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The multiverse of science fiction is populated by robots that are indistinguishable from humans. They are usually smarter, faster, and stronger than us. They seem capable of doing any job imaginable, from piloting a starship and battling alien invaders to taking out the trash and cooking a gourmet meal.
The reality, of course, is far from fantasy. Aside from industrial settings, robots have yet to meet The Jetsons. The robots the public are exposed to seem little more than over-sized plastic toys, pre-programmed to perform a set of tasks without the ability to interact meaningfully with their environment or their creators.
To paraphrase PayPal co-founder and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, we wanted cool robots, instead we got 140 characters and Flippy the burger bot. But scientists are making progress to empower robots with the ability to see and respond to their surroundings just like humans.
Some of the latest developments in that arena were presented this month at the annual Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The papers drilled down into topics that ranged from how to make robots more conversational and help them understand language ambiguities to helping them see and navigate through complex spaces.
Ben Burchfiel, a graduate student at Duke University, and his thesis advisor George Konidaris, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown University, developed an algorithm to enable machines to see the world more like humans.
In the paper, Burchfiel and Konidaris demonstrate how they can teach robots to identify and possibly manipulate three-dimensional objects even when they might be obscured or sitting in unfamiliar positions, such as a teapot that has been tipped over.
The researchers trained their algorithm by feeding it 3D scans of about 4,000 common household items such as beds, chairs, tables, and even toilets. They then tested its ability to identify about 900 new 3D objects just from a bird’s eye view. The algorithm made the right guess 75 percent of the time versus a success rate of about 50 percent for other computer vision techniques.
In an email interview with Singularity Hub, Burchfiel notes his research is not the first to train machines on 3D object classification. How their approach differs is that they confine the space in which the robot learns to classify the objects.
“Imagine the space of all possible objects,” Burchfiel explains. “That is to say, imagine you had tiny Legos, and I told you [that] you could stick them together any way you wanted, just build me an object. You have a huge number of objects you could make!”
The infinite possibilities could result in an object no human or machine might recognize.
To address that problem, the researchers had their algorithm find a more restricted space that would host the objects it wants to classify. “By working in this restricted space—mathematically we call it a subspace—we greatly simplify our task of classification. It is the finding of this space that sets us apart from previous approaches.”
Meanwhile, a pair of undergraduate students at Brown University figured out a way to teach robots to understand directions better, even at varying degrees of abstraction.
The research, led by Dilip Arumugam and Siddharth Karamcheti, addressed how to train a robot to understand nuances of natural language and then follow instructions correctly and efficiently.
“The problem is that commands can have different levels of abstraction, and that can cause a robot to plan its actions inefficiently or fail to complete the task at all,” says Arumugam in a press release.
In this project, the young researchers crowdsourced instructions for moving a virtual robot through an online domain. The space consisted of several rooms and a chair, which the robot was told to manipulate from one place to another. The volunteers gave various commands to the robot, ranging from general (“take the chair to the blue room”) to step-by-step instructions.
The researchers then used the database of spoken instructions to teach their system to understand the kinds of words used in different levels of language. The machine learned to not only follow instructions but to recognize the level of abstraction. That was key to kickstart its problem-solving abilities to tackle the job in the most appropriate way.
The research eventually moved from virtual pixels to a real place, using a Roomba-like robot that was able to respond to instructions within one second 90 percent of the time. Conversely, when unable to identify the specificity of the task, it took the robot 20 or more seconds to plan a task about 50 percent of the time.
One application of this new machine-learning technique referenced in the paper is a robot worker in a warehouse setting, but there are many fields that could benefit from a more versatile machine capable of moving seamlessly between small-scale operations and generalized tasks.
“Other areas that could possibly benefit from such a system include things from autonomous vehicles… to assistive robotics, all the way to medical robotics,” says Karamcheti, responding to a question by email from Singularity Hub.
More to Come
These achievements are yet another step toward creating robots that see, listen, and act more like humans. But don’t expect Disney to build a real-life Westworld next to Toon Town anytime soon.
“I think we’re a long way off from human-level communication,” Karamcheti says. “There are so many problems preventing our learning models from getting to that point, from seemingly simple questions like how to deal with words never seen before, to harder, more complicated questions like how to resolve the ambiguities inherent in language, including idiomatic or metaphorical speech.”
Even relatively verbose chatbots can run out of things to say, Karamcheti notes, as the conversation becomes more complex.
The same goes for human vision, according to Burchfiel.
While deep learning techniques have dramatically improved pattern matching—Google can find just about any picture of a cat—there’s more to human eyesight than, well, meets the eye.
“There are two big areas where I think perception has a long way to go: inductive bias and formal reasoning,” Burchfiel says.
The former is essentially all of the contextual knowledge people use to help them reason, he explains. Burchfiel uses the example of a puddle in the street. People are conditioned or biased to assume it’s a puddle of water rather than a patch of glass, for instance.
“This sort of bias is why we see faces in clouds; we have strong inductive bias helping us identify faces,” he says. “While it sounds simple at first, it powers much of what we do. Humans have a very intuitive understanding of what they expect to see, [and] it makes perception much easier.”
Formal reasoning is equally important. A machine can use deep learning, in Burchfiel’s example, to figure out the direction any river flows once it understands that water runs downhill. But it’s not yet capable of applying the sort of human reasoning that would allow us to transfer that knowledge to an alien setting, such as figuring out how water moves through a plumbing system on Mars.
“Much work was done in decades past on this sort of formal reasoning… but we have yet to figure out how to merge it with standard machine-learning methods to create a seamless system that is useful in the actual physical world.”
Robots still have a lot to learn about being human, which should make us feel good that we’re still by far the most complex machines on the planet.
Image Credit: Alex Knight via Unsplash Continue reading
For Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of the most interesting things about androids is the changing questions they pose us, their creators, as they evolve. Does it, for example, do something to the concept of being human if a human-made creation starts telling you about what kind of boys ‘she’ likes?
If you want to know the answer to the boys question, you need to ask ERICA, one of Dr. Ishiguro’s advanced androids. Beneath her plastic skull and silicone skin, wires connect to AI software systems that bring her to life. Her ability to respond goes far beyond standard inquiries. Spend a little time with her, and the feeling of a distinct personality starts to emerge. From time to time, she works as a receptionist at Dr. Ishiguro and his team’s Osaka University labs. One of her android sisters is an actor who has starred in plays and a film.
ERICA’s ‘brother’ is an android version of Dr. Ishiguro himself, which has represented its creator at various events while the biological Ishiguro can remain in his offices in Japan. Microphones and cameras capture Ishiguro’s voice and face movements, which are relayed to the android. Apart from mimicking its creator, the Geminoid™ android is also capable of lifelike blinking, fidgeting, and breathing movements.
Say hello to relaxation
As technological development continues to accelerate, so do the possibilities for androids. From a position as receptionist, ERICA may well branch out into many other professions in the coming years. Companion for the elderly, comic book storyteller (an ancient profession in Japan), pop star, conversational foreign language partner, and newscaster are some of the roles and responsibilities Dr. Ishiguro sees androids taking on in the near future.
“Androids are not uncanny anymore. Most people adapt to interacting with Erica very quickly. Actually, I think that in interacting with androids, which are still different from us, we get a better appreciation of interacting with other cultures. In both cases, we are talking with someone who is different from us and learn to overcome those differences,” he says.
A lot has been written about how robots will take our jobs. Dr. Ishiguro believes these fears are blown somewhat out of proportion.
“Robots and androids will take over many simple jobs. Initially there might be some job-related issues, but new schemes, like for example a robot tax similar to the one described by Bill Gates, should help,” he says.
“Androids will make it possible for humans to relax and keep evolving. If we compare the time we spend studying now compared to 100 years ago, it has grown a lot. I think it needs to keep growing if we are to keep expanding our scientific and technological knowledge. In the future, we might end up spending 20 percent of our lifetime on work and 80 percent of the time on education and growing our skills.”
Android asks who you are
For Dr. Ishiguro, another aspect of robotics in general, and androids in particular, is how they question what it means to be human.
“Identity is a very difficult concept for humans sometimes. For example, I think clothes are part of our identity, in a way that is similar to our faces and bodies. We don’t change those from one day to the next, and that is why I have ten matching black outfits,” he says.
This link between physical appearance and perceived identity is one of the aspects Dr. Ishiguro is exploring. Another closely linked concept is the connection between body and feeling of self. The Ishiguro avatar was once giving a presentation in Austria. Its creator recalls how he felt distinctly like he was in Austria, even capable of feeling sensation of touch on his own body when people laid their hands on the android. If he was distracted, he felt almost ‘sucked’ back into his body in Japan.
“I am constantly thinking about my life in this way, and I believe that androids are a unique mirror that helps us formulate questions about why we are here and why we have been so successful. I do not necessarily think I have found the answers to these questions, so if you have, please share,” he says with a laugh.
His work and these questions, while extremely interesting on their own, become extra poignant when considering the predicted melding of mind and machine in the near future.
The ability to be present in several locations through avatars—virtual or robotic—raises many questions of both philosophical and practical nature. Then add the hypotheticals, like why send a human out onto the hostile surface of Mars if you could send a remote-controlled android, capable of relaying everything it sees, hears and feels?
The two ways of robotics will meet
Dr. Ishiguro sees the world of AI-human interaction as currently roughly split into two. One is the chat-bot approach that companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and recently Apple, employ using stationary objects like speakers. Androids like ERICA represent another approach.
“It is about more than the form factor. I think that the android approach is generally more story-based. We are integrating new conversation features based on assumptions about the situation and running different scenarios that expand the android’s vocabulary and interactions. Another aspect we are working on is giving androids desire and intention. Like with people, androids should have desires and intentions in order for you to want to interact with them over time,” Dr. Ishiguro explains.
This could be said to be part of a wider trend for Japan, where many companies are developing human-like robots that often have some Internet of Things capabilities, making them able to handle some of the same tasks as an Amazon Echo. The difference in approach could be summed up in the words ‘assistant’ (Apple, Amazon, etc.) and ‘companion’ (Japan).
Dr. Ishiguro sees this as partly linked to how Japanese as a language—and market—is somewhat limited. This has a direct impact on viability and practicality of ‘pure’ voice recognition systems. At the same time, Japanese people have had greater exposure to positive images of robots, and have a different cultural / religious view of objects having a ‘soul’. However, it may also mean Japanese companies and android scientists are both stealing a lap on their western counterparts.
“If you speak to an Amazon Echo, that is not a natural way to interact for humans. This is part of why we are making human-like robot systems. The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction. Technology has to adapt to us, because we cannot adapt fast enough to it, as it develops so quickly,” he says.
Banner image courtesy of Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, ATR all rights reserved.
Dr. Ishiguro’s team has collaborated with partners and developed a number of android systems:
Geminoid™ HI-2 has been developed by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories and Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).
Geminoid™ F has been developed by Osaka University and Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).
ERICA has been developed by ERATO ISHIGURO Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project Continue reading
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