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#436167 Is it Time for Tech to Stop Moving Fast ...

On Monday, I attended the 2019 Fall Conference of Stanford’s Institute for Human Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). That same night I watched the Season 6 opener for the HBO TV show Silicon Valley. And the debates featured in both surrounded the responsibility of tech companies for the societal effects of the technologies they produce. The two events have jumbled together in my mind, perhaps because I was in a bit of a brain fog, thanks to the nasty combination of a head cold and the smoke that descended on Silicon Valley from the northern California wildfires. But perhaps that mixture turned out to be a good thing.

What is clear, in spite of the smoke, is that this issue is something a lot of people are talking about, inside and outside of Silicon Valley (witness the viral video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg).

So, to add to that conversation, here’s my HBO Silicon Valley/Stanford HAI conference mashup.

Silicon Valley’s fictional CEO Richard Hendriks, in the opening scene of the episode, tells Congress that Facebook, Google, and Amazon only care about exploiting personal data for profit. He states:

“These companies are kings, and they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in history.”

Meanwhile Marietje Schaake, former member of the European Parliament and a fellow at HAI, told the conference audience of 900:

“There is a lot of power in the hands of few actors—Facebook decides who is a news source, Microsoft will run the defense department’s cloud…. I believe we need a deeper debate about which tasks need to stay in the hands of the public.”

Eric Schmidt, former CEO and executive chairman of Google, agreed. He says:

“It is important that we debate now the ethics of what we are doing, and the impact of the technology that we are building.”

Stanford Associate Professor Ge Wang, also speaking at the HAI conference, pointed out:

“‘Doing no harm’ is a vital goal, and it is not easy. But it is different from a proactive goal, to ‘do good.’”

Had Silicon Valley’s Hendricks been there, he would have agreed. He said in the episode:

“Just because it’s successful, doesn’t mean it’s good. Hiroshima was a successful implementation.”

The speakers at the HAI conference discussed the implications of moving fast and breaking things, of putting untested and unregulated technology into the world now that we know that things like public trust and even democracy can be broken.

Google’s Schmidt told the HAI audience:

“I don’t think that everything that is possible should be put into the wild in society, we should answer the question, collectively, how much risk are we willing to take.

And Silicon Valley denizens real and fictional no longer think it’s OK to just say sorry afterwards. Says Schmidt:

“When you ask Facebook about various scandals, how can they still say ‘We are very sorry; we have a lot of learning to do.’ This kind of naiveté stands out of proportion to the power tech companies have. With great power should come great responsibility, or at least modesty.”

Schaake argued:

“We need more guarantees, institutions, and policies than stated good intentions. It’s about more than promises.”

Fictional CEO Hendricks thinks saying sorry is a cop-out as well. In the episode, a developer admits that his app collected user data in spite of Hendricks assuring Congress that his company doesn’t do that:

“You didn’t know at the time,” the developer says. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. But in the future, stop saying it. Or don’t; I don’t care. Maybe it will be like Google saying ‘Don’t be evil,’ or Facebook saying ‘I’m sorry, we’ll do better.’”

Hendricks doesn’t buy it:

“This stops now. I’m the boss, and this is over.”

(Well, he is fictional.)

How can government, the tech world, and the general public address this in a more comprehensive way? Out in the real world, the “what to do” discussion at Stanford HAI surrounded regulation—how much, what kind, and when.

Says the European Parliament’s Schaake:

“An often-heard argument is that government should refrain from regulating tech because [regulation] will stifle innovation. [That argument] implies that innovation is more important than democracy or the rule of law. Our problems don’t stem from over regulation, but under regulation of technologies.”

But when should that regulation happen. Stanford provost emeritus John Etchemendy, speaking from the audience at the HAI conference, said:

“I’ve been an advocate of not trying to regulate before you understand it. Like San Francisco banning of use of facial recognition is not a good example of regulation; there are uses of facial recognition that we should allow. We want regulations that are just right, that prevent the bad things and allow the good things. So we are going to get it wrong either way, if we regulate to soon or hold off, we will get some things wrong.”

Schaake would opt for regulating sooner rather than later. She says that she often hears the argument that it is too early to regulate artificial intelligence—as well as the argument that it is too late to regulate ad-based political advertising, or online privacy. Neither, to her, makes sense. She told the HAI attendees:

“We need more than guarantees than stated good intentions.”

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios would go with later rather than sooner. (And, yes, the country has a CTO. President Barack Obama created the position in 2009; Kratsios is the fourth to hold the office and the first under President Donald Trump. He was confirmed in August.) Also speaking at the HAI conference, Kratsios argued:

“I don’t think we should be running to regulate anything. We are a leader [in technology] not because we had great regulations, but we have taken a free market approach. We have done great in driving innovation in technologies that are born free, like the Internet. Technologies born in captivity, like autonomous vehicles, lag behind.”

In the fictional world of HBO’s Silicon Valley, startup founder Hendricks has a solution—a technical one of course: the decentralized Internet. He tells Congress:

“The way we win is by creating a new, decentralized Internet, one where the behavior of companies like this will be impossible, forever. Where it is the users, not the kings, who have sovereign control over their data. I will help you build an Internet that is of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

(This is not a fictional concept, though it is a long way from wide use. Also called the decentralized Web, the concept takes the content on today’s Web and fragments it, and then replicates and scatters those fragments to hosts around the world, increasing privacy and reducing the ability of governments to restrict access.)

