Category Archives: Human Robots
Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.
Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.
Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.
It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.
That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.
But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.
It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.
And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.
In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.
It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.
Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.
And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).
How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.
Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.
But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.
Image Credit: Visual Generation / Shutterstock.com Continue reading
J.C.R. Licklider's proposals for “man-machine symbiosis” led to the invention of the internet Continue reading
FUTURE OF FOOD
Behold the ‘Beefless Impossible Whopper’
Nathaniel Popper | The New York Times
“Burger King is introducing a Whopper made with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The deal is a big step toward the mainstream for start-ups trying to mimic and replace meat.”
The Animal-AI Olympics Is Going to Treat AI Like a Lab Rat
Oscar Schwartz | MIT Technology Review
“What is being tested is not a particular type of intelligence but the ability for a single agent to adapt to diverse environments. This would demonstrate a limited form of generalized intelligence—a type of common sense that AI will need if it is ever to succeed in our homes or in our daily lives.”
Falcon Heavy’s First Real Launch on Sunday Is the Dawn of a New Heavy-Lift Era in Space
Devin Coldewey | TechCrunch
“The Falcon Heavy has flown before, but now it’s got a payload that matters and competitors nipping at its heels. It’s the first of a new generation of launch vehicles that can take huge payloads to space cheaply and frequently, opening up a new frontier in the space race.”
Self-Driving Harvesting Robot Suctions the Fruit Off Trees
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“[Abundant Robotics] has developed a cutting edge solution to the apple-picking problem in the form of an autonomous tractor-style vehicle which can navigate through orchards using Lidar. Once it spots the apples it seeks, it’s able to detect their ripeness using image recognition technology. It can then reach out and literally suction its chosen apples off the trees and into an on-board storage bin.”
Amid Bitcoin Uncertainty ‘the Smart Money Knows That Crypto Is Not Ready’
Nathaniel Popper | The New York Times
“Some cryptocurrency enthusiasts had hoped that the entrance of Wall Street institutions would give them legitimacy with traditional investors. But their struggles—and waning interest—illustrate the difficulty in bringing Bitcoin from the fringes of the internet into the mainstream financial world.”
Sorry, Graphene—Borophene Is the New Wonder Material That’s Got Everyone Excited
Emerging Technology from the arXiv | MIT Technology Review
“Stronger and more flexible than graphene, a single-atom layer of boron could revolutionize sensors, batteries, and catalytic chemistry.”
Image Credit: JoeZ / Shutterstock.com Continue reading
Nine robotics teams are participating in an integration exercise for DARPA's Subterranean Challenge this weekend Continue reading