profits from their own experiences, but also bring the same level of energy that made them successful to funding of new robotics projects.

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