If neither regulation nor technology comes to make the world safe from the unforeseen effects of new technologies, there is one more hope, according to Schaake: the millennials and subsequent generations.

Tech companies can no longer pursue growth at all costs, not if they want to keep attracting the talent they need, says Schaake. She noted that, “the young generation looks at the environment, at homeless on the streets,” and they expect their companies to tackle those and other issues and make the world a better place. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436065 From Mainframes to PCs: What Robot ...

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

Autonomous robots are coming around slowly. We already got autonomous vacuum cleaners, autonomous lawn mowers, toys that bleep and blink, and (maybe) soon autonomous cars. Yet, generation after generation, we keep waiting for the robots that we all know from movies and TV shows. Instead, businesses seem to get farther and farther away from the robots that are able to do a large variety of tasks using general-purpose, human anatomy-inspired hardware.

Although these are the droids we have been looking for, anything that came close, such as Willow Garage’s PR2 or Rethink Robotics’ Baxter has bitten the dust. With building a robotic company being particularly hard, compounding business risk with technological risk, the trend goes from selling robots to selling actual services like mowing your lawn, provide taxi rides, fulfilling retail orders, or picking strawberries by the pound. Unfortunately for fans of R2-D2 and C-3PO, these kind of business models emphasize specialized, room- or fridge-sized hardware that is optimized for one very specific task, but does not contribute to a general-purpose robotic platform.

We have actually seen something very similar in the personal computer (PC) industry. In the 1950s, even though computers could be as big as an entire room and were only available to a selected few, the public already had a good idea of what computers would look like. A long list of fictional computers started to populate mainstream entertainment during that time. In a 1962 New York Times article titled “Pocket Computer to Replace Shopping List,” visionary scientist John Mauchly stated that “there is no reason to suppose the average boy or girl cannot be master of a personal computer.”

In 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave us the “mother of all demos,” browsing hypertext on a graphical screen and a mouse, and other ideas that have become standard only decades later. Now that we have finally seen all of this, it might be helpful to examine what actually enabled the computing revolution to learn where robotics is really at and what we need to do next.

The parallels between computers and robots

In the 1970s, mainframes were about to be replaced by the emerging class of mini-computers, fridge-sized devices that cost less than US $25,000 ($165,000 in 2019 dollars). These computers did not use punch-cards, but could be programmed in Fortran and BASIC, dramatically expanding the ease with which potential applications could be created. Yet it was still unclear whether mini-computers could ever replace big mainframes in applications that require fast and efficient processing of large amounts of data, let alone enter every living room. This is very similar to the robotics industry right now, where large-scale factory robots (mainframes) that have existed since the 1960s are seeing competition from a growing industry of collaborative robots that can safely work next to humans and can easily be installed and programmed (minicomputers). As in the ’70s, applications for these devices that reach system prices comparable to that of a luxury car are quite limited, and it is hard to see how they could ever become a consumer product.

Yet, as in the computer industry, successful architectures are quickly being cloned, driving prices down, and entirely new approaches on how to construct or program robotic arms are sprouting left and right. Arm makers are joined by manufacturers of autonomous carts, robotic grippers, and sensors. These components can be combined, paving the way for standard general purpose platforms that follow the model of the IBM PC, which built a capable, open architecture relying as much on commodity parts as possible.

General purpose robotic systems have not been successful for similar reasons that general purpose, also known as “personal,” computers took decades to emerge. Mainframes were custom-built for each application, while typewriters got smarter and smarter, not really leaving room for general purpose computers in between. Indeed, given the cost of hardware and the relatively little abilities of today’s autonomous robots, it is almost always smarter to build a special purpose machine than trying to make a collaborative mobile manipulator smart.

A current example is e-commerce grocery fulfillment. The current trend is to reserve underutilized parts of a brick-and-mortar store for a micro-fulfillment center that stores goods in little crates with an automated retrieval system and a (human) picker. A number of startups like Alert Innovation, Fabric, Ocado Technology, TakeOff Technologies, and Tompkins Robotics, to just name a few, have raised hundreds of millions of venture capital recently to build mainframe equivalents of robotic fulfillment centers. This is in contrast with a robotic picker, which would drive through the aisles to restock and pick from shelves. Such a robotic store clerk would come much closer to our vision of a general purpose robot, but would require many copies of itself that crowd the aisles to churn out hundreds of orders per hour as a microwarehouse could. Although eventually more efficient, the margins in retail are already low and make it unlikely that this industry will produce the technological jump that we need to get friendly C-3POs manning the aisles.

Startups have raised hundreds of millions of venture capital recently to build mainframe equivalents of robotic fulfillment centers. This is in contrast with a robotic picker, which would drive through the aisles to restock and pick from shelves, and would come much closer to our vision of a general purpose robot.

Mainframes were also attacked from the bottom. Fascination with the new digital technology has led to a hobbyist movement to create microcomputers that were sold via mail order or at RadioShack. Initially, a large number of small businesses was selling tens, at most hundreds, of devices, usually as a kit and with wooden enclosures. This trend culminated into the “1977 Trinity” in the form of the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80, complete computers that were sold for prices around $2500 (TRS) to $5000 (Apple) in today’s dollars. The main application of these computers was their programmability (in BASIC), which would enable consumers to “learn to chart your biorhythms, balance your checking account, or even control your home environment,” according to an original Apple advertisement. Similarly, there exists a myriad of gadgets that explore different aspects of robotics such as mobility, manipulation, and entertainment.

As in the fledgling personal computing industry, the advertised functionality was at best a model of the real deal. A now-famous milestone in entertainment robotics was the original Sony’s Aibo, a robotic dog that was advertised to have many properties that a real dog has such as develop its own personality, play with a toy, and interact with its owner. Released in 1999, and re-launched in 2018, the platform has a solid following among hobbyists and academics who like its programmability, but probably only very few users who accept the device as a pet stand-in.

There also exist countless “build-your-own-robotic-arm” kits. One of the more successful examples is the uArm, which sells for around $800, and is advertised to perform pick and place, assembly, 3D printing, laser engraving, and many other things that sound like high value applications. Using compelling videos of the robot actually doing these things in a constrained environment has led to two successful crowd-funding campaigns, and have established the robot as a successful educational tool.

Finally, there exist platforms that allow hobbyist programmers to explore mobility to construct robots that patrol your house, deliver items, or provide their users with telepresence abilities. An example of that is the Misty II. Much like with the original Apple II, there remains a disconnect between the price of the hardware and the fidelity of the applications that were available.

For computers, this disconnect began to disappear with the invention of the first electronic spreadsheet software VisiCalc that spun out of Harvard in 1979 and prompted many people to buy an entire microcomputer just to run the program. VisiCalc was soon joined by WordStar, a word processing application, that sold for close to $2000 in today’s dollars. WordStar, too, would entice many people to buy the entire hardware just to use the software. The two programs are early examples of what became known as “killer application.”

With factory automation being mature, and robots with the price tag of a minicomputer being capable of driving around and autonomously carrying out many manipulation tasks, the robotics industry is somewhere where the PC industry was between 1973—the release of the Xerox Alto, the first computer with a graphical user interface, mouse, and special software—and 1979—when microcomputers in the under $5000 category began to take off.

Killer apps for robots
So what would it take for robotics to continue to advance like computers did? The market itself already has done a good job distilling what the possible killer apps are. VCs and customers alike push companies who have set out with lofty goals to reduce their offering to a simple value proposition. As a result, companies that started at opposite ends often converge to mirror images of each other that offer very similar autonomous carts, (bin) picking, palletizing, depalletizing, or sorting solutions. Each of these companies usually serves a single application to a single vertical—for example bin-picking clothes, transporting warehouse goods, or picking strawberries by the pound. They are trying to prove that their specific technology works without spreading themselves too thin.

Very few of these companies have really taken off. One example is Kiva Systems, which turned into the logistic robotics division of Amazon. Kiva and others are structured around sound value propositions that are grounded in well-known user needs. As these solutions are very specialized, however, it is unlikely that they result into any economies of scale of the same magnitude that early computer users who bought both a spreadsheet and a word processor application for their expensive minicomputer could enjoy. What would make these robotic solutions more interesting is when functionality becomes stackable. Instead of just being able to do bin picking, palletizing, and transportation with the same hardware, these three skills could be combined to model entire processes.

A skill that is yet little addressed by startups and is historically owned by the mainframe equivalent of robotics is assembly of simple mechatronic devices. The ability to assemble mechatronic parts is equivalent to other tasks such as changing a light bulb, changing the batteries in a remote control, or tending machines like a lever-based espresso machine. These tasks would involve the autonomous execution of complete workflows possible using a single machine, eventually leading to an explosion of industrial productivity across all sectors. For example, picking up an item from a bin, arranging it on the robot, moving it elsewhere, and placing it into a shelf or a machine is a process that equally applies to a manufacturing environment, a retail store, or someone’s kitchen.

Image: Robotic Materials Inc.

Autonomous, vision and force-based assembly of the
Siemens robot learning challenge.

Even though many of the above applications are becoming possible, it is still very hard to get a platform off the ground without added components that provide “killer app” value of their own. Interesting examples are Rethink Robotics or the Robot Operating System (ROS). Rethink Robotics’ Baxter and Sawyer robots pioneered a great user experience (like the 1973 Xerox Alto, really the first PC), but its applications were difficult to extend beyond simple pick-and-place and palletizing and depalletizing items.

ROS pioneered interprocess communication software that was adapted to robotic needs (multiple computers, different programming languages) and the idea of software modularity in robotics, but—in the absence of a common hardware platform—hasn’t yet delivered a single application, e.g. for navigation, path planning, or grasping, that performs beyond research-grade demonstration level and won’t get discarded once developers turn to production systems. At the same time, an increasing number of robotic devices, such as robot arms or 3D perception systems that offer intelligent functionality, provide other ways to wire them together that do not require an intermediary computer, while keeping close control over the real-time aspects of their hardware.

Image: Robotic Materials Inc.

Robotic Materials GPR-1 combines a MIR-100 autonomous cart with an UR-5 collaborative robotic arm, an onRobot force/torque sensor and Robotic Materials’ SmartHand to perform out-of-the-box mobile assembly, bin picking, palletizing, and depalletizing tasks.

At my company, Robotic Materials Inc., we have made strides to identify a few applications such as bin picking and assembly, making them configurable with a single click by combining machine learning and optimization with an intuitive user interface. Here, users can define object classes and how to grasp them using a web browser, which then appear as first-class objects in a robot-specific graphical programming language. We have also done this for assembly, allowing users to stack perception-based picking and force-based assembly primitives by simply dragging and dropping appropriate commands together.

While such an approach might answer the question of a killer app for robots priced in the “minicomputer” range, it is unclear how killer app-type value can be generated with robots in the less-than-$5000 category. A possible answer is two-fold: First, with low-cost arms, mobility platforms, and entertainment devices continuously improving, a confluence of technology readiness and user innovation, like with the Apple II and VisiCalc, will eventually happen. For example, there is not much innovation needed to turn Misty into a home security system; the uArm into a low-cost bin-picking system; or an Aibo-like device into a therapeutic system for the elderly or children with autism.

Second, robots and their components have to become dramatically cheaper. Indeed, computers have seen an exponential reduction in price accompanied by an exponential increase in computational power, thanks in great part to Moore’s Law. This development has helped robotics too, allowing us to reach breakthroughs in mobility and manipulation due to the ability to process massive amounts of image and depth data in real-time, and we can expect it to continue to do so.

Is there a Moore’s Law for robots?
One might ask, however, how a similar dynamics might be possible for robots as a whole, including all their motors and gears, and what a “Moore’s Law” would look like for the robotics industry. Here, it helps to remember that the perpetuation of Moore’s Law is not the reason, but the result of the PC revolution. Indeed, the first killer apps for bookkeeping, editing, and gaming were so good that they unleashed tremendous consumer demand, beating the benchmark on what was thought to be physically possible over and over again. (I vividly remember 56 kbps to be the absolute maximum data rate for copper phone lines until DSL appeared.)

That these economies of scale are also applicable to mechatronics is impressively demonstrated by the car industry. A good example is the 2020 Prius Prime, a highly computerized plug-in hybrid, that is available for one third of the cost of my company’s GPR-1 mobile manipulator while being orders of magnitude more complex, sporting an electrical motor, a combustion engine, and a myriad of sensors and computers. It is therefore very well conceivable to produce a mobile manipulator that retails at one tenth of the cost of a modern car, once robotics enjoy similar mass-market appeal. Given that these robots are part of the equation, actively lowering cost of production, this might happen as fast as never before in the history of industrialization.

It is therefore very well conceivable to produce a mobile manipulator that retails at one tenth of the cost of a modern car, once robotics enjoy similar mass-market appeal.

There is one more driver that might make robots exponentially more capable: the cloud. Once a general purpose robot has learned or was programmed with a new skill, it could share it with every other robot. At some point, a grocer who buys a robot could assume that it already knows how to recognize and handle 99 percent of the retail items in the store. Likewise, a manufacturer can assume that the robot can handle and assemble every item available from McMaster-Carr and Misumi. Finally, families could expect a robot to know every kitchen item that Ikea and Pottery Barn is selling. Sounds like a labor intense problem, but probably more manageable than collecting footage for Google’s Street View using cars, tricycles, and snowmobiles, among other vehicles.

Strategies for robot startups
While we are waiting for these two trends—better and better applications and hardware with decreasing cost—to converge, we as a community have to keep exploring what the canonical robotic applications beyond mobility, bin picking, palletizing, depalletizing, and assembly are. We must also continue to solve the fundamental challenges that stand in the way of making these solutions truly general and robust.

For both questions, it might help to look at the strategies that have been critical in the development of the personal computer, which might equally well apply to robotics:

Start with a solution to a problem your customers have. Unfortunately, their problem is almost never that they need your sensor, widget, or piece of code, but something that already costs them money or negatively affects them in some other way. Example: There are many more people who had a problem calculating their taxes (and wanted to buy VisiCalc) than writing their own solution in BASIC.

Build as little of your own hardware as necessary. Your business model should be stronger than the margin you can make on the hardware. Why taking the risk? Example: Why build your own typewriter if you can write the best typewriting application that makes it worth buying a computer just for that?

If your goal is a platform, make sure it comes with a killer application, which alone justifies the platform cost. Example: Microcomputer companies came and went until the “1977 Trinity” intersected with the killer apps spreadsheet and word processors. Corollary: You can also get lucky.

Use an open architecture, which creates an ecosystem where others compete on creating better components and peripherals, while allowing others to integrate your solution into their vertical and stack it with other devices. Example: Both the Apple II and the IBM PC were completely open architectures, enabling many clones, thereby growing the user and developer base.

It’s worthwhile pursuing this. With most business processes already being digitized, general purpose robots will allow us to fill in gaps in mobility and manipulation, increasing productivity at levels only limited by the amount of resources and energy that are available, possibly creating a utopia in which creativity becomes the ultimate currency. Maybe we’ll even get R2-D2.

Nikolaus Correll is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he works on mobile manipulation and other robotics applications. He’s co-founder and CTO of Robotic Materials Inc., which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology via their Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programs. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436044 Want a Really Hard Machine Learning ...

What’s the world’s hardest machine learning problem? Autonomous vehicles? Robots that can walk? Cancer detection?

Nope, says Julian Sanchez. It’s agriculture.

Sanchez might be a little biased. He is the director of precision agriculture for John Deere, and is in charge of adding intelligence to traditional farm vehicles. But he does have a little perspective, having spent time working on software for both medical devices and air traffic control systems.

I met with Sanchez and Alexey Rostapshov, head of digital innovation at John Deere Labs, at the organization’s San Francisco offices last month. Labs launched in 2017 to take advantage of the area’s tech expertise, both to apply machine learning to in-house agricultural problems and to work with partners to build technologies that play nicely with Deere’s big green machines. Deere’s neighbors in San Francisco’s tech-heavy South of Market are LinkedIn, Salesforce, and Planet Labs, which puts it in a good position for recruiting.

“We’ve literally had folks knock on the door and say, ‘What are you doing here?’” says Rostapshov, and some return to drop off resumes.

Here’s why Sanchez believes agriculture is such a big challenge for artificial intelligence.

“It’s not just about driving tractors around,” he says, although autonomous driving technologies are part of the mix. (John Deere is doing a lot of work with precision GPS to improve autonomous driving, for example, and allow tractors to plan their own routes around fields.)

But more complex than the driving problem, says Sanchez, are the classification problems.

Corn: A Classic Classification Problem

Photo: Tekla Perry

One key effort, Sanchez says, are AI systems “that allow me to tell whether grain being harvested is good quality or low quality and to make automatic adjustment systems for the harvester.” The company is already selling an early version of this image analysis technology. But the many differences between grain types, and grains grown under different conditions, make this task a tough one for machine learning.

“Take corn,” Sanchez says. “Let’s say we are building a deep learning algorithm to detect this corn. And we take lots of pictures of kernels to give it. Say we pick those kernels in central Illinois. But, one mile over, the farmer planted a slightly different hybrid which has slightly different coloration of yellow. Meanwhile, this other farm harvested three days later in a field five miles away; it’s the same hybrid, but it also looks different.

“It’s an overwhelming classification challenge, and that’s just for corn. But you are not only doing it for corn, you have to add 20 more varieties of grain to the mix; and some, like canola, are almost microscopic.”

Even the ground conditions vary dramatically—far more than road conditions, Sanchez points out.

“Let’s say we are building a deep learning algorithm to detect how much residue is left on the soil after a harvest, including stubble and some chaff. Let’s drive 2,000 acres of fields in the Midwest looking at residue. That’s great, but I guarantee that if you go drive those the next year, it will look significantly different.

“Deep learning is great at interpolating conditions between what it knows; it is not good at extrapolating to situations it hasn’t seen. And in agriculture, you always feel that there is a set of conditions that you haven’t yet classified.”

A Flood of Big Data

The scale of the data is also daunting, Rostapshov points out. “We are one of the largest users of cloud computing services in the world,” he says. “We are gathering 5 to 15 million measurements per second from 130,000 connected machines globally. We have over 150 million acres in our databases, using petabytes and petabytes [of storage]. We process more data than Twitter does.”

Much of this information is so-called dirty data, that is, it doesn’t share the same format or structure, because it’s coming not only from a wide variety of John Deere machines, but also includes data from some 100 other companies that have access to the platform, including weather information, aerial imagery, and soil analyses.

As a result, says Sanchez, Deere has had to make “tremendous investments in back-end data cleanup.”

Deep learning is great at interpolating conditions between what it knows; it is not good at extrapolating to situations it hasn’t seen.”
—Julian Sanchez, John Deere

“We have gotten progressively more skilled at that problem,” he says. “We started simply by cleaning up our own data. You’d think it would be nice and neat, since it’s coming from our own machines, but there is a wide variety of different models and different years. Then we started geospatially tagging the agronomic data—the information about where you are applying herbicides and fertilizer and the like—coming in from our vehicles. When we started bringing in other data, from drones, say, we were already good at cleaning it up.”

John Deere’s Hiring Pitch

Hard problems can be a good thing to have for a company looking to hire machine learning engineers.

“Our opening line to potential recruits,” Sanchez says, “is ‘This stuff matters.’ Then, if we get a chance to talk to them more, we follow up with ‘Not only does this stuff matter, but the problems are really hard and interesting.’ When we explain the variability in farming and how we have to apply all the latest tools to these problems, we get their attention.”

Software engineers “know that feeding a growing population is a massive problem and are excited about the prospect of making a difference,” Rostapshov says.

Only 20 engineers work in the San Francisco labs right now, and that’s on a busy day—some of the researchers spend part of their time at Blue River Technology, a startup based in Sunnyvale that was acquired by Deere in 2017. About half of the researchers are focusing on AI. The Lab is in the process of doubling its office space (no word on staffing plans for that expansion yet).

“We are one of the largest users of cloud computing services in the world.”
—Alexey Rostapshov, John Deere Labs

Company-wide, Deere has thousands of software engineers, with many using AI and machine learning tools in their work, and about the same number of mechanical and electrical engineers, Sanchez reports. “If you look at our hiring 10 years ago,” he says, “it was heavily weighted to mechanical engineers. But if you look at those numbers now, it is by a large majority [engineers working] in the software space. We still need mechanical engineers—we do build green machines—but if you go by our footprint of tech talent, it is pretty safe to call John Deere a software company. And if you follow the key conversations that are happening in the company right now, 95 percent of them are software-related.”

For now, these software engineers are focused on developing technologies that allow farmers to “do more with less,” Sanchez says. Meaning, to get more and better crops from less fuel, less seed, less fertilizer, less pesticide, and fewer workers, and putting together building blocks that, he says, could eventually lead to fully autonomous farm vehicles. The data Deere collects today, for the most part, stays in silos (the virtual kind), with AI algorithms that analyze specific sets of data to provide guidance to individual farmers. At some point, however, with tools to anonymize data and buy-in from farmers, aggregating data could provide some powerful insights.

“We are not asking farmers for that yet,” Sanchez says. “We are not doing aggregation to look for patterns. We are focused on offering technology that allows an individual farmer to use less, on positioning ourselves to be in a neutral spot. We are not about selling you more seed or more fertilizer. So we are building up a good trust level. In the long term, we can have conversations about doing more with deep learning.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435806 Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Dog ...

Boston Dynamics is announcing this morning that Spot, its versatile quadruped robot, is now for sale. The machine’s animal-like behavior regularly electrifies crowds at tech conferences, and like other Boston Dynamics’ robots, Spot is a YouTube sensation whose videos amass millions of views.

Now anyone interested in buying a Spot—or a pack of them—can go to the company’s website and submit an order form. But don’t pull out your credit card just yet. Spot may cost as much as a luxury car, and it is not really available to consumers. The initial sale, described as an “early adopter program,” is targeting businesses. Boston Dynamics wants to find customers in select industries and help them deploy Spots in real-world scenarios.

“What we’re doing is the productization of Spot,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert tells IEEE Spectrum. “It’s really a milestone for us going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field.”

Boston Dynamics has always been a secretive company, but last month, in preparation for launching Spot (formerly SpotMini), it allowed our photographers into its headquarters in Waltham, Mass., for a special shoot. In that session, we captured Spot and also Atlas—the company’s highly dynamic humanoid—in action, walking, climbing, and jumping.

You can see Spot’s photo interactives on our Robots Guide. (The Atlas interactives will appear in coming weeks.)

Gif: Bob O’Connor/Robots.ieee.org

And if you’re in the market for a robot dog, here’s everything we know about Boston Dynamics’ plans for Spot.

Who can buy a Spot?
If you’re interested in one, you should go to Boston Dynamics’ website and take a look at the information the company requires from potential buyers. Again, the focus is on businesses. Boston Dynamics says it wants to get Spots out to initial customers that “either have a compelling use case or a development team that we believe can do something really interesting with the robot,” says VP of business development Michael Perry. “Just because of the scarcity of the robots that we have, we’re going to have to be selective about which partners we start working together with.”

What can Spot do?
As you’ve probably seen on the YouTube videos, Spot can walk, trot, avoid obstacles, climb stairs, and much more. The robot’s hardware is almost completely custom, with powerful compute boards for control, and five sensor modules located on every side of Spot’s body, allowing it to survey the space around itself from any direction. The legs are powered by 12 custom motors with a reduction, with a top speed of 1.6 meters per second. The robot can operate for 90 minutes on a charge. In addition to the basic configuration, you can integrate up to 14 kilograms of extra hardware to a payload interface. Among the payload packages Boston Dynamics plans to offer are a 6 degrees-of-freedom arm, a version of which can be seen in some of the YouTube videos, and a ring of cameras called SpotCam that could be used to create Street View–type images inside buildings.

Image: Boston Dynamics

How do you control Spot?
Learning to drive the robot using its gaming-style controller “takes 15 seconds,” says CEO Marc Raibert. He explains that while teleoperating Spot, you may not realize that the robot is doing a lot of the work. “You don’t really see what that is like until you’re operating the joystick and you go over a box and you don’t have to do anything,” he says. “You’re practically just thinking about what you want to do and the robot takes care of everything.” The control methods have evolved significantly since the company’s first quadruped robots, machines like BigDog and LS3. “The control in those days was much more monolithic, and now we have what we call a sequential composition controller,” Raibert says, “which lets the system have control of the dynamics in a much broader variety of situations.” That means that every time one of Spot’s feet touches or doesn’t touch the ground, this different state of the body affects the basic physical behavior of the robot, and the controller adjusts accordingly. “Our controller is designed to understand what that state is and have different controls depending upon the case,” he says.

How much does Spot cost?
Boston Dynamics would not give us specific details about pricing, saying only that potential customers should contact them for a quote and that there is going to be a leasing option. It’s understandable: As with any expensive and complex product, prices can vary on a case by case basis and depend on factors such as configuration, availability, level of support, and so forth. When we pressed the company for at least an approximate base price, Perry answered: “Our general guidance is that the total cost of the early adopter program lease will be less than the price of a car—but how nice a car will depend on the number of Spots leased and how long the customer will be leasing the robot.”

Can Spot do mapping and SLAM out of the box?
The robot’s perception system includes cameras and 3D sensors (there is no lidar), used to avoid obstacles and sense the terrain so it can climb stairs and walk over rubble. It’s also used to create 3D maps. According to Boston Dynamics, the first software release will offer just teleoperation. But a second release, to be available in the next few weeks, will enable more autonomous behaviors. For example, it will be able to do mapping and autonomous navigation—similar to what the company demonstrated in a video last year, showing how you can drive the robot through an environment, create a 3D point cloud of the environment, and then set waypoints within that map for Spot to go out and execute that mission. For customers that have their own autonomy stack and are interested in using those on Spot, Boston Dynamics made it “as plug and play as possible in terms of how third-party software integrates into Spot’s system,” Perry says. This is done mainly via an API.

How does Spot’s API works?
Boston Dynamics built an API so that customers can create application-level products with Spot without having to deal with low-level control processes. “Rather than going and building joint-level kinematic access to the robot,” Perry explains, “we created a high-level API and SDK that allows people who are used to Web app development or development of missions for drones to use that same scope, and they’ll be able to build applications for Spot.”

What applications should we see first?
Boston Dynamics envisions Spot as a platform: a versatile mobile robot that companies can use to build applications based on their needs. What types of applications? The company says the best way to find out is to put Spot in the hands of as many users as possible and let them develop the applications. Some possibilities include performing remote data collection and light manipulation in construction sites; monitoring sensors and infrastructure at oil and gas sites; and carrying out dangerous missions such as bomb disposal and hazmat inspections. There are also other promising areas such as security, package delivery, and even entertainment. “We have some initial guesses about which markets could benefit most from this technology, and we’ve been engaging with customers doing proof-of-concept trials,” Perry says. “But at the end of the day, that value story is really going to be determined by people going out and exploring and pushing the limits of the robot.”

Photo: Bob O'Connor

How many Spots have been produced?
Last June, Boston Dynamics said it was planning to build about a hundred Spots by the end of the year, eventually ramping up production to a thousand units per year by the middle of this year. The company admits that it is not quite there yet. It has built close to a hundred beta units, which it has used to test and refine the final design. This version is now being mass manufactured, but the company is still “in the early tens of robots,” Perry says.

How did Boston Dynamics test Spot?

The company has tested the robots during proof-of-concept trials with customers, and at least one is already using Spot to survey construction sites. The company has also done reliability tests at its facility in Waltham, Mass. “We drive around, not quite day and night, but hundreds of miles a week, so that we can collect reliability data and find bugs,” Raibert says.

What about competitors?
In recent years, there’s been a proliferation of quadruped robots that will compete in the same space as Spot. The most prominent of these is ANYmal, from ANYbotics, a Swiss company that spun out of ETH Zurich. Other quadrupeds include Vision from Ghost Robotics, used by one of the teams in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge; and Laikago and Aliengo from Unitree Robotics, a Chinese startup. Raibert views the competition as a positive thing. “We’re excited to see all these companies out there helping validate the space,” he says. “I think we’re more in competition with finding the right need [that robots can satisfy] than we are with the other people building the robots at this point.”

Why is Boston Dynamics selling Spot now?
Boston Dynamics has long been an R&D-centric firm, with most of its early funding coming from military programs, but it says commercializing robots has always been a goal. Productizing its machines probably accelerated when the company was acquired by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which had an ambitious (and now apparently very dead) robotics program. The commercial focus likely continued after Alphabet sold Boston Dynamics to SoftBank, whose famed CEO, Masayoshi Son, is known for his love of robots—and profits.

Which should I buy, Spot or Aibo?
Don’t laugh. We’ve gotten emails from individuals interested in purchasing a Spot for personal use after seeing our stories on the robot. Alas, Spot is not a bigger, fancier Aibo pet robot. It’s an expensive, industrial-grade machine that requires development and maintenance. If you’re maybe Jeff Bezos you could probably convince Boston Dynamics to sell you one, but otherwise the company will prioritize businesses.

What’s next for Boston Dynamics?
On the commercial side of things, other than Spot, Boston Dynamics is interested in the logistics space. Earlier this year it announced the acquisition of Kinema Systems, a startup that had developed vision sensors and deep-learning software to enable industrial robot arms to locate and move boxes. There’s also Handle, the mobile robot on whegs (wheels + legs), that can pick up and move packages. Boston Dynamics is hiring both in Waltham, Mass., and Mountain View, Calif., where Kinema was located.

Okay, can I watch a cool video now?
During our visit to Boston Dynamics’ headquarters last month, we saw Atlas and Spot performing some cool new tricks that we unfortunately are not allowed to tell you about. We hope that, although the company is putting a lot of energy and resources into its commercial programs, Boston Dynamics will still find plenty of time to improve its robots, build new ones, and of course, keep making videos. [Update: The company has just released a new Spot video, which we’ve embedded at the top of the post.][Update 2: We should have known. Boston Dynamics sure knows how to create buzz for itself: It has just released a second video, this time of Atlas doing some of those tricks we saw during our visit and couldn’t tell you about. Enjoy!]

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Posted in Human Robots

#435738 Boing Goes the Trampoline Robot

There are a handful of quadrupedal robots out there that are highly dynamic, with the ability to run and jump, but those robots tend to be rather expensive and complicated, requiring powerful actuators and legs with elasticity. Boxing Wang, a Ph.D. student in the College of Control Science and Engineering at Zhejiang University in China, contacted us to share a project he’s been working to investigate quadruped jumping with simple, affordable hardware.

“The motivation for this project is quite simple,” Boxing says. “I wanted to study quadrupedal jumping control, but I didn’t have custom-made powerful actuators, and I didn’t want to have to design elastic legs. So I decided to use a trampoline to make a normal servo-driven quadruped robot to jump.”

Boxing and his colleagues had wanted to study quadrupedal running and jumping, so they built this robot with the most powerful servos they had access to: Kondo KRS6003RHV actuators, which have a maximum torque of 6 Nm. After some simple testing, it became clear that the servos were simply not fast or powerful enough to get the robot to jump, and that an elastic element was necessary to store energy to help the robot get off the ground.

“Normally, people would choose elastic legs,” says Boxing. “But nobody in my lab knew for sure how to design them. If we tried making elastic legs and we failed to make the robot jump, we couldn’t be sure whether the problem was the legs or the control algorithms. For hardware, we decided that it’s better to start with something reliable, something that definitely won’t be the source of the problem.”

As it turns out, all you need is a trampoline, an inertial measurement unit (IMU), and little tactile switches on the end of each foot to detect touch-down and lift-off events, and you can do some useful jumping research without a jumping robot. And the trampoline has other benefits as well—because it’s stiffer at the edges than at the center, for example, the robot will tend to center itself on the trampoline, and you get some warning before things go wrong.

“I can’t say that it’s a breakthrough to make a quadruped robot jump on a trampoline,” Boxing tells us. “But I believe this is useful for prototype testing, especially for people who are interested in quadrupedal jumping control but without a suitable robot at hand.”

To learn more about the project, we emailed him some additional questions.

IEEE Spectrum: Where did this idea come from?

Boxing Wang: The idea of the trampoline came while we were drinking milk tea. I don’t know why it came up, maybe someone saw a trampoline in a gym recently. And I don’t remember who proposed it exactly. It was just like someone said it unintentionally. But I realized that a trampoline would be a perfect choice. It’s reliable, easy to buy, and should have a similar dynamic model with the one of jumping with springy legs (we have briefly analyzed this in a paper). So I decided to try the trampoline.

How much do you think you can learn using a quadruped on a trampoline, instead of using a jumping quadruped?

Generally speaking, no contact surfaces are strictly rigid. They all have elasticity. So there are no essential differences between jumping on a trampoline and jumping on a rigid surface. However, using a quadruped on a trampoline can give you more information on how to make use of elasticity to make jumping easier and more efficient. You can use quadruped robots with springy legs to address the same problem, but that usually requires much more time on hardware design.

We prefer to treat the trampoline experiment as a kind of early test for further real jumping quadruped design. Unless you’re interested in designing an acrobatic robot on a trampoline, a real jumping quadruped is probably a more useful application, and that is our ultimate goal. The point of the trampoline tests is to develop the control algorithms first, and to examine the stability of the general hardware structure. Due to the similarity between jumping on a trampoline with rigid legs and jumping on hard surfaces with springy legs, the control algorithms you develop could be transferred to hard-surface jumping robots.

“Unless you’re interested in designing an acrobatic robot on a trampoline, a real jumping quadruped is probably a more useful application, and that is our ultimate goal. The point of the trampoline tests is to develop the control algorithms first, and to examine the stability of the general hardware structure”

Do you think that this idea can be beneficial for other kinds of robotics research?

Yes. For jumping quadrupeds with springy legs, the control algorithms could be first designed through trampoline tests using simple rigid legs. And the hardware design for elastic legs could be accelerated with the help of the control algorithms you design. In addition, we believe our work could be a good example of using a position-control robot to realize dynamic motions such as jumping, or even running.

Unlike other dynamic robots, every active joint in our robot is controlled through commercial position-control servos and not custom torque control motors. Most people don’t think that a position-control robot could perform highly dynamic motions such as jumping, because position-control motors usually mean high a gear ratio and slow response. However, our work indicates that, with the help of elasticity, stable jumping could be realized through position-control servos. So for those who already have a position-control robot at hand, they could explore the potential of their robot through trampoline tests.

Why is teaching a robot to jump important?

There are many scenarios where a jumping robot is needed. For example, a real jumping quadruped could be used to design a running quadruped. Both experience moments when all four legs are in the air, and it is easier to start from jumping and then move to running. Specifically, hopping or pronking can easily transform to bounding if the pitch angle is not strictly controlled. A bounding quadruped is similar to a running rabbit, so for now it can already be called a running quadruped.

To the best of our knowledge, a practical use of jumping quadrupeds could be planet exploration, just like what SpaceBok was designed for. In a low-gravity environment, jumping is more efficient than walking, and it’s easier to jump over obstacles. But if I had a jumping quadruped on Earth, I would teach it to catch a ball that I throw at it by jumping. It would be fantastic!

That would be fantastic.

Since the whole point of the trampoline was to get jumping software up and running with a minimum of hardware, the next step is to add some springy legs to the robot so that the control system the researchers developed can be tested on hard surfaces. They have a journal paper currently under revision, and Boxing Wang is joined as first author by his adviser Chunlin Zhou, undergrads Ziheng Duan and Qichao Zhu, and researchers Jun Wu and Rong Xiong. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots