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Robotics by Invitation

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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It has been said that we are on the edge of a ‘robotic tipping point’ … but where, exactly, is this edge? And what’s holding us back?  This month we asked our panelists to weigh in on what’s keeping robots from going mainstream. Here’s what they have to say …

Gerkey Brian Brian Gerkey on “What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream?”

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 …

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Mark Tilden Mark Tilden on “What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream?”

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 …

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Alan-Winfield Alan Winfield on “What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream?”

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 …

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by   -   April 15, 2013

To coincide with Robohub’s Jobs Focus, we asked our panelists to weigh in on the role that robots play in the wider economy, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for employment numbers. Here’s what they have to say:

John-Dulchinos
John Dulchinos feature article: “The great equalizer: How robotics frees manufacturers from consolidating in low-wage nations”

These 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 worthwhile discussion …

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Raffaello-DAndrea.jpg
Raffaello D’Andrea on “Do robots kill jobs?”

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 …

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Mark Tilden

Mark Tilden on “Do robots kill jobs?”

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. …

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We hope you will join the discussion. Feel free to post your comment below.

See all the posts in Robohub’s Jobs Focus →

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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See all the posts in Robohub’s Jobs Focus →

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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by   -   February 15, 2013

The public should in most cases not subsidize companies. Tax payers should not be venture capitalists. The new wave of Lean Startup going around the world is a great model to ensure that companies are building products that truly match real market needs. Too many companies are launched without a clear understanding of what the required market demands are in terms of price, performance, and market size. There is a lack of market analysts who are experts in robotics applications. Trying to fund R&D without a clear understanding of what can be sold at what prices is typically a poor investment.

There is still a major need for new methods and companies for systems integration. Still 75% of the system cost is integration, which is a surprise to most companies. We need to bring down the cost of deployment. Too little support has been provided for a new generation of systems integrators.

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by   -   February 15, 2013

The best way to commercialize robotics research is to make better connections between academics and entrepreneurs.  Academics venturing out into the business world tend to have a “hammer looking for a nail” mentality, and often lack an appreciation of the skills and real-world experience that entrepreneurs and business-minded folks bring to the table. Likewise, most entrepreneurs cannot accurately estimate the complexity of the underlying technology … they do not know what is hard to do and what is not. Nor should they be blamed for this: speaking as an academic, I must admit that distinguishing between what is easy and what is difficult to achieve is not usually the focus of our publications, web pages or videos. So how do we bridge this gap?  Two ideas:

  1. Continue to fund robotics competitions.  Not only is this a great way to educate researchers on how to build real systems, but the approaches adopted by the winning teams are highly correlated to what is feasible with today’s technology. Also, the challenges these teams encounter in a one-year competition cycle are similar to those faced by a young startup in its first year of existence. This funding approach could be expanded to include team projects that create large-scale public installations because, like startups, they too must be reliable and robust to succeed in a public, real-world context.  Finally, one must also make sure that entrepreneurs know about these competitions and team projects, and that they have the right incentives to attend.
  2. Provide funding that allows freshly-minted PhDs to transition from fundamental research to applied research with a specific business focus, and at the same time provide support from business mentors and entrepreneurs.  A pre-startup phase, if you will. This not only brings the research closer to application, but it also gives individuals an appreciation of what it takes to commercialize their research, without the immediacy and constraints of being a startup.  A good example of this kind of funding scheme is the Pioneer Fellowships program established at ETH Zurich.

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by   -   January 31, 2013

Funding schemes aren’t viable until we can make more innovative roboticists, and over the years I’ve tried several methods of engendering the Divine Frankenstein Complex in others. Teaching at a university had some merit but little flexibility. Starting international robot competitions brings in exposure but promotes more involvement than innovation. Scientific publications vanish into the ether (though books fare better). Movies, TV shows, and toys are never treated seriously though they spread memes universally. Even being a government research program manager (dispensing millions of $) is a slow bath in futility against IP lawyers and rigid corporate policy.

The most successful (and enjoyable) funding scheme I ever took part in was through a science outreach organization that distributed ‘Angel Cards’. We would actively seek out people who were frustrated but brilliant and give them a $10,000 US a month Visa card to spend on their research “hobby”. No other paperwork. At the end of 6 months we’d assess what they’d done and up their card to $20,000/month if good, or we’d just cancel the card, thank them, and walk away.

26% turned out something amazing, and not always in robotics, but that was fine. It was an excellent integrity test proctoring scientific conviction, but it’s exhausting for the managers, which is why we had to recruit successful candidates to take our place when we moved on. Regrettably the program stopped a decade ago, but for a while there it was like Santa Claus for innovation – an option to explore exotic, tangental paths without consequence, and I’m glad to see many of our docents have diversified profitably.

Money well spent. Always hoped someone else would take it up, and it seems a form of it has with the net-wide Kickstarter trend now raging. Rather than indenture a researcher to servitude under a venture-capital scheme or the bureaucracy of government funding, pre-customers can buy into a future product on promises and universal visibility. The personal investment is small, the risk distributed, and some of the products look promising.

Though crowd sourcing lacks the ‘blue-sky’ appeal of pure research outreach, I feel the best robotic funding scheme at present is to invest in cool and visible crowd-sourced ventures.

Or you could fund my ass. A cool hundred mil otta do it. :)

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by   -   January 15, 2013

Welcome to Robotics by Invitation! Each month we pose a question of general interest to the robotics community, and ask our panel of experts to answer.

So, where would the experts invest their money? Our panel members weigh in:

 

Frank Tobe Frank Tobe on “If you had a EUR 100M investment fund, into which robotics technology or field of robotics would you put your money?”

As the robotics industry continues to grow, enters new industries, and provides new applications, strategic focus is necessary or the overall industry will develop haphazardly and spread out …

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Mark TildenMark Tilden on “If you had a EUR 100M investment fund, into which robotics technology or field of robotics would you put your money?”

Well if it was for fun, I’d invest in autonomous paving mothers (APMs).  A self-driving solar-powered mobile furnace robot that eats sand and dirt and spits out interlocking solar-panel paving stones …

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Henrik ChristensenHenrik Christensen on “If you had a EUR 100M investment fund, into which robotics technology or field of robotics would you put your money?”

Robots for manufacturing. Generating a new family of robots that have a fluent interaction with humans. It will be easily programmable. Some would argue that Baxter provides this functionality …

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Herman BruyninckxHerman Bruyninckx on “If you had a EUR 100M investment fund, into which robotics technology or field of robotics would you put your money?”

A project that would (1) represent human knowledge about manufacturing in an ontology server; (2) focus on system integration software and hardware issues …

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We hope you will join the discussion. Feel free to post your comment.

by   -   January 15, 2013

A project that would:

  1. represent human knowledge about manufacturing in an ontology server;
  2. focus on system integration software and hardware issues;
  3. develop affordance-driven system and component design;
  4. make students aware of the dead-end future of the current wave of “Sense-Plan-Act” software development;
  5. lobby with academic decision makers to throw away the “publish or perish” system, and replace it by direct peer review (that is, the technology exists to just ask all roboticists to score their peers, with a limited budget of points to distribute).

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Multisensory Perception
November 15, 2020


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