Category Archives: Human Robots

Everything about Humanoid Robots and Androids

#435674 MIT Future of Work Report: We ...

Robots aren’t going to take everyone’s jobs, but technology has already reshaped the world of work in ways that are creating clear winners and losers. And it will continue to do so without intervention, says the first report of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future.

The supergroup of MIT academics was set up by MIT President Rafael Reif in early 2018 to investigate how emerging technologies will impact employment and devise strategies to steer developments in a positive direction. And the headline finding from their first publication is that it’s not the quantity of jobs we should be worried about, but the quality.

Widespread press reports of a looming “employment apocalypse” brought on by AI and automation are probably wide of the mark, according to the authors. Shrinking workforces as developed countries age and outstanding limitations in what machines can do mean we’re unlikely to have a shortage of jobs.

But while unemployment is historically low, recent decades have seen a polarization of the workforce as the number of both high- and low-skilled jobs have grown at the expense of the middle-skilled ones, driving growing income inequality and depriving the non-college-educated of viable careers.

This is at least partly attributable to the growth of digital technology and automation, the report notes, which are rendering obsolete many middle-skilled jobs based around routine work like assembly lines and administrative support.

That leaves workers to either pursue high-skilled jobs that require deep knowledge and creativity, or settle for low-paid jobs that rely on skills—like manual dexterity or interpersonal communication—that are still beyond machines, but generic to most humans and therefore not valued by employers. And the growth of emerging technology like AI and robotics is only likely to exacerbate the problem.

This isn’t the first report to note this trend. The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report noted how technology is causing a “hollowing out” of labor markets. But the MIT report goes further in saying that the cause isn’t simply technology, but the institutions and policies we’ve built around it.

The motivation for introducing new technology is broadly assumed to be to increase productivity, but the authors note a rarely-acknowledged fact: “Not all innovations that raise productivity displace workers, and not all innovations that displace workers substantially raise productivity.”

Examples of the former include computer-aided design software that makes engineers and architects more productive, while examples of the latter include self-service checkouts and automated customer support that replace human workers, often at the expense of a worse customer experience.

While the report notes that companies have increasingly adopted the language of technology augmenting labor, in reality this has only really benefited high-skilled workers. For lower-skilled jobs the motivation is primarily labor cost savings, which highlights the other major force shaping technology’s impact on employment: shareholder capitalism.

The authors note that up until the 1980s, increasing productivity resulted in wage growth across the economic spectrum, but since then average wage growth has failed to keep pace and gains have dramatically skewed towards the top earners.

The report shies away from directly linking this trend to the birth of Reaganomics (something others have been happy to do), but it notes that American veneration of the shareholder as the primary stakeholder in a business and tax policies that incentivize investment in capital rather than labor have exacerbated the negative impacts technology can have on employment.

That means the current focus on re-skilling workers to thrive in the new economy is a necessary, but not sufficient, solution to the disruptive impact technology is having on work, the authors say.

Alongside significant investment in education, fiscal policies need to be re-balanced away from subsidizing investment in physical capital and towards boosting investment in human capital, the authors write, and workers need to have a greater say in corporate decision-making.

The authors point to other developed economies where productivity growth, income growth, and equality haven’t become so disconnected thanks to investments in worker skills, social safety nets, and incentives to invest in human capital. Whether such a radical reshaping of US economic policy is achievable in today’s political climate remains to be seen, but the authors conclude with a call to arms.

“The failure of the US labor market to deliver broadly shared prosperity despite rising productivity is not an inevitable byproduct of current technologies or free markets,” they write. “We can and should do better.”

Image Credit: Simon Abrams / Unsplash/a> Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435669 Watch World Champion Soccer Robots Take ...

RoboCup 2019 took place earlier this month down in Sydney, Australia. While there are many different events including RoboCup@Home, RoboCup Rescue, and a bunch of different soccer leagues, one of the most compelling events is middle-size league (MSL), where mobile robots each about the size of a fire hydrant play soccer using a regular size FIFA soccer ball. The robots are fully autonomous, making their own decisions in real time about when to dribble, pass, and shoot.

The long-term goal of RoboCup is this:

By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.

While the robots are certainly not there yet, they're definitely getting closer.

Even if you’re not a particular fan of soccer, it’s impressive to watch the robots coordinate with each other, setting up multiple passes and changing tactics on the fly in response to the movements of the other team. And the ability of these robots to shoot accurately is world-class (like, human world-class), as they’re seemingly able to put the ball in whatever corner of the goal they choose with split-second timing.

The final match was between Tech United from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (whose robots are called TURTLE), and Team Water from Beijing Information Science & Technology University. Without spoiling it, I can tell you that the game was tied within just the last few seconds, meaning that it had to go to overtime. You can watch the entire match on YouTube, or a 5-minute commentated highlight video here:

It’s become a bit of a tradition to have the winning MSL robots play a team of what looks to be inexperienced adult humans wearing long pants and dress shoes.

The fact that the robots managed to score even once is pretty awesome, and it also looks like the robots are playing very conservatively (more so than the humans) so as not to accidentally injure any of us fragile meatbags with our spindly little legs. I get that RoboCup wants its first team of robots that can beat a human World Cup winning team to be humanoids, but at the moment, the MSL robots are where all the skill is.

To get calibrated on the state of the art for humanoid soccer robots, here’s the adult size final, Team Nimbro from the University of Bonn in Germany versus Team Sweaty from Offenburg University in Germany:

Yup, still a lot of falling over.

There’s lots more RoboCup on YouTube: Some channels to find more matches include the official RoboCup 2019 channel, and Tech United Eindhoven’s channel, which has both live English commentary and some highlight videos.

[ RoboCup 2019 ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435664 Swarm Robots Mimic Ant Jaws to Flip and ...

Small robots are appealing because they’re simple, cheap, and it’s easy to make a lot of them. Unfortunately, being simple and cheap means that each robot individually can’t do a whole lot. To make up for this, you can do what insects do—leverage that simplicity and low-cost to just make a huge swarm of simple robots, and together, they can cooperate to carry out relatively complex tasks.

Using insects as an example does set a bit of an unfair expectation for the poor robots, since insects are (let’s be honest) generally smarter and much more versatile than a robot on their scale could ever hope to be. Most robots with insect-like capabilities (like DASH and its family) are really too big and complex to be turned into swarms, because to make a vast amount of small robots, things like motors aren’t going to work because they’re too expensive.

The question, then, is to how to make a swarm of inexpensive small robots with insect-like mobility that don’t need motors to get around, and Jamie Paik’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL has an answer, inspired by trap-jaw ants.

Let’s talk about trap-jaw ants for just a second, because they’re insane. You can read this 2006 paper about them if you’re particularly interested in insane ants (and who isn’t!), but if you just want to hear the insane bit, it’s that trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground (!). In just 0.06 millisecond, their half-millimeter long mandibles can close at a top speed of 64 meters per second, which works out to an acceleration of about 100,000 g’s. Biting the ground causes the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself, which launches the ant upwards. The ants can fly 8 centimeters vertically, and up to 15 cm horizontally—this is a lot, for an ant that’s just a few millimeters long.

Trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground, causing the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself

EPFL’s robots, called Tribots, look nothing at all like trap-jaw ants, which personally I am fine with. They’re about 5 cm tall, weighing 10 grams each, and can be built on a flat sheet, and then folded into a tripod shape, origami-style. Or maybe it’s kirigami, because there’s some cutting involved. The Tribots are fully autonomous, meaning they have onboard power and control, including proximity sensors that allow them to detect objects and avoid them.

Photo: Marc Delachaux/EPFL

EPFL researchers Zhenishbek Zhakypov and Jamie Paik.

Avoiding objects is where the trap-jaw ants come in. Using two different shape-memory actuators (a spring and a latch, similar to how the ant’s jaw works), the Tribots can move around using a bunch of different techniques that can adapt to the terrain that they’re on, including:

Vertical jumping for height
Horizontal jumping for distance
Somersault jumping to clear obstacles
Walking on textured terrain with short hops (called “flic-flac” walking)
Crawling on flat surfaces

Here’s the robot in action:

Tribot’s maximum vertical jump is 14 cm (2.5 times its height), and horizontally it can jump about 23 cm (almost 4 times its length). Tribot is actually quite efficient in these movements, with a cost of transport much lower than similarly-sized robots, on par with insects themselves.

Working together, small groups of Tribots can complete tasks that a single robot couldn’t do alone. One example is pushing a heavy object a set distance. It turns out that you need five Tribots for this task—a leader robot, two worker robots, a monitor robot to measure the distance that the object has been pushed, and then a messenger robot to relay communications around the obstacle.

Image: EPFL

Five Tribots collaborate to move an object to a desired position, using coordination between a leader, two workers, a monitor, and a messenger robot. The leader orders the two worker robots to push the object while the monitor measures the relative position of the object. As the object blocks the two-way link between the leader and the monitor, the messenger maintains the communication link.

The researchers acknowledge that the current version of the hardware is limited in pretty much every way (mobility, sensing, and computation), but it does a reasonable job of demonstrating what’s possible with the concept. The plan going forward is to automate fabrication in order to “enable on-demand, ’push-button-manufactured’” robots.

“Designing minimal and scalable insect-inspired multi-locomotion millirobots,” by Zhenishbek Zhakypov, Kazuaki Mori, Koh Hosoda, and Jamie Paik from EPFL and Osaka University, is published in the current issue of Nature.
[ RRL ] via [ EPFL ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435662 Video Friday: This 3D-Printed ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

ICRES 2019 – July 29-30, 2019 – London, U.K.
DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

We’re used to seeing bristle bots about the size of a toothbrush head (which is not a coincidence), but Georgia Tech has downsized them, with some interesting benefits.

Researchers have created a new type of tiny 3D-printed robot that moves by harnessing vibration from piezoelectric actuators, ultrasound sources or even tiny speakers. Swarms of these “micro-bristle-bots” might work together to sense environmental changes, move materials – or perhaps one day repair injuries inside the human body.

The prototype robots respond to different vibration frequencies depending on their configurations, allowing researchers to control individual bots by adjusting the vibration. Approximately two millimeters long – about the size of the world’s smallest ant – the bots can cover four times their own length in a second despite the physical limitations of their small size.

“We are working to make the technology robust, and we have a lot of potential applications in mind,” said Azadeh Ansari, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”

[ Georgia Tech ]

Most consumer drones are “multi-copters,” meaning that they have a series of rotors or propellers that allow them to hover like helicopters. But having rotors severely limits their energy efficiency, which means that they can’t easily carry heavy payloads or fly for long periods of time. To get the best of both worlds, drone designers have tried to develop “hybrid” fixed-wing drones that can fly as efficiently as airplanes, while still taking off and landing vertically like multi-copters.

These drones are extremely hard to control because of the complexity of dealing with their flight dynamics, but a team from MIT CSAIL aims to make the customization process easier, with a new system that allows users to design drones of different sizes and shapes that can nimbly switch between hovering and gliding – all by using a single controller.

In future work, the team plans to try to further increase the drone’s maneuverability by improving its design. The model doesn’t yet fully take into account complex aerodynamic effects between the propeller’s airflow and the wings. And lastly, their method trained the copter with “yaw velocity” set at zero, which means that it cannot currently perform sharp turns.

[ Paper ] via [ MIT ]

We’re not quite at the point where we can 3D print entire robots, but UCSD is getting us closer.

The UC San Diego researchers’ insight was twofold. They turned to a commercially available printer for the job, (the Stratasys Objet350 Connex3—a workhorse in many robotics labs). In addition, they realized one of the materials used by the 3D printer is made of carbon particles that can conduct power to sensors when connected to a power source. So roboticists used the black resin to manufacture complex sensors embedded within robotic parts made of clear polymer. They designed and manufactured several prototypes, including a gripper.

When stretched, the sensors failed at approximately the same strain as human skin. But the polymers the 3D printer uses are not designed to conduct electricity, so their performance is not optimal. The 3D printed robots also require a lot of post-processing before they can be functional, including careful washing to clean up impurities and drying.

However, researchers remain optimistic that in the future, materials will improve and make 3D printed robots equipped with embedded sensors much easier to manufacture.

[ UCSD ]

Congrats to Team Homer from the University of Koblenz-Landau, who won the RoboCup@Home world championship in Sydney!

[ Team Homer ]

When you’ve got a robot with both wheels and legs, motion planning is complicated. IIT has developed a new planner for CENTAURO that takes advantage of the different ways that the robot is able to get past obstacles.

[ Centauro ]

Thanks Dimitrios!

If you constrain a problem tightly enough, you can solve it even with a relatively simple robot. Here’s an example of an experimental breakfast robot named “Loraine” that can cook eggs, bacon, and potatoes using what looks to be zero sensing at all, just moving to different positions and actuating its gripper.

There’s likely to be enough human work required in the prep here to make the value that the robot adds questionable at best, but it’s a good example of how you can make a relatively complex task robot-compatible as long as you set it up in just the right way.

[ Connected Robotics ] via [ RobotStart ]

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a ball bot, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen one with a manipulator on it.

[ ETH Zurich RSL ]

Soft Robotics’ new mini fingers are able to pick up taco shells without shattering them, which as far as I can tell is 100 percent impossible for humans to do.

[ Soft Robotics ]

Yes, Starship’s wheeled robots can climb curbs, and indeed they have a pretty neat way of doing it.

[ Starship ]

Last year we posted a long interview with Christoph Bartneck about his research into robots and racism, and here’s a nice video summary of the work.

[ Christoph Bartneck ]

Canada’s contribution to the Lunar Gateway will be a smart robotic system which includes a next-generation robotic arm known as Canadarm3, as well as equipment, and specialized tools. Using cutting-edge software and advances in artificial intelligence, this highly-autonomous system will be able to maintain, repair and inspect the Gateway, capture visiting vehicles, relocate Gateway modules, help astronauts during spacewalks, and enable science both in lunar orbit and on the surface of the Moon.

[ CSA ]

An interesting demo of how Misty can integrate sound localization with other services.

[ Misty Robotics ]

The third and last period of H2020 AEROARMS project has brought the final developments in industrial inspection and maintenance tasks, such as the crawler retrieval and deployment (DLR) or the industrial validation in stages like a refinery or a cement factory.

[ Aeroarms ]

The Guardian S remote visual inspection and surveillance robot navigates a disaster training site to demonstrate its advanced maneuverability, long-range wireless communications and extended run times.

[ Sarcos ]

This appears to be a cake frosting robot and I wish I had like 3 more hours of this to share:

Also here is a robot that picks fried chicken using a curiously successful technique:

[ Kazumichi Moriyama ]

This isn’t strictly robots, but professor Hiroshi Ishii, associate director of the MIT Media Lab, gave a fascinating SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement Talk that’s absolutely worth your time.

[ Tangible Media Group ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435660 Toyota Research Developing New ...

With the Olympics taking place next year in Japan, Toyota is (among other things) stepping up its robotics game to help provide “mobility for all.” We know that Toyota’s HSR will be doing work there, along with a few other mobile systems, but the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) has just announced a new telepresence robot called the T-TR1, featuring an absolutely massive screen designed to give you a near-lifesize virtual presence.

T-TR1 is a virtual mobility/tele-presence robot developed by Toyota Research Institute in the United States. It is equipped with a camera atop a large, near-lifesize display.
By projecting an image of a user from a remote location, the robot will help that person feel more physically present at the robot’s location.
With T-TR1, Toyota will give people that are physically unable to attend the events such as the Games a chance to virtually attend, with an on-screen presence capable of conversation between the two locations.

TRI isn’t ready to share much more detail on this system yet (we asked, of course), but we can infer some things from the video and the rest of the info that’s out there. For example, that ball on top is a 360-degree camera (that looks a lot like an Insta360 Pro), giving the remote user just as good of an awareness of their surroundings as they would if they were there in person. There are multiple 3D-sensing systems, including at least two depth cameras plus a lidar at the base. It’s not at all clear whether the robot is autonomous or semi-autonomous (using the sensors for automated obstacle avoidance, say), and since the woman on the other end of the robot does not seem to be controlling it at all for the demo, it’s hard to make an educated guess about the level of autonomy, or even how it’s supposed to be controlled.

We really like that enormous screen—despite the fact that telepresence now requires pants. It adds to the embodiment that makes independent telepresence robots useful.

We really like that enormous screen—despite the fact that telepresence now requires pants. It adds to the embodiment that makes independent telepresence robots useful. It’s also nice that the robot can move fast enough to keep up a person walking briskly. Hopefully, it’s safe for it to move at that speed in an environment more realistic than a carpeted, half-empty conference room, although it’ll probably have to leverage all of those sensors to do so. The other challenge for the T-TR1 will be bandwidth—even assuming that all of the sensor data processing and stuff is done on-robot, 360 cameras are huge bandwidth hogs, plus there’s the primary (presumably high quality) feed from the main camera, and then the video of the user coming the other way. It’s a lot of data in a very latency-sensitive application, and it’ll presumably be operating in places where connectivity is going to be a challenge due to crowds. This has always been a problem for telepresence robots—no matter how amazing your robot is, the experience will often for better or worse be defined by Internet connections that you may have no control over.

We should emphasize that Toyota has only released the bare minimum of information about the T-TR1, although we’re told that we can expect more as the 2020 Olympics approach: opening ceremonies are one year from today.

[ TRI ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots